On Sunday this week Michele and I will set off for the Scottish highlands, a trip I’ve made every year since 2006 with the only break being last year when time and the need to rest were greater than the desire to ride in the mountains. Even then I made it to Edinburgh, one of my favourite cities, drawn by the imminent graduation of my lovely daughter Lydia.
It’s become something of a pilgrimage heading north on the long journey to the border and beyond. I never mind the hours spent driving as the rewards are so great for the effort you make to be there among giant hills that seem to replenish my reserves.Two of my last visits have been made as part of long distance cycle journeys.
Those of a negative disposition always warn me of the distance, the midges, the hills, the weather and various other things that I tend to ignore. If I listened to them I wouldn’t ever go as it would always be the wrong time of year or something. If you want to see Scotland’s finest just go, that’s my advice. It won’t always work out but will almost certainly tantalise you into repeating your behaviour until one day everything will just click. Then, like me, you will be hooked.
Perhaps that’s why I have so many good memories. Only once has it been so bad that I’ve fled to the slightly warmer climes of eastern Scotland. There were times when, overcome by weather, I wished I was in the valley. There were times when I thought that climbing was so scary that I wasn’t sure I could continue. But ultimately those times seemed to increase my desire to be in the highlands and islands. The rest of the world should all come to see, at least once in their lifetimes, what it is that so many find magnetic about the place.
‘The cycling is so hard,” say the ne’er-do-wells. “I live in Devon,” seems to be an apt reply that I find myself spurting without much thought. They’re only hills, even if they look a little daunting at times.You can always walk should the need arise. What is it with some people that they would find danger in a jar of jam that’s been left out of the fridge for an hour? Challenges can be good fun, as long as it’s you that’s choosing the level. Scotland has some of the finest easy riding anywhere in the UK, such is the nature of some of the glens and paths that follow lochs and the coast. Your job is to find it while exploring your limits.
My ride will take in some of the gentle places: a trip down Glen Etive where I first climbed, a loop around Loch Leven and the not so gentle: Bealach na Ba, the pass of the cattle and Britain’s highest road. It’s the UK’s only real alpine climb, a place where I will most definitely explore my limits and a place where Michele will drive around as it’s not her kind of challenge. She knows her own limits extremely well through years of cycling. We will meet on the other side to enjoy the Victorian gardens, incredible sea-food at the local pub and a campsite I adore.
It’s a mix and match kind of a ride. Five or six days will be spent exploring the peninsulas of Trotternish, Waternish and Duirinish in northern Skye. We might even take a trundle down Glen Brittle to Spy on the Black Cuillin but only if it’s there to be seen. Our intention is to move around Skye doing the cycling equivalent of lifting up small rocks and peering beneath, never quite knowing what might lie in wait. I’ve not cycled on Skye, other than to use it to access the Armadale ferry. That journey that saved me riding much further on the mainland to reach the same point during my adventure around Britain’s coastline in 2011. It could be amazing and it could be awful, depending on what the weather brings and which rocks we choose to lift.
I should mention that a completely random hopscotch ride on the ferry from Skye deposited me and my motorcycle at Mallaig in 2009. It was there, while camping at Camasdarach that I spotted people cycle touring and had some kind of epiphany. Seeing hem smiling, bikes loaded and finished for another day pushed a small button in my memory, one with a series of doors attached. Those doors were suddenly flung open leading all the way back to past experiences of epic Scottish and Welsh mountain bike tours during the late 1980’s. It was a moment that has changed my life. One that brought me back to cycling after twenty years away. It’s a moment that I now cherish that almost got lost in interminable grieving.
From Skye we will head north to Ullapool via Torridon and the Wester Ross tourist route. We may stay at Ardmair Point and cycle out to explore the Area around Achnahaird and Achiltibuie. This is not a place that many know well. I discovered it by accident as a twelve-year-old during the final holiday I ever had with my parents and my older brother Cliff.
I wonder if he remembers making sailing boats from lollipop sticks and cigarette packets and sailing them across the ocean, a small and fully enclosed fresh water loch, to the far bank from where we could retrieve them. We spent hours going to find them after their epic voyages.
It was there between the sea, the sky and this idyllic and warm freshwater loch that I discovered the joys of wild camping. The sun shone and we stayed for several days pitched on a piece of grass at a junction in the road. Nothing drove past other than the postman on his daily rounds. There was one tiny shop and a filling station in Achiltibuie several miles away, both of which I’m happy to say are still there and relatively unchanged.Like many of these highland stores the shop in Achiltibuie was stacked to the gunnels with everything imaginable. It has to be as the thin line of tarmac that links this hamlet to the rest of the world is often closed during winter storms. I felt like we were at the end of the world and the huge mountains of Inverpoly National Park that seemed to embrace us became imprinted forever on my mind.
It is memories like these that draw me back time and time again, each one adding to the small mound of history until it also resembles a mountain of memories as big as any one of the Scottish Munro’s (hills over 3000 ft) . It was here I wept after my mother, father and sister died, one after the other in quick succession. It was here that I recognised the full impact of the breakdown in my mental health that had preceded these events and changed me as a person forever. It wasn’t that Scotland made me feel sad that I cried. It was purely that I felt safe enough to grieve whilst being held in the bosom of the mountains and hills that I love.
The rest of our holiday is in the hands of the gods. We have no itinerary to follow, just a few ideas and loosely related places. We may end up in the far north or not, only time will tell. It will without doubt be a highlight section of The Ride of My Life. So much of me is invested in mountains. I stopped climbing thirty years ago but that didn’t stop me loving the places it took me or the feeling I get when surrounded by ridges peaks and crags.
The same applies to Scotland’s fractured and varied coastline. My second book saw my exploring many of these extreme western outposts during which I described what I was doing as riding: All Around The Ragged Edges. The twisting, winding shoreline must be thousands of miles long should you choose to try to straighten it. It harbours creatures like dolphins, otters and seals, magical creatures that will have your heart singing in an instant if you chance upon them. My only meeting with an otter was when I was cycling around the aforementioned extremes of the UK. I had sat in wait and seen nothing. I had traversed the shore looking as the tide came in and still nothing. My sighting occurred as I rode around a bend in the road and came face to face with one that was nonchalantly walking down the centre line. After a brief exchange of glances that were akin to “what the heck are you doing here?” we went our separate ways.
I’ve watched eagles soaring, gannets diving and sea eagles fishing. I’ve been astounded at what appears as I move ever so slowly, and quietly, through the landscape on my bike (trike now). In turn has helped me to feel more complete and accepting that I still have a lot to live for despite the difficulties of the last eight years or so.
One of those moments is enough to see me planning a return in the future. The UK has many places that I consider to be stunningly beautiful: national parks, cities, towns, villages, countryside, coast, the list is almost endless and incredibly varied. Scotland, for me at least, holds the ace cards. No matter how many visits I make, the friendly people, interesting places, great cities and mountain scenery drag me back time and time again. Long may it last.