It's been three years since Scotland captured a piece of my heart and within twenty four hours of being back I feel like I've come home. Thinking about it now it seems rather fitting that at such an uncertain time I'm back where I found myself three years ago after quitting my job and looking for happiness in life. I found it and more during my twelve week Bikes, Bothies and Booze bike trip and given that my plans for travelling in 2020 have been stopped in their tracks and my job as an active travel trip leader is nowhere to be seen for the near future, it's time to hit the road and find the answers on two wheels in a Scottish staycation adventure.
The Great North Trail is a long distance off-road trail from the Peak District to Cape Wrath or John O'Groats. Starting at Middleton Top near Wirksworth in the heart of the Peak District myself and Ben (who I met back in 2017 when I was riding in Scotland) set off with 800 miles ahead of us to Cape Wrath. Charlotte, my friend from work and wonderful lockdown buddy who I stayed with for a month when I returned from New Zealand joined us the next day and the three of us battled the hills of the Peaks with fully loaded bikes.
We'd only just started to hit our stride three days into the ride when Ben had a collision with another cyclist as he was crossing the road. It all happened so quickly and was pretty awful to witness. Charlotte jumped into action and looked after the road cyclist and I took care of Ben. A car stopped to help and phoned for an ambulance as another cyclist stopped to direct traffic. An off-duty paramedic pulled over to help also and advised that a second ambulance was despatched. When the cavalry arrived it was an incredible relief to be told that neither party had been seriously injured. They were both taken to A&E and later discharged much to everyone's relief. Ben had taken the impact of the other rider on his right hand side and was sporting a very swollen forearm alongside minor cuts and bruises. It could have been so much worse and so he was very lucky. The front wheel of his bike might need a little attention too...
After five days of nagging Ben to rest (I think he'd agree that I shouldn't go into nursing as my next career choice, haha) I met up with Charlotte again and we decided to get the train up to Scotland and to continue our journey northward from there. Arriving in Glasgow at 6pm on Friday evening we were soon riding along the Forth & Clyde canal out of the city and into the green pastures beyond.
Finding the start of the West Highland Way at Milngavie it felt like our journey had truly begun.
Riding through Mugdock Country Park we veered off-route to the reservoir to hunt for a sneaky wild camp spot for the night. It was a nice evening and there were plenty of people 'oot and aboot' as we adopted a bench, got out our camp stoves and started to cook our dinner much to the amusement and/or confusion of people out enjoying an evening stroll. A couple walked by with their dog and stopped to chat with us, asking where we were headed and where we'd come from. They asked where we were planning on staying for the night and after telling them we were looking for a spot to camp by the reservoir they mentioned an abandoned building over the other side that could possibly work. Having wished them a good evening we continued cooking and only minutes later the lady returned and apologised if it sounded strange but they had an empty yoga studio by their house and if we wanted to we could stay there for the night rather than camping by the reservoir. Charlotte and I looked at each other, smiled and accepted their very kind offer. We'd only just crossed the border and were experiencing the true Scottish kindness. Brian and Nicola gave us their address which was only a few minutes away and told us to come along when we'd finished our dinner.
As we rode up to their house I was a bit nervous but I needn't have been as Brian met us outside, got our bikes stored away in the garage and showed us up to the self contained yoga studio. Nicola had prepared us a couple of makeshift beds with duvets and pillows even though we'd told her we could use our camping mats and sleeping bags and it was a wonderful space to spend the night. Offering us tea, wine, crisps and biscuits we were both beaming with joy and gratitude as we spent the next few hours on their roof terrace getting to know our new friends. Finally falling into my little cocoon of Spiderman snuggliness (courtesy of their son's Spiderman duvet cover) I was tired but wired, either from the late night tea or the events of the day I don't know. All I knew was that our trip couldn't have started on a better note and my heart was full of gratitude and happiness to have met such wonderful people who had opened up their home to us in a gesture of goodwill and generosity in uncertain times.
Hitting the road for our first full day in the saddle Brian escorted us down the road to the West Highland Way before starting his Sunday ride. Out on the trail Monkey was the first to feel the full force of the countryside with a face full of coo poo...
Flat gravel trails crunched under our tyres as we steamed past the Glengoyle Distillery, passed our first fully kilted Scotsman and felt the swish of the overgrown wildflowers swipe our legs along the fast singletrack to Drymen. Saying goodbye to the West Highland Way we picked up the Rob Roy Way towards Aberfoyle. A long distance footpath that runs from Drymen to Pitlochry the path was created in 2002 and takes its name from Rob Roy MacGregor, a Scottish folk hero and outlaw of the early 18th century. A nice lunch by the Scottish Wool Centre in Aberfoyle set us up for the slow climb through the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park and past Loch Venachar, our first taste of the delights of the Loch Lomond and Trossacks National Park.
