Going Home: A Bicycle Tour Through Scotland

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By Mike Pribesh — Three years. That’s how long I had been planning this trip and how long I was denied the opportunity due to Covid restrictions. I had every nuance planned, every castle, every mile of my route, every imaginable campsite, every possible eventuality. Guess how that worked out.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are from the couple of years I lived in Scotland, way back in the dark ages of the late seventies. I remember becoming completely enthralled with all things medieval, as evidenced by my current way too expensive sword collection. Biking all over the Dunoon area and up through Sandbank to Glen Massan are indelibly printed in my memories, and I looked forward to revisiting the old haunts.

My planned solo trip became a couple’s trip when my girlfriend, Belinda, discovered that she likes bicycle touring. And she’s willing to put up with me for extended periods on the road. Win for me! Together we made our way across the Atlantic, after some delayed and missed flights and a wondrous night in Dallas, and arrived in Inverness ready to hit the road. Dallas was not quite the overnight stay that we had planned in London, but we made the best of it knowing the real trip had yet to begin. Unfortunately, our bikes did not arrive with us in Inverness, and instead showed up a day and a half later. I hope they at least had a scenic journey.

Mike and Belinda ready to get going, Inverness, Scotland. Photo by Mike Pribesh

When at last the bikes arrived, thankfully undamaged, we quickly assembled them and set off on our trip. The plan was to do a big, counterclockwise loop from Inverness, along the Great Glen Way to Fort William, then onward through Oban, south through Dunoon, through Glasgow, with a day off to explore Edinburgh before returning northward through the Cairngorms.

We rapidly discovered the Great Glen Way, at least the version of it we did, was no joke. Steep (very steep, stupidly steep) climbs through rough dirt roads and singletrack trails tested our resolve and our legs. Add in some rain on day two, and we were humbled. But the scenery was amazing with views of Loch Ness and some outstanding riding along the canal. We didn’t see Nessie but did tour Urquhart Castle. One of the must-do's on our list was to see the Jacobite train, aka the Hogwarts Express, cross the viaduct in Glenfinnan, and we got there just in time to hike up to an overlook and watch it come across, puffing steam the whole way. It was easy to imagine Harry, Ron, and Hermione on their way to become wizards and witches. It was well worth the 30-ish mile detour on a scenic road along the edge of Loch Eil. We had a lot of must-dos on our list, so on we went.

The terrain got steeper, if that was even possible, and some questionable navigating by yours truly made for a very long day, in fact well past dark, again. Add in some cold rain and wind, and by the time we reached Fort William, we were pretty well soaked, frozen, and more than ready for a hotel with a hot shower. Camping was not high on the list at that point. Fortunately, the first place we stopped had a room, very reasonably priced for a swanky place, and we settled in for some recovery time so we could continue on the next day.

A Glencoe bagpiper. Photo by Mike Pribesh

Belinda and I are somewhat notorious for being slow movers in the morning, but we got going after a lot of breakfast (maybe too much breakfast?) and hit the road in good spirits and much better riding conditions. Our initial plan had been to do an eighty plus mile day to make up some lost time, with a brief stop in Glencoe before making our way to Oban for some much-needed whisky. The previous couple of days had taken their toll on our bodies, however, so we decided to stay in Glencoe, and I’m so glad we did. We stayed at the Red Squirrel Campground (amazing) and had a stellar evening at the Clachaig Inn just a short walk up the road. If you find yourself in Glencoe, I highly recommend a visit to this Inn/Pub. The exposed wood beams, stone floor, and feeling of cozy age are everything I could ever imagine in a Scottish pub. I introduced Belinda to the wonder that is haggis, played some pool, and sampled some delicious local whiskey while enjoying the ambiance. Belinda also discovered that she absolutely loves steak pie.

