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.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Them's the breaks

Dochgarroch Locks
30th September and I'm riding along the Caledonian Canal towpath, in the dark, returning from a little exploratory ride after work. It suddenly occurs to me that it's the end of the month and I haven't been out for my obligatory bivvy. Obligatory. That's the exact thought that went through my head. I quickly considered how I could get back home, grab all my gear and head out for a wee walk or ride and complete month 21 of my self-imposed bivvy-a-month target. However, the more I thought about it, the more I came to realise that it would just have been a box-ticking exercise. Up until then, all my bivvys (or camps or bothy nights) had some sort of background to them. They were in places I'd considered visiting or had a specific view or outlook I wanted to experience. 

As a result I opted to miss this one and, having done so, seemed to somehow skip October and November too. Partly that was due to feeling a bit under the weather, which turned out to be early-stage Lymes Disease (or perhaps from the side-effects of the subsequent anti-biotics) and partly due to a general lack of enthusiasm. In any case, since November I'd been slowly working myself back up to a better monthly mileage when a comedy slide had me off the bike and I bashed my shoulder. The fall itself was nothing. A wee bit of lack of attention, a bit of pine-needle covered mud and the front wheel just slid away from me. By the time I had it back under control I was heading for the trees and I decided to bale out. Lying on the path I looked back at the bike to see it sitting perfectly balanced upside-down, as if some naughty trail fairy had tried to cover up the results of up his (or her) booby trap.

The ride back home was slow and steady as the pain gradually got worse and after a week or so of ooh-ing and aah-ing every time I reached for something or sneezed, I decided it was time to see the GP. She quickly diagnosed a broken rib (2nd or 3rd down), prescribed some painkillers and told me it would be 4-6 weeks for recovery. 

So, here I sit, watching the first decent snowfall of the season, unable to cycle, unable to ski (uplift passes are here!) and now reflecting on all those opportunities for nights out that I let slip away though delay and indecision. I guess this enforced break has at least re-kindled my enthusiasm for some more overnighting and I can use the convalescence time to start re-creating a bucket list of venues and goals. More islands I think, some more coastline and also taking some time to re-discover more old tracks now that many old favourites are being ridden more regularly. I'm not one for New Years Resolutions, but that's beginning to shape up like one.

Saturday 6 December 2014

Mix and Match

It seems to me that there has been an enormous increase in the variety of ways folk are enjoying the countryside these days. Where once upon a time we thought mainly of hillwalkers, we've seen the explosion in mountain biking, then the wave of kayakers and canoeists. Skiing became snowboarding and folk are now taking to the air in wingsuits. For some, even this isn't enough and they need to combine two or more of these activities in search of another angle. From my recent experiences, I've seen that lightweight rafts begat packrafting. Strap these rafts onto your bike as luggage and you have bikerafting. Of course, some of this has only become possible as equipment weights (and volume) have plummeted with the introduction of new materials and new ideas. 

It was not then without some interest that I listened to Andy of BackCountryBiking explain the "WindPaddle". Here was a lightweight, pop-up (like those cheap tents) sail being used by some kayakers. With a little trial and error, he reckoned, it could also be used for cheap power on a packraft. I volunteered to do a little filming for him and a few weeks later we were arranging where to go. 

I guess the default is always going to be Loch Morlich but we fancied a wee change and opted for Lochindorb instead. It's not far away, it's a good bit bigger and, crucially, with a nice South-Westerly it would give us a decent run downwind if conditions were right. On the way there, we found that the southern end of the look looked really calm but driving round a bit our hopes were confirmed with a few decent waves visible.

We walked back down the loch towards the "big house" and blew up the boats before experimenting with attaching and folding the sails. It all seemed straightforward enough so it was just a matter of paddling out far enough to catch a bit of breeze. Coming out from the shelter of the little peninsula provided that and I was just ready-ing the camera in order to catch Andys first attempt when he was off like a shot. I quickly packed the camera away again and unfurled my own sail in attempt to catch up. 

Readying the boats

Andy doing the hard work

WindPaddle unfurled

Trying to correct direction of travel

It soon became obvious that steering wasn't straightforward. My initial attempts using the paddle as normal were OK up to a certain speed but I was having to correct all the time. However, we made it to the little island without incident whereupon we did a bit of exploring and I got to sample Andys latest (potential) import - dehydrated beer.

