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Highland Adventures

From issue 82 • Words and images by John Wilcockson

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“So wondrous wild, the whole might seem / the scenery of a fairy dream.”

— from “The Lady of the Lake,” by Sir Walter Scott

Gravel riding may be cycling’s latest craze, but it’s nothing new. In Britain, touring cyclists were venturing onto unpaved roads and trails (or “tracks” as they’re called in the U.K.) 100 years ago. One of the early enthusiasts, Walter MacGregor Robinson, who wrote under the penname Wayfarer, published a first story on off-road adventures in a May 1919 edition of Cycling magazine. The article, titled “Over the Top: Crossing the Berwyn Mountains in March,” described his ride over dirt and gravel roads through the Welsh mountains on a day of spring snow. He and his fellow pioneers wore heavy, plus-four trousers, long stockings, tweed jackets and cloth caps. And their single-gear bikes were fitted with mudguards and saddlebags.

Over the following decades, Wayfarer’s writings and public talks helped popularize what became known as rough stuff riding, leading to the establishment of the Rough Stuff Fellowship in 1955. Many of Wayfarer’s feature stories, including the original article, were illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings by Frank Patterson, another enthusiastic cyclist and hiker, who would create more than 25,000 illustrations of cycle touring scenes around Britain for Cycling and the Cyclists’ Touring Club members’ magazine, the Gazette.

When I was growing up in postwar England, my father subscribed to both those journals, and I fell in love with Patterson’s nostalgic drawings and Wayfarer’s evocative words. Both men died in their late 70s in the 1950s, and the U.K. cycling community honored them for their lifelong work. The Rough Stuff Fellowship members remembered their pioneer by erecting a memorial stone on the remote mountain pass he’d first written about, now known as Wayfarer Pass, where today’s gravel riders stop to sign a visitors’ book and write a few words about their adventures.

Besides introducing me to cycling, my dad was also a talented photographer (he developed his own black-and-white film and made prints in a cupboard-size dark room) and an excellent pen-and-ink artist. One of his drawings depicted a stand of Scots pine trees on a lake, with the hint of a gravel track in the foreground, that he titled “Eventide in a Highland Glen.” That was Glen Affric, a remote valley in the Scottish Highlands that features a rough stuff trail connecting Loch Ness with the west coast of Scotland. Another of his sketches showed Strath Spey, a valley in the Grampian mountains, to the east of the Highlands. Those drawing (and some of Patterson’s) got my attention for a future trip to Scotland.

Besides bike touring, Dad raced in time trials, including what English cyclists call hard-rider events, which sometimes feature dirt roads. After our father suddenly died when I was in high school, my older brother Dave and I began riding his bikes, visiting many of the wonderful places portrayed by Patterson and Wayfarer, including trips to Wales, the Lake District and, eventually, Scotland—a trip we planned using Dad’s collection of beautiful half-inch-to-the-mile maps produced by the Bartholomew company of Edinburgh. Those sturdy, canvas-backed maps measured 30 inches by 22.5 inches, with the topography displayed by colored layers: three shades of green between sea level and 500 feet; eight shades of brown from 500 to 2,500 feet; three shades of gray from 2,500 to 3,250 feet; and white shades above that elevation.

Bartholomew’s Scottish series of 29 maps carried evocative titles such as Fife & Angus, Arisaig & Rum and Uists & Barra. My favorite was Central Ross, the map that stretched from Loch Ness in the east to Loch Alsh in the west. In the middle were the Highlands, with the 3,881-foot-high Càrn Eige, the area’s highest peak, just to the north of Glen Affric—and the lake featured in my dad’s drawing. Dave and I would be using that map extensively on our August 1962 tour of Scotland.

We lived on an unpaved street in a small village in southeast England, so our first pedal strokes from home were always on gravel. Our bikes had Reynolds 531 double-butted tubing, one-and-a-quarter-inch tires (that’s about 32mm) and full mudguards (fenders) and saddlebags…not unlike those rough stuffers of yore.

Scotland is the most rugged country in the British Isles, boasting three major mountain ranges, the Cairngorms, Grampians and Highlands, including the U.K.’s highest peak, Ben Nevis, at 4,415 feet elevation. That may not sound very high compared with the Alps or the Rockies, but as the Scottish valleys are mostly at or near sea level, the glaciated mountains retain a true grandeur. The same can be said for the country’s thousands of freshwater lochs (or lakes), headed by the largest ones, Loch Lomond and Loch Ness. Those lochs and mountain ranges were all on the itinerary we’d mapped out for our 1962 Scottish tour, which included staying at youth hostels and riding a few rough stuff sections.

With our trip’s starting point 500 miles away, we took what was called a Workman’s Special (a very early-morning train) to London, cycled across the city center to St. Pancras station and boarded the Waverly, a steam train that would take us on a scenic ride through the English Midlands, Yorkshire Dales and Scottish Uplands to Edinburgh. On the platform in London, we lifted our bikes into the goods van, which also carried Royal Mail packages on their way north. We took our saddlebags into the second-class compartment, where we read newspapers, studied our maps, ate the lunch packs our mum had prepared and took naps on the eight-hour journey. We had to be wary when putting our heads out of the window, because the fresh air was sometimes mixed with black smoke drifting back from the locomotive!

We spent 36 hours in Edinburgh, walking the streets, visiting the historic Edinburgh Castle and going to the Easter Road football stadium to watch a Scottish League Cup game between Hibernian and Third Lanark; the home team won 3-2. At half time, on a bright Saturday afternoon, the 10,000 crowd was entertained by a marching band made up of two dozen bagpipers and a dozen drummers, all wearing kilts. Very Scottish!

