The SNT – Edinburgh to Milngavie
Your Feet Will Hate This Part
What might have been the nastiest section of all (for my feet) is complete! This section follows the Union Canal from the Water of Leith Visitor Centre in Slateford, Edinburgh to Falkirk, where you transfer onto the older Forth and Clyde Canal. Every single kilometre – every single one – of this section is on concrete, so be prepared for blisters in places where your feet are normally pretty happy. The canal towpath being seemingly geared more for cyclists than multiuse, it is entirely paved and a fact which by the end of your day you will be intimately aware of as your feet scream at you in agony.
This concrete torment is mitigated by being fantastically interesting – such as, did you know that the notorious murderers Burke and Hare laboured on the building of the Union Canal before turning to infamously ‘supplying’ bodies for medical educational dissection? (Other people just robbed graves instead.) Yep; it is rumoured that that they got rid of their victims’ clothes in the canal. (You can’t really blame them for looking for more lucrative work, but what a horrid business model.) Additionally, when the Forth and Clyde Canal was being built an entire mounted cavalry was found in a bog – the men and their horses had drowned trying to cross it. (And if that isn’t a terrible way to go, fleeing an enemy at breakneck speed only to drown along with your buddies and your beloved four-legged friend, I don’t know what is.)
Thankfully, this part of the SNT is also quite pretty, especially once you reach the Forth and Clyde Canal, which is much more naturalistic than the younger Union Canal. It honestly felt like I was was walking alongside a very long lake, or a particularly sedentary river. There were lilypads, ducks, cows grazing on the opposite bank, and people having fun; plainly, I liked it better than the Union Canal. That being said, the Union Canal also happened to feature the amazing Avon Aqueduct and the very fun Falkirk Tunnel, which were definitely highlights of this stretch. Curiously, I saw more swans on the Union Canal than on the Forth and Clyde.
- If you are short on time and need to skip a section, make it this one – although it has some very cool stuff to see, it isn’t as scenic as the others. If you are specifically wanting solitude then this definitely isn’t it – there are constantly people on the towpath.
- Good wild camping spots can be hard to find here; there are pretty much none from Cadder to Drymen (which is 20 km/12 miles after Milngavie.) It can also be hard to find places to relieve yourself, so try to go when you are at camp.
- Broxburn, Linlithgow, Falkirk (especially Redding where there is literally a Tesco right beside the towpath,) Kirkintilloch and Milngavie are good places to resupply. Glasgow is also good if you happen to be taking a zero there; I recommend Tiso if you need to purchase fuel.
- It is much easier to collect water on the Union Canal then on the Forth and Clyde Canal due to its lower, sturdier banks. Make sure you have plenty before reaching Falkirk, although there are a few places to fill up after that, mostly by boat mooring points.
- Beware of the swans; they are very protective of their cygnets and they will attack you if they think that you are endangering their little ones (even if they aren’t so little anymore.) Thankfully, they generally warn you that you have gotten on their bad side by hissing at you first.
- The frequent bridges crossing over the Union Canal make tremendously good places to hide when foul weather hits.
- Watch out for the cyclists; they are supposed to warn you of their approach as they come up behind you at high speed but a good quantity of them don’t, which can be very alarming. Keep to one side of the towpath for safety.
- You should know about good blister care before attempting any multiday hike, but especially make sure that you know your stuff for this section. Human feet just did not evolve for tromping on what is essentially very hard stone all day! (Being pretty much wholly flat it is stupendous for going fast though.)
- ‘Milngavie’ is pronounced ‘Mull-guy’ – if you aren’t certain how to pronounce a Scottish place name then slur it and you should say it a bit more accurately (or better, if you are not sure, ask a friendly local.) Hard on the ‘ch/k’ sounds and soft on the vowels; ‘Edinburgh’ for example is pronounced ‘Edin-brah’ not ‘Edin-burrow.’ (I greatly recommend studying some Youtube videos.)
- Also try to learn some words of Gaillic – it will help you to tell what things in the landscape are by what their names are when you are looking at your map. ‘Bealach’ for instance, is a small pass, and a ‘burn’ is a creek; a ‘lochan’ is a pond or tarn while a ‘kirk’ is a church. An ‘inver’ is a river mouth, so ‘Inverness’ very desciptively means River Mouth of Ness with ‘Ness’ being Loch Ness, of course! (I honestly love how the place names in Scotland can tell you so much about their locations.)
Day 12 – The Water Defeated Me
Things Seen: Many statues of dead people, cool old buildings, foreign plants and trees (I can’t call them exotic because hardly any of what I saw fit that word,) plus quite a bit of construction.
