For some of us, the West Highland Way is a once-in-a-lifetime hike across some of Scotland's most beautiful landscapes. But there's one man who has taken it to new heights... Tiso's blogger Fiona Outdoors gets to meet him.
Every year, more than 50,000 people walk Scotland’s original hiking trail, the West Highland Way. It takes most people between five to seven days to hike the 96-mile route between Milngavie and Fort William and most are satisfied to complete their long-distance hike just once.
Amazingly there is one walker, Charlie Kavanagh, who has walked the trail 50 times. It’s thought that Charlie, 53, of Greenock, is the first to reach this milestone. This month, the keen walker was delighted to be awarded a special silver medal by the West Highland Way Management Group. It was engraved with: “Well done Charlie – 50 walks.”
Charlie, who walked his first WHW in 1991 and has hiked it annually at least once, says: “I just love this route. From the first time that I walked it until the 50th I have thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing.”
Charlie is in a kilt standing at the start of the WHW in Milngavie.
Inspiration for the WHW record
It was after watching folk singer Jimmie Macgregor’s TV programmes about walking across Scotland in the early 1990s that Charlie decided to embark on this first WHW walk. Charlie says: “I enjoyed the programmes a lot and they inspired me to walk my first West Highland Way in June 1991. The first time I went with two friends who are also brothers.”
Back then, Charlie described himself as “young and fairly fit”. He says: “I played football, I cycled and I ran a bit. I didn’t think the West Highland Way would prove to be too difficult and so I didn’t do much training.” In fact, Charlie did only one walk before setting off to start the WHW. He says: “That was a big mistake. Walking the West Highland Way was far tougher than I imagined and although I was physically fit I ended up suffering quite badly. “One of my friends injured himself early on and he turned back with his brother. We had completely under-estimated the extent of walking the route.”
A few tips for the WHW
In the early years, as well as the training, Charlie was inexperienced in terms of walking kit. He says: “I made the mistake of thinking that I could get away with cheap boots and gear but I learned the hard way. Good quality boots, such as my current Salomon walking boots, make a huge difference to comfort.
“I also make sure I buy very good walking socks with no seams. This is very important for avoiding blisters. Another thing I have learned is to use zinc tape for rubs and potential blister areas rather than blister plasters. I find this works far better.”
From one to 50 WHW walks
Although the first WHW hike was hard for Charlie he was hooked. He has never missed a WHW completion each year and sometimes he squeezes in three WHW completions annually. He averages around 4.5 days with stops at Balmaha, Inverarnan, Bridge of Orchy and Kinlochleven. He says: “This amounts to four days of about 20 miles of walking and then 16 miles on the final day. This is doable, I think, but I am familiar with the route and the terrain.”
He has walked the route solo and with friends and family. One friend, Les Gillespie, 68, has completed 18 West Highland Ways. Charlie’s wife, Catherine has covered the route 12 times, while one of his sons, Shaun has completed 10 journeys.
Highs – and a few lows – of the WHW
Charlie says he never tires of the route that heads from the northern suburbs of Scotland’s largest city of Glasgow to the Highlands town of Fort William. He always walks the full route from south to north although he has walked most sections of the route at different times heading north to south.
He adds: “It’s such a beautiful route and it is different every time I do it. If I am walking it three times in one year I like to go early season, around April, mid season and in the autumn. I think I like autumn the best because of the stunning colours of the leaves and heather. “My favourite section, I think, is walking over Conic Hill. The view over Loch Lomond is so fantastic. Glencoe is also stunning although that is weather dependent. There have been times when Rannoch Moor has been so wet and windy. It can be tough when the weather is against you.”
Charlie reckons that walking the route so many times is 50-50 a physical and mental challenge. He says: “I keep fit these days by walking locally on the Greenock Cut, going to the gym, running up steps and a bit of cycling. My football days are behind me although I do referee matches and that helps with my fitness. Yet although I consider myself fit for my age the West Highland Way can still take it out of me. You have to be prepared for long days of walking. And there are mental challenges, such as when the weather is bad or you are feeling fatigued in the morning after a long walk the day before.”
Charlie reports that it’s a very sociable walk, whether he goes solo or with others. He says: “Sometimes I go on my own but I always meet interesting people who are also doing the route. I have met people from all over the world and made friends doing the West Highland Way.”
Charlie stays in B&B accommodation so that he doesn’t need to carry a tent and in the last decade he has organised a luggage transfer company to take his overnight gear between accommodation. He says: “As I’ve got older I have been kinder to myself and these days I like to walk as fast and as light as I can. I even wear a kilt if the weather is fine. I don’t want to be weighed down by a big rucksack and I just like to be able to walk unhampered.
“When I was recovering from an Achilles tendon operation about 10 years ago I decided I’d try using Travel-Lite, which takes luggage between accommodation on the West Highland Way. Until then I’d always carried my own stuff. “But it felt great to be able to walk lighter and to be easier on my body. I have continued to use Travel-Lite ever since.”
And Charlie has no plans to stop walking the West Highland Way. He says: “I’ll walk the route for as long as I can and without injury. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of this trail through some of Scotland’s best landscapes.”