Traveling in Style : HIGHLAND WHEELING : A Cycling Trip Across Northern Scotland Passes Through Spectacular Countryside and Under (and Sometimes Into) Stunning Skies

<i> Ted Botha is a free-lance writer based in Cape Town, S. Africa. He has written for such publications as Outside, the Wine Spectator and the (London) Sunday Telegraph. </i>

OUTSIDE KYLE OF TONGUE, MY CYCLING mate, Haddon Curtis, left the road and took flight. It looked pretty sensational, really. Having freewheeled down one of those hills that make the Scottish Highlands both a pleasure and a struggle to cycle, he had reached the bottom, let out his usual manic yell of excitement and then, instead of stopping, careened over an embankment. Haddon’s Puch rocketed one way, Haddon’s pannier another and Haddon himself a third. Then they all disappeared.

Fearing the worst, I rushed to the embankment and looked over the edge. A soft bog had broken Haddon’s fall. He was lying on his back, not hurt at all, and laughing wildly. I was quite sure he wanted to do it again.

The only damage, it appeared, was not to Haddon but to his Puch’s front wheel. This posed a bit of a problem: We were only halfway across the Highlands, in the middle of nowhere, with few cars passing and practically no places of business in the vicinity--apart from a fortuitously placed youth hostel. The nearest town in which we might get the wheel fixed was Thurso, a day’s ride behind us. Haddon proposed that he hitchhike back there while I stay at the hostel. Tomorrow, he’d return and we’d continue westward. Muddy but otherwise intact, he set out with his mangled wheel in hand. I pushed/carried our bike-and-a-half to the hostel and checked in.



WHY HAD HADDON BEEN JETTISONED so spectacularly from his bicycle? I’m not sure--but it might well have had something to do with the Highland skies. Instead of watching the road, he had probably been looking heavenward. The sky around here was so magnificent, you just had to look at it. The blues, the whites and the silver linings were mixed to perfect effect. Below them lay kyles, lochs, muirs or firths, each body of water so still that you could see the sky twice, the second time reflected in a surface broken only by an occasional excited trout or salmon. Sometimes a single boat would lie, immobile, on these glassy surfaces, but no human beings appeared to cast a line or dip an oar.

The trip had been Haddon’s idea. A madcap friend from Dundee, a scientist, he’d suggested last summer that we bicycle across the Highlands and then cross over to the Outer Hebrides by ferry, and bike and ferry down their length--a journey of about 450 miles in all, fully two-thirds of it on two wheels.

We took the train north from Dundee, a busy seaport about 60 miles north of Edinburgh. Most of the passengers got off at Inverness or--if they possessed a bike, a tent and some energy to climb mountains--at the resort at Aviemore in the Grampian Mountains. By the time we reached Georgemas Junction, where the line splits for Wick and Thurso, the train was almost empty. Almost, but not quite. Across from me sat two middle-aged women, each with a backpack. One, who was wearing sensible shoes but too much lipstick, talked incessantly, while her friend looked out the window. It was about the last English I’d easily understand for two weeks. If the language spoken by people in these northern reaches of Great Britain isn’t Gaelic, it might as well be; the accent is that thick. Gaelic, of course, is worse. Signs, in that tongue and in English, showed me that right away. Tarbert on Harris is Tairbeart. Creagorry on Uist is Creagh Ghoraidh. “Failte d’on Ghaidhealtachd"--a haggis for any non-Scot who can pronounce that perfectly--means “Welcome to the Highlands.”

When we reached Wick, the last station on the line, we retrieved our bicycles from the baggage car and set off. Though it was already late in the afternoon, we had plenty of time before nightfall. In summer, the sun sets late in Scotland, after 10 p.m.--which, for a cyclist, means at least 16 hours of good riding time every day.


We rode for about 15 miles and then stopped for a dinner of fish and chips in John o’Groats, a town less famous for its food than for its position as one of the most northerly points in Great Britain. Here, many a cyclist has ended or begun a country-long trip from or to Land’s End, on England’s far southwestern tip. We headed north and then west instead, and by sunset we were in Hey. Here we found a barn furnished with six-foot-high bales of hay, and, with the farmer’s permission, unfolded our sleeping bags and passed out.

In the morning, the farmer pointed out a castle across the way, where, he said, the Queen Mother vacationed in the summer. The weather up here never got too hot, he added, but never too cold either. When we pedaled off at 8:30 a.m., Hey was still quiet. The only sign of activity was a milkman delivering cartons along a hedge. We bought several pints from him and then set off along the road for the Bridge of Forss.

“We don’t see many visitors here,” remarked the woman in charge of a shop where we stopped for provisions along the way. I found this hard to believe, considering the breathtaking scenery. Perhaps, I thought, she meant that few people stopped at her shop, which lay well-concealed in an old mill behind some trees. But later I realized she meant the entire region. Tourists just don’t bother to come this far north in the Highlands. Inverness? Definitely. Aviemore, the Island of Skye, Plockton and Kyle of Lochalsh? Yes. But the Bridge of Forss? Apparently not. We kept thinking that we’d hit the crowds over the next hill. But until the 13th day of our 15-day journey, we didn’t.