Weather: Overcast and rainy.
Camp: A comfy hostel in Edinburgh. Entire ten bed dorm room to myself!
Injuries: None, just tired.
Food Eaten: Six plums, two pieces of foccacia bread, a terrible veggie burger on a stale tasting bun, really tasty salty fries with thankfully just a dollop of the worst ketchup ever and gross apple/mango juice which I shall never drink again. (Knew I should have gone for Pizza Hut instead for dinner, but how can you possibly beat £6.50 for dinner?)
Favourite Moment: Sleeping in.
Funniest Moment: Watching the staff at my hostel scramble to catch/repair a sudden leak in the main foyer. (I’ve been in their place; me and a former coworker had the same thing happen to us.)
Animals: Mostly just grey squirrels, a few ducks, some wood pigeons and some normal friendly pigeons.
Stuff I Thought About: How stupid Covid is; because of it the glass houses at the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh were shut, so I didn’t get to see any of the super cool tropical plants. It’s also made it impossible for me to do a few other tourist things, like go to the natural history museum because you have to book a time slot in order to get in, but all of them had been snagged already.
Anything to write about?: I was so thirsty coming back to my hostel that I asked for a big pitcher of water, which I gamely attempted to drink all of on top of my reprehensible burger supper. (The patty tastes like a bizarre falafel and the rest of it was downright flavourless.) In the end I was not able to drink all of the water, despite my best efforts (the colour of my pee was one of the reasons behind my stubborn bid for hydration,) and soon after returning to my room I had to bolt for the bathroom, where I promptly vomited twice. I suspect I just drank too much water, but in any case I think that I will be sticking to my oatcakes and final poptart for breakfast tomorrow! The buttermilk pancakes they have on offer aren’t worth it – especially if the burger I ate tonight is anything to go by.
I also mailed home my hydration reservoir (bottles are working better for long distance hiking,) my inflatable pillow (I never woke up with my head still on it,) and my Nuun electrolyte tabs (because I never seem to have enough water to warrant using them and my Saltstick electrolytes don’t need any water except to wash them down.) I also threw in some British chocolate for my family.
Day 13 – Miles Upon Miles of Concrete
Kilometres: 25.8 km/16 miles
Travelled: Slateford to a muddy little forest beside the Union Canal near Winchburgh (which I totally thought was called ‘Witchburgh’ for the longest time today.)
Things Seen: The stupid Mountain Warehouse which I spent an hour looking for yesterday as I was leaving on the bus, the Union Canal, two families of swans (one of which was sadly missing an adult – very tragic considering that swans mate for life,) an endangered water vole, a lot of cyclists, many hayfields and some big Ayer’s Rock/Uluru-type looking things which were either incredible reddish rocky outcrops or piles of dirt. Unknown! Maybe volcanic origin. Also many airplanes because I am apparently nearby Edinburgh airport.
Weather: Sun with clouds with two short periods of rain. I hid under a bridge for the first with my shoddy old astronaut foil emergency blanket shielding my legs and for the second I tried out my umbrella which worked awesome! (Except when it got super windy.)
Injuries: Possible blister which took care of itself on left foot near big toe.
Food Eaten: An apple (braeburn variety, yum,) a weird kinda yucky smoothie with ginger in it, five very tasty oatcakes, a fake Sainsbury’s snickers bar, a Nature Valley protein bar, a bag of Walker’s ready salted chips and crazy tasty spicy Malaysian instant ramen.
Favourite Moment: Finally getting un-confused at the Water of Leith Visitor Centre and at last getting underway. Even better though was finally talking to my mom again after about a week.
Funniest Moment: Can’t think of any although I did spend a lot of time singing the Addam’s Family theme song, so I guess maybe that counts.
Animals: The endangered water vole which looked like a teensy beaver, many pigeons hiding under a bridge, two swan families, some moorhens, a few crows, a bay horse, some cows and a lot of dead slugs plus a teensy live one on my water bottle (icky.)
Stuff I Thought About: How I don’t like it when people ask me where I am going tonight. As a lone female it creeps me out. None of your business, random! I like telling them instead that I am hiking to an important town near where I plan to camp or that is a general goal.
Anything to write about?: I am passing out writing this so I think that it is time for bed.
Kilometres: 37.7 km/23.4 miles
Travelled: A muddy little forest beside the Union Canal to a grain field beside the Forth and Clyde Canal beside some evil stinging nettle which my shin is complaining profoundly about.
