CYCLE TOURING IN NORTHERN SCOTLAND
Isbn 978 1 78631 002 6
Reviewed by Steve Dyster
For many British cycle-tourers, the Scottish Highlands are a gold standard. The far north of Scotland is amongst the wildest areas of all, and has been high in my top touring spots for many years. It can be challenging territory, but do not fear. Mike Wells told www.sevendaycyclist.com that he loved writing cycling guides to the Rhine and the Rhone and other major rivers because you generally started at the top and headed downhill. Well, this new guide is certainly a departure, with some very challenging terrain, both remote and with plenty of big ups and downs.
It is important to be clear that this is not a guide to the North Coast 500. That is promoted mainly as a motoring route, though cyclists do follow it. The NC500 has been phenomenally successful in boosting tourism in the far-flung section of the UK. More money has flowed into communities
along the route, some new infrastructure has been built, and more people are coming to appreciate the wonderful landscape. On the other hand, roads are busier – though this is relative to the very quiet roads of the past – and there have been clashes between various users. Moreover, there’s greater pressure on infrastructure. This guide aims to deal with some of the things cyclists have found off-putting, as well as providing Mike’s take on the best of Northern Scotland.
In that sense, and as an introduction to touring in the far north, a new guide is very welcome. Some of the NC500 route is used – a glance a t a map will quickly show that there is little choice of roads – but Mike does his best to take in some fine roads that are not on the NC500 route. For example, he heads north from Lochinver to Clachtoll, and along what was once known as “Breakdown Road” rather than follow the main road to Skiag Bridge and Newton. However, he also describes the latter, as the former has a fearsome reputation as a one road argument for getting an e.bike. The same routine is followed for other sections of the route where major climbs occur. Do not be put off! Give yourself lots of time and push, if necessary. It is not a crime, though it is not always much easier than attempting to pedal.
However, as Mike points out there is much more to cycling in the Highlands than hills. There are plenty of beautiful glens to be found, and the route makes very good use of these to avoid sections of the busy A9 down the east coast. In general, the east coast is gentler than the west and, though less spectacular, is full of charming places.
Mike’s circular route is based on Inverness and runs for 528 miles. It is possible to use the train to Muir of Ord or Garve, when heading west, or indeed, to head all the way home from the north coast by train from Thurso/Wick or some of the more remote stations.
Old hands may wonder whether buying a guide is necessary, as there are few roads to follow – hill-tracks are a different matter (See Mountain Biking in West and North-West Scotland, or books such as Scottish Hill Tracks). Mind you, many of the long cul de sacs are well-worth exploring. It is a shame, although understandable, that there’s little about these in this guide. Cycle Touring along Highland Dead-Ends, would, in my opinion, make a fine book!
Having said that, this is remote country that deserves respect, and, for those who are new to the area, Mike gives lots of useful information and guidance, as well as providing a very satisfying and attractive route.
If you are unfamiliar with the Cicerone style, you get all you need in one pocket-sized volume. Guidance on prep, equipment, bike and so on; some background on history, flora, fauna, and so on; maps and written directions; listings of accommodation, refreshments, services, shops etc. There are also gradient charts, though it is worth remembering that scale always makes them look far more beastly than they actually are – honest, though you may not believe me on the Bealcah na Ba or “Breakdown Road.” You will be surprised how gentle much Highland cycling is: well-graded rather than fierce.
Well done Mike Wells for helping to make what can, at first sight, appear to be intimidating cycling country, more accessible to those who have never been. Mike recommends going between April and October. He’s right, though avoiding July and August is not a bad idea – accommodation is busier (as he points out) and the weather tends to be hazier. The midges are out, too, though, in my opinion, the Norther Highland midge is a kitten when set beside its West Highland counterpart. In summer the days are long, although the shorter days of autumn can provide fabulous colours.
Reading this guide for review made me realise how much I miss not cycling in the Highlands, especially in the far north. For those less familiar with the area it gives all you need for a great trip. If you are a first-timer, then it will repay every penny many times over.