On its 40th anniversary, 14 reasons why the West Highland Way, Scotland's first long-distance footpath, is so special.

1. So much hard work went into its creation

Geographer Fiona Rose deserves much of the credit, as this newspaper informed its readers in October, 1980. Some 10 years previously she had carried out a ground survey of the entire route. "For a year she survived frostbite, exhaustion, midges, and the wrath of lairds and their livestock along the route. In all, she walked about 1,000 miles and through several pairs of boots, but by the end of that year the vital survey work had been done. By the time the West Highland Way was opened, she was living in New Zealand.

2. The sense of anticipation as you prepare to tackle the full 96 miles.

Six or seven years ago, standing in Milngavie with a friend, David, as we prepared to tackle the entire route (we'd each taken the week off work), we felt strangely confident about our ability to complete the route successfully. We'd come fully equipped: hiking poles, small First Aid kit, torches, food, water, suncream, new rucksacks. Some accommodation had been pre-booked; we also had a tent for when the weather turned positively grim. As it was, we walked a good part of the route, but we both had long-standing problems with our knee joints, so we had to curtail our ambitions somewhat towards the end. Still, I'll never forget that sense of anticipation at Milngavie. On the Official West Highland Way Twitter page, Kim Kjaerside, a Danish man living in Scotland, has recorded a brief video clip at the start of the walk in Milngavie. "Ninety-six miles to go," he smiles cheerfully into his phone camera. Good luck, Kim.

3. It's a do-able challenge

The Walk is divided up into eight convenient chunks of between nine and 15 miles. Milngavie to Drymen, 12; Drymen to Rowardennan, 15; Rowardennan to Inverarnan, 14; Inverarnan to Tyndrum, 12, Tyndrum to Inveroran, nine; Inveroran to Kingshouse, 10; Kingshouse to Kinlochleven, nine; Kinlochleven to Fort William, 15. Do them all, or just do the sections that appeal to you. As the Countryside Commission for Scotland said at the opening of the Way in October 1980: "The whole route has been divided into sections, some of which are fairly easy and others which are more difficult, but it has all been done sensitively and we were delighted to get a note from Tom Weir in which he said we had got it just about right".

4. It's popular at home and abroad

It's popular with natives and overseas visitors alike, which helps to spread the word about Scotland's matchless scenery. Every year, outwith global pandemics, some 80,000 people use the route; of them, some 15,000 walk the entire 96 miles. And, as many if not most of them have discovered, it's never long before the Way envelops them in its own distinctive charm. You can experience this even at the beginning, in Milngavie. As the photographer David Paterson once observed: "On the first morning, you walk off the platform at Milngavie station to plunge into Mugdock Woods (so it seems) and in a few moments have left the world behind. All along the Way, it takes only a screen of trees, a fold in the ground – or a certain attitude of mind – to shut out any reminders of what you have come to escape".

5. The sense of camaraderie

There's a genuine esprit de corps among those who walk the West Highland Way. Just look at the group pages on Facebook: anyone posting a query as to the best kind of gear to use invariably receives numerous helpful responses. One woman from Canada said recently, on the West Highland Way public group, that she doubted that she could manage the entire walk, and asked whether it could be broken up into several (non-camping) days. "I can't imagine doing 26 miles in a single day!", she added. Among the reassuring replies: "You can take as many days as you want ... Take as long as you need... There are no rules or expectations. ... We took nine days last year". And when my sisterand I did part of the walk, we fell in with three women, two of whom had dogs. By the time we parted we had all become good friends.

6. It's a real adventure

The walk can lead to all sorts of inspirational stories. On that public group, Zoe Ashbridge, who is based in Telford, Shropshire, said that she and her boyfriend had cycled halfway around the world, reaching as far as Nha Trang, Vietnam, before the coronavirus closed borders and they were forced to return home to the UK (they'd quit their jobs and sold their home in order to make the trip). "We've been back for six months and we started hiking instead", she writes. "West Highland Way was my first-ever 'proper' hike and I absolutely loved it. We decided to go on a whim and I'm so glad we did. The memories will last a lifetime and having this adventure was about what I needed ... If there's anyone thinking about WHW as a first hike, honestly do it".

7. You might meet an inspirational person

Just sometimes, as you're plodding along, slightly footsore and quietly looking forward to the chance to rest awhile, you are overtaken by someone who is intent on running the entire route in as short a time as possible. David and I met (fleetingly) a bloke called Kenneth, who looked superfit. He was in his 70s and was running a good part of the route. A much more recent runner is Ian Garnett, of Milngavie, who told The Herald earlier this month that he was planning to run the route in a day, from Fort William to Milngavie in order to raise funds for the Lomond Mountain Rescue Team. "I have run parts of the route many times, especially because it is near where I live", he said, "but I have never run it all. I have always wanted to complete the 96 miles in one go and it seems like the right thing to do".

