I wake to the sound of rain and wind battering my window; as I lie there I can hear waves pound the coastline. It’s the early hours of Boxing Day morning, only a few days after the winter solstice, and the Scottish winter is biting hard with biblical weather of long nights and short days. I reluctantly peel myself from the warmth and comfort of bed. The house is dark and silent apart from Murphy the dog, who raises his head briefly out of inquisitiveness. Everyone else is dozing in bed, still digesting yesterday’s Christmas feast.
Bleary-eyed, I remember that I’d agreed to meet my mate Miles, as we were both home for Christmas and it was rare we were home at the same time; we wanted to make the most of it and head out for a lap of the trails we grew up riding on, despite the foul weather. We both call the Isle of Arran on the west coast of Scotland home. It’s separated from the Scottish mainland by around fifteen miles of sea, and often dubbed as ‘Scotland in miniature,’ as it seems to cram all of Scotland’s highlights into a tiny sixty-mile radius. It was a great place to grow up and fall in love with mountain biking, until ultimately the bright lights of the mainland drew us away for new adventures.
With dawn beginning to break, I jumped in the car and drove the three miles of farm track and narrow country roads to Miles’s house with the wind whistling outside and leafless branches hanging over the road like the hands of some creepy skeleton.
It had been three years since we’d last ridden together at home, and a lot had changed in that time: passing driving tests, moving away, studying at university… As I pulled up outside his house it immediately felt like I was back in the old routine, and this was quickly confirmed when he opened the door and I was greeted by a smirking facial expression. We were both thinking the same thing: why the hell are we going out riding in this weather?! It’s fair to say we were both very sceptical about how fun the ride would be, as we’d both moved to amazing trail locations, Miles to Fort William in the highlands, and myself on the doorstep of the Tweed Valley. It was too late to pussy out now, so the bikes were launched into the back of his van and we made our way to the bottom of our favourite trail, which straddled its way down the island’s tallest peak, hiding away under a blanket of low-lying cloud.
We were greeted by some rather soggy-looking highland cows who poked their heads over the fence to see what all the commotion was about; unloading quickly, we made for the shelter of the woods. In the depths of the pine forest you could be mistaken for thinking it was nighttime with what little sunlight there was struggling to penetrate the dense canopy swaying in the gale. I grimaced as I struggled my way up the unrelenting gradient trying to hold onto the wheel tracks of Miles, who had clearly been easier on the previous day’s ‘festivities’…. As we approached the edge of the treeline, we stopped for some rest and a last moment of shelter before taking to the open mountainside which was shrouded in mist.
After only a few minutes outside the safety of the trees, we were both soaked to the bone and struggling to maintain body heat. My jacket was waterproof, but apparently not Scottish-proof – is anything? Heads down, we hiked further into the mist, continually buffeted by the unrelenting wind and rain. Passing through the deer fence we would usually be dwarfed by the battleship-grey granite of the mountain range stretching across the vista, but not today. The summit was still two hours’ hiking away, and having passed no hillwalkers all morning we decided that reaching the top wasn’t worth it. Even in perfect conditions it is hard to pick a route off the summit, with high cliffs waiting to punish the unwary.
Instead we pointed our wheels down and headed for home. The trail unfolding out in front of us was super-technical and physical, with careful line choices needed to avoid being pinballed down its series of rock staircases. We made our way round two tight switchbacks before the trail straightened out and speed increased tenfold – that is, until Miles struck his pedal and I watched, waiting for the impact as he wrestled for control, eventually coming to rest having ridden ten metres with his future parenthood buzzing on the rear tyre…. Once I’d stopped laughing and Miles’s pain had abated, we continued, having quickly forgotten about the cold and foul weather we chased each other down the trail, grinning and shouting as we pushed harder and harder through the burly rock gardens. It was amazing – after so long away we’d fallen right back into where we’d left off, and it felt like we had never been away!
Eventually we were spat out of the trail and back to the van. I glanced over to Miles, who was smiling from ear to ear, and I could feel that the expression was definitely mutual. After a fist bump, we joked and laughed about the day’s trials and tribulations, but ultimate success. We were both sodden and chilled to the bone, but we couldn’t care less! Squeezed into the van, we returned to Miles’s house, where the grey smoke puffing from the chimney promised warmth in front of the glowing stove – the perfect end to reminisce about all times old and new.
Change is inevitable in life and can be a good or a bad thing, but sometimes the things you think have changed so much haven’t changed in the slightest; I think you only appreciate home once you have seen some of world and spent time elsewhere. As a teenager growing up in such a small community, where everyone knew everyone, it felt like the water separating me from the mainland was dictating my life. It wasn’t until I moved away that I discovered that it was perhaps a hidden blessing.
Words & Photos: Ross Bell
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