Cars were rare, and cyclists were rarer. When they did pass by, vehicles always gave us a wide berth, and then usually honked. At the sound of the horn, the sheep that inevitably stood behind fences along the roadside would look up, comical expressions on their faces. Their coats were sometimes so long they hung to the ground, with their necks daubed in greens, reds and blues, their owners’ “brands.” The closest thing to a traffic jam we encountered was a road-blocking flock of sheep being led home. When we asked their owner if we could take his picture, he said yes--but added that he’d been photographed “more than John Wayne” already that day.

The roads were narrow and smooth, winding around hills and into tiny villages. Golden fields exploded with purple heather and yellow buttercups. A red postbox stood out clearly from miles away because it was so solitary and bright. Occasionally, we’d come upon a little post office that doubled as a grocery store and pharmacy. Sometimes there were no towns where my A to Z map of Britain said they would be: Ardvourlie and Eriboll, for instance, we never found. But places like Clashnessie, Stoer and Drumbeg more than made up for the ones that weren’t there. Each was so wonderful--narrow lanes lined with picture-book cottages, all surrounded by golden fields neatly defined by rock walls--that, more than a few times, I was convinced it couldn’t be improved upon. But then the next village came along, and I realized that I’d been wrong.

After several days of riding through this countryside, it occurred to me that there was one aspect of the landscape that might deter some cyclists from traversing the Highlands: the gradient. The hills weren’t particularly high, but they were plentiful, and the roads up them were long; those with underdeveloped calves would invariably end up pushing their bikes.

I didn’t mind the uphills myself. And Haddon reveled in the descents. Which, of course, is how he ended up flying into the bog near the Kyle of Tongue. By the following morning, though, he was back, his wheel unmangled, and not long after sunrise we were once again pedaling under those wondrous skies.



HADDON AND I HAD SETTLED INTO A PATTERN. BY 8 EACH MORNING, WE were already on the road. We’d cycle for at least an hour before stopping for breakfast--muesli or a breakfast bar--always in a field overlooking the sea or a kyle, a loch or a muir. Lunch, around 1 p.m., was usually a picnic of bread, cheese and ham, once again eaten in a field with a view of water. If we happened to spot a place that served tea, either around 11 in the morning or 3 in the afternoon, we’d usually stop and order a pot--with, of course, a plate of shortbread to accompany it.

We always planned our ride so that by 7 or so in the evening, we’d arrive in a village with a pub. Here we’d sip Guinness or Tartan Special Bitter and eat seafood, usually haddock or scampi. Once fed and warmed by the beer, we would ride our last stretch for the evening. Then, with an hour or two of light still at our disposal, we’d go in search of a barn for the night.

Over dinner at a pub in Durness, we met a ruddy-faced local who’d just come in from a day of fishing. He must have had a good haul, if his jovial air was anything to go by. He offered us first a whisky--"a thumbful of The Famous Grouse for the lads,” he said to the landlord as he knocked back his own tumbler of the stuff--then some advice: “When you cycle,” he said, “you must set yourself a goal--like Seb Coe and Steve Cramm when they run a race. Tell yourself you’re going to reach Rhiconich or Ullapool--and then do it.”

That night, we did indeed set Rhiconich as our goal--and did indeed do it. Outside the village, about a mile off the road, we spied a grand manor house, the sort of monument to wealth you don’t see much of this far north, where houses tend to be of modest design. Several Range Rovers were parked near the front door, and a sheep dog gamboled nearby in a field. “It looks just like a whisky ad,” Haddon observed.

We knocked on the door, imagining that the owners might offer us goose-feather mattresses and cotton duvets for the night. But they turned out to be Sloane Rangers--English yuppies--up from London, and once they saw our disheveled state, they pointed to a shack in the distance instead. I slept on the concrete floor, and Haddon chose a wooden manger.

The next day, in the fishing port of Ullapool, we took our first non-two-wheeled form of transport since the train ride, boarding the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry and crossing a channel, with the Dr. Seuss-like name of The Minch, to Stornoway, on Lewis, the northernmost island in the Outer Hebrides. Our plan was to ride from Lewis to Harris (joined to Lewis by a narrow isthmus), catch another ferry to North Uist, cycle down that island and across the causeway that connects it to Benbecula, cross Benbecula and the causeway connecting it to South Uist and then down that island. From the bottom of South Uist, we’d take our last ferry, to the southernmost Hebridean island of Barra. Here we wouldn’t cycle--it’s too small for much of a ride--but would transfer to another ferry to sail back across The Minch, past the Island of Mull, alighting finally at the mainland port of Oban.


