Jul 27, 2012 6:25:02 PM
Bike touring Scotland, on road and off
Ask most seasoned cyclists for the attributes of ideal touring country and they will probably tell you quiet roads, plenty of places to camp, spectacular natural scenery and – if your legs are up to it — a few challenging hills. Add whisky distilleries, the odd ancient castle and some of the world’s foremost mountain biking terrain – and it is clear why Scotland is fast becoming a magnet for cyclists, both on-road and off.
The regions described below are a just a few of the many rewarding places to cycle in Scotland, from the remote roads of the Western Isles to the country’s mountainous heart, with visits to some of its famous lochs and landmarks on the way.
Island and highland
If you have two or three weeks to spare, you can get to the heart of the Scottish Highlands, as well as to the Isle of Skye on the west coast. This is a chance to cycle among remote, heather-clad mountainsides populated by grouse and deer, and to experience the dramatic maritime beauty of the country’s west.
Hire bikes in Edinburgh if you have not brought your own, then head towards Scotland’s northwestern seaboard. Scotrail makes special arrangements for carrying bikes in summer, so you can always join separate sections of a bike tour by train. From the attractive west coast village of Mallaig, a ferry makes the half-hour crossing to the of the Isle of Skye – home to Talisker’s whisky distillery and Dunvegan Castle, seat of the Macleod clan for more than 800 years. The northern part of Skye is connected to the mainland by the Skye Bridge. From here, work south and east again passing such iconic Scottish landmarks as Eilean Donan Castle on the Kyle of Lochalsh and Loch Ness, southwest of Inverness. Then it is south to return to Edinburgh, crossing through the rugged Cairngorms National Park. This is Britain’s largest national park, 4528sqkm in area, and home to some of Scotland’s highest mountains as well as the British Isles’ largest area of arctic wilderness. Not all roads through here are mountainous, and many delve into some of the most forested parts of Britain. The town of Braemar is the park’s royal heart, where you can hop off your bike to visit Braemar and Balmoral Castles, watch the Highland games, which takes place in August and September, and maybe even spot some royalty.
The far north of Scotland is for cyclists who want to experience the rawest wilderness biking on some of the most remote roads in Britain. Almost anywhere you go here is a low-traffic zone – but on the furthest-flung stretches you will barely see a soul. Be aware that many single-track roads in this part of Scotland are not wide enough for cars to pass moving cyclists, so you will need to pull to the side.
Far north Scotland begins north of Inverness – and the further west you go the wilder it gets. You will see breathtakingly atmospheric Scottish scenes, like the ruins of Ardvreck Castle on the shores of Loch Assynt or the desolate moorlands and savagely beautiful coastline of the Stoer Peninsula, where wildlife like stags, pine martin, wildcat, otter and badgers abound. You can detour to the imposing Cape Wrath, the furthest northwest point of Scotland, and in the northeast cycle to the town of John O’Groats, the end of the mainland British Isles. Around the northern coast there are miles of quiet, narrow roads where cyclists can steep themselves in mountain and moorland scenery, and there is excellent wild camping just about everywhere. After a cycle odyssey this far north, the world will surely seem less crowed than when you began. You could cover this area in a week, but take two to make time for exploring the picturesque back roads.
Scotland’s handsome Outer Hebrides are another excellent bike touring destination and, to make it more interesting, any journey here must be conducted by both bicycle and ferry. You could cover the area in a week, but take two. The chain of main islands of the Outer Hebrides — Barra, Eriksay, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, Harris and Lewis – is a sparsely populated territory of wild beaches lapped by seas as blue as in the Caribbean. On land, barely travelled roads link quiet settlements of thatched and whitewashed houses, moorland valleys and rocky mountains. Machairs (meadowlands behind the beaches) are sprinkled with wildflowers and make for fragrant picnics and camping.
A cycle tour here is best undertaken south to north to suit the southwestern prevailing winds, and early summer promises the most stable weather in the Outer Hebrides. On a Hebridean biking adventure, you will see ancient treasures like 16th-century Kisimul Castle in Castlebay, Barra, the Neolithic Callanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis, and the three billion year old Lewisian Gneiss – the oldest rock in the world — on the Isle of Harris. The Hebrides also have a living ancient language: Gaelic is more widely spoken here than anywhere else in Scotland. Ferries connect the Scottish west coast port of Oban with Barra, and the islands’ northern capital Stornoway with Ullapool on the mainland – so access is easy. A particular tradition of island hospitality means there is always an inviting inn or B&B to stay at, so you may not even want to put up a tent.
If you are touring on a mountain bike, a great option is to drop your gear and take in some off-road mountain bike trails. The Witch’s Trails at Aonach Mor are spoken of in whispered terms among aficionados. In southern Scotland is the 7stanes complex of seven mountain bike trail centres, and Kirroughtree in the Galloway Forrest Park is reputed to have the best singletrack in the country. For a week of off-road adventure, sign up for a guided tour like the coast-to-coast Scottish mountain bike trips run by H&I Adventures.
Tips for a perfect Scottish cycle tour
Summer is the best time to cycle in Scotland. With long days and short nights (sunset can be as late as 10pm) there is little need for riding in the dark. Be prepared for four seasons in one day though, and expect sunburn as well as snow flurries. Expect to combat insects: Scottish midges are infamous for their bites.
Scotland’s 2003 Land Reform Act legislates a right to roam. This means there is a statutory presumption in favour of responsible non-motorised access (walking, cycling, horse riding or canoeing) to most land in Scotland. For cyclists, this is a boon, opening up a huge range of wild campsites and making cycle routes infinitely flexible. Of course, there are many brilliant B&Bs and country inns along the way, if you prefer to cycle Scotland in style.