American photographer, Jonathan Nimerfroh, and his brother-in-law traversed the country of Scotland via the West Highland Way, a 96-mile, week-long trek that spans both the city and the countryside. Here, Jonathan shares images and memorable moments from their trip.
Tell us about the West Highland Way. What drew you to this trail?
The West Highland Way is a thru-hike that traverses some of the most rugged and beautiful parts of Scotland. It is 96 miles long and typically takes about a week to complete. The trail begins in Glasgow and progressively moves to more remote and higher elevations over the course of the trek. It is incredible to watch the landscape change from an urban, park-like setting in Glasgow to majestic and pristine highlands in the north of the country in just a few days’ hike. Think of it as Scotland’s version of the Appalachian Trail, only it takes less time and the scenery changes more rapidly.
Had you gone on long treks before? If so, what made this one different?
My brother-in-law and I have both done our fair share of camping, backpacking and canoe trips in the United States. When we go on those expeditions, our focus is always on exploring the woods, finding a simpler way to live, uniting with nature, and distancing ourselves from others. Though the West Highland Way was essentially a long backpacking trip, the focus was on traversing the country and doing so with others. Rather than camp out at night in a tent, we stayed in country inns along the route. Our evenings were quite social, often spent with other trekkers. There was a wonderful sense of camaraderie between hikers.
Describe some of the highs – the incredible moments – and some of the lows – the biggest challenges you faced.
Our highs and our lows were often one and the same – they were moments that were incredibly taxing as we experienced them, but often resulted in wonderful rewards: dragging our tired bodies along on the final mile or two of the day; hiking up what seemed like a never-ending hill to eventually be greeted with an awe-inspiring view from the summit. They were the moments that had to be earned each day of our trek.
On our fifth day, the route we had planned called for a twenty-mile hike. Neither of us had ever trekked that far in one day and we were feeling anxious. To top it off, our maps showed that we were entering a particularly mountainous and desolate section of the Way. We decided that we would rise early to try and get an early start and hopefully reach our destination before nightfall. At 4:00am, we set out in complete darkness. It was a bit of a challenge to find the walking path from the inn that we had stayed in the night before. We used our Kaufmann Mercantile light to illuminate the ground and, fortunately, not too long after we started, we came upon a creek that signaled the start of our route.
The path started off straight uphill, through some cattle pastures. There were a couple of tricky fences and gates that we had to navigate our way through and over in the darkness. We were tired, sleep-deprived and cold. When we thought it couldn’t get much worse, it started to rain. Dawn was held off by the dark skies and we were sure that we were in for what would likely be a miserable twenty-mile slog.
Then, suddenly, as we were hiking along a ridgeline, the clouds broke, the rain stopped and we were greeted with a magnificent view of a glorious dawn stretching out across the Scottish Highlands. It was incredible. It revived the skies, and it revived us.
What was your first thought or feeling when you completed the trek?
Our first thought was to find the nearest pub and have a pint! Fortunately, the Way ends in the town of Fort William so that was easy to achieve.
Did you explore more of Scotland once you completed the West Highland Way?
Yes! The day after we completed the trek, Duncan from Scotland Overland met us in Fort William and lent us a Land Rover Defender. Over the course of the next four days, we took the car out to the Isle of Skye and over to the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. I’m an avid cold water surfer and surf photographer, and so I wanted to explore some of these remote parts of the Scottish Isles known for excellent surfing.
Describe that experience.
The Isle of Lewis is like nowhere else we’ve ever been: it’s remote and beautiful, and temperate despite being at the same northern latitude as southern Alaska. We traveled there by ferry with our Land Rover secured below on the cargo deck. The best night of our trip was the night we camped there: we positioned the Land Rover near a small lake (a lochan as they are known) in the interior of the Isle with views of the vast moors in all directions. We pitched our rooftop tents, made a campfire, and cooked dinner as we watched the sun set. It seemed as though it was setting for hours, circling along the horizon, just out of sight below the surface. The stars came out and formed a crystalline backdrop for the haunting sunset that never ended. The night grew progressively colder but we just built our campfire bigger. There was not a soul in sight and it was amazing to have found such freedom in the outer reaches of Scotland.