Whisky, Weather and Wonderment

A six-week bicycle journey in the Scottish Highlands with Kim Jones

The boathouse at Loch Choire

Kim Jones’ bike ride this month is in the Scottish Highlands – there is no route – if you want to follow in his tyre tracks you will have to be like Kim and follow your nose

Don’t move Jones, stay still, stay absolutely still. And I do, not even daring to breathe, though I want to scream. Almost to the minute, almost the exact same time as yesterday, except this evening I am sitting on the step of the Bothy embracing an absolute sense of contentment. It has been a good day, we’ve swum naked amongst the wild Atlantic breakers, drunk copious amounts of tea, gorged and rested our weary bodies and now are blessed with the most magnificent of sunsets. Life doesn’t get much better.

She stops grazing and lifts her head, a quizzical look in her deep brown eyes, surely now she will take flight. But no, incredibly she tilts her head and takes a small step forward, perhaps to check my scent (I’m clean after my swim, the first time for days!). Now only a mere two metres away from me surely all her instincts must be telling her to run, yet for some reason she doesn’t see me as a threat and resumes her feeding. And so I stay seated, my back leant against the Bothy door breathing again; then to my absolute astonishment the stag wanders over, a magnificent mature beast, heavily muscled and in his prime. Now I am slightly nervous for this is the rut and I’d seen him challenged the previous evening, bellowing and charging he ran at the young imposter who stood no chance. This could be interesting and I stop breathing again as he saunters over to the hind, his eyes locked on mine, not menacing, just dominant. For a brief moment I think of leaping to my feet and going back into the Bothy, but no I want to see this out. He gently approaches her, disturbing her grazing by rubbing her neck with his snout, guiding her away from me, back to his herd. And as they walk away he turns, giving me one last look and I bow my head. WOW!!!!! And that is why I ride my bike, not to be fitter or faster, not for ever greater distances and certainly not for strava times, throw the blessed thing away and look up instead of down. No, for the places it takes me, the people I meet along the way and the experiences with nature, priceless, absolutely priceless.

A bike trip that begins from your home feels different, no it is different for when you lock the door you’re not just closing the door to your house but on an aspect of your life that is at variance from the one you are about to experience. No more the routine of a morning alarm call and a ‘normal’ life, knowing what the day will bring and a fair idea of what to expect; this is very different, a new view around every corner, only a vague thought as to where you will spend the night and absolutely no idea of what is in store for you. I admit it’s not for every-body, but, talk to anyone who lives this life and you’ll see a sparkle in their eyes when they recount their trips.

This one is six weeks (they seem to be getting longer every time, I can’t think why!). I’d kicked ideas around of various places but they all involved flights, and I wanted an adventure that started and ended at my front door. The Scottish Highlands have everything a wandering cyclist could wish for, open access, miles and miles of off-road riding, detailed maps and of course, Bothies. So, the train was booked to Paddington and the sleeper from Euston to Inverness.

On the way to Brora

I pushed the bike through the gate, slung my leg over the saddle and pedalled off the drive. I wobbled a little before finding my rhythm, a loaded bike handles so differently, and then I was on my way. That day I cycled to Brecon where I spent the night before moving on to Hereford the following morning and a train to Paddington. A quick spirited dash across town to Euston dodging the traffic along the way and soon we were tucked in our bunks oblivious of the world passing by.

Inverness was cold, grey and damp and I was keen to leave and start the journey proper. Riding on tarmac brings no joy for me; it feels unnatural under my knobbly tyres which rumble in protest. Alien to its surroundings, its surface smooth and ordered, not random, its scent unpleasant and alien, it encourages rapid travel, making us ignorant of the world around as we speed by. For the moment though, I am grateful for it as we head up the busy A9 to Brora where finally we can leave the road and head off into the hills. After a rather splendid breakfast in Golspie, we turn off earlier than planned and are finally off the tarmac.

The plan was to ride off road as much as possible (again with no precise route in mind) and to this end I had brought eleven maps with me and was to buy another four as the trip went on. The first night in the tent probably set the scene for the remainder of the trip, supper cooked under the skies accompanied by the roaring and bellowing of the stags in the surrounding hills. They really are magnificent animals and I simply cannot understand why someone would want to shoot one simply to have the antlers as a trophy. One of the estate bothies we passed had an entry in the book which read: “Great day today, shot a six pointer. Wolfgang”. Now I suspect Wolfgang drives a rather large BMW and has a very small penis.

