Cycling the Highlands and Islands of Scotland

- by Fred Schlomka -
9 days
23rd June - 1st July
cycled 590 km. (369 miles)
Shetland - Aberdeen - Banff - Lossiemouth - Inverness
Isle of Skye  (Eilean a'Cheo) - Orkney - Shetland

After a busy two months on the Island of Unst I am ready for a break. The volunteers who worked on our historic home project - The Hamars - are gone, our annual harp & fiddle charity concert is over, and the 2019 harp tour is winding down.

2019 Scottish Harp Tour
We exit the ferry in Aberdeen (from Shetland) with our tour group and say our goodbyes. Hugs all around. The twelve people from the USA had been with Sunita for two weeks of intensive music, learning, touring and bonding.

Eight harpists and four husbands visited a huge swath of Scotland, travelling by coach all the way from Edinburgh through the highlands and Loch Ness, to Orkney and finally the Shetland island of Unst, in the far north of Shetland. Now it was almost over. Helen our mainland tour guide waits for the group at the ferry, and together with our intrepid driver, Ryan, they drive off to the Cairngorms and beyond, leaving Sunita and myself with our bicycles on the pier, ready for our next adventure.

They go south. We go north.

Aberdeen is a medium-sized coastal city in the north-east of Scotland. As we cycle through the centre and its suburban areas to the countryside, I feel the familiar feeling of freedom take hold. Work is over for now, and our well-earned rest is unfolding along the road and hedgerows in front of us. Of course the phone is still on, and I work on the road running Green Olive Tours. At least for the next few days anyway. The plan is to shut off all electronics for the week we are on the Isle of Skye.

Meldrum House
The countryside opens up before us. Aberdeen doesn't sprawl. The city ends and the country begins. It's a glorious day. The sun is shining and the hills beckon. Somehow I had expected more mountainous terrain, but we are greeted by rolling hills of grazing cows and sheep and scattered farms.

As usual we rely on Google to show us the way. Just type in the destination and click the bicycle icon. Then the little blue line unfolds on the screen, showing the way less travelled - the 'B' roads - the cycle trails - small villages - and a few tracks going right through farmyards complete with piles of steaming manure, farm equipment and the occasional goose wandering through.

We pause at the Baronial Meldrum House, once the home of the aristocratic Meldrum family, now an upscale boutique hotel and golf course. We are welcomed, and decide on an early lunch in the lovely parlour, now a bar and breakfast room. The staff are kind and welcoming.

The farmland is broken up by cycle trails through wooded sections, and as we emerge from one ancient copse, an equally ancient tumbledown fortress appears in front of us, soaring into the sky like a forgotten sentinel of medieval times. the edifice has no signage, and the farmer/owner keeps his cows in the lower part of the centuries-old tower. Real estate upcycling - Scottish style.

Afternoon tea in Turriff is at the British Legion where a kind gentleman signs us in to the members only facility. Tea and home-made scones are served. A real treat.

North coast, west of Banff
The day remains warm. We approach Banff along the River Deveron valley, arriving at the Fife Lodge Hotel, a small provincial establishment with a great view. We are exhausted and after a short yoga session and dinner, we retire early.

In the morning it is raining. The route to Lossiemouth is wet, very wet. Quite a contrast from the previous day. We pass many small fishing villages along the way, becomming progressively wetter. We pause for morning tea and 'butteries' at Ann and Alistair's home. Ann is the granddaughter of old family friends and it is fun to visit. Later in the day we visit her parents, Margo and David in Lossiemouth - after a few more hours of very wet cycling. It is pretty miserable. Although we are well experienced and have wet gear along, Sunita's feet are soaked as her overboots failed, and my jacket decided not to be 100% waterproof and there was slow seepage into my inner layers. All in all we were happy to arrive at Alison's B&B near the Lossiemouth beach.

Visiting Margo & David
Our evening with Margo and David is memorable, reminiscing a bit about the 'old days', and regaling each other with tales of more recent adventures in far parts of the globe. Margo's parents and siblings were like a foster family for me in my youth. It is nice to catch up and reconnect.