The ride out of Glencoe heading south is the stuff this trip was made for. A long, deep valley surrounded on both sides with looming mountains, lush green contrasted with low hanging clouds and fog, with waterfalls cascading down everywhere. It’s no wonder they chose to film Braveheart and The Highlander there. To top it off, as I rode up the long climb out of the valley, I began to hear bagpipes. Faint at first, but louder as I went on. Much to my surprise and profound joy, there, on the side of the road at a parking area, was a gentleman in full kilt and regalia, playing his bagpipes with the sound cascading down the valley. As a huge fan of bagpipe music, it made my day/week/life to come across this scene. Naturally I had to stop and hang out for a bit and chat.

Belinda was already far up the road ahead of me, and this delay dropped me even farther behind, so I was getting a little worried when I wasn’t catching up to her. Fortunately, she waited for me at the Glencoe Resort, a mountain biking and skiing mecca. We took a short detour to ride a lift to the top and watch the riders training for the Great Britain Downhill Mountain Bike Championship that was to take place in two days' time. I was sorely tempted to rent a mountain bike and take a few runs down the course myself, but I know my luck (and skill level) and probably would have broken something vital.

As we made our way toward Dunoon, we passed (and stopped at) numerous castles, stone bridges, and quaint villages and the Rest and Be Thankful Viewpoint. It’s a tough slog getting up there, but worth it. I can never get tired of any of those. In Dunoon we stopped briefly at the house I lived in as a child, went by my old school, and I generally bored Belinda to tears with stories from my preteen childhood. As we rode through my old neighborhood, I had flashbacks to my first “racing” days on a bike. My friends and I had a loop where we would race NASCAR style, complete with pit stops and rider changes. I was fast(ish) once upon a time.

My father passed away a few years ago, and I took this opportunity to scatter some of his ashes in Holy Loch where he had been stationed for the Navy many years ago. It was a surprisingly challenging moment for me emotionally, but good. I didn’t expect it to be that hard. I clambered out on the rocks during low tide, beneath the ruins of the old pier that was the access point to the Navy ships out in the loch and took a few moments to recall my dad and record a video for my daughter.

By the time we arrived in downtown Dunoon, the rain had begun again in earnest and the temperature was dropping rapidly, so we elected to stay there in a warm hotel rather than continue on. Glasgow has been there for a long time, one more day probably wouldn’t make a difference.

The Kelpies. Falkirk, Scotland. Photo by Mike Pribesh

The ride through Glasgow was rife with navigational challenges, technical malfunctions, and torrential rain. Those all may have been related. Glasgow roads and traffic were difficult to navigate, and there was a fair bit of profanity (only from me) as we struggled through wrong turns and going around in circles, but we made it through and enjoyed the Caledonian Canal all the way to see the Falkirk Wheel and the Kelpies, both modern marvels and major bucket list items. It’s odd that I’m an enormous geek about all things medieval, but I was super excited to see these two sites from far more recent history. The Falkirk Wheel is an engineering marvel connecting two canals, and the Kelpies are two enormous horse head sculptures. From there it was a short jaunt into Edinburgh for our planned rest day, and that’s where things started to go downhill.

Our rest day itself wasn’t the issue. We spent the day walking the Royal Mile, touring Edinburgh Castle, buying yet another sword, and generally being the tourists we were supposed to be. We had lunch at the World’s End Pub and marveled at how a city could still look pretty much the same today as it did four hundred years ago.

The next day, we decided to take a train to Stirling rather than backtrack the forty miles we had just ridden, and while waiting in the station, we grabbed a couple of sandwiches from a coffee shop. I will never eat a Chicken Caesar sandwich with bacon again. The food poisoning that hit me later in the day was epic. Long story short, we toured Stirling Castle (amazing), and I spent the next three days holed up in bed and breakfasts wishing I was dead. I lost twelve pounds in those three days, and while I'm okay with the weight loss, it was definitely not my preferred method. Belinda was a trooper, nursing me back to some semblance of health, and somehow didn’t smother me to death with a pillow in my copious sleep. I guess a small silver lining was seeing the oldest stone bridge in the Highlands in Carrbridge (also home of the World Porridge Championship) that we otherwise would not have seen.

