Mostly, this is random stories from my various trips as I collect them, but I've a wee backlog to get through too and those will pop up occasionally.

Feel free to leave comments.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Coasting around the West - Day 3

Once again, I found myself awake early and keen to get on the road. That's always re-assuring when you are in to a multi-day trip. Eating and packing whilst trying to keep as quiet as possible, I was on my way be 7:30 - before any of the other campers had shown themselves. Having been to Mull only once before, and that on a bit of a rush-job Munro-bagging session, I was really keen on seeing a lot more. I'd had a good look at the map and had already spotted that (a) there were few potential food stops and (b) there were a lot of hills. My route was also subject to some deviation as there had been some bridges damaged in the previous weeks flash floods and the road was still officially closed. The detour would add 14 miles on to my days riding but, more importantly, would prevent me from riding a section I'd been looking forward to.

The initial stretch of riding this morning had me climbing away from the campsite for some time before a lovely, fast descent into a still-sleeping Dervaig. 

Overlooking Dervaig
Next was Calgary Bay, somewhere I've oft seen discussed and that I'd considered as a potential stopping point for this tour. Right enough, there were a few tents and campers dotted around the designated "wild" camp spot, but given how tired my legs had felt arriving in Tobermory last night, I was glad I'd decided not to crack on this far.

From here, the road simply got quieter still. After a while I started to take note of each house I passed, in case I had some mechanical failure and needed assistance. In the mean time, the stunning views of coast and mountains continued round each corner and over each hill., of which there were many.

Ben More in the distance
After passing the turn off for the Ulva Ferry, I started my circumnavigation of Loch Na'Keal which meant I was now heading towards the dark clouds which had been gathering over the Mull mountains. Sure enough, it wasn't long before the first spits and spots of rain started and before long I had to admit defeat and don the waterproof jacket. This loch was absolutely teaming with wild-life. Sea Eagles, geese and more heron than I've ever seen before seemed to be queuing up to take advantage of what must be an abundant fish supply. 

At Gruline, I came across the Road Closed signs and then had to decide whether to chance it or take the longer route. I decided I would bluff it out on the basis that I could always carry my bike over any unforeseen difficulties. More heron were seen along this side of the loch, with loads of twitchers out now too. I briefly tried to engage a couple in conversation but they were too intent on their telescopes and obviously had no interest in where they might spot the sea eagles....

The weather decided to clear up for me again which was slightly ironic given the damage caused by the rain the previous week. 

This was a bridge
The first two damaged bridges were passed easily enough by the use of temporary diversions. The third required a bit of a paddle across a wee stream. The local council workers were happy to chat for a while and we were soon discussing the old bridge at Loch Loyne. It was a shame to see what had happened here as these old bridges were to be replaced by pre-cast concrete culverts.

I now found myself approaching the rather formidable cliffs I'd spotted from earlier in the morning and wondering where, exactly, there would be space for a road. I needn't have worried, the road engineers had managed to build/use what amount to not much more than a little shelf, just wide enough for he single thread of tarmac.


After yet another hard, but gradual, climb I found myself heading swiftly down towards Loch Scridan and what I hoped would be a chance for a coffee stop. However, I was only to be disappointed as  my target, the Kinloch Hotel, was very much closed for business. After enquiring of a local, it seemed that my earliest opportunity would be at Bunessan so I wolfed down a Snickers bar and set off over more undulating terrain. After what seemed like hours, and definitely one or two hills too many, I eventually rolled in to the Bakehouse for a well-earned rest. I wasn't in any hurry. Once again, I'd over-estimated my journey time and with no definite ferry schedule, I knew that I'd make it across to Iona without any problems.

Eventually tearing myself away, I headed across the last headland towards Fionnphort. Compared with the rest of my day, this came as a little bit of a surprise with loads of folk milling around, coming off, or going on to the ferry and as we made the short sea journey, I got my first decent view of Iona and the abbey.