A lone tree – with a deer shaped branch – on the banks of Loch Choire

Though it is unfair of me to tar everyone with the same brush for we shared what turned out to be a rather drunken evening with five Scottish lads and a retired army officer who every year for the last twenty years have a week’s stalking in the Scottish hills. Having spent the evening with them I learnt that usually that’s all it is for them, just stalking. Following one of their nights they could no more shoot a barn door let alone a stag a hundred metres away! Now there’s a story here.

The day before we arrived at the pub had been particularly long and arduous involving several river crossings and a lot of pushing. However, the weather was in our favour and we were blessed with sun and translucent blue skies. It was going to be a tent night but to our absolute joy after ten hours in the hills we came across an unlocked estate Bothy. It was well stocked with wood and after a cold swim in the loch we feasted on the plentiful supply of provisions we had between us.

The weather closed in overnight, the wind threatening to lift the roof and the following morning brought more rain and wind. We had another watershed crossing and a prolonged cycle on a rather vague track through the Glen with nature at her most petulant and wet. We were expecting an uncomfortable night in the tent having been told by a game keeper the previous day the pub was closed, but luck was on our side and when we arrived it was in fact open.

The remote Crask Inn had been up for sale unsuccessfully for some time and the couple who owned it decided in the end to gift it to the local church on the one condition that it stayed open as a pub. Above the door that takes you into the lounge is a sign welcoming you to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland! Now it just so happens that when we arrived, the couple who normally run the pub were away and instead it was being looked after by Neil, a GP friend of theirs from Edinburgh. Of course, this had all the ingredients for a truly entertaining evening. Rounds of doubles were bought by Robbie, stories were told by all and there was much merriment. Half way through the evening we were joined by an American couple who were soon on board with the revelry. By the end of the evening we had demolished dozens of pints of ale and four bottles of whisky. Robbie was so drunk he was unable to type in his pin number for the payment of the last round, instead mumbling the number to Neil behind the bar in an accent only a true Scott could decipher.  As drunk as he was though it didn’t stop him getting behind the wheel of his landy and (hopefully) driving them all to the lodge. “Ach Kim, there’s no polis up here!”

That evening will stay with me for a long time, the generosity and friendship of complete strangers once again falling my way.

Kearvaig Bothy on Cape Wrath

The next week or so saw us travelling deeper into the hills as we headed north west towards Cape Wrath often getting side-tracked along the way by Bothies or some wonderful double track, ‘I wonder where that goes?’ was a thought that often crossed my mind which then having consulted the map led us into more spectacular scenery and again added to the joy of the trip.

The Scottish Highlands are different to the rest of the UK, they feel different, there’s still that sense of remote-ness and wilderness here. And whilst I have no political views either way, I fully understand how a proud Scott standing alone in a remote Glen closer to the Arctic Circle than Westminster would want independence and his country back.

That week threw all sorts of weather at us, some days we were riding in full waterproofs whilst others found us cycling in shorts and tea shirts. One particular night we spent in Strabeg Bothy (left) we awoke to find the stream had risen over fifty centimetres overnight, which led, purely out of necessity, to me rediscovering my youthful skills as a long jumper.  That day we choose to hit the tarmac and head for Durness, in need of a new tyre after managing to shred a rear on the sharp flint track. The botched toothpaste tube repair was holding out well but rather than push our luck, and in need of a warm water wash we booked into a Hostel.

Now I’m a great advocate of ‘support your local shop’ but needs must and with the nearest bike shop back in Inverness we ordered a tyre on-line, guaranteed next day delivery. Well it would have been if we’d been anywhere else in the UK (I told you Scotland was different), but no, a phone call to the courier and we were going to have to wait three days. Durness is one of those places that still has a wonderful sense of community, not in an intrusive way, for it has a helpful, caring and supportive feel to it, certainly out of season anyway. We called into the cafe on our approach where we had a good breakfast which was interrupted when the lady apologised for she had to go out and would we mind leaving the money on the counter when we had finished!

If someone is going to Inverness, word is sent around the village and a shopping list compiled. Now it just so happened that Robbie’s (another Robbie) friend was going to Inverness the following day and offered to collect a tyre for us. Splendid, the online order was cancelled, the shop rung and the tyre paid for.