Yes, I know what you're thinking -  that's got to be a wind-up, right? Well in this case, no. A little US company called Pats Backcountry Beverages has come up with a way of concentrating beer and then a way of diluting and carbonating it. Andy showed me the procedure and I had a taste or two. It's OK. Not the finest draught ale you'll ever try but it would certainly hit the spot on a hot day, or round the campfire with mates after a good days cycling or rafting.The final details of the import process are still being worked out but this could become a worthy contender for backpacking gear of the year.

Andy checking out the castles potential as a wee fixer-upper
The van was still some distance away down the loch so we set off again, Andy showing me how he'd opted to use the paddle as a rudder, tucked under one arm. This was a much more effective strategy. As we made our way down the loch our speed increased, as did the height of the waves, and it was soon a case of bouncing off each wave and into the next one and then trying to balance speed with direction to get back to the van. It certainly didn't take long to cover the distance and, with some daylight remaining, we opted to walk back up the lochside again for a second run.

Paddling back out for a second run
This time it was even better. Having got the hang of the technique it became a bit of a choice as to whether to head downwind as fast as possible, enjoying the sensation of free motive power, or tack across to the van. As it was, we both opted for more of the former, resulting in a bit of a cross-wind paddle to get back to shore.

All in all, a great day for experimenting. The WindPaddles look like a no-brainer, providing easy motive power for little additional weight or bulk. The beer will certainly be a welcome addition to campfire chat. A big thanks to Andy for letting me try both.

Friday 24 October 2014

Looking for Wade again

Anyone who has spoken to me about my wanderings round Scotland, or has read this blog for a while, will know of my fascination with old routes. There's something about the history of them and the decisions that were involved in their creation and direction that catches my imagination. Amongst the most evocative are the old "military" roads mostly ascribed to General George Wade, but often created by his successor, William Caulfield. Many of these old roads still follow the most "logical" way of traversing the countryside and so remain an excellent resource for those of us on foot or cycling and who wish to avoid the modern highways. 

I've recently been looking for  a good off-road route from the Cairngorms into Inverness and it was inevitable that the old Wade road would come into my sights. I'd also been asked by Scotways to report back on the current condition of the road north of Moy so I had an ideal incentive to undertake a bit of surveying. 

I've previously written about the section of road from Aviemore to Tomatin here. In essence, it all works really well as a walking or cycle route until the downhill section into Tomatin. Here, the old road is completely overgrown and moss-filled requiring a short detour over the adjoining fields.

From Tomatin, the old road has been almost completely overlaid by the railway and the various alignments of the A9 until the small village of Moy is reached. From here, the start of the route is handily signposted and goes to Lynebeg and Lynemore via a crossing of the A9. 

Local news beside the Right of Way signs

There is an official crossing point, but take great care
After a short distance on a good track, the Wade road can be seen heading off to the right. It's little more than a depression in the ground in some places and where there is an embankment on both sides the inability of water to drain away has resulted in some significant standing bogs - mostly quite shallow though. 
Take the right-hand track at Lynemore (NH762339)

The line of the road is obvious (even when waterlogged) and can be seen on the hill beyond

When the forest becomes more visible the gate ahead allows access into a narrow clearing. Just before this meets another good forest road, it's necessary to cross a wee burn. There are no obvious signs of a bridge here so there's a chance that the burn has swollen beyond its previous flow as a result of the surrounding forest. 

The gate is fairly obvious as is the clearing behind

No sign of an ancient bridge here where the clearing ends and joins the new track (NH748343)
The new track now hides the original surface from use but it's a good route, high enough up the hillside to give some airy, open views. 

Staying right parallels the modern A9

A cairn to mark the Rout of Moy (at NH 730347)

Around midnight on 16th/17th February 1746, Lord Loudon, the Commander of the Hanoverian forces in the north, mustered 1500 troops from the Inverness Garrison and set off on the twelve mile march south along General Wade’s Road to Moy in a bid to capture Prince Charles Edward Stuart. The prince, a guest of Lady Anne Mackintosh (Colonel Anne) at Moy Hall, had arrived with a small guard of 50 men, some distance ahead of his retreating Highland Army.

Pitch darkness interspersed with flashing lightning slowed and unsettled the marching men.

Watching the road here, 3 miles from Moy Hall, was an ‘outer guard’ of just five Jacobites led by Donald Fraser, the Moy Blacksmith. He had chosen a spot where he could observe movement on the skyline to the north in darkness, and where he had cover to the south in daylight. Nearby to the east, peat stacks remained out on the moor. Here he planned to harass, and perhaps deceive, the enemy.

