Cycle touring is like a box of chocolates … you never know quite what you're going to get. That’s especially true of touring in Scotland in October and as Bart and I set off on the bikes for our autumn holiday, we wondered if we’d opened a box of delicious strawberry creams or unwelcome hard caramels!
Our route started below the slopes of Ben Nevis in the west coast town of Fort William. On a grey day with light showers and snippets of sunshine, we cycled north through the Great Glen. This is a real gem of a route for cycling as you follow delightful towpaths on the Caledonian Canal while people potter about in boats. Every now and then the route ducks onto forest trails through sun-dappled autumn woods. We cycled some big climbs on forest tracks high into the hills. Up here you can really appreciate the deep trench of the Great Glen Fault Line, formed 400 million years ago, that today still cuts the country into two. When glaciation eroded the fault line, water flooded in and created Loch Ness. On the first night we made a high camp up in the hills above the waters of the loch as the inky blackness of night twinkled with stars and the lights of hamlets on the other side. However, the only monster we experienced was the monster climb to get up there.
Sunshine with a faint hint of warmth hit our tent early next morning and once packed up, we cycled away from the Great Glen and headed west into the mountains of Glen Affric. I’ve visited Glen Affric throughout my life, initially coming here to do conservation work, mapping out potential areas for fencing to encourage natural regeneration of our once extensive Caledonian pine forests. The fruits of that labour were very much evident and we cycled below mountains with a skirt of new trees as the wild woods extended slowly westwards. In the late afternoon, the glen with its rocky peaks and forests was illuminated by a low, golden sun. I love that northern winter light and the raw beauty of it all really blew Bart away. We made camp beside a sandy beach by Loch Affric as an evening weather front blew in light rain and an owl that patrolled back and forth above our heads.
The play of autumn light on the fiery orange deer grass of the hills continued as we cycled our bikes west, passed the idyllic spot at Camban bothy nestled below the slopes of Beinn Fhada. The bothy has real charm and its red corrugated iron roof and ancient stone walls were bathed in sunshine. We rested a while here, envious of the two housemates inside who were frying up bacon, before pushing our bikes over a rough, rocky section of trail that proved to be a long, hard push. I’d done it before by bike but of course the memory of the difficulty and the distance was obscured by a few intervening years. Nonetheless Bart seemed to enjoy the adventure.
A day of torrential rain made us linger at Morvich where we made the most of a wet day with a long amble through woods and along the coast to the nearby hotel for hot soup. When the rain eased a little next day, we cycled up into the mists of the Mam Ratagan pass and down the other side to the ferry at Glenelg which makes the short crossing of the Straits of Kylerhea to Skye. The ferry is a real treasure, being the last hand-operated turntable ferry in use in Scotland, and there was such charm to the experience of catching the boat here and crossing the sea to Skye.
Skye, dutifully living up to its name and reputation, was misty and wet. Our encounter with the island was brief as we pedalled south and crossed the water again to the busy, chaotic working harbour of Mallaig. The quiet road down the west coast of Morar took us passed bays of white sand and aquamarine waters backed by the shapely outlines of the islands of Rhum and Eigg. We were battered by wave after wave of wind and rain and camped in a deserted, out-of-season holiday park. Nobody came to collect our fee and next morning we made ourselves comfortable amongst dirt and old cobwebs to make breakfast in the laundry room out of the storm that blew in. We were happy to see the sun again as we cycled west along the Ardnamurchan peninsula, following its only road which rose and fell with the shoreline, and then climbed into the teeth of gale around the little mountain of Ben Hiant.
As we changed direction to head for home, the weather also changed and brought several days of gorgeous autumn sunshine. Another little ferry deposited us in the pretty harbour of Tobermory on Mull and we pedalled down the quiet roads of its west coast, throwing the tent up one evening at a bay below Ben More. The air was filled with the sound of deer bellowing on the hillside and skeins of noisy winter geese coming in to roost. In between were the dusk-time twitters of wren, blackbird and robin. After a clear, cold night, we woke next morning to a fine layer of ice on the tent – the first frost of winter.
Returning to the mainland on the next ferry, we found a small slice of cycle heaven as we took the single track road up the coast to Ardgour. The waters of Loch Linnhe sparkled blue in the sunshine and the haunches of Ben Nevis rose into a clear sky. The road meandered through the russets and yellows of the woods and bracken then dipped to the coast at Camusnacroise, a secret hideaway with its pretty pebble beach and whitewashed church, tucked below the hills. All too soon we were pedalling the last few miles north to the Corran Ferry and the end of the tour at our start point in Fort William.
That evening we drove Bart’s campervan south to Glen Coe and sipped a glass of wine as we watched the sun sink below Buachaille Etive Mor. We talked about our trip, the places we’d passed through and how you never know what you'll come across when you're cycle touring. We agreed that we’d certainly opened a box of delights on Scotland's west coast and if the tough push in Glen Affric and the days of rain were our hard caramels, then the Glenelg Ferry and the delightful road to Ardgour were the yummy strawberry creams.
For all the photos click here.
Start/finish: Fort William
Maps: Great Glen Way; OS Travel Map Western Scotland; OS Landranger 33 for the section through Glen Affric
Route: We followed the Great Glen Way as far as Drumnadrochit. It's a great route on a variety of surfaces (towpath, forest track, single track, quiet back roads). Then take the quiet A833 to Kiltarlity and the gorgeous unclassified road on the south side of Strath Glass to Cannich - great cafe in the campsite and this area is gorgeous in autumn. Follow the road west beyond Cannich following signs for Glen Affric and at the road end, cross the river to pick up forest track on the other side. Follow the track west through Glen Affric to the youth hostel at Alltbeithe and onto Camban Bothy. It's double track to the bothy but after the bothy we had to push a lot as the route is narrow, rocky and steep. Descend the path to Glean Lichd and follow the track to Morvich. At Shiel Bridge take the Mam Ratagan pass to Glenelg ferry and onto Skye. Cycle north to Broadford then south to the Armadale ferry to Mallaig. Take the A830 south (much of it has cycle path and it's mostly quiet) and at Lochailort take the empty A861 to Salen. Turn west along the B8007 to Kilchoan which has a shop and a couple of campsites and take the ferry from there to Tobermory. From Tobermory take the Dervaig road and continue down the west coast to Killiechronan before turning east to Salen then on to Fishnish for the Lochaline ferry. Take the quiet A884 north and take the turn-off for Kingairloch - follow this road to Corran Ferry and return to Fort William on the busy A82.