Cycling Scotland

Cycling Scotland 2016

It had been 15 years since I was last in the UK as a young 20 year old with bright eyes and plenty of naivety. This time I came to this majestic land with a bit of a shield up, expecting pick-pocketers, annoyance for travelers, and a preparedness for a place to not necessarily be very welcoming to strangers. I soon learned that I was wasting my time with all of those feelings because nothing could have been further from the truth.

The Scots we encountered were the kindest, most welcoming people I think I have ever met in my life. We had free hot showers in Ullapool, the lone pub on the Isle of Lewis opened up early for us to have a hot lunch, train attendants made sure we had enough time to get our bicycles on and off, B&B owners practically convinced us to move and open our own place, and stranger after stranger greeted us with a kind hello and a wide berth on winding roads. We've been filled with Scottish hospitality and it was incredibly difficult to say goodbye.

Getting ready to board the Heathrow Express with our bikes!

Getting ready to board the Heathrow Express with our bikes!

This was my first long haul bicycle trip and now I finally understand why Tom continues his year after year. It is an amazing way to see the country side, meet incredible like minded people, and truly take the time to absorb everything that is around you. Its something you can't experience in hotels or at resorts, I almost feel like I've missed so much before. Its an amazing sense of accomplishment pulling into a new campsite for the night, tired and sweaty, but oh the things you've seen, using the last of your will power to set up a tent and make a quick meal, tucking into your sleeping bag for the night and sharing a wee dram of whisky before you fall into a dead sleep. Then wake to the sun rise in a tiny part of the world only some people have seen, while the rest fly by on their tour bus or rental car. We had conversations with couples also touring on their bicycles, met a pub owner who was willing to trade our home in San Francisco for his pub and B&B on the Isle of Lewis (something we almost agreed to!), had a wonderful chat with an 85 year old man on a train who had just completed walking The West Highland Way, a 96 mile path through the Highlands, made friends with a group of fellow bar goers at Edinburgh Waverley waiting for a midnight train back to London, and were greeted with smile after smile. Scotland is now part of our family and perhaps our long lost love.

The Route

Scotland 2016 Cycle Route

Scotland 2016 Cycle Route

Our official trip was a bit modified as we cycled, but the main bones of the plan stayed the same.

Inverness to Ullapool

We arrived in Inverness on Virgin East Coast Trains after a magnificent eight hour trek from London Kings Cross up the eastern side of England, through Edinburgh and the Cairngorms National Park. Luckily our hotel was right next to the train station so all we had to do was go out one door and in the other. We stayed at The Royal Highland Hotel and absolutely loved its charm (and full vegetarian Scottish breakfast the next morning).

Arriving in Inverness

Arriving in Inverness

The Royal Highland Hotel, Inverness

The Royal Highland Hotel, Inverness

The next morning we set out of town and began the day with an almost crystal clear blue sky, sunshine, and gentle breeze - it was ridiculous how amazing the weather was.

Our first day of riding began with impeccable weather

Our first day of riding began with impeccable weather

We cycled the Scottish Cycle Network for the first few hours getting out of town and were able to stay off the roads and mostly rode on cycle paths. Overall we managed about 30-35 miles a day, much less than Tom's usual trips where he averaged between 50-60 miles, but we took it slower for me, which I was greatly appreciative for.

As our first day started to wind down we planned on finding a spot on the side of the road to wild camp. Wild camping in Scotland is permitted as long as you clean up after yourself and leave no trace. I was starting to get a little tired and worried as we continued to cycle past boggy fields and fences not sure if we were actually going to find somewhere to pitch our tent, but suddenly I looked left and saw a wooden bridge built over the river we were riding next to and decided to turn down it away from the road in hopes of finding a campsite. And voile! There was a perfect spot tucked behind a line of trees just waiting for us.

Night 1 - Somewhere between Inverness and Ullapool

Night 1 - Somewhere between Inverness and Ullapool

Wild camping near The Black River

Wild camping near The Black River

One of the most amazing things about this trip was that it seemed like any time we needed something, a place to camp, somewhere to store our bikes, the rain to stop - it happened. We needed a campsite, and suddenly there it was. Personally I'm starting to believe that the entire country of Scotland is just one giant Room of Requirement.

As much as we were dumbfounded by how beautiful our surroundings were, we suddenly were introduced to the one thing Scotland has against them - The Midge.