Things Seen: The epic 450 m long Avon Aqueduct, the 630 m long Falkirk Tunnel (which was enormously cool and not creepy at all – there was a really nifty vibe in there. There was smooth tuffa on the walls and teensy stalactites on the ceiling. Altogether it reminded me of the cool horseshoe tunnel that you can hang out in at Ainsworth Hot Springs in British Columbia. (It just wasn’t toasty warm and steamy from lovely hot spring water.) I also saw a set of boat locks and the Falkirk Wheel! The Wheel was very cool, and sadly not getting the worship that it deserved by the time of the day that I got there. Altogether a very cool if super long day. Also in Linlithgow there was a bronze statue commemorating a cat named Dudley; it was very sweet! Also saw hilly mountainy looking things in the distance and wind turbines.
Weather: Sun with clouds with several periods of rain; thankfully the rain clouds were small and relatively fast moving. I thought I was clever for hiding in Falkirk Redding’s Tesco from one, but another cloud was waiting to ambush me five minutes later. (Which, y’know, was fine given that I was newly equipped with more food.)
Camp: The stinging nettle infested edge of a grain field, hopefully not also slug infested like yesterday’s camp turned out to be. (Got up in the middle of the night to pee and see if there were any stars out and discovered about fifty slugs having a nasty gross party on the outside of my tent. Ewww.)
Injuries: Blister (lanced,) on right foot on pad by big toe; maybe blister in same place on left foot and swollen areas on top of feet seeming to involve an upper ankle tendon.
Food Eaten: Tasty Nairn oatcakes which taste like coconut oatmeal cookies, Walker’s ready salted chippies, a Snickers, a fake Snickers (real Snickers proved to be better; I ate them one after another in order to properly compare them,) a Nature Valley protein bar, the prettiest Gala apple that I have ever seen, a Lindt mint bar, fruit leather, four chocolate eclairs, many bramble/blackberries, and spicy Mama Kimchi ramen which was super good!
Favourite Moment: Walking through the amazing, beautiful and atmospheric Falkirk Tunnel.
Funniest Moment: Coming upon this super serious looking hiker dude who had this incredibly heavy looking green external frame backpack loaded down with hefty gear then seeing his little white dog who looked like a cross between a foot stool and an unsheared sheep laboriously following him.
Animals: Highland cows! Also normal cows in a rainbow of cow colours, ducks, several families of swans, some clydesdale horses, some pinto gypsy vanner horses, a dragonfly, seagulls, magpies and many puppers including a beautiful white german shepherd.
Stuff I Thought About: Getting to Falkirk and food, mainly. Also how my Sawyer Squeeze bag looks like it is wearing out so I bought a Smart water bottle except I don’t actually know whether it will fit.
Anything to write about?: I am very glad to be off of the Union Canal; the water was kinda gross (I filtered some and it is yellow, just like urine,) and it felt very artificial. The older Clyde and Forth Canal isn’t as rigidly straight in its banks and feels much more natural, like a calm river flowing through the landscape. Its waters look healthier too and I will not be surprised to see swans on it tomorrow! I also feel incredibly happy to be two thirds of the way through the canal section of the SNT – I will not miss its awful concrete towpath! Give me softer gravel or grass any day, for sure.
I also had to do a detour through Polmont today because of weather damage to the canal between Almond and Brightons; this was decidedly less than fun given that a particularly obnoxious raincloud opted to show up at exactly the same time. The next few days will supposedly have better weather; here is hoping so! Looking at my map it seems that tomorrow will be a lot less urban, which will be a welcome change – hopefully a few less cyclists racing past me without any warning whatsoever. (Despite signs saying that they must ring their bell, and that they are supposed to dismount when crossing the aqueducts which they almost never do from my observations.)
Maybe I will reach Milngavie tomorrow.
Day 14 – Triple Your Blisters!
Kilometres: 34.7 km/21.6 miles (35.7 counting the 1 km to the hostel.) Average moving speed increased to 15 kph! Woohoo!
Travelled: A grain field beside the Forth and Clyde Canal to Milngavie (and a hostel in Glasgow.)
Things Seen: The beautiful and very ‘long-thin-lake-like’ Forth and Clyde Canal, which was full of activity with the fine weather – plus apparently today was Saturday, something which I only discovered more than halfway through my day. I spent my entire morning bemused by the great number of families out walking, cycling and fishing, unaware that it was a weekend. (“Didn’t I see school start in Balerno a few days ago?”) I also saw championship rowing teams at practice on the canal, a lady riding a pretty dapple grey horse (can’t imagine they went too far, the entire towpath is concrete and awful on hooves and human feet alike.) Oh, and a little private plane and a family on their canalboat going for a cruise. I also saw climbers playing on some cliffs and quite a few boat locks, all of which were very cool. I watched a family bring in a tiny fish which was pretty cute.
