Expedition from the Back Door diary 5: The Union, Forth and Clyde Canal. 21st to 23rd April 2017

4 Union Forth and Clyde Canal 2
The Scottish canals between Edinburgh and Glasgow heading to the start of the West Highland Way at Milngavie, north of Glasgow.

Friday 21st April. pm

Been a mixed day but I’m feeling quite fresh still – must be the flat walking (canal-side). From the Almondel Park (rather grander than what I took from the ‘delightful’ credited by JPButler). I decided to head due North to pick up the Union canal rather than pick it up earlier and head East then West again on the towpath. However, though started well on lovely country road (with foraging) it soon became hellish with traffic – and Broxburn lifts the spirits not one bit! I got back on the canal round the spoil heaps (quite interesting/appealing to me) and found it not dull at all. Going under bridges hit by gusts of wind that nearly knocked me off balance.

4 Canal Section exhausted
Exhausted yet such a long way to go. Will this be the hardest section to bivi on?

Work being done on the towpath all way to Linlithgow, meaning a few tight dances around surfacing machinery. Very friendly workmen. Couple on tandem – much taller one in front (the man) going hell for leather shouted back at me “well packed up” which pleases me – one of my important standards is to have a well organised pack. Enjoyed walking along canal. Been told it would be very boring – maybe it will become so, but for now nice to have the changed scenery and not to be going up and down all day. Thankfully, have now fixed the rubbing of the boots on my ankles by moving the leather between the tongues of each boot in the opposite direction. The leather is so soft its quite cooperative. Have also developed a routine with the pack straps that is working okay, but not wholly solved that one.

Canal Section early morning
Early morning on the canals

Thought I might walk later into the evening and take my chances on bivi, but saw a suitable field, next to a railway line ‘Railway Bivi’ which is always good in terms of privacy – just outside Lilithgow. Was told it would be hard to wild camp on the canal – maybe it will get so.

4 Drovers Route 3
Railway Bivy: the tarp I made myself along with the bivi bag.

later pm

I’m trying to remember all my bivi sites but I’m having a job to do it. Most have been in forests but I’m diversifying now – a wallside in a field yesterday and a field by a railway and canal today. I had to write some more because a gent came towards me walking his dog – wolfhound – and was quite surprised and embarrassed saying he hadn’t seen me. I smiled and said “good. That’s the idea”. However he went on to apologise and say that he wanted to give Alfie a run off the track. I had geared myself up for him to be the farmer or someone living nearby wanting to clear me off.

4 Canal Section Feature
Myself in my bivi using my boots as a pillow

Can hear an ice cream van.

I’ve had my pemmican and whisky. It’s not getting any more palatable but I MAKE myself eat it (like altitude training) so that I can get to Inverie at all. In the day often feel myself weaken through hunger, so I need to keep my condition up. Threw away 4 more portions of pemmy today having worked out I didn’t need them – they’re very heavy.

4 Drovers Route 30
Dinner: Foraged greens to supplement pemmican, tinder for fire lighting and stove set up ready.

Been collecting firewood along the way each day for the evening. Today some trouble lighting but got it going eventually. Having an early night (7.30) coz had so little sleep last night. Clear skies so far. Going to get cold? Spirits are a little higher now. Worked out I need to do 15m/day all the way through, bit I’m going to try and put in more on the canal stretch to give me leeway later. Funnily I haven’t seen the West Highland Way (WHW for short) as looming so large as the other sections have done. I think because I was concerned about bivis on the canals, and expect my pack to be lighter for the WHW. I might be being a bit blind to the difficulties ahead. Feel as though I’m getting fitter now though.

Saturday 22nd. am.

5am. Beautiful night. Stars. Mild. Calling of a bird from early hours sounding a bit like a vibrating spring. Bit alarming last night when different kind of rumble, not trains or cars, started up and got closer and closer. Looked out and saw a tractor spreading on my field and coming towards me in the dusk. I thought “shit” – literally! Muck spreading. It would be all over for me if he was as avid as the farmer from last night’s field since he’d managed to get it up the walls and over the path on the other side – even on the information boards about Caulstone Slap (on the Pentlands above). But he seemed (kindly) to give me a bit of space and what he was spreading didn’t smell. I watched him going up and down till fell asleep.

Woke and the sky was dotted with bright stars. Wished I wasn’t under the basha so I could look straight up at it. More dreams last night of peculiar kinds. Varied dawn chorus as I write – headtorch on to be able to see the page. Feeling quite cozy. Should get to (and beyond) Falkirk today (Primrose clan home). Will send picture back.

Pee last night still bloody, but other bleeding stopped now.

Find myself resisting all meals now and having to force myself to have the sauerkraut and pemmican.


Must have done about 12 miles this morning. Reached the Falkirk Wheel – thronging with people. Impressive (over-engineered?!) thing just to link two small canals (Union and Forth and Clyde). I’m pooped now and having a good rest.

4 Drovers Route 27
Falkirk Wheel. Either a severe case of over-engineering or a thing of beauty?

Took my first fall this morning, bending down for some bittercress in walls of the Falkirk Tunnel with pack on. Luckily fall on my back not such an issue with such a bulky pack on. Had a few good chats with people again. Of course its Sat hols so a lot of folk on the canal, especially cyclists (some nice, some not). The Avon aqueduct on the Union canal is gorgeous. Managed to get down to the river Avon for fresh water – took the climb back up very slowly though.

