Bike tour through the Scottish Highlands
In early November 2015 I set out for a 3 day tour of the Scottish Highlands with my bike. I cycled along the National Cycle Network routes 7 and 78. Since some of the routes are still a work in progress, I would like to share my experience here.
The planning stage already proved to be more difficult than expected. Most web pages only provide information on short family-friendly bike rides (<10 miles). Since it was already November, off-road tracks were obviously not recommendable. Eventually I decided to go with the National Cycle Network, with which I have made some good experience around Five and east of Edinburgh and a lot of bad experience between Glasgow and Edinburgh. The majority of these paths are paved. A good albeit slow page for planning bike trips in the UK is http://www.sustrans.org.uk/ncn/map. The next thing to check was the time of the sunset, which is 4:32pm on November 1. For each full day I planned to cover around 65 miles. Including breaks this would mean that I’d start at 9:00am. Turning next to the possible train connections from Edinburgh, I realized that there were only two options: Start early at 6:30am or 8:30am and lose half a day. I decided to go with the former and take the 3 hour train through dense fog to Dalwhinnie in the Cairngorms.
From Dalwhinnie I started heading north past the distillery – one of about 5 or 6 that I would encounter on my tour. At 14°C and a flawless blue sky it was possibly the best November day ever in Scotland. The route closely follows the A9 without getting to close to it. Around Kingussie it leaves the A9 to climb the nearby hills and pass by Ruthven Barracks built in 1719. From there it follows the chain of hills to the breath-taking valley and bridge of Feshiebridge. Then it goes down easily to Aviemore, which is the only proper town in the Cairngorms. Along the route River Sprey (think Spreyside Whisky) winds through the Boat of Garten Golf Club. At Carrbridge I passed the oldest bridge in the Highlands (1717). From there the route stays a bit too close to the A9 to rise to the top of Slochd Summit. What follows is a descent towards Inverness, coming by Tomatin distillery and the site of the Battle of Culloden (1746). Route 7 comes to an end in front of Velocity cafe in downtown Inverness. Inverness is the biggest town in the highlands and features a multitude of international restaurants and very affordable accomodation.
The next day I followed the Great Glen way from coast to coast. Off season this route is much less frequented than what I saw in the Cairngorms. Whereas the main road goes along the northwest side of Loch Ness, the National Cycle Network stays on the southeast side. The slowly developing fog made this trip quite a challenge, but also added to the authentic horror-movie like atmosphere around Loch Ness. The highlight of the tour was the mountain pass to the Suidhe viewpoint. Passing by the moon-like landscape of Loch Tarff, I got back to Fort Augustus. Sticking closely to the Caledonian Canal, I got to yet another lake – Loch Lochie. What follows is an endless up and down over gravel before getting back to the canal and finally to the beautiful bay of Fort William, with a chance to spot Ben Nevis – the highest mountain in the UK. Here I can warmly recommend Fort William Backpackers, which is very cheap and has an authentic lounge with an open fireplace.
The last day took me from Fort William to Oban. Still part of the National Cycle Network route 78, this is the least developed track and its construction only started in 2007. This means that large parts have to be covered on the highly frequented A82 and A828. However the stunning view of Glencoe and its surrounding mountains, the several major bridges that have to be crossed and Loch Linnhe and its islands made this day just as worthwhile. Eventually I got to the 8th century Dunollie Castle. From there it’s just a stroll to Oban, the lighthouse and the ferry pier. After a tasty portion of Fish and Chips, I took the 4.5 hour long train back to Edinburgh.
I would recommend this trip to anyone who is looking to see as much as possible of the Scottish Highlands, off the beaten path. Due to the lack of information on the route and the significant slope, I would recommend to plan not more than 50 miles per day.