Our Unlimited Cycling Dream: Scotland

It wouldn’t be a lie if I said the thing I looked forward to the most in Great Britain was Scotland. Well known for its beautiful highland scenery and unique culture, it came recommended from many sides. But many sides had also warned us about the unpredictable weather and swarms of vicious biting midges…

Travel Fatigue

Crossing the border into Scotland, we didn’t have anything immediate to look forward to, though. Being well fed up with the steep hills of northern England, we had decided to follow an easy route through the south of Scotland. The M74, the main motorway connecting England with Glasgow, was built along the same axis as the previous highway. That old highway was now almost completely empty and designated as cycling route 74. It cut through the hills and was flat. Or at least what we considered as flat. Many cyclists we met tried to discourage us from this road as it wouldn’t be as beautiful, but for the moment we were very happy with our decision. Sometimes it’s nice to make fast and easy progress as a touring cyclist. Or as Yuily called me, being like a truck driver.

With this road we managed to arrive in Glasgow pretty quickly. Travel fatigue had set in again for a bit and we stayed 8 nights with two different hosts, not doing very much. On a day with very nice weather I at least went out to cycle to Loch Lomond, a popular lake close enough to Glasgow, reachable by cycle paths all the way. As always we had great fun talking to our hosts and having food with them, and generally enjoying to be in a different country even though it is technically part of the same nation. The Scottish mindset is very different from the English one in so many ways, which is also reflected in the local laws. One of them was very important to us, and that is the freedom to roam, which means that camping is legal anywhere, even on private property.

We left Glasgow toward the west and didn’t get very far until we got rained on. Luckily a warmshowers host saw my last minute request quickly so we had a dry night. The next day we took a short ferry across the Clyde river, only to spend most of the day waiting out a non-stopping rain in the ferry terminal on the other side. Things were looking up after that, as the highlands really started to appear now. The steep mountains along with the deep blue fjords and lakes inbetween were quite spectacular, and as we reached Kilchurn castle, the travel fatigue we previously had was blown away. I started to appreciate again where I am and what I’m doing, and that other people travel very far and pay a lot of money to see this.

The Highlands

On a fantastic cloudless day we breezed along on an old rail line towards Fort William, passing the spectacular castle Stalker on the way. I was looking forward to staying with a host there, but I got a reminder that we can’t treat hospitality the same way as a hotel booking: On arriving in the town, I got a message from our host that his plans changed and he couldn’t host us. These things can happen, but I was still very disappointed. It’s tough to be camping if you were looking forward to a bed that night.

Just outside of the Lidl supermarket in town we met an Italian cyclist, which was a fateful encounter. His bicycle was broken and he had to abandon his trip, but his train wasn’t until morning, so we decided to camp together. He managed to cycle through much of the highlands already, and when we were telling him of our plan to go to the Isle of Skye, he immediately shook his head and said “terrible”. Apparently the roads were very narrow and the traffic really bad and busy at this time of the year. He did have a good point: Now was high tourist season in Scotland and many of them were tourists from Europe, not very experienced driving on the left, driving with much more impatience than the locals. We recalled a 10 km section coming into town that lacked a cycling path and was pretty busy and dangerous, we didn’t want to imagine what Skye was like, as it was on every single guidebook and tourist itinerary. Our Italian friend much recommended the Outer Hebrides instead.

Change of Plans

In the morning we made up our minds. The ferries to and from the Hebrides would cost us about GBP25, but if that was our only reason to stop us from going, I suggested to ignore the budget for once and just go. And go we had to, as the ferry was only once per day at 7 pm from the port of Mallaig, 70 km away. These 70 km were some of the prettiest we cycled though. A steam train runs along with the road on the west highland coast, one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland. We were blown along with a nice tailwind and reached Mallaig with time to spare for the ferry. Three hours later, the boat docked in Lochboisdale in – surprise, surprise – a heavy downpour. Luckily a friendly Englishman invited us to stay in his motorhome, so we were able to stay dry.

The next few days were some of my favourite ones on the whole trip. These islands, far off the coast of Great Britain, had a stunningly beautiful, wild scenery that reminded me of Iceland. What I didn’t expect were some of the prettiest beaches I’ve ever seen. Not yet found by the mass tourism that has reached Scotland, the local population was very friendly. In fact, it seemed like they haven’t really been found by anyone yet, as the Gaelic language, the language once spoken throughout much of Western Europe before the Roman Empire, was truly alive and well here, with nearly everybody speaking it.