Breakfast next morning was a gourmet affair. Alison's husband Hugh was a chef to the Royal family of Jordan, before following a dream and opening the 'Lossiemouth House' B&B in Scotland's remote north. The oats for the porridge have been soaked overnight, cooked to perfection, blended with pureed bananas and organic maple syrup, and served with gently toasted nuts and lightly stewed berries. A great start to the day at 6.30am.

I have a nice chat with Hugh as he serves his gourmet porridge. He is nostalgic about his time in Jordan and is interested Green Olive Tours. I explain that our guides are unable to conduct our preferred type of politically critical tours in Jordan, because unlike Israel, there are no civil guarantees of freedom of speech. Tour guides in Jordan can be arrested for 'insulting the monarchy' if they are critical of the government. Hugh is skeptical since his experience as an elite expat was far removed from the hoy paloi of the street - and as a 'pro-Palestinian' supporter, he is reluctant to allow that, despite the Occupation, Israel may still be more of a democracy than Jordan.

Then we are off again on the bikes. The weather is cloudy and a bit of dreich (drizzle) is gently misting down. As the day went along the weather eased up, and so the cycling became easier.

All along our route during the past days, there has been ample opportunity to go off road along designated cycling trails, some paved, and others dirt or gravel. It's amazing that even in this relatively remote area that planning and resources have gone into such things. Cycling has been an active sport in the UK for a long time and interest continues to grow.

By the time we arrive in Inverness in mid-afternoon the sun is shining. We seek out a bicycle shop and a Barbour clothing dealer's shop, Grahams. I buy a tin of wax to waterproof my Jacket. The cycle shop replaces my seat post and we continue to the railway station to pickup the train to Kyle of Lochalsh - the last town on the mainland before the Isle of Skye. The 2 1/2 hour train ride with the bicycles is though gorgeous sparsely populated countryside to the west of Inverness. Lots of lakes and steep hillsides, rolling heath and a few sheep and cows here and there. A perfect ending to the day. Looking forward to Skye.

On the train to Skye
We resolve to turn off our electronic devices for the week we are on the Isle of Skye, or 'Island of Mist' in Gaelic (Eilean a'Cheo). The very name evokes ancestral memories of faeries, witches and elves. No place for 21st century electronic magic. We shut it off.

The train from Inverness passes by lochs and heather, vales and livestock, ending at the port of Kyle of Lochalsh, the gateway village to the mystic isle. The Skye Bridge soars ahead of us, a one kilometre-long concrete ribbon connecting the mainland to the island.

We spend the night at the backpackers Hostel in Kyleakin, a wee hamlet near the bridge. The next day is our day off from cycling - three days on - one day off -. We luxuriate in a late start with yoga in the lounge, then a short hike to Caisteal Maor, a 14th century fort atop a hill offering great views.

I start to read again. It's amazing that without a screen to peer at, the printed page once again holds alure. I devour 2 books during the next 6 days. No constant beeping of notifications or compulsively checking the screen for new messages every few minutes. Everyone else at the hostel seems to have their nose in a screen, big or small. I resist the urge. It's hard.

Then up the coast in a partly cloudy and cool day. Cool to us at least. Many others are in t-shirts and shorts. The heather is purple. The sea like silk. The road is busy. Unfortunately the A87 along the north coast is but a two lane road with no shoulder. It's high tourist season so we endure the cars, buses and trucks - pulling in to driveways and parking areas when the line of cars behind us gets too long. Some drivers have enough sense to know when it is safe to overtake us, while others dally behind at a snails pace, annoying the other motorists. To keep us safe, I often pull out into the middle of the lane when a car starts to pass, ensuring that they move over to the other side of the road. As soon as the passing car begins to draw abreast of me, I slide over to my side of the road allowing them to pass safely.

We pause for lunch and as cruise of the tourist shops in Portree the busy capital of the island. It's a little too commercial for my taste. Not that it doesn't have its charm, but more than half the shops exist only for the tourist trade. It's a double edged sword. People have to eat, and the economy needs some dynamic development, but most of the 'locals' we met are not indigenous, but are from off-island. Yet they bring skills and entrepreneurial ability, essential to the island's future. Thank goodness though, that Unst (where we have our summer home) is less developed with less tourists, although it does increase slowly from year to year, and our activities will contribute to that.

But Skye does have its remote areas, where most tourists do not tread. It's why we are here.

