The Great Trossachs Way

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Neil Braidwood and son explore this long distance route.

My teenage son Charlie had been begging to go on a long-distance walk where we could wild camp, and the newly opened Great Trossachs Path seemed to fit the bill. It wasn’t too long, it wasn’t too far from home, and it was in a spectacular part of Scotland, taking in five beautiful lochs.

So when the school holidays started we made plans to walk this path, camping along the way. It is a linear walk, starting either from Callander in the east, or Inversnaid in the west. It’s tricky, though not impossible, to reach your starting point by public transport, but we opted to drive to Callander and leave our car there.

The first problem was that the car parks in Callander don’t allow overnight parking, so we cheated right from the start, and drove to Kilmahog car park to begin our walk from there.

Our plan was to walk to Trossachs Pier, some 12 miles, and camp in the woods. Then we would board the SS Sir Walter Scott, and sail up Loch Katrine to Stronachlachar, walking the rest of the way to Inversnaid, where we would camp again. We would walk the entire length back, camping along the way. I wasn’t sure how Charlie, aged 14, would cope with walking long distances with a pack on, so I was slightly nervous.

Fading

I was right to be nervous. About ten minutes into the trail, Charlie started complaining how heavy his pack was, and could we stop. We did, and I adjusted his rucksack straps – but the problem, as I saw it, was that this lanky teenager had no flesh on his shoulders. They were bony, and unused to carrying heavy loads. The rucksack was specially designed for young bodies, but no amount of adjustment seemed to suit him, and every 15 minutes he begged me to stop. Our chances of reaching Trossachs Pier by teatime were fading fast. And then the rain started.
web_Charlie & me
The path was harder going than I had expected – undulating at times quite steeply and the rough stony surface was challenging. We also had our Springer Spaniel, Ruby, with us. She, too, had a rucksack – more of a saddlebag – which held her food and other bits and pieces we might need to get at quickly.

As she raced on ahead of us, then raced back to see where were, she provided a bit of light relief, which was welcome as I was becoming frustrated with Charlie, while trying my best to be supportive.

Every time we stopped, the midges would congregate around us, despite the relentless drizzle. The path had taken us away from the road, higher into the hills, and the views of Loch Venachar below were impressive, even through the rain.

Habitats

By now we were quite wet, and I had deployed my rucksack raincover. Charlie’s pack didn’t have one, and it was only later that we discovered how useful one would have been, as most of his clothing ended up pretty damp. The dog’s pack, too, wasn’t waterproof, but I had at least packed her food in plastic bags.

We had started our journey at 10am, and it was now nearly 4pm, with still no sign of Brig o’ Turk. Some quick calculations told me we were never going to get to Trossachs Pier tonight, so Brig o’ Turk would have to be our first campsite.
web_Woodland Trust
Suddenly we met someone on the path – we had been walking for six hours and met no-one. It turned out she was a volunteer for the Woodland Trust, who own and manage some of the forest we were walking through. She had just finished her shift at their visitor centre nearby, and told us Brig o’ Turk wasn’t too far.



Thankfully, the path took us downhill, through impressive Scots pine woodland towards the road, where it gave way to alder and oak and eventually the visitor centre. This was the first time we had felt as though we were walking through the Great Trossachs Forest, which is essentially a “forest in the making”. Much of the area is being carefully restored to create habitats that will sustain animals and plants that are native to Scotland.

At the foot of the hill, there’s a car park, and toilets, as well as an exhibition on the area. There are many spur and loop tracks off the main Trossachs Path, higher into the hills and the forest above, so you can extend your walk should you wish.
web_Brig o Turk tearoom
Our main aim was to find somewhere to sit down, as by this time the rain was much heavier, and the light was fading, too. I put Ruby on the lead as we walked along the pavement into the village of Brig o’ Turk. The Turk part of the name derives from the Gaelic word Torc, meaning wild boar. No wild boar here today, thankfully, but there was some sign of life at the tearoom, which has stood and served travellers since the 1930s, and featured in the 1959 film The Thirty-Nine Steps. Sadly, no dogs allowed, so we pressed on, until we reached the Byre Inn, where dogs were welcome.

