When you live on the south coast, Scotland seems an awful long way away. Well, it is in fact almost a thousand kilometres from where we currently live in Sussex. However, you can step on the Caledonian Sleeper train in London Euston one evening and arrive to wild, breathtaking views of the Scottish Highlands from your cabin window the following morning. Bikes and luggage all on aboard. Magic.
(That's apart from having to move our bikes from one carriage to another when the train split at 2am...)Our aim was leaving the city buzz behind and immersing ourselves in raw wilderness, sprinkled with a hint of unique Scottish culture - reaching Cape Wrath, the north-westernmost point of mainland Britain and to return to Fort William to catch our (pre-booked) return train within 7 days.While we planned the first part of this trip quite rigorously (wanting to take in as much of Scotland's incredible off-road trail network as possible and fit in at least one bothy night!), most of the second part of our route evolved as we went along.To stand a chance to catch our train while still enjoying a more leisurely pace, we decided to stick to the road for Days 5-7, a lot of it following the stunning but sometimes busy North Coast 500 route.
Time was tight in the end so we even had to jump on a train once we got off the ferry in Mallaig to get back to Fort William. That's in case you're wondering where the last 70ish km have gone.. Considering this was Scotland, we were extremely lucky with the weather and May tends to be a great time to avoid the midges! This was, without a doubt one of the most memorable cycling trips I've been on, offering everything from raw, intimidating but beautiful mountain scenes to picture-postcard sea views, seals (!), seemingly endless off-road paths to smooth tarmac, solitude to tourist-galore.
Waking up to the Scottish Highlands as a backdrop is just incredible and starting your ride straight off the train, carrying everything you need for the week ahead certainly is a special feeling, even more so when you're greeted with shorts weather! How lucky were we? This is Scotland after all!The destination for the night was Muir de Ord, a village just to the west of Inverness. This was actually the only accommodation we had pre-booked for the entire trip. We knew our aim was to get to Cape Wrath, the northwesternmost point of the British Isles and back to Fort William within a week, but we hadn't made a strict plan of how exactly this would look like which certainly added to the sense of adventure.Our journey started – nice and flat for the first 30 miles – from Fort William station almost immediately along the Caledonian Canal which connects the east and west coast and those stunning, famous lochs along the Great Glen fault between Fort William and Inverness. At Fort Augustus, in the light of some climbs ahead, we treated ourselves to some extra greasy cheesy chips from possibly the most touristy fish & chips shop around. Just what we needed - guilty pleasures, eh! :) The Great Glen Way turned out to be a bit of gravel dream, almost instantly felt really remote and, if you take the High Route, you'll be treated to unforgettable views across Loch Ness and beyond. It was only the last 15 miles or so that we headed inland away from the water and faced a bit of traffic to reach Muir of Ord, where we stayed with a friendly private host.
After a comfortable night sleep, hearty breakfast, equipment check, local supermarket shop and more great weather on the horizon, we felt geared up to venture further into Scottish wilderness for that day's ride..and that day's night: We had been eyeing up the Schoolhouse Bothy as a potential accommodation spot from the comfort of our Sussex home. But of course, as with any bothy, you can never expect it to have space so we considered a few alternatives just in case.To reach the bothy and make further progress to the northwesternmost tip, we continues inland in that direction.First, we simply followed the relatively busy but mostly wide enough A835 out of the village for about 20 miles. But the real fun began when we turned off the main road – right before Loch Glascarnoch following Black Water stream. Soon tarmac turned into gravel as we continued to gain elevation and the scenery turned more and more dramatic: a gloomy yet stunning Highland dreamland in shades of greens, grays and browns.Just over 30 miles in we stopped for lunch (i.e. our preprepared cheese sandwiches), ate and laid on the grass just outside a moss-roofed hunters shed, feeling thankful and happy.We reached the bothy early evening and were delighted to find it empty.
As the name suggests, this Schoolhouse bothy (also known as Duag Bridge) is said to have functioned as a school up until the 1930s. There's no stove or running water but it was mild enough (and we packed our super thermal sleeping bags and mats). We had a quick refresh in the river nearby and were also able to filter some of its water.
What an amazing place to spend the night at!
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More incredible weather and more incredible landscape that would see us reach the North Sea in just over 70 miles: Day 3 of our trip was text book bikepacking adventure material.
From accidental bucket list climbs to river crossings, endless gravel roads and a lost lamb rescue attempt.We decided on Durness, a small but touristy (because stunning!) little village on the north coast boasting white sandy beaches and cliff landscapes as the day's destination. Worth the 12 miles of nasty headwind to finish the day.Perhaps an antidote to the sense of adventure we experienced that day, we ended up staying in quite a posh hotel for the night. That's because little did we know that the Cape Wrath Marathon had been taking place the same day resulting in accommodation being widely booked out. You won't hear me complain about the hot shower, super soft bedding and delicious breakfast though.