As the Hanoverian Column, spearheaded by the Laird of MacLeod and his men approached in the darkness, they were surprised by sudden musket fire and loud war cries urging clansmen to battle. Even the peat stacks threatened in the flashing lightning. Convinced that the whole Highland Army was at hand, Loudon’s men turned in panic and fled back to Inverness, somehow carrying off the body of Donald Ban MacCrimmon, Piper to MacLead and the only fatality of the night. A premonition of his imminent death had been realised.

As the road goes downhill again it has to veer off the Wade route due firstly to the A9 and then due to some quarry workings. For the real Wadeophiles it is, however, worth making a short detour along the original route to see the old bridge over the Midlairgs Burn. 

Wade Road on the left, modern forest track to the right (NH721359)

Lovely old bridge over the Midlairgs Burn (NH716361)

Go much past this and you'll come up against the quarry gates with their rather prominent warnings of imminent death! 

Continuing on the re-aligned road it's not long before the farmhouse at Auchbain is passed then we pick up the Wade route outside the front entrance to the quarry. 

Pretty clear

Original alignment straight on, revision to the left. There's a RoW sign hidden in this photo.....

There's a short section of tarmac, before a right turn onto the B851 road to Farr and then an immediate left to the bridge at Faillie. This is a typical, steep bridge and the road surface at the summit is well marked by the passage of low vehicles. 

Faillie Bridge. Not recommended for sports cars

From here, the route gets a little difficult to find, mostly because of the recent housing developments. Eventually, I spotted a sign hidden in the bushes where the current road seems to have been widened to accommodate a lorry turning. The problem now is that there is a huge embankment to climb up - difficult enough on foot and more so dragging a bike. 

That's the RoW going up the embankment on the left. I actually repositioned the sign after this photo.

This re-aligned section carries on to the back of a modern house then joins the original route uphill through a very overgrown section between a field and a fence. It's not hard to see why this has been left to the undergrowth as the gate at the top has been locked (not sure this is legal if it's a Right of Way), thereby restricting passage. 

It was just about possible to find the track through this vegetation. The locked gate doesn't help.

With the proliferation of shrubs and long grass, combined with the steep angle, this became a bit of a push rather than a ride. Beyond this gate the track is visible as a field boundary, carrying on in a straight line to the minor road through another gate (unlocked this time).

Crossing this road there's an obvious, signed march through the woods with dykes (mostly well overgrown now) lining the route. 

Entering Dundavie and Daviot Woods
The alignment is obvious the whole way as it's almost arrow straight and continues through Dundavie and Daviot Woods on a mostly good surface until the crest of the hill is reached and there's a change in the air as you start descending to the outskirts of Inverness. 

The outskirts of Inverness and the view North

And looking South
From the top of this restricted access lane, it's a fast descent down to "civilization" and the big city. 

At the junction of the Old Edinburgh Road and Stevenson Street
All in all, I'm pretty happy with the route. If anything, I think it works better going South where the one possible pushing section north of Faillie is therefore rideable. I can imagine that the last section of singletrack into Moy itself could be horrendously boggy at certain times of year but it's all typical Scottish mountainbiking. This links up pretty well with the section from Tomatin to Aviemore, providing an almost exclusively off-road route all the way to the Cairngorms and beyond to Kingussie and Newtonmore. 

As for my day out, I really enjoyed tracking down the old road. In places, the original alignment has been bypassed altogether and is sometimes easily missed (in fact I think I've subsequently spotted an "orphaned" section on the east side of the A9 south of Auchbain). A combination of map reading, aerial photography, on the ground assessment and, sometimes, downright wishful thinking, seems to bring the route alive and it's not too hard to imagine yourself in George Wades head, seeing the land as he saw it and trying to decide where his road should go. In places, it has survived remarkably well. In others, centuries of non-use have made it almost impenetrable. Either way, it still stands as a remarkable achievement. 

Other details and descriptions of this route can also be found on the Scotways Heritage Paths website, here

Thursday 2 October 2014

New toys!!

I'm getting a bit more fussy in my old age. Whereas I'd once wander the aisles of Tisos or Nevisport, eyes agog at the wonders contained within, I rarely visit such emporia these days. I'm sure there are still lots of wonderful new things to be discovered but I just hate the whole experience and I seldom see anything that exactly matches what I'd spend my money on. I put it down to developing more preferences, knowing from experience what works - and what doesn't - and not wanting to compromise. 

