Two years ago my son Sam and I cycled Lochs & Glens North from Glasgow up to Inverness. This summer we decided to retrace that journey but this time taking an entirely different route, incorporating the Caledonian Way (Route 78 of the National Cycle Network, newly launched by Sustrans in 2016) which starts in Campbeltown on the Kintyre peninsula.
Sitting on my bike in Campbeltown harbour I swear I can hear the faint sound of Macca’s ghostly bagpipers floating on the breeze as I gaze wistfully towards the Mull of Kintyre. Mist is rolling in from the sea. My desire, as you can probably guess, is always to be here. I can’t though – we’ve got 240 miles to cycle and we have to be in Inverness six days from now. Besides, mist isn’t really rolling in from the sea anyway. It’s pissing down with rain and we’re getting a bit goose-pimply. I’m not entirely convinced Macca has ever been here to be honest.
Our epic trip got off to a good start yesterday with a nice, mostly flat 40 miles in warm sunshine following NCN Route 7 south out of Glasgow, along the Clyde and down the Ayrshire coast to the port of Ardrossan where we caught the evening ferry over to Kintyre. The three hour crossing felt like an adventure in itself, with stunning views of the mountains of Arran silhouetted dark blue against the silvery light as we settled back in the lounge of the CalMac ferry, swigging bottles of beer from the Isle of Arran Brewery (motto ‘Guid ale keeps my heart aboon’).
Kintyre is a peninsular though it feels as cut off as an island: long, thin and straggly, ten miles wide, dangling down into the North Channel of the Irish Sea between Arran to the east and Islay to the west. Its southern tip (the famous Mull of K) is a mere caber’s toss from the coast of County Antrim in Ulster.
Campbeltown, 15 miles north of the Mull, is the region’s main town and it’s a long, convoluted trip by car from Glasgow, which means the peninsula has found itself cast adrift from the Scottish ‘mainland’ over the years. The ferry service, fully launched only in 2016, has now offered a new lifeline to this wild west fringe of Scotland, as well as opening up the region to cycle tourers like ourselves.
Campbeltown retains traces of past glory in the faded elegance of its grand hotels around the harbour and it once claimed with some justification to be the ‘the whisky capital of the world’ with 34 distilleries (which helped to fuel the illegal smuggling routes into Prohibition America in the 1920s). Today though there are only three active ones left and it was named in 2012 as one of the two most economically vulnerable towns in rural Scotland. The B&B where we’re staying in the town centre displays a defiant nationalism with SNP posters and leftover Yes stickers still blue-tacked to the windows nearly two years after the referendum on independence. Maybe they’ve just been left there for the next one.
Route 78 starts in the harbour and goes up the eastern side of Kintyre with several very steep hills made even more challenging by the driving rain and thick cloud, so low at times on the summits that we are can hardly see the road ahead. Occasionally the clouds break up enough to unveil tantalising views of Arran over to our right. A sound like the distant baying of a hound percolates through the porridgy gloom, adding to the romantic and very Scottish feeling of the lonely landscape. There are few places to stop on this section of the route but a restaurant on the way into Carradale village provides brief respite from the rain along with welcome cheese toasties and coffee.
Now there are some people who claim that when you get caught in heavy rain, after a while you just can’t get any wetter. Those people are fools who should be rapped on the head with a small bicycle tool. It is in fact possible to get very wet and then to get much wetter still, and then to carry on getting wetter until the rain has soaked not only through your clothes and the contents of your panniers but has seeped into your pores and inundated your very soul. This is the level of wetness we are to experience over the next few days on the Kintyre Peninsula.
Luckily I have been reading Robert McFarlane’s book Landmarks, a powerful manifesto for the reclamation of the disappearing language of landscape. McFarlane believes that an ability to describe the richness of our natural world can help us to value and protect it more. As a result I have acquired a glossary of regional terms to describe the many types of rain across the British Isles, a good number of which are, unsurprisingly, Scottish or Gaelic dialect words. I suspect this list of rain words is going to come in pretty handy this week.
Arriving at our night stop, the coastal town of Tarbert, we find our B&B has been double-booked by mistake and we have been gazumped by a party of Dutch people doing a whiskey tour of the islands. We sit in the kitchen thawing out from the day’s plypes (sudden heavy showers, Scots) and sipping hot tea as the owner frantically rings round trying to find us an alternative bed for the night. Eventually he finds us a willing host, Andrew who runs The Moorings, a guesthouse with fine views of the harbour front who is already full but offers to put us up in his spare room in the attic.
