2009 Scotland

Scottish West Coast

In May 2009, Rudi and I cycle from Glasgow to Inverness. The road takes us to various highlights, such as the grand Glen Coe, Mull’s dramatic coastline, Skye’s steep cliffs, idyllic Applecross and extremely hilly Assynth. In two weeks’ time we ride some 1,100 kilometers.

Day 1: Glasgow > Ardbeg (47 km)

At 8 am we enter the departure hall of Schiphol (Amsterdam Airport), and half an hour later we’ve prepared our bicycles for the air transport. This leaves us 90 minutes for checking and boarding. Unfortunately, KLM has decided to merge all check-in counters, as a result of which we have to join a 300 meters long queue across the whole building. ‘New policy’, says an assistant. It is not until 10 am that we finally check-in: the departure time of our flight. This leaves us no choice but to take the next flight to Glasgow, which is scheduled five hours later. We are disappointed by KLM’s silly logistic failure, but feel “relieved” by the thought that lots of people, some of whom even took a hotel at Schiphol in order to be on time, miss their (intercontinental) flights as well.

During our approach to Glasgow (our captain: ‘Rain and 6 °C’) we notice below the swamped golf courts. Oh dear, what a wet start! The airport looks quite degraded and abandoned. We drop our bicycle transport protection stuff at the Premier Inn and book a room for the night prior to the return flight. It is already 5.15 pm, and Rudi doesn’t want to cycle. But I manage to persuade him to try to get a bit further than Dunoon to the west.

The first dozens of kilometers are like in Trainspotting: lots of small houses, garbage by the road side, bored-looking youth hanging around, and all boys with shaved heads. We ride via Greenoch in the direction of the ferry to Dunoon. We cycle as fast as we can to catch today’s last ferry to Dunoon at around 8.30 pm. Crossing the loch is fun, and Rudi takes many pictures. From Dunoon (road sign: ‘Drinking in public prohibited’) only eight kilometers separate us from the campsite in Ardbeg. The friendly camping owner helps us to locate the only spot on the grass on which our tent won’t float away. He complains that it has been raining for weeks. In the dusk we eat goulash with mashed potatoes

Day 2: Ardbeg > Glen Orchy (93 km)

We leave late, at 9.45 am. During the first few hours it rains quite often – out of every single cloud rain is falling – but the sun also shines now and then. There is hardly any wind. We cycle some time alongside Loch Eck. The landscape is friendly, it reminds me of southern Norway, north of Kristiansand. It takes more than 30 kilometers to round Loch Fyne. This part is a bit boring: the road is fairly wide, and climbing is only moderate. At this moment we find out that the numbers on our map refer to miles instead of kilometers. This makes our planned day distances somewhat challenging, so we need to adjust.

Inveraray is located at the opposite of the Loch, and we arrive there by crossing a small, steep bridge. Inveraray is a nice little town. We buy ourselves a hamburger and groceries at the petrol pump. The A819 leading to the north is a boring moderate climb. The view from the “summit” (210 m) is excellent however: we can see the mountains surrounding Ben Cruachan, which are covered in snow above 900 meters.

Near the beautifully located Kilchurn Castle we chat with two fishermen with six rods. It appears they have not caught any fish today. It has been cold this winter and spring, delaying the fish in their journey upstream.

At Dalmally the lady behind the bar of the hotel fills our Ortlieb water bag. After five more kilometers on the wide A85 we turn left and continue onto the very small road through Glen Orchy. The river meanders calmly through this quiet valley, and there is hardly any traffic here. We decide to pitch our tent at the picnic place next to the wire bridge spanning the Orchy river. We cook and eat Bever nasi goreng at one of the tables. Rudi complains that it is cold here: time to let the frisbee fly in the evening sky. What a lovely place!

Day 3: Glen Orchy > Strontian (89 km)

On our beautiful camping spot next to the Orchy we have breakfast in the sun before jumping on our bikes. The first part of the trip through the glen is in the forest, with climbs every now and then. About half way the glen we can see a series of rapids, after which the valley opens up and we can see high hills in the distance. At the junction with A82 we turn left to the north. At the Bridge of Orchy, at which a railway station and a hotel are located, we drink a hot chocolate. By now, it has become bloody hot. We take off our long trousers and sweaters, and punt on sunscreen and our sunglasses.