Weather: Sun with clouds with some very short periods of spritzing rain which definitely wasn’t on the forecast! Grrr!
Camp: A warm cozy bed in a hostel in Glasgow.
Injuries: Blisters on both feet; one on both behind-big-toe pad (not sure what that piece of anatomy is called offhand) and one on my left foot between my big toe and the toe beside it (an extraordinarily horrid place for a blister.) All have been lanced; no other known injuries apart from an irritated patch of skin on one of the fingers of my left hand which has had one too many accidental encounters with stinging nettle. (Have I mentioned possibly my great hatred for that plant? It’s awesome that it supports so much life (apparently over forty different species depend upon it,) but I will not miss it when I return home to my part of Canada, which pretty much has no stinging nettle at all in it. I feel like I will be shy of every mintish looking plant for a very long time following this foray!)
Food Eaten: Tasty Nairn oatcakes of happiness, a delicious Gala apple, a peanut butter Kind bar, three pieces of cheese, my sole remaining poptart, a Nature Valley protein bar, a fake Sainsbury’s Snickers and some fruit leather. For dinner I ate a huge yummy tub of cherry yogourt, a Ploughman’s sandwich (British thing… I think it is basically tomato, mayo, lettuce and thick slices of cheddar cheese,) some Tesco orange juice and some Mackie’s salted potato chips (which are very good but need a touch more salt…)
Favourite Moment: Talking to a completely lovely seventy-year-old-lady who did not look seventy named Anne about all matter of hiking things. We commiserated over cyclists who come up behind you without ringing their bells (thus scaring the hell out of you,) agreed that hiking pants are the best pants ever because they are flattering as well as tremendously functional, and had a really nice discussion about gear as well as not letting other people hold you back from adventure. Also loved it when a father named John and his son joined me for a spell to chatter about hiking also. It was really nice having some companionship for a little while! Visited with a great chap who was canoeing briefly too; I really love the people here.
Funniest Moment: Getting to Kirkintilloch and talking to a wonderful friendly cyclist lady who, as we reached the town commented (on the subject of continuing on,) that her butt was saying no but her legs were saying yes, to which I replied that it was my feet saying nope with me! We both laughed and she zoomed off; I adore how you can just hang out with random people here, it’s so wonderful.
Animals: Swans, cocker spaniels, many mop dogs, poodle things, a gorgeous black siberian husky, milk cows, other cows, some horses including appaloosas (spotted horses,) the pretty dapple grey horse on the canal towpath, ducks, some unknown songbirds, wood pigeons, seagulls and crows(ravens?)
Stuff I Thought About: Wondering whether I would get to Milngavie today or not, how much hostels cost, food, the inherent cuteness of dogs, and various random songs. Also how the canal part of Scotland really needs to up its recycling game and install public toilets in parks and whatnot.
Anything to write about?: I will miss the canals but I can’t wait to get into the Highlands because it’ll be so much easier to find wild camping spots!
I sped through this section in just three gruelling days, and I increased my average speed in the process. Except for the last day, I managed to find secure, safe wild camps for every night, something which I wasn’t sure that I would be able to do at all for this section when I was still learning about the SNT. It’s likely that I could have found something on the last night had I been stubborn enough, but I was exhausted to the point of accidentally taking a wrong turn which added at least a kilometre to my day, and particularly as a female I feel that it pays to be especially discerning in where I choose to camp. I never camp too close to a settlement, I prefer being well out of sight of the trail as well as any roads or people and I never camp too close to water or on boggy ground. I also never camp in the same pasture as cows and as much as possible, I prefer a flat spot. If I see food wrappers and discarded bottles on the ground by a perspective wild camp, then I leave and find a different site. I also avoid stinging nettle, ‘cus oww!
Mentally, I felt a lot better on this stretch, and I felt good enough to even contemplate a dreamed-of future thru-hike of the Arizona Trail. I refuse to get ahead of myself, but I do think that the AZT will be financially a much easier goal than this trail has been! It made me happy when I realized that my mind was drifting to arid notions of saguaros and cholla considering the couple of rough days that I had hiking from Kirk Yetholm to Edinburgh. I have this longterm goal of completing an ‘international crown’ comprised of the SNT, AZT and the GDT (Great Divide Trail, Canada.) They’re all about 800 km/500 miles long and each of them is in a different country, with very different environments. It’s a dream.
I am hopeful that my positive mental trend will continue, that the good weather will as well, and that entering the highlands this late in the year I will dodge those pesky midges! (I’m armed and dangerous with icariden if they do though.)
Next: Milngavie to Fort Augustus (the Great Glen!)
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