That left us with an enforced rest day and the opportunity to catch up with some trip admin and also a chance to spend time with the other hostel dwellers. It always surprises how friendships formed on trips often become long lasting. Perhaps it’s both common interests and personalities and maybe even force of circumstances. There were some real characters here, some of whom have become friends. One, an Australian named Gail, has turned out to be a source for the House of Lords wine which just happens to be very palatable.

Cape Wrath the north western tip of Scotland is only accessible from the east by ferry or a rather long walk which is totally impractical with a loaded bike. Unfortunately for us the ferry had stopped for the season, but through another chance encounter we were given the telephone number of someone ‘who might be able to help’. And so it was that two cyclists, a fisherman and two fully loaded bikes crossed the Kyle of Durness in a Force 5 in a three metre rowing boat with only a small engine. This was on a Thursday and as he dropped us off Malcolm told us he wouldn’t be back until Sunday afternoon, apparently there was a wedding. We were so excited about having the opportunity of spending some time there it hadn’t crossed our minds as to how we would get back or indeed how long we would stay. Now our hand had been forced and with barely enough food for two days let alone four, there would have to be some rationing. On the track over to Kervaig Bothy we met the chap who lives by the lighthouse (he was going to the same wedding) so we now found ourselves in the rather enviable position of having the whole of the Cape, and the Bothy to ourselves for four days.

This is where I had the magical encounter with the deer and where we laid out the maps and outlined a possible route for the next week.

A very gusty Sandwood Bay with its famous stack, just down the west coast from Cape Wrath

It was time to turn south, away from the great cliffs of the Cape, known to the Vikings as Hvarf which means ‘turning point’. The west coast is home to many hidden bays, with tales of mermaids and selkies and of course to the Outer Hebrides and the Isle of Harris and Lewis with their amazing white sandy beaches. Though we failed to make it out to these islands we managed a couple of days on Skye, an island transformed by the building of the iconic bridge in the mid-nineties. This perhaps raises the question as to whether Skye is in fact an island as it is now connected to the mainland, albeit by a man-made structure. Having been blessed with three days of glorious sunshine, the weather took a turn and the next week was both wet and windy to the point that I was blown to a standstill on the way into Ullapool.

Coming up from Loch More on the way to Glandhu Bothy with a distant Ben Screavie on the left

Suilven – Scotland’s most iconic mountain. Cloud quickly forming around Suilven. Suileg Bothy – right under Suilven

Along the way we managed some great bothy nights, one beneath Suilven (Suileag Bothy) – Scotland’s most iconic mountain and another in Glendhu within site of the truly impressive hills of Sail Gharbh (elephant hill) and Sail Ghorm. These hills were once thought to be Nunataks, an Inuit word which is used to describe a peak which stands clear of the ice sheet below. However recent studies have disproved this theory and these impressive hills were in fact formed by the carving of massive ice sheets.

I had another Stag encounter there. Glendhu (pictured below) is sited at the westerly end of a beautiful loch filled Glen and as we made our way up the stony track the stag seemed to be following some way above us on the hill, for every few minutes we could hear his bellowing. It was almost nightfall when we arrived at the Bothy and he was still making his presence felt, for the deer come down to the glens every evening and take advantage of the better grazing before returning to the safety of the hills during the day. Later I went down to the stream to wash the pans only to hear him still shuffling around.

The antlers of a mature stag are a formidable weapon indeed and one that has lost his fear of humans can be a very dangerous animal. I’m not sure why, but I felt nervous that evening and hot footed it back inside. That night he kept us awake with his calling and the morning found him just outside the window in full voice.

An estate Bothy

At Ullapool a rest day was declared, two in fact which gave us some much-needed time off the bikes and a chance to indulge ourselves in the delights of this Scottish fishing port. Ullapool dates back to the late eighteenth century and was built up around the herring fishing industry. Thousands of tons of these fish used to swim up the Minch and made ripe pickings, though today those numbers are greatly reduced. Now it is more a tourist town rather than a thriving fishing port, although it is still very active with a variety of shipping. Unusually for a small town it boasts two bookshops and also, a rather fine deli which does excellent coffee and some rather good cakes and pies.