Leaving Culloden Battlefield on singletrack. Photo by Mike Pribesh

Once I was capable, we continued on back to Inverness with stops at the Tomatin Distillery, Clava Cairns, and Culloden Battlefield. It was an easy day of riding through rolling farmland to finish the trip, and we took our time with lots of stops for rest and photos. Neither of us was ready to be done. Scotland is so rich in fascinating history that it would be impossible to see all the sights in a lifetime. I guess we’ll just have to go back sometime.

Part of the reason for this trip was to see just how much things were either the same or different from my childhood memories. In a country known for its history going back over a thousand years, I didn’t expect a lot of significant change, and was surprised that my memory was accurate after forty plus years. I recognized buildings and landmarks, street names and locations without any problem at all. It made me happy to think about things staying the same in such a rapidly changing world.

Belinda on the last day of the tour of Scotland. Photo by Mike Pribesh

While this trip deviated from all the planning I had done, I wouldn’t change anything. Well, maybe the food poisoning. Definitely would not recommend. In many years of bicycle touring, I have finally learned that you can’t, and shouldn’t, plan for everything. It’s the nature of the beast that things will wander off course, and sometimes it will be awful, but usually it will be epically better. I got to cycle around a gorgeous country with an amazing and beautiful woman (and she didn’t kill me, again), and see some of the most stunning landscapes on the planet. Would I do it again? Absolutely and in a heartbeat. But my return to Scotland will have to wait. This is a great big world with lots to see by bicycle, and while I know I won’t get to it all, I certainly want to try.

If you go:

  • Some thoughts on routes. I planned with RidewithGPS. It’s a great tool for finding bike friendly roads, but don’t trust it blindly. It will lead you through some truly questionable areas and pathways, including down staircases and literally through buildings. Cross referencing with Google Maps Streetview is highly recommended.
  • The Great Glen Way is a popular route between Fort William and Inverness and is well worth it for the scenery, but it is tough, and a lot of it is more suited to mountain bikes rather than fully loaded touring bikes. There are several versions of the trail and finding the right path for your needs and equipment can be challenging.

    Scotland's National Bike Network is extensive and well signed. Photo by Dave Iltis
  • Scotland has multiple routes on their National Bike Network that are for the most part very well signed and easy to find. They keep you off of main roads and onto lesser used, smaller roads and bike paths. Look for the little blue numbered signs or in the case of the Great Glen Way, thistle signposts.
  • Although many of the roads are tiny, one lane paths, we found Scottish drivers to be amazingly patient and considerate. Many times, they would wait for miles for a safe place to pass, even when we were crawling up steep climbs. Yes, they drive on the wrong side of the road, but they can be forgiven.
  • Speaking of riding on the wrong side of the road. There’s a sharp learning curve there when looking for oncoming traffic. Be careful. Cars are not always where your brain tells you they should be.
  • Camping in Scotland is easy and beautiful. Their land use code allows camping virtually anywhere that is not obviously fenced and posted. Just leave no trace or leave it cleaner than you found it. Paid campgrounds are numerous and not hard to find, most for about twenty dollars per night. Hotels/bed and breakfasts are reasonably priced and easy to book online. We took advantage of that fact more than we had planned due to illness, and glad we did. Food poisoning and a tent would have been a very bad combination.
  • We averaged around 50-55 miles per day. In past tours, and this one, I have found this to be a pretty good distance to allow plenty of time to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. Remember it’s not about getting from point A to point B. It’s about seeing all the sights along the way, and if that means stopping for a couple of hours to crawl around some castle ruins, all the better. At that distance per day, there’s plenty of time for sightseeing.
  • Be flexible. I tend to over plan because I like to know what’s coming. The best laid plans invariably change, whether it’s due to weather or a wrong turn or there’s somewhere you just want to see more of. Roll with it and enjoy.
  • Embrace the local food. It’s fantastic. It may have funny names like haggis or spotted dick, but give it a whirl. You won’t regret it. Unless it’s a cold sandwich from a train station.

 

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1 COMMENT

  1. Great story about a great country. I’m not completely sure why this popped into my Google news feed, but it was great to read about your trip. I know many of the places in your story though, at a Brit who, until last year, took visits to Scotland for granted. I now live in the French mountains, so Scotland seems a lifetime away.
    All the best in your future travels…

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