It had been hard, sweaty work. From the open sea breaking on Scotland’s west coast they had turned inland to sail the length of Loch Long. Eventually, they waded ashore to terrify the inhabitants of a smattering of rough dwellings at the head of the loch.
Their heavy wooden boats had then been carried, or pushed along on top of tree trunks that had been felled, then cut and trimmed to serve as rollers placed on the ground to form a sort of moving bridge.
Their efforts would be rewarded when they got back on the water. The religious settlements on islands in Loch Lomond would yield good pickings, so would the hamlets down both sides of the Loch.
From the 9th until the 13th century, Vikings had made savage attacks on the west of Scotland. This particular lot had manhandled their boats across a mile and more of rugged countryside to reach Tarbet (from Gaelic, meaning a place of portage where boats were hauled overland) on Loch Lomond side.
Unlike these Vikings, I had travelled to Tarbet in comfort, by bus, taking just over an hour from Glasgow. Thankfully, Tarbet has been peaceful for a very long time. The village, at a junction of two roads is a stopping off place for travellers heading to or from the west, to the North West Highlands or Perthshire and points further north. It is also one of the places on Loch Lomond side from where ferries set sail allowing passengers to marvel at the surrounding scenic beauty from the water.
On a morning of bright sunshine, most of my fellow passengers aboard one of the cruise boats, sat (complimentary cup of tea to hand) on the top deck of the little ship to marvel at the vast views of water and mountain and listen to the commentary from a crew member.
We learnt that the first small island we were passing has long been known as Honeymoon Island. The name has stuck from the times when young couples, according to legend, were left on this tree covered lump of rock for a number of days. If they survived harmoniously, it was believed they would have a long and prosperous marriage.
Perhaps they lived on fish. Salmon or trout taken from the loch would have made a fine meal. However, I wonder if a catch of eels or powan, now found only in Loch Lomond, would have tested their culinary skills. Powan is a fish species that adapted to life in fresh water after the loch was cut off from the sea when the land rose at the end of the last ice age.
Loch Lomond is over 18 miles long and covers an area of 27 square miles. There are 23 named islands though only one, Inchmurrin, the island of St. Mirren, is still inhabited. It is farmed, has a hotel, a few houses and some huts belonging to a naturist club.
In around 30 minutes, the ferry had crossed the loch and was tied up at the jetty below the Inversnaid Hotel. Some of the passengers stayed aboard for the return journey but I stepped ashore and headed up a flight of steps fixed into the hillside. A few feet away, an impressive waterfall plunges down to the loch below.
When the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins stood here in the late1800’s, this waterfall inspired him to write ‘Inversnaid’. Sometimes he used words of his own making and the poem begins,
‘This darksome burn, horseback brown,
this rollrock highroad roaring down…
I was soon over a bridge above the falls and on a dry, narrow path that winds through a forest of mature oak trees. This trail is known as the West Highland Way.
Most walkers start from Milngavie (pronounced Mulguy) to the west of Glasgow and head north following the trail along the east side of Loch Lomond. Some six or more days and 96 miles later, they end their trek at Fort William. While some of them carry all their gear, including camping equipment, in a rucksack on their backs, others travel with a much smaller pack containing the necessities for a day out in the Scottish hills.
There is a variety of accommodation along the way and some walkers choose to have their luggage transported each day to where they will be staying that night.
As I trudged south, I met a number of walkers who were now on the second day of their journey and enjoying the experience.
Meandering through the oak woods, no distance above the loch, you may be fortunate to spot a red squirrel as it breaks cover to move at amazing speed up, down or round a tree trunk. Roe deer could be watching you from the dense cover of the bright green ferns. Further up the hillside, you may see a raggedy herd of feral goats. These animals are thought to be descendants of domestic goats abandoned centuries ago when people had to leave their farmsteads. Unseen birds, calling in the canopy overhead are probably whistling warnings of your approach.
The path eventually widens out and leads through forests of dark, close growing conifers. Where sunlight hits the path through gaps in the trees, look out for wild orchids, yellow flag irises and stands of pink purple foxgloves.
We’ve passed only one lone house, a gamekeeper’s cottage, along these seven and a half miles of the trail. He would need to be well organised to live on this empty hillside far from the nearest shop.
Near Rowardennan, the National Trust for Scotland has a base known as Ardess Lodge. Their work force has created an archaeological trail behind the lodge for visitors to follow using a simple map. A lot of interesting evidence has been uncovered of a way of life now long gone.
Some 200-400 years ago the local inhabitants would have grown crops, grazed cattle, cut wood, smelted iron for the blacksmith who would turn the raw metal into tools or weapons. Perhaps at the end of a day they would have some time to try a wee whisky a neighbour had distilled earlier.
Rob Roy MacGregor lived here with these folk between 1711 and 1713. He had been a well-respected cattle breeder until his property was confiscated and he was declared bankrupt. He then turned to cattle rustling and was branded an outlaw.
In the summer months, families would have led their animals to higher pastures and lived in shielings, small buildings made with stones and turf.
Today using the same path as the herders of old, many walkers head for the top of Ben Lomond (3192 feet). The wear and tear caused by their boots results in a much widened path needing constant repairing. Fortunately there are many volunteers who are happy to help with this work.
This walk ends on the Loch side at Rowardennan Youth Hostel. The fine building was once a shooting lodge for Victorian gentlemen but now offers accommodation for visitors from all over the world.
If damp, clammy weather has brought out clouds of tiny, biting insects, you may be scratching and slapping at any exposed skin and may want to take shelter inside. Here you can relax and look out the lounge windows for a sight of the ferry back to Tarbet and think of the song written by the late, great Scottish tenor, Kenneth McKellar who sang opera, as well as the ditty ‘Midgies’ with elan.
‘You can smack them and whack them; in vain you’ll attack them
They know every move that you make
If you manage to kill yin, another half million,
Are ready to come to the wake!
Despite possible attacks by midges, the
crossings of Loch Lomond and the walk along this part of the West Highland Way
make a grand day out. Once on aboard again for the return sail to Tarbet you
may enjoy looking back while enjoying a complimentary bottle of locally made beer.