8. The craturs

You encounter all sorts of wildlife on the West Highland Way. Back in 1980, one of the route's planners spotted two wildcats low down on the east side of Loch Lomond. Sometimes, the wildlife is – well, slightly less exotic. Another friend, Andy, and I once spotted a cow, standing on a rise, within sight of the 492ft-high hill Dumgoyach, near Blanefield. It was watching us intently.

"I think that's a bull," he said warily. I looked again. "No," I argued uncertainly, a townie to the core. "It's a cow. Isn't it?"

"It doesn't have an udder. Seriously, that's a bull. If it charges us, we're in trouble. We should chuck a stone at it if it charges us," Andy added, half-jokingly.

I glance at him dubiously and leafed through my guidebook. "You're not serious," I tell him. "It says here we should treat wildlife with respect."

In the end, we gave the beast a wide detour. Better safe than sorry.

9. Walking in footsteps of outdoors legends

Jimmie Macgregor, the broadcaster and musician, knows the Way like the back of his proverbial. He has written about the Way and made TV and radio programmes about it. Nor did he content himself with dry facts and figures about the route. "I spent a night at Inversnaid with the Loch Lomond Angling Association and got some great stories from them", he told The Herald magazine seven years ago. "I also talked about the Glencoe massacre, and walking across Rannoch Moor, which was quite spooky. I did it in pouring rain, and it's a pretty long slog from Inveroran to the Kingshouse. You just have to get your head down.

"I don't have a favourite part as such; the dramatic bits are Glen Coe and Rannoch Moor, and maybe the Devil's Staircase, which goes up from Glencoe and takes you on a big descent to Kinlochleven."

10. It can go wrong

Of course, some people encounter minor misfortune while doing the Way. One Herald reader, Robert Arnott, told us in 2013 that he had made the walk in 1992, in the three months between school and university. He was 18 at the time. He and his friend Alastair got as far as one mile east of Drymen, where they camped. It was here that Alastair chose to come down with gastroenteritis. "What time of night it was exactly I don't know, but Alastair was violently sick in the tent," Robert recalled. "Then he went outside with practically no clothes on, and he was violently sick in the field. Further details I'll spare, but it was dark, and he trod in a cowpat in his bare feet on the way back to the tent. I was in hysterics."

11. Sometimes you meet people who are rather well-known

Mark Wynn came up from Manchester to walk the Way just as it was officially being opened. He was raising funds for the Institute for the Blind, and was accompanied by his younger brother. He told The Herald Magazine in 2013: "As we walked alongside Loch Lomond we were joined by an elderly man who we later learned was Tom Weir. He was intrigued about this new long-distance footpath and was exploring a little of it. He subsequently wrote an article that appeared in The Herald with a photograph of us two bedraggled walkers … A couple of days later, we walked some distance with a young couple who were dancers with the Scottish Ballet. This was their way of keeping fit."

12. Sometimes you meet people who are simply characters.

John Delaney, from Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire, did the walk in 2008 with an Irish friend in order to raise money for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Along the way they encountered one particular bloke, "Donald". At various points they saw him dressed in white woolly joggers and sports jacket, his rucksack an old canvas bag with drawstring; they saw him washing his socks in a burn; learned that he was sleeping rough under hedges and bridges. At the Kingshouse they heard Donald declare: "Ah'm a free spirit!" before adding: "That's how Ah lost ma girlfriend."

13. A staircase but not to heaven

As I know to my cost, the Devil's Staircase can be a bit of a challenge for rickety knees. I am not alone. Archie Bell, from Stranraer, told us in 2013: "While walking up Loch Lomondside I met a party of medical men and their wives. We met again the following days. Halfway up the Devil's Staircase – in my opinion, the most difficult part of the route – I was sitting on a boulder having a rest when they passed me again. One of the ladies said: 'Archie, do you bring your boulder with you? Every time we meet, you're sitting on one having a rest.'"

14. Picture perfect

The 96 miles of the Walk are a photographer's dream. One book worth checking out is The West Highland Way (Canongate Press & Peak Publishing, 1992), with images shot by David Paterson and Mike McQueen (this quote by David Paterson, comes from his introduction to the book).

"As a city dweller all my adult life, any visit to the Scottish countryside is both a return to my roots, and a powerful charge to the spiritual batteries", Paterson writes. "To go again and again to the West Highland Way was to experience this differently, on each trip finding something new, and learning better to observe and record the landscape I love so much ... It seems miraculous that in this mechanised age, and in spite of all the hazards of pollution, acid rain, habitat destruction and so on, we still have on our doorstep such a wonderful and inspiring resource".