Oh the Midges

I had read about the terrible midges in Scotland before we came, but never thought much of it - I grew up in Wisconsin where mosquitos were the state bird so it was hard to believe there could be anything worse. Oh the midges. Midges are gnat like insects that swarm and bite through clothing. They love dusk and dawn and wet surrounds. A perfect recipe for our campsite that night.

See those little black specks - those are midges, and those are only a few of what we encountered

See those little black specks - those are midges, and those are only a few of what we encountered

The next morning we were swarmed as we tried to pack up the tent. There was no time for bathroom breaks or coffee and we rode out of there as fast as we possibly could.

We had hoped to stop for breakfast along our last 31 miles to Ullapool, but the only restaurant was closed due to a power failure, so I picked up the pace as best I could and we headed straight for Ullapool. After a few hours we saw the sea coming into view and we knew Ullapool would soon be around the bend.

Ullapool is a wonderful village on the sea. The main street is lined with shops and restaurants and leads to the ferry terminal. We stopped for lunch and a grocery store run before continuing three more miles up and over to Ardmair Point where we 'd be camping for the night.

The last climb up and over to Ardmair Point was steep and exhausting, but totally worth it. The beautiful caravan park has a tiny store, FREE hot showers, paid laundry, a kitchen with running water, and one of the most magnificent views I've seen.

Ardmair Point

Ardmair Point

We got into camp in the early afternoon so had time for a long hot shower, laundry, and a relaxed lounge before our first evening of rain came through. At this point we had been traveling for about five days and our reaction to everything we came across and saw soon became this:

The rain began again and we fell asleep to the steady drops on our tent ceiling. We woke early, the rain still falling and started to pack up as quickly as we could. All of the rain gear we brought was about to come in handy, and as we started to get dressed in our rain pants, shoes, jackets, and helmet covers, the rain suddenly stopped. Again, Scotland seemed to sense what we needed, and a brief delay in the rain happened as we finished packing up camp. It started up again as we rode out of Ardmair Point and continued until we got into Ullapool and boarded the ferry to Stornoway.

The Isle of Lewis and Harris

The ferry to Stornoway is a massive ship that carried pedestrians, cyclists, cars, caravans, buses, and semi truck trailers. I wasn't sure what to expect, but when I saw the ship pulling into port I was shocked to see the size of it.

CalMac Ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway

CalMac Ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway

Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries are amazing. They service the outlying islands of Scotland many with multiple services throughout the day. We rode on the MV Loch Seaforth, specifically built for the crossing to Stornoway. It was super affordable - our tickets for the two and a half hour ride to Stornoway were $25 for the two of us. This ship also has two restaurants, a gift shop, is dog friendly, has an outside viewing area, an inside front of the ship viewing area with glass windows from one side to the next, comfortable seating - we lounged at a table setting next to a window, and was an incredibly smooth ride. The ferry crew led the cyclists on the ship first to secure our bikes before the cars, caravans, and semi trucks followed.

Securing our bikes on the MV Loch Seaforth for the crossing to Stornoway

Securing our bikes on the MV Loch Seaforth for the crossing to Stornoway

It was a very relaxing way to cross over to the Outer Hebrides and as we said goodbye to mainland Scotland our adventure was about to continue on to more breathtaking scenery and amazing people.

Crossing the sea to Stornoway

Crossing the sea to Stornoway

Callanish Standing Stones

Once we landed in Stornoway we started cycling west to see the Callanish Standing Stones. We began our ride on rolling hills with water every where we could see, tall grasses, and an incredibly difficult side wind blowing us into traffic.

It was a 17 mile ride to the Standing Stones and probably one of the most difficult we had. We had to continually try and ride into the wind to the left because we were being blown to the right into traffic - luckily there wasn't much traffic and all the cars and buses gave us a wide berth as they went around us, but I felt like I was riding through sludge for over two hours. By time we got to the stones we were exhausted, incredibly hungry, and wondering if it really was worth it. 

The Callanish Standing Stones has a visitor center with a full kitchen so after Tom and I ordered almost everything on the menu and ate it within 10 minutes, we started to feel better and soon realized where we were.

Unlike Stonehenge in England, the Callanish Stones are available to visitors for free and unlike Stonehenge we got to walk among the stones and actually touch them. It was an amazing experience and we then realized it was absolutely worth our struggle to make it out to see them.

The stones stand in the middle of a huge open area, a few lochs surrounding them, sheep wandering the hills, and miles and miles of tall Scottish grass. Being so close to these 5000 year old giants was one of the highlights of this adventure.