4 Canal Section Aquaduct
Dropping down underneath the aqueduct to get water from the Avon River

Now starting to worry about the West Highland Way, especially since Andy messaged that wintry weather on the way. It looks as though it will be through by the time I get to the end of WHW at Fort William. I wonder how busy the trail will be in the bad weather. At the moment the sun is really hot but an icy wind, so when it clouds over (all the time) it gets freezing. NOT GOOD FOR MY REYNAULDS. Must eat some pemmy now. Oh – and talk of wild camping being impossible or difficult on the canal just seems wrong – unless the Forth-Clyde is very different from the Union.

Another breakage (now fixed) – the elastic snapped on the raincover for the pack so I had to re-thread it this morning on route. Thankfully wasn’t raining.


Keep forgetting what day it is and have to keep counting and recounting. Pretty sure its Saturday and that I have two weeks left, but keep having a fright and thinking only one week left. It was a long slog from the outskirts on Falkirk to the wheel, and all the time I was just assuming that that’s where I needed to get to. The map wasn’t clear on routes onto the canals. Then I came across a bike route sign for the John Muir Way that pointed off the canal saying 24hr access to the Forth and Clyde – made me worry that I’d go all that way blindly following the sign for the wheel and have to come back. As it turned out there was a footbridge at the wheel that gets closed at 8pm. Sometimes you need to do just a bit of research!

4 Canal Section river view
Canals between Edinburgh and Glasgow, plenty of advice on the next section on the West Highland Way.

Lots of cyclists on the path, a group doing John Muir spoke to me. Some walkers also inquired what I was up to. Mixed bag in terms of encounters. One stone-faced bloke crossed my path on the F&C canal just as I was looking for a bivi pitch. I’ve been going from 6.30am to 5pm with 45min lunch and ready to stop now.

Saw my first bluebells of season at Falkirk. Also managed to forage sorrel, bittercress, fiddleheads (bracken tops), gorse flowers. Carrying some larch needles as well saved from forest – very soft and fragrant, tangy taste (no tannin yet). Have set up on a lovely looking stretch where the canal opens up and starts to look like a river. Busy though, as well as houses and roads in view. I’m in a silver birch and hawthorn copse which is hard to penetrate. There’s a well used deer track through it.

4 Canal Section foraging
Supplementing food with foraged greens. Much better taste!

About 18/19m today – but its not how far you’ve come but how far there is to go!

Sunday 23rd am

Keep talking to myself in an Irish accent. This morning heard coming out of my mouth “sure glad that dream’s over Ted” as Dougal from Father Ted. Also “she can’t show it but she’s in pain” as Noel the Supervet when he puts his hand on yet another ‘victim’s’ knee until they cry (until of course he tells them he can help) – we love him. Actually I’m getting quite hallucinatory now – hearing people talking as I walk, usually from the natural noises around me. The birdsongs become pertinent phrases (usually encouraging ones), and my constant di-dumming musical phrase accompanying each step goes on in my head all the time – even when I’m lying down.

Its 5.30am now. Last night dogs started yapping excitedly and I couldn’t tell where they were. They went on for hours and I wondered if they were from the house opposite and were disturbed by me. I’d put up a screen from my pack liner in the evening to stop myself looking straight at their house. Also noticed a little stream that is not fed by the canal that I might try to get to for some water. People were walking their dogs all evening on the towpath. Cars all night on adjacent road. VERY PUBLIC. A lot of shooting somewhere. Gent training spaniel to fetch quarry quite near to me on riverbank.
Just heard thundering sound then saw lovely thing – about a dozen horses galloping around their field. Appaloosa horses. White freckled rumps. Watching them for ages. Wild West Bivi!

4 Drovers Route 29
Wild West Bivy with modesty screen in place


Its 1.30pm. I’m now at Cadder, above Glasgow, sitting in the sun but covering up every few minutes from icy blasts (quite apline feeling). This is where I leave the canals. I quite enjoyed them actually – lots of variety in fact. Not a bit the urban waterways I had in my imagination (Wolverhampton and Reading are the ones I know).

4 Drovers Route 37
Scottish Canals are lovely. This was meant to have been the hardest section to find bivies on

Saw several deer making their way through my copse this morning. On north of Glasgow but wouldn’t know it one bit. Met a lot of people this am who stopped to chat. One man with his wife who is going WHW with his son in a few weeks, but couldn’t persuade his wife. He looked very outdoorsy. Very differently met a woman on a bike (fraid my reactions are mean and a bit judgmental). She had all the biking gear on. Has done lots in Scotland, incl. WHW) Said off walking in Pyrenees this year and saving for Appalachian trail. Can’t fault her for wanting to, but she gave me too much unsolicited advice, including to take bananas and water on one of the sections because it is “completely unsupported”. That’s the problem isn’t it? Whats wrong with water on the hill? I’m sure its not a desert! She told me where it is hardest on the knees and to take time and enjoy Loch Lomond, so now have it in my head that it gets bloody after that!

Foraged some lovely sweet vetch and some nettles. Actually looking forward to my meal now. Maybe getting through the nuts and prunes a bit fast.

One way that it seems very Scottish here is the regimen on the towpath. I like to walk on the right but have given up because everyone seems to comply with the roads and cling to the left. No anarchy here then! Expecting crowds of walkers and big send-off on at Milngavie for the WHW by all accounts!!!

4 Canal Section heretic
An abandoned book on a wall! It says it all.

Very pleased that this am pee was proper shade and quantity. Menstrual bleeding fully stopped now – thank goodness that hassle is over. Collected some reed mace heads for firelighting just now (before leaving the canals).

4 Canal Section 51


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