Beautiful Scotland
Beautiful Scotland

I’ve just finished a short ride wearing a shirt and three quarter length leggings. A peregrine falcon battled with a flock of swallows that were determined to keep it out of their midst. A greater spotted woodpecker alighted on a branch just ahead of me as I trundled home in the peace of rural Devon. It felt a world away from a cold, wet and windy Scotland where I had spent most of the previous two weeks.

During our trip to the highlands Michele and I had donned waterproof trousers not only to keep the rain out, but for warmth too. Our attire was more winter than summer, something we had thankfully planned for. Down jackets were worn almost continuously when not cycling. Of course we had hoped wouldn’t need all those warm layers but as it turned out they adorned us for the whole holiday.

Arriving at Loch Lomond it appeared that our timing was good. The sun shone, lighting up Ben Lomond as well as the loch which, not to be outdone by pointy scenery, showed an almost perfect mirror reflection of all around it. A meal, a beer and a good night’s sleep and we were soon heading north again.

Crossing Rannoch Moor and arriving at the top of Glencoe is always inspiring. Buchaille Etive Mor stands guard, a mountain that looks to be sculpted from solid rock. We contemplated riding down Glen Etive and as we did a red deer strolled past nonchalantly eating grass. We were tired from our long drive deciding to carry on to Arisaig, near Mallaig where we could enjoy the white beaches and views over the water to Rhum, Eigg, Muck and Skye.

Crossing the Loch at Balahulish we rounded a corner to find Ben Nevis standing completely clear of cloud. A huge stump of a mountain it sits like the colossus it is looking over Loch Linnhe and Fort William. Rarely clear of cloud we felt the spectacle alone was worth the drive here and there was more to come.

The smile says it all.
The smile says it all.

We hoped to visit Skye in a couple of days and today we could see it in all its glory. The jagged teeth outlining the arêtes of the Black Cuillin countered by the conical shapes of the Red Cuillin showing  as soft pink in the distance.  It was a magical vista and it got me excited about being back in Scotland, a place I have always considered to be my spiritual home.

How was it then that for the next nine or ten days I felt so completely at odds with everything around me? What started so promisingly deteriorated quickly into a pattern of wet, cold and windy weather as low pressure dominated the barometer bringing frontal weather with just a few respites. We chased around trying to find a little comfort and to complete some of the things on our hit list but here was no escape.

We pitched at Camusdarach campsite near Arisaig. Our tent sat exactly where I had pitched in 2009 when on meeting some cycle tourists I had remembered cycling and what it had previously meant to me. Unlike then the midges were ferocious. Our first encounter with them this year saw my scalp and forehead react by being completely covered in a horrible itchy rash.

Our intention was to carry on to Skye and then tour for a few days but it didn’t happen. The next day we were faced with slowly deteriorating weather and a poor forecast for at least four days after that. We therefore chose to go and ride along Loch Shiel following a forest track that runs right next to it.

We parked at Glen Finnen, famous for its place in Harry Potter films where the viaduct and steam train, against a backdrop of huge, rugged mountains, took centre stage. I enquired in the visitors centre how we could access the track we wished to follow. “See that wooden bridge, pass over that and keep going”. It hardly looked wide enough for our trikes but off we went to try it out.

The wooden bridge turned out to be a wooden walkway several hundred metres long, suspended carefully above the bog below. It was just wide enough for us to ride as long as we met nobody on the way. There were a few passing places and we could have gone along the road and picked the track up elsewhere but this proved to be fun.

Glen Shiel
Glen Shiel

Loch Shiel sits in the valley bottom silent and powerful. Mountains hover over it, huge against the sky. Adding to the atmosphere were the clouds that sat atop the ridges and peaks, holding back the light and giving a small sense of foreboding as to what might be found up in the hills. Waterfalls fell seemingly silently and green foliage flourished in the beds of the streams that flowed from where they landed. It was heavenly and there was nowhere I would rather have been.

The track undulated, never too hard, but testing enough to add to the enjoyment of being there. We saw two people walking and waved at the postman who did likewise as he sped off to his next port of call while we too lunch. A few boats chugged along the loch inspecting the fish farm and I felt like paradise had been found for those few short hours.