This change has been accompanied by an explosion in availability of some very well-designed kit from many small manufacturers, made available through the wonder of internet shopping. Of course, it's always a risk shopping like this. You can't inspect the quality of the goods and things like fit, comfort and "feel" are only possible to check once the goods are available in the flesh. However, it's often worth the risk of a poor purchase to get something that's just what you were looking for. 

A couple of years ago, I bought myself a new (actually, secondhand) tent. It's a Scarp 1 and has been great for some all-season camping. It's pretty lightweight compared to some of the tents I've used before. It's a bit fussy when pitching and needs a decent flat area to get it just right but it's pretty bomb-proof and very cosy in colder weather.

Scarp 1 in Glen Etive

A good pitch in Glen Feshie

I then decided to try out bivvying. This has worked better than I'd hope. The flexibility of not having to peg anything out makes short overnight stops very easy. Couple that with a small tarp and you get a bit more shelter and somewhere under cover for cooking etc. It's still a bit cramped though and I reckon I prefer a bit more shelter from the elements when the weather isn't too great. 

Experimenting in the garden. This "flying V" is my favourite tarp layout
Bivvy bag and tarp above Kinlochleven. Bike being used as a support.

So - I got to thinking about what would be a great combination of the two systems. I imagined a tarp that was a bit bigger, with a pole to give some height. It would have a midge-net built underneath it, linked to a suspended bathtub groundsheet for bug-free sleeping. Ideally, the door would be longitudinal, giving a decent sized porch for gear storage and cooking. It would need to have great ventilation to avoid the build-up of condensation we so often suffer from in our climate and it would, of course, be ultralight. 

Luckily, someone pointed at the Six Moon Designs website and the Lunar Solo tent. Here, it seemed was my design made real.  After my usual bout of swithering, several months later I ordered it from and today it arrived.

I've obviously not had a chance to try it out yet. The seams will need to be sealed and I'll want to experiment setting it up a few times to see if there are any snags. However, it seems to match my list of requirements pretty much 100%. I bought a very lightweight carbon pole to go with it but a normal walking pole can be used instead if I'm hiking. It's certainly very lightweight. At just over 700g (including pole and pegs), that's less than my tarp and bivvy bag combined. Internal space is very good - especially as I'm only 5'7" - and there's enough room to get some bags inside with me as well as more space under the porch. The only issue with the latter is that it's quite high off the ground so anything underneath it couldn't be guaranteed to stay dry. It'll also need careful pitching to ensure that any wind is coming over from the rear. 

I reckon there are a few more nights of suitable weather this year before I might need the extra shelter of the Scarp and I'm really looking forward to trying it out.

Wednesday 24 September 2014


Since starting my new job at Ticket to Ride in Inverness I've seen quite a few tourists come in and head off on of our hire bikes to do a wee tour. It got me to thinking that I've been very much concentrating on the mountain biking during 2014 and not any road riding. With the end of August fast approaching and the need to head off for another night under the stars I decided it was time to ring the changes and do something about that.  

Another reason for wanting to get out and about was that I'd just built a new set of wheels to be used on both the touring bike and the 29er. The front wheel incorporates a dynamo hub. Teamed up with a good LED light from Exposure this would finally eradicate all that unnecessary stress I give myself whilst riding in the dark and worrying about how long my batteries will last. 

The chosen route was simple enough. I'd always fancied a circumnavigation of the Cairngorms and an overnighter would make it a fairly easy-going pace. Fortune smiled on me as the weather forecast for the only two days I had available turned out to be excellent so I could go lightweight too. 

In a previous post, I outlined my bikepacking gear list. That included a tent and a winter-weight sleeping bag. Ditching the former for a bivvy bag and the latter for a lighter, less warm bag, along with a couple of other tweaks reduced my load quite a bit and it easily fitted into the Viscacha seat pack and a dry-bag mounted into a Revelate Harness on the handlebars. 

