I’m writing these words listening to From Scotland With Love, King Creosote’s (aka Kenny Anderson’s) love letter to his homeland and soundtrack to Virginia Heath’s documentary film of the same name, released to celebrate the start of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Gorgeous and elegiac, it’s also the perfect soundtrack to accompany my recollections of a wonderful few days cycling north of the border…
Following the success of our Way of the Roses trip last summer, this year my son Sam (now 19) and I decide to head even further north, tackling National Cycle Network Route 7 from Glasgow up to Inverness, a 217 mile ride packaged as ‘Lochs & Glens North’ (‘Lochs & Glens South’ being the stretch from Carlisle to Glasgow). It seems a timely choice, given the impending historic vote on independence. Who knows, it may be our last chance – by this time next year Hadrian’s Wall may have been fully re-built…
One Wednesday lunchtime in late July we get the west coast mainline train from London and arrive at Glasgow Central Station around 6pm. The original plan was to have a proper Glaswegian night out before embarking on our journey next morning but this was scuppered by the opening of the Games the day of our arrival. All hotels in the city being either full or prices ramped up to the max, I had booked a B&B 15 miles from where Route 7 starts (ten minutes from the station).
This works out well, enabling us to enjoy a balmy evening of gentle cycling along the towpaths of the River Clyde and the Forth and Clyde Canal, passing places like Partick, Clydebank and (our first night stop) Dumbarton, names that immediately evoke memories of watching the Scottish football results come through on the Grandstand teleprinter on wet Saturday afternoons 40 years ago. There seemed something alluringly romantic about score lines such as Montrose 1, Partick Thistle 1, or Queen of the South 0, Cowdenbeath 2. (Probably like many other people, I’m sure I can recall the fabled announcement of Forfar 5, East Fife 4, but I couldn’t possibly have done as the game took place in January 1964 when I was less than a year old)
Dumbarton is immediately recognisable by the 5th century walls of the castle perched on a towering volcanic rock, once the hiding place of Mary Queen of Scots en route to exile in France. We find our B&B and head out for the local Weatherspoons, me gorging on a vast plate of fish & chips, Sam getting straight into the tartan mood with ‘Balmoral Chicken’ (apparently very tasty despite its dubious royalist overtones.)
The next morning is the start of the journey proper, and the first of several ‘full Scottish breakfasts’, a subject which had provided us with the opportunity for much idle speculation and lazy national stereotyping on the train journey up. How would this differ from its counterpart south of the border? Would it include a Scotch egg or a deep fried Mars Bar, would the bacon be marinated in Tennent’s Super, or would breakfast be accompanied by one of those famous ‘wee drams’? As it turns out it’s basically the usual full English version except in two respects: a ‘tattie scone’ in place of hash browns/fried bread and haggis for black pudding. As they say in Pulp Fiction, ‘it’s the little differences’.
Over our tattie scones and haggis we chat with the owner of the B&B, a nice fellow of around 60 who used to work on the fishing boats off the west coast until forced to retire by a stroke. He speaks in a soft warm burr, the Rs trilling in the back of his throat, with a note of sadness as he describes how he misses life at sea. He asks us about our cycling plans, and for some reason I feel the need to inject my own unique version of a Scottish brogue into my replies, emphasising the ‘ochs’ with a strange guttural sound as Sam looks on horrified.
“And where are yoos boys off to today then?” (I love it when someone calls me a boy).
“We’re heading first for Balloch…ch…ch.”
“Ballock, aye.” (and for some reason his attempt to correct me only makes me over-compensate even more)
“Aye, and then Loch…ch…ch Lomond.”
“Lock Lomond aye.”
“And then on towards the Trossachs…chs…chs, aye.”
“Trossacks aye…Are you OK? Would you like a glass of water?”
Anyway, after breakfast we leave Dumbarton and follow a cycle path along the River Leven to the afore-mentioned Balloch on the shores of Loch Lomond, the lake which adorns many postcards and souvenir tea towels. It’s the largest expanse of inland water in Britain, but somehow we almost manage not to see it, as the route veers up and away almost as soon as its reaches the Loch, though we keep catching tantalising glimpses through the trees as we climb through Loch Ard Forest and descend to our lunch stop in Aberfoyle.