When we continue our trip the landscape opens up even more. In the far distance we can see snow-capped mountains. The wide road is not very busy, but those that drive here tend to exceed the maximum speed wherever they can. Most drive carefully, although some overtake us with 100 kilometers an hour just when a car from the opposite approaches, which has no choice but to steer to the shoulder. Apparently, drivers here find it difficult to estimate the (low) speed of a cyclist.

After a simple climb we arrive at the first summit of our vacation. We are now on a plateau with lakes, with the impressive Meal à Bhuiridh dominating the western part of this area. From here we climb a bit further to 350 m after which we descent through the Glen Coe. Meanwhile we pass the Three Sisters, which remind me of the Eiger north face despite their more modest size.

After the descent we cycle over a bridge to the Inchree ferry, where Loch Linnhe is at its narrowest. At the other shore the roads the traffic is much less than what we experienced this morning. The part from Corran to Inversanda is wonderful. On our left we can see the Ben Nevis (1,345 m) covered in snow. Next we go in westward direction to the Glen Talbert. This stretch is quite hilly and demanding. When we arrive in Strontian Rudi is complaining about his knee, and lactic acid had built up in my legs. Time to stop.

The village’s fancy location next to the loch is in stark contrast to the shabby camping. Its only luxury accessory is a cork shower mat in the “bathroom”. We go to the modest village hotel and order the most expensive course, a £12.50 pound steak. Afterwards we drink beer in the hotel pub. Time stands still here. The barmaid continuously complains about her work: she would like to get a decent job, but to be able to do so she has figured out that she needs to study for three years, which is way too long as far as she’s concerned, and so she keeps complaining about her miserable situation as a barmaid. Yeah, sure.

Day 4: Strontian > Killiechronan (104 km)

From Strontian we almost immediately take the A884 to the south. A fairly steep climb lies ahead of us: 9% on average for several kilometers. Next we go down and then up again. Based on the map we had expected the road to Lochaline to be fairly easy, but in practice it’s very hilly. We really have to keep on going to get the ferry in time, which brings us to Fishnish Bay in just fifteen minutes.

We continue on the flat A849 to Graignure: the location of the ferry arriving from Oban. This village seems set for the tourist season in the summer, but now it is quiet. On a sunny terrace (26 °C) we order a Giant McGregor, the most expensive hamburger on the menu. We talk to a lady from Newcastle, who took off to the Hebrids directly after retirement. From here we can clearly see the Ben Nevis which lies at fifty kilometers distance. According to a local such a good view of Scotland’s highest summit is rare in this area.

From the road to the south we enjoy a magnificent view of the sea and the mountains on the mainland. Next we go westwards. We notice that lots of trees are being cut around here; the Scots are really into forest management. Our first impression was that the Scots cut the softwood to replace it by hardwood. But later we are told that it is regular timber production, just like in Scandinavia.

In the upper part of Glen More the landscape suddenly becomes rougher. Several valleys end at this saddle point. From a high point we can see lakes deep down below. A little bit further away there is a high hill (Corra Bheinn) with a funny pyramid-shaped summit. Rudi was here seven years ago as well, but at that time he couldn’t see anything due to the low-hanging clouds. Now the air is so crystal clear that we have to protect our skins with sun cream.

From Loch Scridain westwards on a very narrow coast road with lots of curves. On the top of a hill we are amazed by the spectacular view of the numerous islands in Loch na Keal, the gradually shaped eroded Ulva, and above all the steep cliffs of Balnahard. Meanwhile it is 6.30 pm and I had promised to make a phone call to home. My cell phone has no connection to the mobile network, so I try this old-fashioned red phone box instead. Apparently, British Telecom wants to discourage the use of these boxes, and I end up a lot of pounds poorer for just a few minutes calling.

The next part –a narrow road between the coast and the steep cliffs– is possibly the most beautiful part of this vacation. We are constantly looking how the water glistens in the evening sun. We camp right at the coastline, amidst the noisy birds. We cook a gigantic portion of spaghetti with fresh ingredients, and refresh ourselves in the bathroom at the car workshop located 400 meters down the road. What could we wish more?

