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.