Driving home it began to rain. We grinned at our cunning, sneaking in a ride before the bad weather arrived. The rain increased in volume and tempo until it drummed loudly on the thin skin of our home. We needed to make a decision on what we were going to do. There seemed little point in going to Skye if the weather was atrocious and even less in trying to go touring.

I’ve been to the Isle of Mull several times and it remains one of my favourite places on earth. Staying at Craignure campsite I remembered the shielings, semi-permanent dwellings made of a heavy version of the nylon used in my Ortlieb panniers. It was already cold, damp and miserable inside our tent and the site at Camusdarach had become expensive since the new owners took over. We had to make a decision and decided it was time to find a little more comfort on an island of great variety.

My mental state felt poor. I felt I had little in the way of reserves, something that has plagued me all year. It’s as though I’m not recovering from winter. There is no spring in my step or desire to go and explore. I’ve been trying to gently work my way around this and to not worry about what it may or may not mean in the longer term. I struggled with today’s bumpy ferry crossing from Lochaline to Fishnish. All manner of irrational thoughts bouncing around in my head, but I wasn’t alone and that undoubtedly helped.

Glen Shiel
Glen Shiel

Settling into a comfortable home felt a real pleasure. The addition of a heater, alongside the shower, cooking facilities and big bed, made life feel much more civilised. In fact it felt so good that we decided to stay until the end of the week and that we would just take whatever we could from each day.

An evening walk along the shoreline saw two heads bobbing in the water. They looked at us as we looked at them neither knowing who was the most entertained.  Seals do seem to have an inquisitive nature though.  The opposite shore had long since disappeared and the weather deteriorated once more as we tucked ourselves up for the night. The wind howled and blew all night and the rain continued to pound our cosy dwelling.

Deciding to ride the next day was perhaps a little daft. Sometimes you just need to and this was one of those days. Base layers, mid layers and waterproof outer shells were all donned before leaving. We would be riding into wind for the first ten miles but would then get (hopefully) blown home on the return leg. Our destination was Loch Na Keal, 24km away on the other side of the island, where I had seen sea eagles in 2011 when I last visited on my circumnavigation of the UK coast.

Today there were no birds of any description, just a howling wind that we sheltered from behind a bush in order to eat a sandwich. There was also a delightful café called The Coffee Pot in Salen that I thoroughly recommend. On the return leg we were thankful that the wind had stayed true, pushing us along gently in the cold conditions. Arriving at our small oasis of a home we decided the pub could cook and took ourselves off for some well -earned rest and relaxation.

174Two days later we got another break and the forecast spoke of a longer weather window in the near future. We had time for one more ride on Mull before we had to leave our little home and head out with the tent once more. We decided to ride to Fionnphort at the furthest point west on the Island. Fionnphort is the jumping off point for the sacred island of Iona and we hoped to have time for a short visit.

As we would be riding out and back we drove to the loch head leaving us a round trip of approximately 50km. This would allow us to take our time and enjoy the scenery as it unfolded all around us. That is assuming we can see it as the cloud was still quite low and the fog horns were blasting out first thing this morning as I lay in bed.

I have always wanted to visit this western part of Mull. It just hasn’t ever fitted into my plans previously. The drive alone was worth the effort as we climbed up into and through Glen More. The starkness of the scenery was so contrasting to that on the coastal fringes and nobody lived up here. Ben More had its head in the clouds, long tendrils of which were being sucked down into the valley. For somewhere so close to civilisation it felt incredibly empty and lonely.

Our route followed the ever varying shoreline of the loch. The road rose and fell rhythmically and we climbed and  relaxed to its beat. Water lapped the shoreline gently and the wind of the last few days had dropped considerably. We met Johann somewhere along the way as we relaxed into a pleasant days cycling. He was on a pilgrimage to Iona following in the footsteps of St Columba. On arrival, after his cycle journey from Newcastle, he was looking forward to taking a week’s retreat at the monastary on Iona. His was two journeys: one physical and one spiritual, woven together in a tour. He seemed happy and peaceful and we were more than happy when he caught us up again later after stopping for what he described as ‘beautifully refreshing mint tea’.

