Tom’s Guide To Cycle Touring In… Scotland

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Scotland was where it all started. Little did I know my first week-long cycle tour – an ill-advised crosscountry jaunt through the West Highlands – was going to have such a profound effect.

It seemed unlikely at the time. For that week in May, Scotland did not hesitate to deliver its traditional punishments of mountains, midges and rain, and my companions and I were, to put it mildly, ill-prepared for any of it. We suffered. We were tested. We were found sorely lacking in almost every department: the arrogance of youth piling headlong into a chasm of inexperience. Fun it was most definitely not.

Yet we made it! And there was something deeply intoxicating in emerging from a dark journey that had taken us so far beyond what we knew, to wild places that made riding happily out of Inverness on Day One seem like a distant memory, that made the prospect of ever returning to civilisation a long-forgotten dream.

More than anything else, what defined this new approach to a bike ride – in which one did not simply end up back where one had started at the end of the day – was that redemption always lay ahead, beyond challenges and experiences unimaginable and undiscovered. Giving up and turning back would achieve nothing.

And the feeling that – were I to continue, day upon day – those challenges and experiences would never stop coming nor delivering the rewards of living through them was, I think, the drug that sucked me in and left me lusting ever more strongly for adventure; an addiction I now can never cure, as here I am, nearly 12 years later, having crossed half the world on a bicycle and still going.

Scotland is where Englishmen have always gone to test their mettle once the nice but overcrowded delights of the Peaks and the Lakes have outlived their appeal. Things assume the form of the land the English wish they hadn’t tamed so completely; the land they remorsefully imagine England might somehow still be like had they not harnessed her and arranged her appearance so heavy-handedly in a frenzy of civilisation, agriculture and industry. Scotland, the northern half of the island of Britain; the wild step-sibling of the prim and proper south, a place where (from an English perspective) the familiar and the foreign both rear their heads to produce complex feelings nowhere else can quite reproduce, simultaneously of homecoming and visitorship; a thing very difficult to articulate.

Crossing the border and weaving among the valleys of Scotland (as I did again in 2014 as part of a long ride north on roads and cycle routes), it felt as if someone had dialled down the volume of the land, leaving a silence imbued with constantly changing qualities. Suddenly it was space and time and the minutiae that dwelt within both that dominated my experience. No longer was I navigating a world so overtly designed and moulded by mankind.

In Scotland – particularly as you press up and out towards her extremities – you will find moor and mountain still confident in itself, where people may have dabbled but seldom overextended their reach, as if the ancient lands could subdue and humble each generation of inhabitants before they exacted their worst excesses.

There are quite simply fewer souls here with whom to share the road. It is far easier to feel that you have gone beyond the bounds of human society and are a narrow track’s width away from the cliché of true communion with nature. And it is a kind of nature – dramatic, prehistoric, simmering with a hint of dormant savagery – with which you will likely form a close relationship during your time there. Especially when, as frequently happens, the heavens open and you discover the true meaning of ‘cold, wet and miserable’.

Two practical aspects of cycle touring in Scotland embody all of this for me. The first is a piece of legislation known as the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which among other things formalises the right to camp freely, at least temporarily, more or less anywhere you would reasonably consider doing so.

Partly this is just writing down what should be common sense in a sparsely populated place where people come to spend time outdoors. But it also means that you will always know where you stand when it comes to putting up your tent: it is your legal right to do so. North of Hadrian’s Wall, never again shall you stress out about ‘getting caught’. With it comes the moral imperative not to abuse that right, of course. But that rarely seems a problem among cycle tourers.

The second is naturally of more interest to bikepackers and mountain bikers, and it concerns the (until recently) little-known culture of the bothy. Bothies are simple shelters in remote places, privately owned in most cases, maintained by volunteers, and left with the doors unlocked for free public use. It takes real effort to reach most of them, for by their nature they tend to serve regions far from roads or settlements, often having been shepherds’ or hunters’ shelters in a previous incarnation. This serves as some protection from the abuse they would undoubtedly suffer were they easier to get to (the kind of abuse that has seen wild camping rights suspended on the eastern shores of Loch Lomond).

For the intrepid cyclist – perhaps one with fatter, knobblier tyres on their bike and an appetite for rewarding detours – bothies represent an idiosyncratic subculture of mountainous Britain with a practical purpose for the adventuring cyclist.

