Lorna leads the way onto the Erskine Bridge on a rainy day one.
Lorna leads the way onto the Erskine Bridge on a rainy day one.

The long and winding road – all 140 miles of it

My girlfriend and I walked home last month.

An unremarkable statement at first glance, admittedly, but faithfully following the arduous path to our hometown, from our shared abode in the southside of Glasgow, represented the realisation of a long-held ambition: to walk the 140-odd mile route from Glasgow to Campbeltown – all in the space of four days.

The three-hour, winding, often potholed, journey by car – add an extra hour for the coach service linking Kintyre to Scotland’s biggest city – is familiar territory for returnees to the peninsula, and a daunting enough passage when fresh and well supplied with supermarket snacks. Factor in the potential beleaguerment of a post-MOKrun-ceilidh Monday morning, though, or any particular below-par Sunday morning condition for that matter, with the return trip to the central belt or elsewhere ahead of you, and a traveller’s mental torment is easy to imagine.

Being truly appreciative of your surroundings, however, registers how the variation of terrain between this remote west coast mainland stretch and the highly populated areas of Glasgow and Dunbartonshire, that such a drive takes in, is staggering, and creates a journey of true scenic grandeur.

For my girlfriend Lorna and I on our planned walk, then, the targeted first week of April would surely provide some Spring-like weather for our ramble homewards, to enjoy the majesty of the west of Scotland as we travelled on foot.

We had planned elements of the trek for three months since bringing up the idea of a trek seriously, while on a New Year’s Day stroll by the White Cart Water – the route, overnight accommodation, an extensive but essential inventory – and set up a justgiving page to raise money for a chosen cause, the Beatson Cancer Charity, in the process.

With bergens packed and poised for use, an uneasy sleep, due predictably to the knowledge of the next day’s physical effort, gave way to day one, and we left from the southside of Glasgow at 6.30am, our destination Arrochar, on the shores of Loch Long, more than 30 miles away.

A morning of optimism given our steady progress through Inchinnan, to the Erskine Bridge and along the number seven SusTrans cycle path towards Bowling and Dumbarton, gave way to a world of pain as the rain poured relentlessly, and our route, in avoidance of the fast-moving traffic that would come with a more direct passage by the side of the A82 towards Balloch, saw us continue the now meandering cycle path through Alexandria and Renton, towards Balloch and Loch Lomond.

Lorna leads the way onto the Erskine Bridge on a rainy day one.

The tranquility of Loch Lomond’s lapping shores just yards away was of little relief as the mammoth first leg of our walk lurched to a close in Arrochar.

As globe-circumnavigating Scots cyclist Mark Beaumont describes the phenomenon, day two of four introduced us to the ‘type two pain’ experience: one you will feel miserable doing while in the act, but an activity you will always look back on upon completion with great pleasure.

And so our seemingly ‘short’ day, taking us intermittently by pavement, normally a mundane, but on this trip, an increasingly precious surface to trudge along in relative safety by the busy A83 road, saw us power on early beyond Ardgartan, spring showers already in full flow. The weight of our drookit outer layers was usurped only by the mental anguish of our best-laid plan for a big walk home being tackled in the spring sunshine, becoming more and more distant with every mile.

At this point our first prolonged roadside foray began, but despite this the two miles to the old military road were undertaken with a cheery resolve, in the knowledge that the previous day’s 12-hour trudge was reduced to eight for the journey to Inveraray. Little did we know, though, as we left the A83 temporarily for the Old Military Road, we were walking into some seriously unseasonal weather conditions.

The slightly lower road in the ancient Argyllshire valley, the alternative route known as The Old Military Road, serves as a de facto highway in the event of landslides on the A83, with the hillside overlooking the main road commonly proving a menace in wet weather by dumping of soil and stone onto the tarmac.

Our confidence boost on avoiding the main road, at least temporarily, was sadly negated by a blizzard blasting snow and biting wind directly into our faces. Covering every possible pore of skin to combat the cold, as well as wringing out and putting back on some clearly inadequate gloves, Lorna’s determination to push on, when I would have been happy to take shelter behind the cow byre – incidentally the only point of note on that featureless path – for 15 minutes to get away from the sudden onslaught we were suffering, was proven to me by her silent, steady walking.

John and Laura were all smiles in front of Inveraray Castle, at the end of day two.

Reaching the top of the Rest and Be Thankful, the owner of the roll van pitched at the beauty spot’s car park must have thought an approaching pair of weary, snow-swept travellers on foot the ideal patrons on such a day, but there was no time for hot tea as the morning wore on and a ubiquitous black sky had us hugging the roadside – on the other side of the traffic barriers and treading over thin, slippery ledges – down the hill towards Butter Bridge.

We spoke at the time, when we could hear each other over the wind, how we must have looked a pitiful sight, making our way along the fragile artery of a gargantuan landscape, and, on that day, an intensely cold and dark place. Three drivers stopped to offer lifts, admittedly a tantalising prospect but not one that we seriously considered given the huge generosity shown by sponsors in the lead up to our challenge.

A Campbeltown driver, aware of our route that day, frantically tooted the horn and flashed the lights on his approach to the extent that we mistook him for an irate driver, cursing the kind of people who go walking in such wild weather. Stopping to speak even one minute and encouraging us on – even while showing us zero degrees celsius on his car’s cluster display – was a timely confidence boost.

