This is a four part long read from Alpkit customer, Matt Bark of his epic two month bikepacking tour of Scotland.
It was 6 o’clock on a Tuesday morning in mid May. A crisp bright day was beginning as I lifted my heavily loaded bike up the steps at the otherwise deserted Carstairs Junction train station. I was the only passenger to have just disembarked the Caledonian Sleeper service from London. As I stood there basking in a moment of early morning apricity, the sun's warming rays bestowed hope upon me for the coming journey. Little did I know that, 2 months and a day later, I would be back at that exact same spot, having cycled 2500 miles, caught 40 ferries and visited 34 islands in an unforgettable lap of the beautiful nation that is Scotland.
Surely I would know that in advance? That I would be back in two months time for the return train journey? But no, at that point, all I knew was that I had 10 weeks until I had to be back at work in Norfolk. I did not have my return journey planned, I didn't even know where my "return journey" would begin. I had an itinerary for the next few nights, but that was followed by an increasingly (and deliberately) vague plan thereafter. I would island hop my way up the West coast and around the North. Initial thoughts were of finishing around Inverness, but as the weeks passed, still with no real plan, this idea adapted over and over to eventually become a full circular loop. But that was the pure intent of the trip, by having sufficient time and no defined end point, I would be unencumbered with pre-planning and could enjoy seeing where the world took me.
The route was, therefore, a bit all over. I would decide to go down a road “just because” - to see where it goes. I went 10 miles down a dead-end road, just to camp on a beach on a friend’s recommendation from years beforehand. I ended up on an island because a ferry just turned up when I was sat feeling low. I got a lift across a Loch in a (somewhat questionable) dinghy, just to get a fabric patch for reaching the lighthouse on the other side. Below I've tried to capture, both in photos and words, some of the standout memories of the trip. They include the challenges, the beautiful landscapes and the people met along the way. This was my adventure. This was Scotland.
After a few days of heavy rain, I rolled my bike down the corridor of an airport hotel on the Ayrshire Coast. My shoes, socks and spirit were soaked. My overshoes had given up their defence in the face of an endless onslaught of water, gravel and other detritus over the last two days. I was worn out, the final amount of climbing for the day being around double what was anticipated. It was at this point I decided to not trust the elevation figures provided by Google Maps for the rest of the trip.
Though soon I would be sat thinking this was possibly the best £30 I might spend on the trip. A warm shower, dry clothes and a hairdryer (employed for the drying of shoes and other gear). Could the evening get better? Well, yes, as a matter of fact. The restaurant next door advertised two mains for £8.99.
"This ‘two mains for £8.99’: does it have to be two people?" I enquired to the waitress.
"Well, no. I guess not," was the quizzical response.
"Excellent." After the previous few days, I needed it.
Arriving on the small island Gigha, I found the campsite closed for the year, so made some enquiries on suitable pitching spots with a friendly local. The first he recommended was easily found, an open gravel track leading from the road to a small sandy bay, overlooking the tiny harbour and surrounded by large gorse bushes in vibrant yellow blossom. I pitched up, had dinner and chatted with passers-by. As the evening started to gather, I sat inside my tent sheltering from a light drizzle that had rolled in from the ever-present coastline.
As I sat sheltering, I heard noises beyond the fabric. I peered around to see cows wandering around the gorse, having clambered across from the adjoining field over the rocks on the shoreline. My immediate reaction, whether correctly or not, was that I could not camp here. If the cows were spooked through the night, they would be funnelled by the thick gorse directly towards my tent and I would, quite certainly, be tragically trampled in my sleep. I quickly packed my tent and pedalled further up the island. A "campervans please park here" sign pointed towards a field and provides hope in the fading light. I pitched once more and was soon sat watching the golden sun dipping over the island of Jura on the Western horizon, that oh-so-stereotypical "sunset out of the tent door" photo making up for the earlier bovine interruption.
As I dozed in the sleeping bag, I heard noises outside once again. Tentatively, I unzipped the inner and then outer doors, swinging them slowly aside and poking my head out into the night to be greeted, once more, by a herd of cows staring back at me. A whole load of nope, I'm not camping here. Tent down again, rapidly this time, I pedalled a short way down the road, crossed a cattle grid, found some long grass (cows clearly didn't come here), and pitched my tent again. Being around midnight, this was the only time on the entire trip where I had requirement of my headtorch. Though stressful at the time, I now look back on this evening (with maybe slightly rose-tinted glasses) and see only the funny side of the experience.
The following morning, I quickly decamped and resolved to dry and tidily pack the tent whilst waiting at the harbour for the first ferry off the island. After the ferry and a short cycle along the coast road on the mainland, I reached another harbour where they were loading the last of the cars aboard the ship.
"Have you already got a ticket mate?" the man directing traffic asked.
"No not yet. Where are you sailing to?" I responded.
“Ah, I want to go to Port Ellen anyway".
In no rush, I leaned my bike up against the terminal building and headed inside the booking office to arrange my tickets.
"When are you next sailing to Port Ellen?" I enquired.
"We're not today," the response from behind the glass screen.
"But that one is going to Port Askaig right now if you want?”
"Yeah, go on then. Why not?"
The flexibility offered by not having a plan allowed me to make that last minute decision on where to go. The freedom that I yearned for in "planning" this trip had become a reality. I booked some accommodation whilst enjoying breakfast in the canteen on board and was soon rolling along deserted roads on the whisky Isle of Islay. I spotted my first Highland cow as my freewheel buzzed merrily beneath me. I spent the evening chatting to two guys in a bar about my journey, island life and their jobs in two different distilleries that the island is famous for.