We had seen a spot to camp about eight miles in the direction we came from, so once we were ready to leave we headed back out into the wind. The Scottish Fairies were on our side and our side wind turned into a tail wind and it was one of the best eight mile rides of my life!

We camped on the side of a road next to a loch and once the sun started to set the traffic died down and it felt like we had the entire island to ourselves.

The next morning we slept late, finally getting up around 9am. We packed up inside and as soon as we unzipped the tent doors it was the attack of the midges. We pulled our buffs up and over our noses, but the midges refused to relent and were in our eyes and ears, biting down our arms and legs, and covering our bicycles. It ended up getting a little traumatic as we started swallowing mouthfuls and Tom yelled to me to get out and just start riding and he'd catch up. Oh the midges. Once we finally got back on the road we were fine, but it was another no bathroom no breakfast morning for the ten or so miles back on the road. Thankfully the beauty of the Isle of Lewis distracted us from any bathroom needs or hunger pains we had.

The Isle of Lewis and Harris is technically split in two - the northern part with Stornoway is the Isle of Lewis and the southern part with Tarbert is the Isle of Harris. Stornoway and Tarbert are the two main towns with pretty much nothing in between, so when we saw a sign for the Loch Erisort Inn with a full pub and restaurant we diverted off the road for about a mile in search for hot food. Tom pulled in ahead of me and noticed the pub appeared to be closed, it was before noon and lunch is not usually served before then in the UK. Luckily, the owner of the Inn saw us (probably looking incredibly hungry) and opened the pub up for us an hour early so we could come inside. He and his wife had owned the pub for over 30 years and were hoping to retire soon and as they treated us a wonderful lunch they almost convinced us to take over ownership, and had we had an extra minute to think about it I think we would have.

After a hot meal, we continued on our way south towards Tarbert. The Isle of Lewis and Harris is absolutely stunning with its rolling hills, and mountains building in the south. Its very quiet, peaceful, and less visited so the roads are mostly empty and people are incredible.

We had a wonderful afternoon of riding until we crossed over into the Isle of Harris and saw the massive four mile climb with switchbacks we had ahead of us. Thankfully the scenery was incredible enough to distract me from the burning in my legs as I slowly made my way up it.

The final climb into Harris

The final climb into Harris

After our climb up and over we had a steady downhill for almost five miles into the town of Tarbert where we'd catch our ferry over to the Isle of Skye. We arrived into town around 4pm and our ferry didn't leave until 9:30pm so we had plenty of time to find some dinner, drinks, and to wind down from the long few days we had.

Tarbert has a lot of little restaurants and inns near the ferry terminal and after we filled up at the Hotel Hebrides we moved on to the ferry terminal to wait for our night time ride. The restrooms were immaculate and we were able to clean ourselves up and change into new clothes during our layover. Another amazing thing about being in Scotland was that we never worried about someone stealing our bicycles. First of all they were incredibly heavy and it would take a lot of work to get one off without us noticing, but secondly, people were incredibly kind and trusting, and once we realized that we were able to leave our bikes fully loaded outside of buildings and not worry about them going missing when we returned.

The Tarbert ferry terminal also hosts smaller cruise ships that go between the islands and while we were waiting for our ferry another small ship was loading for their next journey and one of the chefs onboard saw Tom and I with our bikes. A few minutes later he came down from the ship and into the terminal with two large containers of freshly made curry for us. He told us he has a friend that cycles a lot and knew he was always hungry so wanted to make sure we weren't going hungry on our trip. I couldn't believe the kindness of the people around us and was completely touched by his generosity. So we had a second dinner that night and after the last few days of long rides we more than happily ate everything.

By time we got on the MV Hebrides to head Uig on Skye we were wiped. It was a little over an hour and a half ride, and we passed the time by sampling some of the whisky they had from their bar, including a delicious Oban 14 which was featured that night.

We arrived in Skye well after dark, porting at 10:45pm, and cycling with our lights on just around the corner from the terminal to the Uig Bay Campsite. There were a few of us from the ferry setting up in the dark that night and our campsite host told us not to worry about paying until the next morning. Again there was complete trust that we would all be honest and return to pay in the morning - after coming from a world that is skeptical of others' honesty it was incredibly refreshing to be treated so well. I immediately fell asleep as soon as my head hit my pillow and the next morning woke to an amazing view I had missed in the dark.

