At War with Midges on the West Highland Way

It is 9pm and dusk is nearly upon us. We would have been happy to pitch our tents up over an hour ago, but we have held out in search of a better spot. We’ve already passed by idyllic lakes and enchanted forests but they just won’t do – we are looking for something all together harder to find out here in the hills of Scotland – a place with no midges.
We’ve been hiking the West Highland Way for 3 days, gradually bridging the gap between its start near Glasgow and its end point in Fort William. It is a truly beautiful route, rugged and unspoiled, incorporating both high passes and isolated small communities along its 154.5km path. There is just one problem, as any unsuspecting traveller to these northern parts has experienced- the midges. We have waged war with these tiny tyrants for the first two days and so far have been totally eaten alive.

Experience gained from past nights struggles, we are now wiser and finally all agree on what appears to be the perfect spot for the night. But what does that actually mean? Well, drawing on our own evidence and also the accumulation of fellow hikers’ theories, we are now convinced we know the foolproof way to get the better of the midges. Firstly, avoid stagnant water. They breed here. Better ere on the side of caution though; no water at all. Check; no water in sight. Secondly, gain some elevation. They can’t deal with even the slightest breeze and so finding a windy spot is crucial. We are high up and exposed- we may shiver after sunset but surely we’ll be left in peace? Finally, steer clear of trees. They like the damp conditions, see. Check; not even a bush in sight. Bags dumped, ground surveyed for the flattest spot, sweat gradually drying from the days’ exertions, we have been here 10 minutes and still no midges

Was that a fly I felt? No, must just have been that itch that i’ve never felt before. We all feel it but no-one dares say anything, all trying to reassure ourselves that we had chosen well, as if staying silent will make them go away. It was definitely a midge, but all may not be lost. In small numbers they are bearable; might it just have been the one? By now we’re cooking our staple dinner of pasta with tomato sauce; what would normally be considered bland made delicious and satisfying by a long day hiking and our stomachs crying out for the starchy goodness. We can’t help but compare the specific midge density in our different (yet very similar) positions around the stove. Food now cooked, it has become unbearable. What began with one, has now become a thick swarm, clearly visible in any direction. Spreading the word, lured in by our body heat, blood and stale sweat, we are now engulfed. We light cigarettes just to try and smoke them out, but they stay put.Dotted around the camp, 20 metres apart, we pace around whilst shovelling the last of our well-rationed portions down. Yelled conversation is interspersed with aggressive expletives and furious swiping into the swarms of tiny black speckles.

Pasta finished, we dive head first into the tent and hurriedly zip up the door behind us. A deep breath. We will wake up covered in little red spots tomorrow. We did not escape the midges. Our plan was unravelled and the armory of headscarves and jungle formula insect repellant broken. The battle with the midges of Scotland has been lost for now, but we’ll be back, back to roam this beautiful land; we’ll just try not not to forget the smoke coils next time!


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