Day 5: Killiechronan > Resipole (88 km)

Waking up at this magnificent camping site is a real pleasure. At 5 am we already can hear the geese. At 7.30 am, when we get out of our sleeping bags, three guys from Windsor with binoculars are standing behind our tent to watch birds. One of them says that a sea eagle with wings spanning of 2.5 meters has a nest close by. He also tells us about the English youth becoming fat: nowadays many boys have these bull necks. We could hang around for hours with the guy, but we have other plans. After breakfast on a rock in the loch we move on.

From the road we can see steep cliffs at the opposite side of the bay. We also pass the ferry going to Ulva, a scarcely inhabited island that is very popular among hikers. Near Kilminian the hilly road becomes very hilly (20%). A bench is standing just at the right spot for us to recover en enjoy the view. After another hundreds of meters climbing we descent to Calgary Bay. Given this name, I expect something grandiose but it is just a nicely situated bay with a sand beach. We eat a sandwich and take a caffeine shot.

The road leading from Calgary Bay to Tobermory is quite demanding. Three times in a row we have to ascent and descent an altitude difference of a few hundred meters. During the descent from Dervain we see one of the very few cyclists during our stay in Scotland. He wants to say something to us, but we have no time to socialize. The ferry to the north departs only once every 90 minutes. Tobermory itself is a town with colorfully painted houses nicely located around the small harbor. In the spare time I do some shopping in the Spar that is located in the former church building.

The ferry brings us to Kilchoan where we have to climb again. From there we can see the silhouettes of the islands of Rhum, Muck and Eigg rising from the sea. What a splendid view! After yet another hill we approach Loch Sunart. The remaining hilly kilometers to the campsite are very demanding. Sometimes the narrow road suddenly changes to a very wide road. WThe signs to the road inform us that we should the European Commission for that. A motorway will surely be useful to bring loads of tourists to this area, but for cyclists this is not ideal. Brussels, please keep your hands off these beautiful roads!

Day 6: Resipole > Breacais Losal (98 km)

From Resipole’s neat camping we leave for the north. The area around Loch Shiel and Loch Moidart are really nice. Unfortunately my hamstrings hurt – probably due to yesterday’s climbing efforts. From Glenuig Bay we have an excellent view of the islands Eigg and Rùm, and from here we can even see Skye. We leave the boring A861 and follow the wide A830 where people drive fast – not bicyclist-friendly at all. The few stretches of paved cycling lanes are too bumpy to descent comfortably. Therefore we feel relieved when we can leave this road in Arisaig, and take the nice old coastal road to Morar, which goes up-and-down. We pass small beaches and bays with rocks covered with algae, and have splendid views of the islands mentioned before.

The remaining kilometers to Mallaig we follow the main road again. Unfortunately, we miss the ferry by just a few minutes. This is not a big deal as it allows us to take some time to eat fish and chips on a terrace in the sun. At 6 pm we take the next boat. On Skye we jump on our bicycles and head north. Our quite detailed Ordnance map shows two campsites in Brecais: one appears to be a gipsy trailer park while the other is non-existing – wherever we look. At the very moment our mood gets real bad, we ask a driver if he knows a nearby camp site. He confirms that indeed there are none in this area, and –to our surprise– invites us to stay in his garden instead.

We gladly accept the invitation. His little white house at the sea is just a few kilometers cycling. While we are pitching the tent in the long grass he brings us beer. And when I hint to him that we cannot expect him to take such care of us, he says we can take a shower inside and starts cooking. He –his name is Peter Dunlop– lives here alone in this cozy house. His wife past away eighteen months ago, and his daughter works at the University of Edinburgh. Peter presents a weekly jazz program on Cuillin FM, “the” ultimate Skye radio station: food for conversation with fellow jazz-addict Rudi. After the delicious pasta, beer, wine, and local oatcakes, he lets us taste some of his finest whiskeys – what a great evening! It is 1.30 am when we totter to the tent and fall asleep.