On North Uist I saw a handwritten sign to Highland Games, and I urged Yuily to check them out. Scotlands culture kept many of these Gaelic influences, and these Highland Games were the best place to see them being celebrated. Men and women in fashionable Kilts playing bagpipes, girls dancing to the music and people participating in ridiculous sports such as tossing the camber and sack race… this culture is still one of the most unusual and different in all of Europe.

Annoying weather and midges

In Stornoway, we finally stayed with a host after a record 9 days without a shower (although we washed in a small lake once), and said goodbye to these wonderful islands. Back on Britain, where the people were noticably less nice again, we aimed to get to Inverness, and on to Edinburgh. It was a constant cat-and-mouse game with the weather, as I attempted to read the movement pattern of the clouds and we were prepared to dive for shelter any moment. It was fricking annoying, but this is Scotland. At least we didn’t have to battle traffic, as most of the way from Inverness on we were able to follow the excellent cycling route 7.

Wild camping came with other complications: Small, annoying midges. Any spot on a grassy place would swarm with them in minutes, making any minute outside the tent a living hell. We did have the Scottish repellent of choice, a skin lotion called “Skin so soft”, never intended as a repellent, but that would only keep some of them at bay for 10 minutes or so. The best repellent was a consistent breeze, so defying normal camping logic, we often purposely camped in exposed, windy places in order not to be bothered by midges.

Three days in Edinburgh, Scotlands capital, went over quickly, as the city was really pleasant, easily the most pleasant in the whole UK. Apart from all the attractions, the Fringe festival was going on, an international arts festival and the biggest of its kind. Some shows were even made by Taiwanese groups, and Yuily ignored the budget to see one of them one day. The atmosphere in the whole city was very lively, as multiple street performers and artists either worked to advertise their show or just tried their luck with busking.

Busking was something that Yuily always wanted to try as well. She is very good at painting caricature style and the idea was to sell people a postcard sized portrait. Unfortunately we never managed to try it so far. This time we were leaving Edinburgh, and as we were cycling through the city center again, seeing the huge amount of people, I convinced Yuily to try it for real this time. After drawing a poster to advertise the service, it only took minutes to get her first two customers who really liked the paintings they got. It was fantastic. Unfortunately the day was coming to an end already, so we had to stop it there and go to find a place to camp.

Injury break

Unfortunately, as we were camping, I tripped over the pot with boiling water on our stove, spilling the hot water all over my left foot. The skin peeled off immediately and was just hanging on the foot in bits and pieces. Although I cooled the foot as long as I could afterwards, the damage was done. I knew I shouldn’t cycle for at least a few days. After a harsh night full of pain, we got to a pharmacy in the morning to get some bandages and to a library to send a few warmshowers requests. Our luck was in this time: A host called Ivan accepted within a minute of me sending the request and welcomed us to stay.

I was still pretty ok in the beginning, humping along but able to do most tasks. But after a few days even walking became impossible as the wound started to dry up, entering a healing phase. Any movement would tear up the wound crust, so really all I could do was rest and put the foot up high to slow the blood flow. Ivan as a host was a godsend. He said after the second night that I should just stay as long as I needed for my foot to heal. Which ended up being over two weeks. We really enjoyed staying with him as we shared stories over dinner, taking care of his Labrador Rita and generally also appreciated the rest.

I couldn’t have left a day earlier. The pain was just barely controllable with Paracetamol and Ibuprofen when we made our way to Ireland. Several days of cycling eventually took us to the ferry port of Cainryan, from where we left Great Britain (but not yet the United Kingdom) for good. On the way, on a particularly rainy night, just like before in Turkey and Greece, Scotland treated us with an amazing bit of spontaneous hospitality, as a farmer family invited us to stay in their house and fed us instead of camping in the rain.

Final Impressions

We take mostly positive memories from Great Britain with us. Its people are going through an uncertain future right now and we had a lot of interesting talks about the two referendums held recently (Scottish Independence and Brexit). There was enough to see and do that we rarely had boring days on the bikes. But yet, after almost two months, we were ready for something new, although one thing was for sure: The rain situation would only get worse in Ireland!

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