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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Scotland Trip: Loch Lomond

Having broken our day in Falkirk, our final leg takes us to Loch Lomond. In search of a shop that might sell bread and milk, we park up in Balmaha, to be surprised by that pretentious peril more usually found in city streets: the souped-up Ford Fiesta, with alloy wheels glinting in the sun; glaring angrily through the windscreen, a young man, cap on head. This Sunday, the boy racers are out in force, the blitter of their oversized exhausts cutting through the warm evening quiet of the sun descending over the Loch.

Meanwhile, a jet ski cuts aimless circles in the water. Whilst acknowledging that the water exists for everyone, I find it hard to accept this intrusion, since the sport seems to involve so little skill. All the rider does is go round, and round, and round, wheeling back upon his own wake, and occasionally blasting in a straight line to one island, and back again.

Slightly disappointed by what should be a quiet Loch-side village, we dash into the toilets, fail to find any bread (other than the ginger variety, neatly wrapped and iced with tartan), and then follow the road further up, leaving the village, the most northerly "large" settlement on this edge of the Loch, behind. As we wind, the road narrows from a double carriageway to a single track, and then the surface suddenly falls away beneath the wheels in valleys of ruts and potholes. It is more a dirt forest track than a proper road, and signals promisingly that the youth hostel which is situated at Rowardennan will be more tranquil.

When we finally arrive, hoping that we can stretch our provisions for a few days so that we will not have to retrace this bumpy road until we leave, we are stunned by the hostel's outlook. A former hunting lodge, its peaked roofs and beams are distinguished as a sharp white and red against the brown, brackened wall that is Ben Lomond, which rises vertically to the rear. The front of the hostel, meanwhile, is a mere ten paces from the shore of the Loch, and once checked in to our room - with a view, to say the least - we amble along the shoreline. Knowing that the sun is about to set, I have the rare liberty of time to choose a spot from which to photograph the sunset over the mountains to the north, and then it merely remains to sit on a mossy log and wait for this cinematic show to begin.

Photograph of Loch Lomond
Sunset, Loch Lomond

Maps are infinitely fascinating for the way in which they simplify a complex landscape, but for that very reason they can be curiously deceptive. Over breakfast, with the coded and colourful lines of a Landranger spread before us, leading the eye and the imagination, we weigh up whether to climb Ptarmigan ridge on Ben Lomond - a straight there-and-back up a good track to 2400 feet - or to follow the West Highland way for 7 miles to the Inversnaid Hotel. We opt for the latter, which we judge to be longer, if less of a climb.

Keeping the Loch on our left, and the crag of Ben Lomond (apparently Scotland's most-climbed Munro) high on our right, the track undulates and winds through the forest. Whereas on the map the route appeared to hug the contours at the base of the mountain ridge and thus be fairly flat, by the time we reach Inversnaid, the track has actually risen and fallen the equivalent of a third of the way up Ptarmigan.

More tired than we expected to be, then, we pause for a break at the hotel, and rest our muddy feet amidst the shuffles of several coach parties of pensioners. Everything is set up for them at the hotel. Over tinny speakers, bagpipes play "O Flower of Scotland" and, bizarrely, that old Scottish classic "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Woolf." Tea is available for 50 pence a cup from a specially-erected trestle table. Taking advantage, we swallow two, and watch with amusement as the embattled waiter then tries to fend off a two pronged assault: from one side, the silver-haired brigade try to grab what they assume to be free cups of tea; from the other, walkers fail to read the sign at the door asking them to remove their boots, and so smear mud across the tartan carpet.

When the coach party has left, I ask the relieved waiter whether the tea is laid on just for them. "Only in the season," he replies. The "season" is a refrain which seems recurrent here. On our map, ferry routes are marked "Summer Only"; the youth hostel offers a 25 percent discount for anyone booking in Autumn and Winter; some tourist information centres open for only three months of the year. The peak of summer tourism must be a tense period, the economic equivalent of an animal's Autumnal gorge before hibernation: will enough come in over the Summer to cover the overheads through the dead Winter? Especially in the current economic climate, the survival of many businesses here must be finely poised; a bad "season" this year could see them decline by the next one.

Once refreshed, we set out on the return leg, diverting onto a path that runs closer to the Loch rather than following the contours through the forest, and we hope that this will mean less climbing. This is, it turns out, something of a mistake, as we have to heave our legs over fallen trunks, and clutch our hands onto slippery, moss-covered rocks, as we edge along a path which narrows, worsens, then vanishes altogether, leaving us fifteen feet above the sharp rocks of the Loch shore. It is exhausting but exhilarating walking, of the sort found only rarely in England. I have never walked anything so rugged in the Lakes, for example, the closest obvious competitor to the Highlands. Eventually, taking twice as long on the way back as we took on the way there, we reach the welcome of the hostel, then a hot meal, and bed. But, before the last, I chat to a woman who says that our leg of the West Highland way is considered the most challenging of all - we think smugly of this, in order to offset our gluttonous guilt of the quarterpound burger and chips that we had eaten earlier in the hotel a mile down the track from the hostel.

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This page was published on July 2011 | Keywords: Loch Lomond, Scotland, Rowardennan, West Highland Way

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