The next few weeks saw us zig zagging across the country from west to east to west and back again which looking back now doesn’t make any sense at all, but at the time we simply just followed our noses and whatever track took our fancy. It really is a great way to immerse yourself into a trip. Stocked up with fresh vegetables we left Ullapool and were to have some of the best riding I think I’ve ever experienced while touring with my bike. In what seemed like the first time for ages we were blessed with a tailwind and despite some atrocious weather for those few days I have never felt so alive. At one point the track was completely submerged by the Loch which was a metre and a half above its normal levels. This led to an interesting, somewhat exciting river crossing.

Leaving Glendu Bothy

Crossing a highland river. Schoolhouse Bothy

View from the Schoolhouse Bothy front door

Sometimes you know what you are about to do is simply just wrong and when we arrived at the river all my instincts told me no, but it was an awful long way to backtrack and well it’s good to live a little. Very tentatively I stepped into the seething, brown water, the bike downstream of me acting as a prop. Whoa! The water was only just over my knees yet still there an immeasurable power. I inched my way across always searching for a firm foothold as the river got deeper. There were one or two ‘moments’ where I just managed to stay up-right, but I made it across to the other side, relived and rather wet. I laid my bike down and went back to help, this time though I wasn’t quite so lucky as midstream we were both swept off our feet and together with the other bike had a rather interesting swim down the river. We eventu-ally made it to the other bank some distance downstream and found ourselves laughing with relief rather than humour. Remarkably the kit had stayed dry, my utmost faith in the Ortlieb dry bags again rewarded. Fortunately, the Old Schoolhouse Bothy (pictured above right) wasn’t too far away, and we soon had our kit hanging up forming small puddles on the floor. Despite the lack of a fire (there is no stove here) we spent a rather cosy night recounting the fantastic riding of the last day and the river crossing, both promising that we would never, ever do something like that again. We had been lucky, very lucky.

The peaks of Kintail Forest

Glen Affic on the way to Camban Bothy

Early morning shot of Camnan Bothy after the night’s snowfall

Later that week the rain turned to snow, and we were caught short by the light in Glen Affric. A cursory glance at the steep valley sides showed the waterfalls on the smaller streams to be frozen. But with only 8km to go I wasn’t overly concerned, being confident that we were following an old drove road and should have no problems making the Bothy (Camban). However, that wasn’t accounting for the temperature plummeting as the darkness set in. The puddles and stream edges soon had a thin layer of ice on them and bizarrely both sets of brakes froze in the open position. To add to the drama the gears also froze. This led to some interesting riding and then to cap it all, after crossing the river the track we were on was nowhere to be seen, buried somewhere under a foot of snow. We mooched about looking for it for ten minutes or so before taking a bearing and pushing for the bothy, now only about 3km away. It was no good though as the snow was too deep, so we cut our losses and returned to a hostel we had passed previously (apparently the most remote Hostel in the UK). Of course, it was closed for the winter but to our utter good fortune they maintain an emergency shelter which is left open all year round. Although the temperature remained below freezing all night we were out of the cold and the snow which had begun to fall.

Old drovers road to Fort Augustas, Loch Ness. The western end of Loch Ness

And so the trip continued until we arrived at Loch Ness and the last two remaining days. What a shock! Apart from the weekly rest days we had been away from civilisation for five and a half weeks and to be confronted by the cacophony of noise, vehicles and people with cameras was too much, so we hot footed down the

Caledonian canal to spend our last night in Glenbuck Bothy (left). Outside was the most magnificent stag I have ever seen. He watched us approach for several minutes and when we were within 50 meters of the Bothy he straightened his back, arched his thick muscled neck and tilted his head emitting a loud, long, deep reverberating sound reminiscent of an alpine horn This was followed with three short, sharp bellows. And then he was gone having disappeared into the night. That’ll do for me.

Without a doubt, physically this was one of the hardest trips I have done, yet it remains one of the best. I’ve been fortunate to have journeyed in many countries on my bike yet keep coming back here. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of Bothy life and the feeling of contentment that brings, or maybe the feeling of wilderness that prevails here, yet I have been to wilder places. The wonderful Ordnance Survey maps too certainly play a part as does the unpredictability of the weather. I think if I had to choose my favourite country to visit, it would be Scotland every time.

 

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