Iona Abbey

Soon enough, we were all disembarking and I was looking for the campsite. Thankfully, a handily-placed notice board highlighted all the island amenities and I set off for the short trip across to the west side of the island. It seems I made the wrong choice of route though and I had to negotiate a few closed gates and some gravel track before I found the signposted house.

I have to say, I was somewhat confused. I'd not expected much, but the house beside the "site" was empty, there were no tents visible and what looked like a small toilet block was in a field of  knee-high grass. I hung around for a while looking for inspiration, but none was forthcoming. It was around this point that I thought I might change my plans. Originally, I was going to camp on the island then wander around a bit, taking in the various sights. In light of the time of day I'd arrived, and the somewhat questionable facilities, I decided that I'd take a good look around before pitching the tent. 

Made it!
Furthest west (for this trip)
In all honesty, I was somewhat underwhelmed. I'd come to Iona expecting much more. I'm not a religious person, but I can't deny that the history of Scotland was heavily influenced by this Island and many other folk had spoken and written of a special spiritual quality. For me, perhaps inured by my recent trip to Harris and Lewis and my current tour, I only really saw another windswept Hebridean island - one which was pretty commercialised. After a brief spin around, I decided I'd just head back over to Mull for the evening, thereby avoiding any ferry delays in the morning. 

A bit down, I joined the queue for the ferry. Looking over towards Fionnphort, in the far south, hazy but clear against the sky, I could just make out two mountains. I knew instinctively that I was looking at Jura. And that's when it hit me - Iona wasn't the end of the journey, the path carries on and it's the path that makes the travelling worthwhile, not the destination. Hopefully, my path will carry on for a good while yet!

Bouyed up by my revelation, I headed back to Mull in good spirits and located the campsite at Fidden. While it might just have been my sudden good mood, I was absolutely knocked out by the place. On a beautiful little sandy bay, with lots of little rock outcrops and decent facilities, this has to be one of the top campsites in Scotland. I found a little shelter for my tent and sat out on the rocks eating the food I'd carried since Kyle and watching the sunset. This was everything I wanted my cycle touring to be about.


Saturday 14 July 2012

Coasting around the West - Day 2

I awoke at 6 after a great nights sleep. I'd actually left one of the tent doors open so that I fell asleep and woke up to the scenery. It's not something I'd normally do, but a combination of the better weatherproofing of the Scarp tent and a dab of Smidge before bedtime is making me a bit more comfortable about any late-night intrusions. Somewhat cloudier than the night before, the wind had also died down a fair bit and a few midges were dealt with whilst having breakfast and packing away. I was careful to pack all my "overnight" stuff in one pannier and everything I'd need for the day in another. That's just my way of having less faff when looking for waterproofs, food or other items throughout the day. 

I was on the road for 7:30, with a few other campers just beginning to stir as I made my way out. never the busiest road, this also meant I had little traffic when heading towards Lochailort. I knew that there would be a few wee climbs today so I was pleased when I dispatched the first couple with little effort and I made use of the relatively new cycle track where possible so that I could dawdle along with less care about passing vehicles. 

My first stop of the day was actually at the Princes Cairn. This is one of those Bonnie Prince Charlie locations that I've frequently passed but never stopped at until now. 


The turn off at Lochailort was one of the points I'd been most anticipating. This part of Scotland is pretty much overlooked by the hillwalking and biking scene and I feel that's a great pity. I was looking forward to seeing it in a bit more depth. Again, I was making pretty good time - so much  so that I passed a planned stop at Glenuig as there was nowhere open. Passing Ardmolich, I was confronted by Drynie Hill, one of the wee climbs I'd been expecting. It was nowhere near as bad as I'd feared, but then not being in a hurry, I was content just to get up and over it at a relaxed pace. From the top, I could see over the (currently hidden) Loch Shiel towards the hills of Sunart, an area I'd been mountain biking in only past year. I really love being able to join up these areas in my own in-brain "map" of the world. As for Loch Shiel itself, that looked completely alien to the wilder, mountain-sided loch familiar to me from the Glenfinnan end. Down here, it's a placid, wide body of water surrounded by green pastures and where it flows out to the sea there's a lovely old castellated bridge over the slow-flowing river.  