Day 7: Breacais losal > Elgol (30 km)

Today we enjoy a relax day on the island of Skye. When we get up at 9 am, Peter has already left for work. He has left the door open for us, so we can refresh ourselves. At the end of the morning we return the key at his office, a print shop in Broadford. We also bring him a present: a bottle of Tobermory whisky. Next we head to the southwest on the narrow B8083. We don’t see traces of the former mining area and railroad. We take a short break at a ruin of a church with old family graves.

From the township of Torrin at Loch Slaping onwards the route gets more scenic. After a long but not too steep climb we arrive at the first houses of Elgol. Like anywhere in this coastal area most houses are white. What follows is a very steep descent to the coast. Down here there we see only a pier and a parking place, and not, as I had imagined, a nice little fishery village. From here people come to make boat trips to Rùm, Eigg or Coruisk. After a short photo shoot we are done here.

There is no hotel or camping at the coast side, and we can’t see a good place to pitch the tent. This leaves us no choice but to return. This means we have to climb 15 to 25% on average during one kilometer, which is pretty tough with all the luggage mounted to our bikes. After we have dropped off our stuff at a Bed & Breakfast, we go for a walk along the coastline to the north. We try to get a good view of the Cuillins, Skye’s highest summits, which rise high from the sea.

Later that night we have dinner at the only restaurant in the whole area: the Seafood Restaurant. The food is excellent and the service is friendly. Rudi orders giant crab legs, fresh out of the sea. The practical issue here is that these legs, one after another, have to be hit quite hard, which is time-consuming. Fortunately, the restaurant brings him a giant hammer. After a shower we go to sleep in a real bed. We have a long cycling day to look forward to tomorrow.

Day 8: Elgol > Applecross (103 km)

We say goodbye to the friendly host of the B&B. With the sun visible again we ride to the north-east. From Broadford we take the A87: a dull, wide road. We quickly arrive at the peculiarly curved bridge to Kyle of Lochalsh. On the mainland we get off the main road and take the coastal road to Achmore. But coastal means here that we have to climb quite some hills and hardly see the coast at all because of the high hedges.

According to the travel guides Plockton is worth a visit but we do not have time for that. Durinish is a nice village where the road to the local bridge is steep. From here we cycle through the forest for a while until the junction with the wide A890. We notice a funny traffic sign ‘Stromeferry (no ferry)’. This stretch offers a number of unnecessary steep climbs (up to 18%). At Stratcarron we are at the most eastern part of Loch Carron. After 75 kilometers of headwind we go westwards at great speed with the wind in our back. The road to Ardarroch is very steep.

In Tornapress we continue onto the beautiful road to Applecross, which is Scotland’s highest paved pass road. The first few kilometers the oncoming drivers make gestures meaning ‘good luck’, ‘come on’, or perhaps ‘idiots!’ – I wouldn’t know. The narrow road through the valley is demanding yet feasible: the first few kilometers only 3 to 5%, next a few kilometers 8 to 10%, followed by one kilometer of 12 to 18%, and ending with several 8 to 10% steep hairpins.

At the summit (626 m) we enjoy a magical view of Skye. The descent to the sea level is superb. High speeds are possible here, although the road is narrow and has numerous curves. Almost down we see the deer amongst the sheep in the meadow. Applecross’ camping site is just perfect. In pre-season there are already plenty of guests; it must be really crowded in summer. In the local pub we toast to this wonderful day.

Day 9: Applecross > Gairloch (104 km)

When we start cycling we see Applecross’ romantic white church. Thanks to the excellent weather we keep for a long time a view of the mountains of Skye at the other side of the Inner Sound. Except for a handful of tourists this area is deserted. Alongside the whole west coast of this peninsula we count fifteen houses, at most. The closer we get to the northern edge the road becomes hillier: every time 50 meters up at 10 to 12% and then down again… exhausting. On the other hand, the narrow and varied road distracts us from thinking of the aching legs.

When we see Rona’s lighthouse at the opposite of the Inner Sound we round the cape of the peninsula. We now head for the mountains on Wester Ross. First we have to climb steeps hills for fifteen kilometers. In Shieldaig the Australian waitresses serve hamburgers with French fries. After this village the A896 is far less hilly, as is the road through Glen Torridon, a valley dominated by 1000 meters’ high summits.

