A9 Mini Tour
The idea for this trip was both simple and complex - a trip up the A9 to Inverness. That sounds straightforward enough, but the reasons behind it added to the planning requirement and to the emotional baggage being transported along the way.
As a child, our family holidays would see us flitting north in the Morris Traveller. Dad driving, mum keeping my brother and I in check, Kandy the sheltie sleeping and dreaming of chasing birds around the campsite. Our most common destination was to the lands north of Inverness and this would entail a 2-day journey up Scotland’s Great North Road. These times with my father were especially meaningful. He worked long hours and shift patterns might mean we didn’t see him for days on end. At the beginning of 2010, my father succumbed to the effects of cancer and that put in train a long-held plan to cycle the A9, using as much of the “old” road as could still be found.
Getting the time to do such a trip had also become a lot easier since I had left HBOS, 33 years to the day after starting there – and that added another emotional string. One of my first “life-changing” buys after starting work was a Honda motorbike. At last, I could take myself off around the world, and what would be my first trip? The North of course – and still using much of the old A9. By a quirk of timing, it transpired that I’d be undertaking this trip 33 years to the day since my own first motorised exploration. Karma.
So, a lot of time was spent at home. OS maps, Google Earth and older maps were all used to try to spot bits of the A9 which had now been bypassed or cut-off by later developments. Carefully plotting these into a GPS gave me a route and annotating paper maps gave me points to look out for as I went. All that was left was to find some accommodation at a convenient midway point and visitscotland.com threw up a perfect answer in Blair Atholl.
The bike I was going to use had been carefully specified. My trusty Kona Sutra tourer would have done the job admirably, but I’d always wanted something a bit lighter and nippier. The Van Nicholas Amazon fitted the description and with a little luggage carrying capability it would be perfect for this trip.
Starting a trip from home is fine, but I’d been looking for somewhere a bit more meaningful. So, early morning saw me heading east into Edinburgh and up to the castle esplanade. The weather was a bit damp, but little breeze. Perching the Amazon against a security barrier, I took the first photo, posted it to Facebook and headed off.
As far as Perth, I’d be using the A90. This was the route we mostly used, even before the Forth Road Bridge was opened, as my father preferred that to the route through Stirling. On the bike, that meant Queensferry Road out to the Cramond Brig, then crossing over onto the cycle path into South Queensferry. Strangely enough, this was the first time I’d cycled this route and I actually found it quite straightforward – if a little narrow in places.
The steep downhill under the Forth Bridge got the brakes all worked up and I stopped for photo 2 – the old ferry pier. This would have been the scene of long, frustrating queues prior to the FRB opening.
The cobbled streets of South Queensferry made an uncomfortable route to the FRB, where the western cycle path was indicated. A bit of a shame this as it spoils the views of the Rail Bridge. Off the FRB and I decided to head down the steps, and into North Queensferry to the other pier. Looking at the short distance across the water, it seemed to have taken me a remarkably long time to get here! Still, at least the weather was picking up and I could disrobe a little.
The onward route across Fife was easily plotted on the map, if a little confusing on the ground, but I soon found myself through Inverkeithing and Cowdenbeath, remembering that we often used to stop for chips there. Heading out of Cowdenbeath, the A909 becomes the B996 and is actually called “The Great North Road”. This, and the number of hotels and garages along this section, bore testimony to the previous status of this quiet B road.
At Kinross, I decided it was time to stop for a break and the perfect little tearoom hove into view. Café 98 provided the perfect excuse for food and drink – and cake!
After a suitable break, it was off again and soon onto one of the first “missing” sections. Just outside Milnathort, the new M90 and A91 have a major interchange. In building this, the line of the old A90 has been subsumed into a field, the only remaining evidence being the wide swathe of tarmac at the gate.
From here, another notorious section of road winds through dark and damp Glenfarg. The tight bends and narrow road made this a complete bottleneck at busy times – like the first Saturday of the Edinburgh holidays! It’s much quieter now. Sheltered from any wind and avoiding the climb and descent of the M90, it’s almost a surprise to suddenly see the wide valley of the River Earn appear. Wide valleys often have a downside though – and today that would be a stonking headwind. With no shelter to speak off, it was just a grind-it-out push to the climb into Perth. The road builders have actually seen fit to add a wide pavement on the interchange section, handy when climbing as it’s out of the way of the faster traffic. However, this pavement soon deteriorates as it drops into Perth itself and I took to the road to avoid the poor surface.