The Moorings is a comfortable and quirky place, the front garden like a fairy tale grotto stuffed with a menagerie of ornamental creatures: monkeys, bears, big cats, snakes, turtles and exotic birds peeking out from behind plant pots or camouflaged by thick green foliage. Andrew ushers us inside, a stocky bearded Scot, very kind if slightly bossy. ‘I’m afraid I’ll have ter ask yers not to smoke anywhere in the hoose’ he says, rather unnecessarily as I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many no smoking signs gathered together in one place, pinned to every available wall space and door. The house is also festooned in multi-coloured lights that wink on and off as you approach them, including some floor-level bulbs around the toilet in our room that unexpectedly bathe my legs in a disconcerting purple glow as I’m taking a dump later that evening.
Andrew offers to run the sodden contents of our panniers through his washing machine and tumble drier. It’s amazing how many B&Bs do this but I suppose they must be used to bedraggled, miserable looking cyclists down to their last pair of dry pants. On our way out for the evening he beckons me over, looking very grave. He’s spotted Sam sneaking a crafty fag across the road. ‘I can’t believe the young man smokes!’ he says. ‘And him a cyclist!’ ‘I gave up 15 years ago. And I never touch a drop ‘o booze’, though you’d never believe it’ he says, gesturing around at shelves piled high with bottles of spirits from around the world. ‘Me only addiction is me telly’, he says. ‘I’m off to watch Emmerdale…’
Tarbert is a pleasing fishing village with a pretty harbour full of colourful boats. King Magnus Barefoot of Norway sailed here in 1098 and claimed Kintyre as part of the Viking Kingdom of the Sudereys (Southern Hebrides). High on a hill overlooking the town is the picturesque ruined castle mostly built by Robert The Bruce, the Scottish king who after a famous encounter with a spider in a cave decided to abandon his previous devo-max position and form the SNP back in the early 14th century, a crown more recently held by his descendants, the fishermen Alex The Salmon and Nicola the Sturgeon (Did you check all these facts? Ed).
As well as facing seawards Tarbert is also located on the shore of Loch Fyne where the restaurant chain of that name originated. The whole area is famed for its seafood. The Starfish in town has a high foodie reputation but you need to book in advance to have any chance of getting a table. We settle instead for The Anchorage, a cosy harbour-side bistro where we dine as handsomely as no doubt King Magnus Barefoot once did on local produce including fish chowder, smoked salmon and venison sausages. We go on for a couple of beers in the bright green painted Corner House pub next door where old men in kilts are playing pool and the TV is showing a feisty Friday night Scottish League Cup tie between Arbroath and Dundee. It all feels nicely authentic in a low key sort of way so we decide to round things off properly with a ten year old Isle of Arran malt. I judge it to be pleasantly peaty, although I have no idea what that means. It just sounds like the sort of thing you might say when tasting a ten year old malt.
Next morning we are joined at breakfast by two other cyclists, a nice German couple from Konstanz who are thankfully too polite to bring up the embarrassment of Brexit. They are doing the iconic Lands End to John O’Groats route or Das LEJOG as it is probably known in Deutschland. It’s not entirely clear how they managed to end up this far west. They set off from Cornwall about two weeks ago. ‘The weather was good at first’, says the man, ‘but as soon as we entered Scotland it became not so good. And this – this is not a holiday!’, he says gazing mournfully out of the rain-spattered window and looking a little tearful. His wife squeezes his hand and we all agree that cycling is still brilliant even when it’s raining, if only because it makes you appreciate the good days even more. We swap stories of our past campaigns completely forgetting about the bowls of strawberries in front of us until Andrew comes in, looking rather peeved. ‘Are yous all not eating yer froot then?’ he wants to know. Bike chatter is instantly replaced by the clatter of spoons.
From Tarbert the route turns across the peninsula towards the west coast, through the lush if totally unpronounceable Forest of Achaglachgach, memorably described in Richard Guise’s cycling book From the Mull to the Cape:
“The lochside stretch I was rolling through formed the trickily named Achaglachgach Forest, where I panted up and down Glen Achaglachgach, past Achaglachgach House and through Achaglachgach village, which was totally deserted. Maybe they’d all choked to death trying to say ‘Achaglachgach’.”