The next morning, after taking a short train ride through the Lowlands to Stirling, we were finally on our bikes, headed west to our first destination: Loch Katrine in The Trossachs. This area of forested hills and lakes was made famous by “The Lady of the Lake” poem by Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott—similar to today when J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books (and films) have brought literary fame to Edinburgh and the Highlands. Our Trossachs loop included scaling the gentle Duke’s Pass across a hillside of purple heather and dark pines between Aberfoyle and the quaintly named Brig o’ Turk (which translates from the Gaelic as “Wild Boar Bridge”), before continuing north. The Trossachs is known as Rob Roy country, where the 18th century folk hero from the MacGregor clan lived out a colorful life as a soldier, cattle rustler and outlaw. He was also the subject of one of Scott’s novels.

We stayed that night at the Killin youth hostel, a former doctor’s house at the head of Loch Tay, continuing westward the next day along quiet roads though Crianlarich, a village dwarfed by two dozen 3,000-foot mountains (called Munros after a Scottish mountaineer Sir Hugh Munro, who listed the country’s almost 300 peaks over this height). There was little motor traffic on these Highland roads, giving us a sense of solitude as we tackled the long climb up to the bleak Rannoch Moor on a cool, misty day. The railway line over this tree-less plateau is featured in “Harry Potter” movies. Our road—the only one across Rannoch’s 50 square miles—passed countless peat bogs and ponds before we reached the top of Glen Coe, a spectacular glaciated valley that’s alpine in appearance. Our hostel in Ballachulish that night had dormitory-style bunk beds and a communal washroom. Luckily, it was only a short walk to the 16th century Clachaig Inn and its down-home bar serving real ales.

We were well fortified for our longest day yet—80 miles with 3,000 feet of climbing—from one coastal fjord (Loch Linnhe) to another (Loch Duich). Quiet roads took us past the town of Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis, northeast to Glen Garry and then northwest to Glen Shiel. We stayed at the remote Ratagan hostel, in what some regard as Scotland’s most beautiful location: on a seashore with inspiring views across the water to the Five Sisters of Kintail, peaks that rise to 3,500 feet.

This northwest part of Scotland has the fewest inhabitants, very few youth hostels and, on our tour six decades ago, roads that were not feats of civil engineering—mostly single lane, with passing places for cars, and full of erratic ups and downs and sharp turns. The road surfaces were rough, often with grass growing down the middle and sometimes unpaved. It was on a series of roads like this that we set out from Ratagan on a 120-mile ride that touched the coast a half dozen times before reaching Ullapool, a port town that has a ferry connection to the islands of the Outer Hebrides.

This region is on the same latitude as Hudson Bay and southern Alaska, which meant that sunset was close to 9 p.m. on that long August day, allowing us time to linger at some of the fishing ports along the way. One stop was at Poolewe at the northern end of the splendid Loch Maree, where the afternoon’s warm sunshine added to the impression that we were in the South of France rather than the North of Scotland. The warming effects of the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf Steam enables Poolewe’s Inverewe Garden (celebrating its centenary in 1962) to grow colorful rhododendron from China, eucalyptus from Australia and poppies from the Himalayas on a 850-acre estate.

We reached our most northerly point of the trip a half-hour out of Ullapool the next morning, this time crossing from the west coast to the east coast through rather bleak country. But the monotony of the landscape was made up for by the actual riding. We didn’t come across a car for a whole two-hour stretch on one of those narrow, bumpy, grass-down-the-middle back roads. We ended the day riding alongside the waters of Cromarty Firth on a flat road that is part of the infamous British ride of 874 miles from Land’s End (at the tip of southwest England) to John o’Groats (the tip of northeast Scotland)—the official record for which now stands at 43 hours, 25 minutes, 13 seconds, set by 40-year-old Englishman Michael Broadwith in June 2018.

From our overnight in a handsome Victorian hostel in Strathpeffer we were only 30 miles from Glen Affric, where we found the lakeside location of Dad’s pen-and-ink drawing—and there was some rough stuff to reach it. In full 3-D color the scene was even more beautiful, everything from the Scots pine trees, to the sparkling water, to the granite mountains all around. We next headed east to Loch Ness, arriving by the ruined Urquhart Castle, from where one of the many sightings of the Loch Ness Monster was made. We didn’t see the mythical Nessie, but riding alongside the murky waters of a lake that’s up to 755 feet deep and 23 miles long, it was easy to understand why talk of a multi-humped, long-necked monster has persisted over the centuries.

From our overnight stop in Inverness, we rode eastward, over Culloden Moor—site of the last military battle fought on British soil, in 1746—and continued on quiet back roads to Strath Spey. This is the valley depicted in another of our dad’s drawings and also happens to be where most of Scotland’s best malt whisky is distilled, including Glenlivet and Glenfiddich. We had a long climb away from the River Spey, across some open hills to Tomintoul—the highest village in northern Scotland and home to a rudimentary youth hostel.

Our Scottish tour was coming to an end, but before we took the train back home from Perth, we’d planned out longest stretch of rough stuff of the week. The route started right from the streets of Tomintoul, heading due south along the River Avon into the Cairngorms, first on a narrow back road that soon changed into gravel, crossing a couple of precarious, narrow footbridges, before climbing over a steep ridge to the headwaters of the River Don. That last day ended with a long climb over the 2,200-foot Devil’s Elbow in the Cairngorms…followed by a beautiful downhill back to the Lowlands. Another adventure completed.

Follow John Wilcockson on Twitter: @johnwilcockson

From issue 82, get your copy here.