We arrive at our destination for the day, the vegetarian 'Old Croft House' Bed & Breakfast. One of the partners also runs 'The Bike Shed', so I have him fix a quirk in my gears. No charge, so I give him one of our solar lights.

We dine at the local 5-start boutique Skeabost Hotel. A bit overpriced for slightly above average food in very kitschy decor for a historic building, but the priceless view across well kept lawns to the loch - more than makes up for it.

Next morning after a tasty full Scottish vegan breakfast, and a chat with the household ducks, we head off to the north-west along secondary 'B' roads. Glorious. Single lane roads, few cars, and lovely people. The weather is the best I've seen in the two months I've been in Scotland. Clear skies and hot -yes, not warm, HOT. We are in t-shirts and shorts. Not too hot though. Just right. The best cycling weather. The hills and seascape are in sharp relief. A thousand subtle colours flow and blend to perfection like carefully Photoshopped images. It really doesn't get much better than this.

We pull over. A sheep shearer is plying his trade at a croft, and we watch his deft movements with the electric cutter, taking perhaps 3 minutes to completely remove the wool from a sheep.

Our destination is 'Skyskins', a thriving 100+ year-old workshop that collects fresh skins from a variety of domestic and wild animals, mostly sheep, and does the entire tanning process. We watch a freshly soaked sheepskin get scraped of the last of its surplus fatty tissue and prepared for the vegetable tanning process. The end result is beautiful fleece with supple leather backing. I buy a piece at about half the price that it cost in Shetland - just large enough to make two bicycle seat covers. I like a soft saddle for my bum, sprung, with a foam cover and finished with the fleece. Keeps the rear end from getting too tender after a long day on the road.

During tea at Loch Dunvegan, we write a load of postcards, later mailed at an ancient country postbox, engraved with 'Royal Mail'. Long Live the Queen!

Next morning we are off across the mountains to the west on a tiny road that rises only 500 feet (about 170 metres) above sea level, but seems much higher as it passes through steeply sided mountains and valleys. The view from the top to the west takes my breath away and it alone makes the trip worthwhile. The cruise downhill to the NW coast is exhilarating, if a bit scary, with the bicycle reaching speeds in excess of 60 kph (about 38mph).

Most of the island's horses take one look at the waving flags on our bikes, and trot off to the far side of the field. One beautiful fellow does not. So I park and we have a conversation. A delightful white beast of medium build with a pleasant disposition. We nuzzle a bit then move on.

The Broadford Youth Hostel is a bit austere. As with most 'official' youth hostels, it has lots of rules, closes the kitchen at 10am, and generally discourages people from hanging out during the day. Otherwise it was fine. We have a private room that is adequate and not too far from the showers.

It's a drizzly day - our day 'off'. The dreich comes and goes. We alternate between wandering the village and hanging out at the hostel - reading. I find a book by GreenPeace on the state of the Scottish coastline. In addition to technical details and photographs, there is poetry. One in particular by George Mackay Brown catches my eye, called the 'Highlands and Islands'.

 . . Pass the wandering priest and the bard,
'I seek, I sing the goodness of this land', said the poet
'More lovely to me than a sweetheart'.
The kings of Pictland
Gave passage to his harp up the broken waters of the west . . .

Broadford is having a festive week so we browse the food stalls at the market and attend the Ceilidh in the evening. Sunita and I try our hand at Scottish country dancing. The Breakish Ceilidh Band comes with a dance caller. At least half the dancers were tourists so the caller had her work cut out. A wedding party showed up, complete with groom and best man in kilts, adding some local colour.

Fishing boats at Kyle of Lochalsh 
Next morning Skye recedes. It's just a short ride east to the Skybridge and railway station for the train for Caithness, for the final leg of our journey. Phone and laptop are turned back on. We rejoin the 21st century.

After a night at a harpists B&B in Thurso, we catch the ferry from Scrabster to Stromness in Orkney, and spend the day cruising to Kirkwall, doing some shopping, and winding down for our return to Shetland. The overnight ferry back to Lerwick is uneventful, and we cycle the familiar roads north to the island of Unst, as usual in Shetland, the wind is in our face for most of the way. A tough ride to end the trip. It's good to be home at the Hamars.

The Hamars - of Haroldswick, Unst.


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