While Charlie sat by the roaring log fire nursing a hot chocolate and staring into the flames, I went up the path a bit to see if I could find somewhere to camp for the night. The road came to a tiny bridge (possibly the brig in Brig o’ Turk?) and I could see a good spot not far from the road nestled among birch trees.
I went back to retrieve Charlie, and we set up our tent as quickly as we could, finally zipping out the midges and the now torrential rain, to snuggle down into our sleeping bags for the night.

Excited

It rained all night, and the noise on the tent roof was enough to drive us crazy, but we awoke to a reasonably fine day, although the midges were still out in force.
We had resolved to leave our tent here, and walk on to Trossachs Pier with minimum baggage. It was the only way Charlie could, or would, continue the walk. Then we’d return to our basecamp, and press back to the car.

Inversnaid would have to wait until Charlie’s shoulders had filled out a little.

The journey from Brig o’ Turk was pleasant, taking us along wide Forestry Commission roads south along Loch Achray, and past Ben Venue to Trossachs Pier. We were just in time to board the SS Sir Walter Scott for an hour-long return cruise up Loch Katrine.
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I have always wanted to take this boat trip, so I was probably the most excited of the three of us. Sir Walter loved Loch Katrine, and was inspired to write the poem The Lady of the Lake here in 1810. The steamship was launched on the loch in 1900, and has been ferrying delighted tourists up and down ever since. The loch has supplied Glasgow with its drinking water from 1859, and the level was increased in the 1920s to accommodate more water. Some features were lost though, including a small pebbly strand, where Scott came to gaze over the water.



Part two

I had decided to return to Loch Katrine with my mountain bike to complete the section of the path we didn’t finish. I planned to go on my own, and take the boat again, but this time to Stronachlachar, cycle over to Inversnaid and then bike the 17 miles back to Trossachs Pier. All was well – I had caught the boat, my bike was on board, and I knew where I was going.

Other cyclists were also on the boat, but on arrival all of them headed off in the opposite direction from me – straight back to the pier. As I pushed off up the rough track towards Inversnaid, I heard a terrible crunching noise as my chain came off and became lodged between the frame and the chainset.

I reattached it, but as I continued, the chain kept slipping between gears. I inspected it and discovered that a link had been twisted and I would not be able to continue the journey with any ease. This was a disaster. I could see no way of getting back by bike – I would have to walk.

I pushed the bike back to Stronachlachar Pier and took a look at my meagre toolkit. I had expected a puncture perhaps, but not a damaged chain. Just then, two motorcyclists arrived and I asked whether they had any tools. They did! Five minutes later, the link was twisted back to normal and I was on my way again.

I had lost too much time, though, so I abandoned the rough track west to Inversnaid and Loch Lomond, and instead took the tarmac road back around Loch Katrine to my car.
Even this road was surprisingly challenging, with some steep hills where I opted to push. I met plenty of other cyclists and walkers, but saw no vehicles, even though this is an access road for holiday cottages.

I kept my eyes peeled for wild camping spots along the way, and although much of the land is fenced off, there are areas where you could discreetly pitch a tent for a night. It’s best to be as unobtrusive as possible, light no fires and leave no trace. If you were kayaking or canoeing at this north-west end of the loch, there are a few wee islands that look appealing.

Achievement

On a man-made peninsula here is the resting place of some members of the Clan McGregor. The level of this eerie graveyard was raised by Glasgow Corporation in 1922 to stop it being submerged by the new reservoir levels. It faces Black Island and the tombstones date from the 17th century.
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Further on, the road climbs to a great viewpoint with a seating area where I stopped to have some food and brew coffee on my stove. From my vantage point I could see, and hear, the other, smaller boat that plies these waters – the Lady of the Lake.

Back on the road, every now and again I’d cross a bridge over a burn gushing into the loch. These bridges all had signposts indicating how many miles you had to go, so psychologically this helped me to push on to my destination.

Although the road was full of ups and downs, I passed a lot of families out cycling with young children. This part of the route ticks a lot of boxes in that respect – car-free, scenic and manageable.

It’s a real achievement for a small person (on small wheels) to cycle that distance, and an adventure to travel to the starting point by boat. Personally, I found the smooth surface a bit monotonous, and my mountain bike was not particularly suited to it. My short-lived taste of the Inversnaid path was more to my liking – a stony single track cutting through the heather. The Great Trossachs Path had defeated me again – maybe I’ll get back to see Inversnaid next year.

This article first appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Scotland Outdoors. Buy it here.



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