Rudi is saddle-sore and his hamstring hurts as well, and I also don’t feel so comfortable any more. We consider the option to stop in Kinlochewe, but that appears one of the Caravanning Club (‘Sorry – No tents’). So we decide to cycle another 30 kilometers. By the skin of our teeth we move on to the north west, this time along Loch Maree. We pitch our tent on a campsite on a plateau in the middle of Gairloch. There are many caravans here. The British really love caravans, especially the seven meters’ long ones with double axes. The elderly only get out of their caravans to let out their little dogs, as it seems. Without the ugly caravans we would definitely have had a magnificent view of the bay.

Day 10: Gairloch > Ullapool (93 km)

In order to leave Gairloch we need to cycle 10% on average for 1.5 kilometer, which is not very good for the cold muscles. We are glad that the slopes that follow are less steep. When we arrive at Loch Ewe we notice concrete structures in the water: what are these? The information panel explains: during WWII this bay was an important assembling location for freight transport to Murmansk (“the Arctic route”). The loch must have been full with ships. What remains now are parts of piers and anti-aircraft guns.

At Little Gruinard we climb from a nice sand beach to Mungasdale. Back down again the road along Little Loch Broom is easy. According to our map it would be possible near Dundonnel to cut off the main road and take a ferry to Ullapool, but unfortunately a road sign states ‘No ferry’. From here the A893 becomes a strenuous climb. We are confronted with headwind and rain. When we finally arrive at the pass height, it stops raking and the sun breaks through. The landscape is panoramic. We see white fences –some fallen down–, a beautifully illuminated landscape and ominous clouds. Truly magnificent!

During the descent to the A835 we have a good view of the valley towards Loch Broom. It looks like the Norwegian fjords here. The last part to Ullapool takes longer than expected. In the middle of the town we find the camping. When I call home, I can see the dark grey clouds that have accumulated above the loch and head in our direction. Only seconds after Rudi has pitched the tent it starts pouring heavily – for 90 minutes. A soon as it stops raining we head for the Ullapool town center. We have a (very poor!) meal in the Publican Seafood Pub of the Year 2006.

Day 11: Ullapool > Achmelvich (57 km)

Last night it rained, but today the sun shines all day long. We do our shopping (for the next days) at the local supermarket, because we have heard that there is no supermarket in Lochinver. I order tickets for the train journey from Inverness to Glasgow in a few days. Ordering now is smart because Scottish Railways offers very limited space for bicycles. The lady on the line talks so fast and with such an accent that I can hardly understand her when she passes on the codes. Luckily I will find out later that I have received, without noticing, a big discount on the regular prices.

From Ullapool to the north we immediately have to climb a lot. After about twenty kilometers we turn left from the A835 in the direction of Loch-Lurgainn. This up and down, winding road suits us well. We see beautiful mountains on both sides of the lake. There is much Scottish broom growing along the road, which in fact is not indicated as a green road on the Michelin map. You can probably “buy” such a green indication if you want to be listed in the restaurant guide, and there are no restaurants here. The sun burns so intensely that I get blisters on my ears despite good application of sun cream.

Next we turn right to Lochinver. This narrow, hilly and unnumbered road is a real beauty! Every single kilometer there’s something new to see: one time you’re almost at the top of a hill with wide views, next you end up in a Cévennes-like valley, and then you arrive at the Côte d’Azur. Very striking is the Suilven (731 m): a long-stretched hill that stops abruptly on one side. On that side the mountain looks like a kind of Matterhorn – really weird! It is also nice that there is little traffic around here, and caravans are not allowed (ha ha ha!). In Lochinver there appears to be a well-equipped Spar after all, so we have been bringing groceries from Ullapool in vain. To ease the pain we buy a bottle of wine, chocolate and crisps.

