Two wheels are better than four as one intrepid biker explores the treasures of the Scottish countryside
As a busy father of two, taking that Ted Simonesque roadie around the world will have to wait. But there are shorter trips to warm the tyres right on this wee island. London – around Scotland – and back to London – in a week. The idea was that my bike, a book of Norman MacCaig’s poetry and I would take in a bit of everything: mileage, rest, camping, a B&B or two, a café or two, good weather and bad. The motorised steed is a Yamaha Diversion XJ900 shaft-drive, early ’90s green with the addition of a touring screen. In preparation for my departure I’d decided to get the bike serviced (obvious but important, Tip #1). After a yarn with my mechanic, it turned out I had a front fork leak. But I was assured that they would do the trip and not much more. My accommodation was also barely adequate, a £10 festival tent to sleep in during an early Scottish autumn with rain perpetually imminent.
I funnelled up the M1, took a big left up the M6 towards Scotland. Not much more to say about that really, except that earplugs are an excellent motorcycle companion (Tip #2). My first mistake was setting off from London at the lazy hour of 9:30am. Tip #3: Depart early, very early. Preferably, depart without the stress of setting off on a pannier laden bike and suddenly remembering that you can’t make that gap between the bus and the Beamer. Rattling up the M6, I eventually crossed the border. It was a freezing night in Galloway National Park with frost covering everything. But after a large billy of porridge with honey for breakfast, I could now ride unabated into the early afternoon or until my posterior needed a rest. The tone for the trip was set. Onward up the M8, a quick wave to Glasgow and I finally found myself rolling along the shores of Loch Lomond. After quite some time in the saddle the sound of the engine merged with my strange imaginings, like what a tragic commercial failure an exhaust pipe that mimicked bagpipes would be.
Towards Fort William along the A82 to Glen Coe, my ride through which began what would be a succession of reminders of mine, and my Yamaha’s own insignificance. As I wound my way through this ancient glacial valley, a lonely white house caught my eye. Sitting at the bottom of the glacier’s towering south face it looked as though it had just slid to a stop. Up the road a bit on the shore of Loch Duich lies Eilean Donan Castle, one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen. With the sun setting behind it, a picturesque silhouette emerged creating a spectacular sight, a sight that I later saw reprinted numerous times on the postcards and calendars lining Edinburgh’s tourist hotspots. That night, I spent the evening fighting off the tougher, cold weather midges with abrupt, ill-disciplined Kung Fu moves before remembering that I’d packed that classic SAS midge repellent: Avon ‘Skin So Soft’ replenishing dry oil body spray. Well, it works. Next on the agenda: the Inner Hebrides, Isle of Skye and Edinbane Pottery.
When riding along in Assynt, keep at least one eye on the road (Tip #4). If the sun comes out, illuminating the dull grey-brown countryside, bringing the hills alive with pink and purple flowers one can be distracted to the point where one might find oneself sneaking off the road. Or worse, lying next to a Glen covered in petrol with a two-foot-long highland cattle horn stuck in your fuel tank still mooing, with breakfast oats strewn across the countryside, wondering how it all came to this. The Northwest of Scotland is truly remote and breathtaking as a result. Leaning around the corner and seeing Loch Assynt and the Ardvreck Castle ruins against the backdrop of Mount Quinag was a high point of the route. My figurative travelling companion, celebrated Scottish poet Norman MacCaig, was a long-time visitor to this area in particular, mostly, as he put it, to ‘fatten [his] camel’s hump’, and to fly fish the numerous highland lochs. His love for the area (along with my sentiments) can be summarised in the last lines of his poem ‘A man in Assynt':
Pulling into the John O’Groats point car park in the late afternoon drizzle felt like an arrival, but I couldn’t linger. Beginning south along the first few miles of Scotland’s East coast with its sparsely dotted houses dangling on cliff tops that are slowly eroding into the sea, one notices the big geographical difference from the West coast. This was classic grassy, cliffy, beachy coastline, a stark contrast to the rugged mountains and lochs I’d fallen in love with 500 miles ago.
The rain was torrential when I arrived in the Cairngorm Mountains and required regular stoppages to navigate. At one such pause a voice behind me said, “Got time for a cup of tea?” I didn’t even turn around to see who’d said it, replying, “That’d be great”. As it transpired, I had pulled into someone’s driveway, Graham’s in fact. It turned out that Graham had lived in a stone croft in the middle of the Cairngorms for over 30 years. He popped back into his shed to brew the tea as I tried to back my bike under a willow tree for some sort of shelter. I say tried because as I was walking it backwards the rear wheel dropped into a pothole that had eluded my cloudy vision, causing the bike to lurch to the left. I couldn’t hold it fully loaded and it slowly went to ground. Unable to pick it up without unpacking it, that cuppa had to wait five minutes. “We’ve all done that” he said, “lucky you weren’t doing 50”. Standing with a cup of sweet tea in a shed surrounded by Graham’s fly fishing gear and old motorcycles was an excellent way to delay my journey.
Before leaving this bonnie land I would get a small taste of Edinburgh. I bought a tour bus ticket for the first time in my life and quickly discovered why people like this city. Its compactness, the remarkable way that it blends the old and new, from the majestic castle to the post-modern contemplation pods jutting off the parliament buildings; Holyrood Park being an amazingly accessible hilltop with an astonishing view of the city from Arthur’s Seat, and its proximity to other beautiful places.
On my way back to London between planning the next excursion, I remained utterly convinced that Scotland was the perfect road trip destination. And if you can do it by motorcycle, all the better.
Image from: http://www.roadrunner.travel/magazine/read/november-december-2007/page/44
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