Managing to completely miss the apparently stunning Falls of Leny outside of Kilmanhog we crossed the Highland Boundary Fault, pedalling alongside the lovely Loch Lubnaig for our first taste of the Scottish Highlands.
A long and mostly dry (surprisingly) day came to an end as we veered off the route towards Loch Earn to make camp for the night. A quiet field in the shadow of Ben Vorlicht wasn't quite the lochside spot we'd hoped for but with a stream nearby and no sign of those wee Scottish beasties (midges) we bedded down having ridden a very respectable fifty miles.
I spoke too soon, the wee beasties were out in force in the morning as we packed away and hit the road back to join the NCN seven towards Killin. A gradual climb along the old railway line in the morning drizzle saw us enjoy a nice forest descent to the Falls of Dochart, perfectly timed to be the first customers at Shutters Cafe for a special Sunday breakfast of a bacon and haggis butty and a pot of tea, mmmmm.
Refuelled and with a 'secret weapon' of Scottish fudge purchased we were back on a quiet road out to Glen Lochay. Winding country lanes made for pleasant riding as the weather played it's fickle game of showers and sunshine. Jackets were on and off more times than I'd like to count before we started the gravel climb over the low pass with the rather magnificent hydro electric pipeline in our view.
Flying downhill on the track to the dam at Pubil was our reward and it continued in the form of a nice tailwind that saw us picking off the miles along to a lunch stop at the Bridge of Balgie. The cafe only had outdoor seating and as the rain started again we sheltered on their veranda before braving the picnic tables by the river. Sunshine and showers was definitely the theme of the day and as we readied ourselves for the second climb of the day. Sweating from the climb in a jacket or getting wet in the drizzle was the order of the afternoon as we spun our way into the remote moorland.
Wild and rugged beauty was all around me as my cheeks ached from the grin plastered on my face. Now I feel alive. This is why I fell in love with Scotland three years ago and the feelings rush back to overwhelm me as I whoop my way along the trail. I've definitely felt that I've lost my cycling mojo lately, especially on my recent five day ride south from Sunderland to Ben's house in Manchester where I felt defeated by constant headwinds, rain and general miserableness. Who knew that it was hiding in Scotland all along!
We spot our first herd of deer across the valley and they're our only company as we head into a forested area. It's surprising how the landscape changes so quickly, from wide open spaces filled with rounded hills to enclosed forest roads. Hurtling down a long straight track lined with lime green christmas trees (which I named Christmas Tree Alley), we're spit out at the bottom into a bleak and desolate space of felled trees for yet another change of scenery.
The next miles seemed to stretch on forever as we headed West over exposed land into the full force of the wind. The sun was out so we were lucky in that respect but it felt like riding in slow motion until we made our final turn North and descend towards the Bridge of Gaur. A fast rocky ride down leaves us smiling and is the perfect end to a rather wonderful day of riding. Spat out onto the main road we're contemplating where to head to find a camp spot when a lady out walking her dogs asks us where we're looking for. Charlotte explains that we're looking for a place to camp down by Loch Rannoch away from houses and the lady kindly offers us her garden to camp in. Feeling ready for the day to end I look at Charlotte and we follow her around the corner to a lovely white cottage. As we unpack our kit and thank her for her kind offer she brings us tea and lemon shortbread biscuits. Ruth lives with her daughter Katie and we chat whilst enjoying a cuppa. The offer of a hot shower is just what Charlotte needs to thaw out her rather cold hands and feet but I embrace my inner dirtbag and enjoy a baby wipe bath in my tent. Exhausted I head to my tent for an early night to escape the midgefest whilst Charlotte gets to know Ruth and Katie - which ends with her being given a huge kilo slab of lemon drizzle cake for us to take the next day.
Waking to our fourth day of riding we have a decision to make about our route. We can continue on the Great North Trail, riding out towards Corrour and Loch Laggan or we can follow the Highland Trail 550 to Ben Alder Cottage towards Laggan. Having heard that the HT550 route is likely to be rather wet, boggy and include a bit of bike pushing we decide that we'd prefer dry feet and an enjoyable ride and so head for the Road to the Isles to take us over to Corrour. We're not disappointed as the land opens up with stunning views as we spy our trail high up on the hill.
