Rolling west from Sligachan through the Cuillin Hills, Sgurr nan Gillean rises up out of the mist to 3167 feet above sea level, the craggy top shrouded in thick, moody cloud. The air is dense with moisture, even though it isn’t raining, and the saturated ground seems to meld into the low-lying cloud as it disappears toward the horizon. It is much cooler now, and tucking down a little lower behind the Sprint’s small fairing it is amazing to think there has only been one change to this barren landscape since William Wallace roused his countrymen to fight the injustices of their English rulers back in the thirteenth century: Tarmacadam.
Invented by a canny Scot by the name of John Loudon McAdam of Muirkirk in the late 1780s, it revolutionized the way roads were built, and consisted of broken stones laid in tight symmetrical patterns covered with smaller stones. In time, this process changed to coarse, crushed stone, mixed with a mixture of tar and bitumen. Twisting and turning along the thin, undulating line of two-lane tarmac, through the dreich, mist-shrouded mountains ahead of us, his legacy lives on as the only sign of modern progress in this barren and harsh environment on the western edge of the Isle of Skye.
Back in the saddle of a motorcycle on Scottish roads for the first time in 25 years, my good friend Dennis Gage and his son Sam were joining me for the ride. Car buffs will know the flat-cap wearing, mustachioed Dennis from his hit television show, “My Classic Car.” As motorcyclists we enjoy a similar natural rhythm on the road, so riding together is always a pleasure. And, with two brand new Triumph Sprint STs, four days and a map of Scotland in front of us, it was with great spirits that we headed away from base camp, my sister’s house just outside Glasgow, to go exploring last summer.
The journey begins with Dennis Gage and his son joining Bayly to see what this historic land has to offer.
Affectionately known to all as Mrs. Clean, she made sure we had indulged in lots of good Scottish grub before hitting the trail, prompting Dennis to deliver the line, “the trouble with Scottish food is, two weeks later you are hungry.” Setting the tone for a fun few days, we picked up some backroads I knew from my youth through Bridge of Weir, and headed west to the River Clyde where we would catch a ferry north from Gourock. Starting in the Lead Hills of South Lanarkshire, the Clyde runs north past Glasgow and Clydebank before emptying out into the Firth of Clyde 106 miles later.
As a port that faced the Americas, the Clyde was dredged during the Industrial revolution, and in the years that followed the shipyards in this area built more than 35,000 ships. Heavy damage from Nazi bombers during WWII, and cheap labor in Eastern Europe, meant that by the mid ’80s only three shipyards were still open, sending the area into deep recession.
Purring effortlessly between the abundant hedgerows, with our computer-controlled three-cylinder wonders of modern technology beneath us; we passed small Crofts (fenced off area of land) among fields of sheep and cows. Watching the smoke curl lazily into the pastel blue sky from a single chimney stack, I thought of the old Scottish expression for encouraging prosperity, “long may your lum reek,” and took this as a positive omen for our upcoming ride. Deliberately riding slower than normal, to allow Dennis to acquaint himself with riding on the left hand side of the road, I took a few long, deep breaths of fresh Scottish air, and settled into my new Corbin seat as panoramic views of the Clyde accompanied us into town.
On arrival, the pleasant breeze and warm sunshine infused the air with a positive energy, and all along the water front Tomato Greenhouses and Garden Centers were doing a roaring trade. Weaving our way through the slow moving tourist traffic the area appeared alive and rejuvenated as we made our way to the Western Ferries loading dock. Hopping off the bikes, we purchased our tickets from a straight-faced young man whose deadpan reply, “lots of sky, but not much sun” to my question of what is it usually like here during the summer raised a good laugh. Rolling the bikes down the slip ramp, we boarded for a 30-minute ride across this great body of water.
Never more than two lanes wide, except for the occasional third for passing purposes, the roads meander along the side of the Lochs, in no hurry to get to their destination.