We are now in the Trossachs National Park, an enchanting area of small lochs and steeply wooded hills. The afternoon’s cycling is magical, with some challenging off road sections, sharp climbs and flowing downhills, up through the Achray Forest and along the shores of Loch Venachar and the wonderfully named Loch Drunkie. We continue on a minor road to our second night base in Callander, a popular tourist town at the base of the Highlands, where we refresh ourselves with Belhaven ale and hearty plates of mutton and ox cheeks, neither of which I’ve eaten since about 1973.
The next morning the weather is still perfect (can this really be Scotland?), and we enjoy a 25 mile ride to Killin through the increasingly rugged Southern Highlands. Cycling along quiet, virtually traffic-free roads and paths, over rolling hills blanketed in purple heather, the sun slanting down through lush pine forests, the beauty of the scenery feels intoxicating at times and I find myself waxing lyrical (or talking bollocks depending on your standpoint). Sam says I remind him of Michael Caine in an old film of Kidnapped he recently watched, who (playing the part of the Scottish independence fighter Alan Breck) at one point roars ‘I’d give my life for the rocks and heather of Scotland!’
We pass the village of Balquhidder, burial place in 1734 of the local hero Rob Roy, outlaw, class warrior and cattle rustler, known apparently as the ‘Scottish Robin Hood’. I’m not sure this is really accurate though. While Robin Hood is said to have stolen from the rich to give to the poor, Rob Roy’s wheeze, as far as I can make out, appears to have been to steal from the rich in order to give to Rob Roy. Maybe Scottish folk heroes are just a wee bit more canny.
We stop for a breather and get chatting to another cyclist, a man in his 60s who lives nearby. He tells us he needs a knee operation but is putting it off as long as possible because there’s a chance he won’t be able to get on a bike ever again. He smiles ruefully and wishes us well. The whole way to Inverness we encounter many fellow cyclists and the camaraderie of the road is much in evidence with a great deal of friendly nodding, cheery waving and theatrical grimacing on hills.
The route continues for a long and lovely stretch along a disused railway line, culminating in a long sweaty climb up the Glen Ogle valley, and across the old train viaduct 60 metres above the main road below. Not for the first time on my cycling adventures I raise an ironic glass to Dr Beeching, who may have butchered much of Britain’s railway network, but who has turned out to make an unwitting contribution to the cause of slow travel by leaving us a legacy of magnificent off road cycle paths (thanks to the work of Sustrans). The track sweeps downhill to Killin where we enjoy an excellent lunch by the waterfalls at the Falls of Dochart Inn: venison casserole (Sam) and smoked haddock risotto (me), washed down with a pint of ale brewed locally at Loch Fyne.
Post-lunch we’re in the mood for no more than a leisurely afternoon pootle which is just as well because the next stretch is a mildly undulating 16 mile single-track road through woods along the shore of Loch Tay. We’ve settled into a good steady rhythm now, rolling along at a respectable pace, me out in front leading the way, calling out useful bits of advice: don’t be afraid of your gears, dance in the saddle when you’re going uphill, never bet on a low pair…the three or four things a man needs to pass on to his children.
We continue on though the village of Kenmore at the foot of Loch Tay and along some quiet roads, passing the turn-off to the village of Dull. The local residents (Dullards?) have clearly retained a sense of humour because a road sign informs us that the village has been twinned with the town of Boring in Oregon, USA. (I read later that the two places have also recently forged an unholy – or possibly just uninteresting – trinity with the town of Bland in New South Wales). The sign says ‘Welcome to Dull, Drive Safely’, as if one could possibly drive any other way in a place called Dull. Personally, I’d have preferred an ironic twist here along the lines of ‘Welcome to Dull, Drive Like the Wind and The Devil Take The Hindmost!’
