Scotland can range from beautiful and serene to chilling and insufferable in the span of an afternoon. Mother Nature, your dealer of atmospheric conditions, keeps her cards close until you turn the corner in Scotland. Seemingly a new card is dealt by the mile.
Organizing any trip can quickly fall foul of circumstance, bikes, cameras, people and flasks need to all be in the right place at the right time. Everything has to click together, with myself and photographer Sam Needham hailing from the north in England, Bryan Watt trucking over from Andorra, and Lyle Barton flying in from the US there was ample opportunity for cock ups.
Despite all this, we successfully navigated our way out from Fort William into western Scotland to a bothy with these simple instructions given at the pub the night before -
Just ride this trail, all the way to the end, then head back west and stop when your tires hit the salt water.
Once we knew the coordinates for our overnight stay we were going on just that, no real idea of what we would find. We had to get past a few false peaks and blast down some full on descents before we got into the wild beyond.
With sharp turns weathered by deer, rather than bikes, rallying blind in the wild makes for a demanding ride. From the start, the trails didn't flow like a whackerplate had been through, and the battle to conquer each turn made the next more satisfying.
What we got was wet, steep, and challenging. Trimming the loch side evolved into more and more impressive vistas, stopping to enjoy them became part of the ride. We were duly rewarded with a huge view punctuated by five seals diving for their supper in the loch below us. We weren't too urgent about anything. This is what led us through the day, dozens of technical challenges on a bike with a backdrop of stunning scenery in glorious weather, what more could we ask more?
After a quick reminder that the weather could change it was time to turn and head south, and then west. This trail was like the last in many ways, with the addition of huge rocky outcrops slicing across the trail. We might have been blessed with good weather for most of the day but the clouds let out their load late afternoon just to remind us of their presence. In drier seasons these trails hold traction but hit them with a mud-laden tire and things go sideways, fast.
Skittering round rough corners, grinding up climbs, we continued west through the afternoon. Popping out from a long section of rocky tech carved through a cushion of vivid moss we saw it in the distance. No smoke rose from either chimney, the Bothy was ours for the night. Between us and it lay a long stepped descent and a scramble through some super tight single track, the perfect run in to our shelter for the night. Pushing the pedals in to the last valley it felt like we were being scored by the locals, a herd of deer to watched our every turn to see how we fared on the trails they handled with ease.
Early 19th century rural depopulation and the growth of land managed by the Forestry Commission left farms abandoned across the hills. Spread over the wilder parts of Scotland, England and Wales, these simple stone and mortar buildings ended up becoming shelters for those passing through. Spare at best, these shelters provide the weary traveller with all he or she needs to weather out a storm or recover from a long days trek.
After World War II, and people started getting back to normal routines and shorter work hours, life in the outdoors was sought out. The patriotism of war developed for some into a love for their land, as adventures went deeper these lonely buildings became an obvious refuge on longer escapades.
The Mountain Bothy Association was founded in 1965 and since then has been managing and maintaining Bothies across England, Scotland and Wales and now has over 100 in it's care. We owe this trip to the foresight of Bernard and Betty Heath, who gave new purpose to these long abandoned buildings.
After a long day in the saddle arriving home, permanent or part time, feels great. This was no exception, spirits were high as the fire burned and pasta cooked. Our short term abode was stone-built with two downstairs rooms covered with a loft space. All that remained to be done was hang our kits to dry so that we'd dry socks upon our morning departure. As the fire wound down, we exchanged stories of trips and trails before bedding down for the night.
The days above 56ºN are long so we were woken early with sun beaming through the roughened panes, after tea and a bite to eat we left the remains of our rations for the next visitor along with a couple of other useful items we could live without and set off along the beach before turning inland and pointing our tires toward home.
Scotland had stunned us, the weather was kind and the trails served up a wholesome portion of confrontation and reward. We slept with belly's of Whisky and were shaken awake by one last rock-strewn descent. It turns out we were dealt one hell of a hand, well played Mother Nature.
Photos by Sam Needham | Words by David Jaquin
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