Acharacle follows and that's where I eventually stopped. Unusually for this part of the world, it was positively awash with tearooms and I was happy to be able to avail myself of apple pie and coffee outside to enjoy the morning.


The next junction, at Salen, is the start of one of those Scottish cul-de-sacs, the type that go on for miles. The weird thing about this one is that, unlike the other sea lochs I'd been circumnavigating all day, I'd not be coming back along this one, with a planned stop at Kilchoan campsite and a ferry to Mull the next day. The ride alongside Loch Sunart is really spectacular. each little rise seems to bring another viewpoint and the wooded sections (globally important temperate rainforest) are particularly pleasant. If there's one thing worrying me, it's that dark clouds are gathering over my shoulder, rather belying the blue skies in front of me. 

Again, I'm making good time and I do some recalculating in my head, juggling ferry times and snack stops. As I reach Kilchoan, I've just about made my mind up. I can head to Ardnamurchan Point, eat, and still make a ferry across this afternoon. With that plan now put into action, I turn northwards for the first time in a couple of days and meet head-on the wind that had been at my back so far. This last little section of road seems to go on much longer than it should, not aided by the steep little kickers needed to get over to the lighthouse. However, once I'm there I head round for a few photos and pop into the little cafe for some food and drink. 

It's almost exactly 30 years since I was last here, previously arriving on a motorbike. It's certainly a bit more lively now, with the cafe and visitor centre and what must be the UK mainlands most westerly set of traffic lights!



Suitably refreshed, and after chatting with various other folk making this rather out-of-the-way place part of their holidays, I head back to Kilchoan and the ferry over to Mull. Another lovely sea trip sees me land at Tobermory in search of the campsite which, if memory serves me correct, is on the Calgary road. This proves to be the case, which is a bit of a shame as that involves cycling up the rather steep Back Brae with cold muscles and this proves to be one of the few times on the trip that the added weight of the camping gear is actually felt. 

The site itself is just about OK, if rather non-descript. I'm glad that the breeze is keeping the midges at bay because the rather wooded nature of the site makes me think it could be pretty hellish otherwise. 

After a quick walk into town for dinner, the rain which had been threatening all day finally arrives.  The irony of getting wetter walking around than during my 100+km of cycling is not lost on me but it soon goes off again in time for the stiff walk back to the site. 

Again, I'm ahead of schedule and I have a relaxing evening knowing that I can head off whenever I want to in the morning without worrying about ferry times.

Coasting around the West - Day 1

I have a plan. It's sort of evolved itself with some random beginnings and sprung to me almost fully formed earlier this year. However, I've not been in a position to do much about it until the option of a few days away came up and I was able to sit down with the maps and do a little route planning. 

As a result, I'm on my way to Kyle of Lochalsh courtesy of Scotrail and some of its random booking practices. In this case, despite getting verbal confirmation that my bike was, indeed, booked all the way from Edinburgh to Kyle, I find that the first leg - to Perth - is a first come, first served cubbyhole barely large enough for two bikes, and there's one in there already. I've also opted to take the camping gear for a change. For my previous road tours I've made use of hotels and B&Bs, but I wanted the option of some wild camping and also the flexibility that not booking ahead offers. Of course, this means a heavier load, but I've pared down as much as possible in order not to make it too uncomfortable on some of the inevitable hills. 

Despite there being more bikes than bike space getting onto the Perth - Inverness train, the guard lets us sort it out and somehow we all squeeze on. It's nice to know that it's not all jobsworths these days. What's more, the weather is looking brighter the further we get from the rainy central belt and by the time we reach Inverness, it's positively sunny. A quick changeover and now it's the Kyle train. This would be a lovely, scenic interlude if it wasn't for the fact that (a) I have a migraine and (b) the carriage is half-full of school kids off on their summer break. Oh well.....