From Lochinver it is only six kilometers to the campsite in Achmelvich. The road turns out to be very hilly, with at the final stretch a steep descent to a bay on the rugged coast. The campsite is located next to a white sandy beach with green-blue colored water. We pitch our tent right next to the water. And that for just 3 pounds per person. This is the best campsite ever. Next to us is a nice Scotsman who is relieved to go outdoors now that his wife is away on a trip with friends for a week. He tells about his long distance bike ride through Scotland with his father, who was already 75 years old at the time. That father wanted to keep riding a men’s road bike despite his stiff body, so he would always stand on a stone or sidewalk to get his leg over the saddle. That’s the spirit!

Day 12: Achmelvich > Invercassley (91 km)

It’s Judgement Day for us: today’s route, which runs along the west and north coasts of Assynt, is known as Scotland’s most hilly road. And it all starts well: within fifteen minutes we already have climbed 150 meters. And indeed we are going to continuously ascend and descend for the rest of the day. All climbs are 10 to 15%, but never too long.

In the village of Stoer the roof of the church is blown off. At Clashnessie the water comes from the sea in one 400 meter wide roll to the beach. We don’t have that in the Netherlands. In tiny Drumbeg we buy a baguette in the excellent supermarket. And then suddenly the rain starts pouring down on us. Luckily we can hide under some kind of shelter. When we continue, the road becomes even steeper, up to 25%. Although this is still feasible, with a rain suit on we are sweating a lot.

When we arrive at the junction with the wide A894, we have already climbed 900 meters. During the next part we have to climb even more, but by now it becomes more gradual. We finally catch up with two cyclists making a daytrip who have been in sight for twenty kilometers. And yes: overtaking them gives us a kick. Afterwards we descend to Loch Assynth. As soon as we reach the picturesque ruin of Ardvreck Castle, the sun breaks through. At Inchnadamph a beautiful mountain wall bathes in the warm sunlight.

From here it is ten kilometers to Ledmore, where we turn to the A837, into the valley of the Oykel. Behind us the beautiful peaks that determine the vast landscape are getting smaller and smaller. We have a cup of coffee at a motel, where a gigantic wood-burning stove is roaring. After this we continue on the quiet, narrow road through the green and less and less rough valley. The old Oykel Bridge is constructed very high above the river that bears the same name. At Invercassley we get water and beer at a hotel. Because there are no campsites around here, we put up our tent next on a picnic area a bit further on. We dine in a log cabin that normally serves as a nature education center.

Day 13: Invercassley > Inverness (102 km)

This morning we get up early and pack up quickly. Rudi is afraid that a forester will catch us at this nature education site. Therefore, after a quick breakfast in the log cabin we jump on our bikes and go. The A837 only goes down slightly for the time being. At Fearn Lodge we turn right onto the B9176, a steep climb to about 240 m. The view is not impressive after what we’ve seen in recent weeks. It starts to rain. All the way through the Easter Ross area rain and sun follow-up quickly: just when we’ve put on rain suits, it stops raining again.

After the descent we don’t have to take the busy A9. On my Google Maps I can see a parallel road along Evanton. That’s where Rudi and I are hiding for the sudden rain in a phone booth. We have to climb a lot on this nice, rural road. From Dingwall on the road becomes very busy. At Beauly’s, Rudi’s knee also starts to hurt. “Hold on a bit longer”, I say, “We’re almost at the finish line!” The closer we get to Inverness, the faster the people drive. Sometimes they’re really irresponsible: overtaking us and return to the own lane at the very last moment – almost hitting the oncoming car.

At first sight Inverness is a busy and messy city. But when we arrive there we realize that it’s peak time. First we go to the station. In Ullapool I had reserved train tickets for us and the bikes, and I want to collect them. While she prints out about twelve tickets for us, the lady at the counter says that we were lucky with the ticket price: it’s at least half the price we would normally have to pay. Unfortunately, the direct trains to Glasgow do not offer room for bicycles, so we have to go via Aberdeen instead.

The city campsite is located two and a half kilometers to the south, next to the local sports complex of Inverness. Rudi and I confiscate the only table in the tent field. We eat delicious curry with turkey, vegetables and rice. For the third time this holiday we stand next to the same German couple who are touring by bus; what a small world. In the pub we toast on our Scotland trip. Tomorrow we go back to Glasgow, and from there to the Netherlands. We are very satisfied with this cycling holiday!