At this point Kintyre becomes the Knapdale peninsula and the minor road up the west coast offers lovely views of the island of Jura (where George Orwell stayed when he wrote 1984), but today its hazy outline is filtered through the steady ciuran (drizzle, Gaelic). Whatever the weather though, there’s a deep sense of stillness and spaciousness about this landscape which calms the spirit and declutters the mind – ‘fabulous nothing’ as the poet Kathleen Jamie described Jura.
The Kilberry Inn is one of the few places to stop for refreshment round here and has excellent gastronomic credentials, but we are still stuffed from Andrew’s full Scottish this morning and just settle for a bottle of IPA from Colonsay, apparently the smallest island in the world with its own brewery.
Turning inland the route continues along the Crinan Canal towpath and across the raised peat bogs and mossy hummocks of the Mhoine Mhor nature reserve before we encounter the first of many stone circles, standing stones and burial cairns of Kilmartin Glen. This area contains one of the most important Neolithic sites in Scotland dating from around 4,000 BC with around 150 prehistoric monuments crammed into a radius of six miles. Nearby is Dunadd, an Iron Age fort said to be the home of the first Kings of Scotland.
Climbing up into Kilmartin village we reach our night stop the Kilmartin Inn, its slate roof and stark white walls nestling beneath the green slopes that tower above a small cluster of houses, a museum and a village church which contains an impressive collection of medieval gravestones dating back to the 13th century. Carnasserie Castle on the far edge of the village is also worth exploring, an evocative ruined 16th century tower house on a hill overlooking the Glen.
Surrounded by so many reminders of the ancient past and enclosed by the brooding grey sky, rain blattering (heavily and noisily, Galloway) on the pub windows, Kilmartin is an atmospheric location to stay the night, a perfect blend of time and place. Pies and pints are followed by the already established ritual of the nightcap local malt (Isle of Jura). It proves to be pleasantly peaty, though perhaps not quite as peaty as last night’s. But it’s hard to be sure so we have another one just to check.
Before turning in for the night we switch on the TV and find the weatherman beaming with glad tidings. After a few days of widespread rain tomorrow’s forecast shows a ridge of high pressure drifting in from across the Atlantic, bathing Britain in a pool of warm sunshine. There are bright yellow symbols punctuated with fluffy white pillows dotted everywhere across the map. Well almost everywhere. On that long, thin, straggly bit that dangles off the west coast of Scotland there are menacing black clouds leaking diagonal lines of doom. The only bit of the UK, it would appear, where there is any chance of precipitation tomorrow. Even Northern Ireland has little golden orbs of happiness which seems meteorologically unfeasible. Oh and apparently there’s going to be a heatwave in John O’Fucking Groats…
So next morning the rain (somewhere between a dreich and a mi-chailear with a fair amount of bleeterie and a number of heavy flists since you ask) is already set in for the day as we follow Route 78 past the village of Ford and alongside Loch Awe on a 20 mile rollercoaster of a road through thick forest.
After a shivery lunch in a roadside cabin where we dribble pools of water across the floor we cycle across the lovely Glen Nant, Glen Lonan and Glen Hoddle (are you sure about the last one? Ed). Again the challenging, hilly terrain is matched by the stunning beauty of the scenery but it’s too wet to stop and drink it all in as much as we’d really like. One day it would be wonderful to re-visit this whole stretch up from Campbeltown in more serene conditions. However just outside our next night stop in Oban we do at least manage to take advantage of a brief pause in the rain to explore the 13th century Dunstaffnage Castle in the village of Dunbeg, perched formidably on a huge rock overlooking the Firth of Lorn, and like most Scottish castles boasting a long history soaked in blood and passion.
I’ve been to Oban before about 25 years ago when my wife and I stayed here for a few days, taking trips from the harbour to the islands of Mull, Iona and, best of all, the wonderfully bleak Staffa, an outcrop of wave-lashed rock famous for Fingal’s Cave, inhabited only by screeching birds and reachable by a thrillingly wave-tossed ride in a small boat. It rained during our entire stay back then and needless to say it’s started raining again as we arrive now. It would not surprise me in the least to hear that it has not stopped raining in Oban for the past quarter of a century. Despite this it’s a delightful town to stay in. We tuck into top notch fish and chips in one of the many restaurants that line the seafront and then retire to the cosy Lorne Bar for a few pints of Kilt Lifter brewed locally by the Oban Bay company, topped off with the inevitable Oban 12 year old malt. When in Oban etc…
The next day is the fourth consecutive day of rain. A full-on Glibbeid (mix of rain, sleet and hail, Gaelic) is even forecast at one point. For the first time since leaving Campbeltown there is the possibility of catching a train to our next night stop in Fort William. I’ve never skipped a whole day of any bike tour so far and am reluctant to set a dangerous precedent. If I was on my own I’d probably just put on an extra hair shirt under my waterproof jacket and shove another roll of barbed wire down my Lycra shorts and get on with it, but I sense an air of weather fatigue about my companion and fear he may have reached peak precipitation.