Isle of Skye

Everyone says the Isle of Skye is unlike any other place you've ever been, and after spending two days there I completely agree. The tall mountains, the endless fields of heather, the waterfalls everywhere you look, it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. We rode for a few hours in the morning and headed for Portree, the capital of Skye. After a break for lunch we decided to give ourselves a rest from camping and booked a night at a B&B called The Sconser Lodge. It was a much needed pampering that included a hot shower, a soft bed, an amazing dinner, and a fantastic evening with the owners and fellow guests.

The next morning we felt completely rejuvenated and made our way south towards Armadale to catch our last ferry back to mainland Scotland. As we continued to ride a slight sadness started to creep in knowing we'd be leaving the Hebrides and slowly making our way back towards civilization. I had grown accustomed to being on my bicycle, feeling the cold wind in my face and sun on my back and I wasn't ready to change out of my new found way of life.

We made it to Armadale in good time and caught the ferry just as it was boarding. The ferry service between Armadale and Mallaig runs several times a day since its only about a 40 minute crossing. We quickly rushed on board and soon were setting sail from Skye back to Scotland and again a bit of sadness washed over me.

We arrived in Mallaig just as the rain started to fall. The weather had changed from our warm sunny days to cooler, windy, and wet conditions and we found shelter in a warm restaurant and again ate almost everything on their menu. We had prebooked a train to Fort William from Mallaig, but had arrived so early we had almost four hours to kill. Little did we know that the Jacobite Express, aka The Harry Potter train, started in Mallaig for its trip to Fort William. While we didn't purchase tickets to ride the train, we did enjoy watching its passengers excitedly board.

Thankfully ScotRail has a fantastic system and we were able to catch an earlier train to Fort William and boarded our bikes just as the rain started to fall heavily. While we were waiting to board we met another Scottish woman who lives in Oban and was out touring on her bike (and had passed us a few times during our ride down to Armadale). We shared cycling stories and she gave us a few tips about our next trip back. We also met a lovely couple and their spaniel who was able to ride the train with them, free of charge, and without a kennel. The UK is incredibly dog friendly and it really made us miss Bailey!

The train ride east to Fort William was beautiful and we even crossed the Glenfinnan Viaduct, aka The Harry Potter Bridge (can you tell we're big Harry Potter fans?). Yet another highlight of the trip!

Crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct, also known as The Harry Potter bridge!

Crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct, also known as The Harry Potter bridge!

While the rain held off while we were cycling it continued as we pulled into Fort William. Luckily we were staying directly across the train station at the Alexandra Hotel so we had a very little way to go. We checked in, left our bicycles with the porter and set out on foot for the first time in almost two weeks.

Fort William

We decided to spend two days in Fort William, taking a break from cycling with all of our gear. We did, however, spend the full next day cycling around Fort William without loaded panniers and it was glorious! The rain from the night before cleared and we had yet another stunning day.

Fort William

Fort William

Fort William is the outdoors capital of Scotland. It is home to Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK standing at 4,411 feet. It hosts a ski hill in the winter, a mountain bike park in the summer, and gondola rides all year long. We cycled from the town to the base of the mountain and visitor center where we spent part of the day and made sure to ride the gondola to the top of the mountain.

Ben Nevis is also the ending point for The West Highland Way, a 96 mile journey from Milngavie through Loch Lomond and Glencoe. We saw many backpackers strolling through town, most looking worn and exhausted, but completely satisfied with what they had just accomplished. Once we heard about The West Highland Way we knew we'd have to return one day to complete the trek.

Just outside Fort William between the town and Ben Nevis is the Ben Nevis Distillery. We had little time to stop at other distilleries while we had been cycling so we decided to get a tasting in while we could. The distillery has planned tours and no set tastings, but since we only came in for a tasting they were nice enough to bring us inside to sample one of their whiskies.

Fort William also has a beautiful High Street full of shops and restaurants with almost every kind of outdoor supply you may need. It is a wonderful place and I would recommend it to anyone visiting.

Crainlarich

We had planned on cycling to Oban from Fort William, but decided to change our trip and take a train to the Cairngorms National Park. Tom had found a wonderful place to stay about four miles from the train station in Crainlarich so we bought tickets that morning on hopped on the train. It was a beautiful ride along a lot of The West Highland Way and it was during this ride that we met a wonderful 85 year old man who had just finished walking the WHW. He told us about his many cycling trips he had taken through France and how if you don't use it, you lose it. A wonderful soul that only Tom and I can hope we can be like when we're in our 80s.

We got off the train in the tiny village of Crainlarich and just as we started to cycle out of town the rain came down in buckets. Luckily we only had about four miles to ride through the National Park until we got to the Strathfillan Wigwam Village.