We stopped many times before reaching our destination. Most of the time it was for traffic, either oncoming or stuck behind us. It destroyed our rhythm to some degree but it didn’t really matter. Approaching Fionnphort we were faced with an increasingly clear view of Iona and the small ferry that beetles backwards and forwards full of people, cycles and cars. Initially it materialised from the fog which was doing its best to lift and give us a proper view of the island.

Tea anyone :)
Tea anyone 🙂

The road ran down to the ocean and a few houses sat dotted around the landscape. Painted colourfully these cute houses and the sheep that hung around the vicinity ellicited a welcoming feel. The small cove of the bay was etched in rounded granite boulders, pink in colour, adding to the warm atmosphere. A row of shops and houses ran parallel to the road all the way to the sea where small craft bobbed like corks on its surface.

We headed for the pub and coffee. The young women behind the bar, now training as a teacher, told us that she had gone to school in Oban on th mainland from the age of eleven and how exciting she had found it to be away from home all week. I said I couldn’t have imagined taking a coach and boat to school miles from home and boarding as well when I was that age. She said most children found it okay and it had made leaving home for university much easier.

Riding back from Fionnphort, Isle of Mull.

Time was pressing so we left for the return leg of our day. The sun was trying to break through the cloud and when it did it felt instantly warm. It didn’t stay though, not until we were a long way towards our start point and any thoughts of removing our jackets remained buried deeply in our consciousness. When the sun finally came through properly it illuminated the valley and loch as though somebody had turned on stage lighting. The whole area lit up, shining like the jewel it is and we had the joy of finishing our journey watching the light play on the mountains and water while bathed in its warmth.

Later that evening we strolled for one last time along the shore. We had heard of the family of otters living here and had been looking every time we walked here for signs that they were around. Look as we might we saw nothing until we came across another couple who were looking out to sea with binoculars. Sure enough there was a male otter. He was fishing and then eating his catch while swimming on his back before diving for another course. We stayed, transfixed,binoculars trained on the spot where he last dived or surfaced and he gradually came closer the shore giving us a great view of what must be one of nature’s cutest animals. It was a magical half hour and one I won’t forget any time soon.

Skye in a mood: Old Man of Storr
Skye in a mood: Old Man of Storr

It was a risk going to Skye. The predicted good weather didn’t happen. But why should it? It hadn’t happened to date and the forecasters kept saying it would improve only to change their minds at the last minute. Predicting highland weather is never easy and often not possible but this was not that complex as low after low battered the area with a day off every third day or so when it would be reasonable, at least for enough hours to squeeze a ride in.

The campsite owner at Torvaig campsite, just north of Portree, spoke of atrocious weather, waterlogged pitches and terrible plagues of midges. We saw it all in the two days we stayed. We managed one final ride up the west coast of the Trotternish peninsula, taking in the famous Skye Pie Café, a place that every cyclist should have on their must do list. We met some lovely people who were on an organised cycle tour and enjoyed seeing the scenery around the Old Man of Storr. But the weather broke and so did we.

I felt increasingly unwell while away. My body and mind seemed to be slowly deteriorating leaving me feeling completely exhausted. On top of that my stomach was upset. I’d suffered cramp in all the muscles of my abdomen as I rode on the previous day and had sat in my trike not knowing what to do while waiting for the episode to come to a natural end. I didn’t eat for two days and was as weak as a kitten. Muscles ached and my mind was numb, all but void of emotion or feeling of any kind. In between I was irritable and angry.Somehow this trip had drained me, leaving me completely worn out with just one desire: to return home to the sanctity of my own house.

I can only surmise that the constant rethinking and having to revisit decisions, along with the effort to move on and re-establish ourselves had caused a great deal of stress that I just couldn’t cope with. My sleep had been heavily disrupted by worrying and it had all caught up with me.  But it wasn’t just me that had had enough. Michele was worn out too and given the state of my health was faced with doing nearly all of the driving on the way home. I can only thank her for that and all of the support she gave me at the time when we were away.

Sometimes things just don’t go as you want them too. When this happens you have to be flexible enough to do whatever you can do under the new circumstances. Despite this trip ending up completely different from anything either of us envisaged at the beginning it still brought us much joy, albeit in smaller portions than we hoped.

Until next time………………………….