WE SET OFF FROM STORNOWAY ON A SATURDAY MORNING, THE ONLY DAY of our journey on which we encountered truly miserable weather. In the distance, we could see boats being tossed about by gale-force winds. Cyclists hardly fared better. I suggested to Haddon that we lay over in Stornoway and wait out the storm. However, the challenge of riding in a gale was too much for Haddon to resist. And so, wrapped in squall gear, we confronted the elements.


Our destination was a village on the west coast of the island, called Barvas. Even though the more direct road to Harris went south, we took the circular route so as to see the 5,000-year-old rocks at Callanish, which look just like Stonehenge in miniature. For the distance, a full 12 miles, we were accompanied by a head-on wind and a persistent fine rain, a combination that left not a single part of our bodies or possessions unsodden. When we arrived at last in Barvas, we decided to stay at a B&B--both; because barns are scarce on these islands and because, frankly, we needed some pampering. Without too much trouble, we discovered Mrs. MacDonald’s, and before you could say, “Failte d’on Ghaidhealtachd,” she’d gathered up our wet clothes, put them in front of a peat fire in the living room to dry and brought us tea and biscuits.

For the next 10 hours, we did nothing but eat and sleep--especially the former. Dinner consisted of lamb and a huge bowl of boiled potatoes, which had been freshly dug up that morning. After dinner, there was tea again. For breakfast we got porridge, eggs, bacon, sausage and white pudding--oats and offal mixed together, cut in muffin shapes, and then cooked--it’s tastier than it sounds. “The weather’s looking a lot better today,” Mrs. MacDonald announced as we ate, in an accent stronger than we’d heard in the Highlands and impossible to duplicate on paper. “But I’ll hold thumbs for you anyway.”

The Outer Hebrides are much flatter than the Highlands--much to Haddon’s disappointment--but the skies are still mountainous with clouds, and the landscape is marked with fewer intrusions of man. The islands seemed like an older world--one where people might look at you askance if they saw you riding your bicycle on the Sabbath, but, if you stopped to talk to them, they would smile and greet you like old friends.

The road began to go fast. Not only were there no hills, but there was just one main road, a very minor one, which went straight as an arrow, due south. No sooner had we set out from the north of an island than we seemed to reach its southern tip. Harris turned quickly into North Uist, North Uist into Benbecula, Benbecula into South Uist. And suddenly the port of Lochboisdale loomed in front of us.

It began to rain again. The clouds came between us and the sky and stayed there until our ferry reached the mainland. When we sailed into the port of Oban, the sun came out. Oban itself is pretty, like some coastal resort you’ve been to somewhere in the past, generously speckled with bright sails, aspiring artists chalking Da Vincis on the sidewalks, streets full of quaint-looking B&Bs.;

Haddon and I didn’t hang around. We hopped on our bikes and started pedaling. In the next two days, by cycle and by train, we traveled from Oban to Ft. William, to Mallaig, and finally from Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness--where we caught our last train back to Dundee.

It was all very nice, but by this time our spirits were waning. I missed the open roads and empty spaces and the multicolored sheep on the roadside curiously watching us freewheel past. Haddon said he missed sleeping in mangers and flying through the air. But at least we still had the skies above us.


The Scottish Cycle


Phone numbers and prices: The country code for the United Kingdom, including Scotland, is 44; local area codes are given below. Prices are approximate and are computed at a rate of .65 pounds sterling to the dollar.


Getting there: There are no nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Scotland, but United Airlines has a daily nonstop to London connecting to a British Midland flight to Edinburgh, and British Airways offers two daily nonstops to London with connections to Edinburgh. American Airlines has a daily connecting flight to Glasgow via Chicago. Another possibility is British Airways’ five-times-a-week nonstop from Los Angeles to Manchester, with a connection to Edinburgh on Manx Air. There is frequent train service from both Scottish cities to Dundee and various points in the Scottish Highlands.


Getting around: British trains charge about $7.50 to carry each bicycle accompanying a paying passenger, though sometimes this fee is waived. Ferries depart Ullapool and Mallaig on the mainland regularly for the Outer Hebrides. Fares and schedules vary widely, but our own journey from Ullapool to Stornoway cost about $35 for two bikes and two cyclists. Details can be obtained from Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries, The Ferry Terminal, Gourock PA19 1QP, Scotland; telephone (475) 650-100.


Where to stay: The Scottish countryside’s rural inns and manor house hotels are famous. While cycling, though, we preferred to camp in warm barns and stay at the occasional bed-and-breakfast. The only rule for barns is to ask permission of the farmer who owns it before unrolling your sleeping bag. B&Bs; are ubiquitous, most of them offering accommodations for $20-$30 per person per night. Tourist guidebooks listing B&Bs;, hotels and other facilities for various regions of the Highlands and the Outer Hebrides, as well as for other parts of Scotland, are available from the Scottish Tourist Board, 23 Ravelston Terrace, Edinburgh EH4 3EU, Scotland; tel. (31) 332-2433.


For more information: The British Tourist Authority, (800) 462-2748.