One of many fantastic applications to our Spring Cycle Tour Bursary project, Georgia was the winner of the UK & Ireland Bursary for her plan to spend 10 days ‘bagging’ and exploring the lost ruins of Scotland’s West Coast on a route south from Thurso to Brodick. Now back from what appears to have been an awesome trip, we are chuffed to be publishing a piece on her journey. Enjoy…
My idea to discover and explore the lost ruins of northern Scotland by bike came about after reading a book called Wild Ruins: The Explorer’s Guide to Britain Lost Castles, Follies, Relics and Remains by David Hamilton; a book that had previously inspired spontaneous shorter trips in southern Scotland and camping trips in the Lake District. I have a lot of fun exploring these ruin sites – getting tangled up in brambles, trying to cross rivers, attempting to access tidal islands – to the extent that is has almost definitely become a hobby. The satisfaction of ticking the list off from the book is always matched by the addictive and exhilarating feeling of being lost to the outside world, amongst ancient decaying walls.
It did not take long to put the idea of cycling between ruin sites together, and I convinced Mook, a long-term friend, to come with me on a longer trip. That bit didn’t take long either. We mapped out a route that pretty much hugged the north and west coast of Scotland, to include all the ruin sites that were dotted along the coastline. When travelling, the spirit of adventure can often be lost in the determination to get to a set destination however, cycle touring self-sufficiently with the theme of exploring ruins, meant we discovered much more about the west coast other than whatever lined the roadside. One of the most liberating things about this journey was the spontaneity of stops – if we passed somewhere either of us were interested in, we would explore – whether a ruin site, eco- forest walk, shoreline cave, or smoke house. In total, we visited: 14 castle sites; a few Neolithic stone circles; an abandoned hospital; chapel ruins; and one farm building…
Accessing the sites faced us with a few challenges: gravel and single-track roads that took us miles off route; river crossings and beaches to navigate in bike shoes (bare foot); and some nasty lumpy terrain to get to some of the more remote coastal forts. And some walks. Each time, the effort was made worthwhile by the unspoilt views and deserted landscapes we experienced. To name a few of our favourites:
Strome Castle. The castle ruins perched on rocks overlooked a beautiful bay and the shores of Loch Carron. The castle’s history had a comical story; its besiegement occurred due to a woman accidentally pouring water into the gun powder vat instead of the water barrel. It lead to the Mackenzie Clan overthrowing the MacDonalds in the area (a long-established rivalry between the two clan of the Western Isles). It is now under National Trust ownership.
Castle Tioram on Loch Moidart was a fantastic find. It was sited on a tidal island on the Loch; one of the most tranquil places we visited.
Skipness. As we neared, we were advised by a group of cyclists to take a detour for both an impressive panoramic view of the bay and Isle of Arran and also to find a famous seafood cabin to discover some of the west coast’s finest salmon. Again. Skipness Castle was one of a few ruins where you could still climb right to the turrets, and only then that view unveils the castle’s true strategic significance. On a glorious day of sunshine we could see the Isle of Arran and the surrounding Isles, settled on still crystal waters.
"...we had the chance to try our hands at scallop fishing; eating our fresh catch straight from the loch, raw. They were the sweetest, most refreshing and delicate things I have ever tasted."