The railway station at Corrour is the highest in the UK and as we ride we see a train chugging along. It seems bizarre in such a remote place and unless you saw it you wouldn't think the line existed in the seemingly neverending sea of green. The morning's ride was lovely. A slow climb followed by a nice descent to Loch Ossian where we sheltered out of the wind at the youth hostel for a pre-lunch snack stop. Unfortunately the hostel was closed because of Covid-19 but the lady let us refill our water and we got our camp stoves fired up for hot tea and to try and thaw out Charlotte's frozen extremities. Suffering from Raynauds disease means that her hands and feet have very poor circulation and easily get very cold and numb. Not one to complain she uses a flask of tea as a hot water bottle and we crack open the huge slab of lemon drizzle cake which is rather delightful. It's only day four and already I'm a fudge junkie and a slave to the sugar - the joys of cycle touring as an excuse for indulging my sweet tooth, hahaa.
Leaving our lochside shelter we round the head of the loch and enjoy a bit of a tailwind to power us around the next corner where we seemed to have stumbled on something reminiscent of the Mongolian Steppe.
A late lunch at the edge of Loch Laggan was hampered by eeevil midges and soon we were on our way again in a heavy shower cycling the length of the loch. As Charlotte disappeared into the distance I felt like I was cycling through treacle and was feeling rather slow and tired. Stopping at the head of the loch we took a break on the beach to enjoy the view. Ah Scotland you're a true beauty!
It was very tempting to just pitch the tent and stay for the night with a wonderful lochside view but it was only 4pm and our aim was to reach Fort Augustus early-ish the next day over the challenging Corrieyairack Pass so we got back in the saddle and headed back off-road and into the wilderness. Passing through a deer park the rain began again but we were soon riding an old military road which made for much easier progress and so we couldn't complain. Our aim was to make it to Melgarve Bothy at the bottom of the pass and although the Bothy was closed, we knew that we could use it to shelter our tents from the worst of the wind. It seemed like a long road but eventually we saw a speck in the distance, although rather surprisingly there was what seemed to be a house right next to the Bothy. As the rain appeared again we ducked into some tree cover and decided to setup camp there out of the wind. Riding done for the day we went about our camping routine and after dinner had our usual gathering looking at the days photo's and choosing our photo of the day. As the mist settled on the hills over the way, the deer gathered by the river and we snuggled into our sleeping bags to end another lovely day of riding.
The next morning seemed to be a bit of a non-starter in the brain department. Firstly losing a whole pot of nearly boiling water and having to start cooking breakfast again, then taking an age to faff and pack away my bags before Charlotte then had a water leak disaster in her backpack. All this is happening as we're decked out in our very fetching midge headnets whilst being nibbled on every piece of bare skin showing. Faffing complete we said goodbye to the tarmac and started up past the bothy and into the hills.
The Corrieyairack Pass is the highest pass on the Great North Trail at 775 metres but it started relatively gradually as we warmed up in the morning breeze. It felt a bit strange to see a line of massive pylons showing the way up and over the pass - a reminder that civilisation wasn't far off. As we started the zig zag switchback climb it was a scramble in the deep loose corners as we battled with spinning out the rear end of the bikes. A battle lost and won depending on the luck of the pedal. Nearing the last fifty metres we were off and pushing as the lure of the downhill pushed us ever onwards and upwards.
Cresting the top all we could see was hill upon hill in the distance. Layering up for the downhill blast we were soon making speed down the bumpy winding trail. It felt like it was all over way too soon as the trail rose again to take us the last miles towards Loch Ness in Fort Augustus. Although our initial plan had been to continue riding onto a hostel further north along the HT550 trail my body was keen to tell me that staying in Fort Augustus would be very nice indeed! Sensing we were close, the last few miles dragged as we finally rounded a bend to see the town nestled at the head of Loch Ness.
Today was the first day that it hadn't yet rained but we both felt it made sense to stop for the day, spend the afternoon in Fort Augustus to refuel and replenish our food and bodies and as the campsite was closed we splashed out on a room at Morag's Lodge Hostel which thankfully was open for business. An hour later we were clean and showered, our washed clothes and wet shoes were drying and so I headed down to the loch for a spot of lunch.
A dry night in duvet luxury beckoned and we deserved it. The last five days have been amazing and I couldn't have wished for a better pedalling pal in Charlotte. This is our first multi-day trip together and so far it's been incredible. Here's to seeing what the next few days bring our way.