Strathfillan Wigwams

Strathfillan Wigwams

Positioned on the path of The West Highland Way, the Strathfillan Wigwam Village hosts several wigwams, lodges, yurts, and a field for camping. They have a small farm, shop, showers and bathrooms, laundry, and an indoor cooking facility for visitors. The rain continued as we arrived, but we didn't care - soon we were tucked into our cozy wigwam (complete with heater AND electricity) and were enjoying every minute of our luxury.

The rain came and went and sun peaked out from time to time. We did a bit more laundry, made some food in the kitchen, and as night came and more rain fell we snuggled in for a super cozy evening and were incredibly thankful for being dry and off the ground.

The next morning we cycled back into town and stopped at a pub for lunch before getting back on the train and finishing up our adventure in Edinburgh. As we rode the train first south to Glasgow and then to Edinburgh we were sad about leaving the Highlands and this part of Scotland that had become our temporary home. The mountains shrank and the wide open fields became more cluttered with houses and businesses and we let out a slow exhale as we made our return to civilization.

Edinburgh

We had two nights and one full day in Edinburgh and we were thankful that if we had to return to a big city, at least it was Edinburgh. Edinburgh is a wonderful, lively, yet friendly and relaxed city. We stayed on the High Street, in the middle between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood House and enjoyed being the middle of all the bustle of activity. 

It was still a little shell shocking to be back in a big city and all we really wanted to do was hop on the train and head back north, but we knew our trip was coming to an end and tried to embrace every day no matter where we were. That being said I absolutely loved Edinburgh and could have easily spent months there.

That night we took the Caledonian Sleeper Train down to London. The train didn't leave until 11:50pm and most of Edinburgh closes at 8pm, so we spent our last few hours in the city hanging out at the only bar at the train station making friends with some locals sharing glasses of wine, pints of beer, and stories of adventure. Something we never really would have done if we had continued on in an organized tour or stayed at a hotel. By straying from the usual path of travel we were able to meet some incredible people and share some amazing stories.

London

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again. And then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
- William Shakespeare, The Tempest

We arrived in London around 6:45am on a Saturday morning and felt like we had just woken up from an amazing dream. Here we were, back where it all started, when we had no idea of what our epic adventure would be like, when we were still fresh and a little naive about Scotland and all its awe and wonder. It was a little difficult to get off the train and head out into the city, but we knew London would also be amazing, just in her own way.

Even though we arrived in London so early that Saturday we weren't allowed to take our bicycles on the Victoria line down to where we'd be staying for the weekend, so for the last time, we got on our bicycles and rode through London. Initially I was terrified. I lived in London for a semester in college and knew what the traffic was like and under no circumstances was I going to ride a bicycle in the city. Well, we had to, and let me say, it was amazing.

We rode from Euston Station past The British Museum, through Covent Garden and Leicester Square, past all the great theatres, and St. Martins-in-the-Fields, through Trafalgar Square, under Admiralty Arch, past St James Park, and around Buckingham Palace. It was quite the good morning and welcome to London!

We stayed at an AirBnB for the weekend and our lovely host Jane let us in at 10am, much earlier than the usual 3pm check in time, so we could refresh, drop off our bikes, and head back into the city for the day. She was absolutely wonderful!

Because I had lived in London in college and Tom had visited before, we didn't feel the need to hit all the tourist attractions. We were happy wandering around town, visiting our old haunts, the street I used to live on, our favorite pubs and my favorite restaurant, Wagamama, and all our old stomping grounds. We did make sure we took in a little theatre seeing the short run play, The Entertainer, which was definitely the highlight of being in London.

We ended up walking 13 miles on our last day in London, just wandering the streets and checking out all the amazing things the city has to offer. Then, we packed up, made our way back to the Heathrow Express and back to the airport hotel to break down our bikes and pack up to go home.

Scotland was absolutely incredible. It was beautiful, relaxing, challenging, peaceful, and awe inspiring. My soul felt rejuvenated and my spirit was awakened. Cycling through forests and lochs, over seas and hills, was one of the best ways to see the country. We didn't pass through town after town and visit gift shop after gift shop, we drank from its springs, breathed in its air, and fully absorbed the land and its people. The trip was life changing, and I can't wait to return and do it all over again.

Till all the seas gone dry, my dear
And the rocks melt with the sun
And I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands of life shall run.
And fare thee well my only Love!
And fare thee well, awhile!
And I come again, my love,
Tho' 'twere ten thousands miles.
- Robert Burns
Cycling Scotland