The ‘ruin bagging’ as we liked to call it was something that neither Mook nor I had ever tried whilst travelling by bike in the past. We both loved uncovering interesting anecdotes and snippets of history from the bloody stories of highland clan conflict. However, it was the landscapes of the west coast that captured our imaginations on a whole other level. Each new day brought another genre of landscape, roads and terrain; no two days of riding were ever the same, and that is what made this trip so special. The very north between Thurso and Durness provided some of the most barren scenery alongside some of the most crystal, white-sand beaches. Then, once we were amongst the ominous misty mountains of the northern west coast, it often felt more like we were riding on Mars than in Scotland; it is difficult to truly explain the magic of the west coast until you are on your bike cycling on the deserted mountain roads. Given the midges, I quickly learned to gape with my mouth closed. All the way from Poolewe to Torridon (a valley in particular that is encircled by Munro Peaks) was one of the most spectacular places I think I have been on my bike – the sunshine, the single track road on a false flat downhill was simply a dream. Mook and I found that our moods would directly reflect the road quality and weather, but there was nothing that could get two cyclists down on this route, all the way to the gateway to Skye. On Day 4 we took a lift on a scallop fishing boat across Loch Carron. Mook had a connection with a local fisherman who was willing to give two weary cyclists a lift on his boat to avoid what he described as “12 nasty hilly miles” – a man that I can only describe as a ‘legend’. And, it turned out to be more than a ferry crossing –
we had the chance to go scallop fishing; eating our fresh catch straight from the loch, raw. They were the sweetest, most refreshing and delicate things I have ever tasted. The fisherman even cooked a few up on his tiny boat; equipped with a small pan and garlic butter, of course. Hands down, this was definitely the best seafood experience, if not general experiences of our west coast adventure.
On the other hand, my toughest day was the day after Scallop-Day, when I attempted a loop of the Isle of Skye solo. I wanted to see as much of Skye as possible, whilst Mook had toured there before and was more than happy for a rest day: big days over big hills had taken its toll. I took all the camping equipment and Mook’s GPS and headed for the road in the direction of the wind (aka Dunvegan). It was tough all day, facing a 35mph headwind for a good 80 miles. Skye is both dramatic and barren, I was most certainly humbled by the landscape and learned a lot about personal motivation in those conditions. There is still no denying the beauty and drama of Skye, and I appreciated the landscape even at its most barren, however the style of riding was not as enjoyable as it was further north, simply due to the increase in traffic. That said, the climb from Uig to Staffin was an incredible road, offering an unforgettable view of the Quiraing. It made the whole struggle worthwhile. I ended in Staffin and collapsed at a nearby camp site where a lovely woman gave me tea and biscuits. It must have looked like I really needed it; that or a big hug possibly. The next day Mook and I reunited in Broadford and I was glad to cycle with her again.
One of the joys of travelling by bike for me is the ability to be self-sufficient and ride to wherever the road and your legs take you. The free-roaming laws in Scotland meant that we could wild camp the majority of our trip, which added another element to the exploration of the west coast. Finding sites with suitable water, having pre-prepared camping food and finding quirky, tucked away locations to set up in was really enjoyable. The day before we left we made a batch of super food flapjacks, 7 nights of bulgar wheat and soy mince mix and 7 mornings of porridge mix, packed full of cinnamon fruits and nuts. Something that both Mook and I have in common is a passion for flavours and adding pretty much everything to porridge. Admittedly we did embellish it even further with chocolate, almond butter and fresh banana too. We were both pretty happy to see the end of the bulgar wheat by bag 7, but it made all the salmon and seafood experiences all the more special. Another element to the tour was the considerable lack of showering involved. We had our first shower in Torridon after 4 days of no shower. Following that it was Mallaig at a Warm Showers host on day 7. There were tan lines that simply turned out to be grime lines. This is how we both like to travel. We love to go as light, cheap and self-sufficient as possible, that way you feel you have earned your showers and rest days by the time you get back to civilisation.
Spending 10 days riding the assortment of single-track roads – skirting lochs and meandering through river valleys – made this one of my most memorable trips. Little moments alongside the riding, like the fresh scallops from Loch Carron and the smoked salmon from Creeler’s in Brodick right at the end, and riding through villages and having a locally brewed pint here and there all made the experience that bit more complete. I felt we really explored and experienced the best the Scottish West coast has to offer. In 10 days of riding, we completed a route of around 1000km along the jaw-dropping coastline, and ticked off:
14 lost ruins
4 ferry crossings
8 nights of wild camping
1 fishing expedition
1 bucket load of fresh scallops
a tonne of smoked salmon
1 tub of almond butter
1 awesome pie
too many midge bites
a healthy dose of sun burn.
For more on the background to Georgia’s application and plans, see our Bursary Announcement Journal piece…