Shortly after, though, Lorna had an innocuous slip in attempting to avoid a traffic management sign on its face, and it was to prove uncomfortable for her the rest of the day. Despite that we made steady progress for the next five hours, ignoring the constancy of burning calves and increasingly battered feet.

Another memorable aspect of day two was the final stretch from the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar near Cairndow to Inveraray, a seemingly interminable eight-mile trek on narrow, undulating roadside, with intermittent ditches and changing surfaces from gravel and boulders to bog and puddles.

This meant crossing the road to go with traffic, a cardinal sin in roadside walking terms, in order to be more visible on corners, another draining factor in the last stretch of day two. By 5pm though, we limped into Inveraray – not before a photo in front of the Duke of Argyll’s castle – with a member of the Mid Argyll press corps, and my aunt and uncle on the last leg of their drive to Campbeltown from Swansea, there to greet us.

Onto the Old Military Road approaching the Rest and Be Thankful.

Refuelled that evening, having existed largely on cereal and oat bars and bananas during the preceding two days’ efforts, a horrible realisation that a full day’s roadside walking, from Inveraray to Lochgilphead, awaited us, provoked an even more restless night’s sleep than on the eve of day one. I felt something akin to a depression at the prospect of another 25 miles’ walking.

That dread was intensified by the now familiar roadside existence that had crept in on day two. As well as the physical obstacles in our way when walking over such unsteady ground, the unrelenting feeling of alarm when walking lifeline roads for industrial materials and rural consumer goods presented a mental challenge, especially when leaving at 6.30am in poor light. Both of us worried ourselves internally which multiple-tonne vehicle would appear with every corner and blind summit we were confronted with on our journey.

Equally scary was stepping upon and discovering the occasional tyre tracks, enormous in size, from lorries overshooting onto the side of the road at an earlier point in time, wincing inside that at one point on the spot we were walking on, a massive vehicle had clearly been there, adding an intensity and a wariness to our passage that dedicated walking routes, happily, remove.

Our mental strength already tested as we made strong progress through the villages of Furnace and Minard, Lorna’s knee twist from our Rest and Be Thankful descent began to show physically during day three. Her injured knee showed swelling, and by Port Ann, only two to three miles from Lochgilphead, she was in excruciating pain.

A final ‘sprint’ to Lochgilphead which would normally have taken 50 minutes at our average pace, lasted almost three hours. The first sunshine of the trek, an unthinkable contrast with the previous day’s wintry conditions, and the warm glow and aroma of the plentiful gorse, did little to brighten the mood for what were a painful last couple of miles into Lochgilphead.

With respect to the challenge we had set ourselves – and those who had backed us so generously in the form of donation – in getting back to Campbeltown on foot, but with the realisation that physically we were both wrecked after such a tough short-term effort, with one of us genuinely injured, we decided to alter our route to make a strong finish into Campbeltown.

A milestone on the final approach to Campbeltown.

We began day four in West Kintyre, from the village of Glenbarr, having stayed the night at West Loch Tarbert, on the isthmus that keeps the Kintyre peninsula on the Scottish mainland. Having completed the majority of the walk, we felt secure in the sincerity of our efforts and sought to finish the challenge strongly, even if again we were to struggle against the weather, this time a forceful if mild sou’wester.

The villages of Bellochantuy, the golden sands and guillemot-topped rocks of Tangy beach, and finally its nearby neighbour Westport beach, a popular surf spot for local enthusiasts and Scotland’s university clubs alike, all passed – with a final snack stop for bananas and biscuits away from the coastal wind – we marched on Campbeltown. With heads bowed against the elements, bodies once again soaked from the village of Kilkenzie onwards, brains overworked by traffic thundering past, and feet screaming at us to stop, we completed a determined if not triumphant arrival, with loved ones and a quick photo for the Campbeltown Courier. Those last three miles of the near-100 on our Home to Home Challenge were as brutal as any. Needless to say, we accepted a lift into town and to my parents’ house.

What a feeling then, to arrive in Campbeltown, the family’s cooking awaiting, the realisation of a once-abstract ambition, an ‘I’d quite like to do’ feat completed (as well as physically possibly within our admittedly ambitious timescale) and with a promise to ourselves to complete those sections we could not quite manage at the time.

The intrepid pair arrive in Campbeltown

In retrospect, the Lochgilphead to Tarbert section of our trek home involves navigating an even tighter road than the A83 segment approaching Inveraray that left us mentally and physically weakened, and is not at all safe for pedestrians. When we, as we resolved to do, return to complete this leg or its equivalent, it will be via the single-track Kilberry road, adding a mile or two but also lots of scenery, particularly glimpses of Kintyre’s hidden coastline.

I am really proud of our efforts and to Lorna for persevering on day four in such obvious pain and injury; participation for this year’s Mull of Kintyre 10k on the last weekend of May is, frustratingly, undecided for her as a result.

With the correct planning (and a part of Scotland that produces the sort of weather you associate with the time of year) I would recommend to anyone with a longing for their hometown in some distant metropolis to think about the possibility of going homeward.

While inherent physical and mental obstacles are to be expected, the journey can be an eye-opening experience that offers you a fresh appreciation of your country’s landscape at ground level, seen just once at three miles per hour rather than on innumerable occasions at 60. in company, too, the shared feeling of accomplishment brings you and others closer together.