Last weekend I was lucky enough to squeeze in what was almost certainly my last UK-based adventure of 2015, a long weekend of bog-shlepping and singletrack bashing through northwest Scotland in the company of David, Lee and Tom. It was everything that a bit of Scottish bikepacking should be: technical and remote, soggy and unforgettably beautiful. We rode 160km on every surface imaginable as long as you only include rock, bog and tarmac, and established what was (probably) the world bikepacking 10 mile TTT record on the road from Achnasheen to Loch Luichart. I say probably: no one was clocking the actual time because it was raining and we were thinking about cake.
Having spent a month in Spain and France exploring drier trails in bigger mountains, and looking forward to an upcoming tour to Patagonia among some of the world’s most recognisable mountain scenery, it made me think about what makes riding in Scotland so endearing, and why exploring up here never fails to make me smile and feel grateful. Rather than another blow-by-blow account of epic deeds of bicycle derring-do, I’ve tried to assemble a glossary of the things that make a Scottish bikepacking adventure what it is. More suggestions welcome!
A bothy can make a good trip great, but only if you select your target wisely. An easily accessible one on a Bank Holiday weekend in August is unlikely to be the secluded retreat you hoped for. Luckily, bikes are perfect for getting to the remoter old buildings that offer a dry shelter for the night. On the tick list for a dream bothy we find: outrageously scenic location (obviously), warm wood-panelled walls, lack of rubbish left by ‘adventurous’ previous visitors, and if you’re very lucky some chopped firewood left by the estate or previous users.
We were very spoiled bikepackers on this occasion, as we stayed in first Shenavall bothy beneath the furrowed brow of mighty An Teallach, and then the tiny Teahouse bothy below the Coulin Pass. Both bothies hit the sweet spot, and rather than huddling damply in tents we spent hours making brews and talking utter nonsense beside a roaring fire in Shenavall. After a long afternoon of technical trails, wind, rain and being overtaken by November darkness, such sparse accommodation feels palatial. Bothy culture is the appreciation of simple pleasures in the grandest of settings – if waking up to see the light creeping through the frosted windows of the only inhabitable building for miles around doesn’t make you feel good about where you are, I would suggest turning south and retreating to the nearest Holiday Inn! Al Humphrey’s video below is essential reading for the bothy-minded…
A hot topic of bothy discussion on this occasion. Generally defined as whatever food is left in your framepack that hasn’t been eaten, dissolved or eaten by mice come morning. The best breakfast for bold bicyclists (extra points for alliteration) is far harder to pin down. Scottish tradition obliges me to suggest porridge, but on both mornings it was unanimously decided that porridge doesn’t seem to fill you up for very long. It also becomes the world’s strongest adhesive when taken anywhere near a camping stove, and must be chiselled off the bottom of the pan. Discontent turned to outright treachery when cake was suggested as the breakfast of champions. Could it be true? Long hours in the saddle can do funny things, and so we found ourselves debating whether toast is a type of cake. Or is it a biscuit? At any rate, after the best part of half a kilo of Christmas cake, I wasn’t worried about whether it was a legitimate breakfast anymore. Case closed.
This is subjective, but for the most part means that you’re not getting wet from above. Water assaulting you from below is a given in this part of the world in all but the driest weeks of summer. The almost permanently wet northwest highlands give rise to the ‘five stages of bog’:
- Denial, or “I can ride around the boggy bits!”
- Anger, or “why is there so much f*!?&ing bog?!?”
- Bargaining, or “I’ll buy waterproof shorts to keep the bog out of my unmentionables”
- Depression, “the bog is my prison”
- Acceptance, or “how I learned to love the bog”.
The final stage is accompanied by the formation of a callous in the nether regions, and an out of focus stare. We nearly fell foul of the weather gods at Shenavall bothy on this trip, which is known for its temperamental river crossing if you want to continue through Fisherfield Forest to Poolewe. We were woken several times in the night by the staccato rattle of rain on the roof, but a cosy bothy stops the mind from worrying too much about what meteorological horrors are happening outside. Cooking up some porridge in the morning, talk settled on what state the river might be in, and by the time we sploshed through the stream that had appeared overnight on the grassy ‘front garden’, we realised that we might have underestimated the importance of the river level in our immediate future. An hour or so of testing, head shaking and retreating later, we had found a way across the various channels, avoiding the sections that were too deep or too fast to cross safely. Even on dry land the ground would occasionally open up to offer a quick paddle. The moral of the story – water is an unavoidable character in Scottish riding, but don’t turn your back on it!
A little-big landscape
Scotland is about the same size as Iceland, and both are pretty small as countries go (I know I know, Scotland isn’t a country, but we can dream, can’t we). They both have landscapes that feel strangely big despite being so small. In the volcanic desert interior of Iceland you might as well be on the moon rather than only 100km from the Atlantic. Scotland is the same – you might not ever find yourself more than a couple of hour’s ride from the nearest signs of civilisation, but when that civilisation is an equally remote farmstead at the end of a twisting road from what few villages are up here, the little kingdom of Scotland starts to feel like an awfully big place – only 230,000 people live in the Highlands and rather a lot of them are found in Inverness.
Riding east towards Shenavall from Braemore Junction, the setting sun picked out immense slabs of rock on the south side of the glen. We were the only humans there to see the last of the light leave the water running down the rock face, and even after darkness drew over the glen there were shadows darker than the rest reminding us of all that rock waiting out there for the returning sun. That’s the problem – even when you’re back home drying out and cleaning up after an adventure, you can’t escape the knowledge that it’s all still out there waiting for you to jack in all the silly everyday nonsense and get back out on your bike. Fisherfield Forest is one of the emptiest corners of Britain, and it feels like it. Bigger wildernesses might dwarf it in real size, but Scotland has its own ‘bigger on the inside’ sense of space that always manages to drag my attention away from the insignificance of everyday worries. Try it and you’ll see what I mean.
Scottish riding is proper ‘ard, like. We don’t have big hills, but the singletrack climbs act as though no-one told them this and dish out suffering accordingly. The trails can be rough, tough and have a tendency to disappear for a while to keep you on your toes. Factor in North Atlantic weather, midges and more grit than you can shake an expensive drivetrain at, and it’s no wonder that riding here breaks bikes and bodies. For all that, or perhaps because of that, when the going is good it feels as if you’re riding on air. The first sight of Carnmore and Dubh Lochan could never grow old, and as we rode out of the Fisherfield Forest our first sighting of the west coast was met with bursts of sunshine through rain-laden air. Maybe it’s all that cake, but when the Scottish highlands put on a show you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Those one-in-a-million moments of perfection wouldn’t be the same if they happened just every day, would they?