Kyle is looking great. Manoeuvring away from the station, I make my way towards the bridge for the compulsory photo and I'm pleased that there's a reasonably brisk Northerly wind. 


The first leg of my journey is to Armadale and I'm hopeful that I'll make it in time for the last ferry across to Mallaig. Right enough, as soon as I reach the turn-off and head South, it's like a massive push in the back and I feel I'm fairly flying along. With this encouragement I decide to forego a snack stop and push on, not feeling the weight of the camping gear, reaching Armadale and the ferry terminal with loads of time to spare - enough time for food and a coffee at the cheery little pier-side cafe. 


The ferry trip from here is well worth it. On a good day like this, views across to Knoydart and into Loch Nevis are stunning and the whole trip is only spoilt by having Mallaig as a destination.

Bikes on boats - my favourite

Still, there are some shops and a bank and before long I'm off along the roadside cycle track, through Morar and heading for Arisaig. Just before the last climb, I wheel off towards Back of Keppoch where I know there are a couple of decent sites and I opt for Gorten Sands. It's the last site on the track and has some beautiful little coves and a roped off area for smaller tents. I'm able to pitch in a little shelter but giving me a nice view North East so I'm very happy.

After a quick shower, I hot-foot it along the road to the pub - the Cnoc na Faire - in search of some food. Although I'm past the last food order time, the staff are happy to whip me up a fish and chips, and what a fish and chips it is. The tartare sauce is complete with whole capers, the chips are hand-cut and there's a generous portion of mushy peas to go with it. I'm very impressed. The last time I was in this pub was some 30 years ago and it was a smoky little dive of a place serving not much more than fizzy lager. 

By the time I've finished, the sun is almost setting so I order a single malt (I go large at the barmaids suggestion) and wander out to enjoy it. What a great start to my my wee trip, a couple more days like this please.


Friday 13 July 2012


Amongst all the talk and scribblings on mountain biking in Scotland, two destinations are discussed in almost reverential tones - Torridon and Harris. The former has been on my mind a bit recently and I'm determined to get at least one trip up there later this year. In the meantime, a family holiday to visit the in-laws in Lewis gave me the opportunity to try one of the much-praised Harris routes. 

Although much of the mainland has had its wettest summer for a very long time, the far North-west and the Western Isles are actually reporting water shortages and we had already sat amused by the TV watching the floods down south while we were having 20 degrees and sun. Setting off for Tarbert in the van, the day had started with some low clouds although I was hoping they would burn off to leave us with another dry, warm day. 

After a brief stop at a local shop for some water and a wee snack I was at the start of the trail and contemplating what to wear. Although not exactly cold, the glen I was about to pedal up had a fierce headwind coming right towards me and I knew this would likely provide a wee bit of windchill. So, the Gore Alp-X jacket went on sans sleeves.

The path starts with a bit of a descent to the loch. Rocky steps and some very new-looking water bars added a bit of fun - until I had a quick look at the handlebars and noticed that my Garmin GPS had gone AWOL. Luckily, I didn't have far to backtrack to find it, but in trying to re-attach it, I noticed that it was no longer staying in place  - as of the clamp had somehow got bent. As a result, the GPS ended up in my pocket for the remainder of the journey. 

Anyone expecting a "standard" highland singletrack will be pleasantly surprised at the condition of the track. Even allowing for the dry summer, it is very well constructed, with a good, draining gravel surface. As a result, I was to stay dry and mud-free the whole trip. Reaching the end of the loch, the path starts its ascent of the obvious col ahead and can be seen snaking up. It's all bikeable with a wee bit of effort and the cairn at the top (complete with a wee bit of deer horn and someones discarded tent poles) is a welcome sight. Crossing the hill ahead can be seen the road from Tarbert to Lewis and the path now starts its fast descent almost to sea level. 

This is a real blast. Height is quickly. lost and more rocky steps and water bars give a little bit of an edge, with the fatbike soaking it all up. I'm aware that there's a turn-off to be taken and, just in time, I see the marker post, turning East towards the little road that now makes its way to Rhenigidale. Before long, and after negotiating a couple of small gates, I'm on the road and then there is the 12% sign, marking the start of the long steep climb. 

