My nephew Jon is stationed in Suffolk in the UK with the US Air Force, and I hopped over to spend a week cycling in the highlands of Scotland. While others seek beach holidays and poolside cocktail bars, we spent a week getting tossed around by the wind, soaked by the rain, and tormented by those who would try to serve us haggis.
We booked the trip with Wilderness Scotland, who normally run scheduled tours, but we could not make the scheduled dates so we went solo, with Aidan from Wilderness Scotland as our guide and driver.
In 1997, I cycled on both islands of New Zealand in for two months. In 2001 I cycled around Ireland for a month. In 2018, I bike-packed through Chile and Argentina for two months during my sabbatical. During each trip I would meet other people who loved cycle touring, and several had always said Scotland was amazing.
While I would not rate the hills of Scotland above the Andes or the beauty of New Zealand, it’s a gorgeous countryside, filled with the friendliest people, most of whom speak a version of English that sounds like they are under the influence of novocaine.
The Wind, The Rain, The Roads
Scotland presents a unique challenge to cyclists. If you are hoping to cruise on dry, flat roads with a tailwind genlty pushing you along, you’re coming to the wrong country. Scotland is a test of willpower and endurance.
We didn’t have long rides; there was no day over 80k the entire trip. Only the third day lacked strong winds and rain. But no day was easy. Some were just easier than others.
The final day, we had our biggest climb, just under 700m that hit grades of over 20% at times. The wind was also the strongest that day. We started the climb and the wind responded in force. Much like other days, we were grinding or spinning away in low gears just to keep the bike moving forward. The main part of the climb went up a ravine in the range, and the wind came straight down that valley. Up to that point the climb had felt very manageable — we had been working hard but were not exhausted. But in the ravine, whenever the road took a slight bend, a fierce cross wind would push you around. This was yet another “single-track” road, meaning that you have to share the single lane with cars going both directions and try not to drop off the cliff on your left hand side as they pass.
At one point, Jon and I were riding together, and the wind almost stopped me completely, and began to push me to the left. Jon came around in front, just as a huge gust threatened to knock me over, and I turned the handlebars to counter — but then found mysef aiming straight off the cliff to the left. I squeezed both brakes and yelled something like “AAARRRAAGAGGH” and stopped the bike just before the edge, just as Jon’s chain slipped and he went down on the asphalt, but luckily only bruised and not severely injured.
The wind was blowing so strongly there was not a chance to even clip into the pedals, much less stay on the road. We moved off the road to message Aidan and found we had no signal. I put my bike on the ground and the wind picked the bike up and flipped it over a couple of times. In a few minutes Aidan arrived and agreed these weren’t safe conditions for cycling. We had to skip the remainder of the climb, and I skipped the wet windy downhill given my distate for becoming a carbon-framed kite.
My rain gear mostly held up well — though I didn’t have a waterproof head cover and my waterproof rain covers didn’t really do the trick. The rain the last two days was the worst, and added that extra degree of toughness to the ride. Normally cyclist just stay home on rainy days. With cycling touring, you still go out and ride. You have somewhere to get to.
The roads were mostly what we’d call ‘chip seal’ in Texas, which are not smooth, but rideable. As a result saddle sores and skeletal fatigue are a part of each day despite using a copious amount of chamois cream and constantly trying to relax everything above the waist.
At the end of each day, you definitely feel like you’ve accomplished something. What that something is, I was sometimes unsure. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Well, maybe I would trade it for two more experiences like this.
The route we followed is the Wilderness Scotland Coast-to-Coast Cycle from Aberdeen on the East Coast to Shieldaig on the West Coast, stopping in Contin, and near Loch Ness. We looked at a number of tour companies and there really wasn’t a comparison — they offered a broad variety of routes, group and private tours, and they seemed across not just cycling but hiking, canoeing, and anything else you could do in the outdoors of Scotland.
Aidan was a fantastic guide — a fully capable outdoorsman who loves Winter, canoeing, cycling, climbing, and just about anything that requires toughness and skills. It felt more like having a close mate to support you on the trip than a stuffy guide, though he was working constantly to make sure everything behind the scenes was easy. All this and yet he’s a Welshman! Now, I have no idea what being a Welshman means, but they seem to be potentially treated like New Zealand, Canada, or Arkansas by the UK.
The Real Legend of Loch Ness
It’s amazing how many people in the world have heard of Loch Ness for all the wrong reasons. Malcolm, the descendant of a Gillie (think aquatic husbandry) took us out on the “Wee Beastie”, a high speed pontoon boat around the Loch. Malcolm beamed with love for this unique body of water. Forget about legends of monsters, which were not mentioned once (yay!) but the natural beauty, history, and power of Loch Ness is something to behold, including waves that can reach 4m high during changing weather conditions.
Vegans in Scotland
We had expected much worse food along the route given we weren’t meat or dairy lovers. I didn’t expect good vegan or vegetarian options, but because tourism is a big part of the highland economy, we ate decent meals almost everywhere, though Jon and I tired of the ‘vegetarian scottish breakfast’ that was the standard alternative to sausage, haggis, eggs, beans and roasted tomato.
All in the Family
This is my second multi-day adventure with my nephew, Jon. I feel incredibly lucky to have him in my family. We travel well together, he’s a lot tougher than I am, and he understands me in a way I never thought possible in my family. This was his first real cycling trip or even days of cycling, and he did it on an older bike that weighed at least 4 kg more than mine! I’m excited about many more outdoor shenanigans in the future.
The Other Half of Ares is in Edinburgh*
I bookended the trip with a day in Edinburgh — on the way in, to recover from the flight and visit a Grok portfolio company, Rhizocore. And on the way back, to get to see a bit more of Edinburgh and learn a little more about Scotish history, given that I am supposedly Scotch-Irish. But mostly I wanted to examine the damage to the city from *the massive electromagnet which recked havoc in Fast9.
Gdansk for dessert
At the end of my trip, I visited Gdansk, Poland, and spent time with my friend Wojtek and his family. Wojtek founded Spartez, the partner company I worked with most closely during my time at Atlassian, and I usually traveled to Gdansk once or twice a year during my eight years at Atlassian and it was great to be back.
I had a great weekend spending time with his family, going mountain biking, visiting the exceptional World War II museum, and having dinner with a few of the Spartez old-timers.
For whom the miles toll
In addition to the carbon footprint, this kind of trip takes a personal toll. I loved this trip, but I am very happy to not have any plans for international travel for a long time. I know I’m lucky to have experienced all of this, and I’m proud that I resisted the urge to buy a kilt. Scotland, Chì mi thu a dh’ aithghearr (I hope to see you soon).