Lying west of Stirling and north of Glasgow, the Trossachs is a picturesque area of gentle hills interspersed with an idyllic mix of woodland and water, and liberally dotted with fascinating snippets from history. As my friend Graham and I stepped off the train to explore the area by bicycle, we felt we were travelling back in time.
Our train arrived in Bridge of Allan with perfect timing as a spectacular fiery sunrise backlit the gothic silhouette of the Wallace Monument on Abbey Craig. The monument commemorates Sir William Wallace, the Scottish leader and hero of the Wars of Independence in the 13th and 14th centuries. It’s said that in 1297 he stood on Abbey Craig and watched the English troops gather below in advance of the Battle of Stirling Bridge where, despite being vastly outnumbered, Wallace led his Scottish troops to a resounding victory.
As the sun rose into a blanket of light cloud, creating a grey day that barely seemed to get fully light, we pedalled west through farmland on quiet, undulating back roads. The woodlands now were mostly bare and the landscape was painted in a winter palette of more subtle colours except for a few flashy reds in lingering hawthorn and rowan berries. Conditions were calm and still and the cycling was easy as we pedalled beside the glass-like waters of Loch Venacher, along a twisting, turning forest trail carpeted with orange larch needles.
Our route then left the lowlands and entered more hilly terrain that funnelled wind down the gunmetal grey waters of Loch Katrine so that by the time we arrived at Trossachs Pier at the south end of the loch, it was blowing a hoolie. We battled the wind to cycle north along the idyllic traffic-free road that hugs the shores of the loch. It climbs up and down through old oak woods, still holding onto some of their russet, autumn leaves. There were some steep sections here, as roads that follow lochs and coasts are rarely flat. On the higher sections we could see a suggestion of bigger peaks amongst the pewter-coloured clouds to the north. Loch Katrine was made famous of course by Sir Walter Scott as the backdrop for his poem, The Lady of the Lake.
The name “Katrine” is derived from the old Gaelic word “ceiteirein” meaning cattle thief. It’s an appropriate name because Glengyle, at the head of Loch Katrine, is the birthplace of Rob Roy MacGregor, the Scottish outlaw, cattle thief and folk hero of the 18th century. Close to Glengyle the road passed above a manmade promontory extending into the waters of the loch. At the end is the historic Clan Gregor cemetery. There’s not much else to see at Glengyle today, just a couple of cottages, but it marked the halfway point of our bicycle journey and we turned south.
As the late afternoon sun started to sink beyond Ben Lomond, we cycled passed the sleepy hamlet of Stronachlachar in search of our own sleepy place for the night. We turned off a quiet back road and onto a quieter forest trail that hugged the shores of Loch Chon. With little time to spare, we found a camp spot in tall, dense forestry down by the water’s edge and put the tents up in the last of the day’s light on a comfortable carpet of thick, green moss. I laid out my mat and sleeping bag, and organised my belongings into a cosy home for the night. Although it looks small on the outside, my new tent has lots of space inside, a bit like Dr Who's tardis. I cooked my supper by torchlight and did the washing up by a small stream. As I walked back to the camp spot, all I could see in the pitch black of night was the faint silhouette of the tall pines above and the warm glow of torches inside the two tents.
On Sunday morning the sun rose above the waters of the loch casting out a veil of golden light that set the trees and waterside grasses ablaze with rich colour. After coffee and porridge, we pushed the bikes back up to the trail and continued cycling south down the shores of Loch Chon. A steep little path picked a way down through the woods to Kinlochard and we pedalled alongside the sunlit, reflective waters of Loch Ard to Aberfoyle. Loch Chon and Loch Ard give rise to the waters of the mighty River Forth. It flows eastwards from here and passes under Stirling Bridge that Wallace watched over all those years ago, before emptying into the North Sea.
We also travelled eastwards, cycling out of the hills along a road that passed high above the flat, extensive farmlands of Flanders Moss. Despite the season, the fields were still a patchwork of emerald greens. We pulled off the road at Thornhill to enjoy a picnic lunch in the tiny village square. A couple of benches and a sun dial that commemorates 300 years of village history, were squeezed between the tightly-packed rows of whitewashed cottages on each side of the main street.
The mid-winter sun only just cleared the rooftops to cast its light on the sun dial. The advancing shadow reminded us that we should get moving if we were to catch our train home and not be caught out by time.
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Start/finish: Bridge of Allan train station served by regular Edinburgh/Stirling – Dunblane trains.
Maps: OS Landranger 56 and 57. Sustrans National Cycle Network Lochs and Glens North map is also useful for the section along Loch Venachar.
Route: From the rail station in Bridge of Allan turn west on the main road then take the first left onto a farm road signed for Carse of Lecropt. Follow this delightful single track road which has some lovely views to the B824 and then into Doune. From there take the deserted B8032 towards Callander which joins the A81 (quiet). As you approach Callander don’t go all the way into the village – take the unclassified road to the left signed for National Cycle Route 7/Invertrossachs. Follow NCN7 signs to the far end of Loch Venachar but where they are signed to the left to start climbing to Duke’s Pass, instead go straight on. Stay on the main track, hang left when you see a cottage and join the shores of Loch Achray. The main track turns left and uphill – a footpath leaves it on the corner. Cycle along the footpath to join the A821 (quiet) and follows signs to Trossachs Pier. Cycle up the waterboard-owned, traffic-free road on the east shore of Loch Katrine and follow it around to Stronachlachar. At Stronachlachar take the B829. You can stay on this road to Aberfoyle. We left it to join a forest track to the right signed for Aberfoyle that passed along the south shore of Loch Chon. We camped in forestry along here. At the far end of the loch hang right at a cottage then take the left hand fork. Take a footpath marked with a blue marker down to Kinlochard and continue to Aberfoyle on the B829. From Aberfoyle take the A81 and A873 to Thornhill. There’s some traffic here but not too bad. At Thornhill take the B826 to Doune and then retrace the outward route to Bridge of Allan.
Tip: This is a great wee weekend trip. The return fare is only £16, you don’t have to book bicycles on the train, provisions are plentiful as are the coffee shops!