A few miles further on we reach our evening base, Aberfeldy in Perthshire. Like many towns in the region Aberfeldy is long and thin, basically one long main street featuring four pubs, and although containing a smattering of low key tourism it feels like a very authentic Highlands town. After our evening meal (salmon in dill butter), we embark on a proper crawl, starting at the far end of the street. It’s Friday evening and by the time we arrive at the other end, it feels as if the whole of Aberfeldy is out on the lash. We end up in the Black Watch where a folk duo are playing The Braes o’ Killiecrankie (by Robert Burns), and squash in on seats next to a gang of very drunk labourers. The quietest one tells me he is from near Belfast and moves around the world – Scotland, Holland, Zambia – doing jobs, returning home every few months to see his wife and daughter. He drifts off into his thoughts as the band plays The Irish Rover.
At half past eleven we leave and make our way back to the Breadalbane Arms where we’re staying. The night, it seems, is yet young with the walls shaking to the sounds of a band playing 60s and 70s covers. On the pavement outside we get talking to a couple of lads about Sam’s age, students back home for the summer. I ask them what they are going to vote in the referendum. They answer simultaneously but one says ‘yes’ and the other says ‘no’.
Perhaps I’m a wee bit tired and emotional but I suddenly appear to be channelling the spirit of William Wallace. I say if I was Scottish I would have no hesitation in voting Yes, that it’s a chance to break with the failed neo-liberal consensus and start again, create a new kind of country based on social justice and ecological balance. I talk of the stunning beauty of the landscape we are cycling through and how they must draw inspiration from this. They must seize the moment and vote Yes even if it condemns the rest of us to an endless winter of Conservative government!
I see them exchange glances and smiles. I can tell they are very moved. I close my eyes, summoning all my rhetorical powers for one final flourish, but when I open them they seem to have gone off to the bar, taking Sam with them. It’s a pity. I think I may have been about to pledge my life for the rocks and heather of Scotland.
Back inside the pub it’s all kicking off, ale and malts flowing freely, the band playing Whisky In The Jar, someone’s dog running loose among the swaying bodies. Behind the bar a young man bobs around, drenched in sweat, trying to quench the unslakeable thirst of Aberfeldy on a Friday night, while beside him an oldish woman pulls pints unhurriedly with a frown of Presbyterian disapproval at the rollicking scenes unfolding before her eyes. The band wraps up some time after 1am with a heroic rendition of The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond (the AC/DC version), everyone in the pub linking arms and belting out the words. I glance over at the bar and see the elderly woman now clapping and singing along, her face lit by a smile.
The next morning we’re both a tad weary, though in my case it’s not so much the cycling I’m struggling to keep up with as the après-cycling. I’m also contemplating the fourth day with a certain amount of trepidation as it’s the longest so far (57 miles), and the forecast suggests heavy rain will kick in later, around the time we’re likely to cross the Drumrochter Pass, a remote 12 mile climb through the Cairngorms. Meanwhile, just outside Aberfeldy, a short detour offers a chance to see the Fortingall Yew, an ancient tree which could be anywhere between 3,000 and 9,000 years old, said to be the oldest living organism in Europe. This morning I have a pretty good idea how it must feel.
As we cycle on through Pitlochry we are entering the Cairngorms National Park and the landscape begins to change from the shortbread tin prettiness of the first half of the journey into something altogether more open and wild. The skies ahead begin to darken and there is a sudden chill in the air. This is the region known as Britain’s Arctic. We go through Killiecrankie, and see a re-enactment of the famous battle where the Jacobites defeated William of Orange’s troops in 1689 (inspiration for the Burns song we heard in the pub last night).
