It’s the 40th anniversary of the creation of the West Highland Way, the first trail of its kind in Scotland. It starts in Milngavie and heads north for 96 miles, following old cattle drover routes and military roads. It winds past Loch Lomond; through Rannoch Moor and Glen Coe; before skirting Ben Nevis to finish by the Sore Feet statue in Fort William.
In a normal year, more than 100,000 people walk part of the trail, staying overnight in the villages en route. When I walked it, we survived an all-day deluge on Rannoch Moor, and had to wear midgie hats to make it safely into Kingshouse. To pass the time, my sister taught me to Address the Haggis, while I taught her tramping songs.
It’s very trendy these days to cast long walks like these as spiritual experiences. The famous Camino de Santiago pilgrim route in Spain is often thronged with celebrities in search of meaning, but of course all the religious traditions have a history of pilgrimage.
Graham Usher, the Bishop of Norwich, has written a new book to try and explain why long walks seem naturally to turn our minds to the divine. His favourite place to walk is Inverpolly in Sutherland, which he says is the ‘closest he gets to bliss’. As an Ecological Science grad from Edinburgh, he acknowledges the technical reasons why this should be so: walking in forests is calming because of the colour spectrum of the leaves, and the effect that the chemicals they emit have on the brain.
But he also says that walking outdoors forces your body to experience life more slowly. As he puts in, a walk gives you the chance to spend time with ‘the three-mile-an-hour God.’ As we walk through the landscape, breathing in and breathing out, and feeling the path beneath our feet, we can finally hear and re-connect with the rhythm that lies at the heart of our souls. We find walking helps when things get too much, because it can restore a sense of balance and remind us of our place in the grand scheme of things.
Many of us have walked more during there long months of Covid that we did before. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: ‘He is the richest man who pays the largest debt to his shoemaker.’
I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.