Once under way, an ancient looking gentleman with a weathered face like a road map through time indulged us with a head-spinning array of facts and figures about the surrounding area. Being just 35 miles to the Atlantic Ocean, this area gets heavily battered by winter storms, forcing cruise ships to seek shelter further up river, which he informed us is 480 feet deep in places. Looking icy cold, dark and mysterious even on a bright summer’s day, I could only imagine what things could be like in winter.
Docking in Dunnoon, the small tourist town’s streets were thriving with holidaymakers shopping in the sunshine. Riding between the tall buildings that have lined the main street for hundreds of years, there was a definite sense of stepping back in time. In my mirror two smiling faces told me all was well with Dennis and Sam, and leaving town we got our first chance to stretch the throttle cables a little. Heading north along the twisting two-lane roads there was one small interruption to the joy when we stopped for a tank of petrol. At more than $8 per gallon we just had to swallow hard and ride on.
In this part of the world, the major roads are marked with the pre-fix “A,” so we followed signs for the A885 past the townships of Sandbank and Ardbeg, before the A815 ran us up alongside the quiet waters of Loch Eck. Turning west on the A83 at Cairndow, we purred along the banks of picturesque Loch Fyne before calling a break in Inverary. The terrain had opened up some by now with the surrounding mountains devoid of trees, even though the roads were well-lined with thick fir trees. Never more than two lanes wide, except for the occasional third for passing purposes, the roads meander along the side of the Lochs, in no hurry to get to their destination as they follow every rocky indentation caused by the surrounding hills.
Located at the head of Loch Fyne, Inverary comes into view from about a half a mile out as the traffic waits its turn to cross the one lane Aray Bridge that leads to town. Picture-postcard perfect in the early afternoon sun, the three-story, whitewash-painted 18th century buildings are some of the best examples of this period in Scotland. Sitting back across from the park on the waterfront, they also frame out both sides of Main Street. With their dormer windows popping out of the natural slate roofs open to the warm air, it was time to park and just absorb the scene. Before leaving town, we made a quick visit to the Inverary Castle, which has been the ancestral home to the Duke of Argyle, the Chief of the Campbell Clan, since its completion in 1771. Wow!
Moving inland, we made good time on the nimble handling Sprints as the A819 became A828 and Loch Awe to our left became Loch Etive to our right. Later, working our way north toward Ballacluish, the brakes went on at Portnacroish as Castle Stalker came into view across the peaceful Sound of Shuna. With the day marching toward evening, the sun was still enjoying some prime time in the sky as we were traveling just days after the Solstice. Standing stoically out in Loch Linnhe, the ancient castle left us positively breathless as we gazed at the shimmering waters stretching away behind in the distance. Small sailboats tacked against the refreshing breeze, while sheep tugged at tufts of course Scottish grass, and our shutters snapping as we tried to capture the incredible beauty of the Scottish countryside on our digital file cards.
Back in the saddle, the A82 was ridden in the magical early evening light, as our destination for the night, Fort William, got closer with each passing mile. Lined with numerous inviting, immaculately clean B&Bs we ignored their lure and made it to the tightly packed town center with its historic buildings leaning over as if bowing to each other. With the sun barely dipping below the horizon at this time of year, the days are long. And, sitting with a wee pint of the good stuff at the Cruachev Hotel as the midnight hour approached, we could still just see the sailboats in the Loch outside. We hadn’t made a million miles, but the stimulation-per-mile content was high, and looking at the moon glowing behind the distant mountains was the perfect bookend to the day.
The Cruachev itself was a joy, the room rates posted on a black board with plastic numbers, and our check-in written into a ledger by a matronly Scottish receptionist with horn-rimmed spectacles. Winding through the labyrinth of stairways and corridors to my small room, which contained two cot beds with the weirdest flower-patterned sheets imaginable, it was good to feel generic commercialism has most definitely not made it this far north.