Will ride for puffins! Day 4 of our adventure and the day we'd reach the place that inspired the whole trip – Cape Wrath, Britain's most north-westerly point. Having stayed the night before in Durness we were already super close, well that's at a quick glance at the map. But having done our research we knew, not only was the Cape separated from the rest of the mainline by water (Kyle of Durness) and hence requiring a ferry.; but also the conditions are rough over there even in reasonable weather. So while it was a mere 12 miles to reach the tip, it was probably the most consuming part of the day's journey.
Yet it was also the best. We may not have seen any puffins and also decided against staying in the legendary Kearvaig bothy, not only because there was already a group of guys staying but also because we had to continue to make our way back down south if we were to make our train mid week!
Going all the way to see the lighthouse and cliffs was still the absolute highlight of the trip. Never has a hot cup of tea and slice of cake tested better than in the the Ozone cafe that day. And did I mention the seals we spotted? With wetter weather on the horizon and a lot of miles to cover over the next 3 days, this part marked the end of our off-road heavy terrain choice. However, following much of the North Coast 500 route, this certainly wasn't the end to stunning vistas – picturesque fishing villages, some Whisky tasting and friendly locals were awaiting too...With heavy, persistent rain, the weather really did turn as we started to make our way south so we decided to call it day with just under half a century in our legs, where we were lucky to find a lovely B&B in Scourie last minute.
Being clear it would likely be the wettest day of the trip, we opted for the most direct route further south following the A837 and then A835.
There was still plenty of beautiful scenery and some great road riding to be had but I remember just having my head down for most of it, dreaming of a hot shower. Having to granny-ring it downhill because of strong headwinds was some kind of special :)In the end, we cut our day short again and decided to stay in Ullapool where there was a good choice of accommodation, places to eat...and definitely a pub to sample some Whisky.
You may spot the waterproofs were still out but thankfully the sun made a welcome reappearance as the day went on.There are no direct routes in this part of Scotland so what looks like a short distance on the map, ended up another 70-mile + road ride in our quest to make our way back to Fort William to catch our train with just two days riding left.These are extra miles worth riding though amidst spectacular landscapes and including some great cafe stops. The Whistle Stop cafe, where we stopped for lunch, is one such iconic stop, well-known and loved by locals and visitors alike – and a popular refuel stop for those brave riders on the infamous Highland Trail 550. For a good 10 miles we also ended up following the same stretch of road we had taken on day 2, namely along the A835 between Loch Glascarnoch and just north of Garve. At that point we turned left onto the A832 making our way back to the west coast. With a bit more time we'd have loved to explore the trails around nearby Torridon but what was on offer on tarmac certainly wasn't anything to complain about. Quite the opposite, I don't think I'll ever forget the views as we approached Shieldiag, the day's destination, and the dinner we treated ourselves to in the breathtaking bay of this fishing village itself as the sun set.So why not ride straight back down to Fort William the way we came up if we were in such a rush? Well, we had one more thing on our wishlist and that was a quick excursion to the Isle of Skye..
Day 8 of our Highland bikepacking adventure and the final piece to the puzzle..Leaving Shieldaig early we made our way south following the coast towards the Kyle of Lochalsh. The main road wasn't too busy but we soon discovered there was a small, local road running parallel which I remember being absolutely delightful to ride, connecting little fishing villages, some advertising seal-spotting boat trips! And we were blessed with amazing weather once more!We then followed the relatively busy A87 further west crossing onto the island via the Skye Bridge (which has a path suitable for cyclists). We were happy to find another great cycling path along one of the the busier road stretches on the island.Things got more calm and picturesque as we made our way towards Armadale, hugging the south-eastern coat line looking out over the glistening calm sea.After some celebratory ice cream in the sun, from there we took a ferry – that's a proper ferry this time, not just a man with a boat and a mobile number as was the case at the now distant Kyle of Durness ;) – to Mallaig, back on the mainland.This marked the end of our riding adventure. We thought long and hard about trying to ride the final 40 miles back to Fort William to complete the loop but we would've cut it very fine to catch our train so opted for a local train instead. Not a defeat though, just more time to relax and reflect and it was't just any old train ride but one that takes in the famous 21-arched Glenfinnan Viaduct! We arrived back in Fort William with enough time to grab some food before settling into our sleeper train cabin. And before you ask, yes we did have to move the bikes again when the train split but thankfully this time, this happened only a few hours in, in Edinburgh, so we ended up with a half decent night's sleep after that..Without a doubt one of the most incredible bike trips I've ever been on. Got to love Scotland!