Maybe it’s time for common sense to prevail – sod it, we’re on holiday! So a decent morning lie-in and the train it is. Highlights of the Oban-Fort William stretch of Route 78 would have included the impossibly photogenic medieval Castle Stalker, floating on a small islet on Loch Laich (which played the part of The Castle of Aaargh! in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), as well as two more ferry crossings at either end of Loch Linnhe. Oh well, maybe another time…
Our final day is by far the longest with a 66 mile stretch from Fort William to Inverness, but the Scottish weather gods are on our side at last as we wake up to warmer temperatures and even some hazy sunshine beginning to seep through thin white streaks of cloud. We follow quiet roads out of town to join the towpath of the Caledonian Canal, soon reaching the series of eight locks known as Neptune’s Staircase and the unmistakeable hulk of Ben Nevis, the top shrouded in cloud as it generally is for around 300 days every year.
Following the Great Glen Way walking trail, Route 78 continues to Gairlochy where it leaves the canal and runs through the forest along the edge of Loch Lochy (they must have run out of names for lochs by the time they got to this one). This section feels wild and remote and the off-road trail is rocky and slow-going in places, but the sun is now pouring through the forest canopy and there is pure pleasure in our ride at last.
At Laggan Locks, where the route re-joins the canal, we clamber on board the Eagle, a Dutch barge once used as a troop carrier in the Second World War and now converted into a restaurant of real character. Basking on the top deck in the lunchtime heat we stuff our faces with bowls of chilli washed down with Red McGregor ale brewed in Orkney. Sam plumps for the extra hot sauce option with his chilli and I make a mental note not to be cycling in his tailwind this afternoon.
Fortified we continue off-road with more sections of towpath and a well-surfaced cycle track running alongside Loch Oich, then on to Fort Augustus which is exactly half way to Inverness, and a kind of lower key version of Fort William with a few tourist coaches and a smattering of tea shops. A cake stop comes in handy here because as soon as we leave the town we hit the gruelling five mile climb up to Carn an t-Suidhe, the highest point of the Caledonian Way at almost 400 metres, our reward being wonderful sweeping views at the top and a long joyous freewheel down to the village of Whitebridge. Here the route forks left and runs along the long southern shore of Loch Ness for the last, easy 20 miles to Inverness.
As we pootle alongside Scotland’s most famous Loch, the late afternoon sun sinks low, throwing mysterious shadows on the glassy surface. On the edge of my vision something flickers, the hint of a dark shape moving beneath the water. Having had so many slightly disappointing wildlife-watching experiences on holidays over the years (no-show dolphins, mythical puffins, strangely introverted lions), what an irony it would be if I suddenly caught a glimpse of ‘the big one’!
Apparently there have been 1,081 recorded sightings of Britain’s most celebrated monster including half a dozen this year alone and the creature is worth an estimated £60 million to the Scottish economy. If any American or Japanese tourists are reading this they may also be interested to hear of The Leytonstone Lizard, a marvellous giant beast reputed to live at the bottom of my garden in East London (or Jack the Ripper’s East London to give it it’s official name), just behind the pop-up tea room and luxury gift shop.
Actually they did find a 30 foot serpent in Loch Ness a few months ago but it turned out to be a prop from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a 1970 Billy Wilder film starring Christopher Lee. Still you never know. After all it was possible at the beginning of the 2015/16 football season to get shorter odds on the Loch Ness Monster being discovered than on Leicester City winning the Premier League, so miracles do occasionally happen. Nevertheless I feel confident in saying that ‘Nessie’ will never be found and hereby go on public record and pledge that if proved wrong, I will cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats wearing nothing but a pair of underpants decorated with the Scottish flag.
Meanwhile we finally reach the end of the Caledonian Way beneath the castle walls in Inverness. There’s goat curry, there’s Yellowhammer ale from the Black Isle Brewery and there’s a final toast with a 14 year old Auchentoshan malt – a toast to cycling, to good company, and to the glorious Scottish landscape, to its people and even to its godawful weather. Today has been pretty much the perfect day’s bike ride and we feel we’ve earned it.