Brekkie in the morning was fortifying, nurturing and washed down with lashings of hot tea. Elegantly served by a lovely young Eastern European waitress on a summer work program, the thought of baked beans, sausages, fried bread and fried eggs was a little much for Dennis and Sam. “Tender Americans” I said digging in, before we enjoyed a rousing ride up to Mailag on the Western tip of North Morar. As we passed the tip of Loch Shiel, we stopped to photograph the large monument that commemorates Bonnie Prince Charlie raising his standard here in August 1745. Although his rebellion ultimately failed, the statue featuring a kilted Highlander was erected by the wealthy descendent of a Jacobite in 1812. There is also an incredible concrete viaduct constructed in the early 1900’s for the railway that is 416 yards long, with 21 arches, the tallest being 1000 ft high.
The mood was festive as we made it to the lonely port town, perched at what seemed like the end of civilization. As nothing but a big harbor, with all the houses ringed around the surrounding hillside looking down onto the fleets of tough, hard working fishing boats, our ferry to the Isle of Skye was an hour away so we headed into the small town to explore.
Genuine Scottish bagpipers are a frequent sight in Scotland but still exciting to see them in the birthplace of their craft.
The journey across the Sound of Sleat was wonderful, the thickly clouded sky punctuated by patches of pale blue sky and a salty breeze blowing in our faces. Lady luck gave us the opportunity to meet and photograph a genuine Scottish bagpiper when we docked in Armadale, and with our ears still ringing from the sound of this most interesting of instruments we stumbled into our next accommodation. Sitting just off the A851, the Toravaig House called as an inviting beacon in the harsh landscape we found ourselves riding through. The sun had disappeared, and it was damp and cool as we went looking for a base for our Isle of Skye adventures.
Quickly realizing in wet touring gear we weren’t going to cut it in the lounge over tea, we disrobed and quietly took our place with the houseguests. Waiting for our warm beverage to arrive, a well-dressed elderly Scottish Gentleman with jet black, dyed hair was sipping his pint, while engaging a couple of elegant English ladies in a rousing conversation next to the piano. Of indeterminate age, they had most certainly used up their three score and ten. Sitting bolt up right sipping tea, and politely nodding at the appropriate moments, they all made a point to take little notice of the motorcycle rabble that had burst into their space.
Tea taken, rooms reserved, and most of our equipment stowed, we motored off to discover the Isle of Skye. By now the terrain had grown mostly treeless and much harsher than the mainland, and passing through the Cuillin Hills it became darn right cold. The roads varied from narrow singletrack affairs, where we had to wait for oncoming traffic, to open two-lane which allowed us to get the big Triumphs singing around 80 mph without another soul in sight. The scenery was out of this world. Barren and at times bleak, it was always breathtaking whether we were following a Loch or twisting through the cold mountains 3000 feet above us.
Late afternoon found us at the most northwesterly point of our ride in the town of Dunvegan for a visit to the famous Castle. “Rising sheer from the almost perpendicular edges of the rock, its massive gray towers and hoary battlements stand forth against an unrivalled background of sky and mountain and islet-spangled sea,” it is amazing to think its origins began over 1000 years ago. And that it has been continually been worked on through every century since the 1200s. Featuring magnificent wooded gardens and an interior featuring portraits, priceless heirlooms, trophies, weapons and even a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hair, it is said to be the oldest inhabited castle in Scotland.
Motoring south for Portree across some flat, barren ground, the temperatures plummeted further and the light began to fade as I crouched in behind the fairing. Noticeably shivering on arrival in the small fishing town of Portree, Sam was not in good shape. Even with the thermal liner in his adventure gear, sitting high on the back of the Sprint he had been getting cold on the run up to Dunvegan and the ride to Portree had not been fun. We added layers, forced a hot steaming meal of fish and chips down his neck and headed out into the cold evening. Even in summer time, Scotland can be a harsh mistress.
Peering through the twilight gloom, the Triumph’s fuel light burst on with some 30-40 miles to go, causing some mild concern. Motioning to Dennis, he made me aware he was in the same situation and it was time to roll out of the throttle and ease our way through the Scottish hills. Time ticks slowly by when you are waiting for the tank to run dry, and I knew it would happen to Dennis first. Occasional cottages dotted the sparse landscape, and we wondered if they might have a wee drop of gas. Thankfully, with little more than fumes in the tank we made it, slammed down a chocolate bar for some instant fuel and pressed on for the Toravaig House. Firmly ensconced in the luxurious armchairs after a scalding hot shower, with a wee pint of heavy in hand, it was time to reflect on a wonderful day of riding and all of the many varied sights we had seen. No one took much rocking this night.