So far, the journey had been pleasant enough, but heading out of Perth on the “Motor Mile”, I was suddenly hit by a wave of emotion. It was as though I was really starting my journey just here – crossing the Tay signifying a barrier between the Central belt and my beloved Highlands. And now – at last – I was on the A9 proper.
My first checkpoint was the Broxden roundabout. My research had shown that the old A9 still existed for some distance and that an old bridge was still intact. At first I struggled to find it, but there it was, now carefully hidden behind ranks of new cars.
It didn’t go on for long before leaving me back on the dual-carriageway of the new A9. Discretion being the better part of valour, I crossed the road with the bike and made it to the nicely constructed cycle path running parallel to the east carriageway. However, I knew that this wouldn’t be for long and soon spotted the bus stop I’d been looking for. Another quick crossing and I ducked down a little muddy footpath and on to my second “hidden section”. This one was quite a bit longer, taking me into the village of Luncarty – but not before I discovered a fantastically banked corner. It had never occurred to me that cambers were so pronounced, but I guess that something had to be done to keep fast vehicles on corners before the roads were all straightened out.
A little north of Luncarty, the old road has been completely obliterated by the new. This would be the first stretch where I would have to mix it with the faster traffic. However, by keeping my eyes open, I managed to spot another couple of old sections of road, so stopped, lifted the bike over the required fences and took some photos for posterity. Next was a section I’d actually driven recently – Bankfoot to Birnam. It’s hard to imagine what life in little Bankfoot must have been like when this was the main road north as it has now turned into a very pleasant little village full, I guess, of Perth commuters.
The hamlet of Waterloo comes along next and provided one of those flashback moments as I’d recall my dad joking that we had driven “a long way” to make it that far. Did we get that same joke very year? I reckon so. The tree cover on the drop in to Birnam is very thick and seemed to be hanging on to the damp air. Coupled with a sudden burst of speed, I suddenly became quite chilled.
Just after crossing the new A9, I noticed a section of tarmac off to my right. Somehow, it just didn’t look right and right enough, it turned out to be another lost section of road. With a full-width fence across it, I left the bike and went for a wee wander. However, it was plain it would go on for a bit, so I man-handled the bike past the fence and set off in discovery mode. After the inevitable fly-tip, a bit of bog and a precariously fallen tree, the tarmac ended and it was difficult to make out where it had gone. Heading back past the fence, I found a couple of elderly locals and did some gentle questioning. Of course, I had to explain just why I was looking for these bits of road and I think they were both amused and perplexed by my reasoning. They couldn’t really provide much help, so my only option was to go right back along the new A9 and try to spot it from there.
After a few hundred meters, I came to the conclusion that the severity of land modelling hereabouts had completely removed all traces of the old road. What struck me even more, however, was how quickly the tree cover had returned to reclaim the land. Back to the Birnam road and I spotted another wee section now encapsulated within someones garden!
The route now took me through Birnam and into Dunkeld. After crossing the bridge, I spotted a small bakery and settled in to grab my second lunch of the day. It was only after ordering that I realised I’d got in 2 minutes before they were due to close! However, they served me without a grumble and simply cleaned up around me. I knew that there was another small hilly section to go, so didn’t hang around long anyway.
Climbing out of Dunkeld was a bit strenuous after my short break, but looking down on the new road well below was very pleasing – more so was the fast run down to meet it. From here – and for some distance – I knew I’d be relegated to a cycle path running alongside the new road. As this heads north, it does however use some very nice sections of old road, through Kindallachan and into Ballinluig. Tempted though I was to stop here, I settled for a brief photo and then had one of my most unpleasant experiences as the old road just peters out with no way forward.
One option was to backtrack to the motor grill in Ballanluig and take the NCN route up the west side of the river valley. However, this was well off the A9 route and would miss out some sections I knew still existed. From my experience of the Etape Caledonia I also knew that it had some severe wee hills on it, as opposed to the almost flat run in I otherwise had. The only other option was to get onto the dual-carriageway and hope to stay well out of anyones way. Staying true to my principles, I opted for the latter. I pedalled for all I was worth along here, tired or not, in order to get it over with. Luckily, it’s only a couple of kilometres before a minor road puts in an appearance and provides an escape route.
