One of Scotland’s greatest exports, Billy Connelly once said “there is no such thing as bad weather – only the wrong clothes”, he also said “there are two seasons in Scotland: June and Winter”! With this in mind and the Gore-Tex packed it was time for a road trip to see what adventure could be found in the rugged land.
Now it’s easy to romanticise about Scotland, poets and writers have long waxed lyrical about the soft heather covered hills, the craggy, majestic highlands and an atmosphere scented with the ‘angels share’ of perfect single malt whisky. But let us not forget, the highlands of Scotland are a rough and tough place, a hard and remote land, hewn from granite by time and unforgiving weather, and escapades are hard won! But for those seeking adventure, looking to escape the sanitized, waymarked routes and searching for experiences that last long beyond the brief adrenalin spikes of trail centres, the Highlands of Scotland offer a true nirvana. For those who journey through and over its many corries and bealachs the feeling of remoteness, space and emptiness cannot fail to inspire!
Now, it is always great fun getting out on my bike, but after spending too much of the season riding the same home trails and focusing too much on racing, I was starting to lose the buzz! I needed some adventure and with a clear window in the weather a plan was quickly made! After rounding up a crew of buddies on a chilly morning we loaded our bikes, camping gear, ‘big day out’ clothing and handfuls of OS maps into the back of the van! A couple of coffees later and we hit the road, our target, the highlands! With chosen destinations sounding like Tolkien creations, magical names that ring out in the outdoor community, names like Skye, Torridon and Glencoe we knew we were in for something special.
Driving through the Highlands, the first thing that hits you of course is the amazing scenery, but for anyone used to the touristy Lake District the second soon becomes startlingly apparent, there is just nobody there! Andy Barlow from DirtSchool once quoted “you could bury a body out here and totally get away with it” and he is totally right! We drove for hours seeing hardly a soul, small villages leapt past the windows to leave us once again in sprawling moorland, overshadowed by gentle peaks
Arriving at our first destination we first sniffed out the essential bakery to load up on supplies and snacks for the day ahead. Like any rewarding adventure, big mountain rides in Scotland require proper equipment, planning and provisions. With many routes heading far from civilization, you need to up your game from a ‘trail centre’ mindset, understanding navigation is essential, you also need to look after your bike and keep a weather eye on the horizon! But with a dash of experience and enthusiasm, our bikes can carry us far into the remote wilderness!
Highland riding is unique and offers many different challenges to riders who have got into the sport over the last 5 years, perhaps the PlayStation generation of bikers, used to lift assisted bike parks offering on tap adrenalin, waymarked trails and high speed thrills. Those of us a bit longer in the tooth served our apprenticeship in the hills, on rubbish bikes and often rubbish trails. Anyone new to biking may have never experienced the bitter joy of shouldering a bike and toiling up a rugged boulder strewn track, fighting for grip and breath. Those used to manicured trails and high speed may at first find the impassible sections and blocked terrain frustrating! But the moment you summit over the top of a hard won ridge, with the ground ahead falling away to the horizon with only a sinuous impression of a trail as a guide, I dare you not to be struck with joy, this is real mountain biking and what our bikes were built for!
There are few outdoor enthusiasts around the world that have not heard of Scotland, forged on its outdoor heritage and gifted with the most welcoming access laws for bikers! The Scottish Outdoor Access Code states that in exchange for acting courteously, leaving no trace and minimizing impacts, mountain bikers are given the freedom of the realm, permitted to travel on any path and generally have fun in a responsible manner. This proactive approach should serve as a role model to the rest of the world!
This unique opportunity also permits wild camping, and is the reason we found ourselves pitching camp by a fantastic loch, far from anything that would remind us of our tarmac world. With the phones turned off and Facebook a memory, it was a great chance to catch up with friends over the fire. In fact, I would go as far as to say that there is simply no more fitting end to a long day in the hills than sitting round a camp fire, chewing the fat and indulging a wee spot of single malt, before retiring to the warmth of a down filled cocoon!
I can however, think of better ways to spend a morning! Waking to the familiar Scottish drum role of rain on the canvas, bleary faces peek out of damp, whisky-breath and dog fart filled tents. Stumbling around in the wet grass, to find that soaking shoe that got left out, each of us locked in an internal battle with the thought of soldiering on with the plain porridge and damp stove, or chucking all the gear back in the van and heading off to seek warmth and a full cooked breakfast!
After a full cooked breakfast and coffee we were ready to take on an incredible loop around Skye! The Isle of Skyes peninsulas radiate out from a mountainous heart dominated by the Cuillins, providing some of the most dramatic and challenging mountain terrain in Scotland and attracting outdoor enthusiasts for generations. We had a big day planned with a loop around the Sligachan Trail to start then a big loop round the exposed Quiraing.
The Sligachan trail was a nice trip, not quite the challenge we had hoped, but more of an old school ride. We could certainly not complain about the scenery, with the imposing Cuillins dominating the skyline and giving the ride a timeless feel! But the many tyre marks on the ground and easy trail distill out some of the feeling of discovery and excitement. If you like your epic scenery, then you will not go far wrong here, but for me the true adventure looked to be by boot and rope up high on the Cullin Ridge!
Feeling like we had something left to give, we headed up to the north of the island to ride a loop of the Quiraing. It was adventure we were seeking, and adventure we certainly found as we wound our way beneath the rock formations of ‘the table’, ‘the needle’ and ‘the prison’! Precipitous drops to our right focussed our minds and every now and again we would come to a Hans-no-no-way-Ray section, passing disbelieving walkers (you always have to ride past hikers right?) we summoned the nerve to wobble our way over the precipitous terrain! The scenery was immense and the trail, although short was epic!
Now, no story about summer in Scotland would be complete without addressing the big fat elephant in the room, the dreaded midge. I have been around the world a bit and have encountered some pretty industrial sized insects, some that can sting, some that can bite and some big enough to steal your wallet, but never have I encountered a beast as persistent as the humble Scottish midge. On an overcast day in Skye we were to encounter the midge in all its glory! Starting off as quite a comical situation, with no cover in sight realization soon dawned of the peril of our situation, the instant we stopped a black cloud would engulf our heads and even the most stoic would soon be reduced to panicked wind milling and careening around.
Nowhere is safe and after strong words had been exchanged, we found the best solution was to conduct the rest of the evening at speed, even dinner was consumed walking swiftly around! As long as you keep moving fast enough to outrun them the problem disappears, a slow moving shadow in pursuit the only reminder. Midges are photosensitive so try and keep in the sun, but there is another solution, knowledge handed from explorer to explorer, THE best tip is to forget about all the super strong jungle formula sprays (Scottish midges eat that stuff for breakfast) and try and find some “Avon Skin So Soft” moisturizer, the midges hate it and it will save your sanity!
Having our fill of Skye we hit the road and picked our way back South past beautiful castles, and over the most inspirational piece of Tarmac in the world, Bealach Na Ba! Where we dined on seafood with strangers, broke down, rode perhaps the best section of granite trail in the world, and almost made a big mistake! But that’s a story for another day!
This is perhaps the point where we start talking about routes, about places to ride! But like a good suspense film why spoil the surprise? The internet is full of excellent routes and guides, we live in a world of GPS and GoPro footage, and almost every last secret of our land has been revealed! But the beauty of Scotland is that armed with a map, a compass and the right gear you can find your own adventure. That perfect singletrack may be just one more ridge away! If you feel as though your riding has stagnated and the buzz is fading, wherever you are in the world, get out the maps and get a crew together! I bet adventure is closer than you think!
Words and photos: Trev Worsey