Although this might not exactly be classic mountain biking, it's hard not to enjoy the route at this point, remembering that this road didn't exist until 1989 (and isn't on my OS map of this area!). Once the road flattens off, it's a pleasant trundle until the almost equally steep descent starts. At this point, I stopped to see the path I'd later be ascending. It looks a killer!!

Although I had intended to go all the way in to the "village", the sight of a 13% gradient sign just after the turn off for the coastal path made me think better of it and soon enough I'm negotiating the contouring track, hugging the steep shoreline. Most of this proves to be rideable although I cautiously walk some sections, mindful of the remoteness of my situation and the potential consequences of a fall. 

After a couple of rises and dips, the path makes a beeline for a small beach, crossing a little wooden bridge. Ahead is the dauntingly steep climb known as the Scriob. 

Now - this might be a good descent for those with a head for heights and technical skills to match, but it doesn't take me long to realise it's well beyond me - in both senses. As a climb, it's a question of getting off the bike and simply grinding up each step, interspersed with the occasional lift/carry over the rockier steps. Of course, at this point I'm also shielded from the wind, so it's time for the local insect population to queue up for a bite at me. I think I'm getting away with it until a cleg takes a chunk out of my elbow, then flies off before I can swat it, only to return to the same point once the blood starts flowing!! If nothing else, this spurs me on to the breezier, easier angled top section of the path where I finally take a bit of a breather at a little cairn and waymarker at a junction in the path. 

From here, the rest of the climb is ridable and I'm soon at the summit, looking over towards Tarbert and the hills beyond. What follows is one of the most fun descents I've ridden. Fast, with some rocks to negotiate and of various levels of steepness. At last, I feel I'm getting some value for my recent efforts and the only thing slowing me down is the occasional need to get some feeling into my pumped-up wrists. After what seemed like quite a long time, but was actually only some 12 minutes, I'm back at the road with a little climb back to the van and the start point.

My thoughts on the circuit? Well, it's certainly a ride on the wild side, but I didn't feel that the long climbs were suitably rewarded and I'm not convinced it would be any better in reverse. Comparing it to recent trips, the north shore of Loch Morar is by far the better ride. However, there are other routes in Harris and I'll be back!

Friday 15 June 2012

Some fine tuning

When I started this blog, it was with the idea of recording some of my trips so that I could refer to them when folk asked for ideas on routes in Scotland. I've read a few other blogs which have become more about gear reviews and I didn't want to end up copying them. However, I have been  acquiring some new equipment recently and it seemed relevant to mention it, why I'd bought it and my experience of it.

One focus for 2012 has been to improve my bikepacking gear. Previous off-road trips on the bike entailed the use of panniers and there have been a number of occasions (like my Speyside Way experience) where these simply got in the way. With that in mind, I've been looking at packing strategies and ways to cut both weight and bulk from the load. So, here are some recent changes...

I've been casting envious looks at various folks bikepacking bags and the trend away from racks and panniers. One advantage of this is that there is less of a requirement for rack mounts - a feature dropped from most higher-end mountain bikes. Frame bags, large seat packs and handlebar mounting systems are all putting in an appearance. In looking around, it pretty soon became apparent that there were three main suppliers, of which Revelate (once Epic Designs) in Anchorage seemed to have the longest pedigree. So, I now have a Viscacha saddle bag, a Sweet Roll Handlebar bag and a Gas Tank for the top tube. I've held off on the Frame Bag pending a decision on what bike it would be best for as thee are custom fitted to each frame.

Fitted to the 9zero7, they look great and provide enough space for a decent camping trip. I've yet to work out what I want to do about carrying water, so this is currently supplemented by a small rucksack with hydration bladder.

