An Turas Mor 2020

In August of 2020 Joe and I rode An Turas Mor (The Long Journey), a 360 mile off-road route in Scotland from Glasgow to Cape Wrath. The route has been created by Obscura Mondo cycling club, which makes the gpx files and pdf guidebook available in exchange for a donation to their funds. It has been devised to use off-road tracks and avoid unnecessary climbs or hike-a-bike wherever possible. Obscura Mondo also claim that only just over 2% of the route is on roads with traffic in both directions – a remarkable feat over such a long distance as it equates to around only 7 miles in total.  It sounded perfect for us. The route is set up with the idea that you will ride it in a total of 8 days, with resupply stops at the overnight points. We found the distances over the terrain to be impossible to achieve and took 12 days to complete the route and arrive at Cape Wrath, an average of 30 miles a day. We didn’t push it too hard though as it was a holiday for us. We also took two half-days at the end, so we would have completed in 11 days had we not been waylaid by the hot shower and washing machine in Durness at lunchtime on day 11. The route should be achievable by most in under two weeks, including travel time back home again.

(Photo credit: Obscura Mondo).

2020 is of course the year of Covid, and this made things difficult for us. Although we were prepared to camp out every night if necessary, a bit of comfort and use of facilities make all the difference to a trip and how human you feel by the end of it.  The cheapest forms of accommodation have been the hardest hit by the pandemic – hostels, campsites (that allow tents), bothies and Warmshowers, which in turn put pressure on the cheaper end of the AirBnB market.  We also found that many hotels were not open to the public for food and were only serving guests.  In remote areas this was quite a problem. What we did have in our favour was half price food in the form of Eat Out to Help Out, which made a big difference to our budget on the days it operated. Cyclists need a lot of fuel in the form of food, so the scheme was very welcome and significantly influenced our decision to try the route in August.

Getting to the start – Hawick to Glasgow

We attempted to ride to the start of the route at Glasgow from our home in Hawick in order to avoid taking public transport at all. Our route took us to Talla reservoir, then Broughton and Lanark via the old railway before continuing to Glasgow via the Clyde walkway.  Unfortunately we were brought up short about halfway into that journey by a ‘mechanical’.  We are very grateful to our passerby rescuer Danielle from Edinburgh who gave us a lift to her home city from where we were able to source a new crank to allow us to continue.  If we had to have a mechanical on this trip then that was probably the best time for it to have happened.

Our trip would have ended before it begun had it not been for The Bicycle Works – so a big thanks to them for helping us out and finding a replacement crank in their spare parts box.

We are also grateful to our friends Pete and Jo in Edinburgh and Bartholomew in Glasgow for putting us up at short notice.

Part 1 – Glasgow to Killin.

So finally, five days after leaving home and a lot of distractions and setbacks, we arrived at the start of the An Turas Mor trail – Kelvingrove Art Gallery.  We took the obligatory selfie. All north from there!

After a pleasant few miles dodging the joggers along the Kelvin walkway we came to a narrow, muddy single-track section north of Maryhill that was choked with nettles and brambles. It made for a slow-going and painful ride.

At Milngavie we joined the West Highland Way, which gave us our first view of the hills.

The weather was very hot and sunny and the frequent gates were more of an issue than sharing the trail with walkers.

We were very glad to find this honesty-box shop along the way.

A thunderstorm of epic proportions was brewing, so I wanted to get out of the forest and down to Aberfoyle before it arrived.  We achieved this just before dark and were fortunate to get a quick burger at the pub before they stopped serving food for the night.  On the advice of locals we camped by the river – something I regretted at 2am when the storm arrived.  I became anxious that the river we were camped beside would flood the field we were in, but fortunately it rose very little and we stayed safe. It was a phenomenal storm though – the lightning was almost continuous for several hours and the volume and force of the rain certainly put the hydrostatic head of the tent to the test. It passed the test and we stayed completely dry. Lying there protected from the intense downpour by only a few microns of nylon was quite an experience though!

We packed up in the morning, a little bleary-eyed, and after breakfast at a hotel continued on our journey.

The long climb out of Aberfoyle tested our tired legs but meeting these guys in the forest put it all into perspective – mountain biking on unicycles is in a different category entirely.