Off to the usual breakfast confusion for the American contingent as they struggled with teapots and the strange order of the food service before a refreshing morning blast en route to the Kyle of Lochalsh, which would take us off the Isle of Skye. A long bridge soars out across the Plock of Kyle, and the stunning views across the mist-shrouded water were very reminiscent of the Fjords of northern Norway. The air was crisp, the sun doing just enough to bring a little warmth as we made our way onto the mainland and along side Loch Alsh. Calmer than a millpond in the morning air, Dennis was about to experience his personal highlight of the tour: Eilean Donan.
As one of the most photographed castles in Scotland, Alexander III built Eilean Donan between 1214-1250 to protect the area from Viking raids. Falling into disrepair after being pounded by the English Navy in 1719, it was nearly 200 years before John MacRace Gilstrap claimed his ancestral home and set about restoring it. Taking 20 years to finish, the castle opened to the public in 1934 and has been receiving visitors ever since. Standing majestically at the union of Loch Long, Loch Alsh and Loch Duich, our visit to the castle added a new member to our traveling party in the shape of a young German hitchhiker called Charlotte.
As a bike aficionado and also someone who had missed her bus, we agreed to take her with us as far as the City of Inverness. This involved one of the quintessential Scottish motorcycle experiences for Dennis and I as the next couple of hours were spent scything down through the magnificent Glen Shiel on some seriously challenging, two-lane roads. Overhead the sky was a deep blue with barely a cloud as the Five Sisters dominated our sideways view. Rising up to various heights about 3,000 feet, they are not the biggest mountains in Europe by any means, but they sure are beautiful. Riding as if in unison, the pace was swift and the road nearly devoid of traffic, save the odd fast moving motorcycle in the other direction. In my mirror, the blue Sprint ST stayed locked in range, as if he were a picture glued to its surface, while we put the sport back in sport-touring. Turning south at the junction with the A887, thirteen more miles of twisting paradise found us lying on a bank of Scottish grass absorbing the stunning views of Lock Garry while listening to the haunting sounds of a Scottish bagpiper. As someone who seemed like he might be a little more familiar with the old Scottish malt than music practice, his often-squeaky performance was entertaining to say the least.
Fort Augustus features a locking system to allow boats a gateway to enter the world famous Loch Ness.
Back down at sea level we opted to pass through Invergary and pulled in at Port Augustus to watch the fascinating lock system lower various sailboats out of the Caledonian Canal that leads from Loch Lochy into the world famous Loch Ness. Enjoying a hearty Ploughman’s outside the local Pub, featuring sweat-inducing sharp cheddar cheese, eye-wincing vinegar-soaked pickles, and half-loaf of hearty bread, the warm sun and gentle pace of the lock system all conspired to send everyone for a swift nap in the soft grass. Waking refreshed, we remounted and took off in the direction of the town with the coolest name in Scotland, Drumnadrochit, to visit Urquhart Castle for a chance to see the famous Loch Ness Monster.
As you might imagine, Nessie decided the sight of Dennis’ handlebar moustache after battling 80 mph winds was a tad too shocking, so she didn’t make an appearance. We didn’t mind though, as the view across Loch Ness was just so calm and peaceful that it took a major league effort to not find another nap spot. With our young friend needing to be on a night bus for Glasgow, we had to make a little haste. Riding north up the A82 and into Inverness, we began to fight with tourist traffic for the first time on our trip, and actually got stuck in a Scottish traffic jam. Not as pleasant as it sounds, it was brutally hot and we were most happy to exit the modern city and set our sights on the more sparsely populated town of Aviemore deep in the Cairngorm Mountains.
