On the west coast of Scotland is a 34 mile marked way, promoted as "one of Scotland's great trails". For the first time in almost four years, our merry band of three, Pauline, myself and Andrew, aka Mountain Ninja, Mountain Goat and Mountain Jesse, reunited to put the claim to the test.
For a change the weather forecast was in our favour, and so, on an early morning train out of Edinburgh last weekend, we set off on our mini adventure.
The route is called The Three Lochs Way, and links up Loch Long, the Gareloch and Loch Lomond. We didn't have enough time over the two days available to us, to complete the entire route, so we joined it at roughly one third of the way along, at Garelochhead.
Food usually plays a central theme to our little adventures, and as it had taken almost three hours to reach the village by train and bus, by the time we were on the main trail, half a mile in, it was lunchtime. From our vantage point high above the village, looking north west, we had a rewarding view to the snow capped Arrochar Alps, the most well known of which is called The Cobbler.
The main walking route follows a paved road through Glen Fruin, the site of a bloody battle between the Macgregors and Colquhouns in 1603. However, it was hills we wanted, and so, thinking it would be more enjoyable, and easier on the feet, we detoured and set off across a heather covered moor and three small hills.
A sign at the start of the approach to these hills warned that when red flags were flying this was a military training area, which seemed strange that such a tranquil setting would be used for military training. That aside, there were no flags flying, and so we set out.
15 minutes later and it wasn't quite the tranquil, easy walk we had anticipated. The entire area was basically one very large, watery bog! Step after step we sank into the spongy, water-saturated moss. Freezing water filled my boots to the brim, something I was less than happy about, a fact I made my fellow adventurers aware of.
As we were already wet, we decided between us to carry on, as surely it would improve.
I was surprised, to say the least, that the relentless bog clung to the steeper side of the hills we were walking up, and now snow added to the hard going. No matter which direction we chose we were constantly ankle deep in bog. The water in my boots was replenished with every step, and so by the time we had crossed the first hill my feet were like blocks of ice.
Thankfully, by mid afternoon, we approached the final hill, only now to be faced with a landscape of two-foot-deep trenches, leftovers from commercial tree planting. Too wide to step across, and full of watery mud, each one had to be jumped. By the time we reached our camp spot for the night it is fair to say that our planned easy first day had exhausted us. But there's something enjoyable about a shared challenge, and the views all around us to the snowy capped mountains made up a little bit for the difficulty underfoot.
Our camp spot, just above the town of Helensburgh, was deep inside a small forest, accessed from a fire break and under moss-covered old trees. Just next to our little spot for the night was a "cup marked" boulder, dating back to the Bronze Age. Little is known of their purpose but one theory suggests they were believed to give off energy that would protect their small dwellings from unhealthy forces.
After our tough day, there was nothing that was going to keep me awake, apart from maybe the throbbing pain in one foot. Eventually though, well fed, thawed out, and under a bright full moon, I drifted off to sleep.
Our next day was the longest, and would take us from Helensburgh on the Gareloch, over to the village of Balloch on the shores of Loch Lomond, following an ancient drove trail in part, known as the Stoneymollan Road.
Within the first hour we entered the outskirts of Helensburgh. The first building we passed was The Hill House, probably the most famous house design by Charles Rennie Macintosh, and built for the publisher Walter Blackie in 1902. Neighbouring properties were just as grand, most likely built for succesful Victorian industrialists, and now worth a healthy sum.
At first the path out of Helensburgh was a quagmire of mud, again, but eventually it improved and led us east across a small hill. Roughly halfway, at a small clearing in the forest covering the top of the hill, right on the Highland boundary line, we had a spectacular view across Loch Lomond to the mighty snow-covered mountain of Ben Lomond. Over Christmas someone had taken the time to walk up to this view point and decorate a small fir tree in tinsel and baubles. Very festive.
Having lingered a while admiring the Christmas tree and soaking up the view, we headed off for the final part of our route to Balloch. It was now all downhill, following a track through the forest. After a short distance the track disappeared into a dark and spooky wood, reminiscent of Sleepy Hollow, and it was hard going with most of the path reduced to mud, surprise surprise. At times the path was hard to find as it weaved its way through lichen-covered trees, but thankfully, someone had tied small pieces of tape to the trees, marking the way. We religiously followed these little markers. That is, until they ran out. In the centre of the forest!
"And they were never seen again!"
With a little deduction, our reliable leader Mountain Ninja, aka Pauline, found the route again, and we breathed a sigh of relief. The final mile was following an ancient road known as the Coffin Road, where centuries ago locals would carry their dead to hallowed ground and their last resting place.
On the train journey home from Balloch we all agreed that we had enjoyed the adventure, but whether it could be classed as one of Scotland's great trails? Hmmmm. Jury's still out on that one.