From here, I knew it wouldn’t be long before Blair Atholl, so I slowed down a bit, did some more ad hoc road finding and settled in for the pleasant cycle through Pitlochry and then Killiecrankie.
The sign for Blair Atholl was a pleasant reward. I’d made decent enough time despite all my detours and stops, felt pretty good, and it was early enough to relax and enjoy the evening.
The Guest House (Dalgriene) turned out to be a major find. Not only was the owner extremely welcoming, he also laid on some scones and coffee for me. Opting for this before showering, I also struck up a conversation with another guest – Ian – who was doing a LeJOG run. While I was impressed with his stamina, he was similarly taken aback by my daily mileage. We traded notes on bikes and luggage and then he told me he was mostly camping, this being a rare soft bed for the night.
After a bit of a brush-up, I opted for dinner at the Atholl Arms. It’s difficult to know what to say about this. The beer was good, but the food was mainly a bit of a let-down, saved only by dessert. Still, I left feeling rather full and contented, a warm glow in my cheeks and deserving of a good nights sleep.
I must remember to take my own black-out blinds with me. I was awake very early, daylight streaming through the thin curtains and every bird in Perthshire giving auditions for X Factor outside my window. By the time breakfast was served, I had already prepared everything for the day. Energy bars were handily placed in my bar bag, energy drinks made up in the two bottles using the single-shot sized Torq I‘d decided to take.
Breakfast was a leisurely affair, chatting to a couple off to do the off-road Tour of the Cairngorms and an American chap doing some clan research. 4 cyclists out of 5 guests? Ian had apparently set off much earlier, having been provided with a cold breakfast on a tray. Retrieving the bike from the shed, everything looked in tip-top order, so it was off to do battle with the days number one foe – the Pass of Drumochter.
The sign at the start of the cycle path at Calvine made the whole thing rather more daunting than it need be. Warning of road closures due to snow and here we were in May!
The route itself, however, is a bit of a gem. Staying well away from the new road for a while, it’s quiet, partially overgrown and a haven for wildlife. Red Squirrel and Roe Deer were both spotted along here while the road climbed slowly upwards. Occasionally, I’d begin to expect some major gradient, but the road planners had managed to somehow hide the climb until the very last moment, where the path meets the new road at Dalnacardoch.
The path now became a very loose, gravelly and, in places, potholed obstacle course, diving on and off old sections of road and with some interesting wooden bridges to treat as a slalom course. Eventually reaching the “Drumochter Summit” signs, I opted to take a breather. While the climb hadn’t exactly been hard, it had certainly been quite slow. A glance at the time indicated that I needed to speed up a little now. With the prospect of going downhill all the way to Aviemore, I headed off for a well-earned break at Dalwhinnie. Well, it would have been a well-earned break at Dalwhinnie if the hotel had actually been open instead of being closed for some extended spring break. Ah ha – I thought – the distillery does tours, I’ll pop into their café. Oh no – I was informed at the gate, we don’t have a café…. Oh well, downing another Torq bar, I headed off on the next section of road, one I’d driven along a few times now.
At Crubenmore, I managed to avoid getting drawn into a “which is General Wades Road” investigation - that’s for another journey – and headed onto a section of old road I’d often seen from the new one. Reasonably wide, and well surfaced (bar one section across a bridge) it was a fast run down on to the slip-road to the Ralia café and, finally, a proper break.
While the café itself is rather well finished, I was a bit let down by the selection of food. As a “Highland Gateway” centre, it would have been nicer to have had fresh food on sale instead of it all being pre-wrapped and with generic “Made in Scotland” branding. However, I settled in to a bowl of soup just in time to see a major storm cloud arrive and dump its, not inconsiderable, contents over Speyside.
I knew it was too much to hope for a completely dry run, so was not overly put out and by the time I’d finished up and got myself organised, it had all but passed by, leaving wet, steaming roads.
As with many of the town and villages along my route, Newtonmore and Kingussie must also have seen a lot of change over the past few years. Once busy high streets now relegated to local traffic. As places to live, they’ll have become a lot more pleasant with the drop in traffic. However, a drop in passing trade must have had an impact on local employment too.
Diversifying into more tourism obviously helps, so places like the Highland Folk Museum and Highland Wildlife Park are providing mush more that just an interesting view of the past – they are very much part of the future of the area. Between these two villages, a rather pleasant wee cycle path has been laid out and I opted to take this for a respite from the traffic around some quite fast bendy roads.