This task was achieved by taking the A9 and after an hour or so we actually picked up some Dual Carriageway. Running south with the sun hanging low in the western sky sending rich golden light to the surrounding countryside it was good to be out of the traffic. Aviemore is a very famous skiing town in winter, and still enjoys a thriving tourist trade in summer, so we put Dennis to work as he bargained for a good room rate with the local hoteliers. While this was happening, young Sam and I took the Sprints back out into the countryside for one last ride before the sun disappeared behind the solid wall of mountains framing out the town, and hatched a plan to play a ruse on Dennis.
In the middle of the Loch an Eilein is a castle once belonging to Wolf of Badenoch that fell into ruin since his death in the 15th century. There was originally a causeway to the castle but it was lost when the water level was raised in the 18th century.
About 15 miles out of town we pulled over and swapped riding gear, before returning to town. As we thought, Dennis was waiting and looked relieved to see us. Seconds later, as I launched the Sprint onto the back wheel and blasted past our hotel, the expression on his face was far from happy. He did manage to see the funny side of it after a couple of beers at a local hostelry, but it was definitely Sam and I who got the most fun out of it. Sleep came easy, as I lay down in my immaculate room, and drifted off back into the steep sided Glens, the sound of bagpipes playing in my head.
The last day of our tour burst through the curtains early in the form of a cloudless day, with hot sunshine and yet more breathtaking scenery. The first order of the day, after our last 3,500-calorie Scottish breakfast, was to take a slow ride to the Rothiemurchus Estate. Here we enjoyed the most leisurely stroll of the trip, as the stunning natural beauty of the ruined Castle on Loch an Eilein became our next favorite place in Scotland. Said to be over 600 years old, the Loch was flooded to float timber down river many years ago and there are over 30 miles of walking trails, as well as a well stocked gift shop and a very rundown limestone kiln.
Originally used to stop the Jacobites in 1715, it was left in its current state only 31 years after it was built.
With time standing still, we bobbed and weaved our way up the steep curvaceous mountain roads to the skiing area at the top of the Cairngorms. Alpine fresh air filtered through my vents, the horizon stretching away through my visor as we climbed to the road’s end. Affording magnificent views for as far as the eye could see, it was with a little sadness we began to make our descent. As much as we didn’t want to admit it, home was beginning to break the spell as approaching deadlines, flight reservations and work schedules punctuated our thoughts. Rallying around to fight off the demons, we picked up the tiny B970 and meandered through 30 miles of rolling farmland, and across small rivers with old, stone bridges barely wide enough for a single car. Lazy cows munched in the fields, as ornate farmhouses blended into the gentle landscape. All too soon our world opened up as the impressive sight of Ruthven Barracks came into view, framed out by the heavily trafficked A9.
Built in 1715 as by the Government to house troops in their attempt to quell the Jacobite uprising, it was burned and left in its present condition in 1746 by a force of 3000 Jacobites, who had amassed to wait word from Bonnie Prince Charlie. With the rebellion failed, they dispersed and the Barracks burned, leaving behind a peaceful ruin for passing travelers to wander around and try to imagine Scottish life 250 years ago.
The verdant Scottish Highlands, with its abundant Lochs, epic castles, and hospitable people made for another incredible journey for Neale, Dennis and Sam.
As relaxing as it was, it was our last major stop with our next mission to make it back to Mrs. Clean’s for dinner. With tardiness not an option, we exploited all the virtues of our Sprint STs as we hustled up hill and down dale, straightening out the sinuous stretch of tarmac that would lead us home. By late afternoon, we had once more found the rest of society and were doing battle with hordes of four-wheeled commuters, but there was one last ray of brilliance left before the end. A traffic jam on the Erskine Bridge meant we crossed the massive cable-stayed structure at walking pace. This allowed us some simply stunning views down the Clyde from our high vantage point and a fitting farewell the Scottish Highlands behind us.
We had made the most of the long mid-summer days to do and see as much as we could have possibly done in our short visit. The roads had been superb, the scenery impossible to put into words, and the hospitality from the locals beyond reproach. With a farewell meal that would see us through the next couple of weeks waiting, we gunned the big Triples onto the Motorway and slotted into the fast moving traffic as we rode into the setting Scottish sun for the last time.