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CYCLING  IN  SCOTLAND


I suppose that the modern way of recounting one's tales is to produce a blog, and continually add to it. I don't carry around lots of electronic gadgetry, so I have to rely on memory. Basically this is an account of my recent bike trip around the north and west and outer isles of Scotland.

Starting off in Oban. Well, getting there was an adventure, not helped by the difficulties of bikes and trains, but more of that later. My first ventures were getting used to my new bike around the bike routes of Oban, then over to Mull and experiencing hills and headwinds.

My first ferry journey was over to the island of Barra at the southern end of the Hebrides. The island ferry services are remarkable both for their efficiency and frequency, and with a bike one just turns up and the bike goes free. Barra itself is fairly small, I biked round it in 3 hours, flat narrow roads with slow traffic and amazing golden coastal beaches totally deserted. Then my B&B host took me on her Russian motorbike over a causeway to Vatersay, more beaches, and gave me an account of the crofting way of life which is such an integral part of island life. That was an unexpected bonus.

The next day, and another ferry trip took me to the southern tip of the Uist Islands. Again more flat cycling, deserted beaches , slow traffic and magical weather made the whole experience delightful, and I spent the next 4 days probing into all the corners of this island group. Accommodation was easy to find in hostels, which were largely converted black houses of former eras, all perfectly adequate for the likes of me.Onward from North Uist, the ferry took me to Harris. This became my hardest day,plenty of hills, superlative golden beaches,hot weather, and the total lack of refreshment facilities, it was a Sunday. The Scots up here hardly seem to stir on the Sabbath. I was reduced to drinking water from peaty mountain streams. A weary body arrived in Stornaway that evening. I was now effectively on the isle of Lewis, and the topography changed dramatically to peaty moorland country. I spent the next day on archaeology; there has been human presence up here for a thousand and more with the remains of habitations and stone circles.

From here a ferry took me south to the Island of Skye, more hills more spectacular coastal scenery. I stayed in a marvellous hostel on the west coast. The bike had a rest next day as I donned boots and did a tramp around the Quariang. The mountain architecture here is very different from the shingle heaps of NZ, and its easy to understand now how people rave about the mountains of Skye.The road south from here was busy and difficult to avoid until I reached the Kyle of Lochalsh and the mainland of Scotland. Then back to narrow roads,little traffic, more mountain scenery and even the odd tree. I hugged the coastal roads north from here. I chickened out on the 'Pass of the Cattle' over to Applecross, the zig-zag road disappeared into the mists and it looked too daunting, so it was on to Torridon instead, where I arrived slightly sodden from a sudden downpour. The drying room at the youth hostel there was huge, no doubt a reflection of their normal weather conditions.

Onward to Gairloch and the Inverewe gardens, I wish I could have spent longer here.An very temperate pocket of climate exists here, so there is an interesting array of plants.The next day was a day without refreshments. The Sabbath again and every adverse weather condition was thrown at me. The attractive town of Ullapool full of tourists greeted me after a frustrating day.To make up for this,Monday was a day of views to beat them all as I cycled around territory I had visited in my younger years, ending up in Lochinver. Still recognisable from all those years ago, but progress had not passed it by, now traffic lights adorned this one street settlement.

The bike had another rest here. A particularly attractive-looking mountain called Suilven is situated here.( Look it up on Google if you don't believe me).So it was on with boots again. Not a difficult or high ascent, (a mere 700 metres), but it was a 3 hour trudge through peat bog to get to its base. Anyway a childhood ambition was achieved that day.

Several more days of biking through this wonderful landscape took me to Durness at the north west corner of the mainland. Cape Wrath was the objective, but the ferryman wouldn't operate that day on account of the rough seas, so I spent the day wandering around the coastline.My route took a right hand turn at this point as I followed along the north coast. A strong wind here reduced me to snail's pace.Then a came across a Dutch cyclist with broken spokes pushing his bike.It was a weekend, so he had a fat chance of finding an open bikeshop. I didn't feel quite so bad after that.

Thurso on a Sunday true to its highland tradition was deadly quiet.I wanted to get my bike on a train heading south.Easier said than done. Whilst bike carrying is free on trains, space is very limited, and one has to book. This can't be done online, one has to front up to an open ticket office, ticket offices here have rather limited hours up here. A major pain to put it mildly. So whist awaiting bike space, I nipped up over to the Orkneys. Again a wonderfully efficient ferry service and a fleeting glimpse of these seemly barren yet in practice quite productive islands.

My biking hadn't finished yet although I was heading south.At Dingwall I de-trained and cycled up to the Black Isle. Here Ruth Gilmour (formally resident in Timaru) gave me a warm welcome. Culbokie, where she lives,was the birthplace of my grandmother, so there is family history here.With due warning I met up with my 2nd cousins and had a brief tour of the family farm .I had known this farm from my younger days, so it was quite a special occasion.

My thanks for this trip really start with Ann Brooks, who suggested it to me in the first instance and who gave me much enthusiastic encouragement when I took the plunge. Thanks to my fellow travellers on the road for sharing their joys and woes, and to the Scottish people I met en route for their wonderful laid-back and cheerful natures.And of course to the weather gods for giving me such remarkable conditions.


Duration of trip, 25 days. Distance covered 1500 km


Robert Birks



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