Flagging, we stop for a late lunchtime pizza in Blair Atholl, the last outpost of civilisation before the long climb begins. A few miles beyond the village a stone sculpture marks the start of the climb to the 457 metre Drumrochter Summit. A sign says ‘Weather conditions deteriorate without warning and can be severe even in summer…no food or shelter for 30km.’ I half expect the ghost of Private Frazer to appear wailing ‘Dooomed, you’re all dooomed…’
As we begin the long slow climb Sam seems to be dropping further off the pace and I’m concerned about the time in view of what lies ahead. Knowing my bike is a bit faster than his I suggest that, ‘if we swap over, with you having the better bike and me having the not so good bike we’ll probably be about equal.’ We swap, Sam immediately shoots ahead, and it soon becomes apparent that I will be spending the rest of the way to Inverness 200 yards behind struggling to catch up. I’m forced to swallow the bitter truth that the advantage I had ascribed to my superior cycling ability and fitness was pretty much all down to having a better machine. Worse still, from the way he keeps stopping and waiting for me and smirking, I can tell he is enjoying his moment of triumph, perhaps sensing it as some kind of turning point, a symbolic patricide even. Tonight it seems I will be dining on humble pie, served with the neaps of shame and the tatties of hubris.
The 12 mile climb to the summit, meanwhile, turns out to be less arduous than expected, thanks to a very gentle gradient, and a decent cycle path sandwiched between the busy A9 and the railway line (which reaches the highest point of any railway in Britain). At times the path veers away from the road to dip behind the grassy slopes, and away from the roar of the traffic the atmosphere feels lonely and remote. The dark hills surrounding us are bleak and dramatic, late afternoon sunlight piercing the gathering clouds and glinting off the high tarns. We pause at the summit to savour the moment, gulp down fizzy drinks and pick wild raspberries, spirits lifted by the anticipation of a 20 mile glide downhill to our night stop in Newtonmore.
The threatened deluge still hasn’t arrived and although something vaguely damp has been misting the air for much of the afternoon I would hardly call it rain (and coming from the north west of England I feel I know a thing or two about the subject), but more like a mild Cornish mizzle – I’m not impressed frankly. As if sensing my disappointment, the sky now begins to turn chilly, the wind gets up, the mizzle turns to a properly dismal Scottish ‘dreich’ and then it starts. For the last ten miles of the day it feels like we’re being lashed by thick sheets of cold porridge. From here on it’s just a question of heads down, hang in there and plough on to the end.
Newtonmore is a quintessential Highlands village and one of the main locations for the TV series Monarch of the Glen, but we’re too wet and knackered to really care, and all we see that night is the comforting interior of the Glen Hotel, me padding around the bar in my last pair of dry socks while vainly trying to dry off shoes and clothes on radiators upstairs. Luckily for me they are clean out of humble pie so we both enjoy a top-notch chicken and ham puff pastry version instead, one or two ales and in bed by 11 for once.
We awake deeply refreshed after sleeping the kind of sleep only available to the pure at heart (but fortunately also available to those with slightly impure hearts who have just cycled 57 miles and had four pints of best bitter and a large pie). For breakfast we plump for some fine Arbroath Smokies and scrambled eggs which makes a nice change from fried pig and sets us up for our last day, another 60 miles, but mercifully flattish or downhill most of the way.
We make excellent pace on quiet tarmaced cycle paths and minor roads through the Spey Valley to Kingussie, Kingcraig, Inverdruie and past the ski resort of Aviemore. Road signs alert us to the presence of deer and red squirrels. One of the much anticipated aspects of this trip has been the rich wildlife for which the Highlands are justly celebrated. Red squirrels, red deer, Cairngorm reindeer, wild salmon, beavers (in the River Tay), osprey, capercaillie, golden eagles, pine martens, Scottish wildcats… Needless to say we don’t see any of them. Sam claims two red squirrel sightings but when I look they have suspiciously legged it.