When I first combined biking and bothying on that maiden voyage in 2006, the only way to find out where they were was to join the Mountain Bothy Association and receive a printed handbook in the post containing grid references, which you would then cross-reference with Ordnance Survey maps to find that the bothy in question was indeed on the map all along yet disguised as something else. Nowadays, especially in the wake of a recent awareness explosion thanks to several populist books, blogs and short films on the phenomenon, it’s somewhat easier.

Indeed, rather than try and stem the tide, the MBA now make the locations of the bothies they maintain public on their website (and would undoubtedly appreciate a charitable donation if you do make use of them).

Though it’s often the land that draws people to Scotland, it would be disingenuous to write about cycle touring in Scotland without mentioning its people. While planning my tour of the UK with Janapar in 2013, I’d put out a call for people to host screenings, several of which ended up being north of the border, with the result that I spent several chilly weeks riding between gigs on a folding bike, being hosted by a broad spectrum of strangers along the way.

And if there’s any gross generalisation worth making based on my experiences in Scotland, it’s an extension of the rule that the further you travel from London, the friendlier people get. While it’s as good as impossible to extract the influence of one’s own expectations from any social interaction, my impression of the Scots has been of an approachable and upfront demeanour that I simply wouldn’t expect further south.

I still have the final leg of the iconic Land’s End to John O’Groats to knock off. And each time I stumble upon pictures from the Hebrides, the Orkneys, or the Shetlands, or see the latest quasi-autobiographical Danny McAskill film pop up on Youtube, I’m reminded that there are nearly a hundred offshore islands of Scotland, more remote still and waiting to be explored.

So while Scotland may have been the theatre of my first romance with cycle touring, I doubt I’ll have seen the last of her.

Comments (skip to respond)

12 responses to “Tom’s Guide To Cycle Touring In… Scotland”

  1. Denis O'Brien avatar
    Denis O'Brien

    Lovely writing.
    My friend is cycling round the world over 10 years, I’ll be joining her for a few weeks in May and June as she goes around Scotland.
    We will be wild camping, any problems with drinking out of rivers and streams ? and any solutions to the insect ( midges) desire to eat cyclists flesh ?

    1. Thanks Denis! You should filter all water taken from rivers or streams, no matter where you are. Spring water from underground sources is usually okay but check local knowledge if you can. For midges, the best thing to do is not stop cycling! Some people used headnets, other swear by various lotions and sprays. Make sure your tent is midge proof. Smoke from campfires is a good deterrent too.

  2. Great article but to correct you on the Loch Lomond issue — wild camping is not suspended but merely regulated so that you need to buy a permit and stay in a permit area. Plenty of other campsites along this part of the Loch as well.

    1. Thanks for the clarification. I guess what I meant was that the automatic legal right to do so is suspended. Good to know that permits are available!

    2. Book site on non existant internet
      Arrive at 1pm
      Leave at 11 am
      Don’t pay they just take your names tell them to f off

  3. Claude Marcoux avatar
    Claude Marcoux

    My wife and i are planning a 850 km bike trip in Scotland for this summer, hope it will not rain too much…as for midges, back here in Canada, we have worst than that… I think 🙂

    1. Charles avatar

      Claude — i m from Quebec too — went in scotland few years back on long hikes but I am also a bike tourer … wish you the best ! Let me know if you need any advices in your planning ! Don t underestimate midgies even though we’re used to maringouins !

      1. Chad Thompson avatar
        Chad Thompson

        Hi, I’m from Quebec as well, grew up in West Montéregie and living in Quebec City. Planning a tour of Scotland this May-June with a Tern folding bike. Just wondering about midges – I know there are some places in Africa which have them – terrible buggers. Also, any advice for touring with a folding bike, i.e. can I get onto buses, etc.; are their good routes to follow? Thanks so much! Chad

        1. Claude Marcoux avatar
          Claude Marcoux

          Hi, We had a very nice trip in Scotland. We have used for maps and information and also Komoot for route planning. We were camping almost all of the time and had two fully loaded Surly LHT. So i can not help you on the folding bike issue… As for the midges, they are like our “brûlots” but worse… It all depends on the wind… Have a nice trip. Claude

  4. Scotland was the first place I ever travelled to and its people and their kindness really resonated with me. We are planning a family bike trip there for next spring, so thanks for helping to add more fuel to my planning fire! Lovely piece.

  5. TOM RENNIE avatar

    Enjoyed your piece, particularly since I was born in Aberfeldy, and hey, you are becoming a “writer”! Be careful you don’t become desk bound.

    1. Not a chance! 😉

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