In Kingussie itself, NCN7 again strikes off for a less direct route and I cracked on through Kincraig and Alvie to Aviemore. I opted to carry on here (stopping only for more cash). Partly, I felt it hadn’t been long since Ralia, but it also seemed almost too busy for me. After only a day and a half on the bike, I’d become used to my own thoughts, not this constant bustle. Besides, I knew another option was up ahead.
The road to Carrbridge seemed to be very busy compared with my recent routes and it was undertaken with little enjoyment, until, that is, I reached the café I’d been waiting for. I’ve stopped here a few times over the years and never been disappointed by the quality of the food or the friendliness of the service. These little oases are part of what makes the whole road touring vibe so pleasant.
Another brief respite, and once again it’s uphill with cold muscles. The pull up to Slochd is, however, rather pleasant and the “Summit” sign is another significant milestone reached.
I’m also now pleasantly surprised by the time of day and it’s clear I’ll have a non-rushed run in to Inverness. This perks me up and I set off down through Tomatin, only briefly taking a wrong turn when a school bus has parked in front of the NCN7 road sign.
Another mix of old road and new cycle path takes me to the only real divergence of the day. The new road heads across the moors, directly for Moy and Inverness, while the old road takes a more northerly route avoiding some high ground. This is a section I can’t recall at all. Maybe I was always tired when we reached here? Counting down the miles, I’m suddenly aware of the rear tyre feeling very harsh. I stop, look down, and right enough – I’ve punctured. As if by some divine hand, it also gets a little darker, colder and I’m hit by a hail shower. Oh joy!
The wheel and old tube come out easily enough and I find a little piece of glass in the tyre. Quickly removed, I get the tyre back on and start pumping away. All starts well, until I’m just a little too enthusiastic and a sudden bang and release of air indicates I’ve managed to rip the valve off. With little choice, I set about repairing the original tube, fit it and pump it up v-e-r-y carefully. I’m aware it’s not really up to a decent pressure, but with 16km to go, I reckon it’ll do just fine.
As I pack up, the hail and rain stops and the sun comes out again.
Another major route choice now lies ahead. NCN7 strikes off for yet another detour, this time for Culloden. However, I opt to stay on the old A9 and work my way on to yet another abandoned bridge just South of Daviot. So complete has been the road remodelling here, I have to drag the bike up a big embankment and on to the new A9 for only the third time on my trip.
A short hop up the hill, and I find the footpath onto the old road through Daviot. I certainly remember the lovely church here as it was a significant milestone on our trips north.
Another short section of dual carriageway – carefully staying close to the kerb, and I make another surprise find. Here, just in the woods above Inverness, is another old section of road, one I’d not spotted despite all of my research. I take a couple of photos, but opt to not ride it as it’s so overgrown and I’m also now worried about punctures. Slowly riding along the A9, I find the other end of it and see that it’s now marked “out of bounds” as there’s a telecoms site on it.
At last, I crest the last hill before Inverness and, as always, my heart leaps with the view of the Moray Firth, Black Isle and Ben Wyvis – still snow capped. If there was one view I’d never tire of, this would surely be it. It’s always like a spiritual homecoming. Speeding down the A9, the view also opens up to the West cross the Beauly Firth to the Fannichs and beyond, and it’s about now I wish I was carrying on further.
However, I gain the old road again through some roundabouts and keep losing altitude until it’s time to cross the A9 and make for the city centre. This all feels rather strange now – the amount of traffic, the noise, the buildings and I feel myself getting tense as I just want to make it to my planned finishing point at Inverness Castle.
A short pull up the hill soon finds me there along with many other tourists. The bike is plonked against the base of Flora MacDonalds statue and I take the photo which will wrap up this wee adventure.
As I sat on the grass and looked out at the hills, the river and the sea in the early evening sun, I was once again struck by just how much of my life had been shaped by my family camping holidays and those early evening walks my dad would take us on while mum prepared the tent for the night. The smell of pine, the sound of the river, the chance sighting of some “exotic” animal, all of these things had led me to being a Cub Scout, to hill-walking, back-packing,to the cycling and to my deep-seated love for my country of birth. I know that these memories will always be with me.
In memory of Walter Douglas Cadden: 1923 - 2010