Meanwhile, outside Inverdruie, where there is a choice of road and off-road options, a sign says, ‘Warning – if cycling through the forest, roe deer cull in operation!’ We decide, on balance, to stick with the road. We’re just not really in the mood for a culling today. As we head north, behind us we can hear the sound of a repeating rifle, a bullet every two seconds, monotonous and chilling. There’s a massacre taking place in those woods, although one undertaken for necessary reasons of sustainability I don’t doubt. My reading material on this trip is George Monbiot’s recent book Feral and I reflect that, if his argument for re-introducing the wolf and lynx to the Highlands were to be acted upon, there would be no need for this kind of industrial slaughter. Not particularly good news for the deer I guess, but how cool would it be to cycle through a forest knowing there were wolves lurking within…
As we pass a pretty village called Boat of Garten, the puffy white clouds of the morning turn black as the rain comes down again hard and relentless. We abandon our bikes outside a welcoming inn in the town of Carrbridge, tip the water from our shoes down the toilet and eat lunch (sea bream/steak & ale pie) while huddling goose pimpled in a corner.
Happily after lunch the skies have cleared and we soon dry up in the warm sunny breeze. Before leaving Carrbridge we pause to look at the famous ‘coffin bridge’ (above), built in 1717 to carry funeral parties over the river to the churchyard.
Lochs & Glens North now reaches a fitting climax with some thrilling downhill sections along country lanes and past Cava Cairns, a wonderfully atmospheric and well-preserved Bronze Age site with standing stones and huge burial cairns up to 4,000 years old. We have one last rest stop among the ancient stones (below) before the final leg past the Culloden battlefield, site of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s last stand, and down towards Inverness.
A few miles before the end we pass through the village of Balloch, the second place of this name we have passed through on the route (the first Balloch was near the beginning, a few miles outside of Glasgow, a symmetry which is somehow pleasing). I mention this to Sam who agrees this is an unusual coincidence. I point out that ‘it’s not really that surprising because Ballochs normally come in pairs’. I have been planning this punchline for almost 200 miles. I feel it has been worth the wait, though it would perhaps be an exaggeration to say he nearly falls off his bike laughing.
The traffic gets busier as we approach Inverness but the route into town is mostly on safe cycle paths and through small housing estates, right into the heart of the city and our journey’s end. Exhausted, elated, we dump our bikes in the hotel, freshen up and head out for one last night in the capital of the Highlands, a warm and relaxing city that feels as remote and far north as you would expect from a place on the same latitude as Sweden.
We sup a Guinness by the River Ness in view of the castle, its warm sandstone lit salmon pink by the last rays of sunshine, before trudging stiff-legged and sore-arsed into the centre for an excellent final meal in a restaurant called Kool Runnings, where we dine on that well-known Caledonian classic of goat curry, jerk chicken, rice and peas, washed down with a Red Stripe. We’ve got an early start tomorrow for the eight hour train journey back to London but there’s still time for one last pub stop where, by happy coincidence, they are serving a fine summer ale with the name of Golden Peddler.
The train leaves at eight the next morning and for the first couple of hours we get to enjoy the final sections of our bike ride in reverse; the Cairngorms, now framed by blue skies, less menacing than the other day but no less majestic, before the line veers eastwards passing through Stirling and Edinburgh, across the border to Newcastle and beyond. By this time the length of the trip is testing even my allegiance to slow travel, and it’s a relief when we finally pull into Kings Cross and are able to stretch our legs and enjoy a final ride down the Regents Canal and along the River Lea home.
But as we cycle along the towpath, within the space of thirty minutes: a group of men, shouting, chase a mugger across a bridge; a lycra-clad lunatic comes hurtling out of a tunnel and almost sends Sam flying into the canal, no bell, no apology, no fucking manners; finally as we pass under another bridge near Hackney a couple of young ne’er-do-wells hurl a bike tyre at me which bounces off my head. They scarper off, hooting with laughter. I give them the finger and yell that word, the one that’s reserved only for occasions such as this. I feel momentarily better, then worse for letting them get under my skin, reducing me to shouting obscenities in front of my son.
And the Highlands suddenly feel like an awfully long way away. Welcome back to London, with love. Still, as the 18th century cyclist Dr Johnson said, when a man is tired of London etc… and whatever you say about this place, it’s certainly never Dull.
I hope this encourages someone to try this terrific journey for themselves. If so please do let me know in the comments below, or also if you have any recommendations for other trips…