Compact handlebar luggage
Heading off south from home I was immediately aware of the headwind. Still, I wasn't in a hurry and planned to take things easy so I was unlikely to be running late. As it was, I soon reached Dalwhinnie (noticing that there's now a cafe in the old hotel building) and then on to the run along to Drumochter. I was just going through the gate onto the cycle path at the summit of the pass that I met this lady cycling north. As it turned out, she'd set off from Kirkmichael that day and that was, roughly, my destination. We had a wee chat about possible eating places and then I noticed the electric hub and battery on her bike. After a wee jibe from me about that being "cheating" she assured me it wasn't as it only cut in whilst she was going uphill :-)

The descent to Blair Atholl was lovely. It's a great ride along the old road into Struan and then a short spin to the Watermill cafe in Blair itself. Although clouding over a bit since Aviemore, it was still very warm when the sun came out, though cold when it was blocked. In fact, there were times when one layer of clothing felt too much and others when three seemed barely sufficient. My initial target of getting to Pitlochry before 6 pm seemed pessimistic now and I was soon through it and heading up my first real climb of the day to Moulin. This went in fairly quickly and the undulating road to Kirkmichael was both quiet and scenic so time passed fairly speedily too. As it was, I found myself at Kirkmichael just before 6., well ahead of schedule and earlier than I'd planned to eat. However, I was aware that there would be no other option between here and Braemar and with the Cairnwell climb ahead of me I reckoned it was better to eat now. 

One of the pleasures of solo touring is the chance to chat to folk en route and so it was I got into conversation with the barmaid and then the manager of the pub. Not about anything in particular, just that easy-going chatter about the seasons and how busy or quiet things are. Suitably replete, I did a few stretches and set off into the slightly cooler evening to see how far I was going to get before bivvying down. 

Low sun giving the hills of Glen Shee red tones
The road is gentle enough (though longer than I'd remembered)  until the Spittal of Glenshee hotel is reached. This might have made a good eating/camping spot had it not burnt down only a few days previously (though it was already closed at that time). From here, the road turns north and the climb to Cairnwell makes itself felt. As my rate of progress lessened, so did the daylight. By the time I'd reached the building of the ski centre, the dynamo headlight was in full use and it was around 8:30. Now I had a choice. I knew it would be a fast run downhill to Braemar, a pub and a sheltered river-side bivvy spot. However, I could also tell that it was going to be a very cold night at the bottom of the valleys so I opted to stay high, just where I was. I managed to find a suitably sheltered doorway to lay out my sleeping gear - one that also mostly killed the constant drone of a nearby generator too. As the few passing cars became even fewer, soon the only remaining sound was that of the local grouse population. 

It's certainly one of the strangest places I've slept and once again proved the advantage of taking bivvy bag rather that tent. 

My wee corner was tucked away enough that the first light of day had been and gone by the time I awoke but I was still early enough to watch the sun gradually rise over the hills and take the chill off the morning. 

Not your usual bivvy bag view
After a quick porridge I scooted down to Braemar and wasn't surprised to see that my forecast of low-lying dampness had been correct. 

Brrr - chilly!
I was still feeling a bit hungry so popped into the Fife Arms to see if they'd do breakfast for non-residents. After a bit of confusion, it was confirmed this was OK and I stocked up my internal stores for the forthcoming ride. 

First summit of the day - and certainly not the last

The road fairly undulates across some pretty high and remote terrain and it was all looking splendid until I reached Cock Bridge. Here, the road seems to rise almost vertically away from the river so I grabbed the lowest gear possible and started spinning then forcing my way up. 
It doesn't look steep now!
The first steep climb actually went in OK, as did the first couple of bends and then I could see a slight decrease in the angle. Unfortunately, this proved to be a bit of a false dawn and the steepness of the tight left-hander had me barely crawling, with a couple of cars behind me. At this point, I decided to step off the bike and ended up pushing a few metres onto the next straight before getting back on the bike to continue.

The road continues to rise some fair way before the ski apparatus of The Lecht becomes apparent. 

The last big climb
I was certainly glad to pull in again and pleased to see that the cafe was open so that I could refuel. Of course, what goes up must come down, so it was then a full-on dash downhill towards Tomintoul. Once here, it felt almost like being home and I was happy to spin along in the warm sunshine to get back home and complete the loop.

Still time for an ice cream on the way home

Almost home
I'd certainly enjoyed being out on the road again. I guess I'd almost forgotten how nice it is to spin along making a decent rate of progress and enjoy that there's almost always a choice of places to stop, eat or just chill out a while. The new lighting system promises to make more winter riding possible so I'll be looking at possible routes.

Another thing that did go through my head was the fact that I always tour alone these days (poor Paul and David - I think I wore them out). Maybe I need to find a touring buddy for 2015.