The last set of pots and pans I bought for camping was the excellent, but rather heavy, MSR cookset so I've been on the lookout for something a bit lighter and suitable for solo travelling. I discovered that most solo sets are a bit mean on volume. I like a decent sized meal when I've been walking or riding all day and some of the pans are simply too small. I was chuffed to find the Optimus Terra Weekend cookset had a main pan just less than a litre and a lid large enough to be used as a small pan too. With a heat-exchanger bottom on it, it's a little heavier than some alternatives but I hope that weight will be repaid with less use of fuel. I've also made a pot-cosy for it, further saving fuel and making single-stove cooking a bit more flexible. 

The set I bought was on offer with an Optimus Crux stove. This is slightly lighter than the MSR Pocket Rocket I already had but also has a natty folding feature which means it stows under a standard 220-250g gas cartridge, thereby saving some space. As the stove and cartridge also fit into the large Terra pan - along with a Primus windshield I'd also bought - I have one very compact cooking system.

The wee stove is amazingly quick to boil water, though it has an annoying habit whereby the flame seems to reduce in power once lit, meaning that I have to turn it back up occasionally. The pot cosy means that I can boil water add say, pasta, then take it off the heat and let it sit for 12 minutes or so. A quick blast and it's ready to eat. In the meantime, a small titanium mug lets me heat up some soup or a hot drink or something to add to the pasta. Leaving the pot in the cosy whilst eating keeps the food warm for longer too.

I've been keen to try bivvy-ing at some point but with the risk of getting my nice down sleeping bag wet (and therefore pretty useless) I've always put it off. Searching for a bargain-priced sleeping bag for a friend, I found the Mountain Hardware Lamina 35 on sale at Go Outdoors. Never one to miss a deal, I bought one for myself. It packs up almost as small as my down bag and weighs a little more. However, it's also much more easily washed so is more suited to short overnighters when I might be sweaty and not a little muddy. 

My lightweight, solo tent has been a Macpac Microlight. It was pretty much state-of-the-art when I bought it and has proven to be robust in some pretty rough conditions. However, with new materials now available, lighter weight options have been catching my eye. Also, it has one very annoying feature which is that rainwater can drip into the inner tent when the outer is fully open. 

I had my eye on the Tartpent Scarp for a while and was pleased to be able to pick one up second-hand off the Singetrackworld classifieds. It's a lot more roomy than the Microlight and has a big bonus of two accessible alcoves and doors. It's slightly lighter too. 

In use, the tent is very large for a solo user, though it would be a very tight fit for two. The fact that all the pegging points are on the guy lines means that there are fewer problems trying to get a good pitch as you can easily avoid placing pegs where there are rocks. The double door/alcove is great for keeping gear in and allowing some cooking space. One improvement would be to have the doors such that they are "diagonally" opposite. As it stands, the tent has to be pitched such that both doors are "downwind" of the centre pole. 

The night in Glen Feshie was extremely wet with almost no breeze. As a result, the midge were in attendance and I could see them thickly between the outer and inner layers of the tent. However, I managed to cook a meal without too many getting in to the tent, with a liberal application of Smidge stopping them from annoying me directly. I'd opened up the downwind roof vent to allow some ventilation, but the wind direction changed and I found a few drops of water were able to get onto the inner tent. These ran down rather than dip inside, so no damage done.

I woke up a couple of times through the night to the sound of heavy rain and it wasn't until after 6am that I woke up, found it was getting light and the rain had stopped. Applying a wee bit more Smidge, I opened up both the inner and outer tent and dozed on and off watching the shadow on the opposite side of the valley slowly creeping down as the sun got higher. 

Packing everything away after breakfast was simple enough. That's always a wee concern as it's never quite as simple as packing it all in the dry and comfort of your house. One mistake I later noticed was that I'd put the cooking kit in the saddle bag a different way and, as a result, I was getting some rubbing off the rear tyre when going over larger bumps. I'll keep my eye on this and might consider strengthening this lower part of the bag if it looks to be an ongoing problem.

So far, I'm pleased with the changes I've made. I just need to use them a bit more, get used to packing them away efficiently and make changes for additional days out.