With temps around 27C it was very hot once we left the shade of the forest.  A dip in a loch along the way helped keep things fresh though. We called into Callendar for food and I fell asleep at the riverside for a while.  Like an old person.  Moving on again we rejoined the old railway and found an ideal spot to camp beside Loch Lubnaig.

We had a very fun evening with our neighbours – a family of ‘New Scots’ from Denmark who have been kind enough to come to our land to help Scotland’s agricultural sector align more with Scandinavia, with the aim of allowing a future independent Scotland to integrate more easily with the region. I like this idea a great deal. In the morning we paid a visit to Balquhidder Station stores and fuelled up before following the old railway towards Killin.

We paid a visit to the falls of Dochart before fuelling up once again at the Co-op.

We left Killin in the afternoon and headed west along Glen Lochay.

The hydro schemes in this area can make a person feel very small indeed….

The climb was long and steep and became a bit of a slog.

…but reaching the top and being able to cycle again was a great feeling.

We dropped down to Loch Lyon and spent a midgey night camped by the reservoir there.

In the morning we made good time along the beautiful Glen Lyon to Bridge of Balgie.  It was as hot as an oven. We had high hopes for the cafe which is to be found there, only to be very disappointed by their Covid-era menu – I was desperate for a big dose of carbs – a sandwhich, a baked potato, a whole baguette – anything that would fuel me up again. Instead we found buffet-sized sausage rolls at very steep prices or soup, which is after all nothing more than vegetables and water and most definitely not what I wanted on such a hot day.  Hot, tired and very grumpy, I shared a packed of chocolate biscuits with Joe and we set off again.  Just before embarking on the climb over Kirk Pass to Loch Rannoch we passed a picnic area with a fine public toilet that I marked out as perfect for a bivvy spot. It would have been nicer than Loch Lyon and its midges so might be worth aiming for if you do the route.

Kirk Pass was very hot, very steep and very hard-going, but undeniably beautiful.

We dropped down to Loch Rannoch and took a break in the shade. We were very low on food at this point and I was getting increasingly grumpy. As our water filter was also acting up I put my head around the door of the Rannoch community centre to ask if they would refill our water bottles.  The woman there told me very scornfully that she couldn’t because of course there is no mains water in Scotland, which was such a load of patronising bollocks that I got a bit cross with her.  It had been a tough day.  I was all for stopping for the night at that point, but our lack of food drove us to continue onwards, and am I ever glad we did.  The ride from The Road to the Isles to Loch Ossian was easily the most stunning, life-affirming and memorable of my life.

It started out stunning and just got better and better as the sun dipped.

Yes, the splodges on the photo above are midges – the only fly in the ointment – but it didn’t matter – I was in my happy place, riding out in the wilds on a warm, still evening with my boy, the golden light caressing the landscape. It doesn’t get any better.

As we rounded the final bend for the drop down to Loch Ossian Youth Hostel we both stopped and gasped. It was simply stunning – there is no other word I can find to describe it. Just being there at that moment felt like an enormous privilege.

Although the hostel was closed due to Covid, we were allowed to pitch our tent outside and use the toilets and electrical sockets. Sadly a shower wasn’t possible as the water pump was broken but Jan and volunteer Alex did a great job of looking after us – we bought all their supply of snacks, some of which we scoffed while cooking our evening noodles. I felt almost human again.

In the morning we rolled the short distance down the track to the cafe at Corrour Station and filled our faces with fine local produce. A breakfast of champions.

We returned to the loch to pack our things but couldn’t quite tear ourselves away from such a beautiful place.  Finally, after a dip in the loch and a leisurely pack-down we rolled away at 3.30 in the afternoon.  That’s what holidays are about after all.

The day was roasting hot yet again and so we stopped a few miles down the road for a dip at Loch Laggan – the second of the day. Fringed with pine trees in the sandy soil it felt like being in France.

We then battled on through thick clouds of midges to reach Melgarve bothy where we camped for the night.

The midges were very bad…. there were so many of them pinging off the outer tent skin that it sounded like it was raining. Thankfully the mesh on our inner tent is fine enough to keep them out.

In the morning we packed up and faced the steepest climb of the journey – the notorious Correyairack Pass, which to be honest, wasn’t that bad in the end.

Joe was determined to ride as much of it as he could….

…before admitting defeat and getting off to push.

I picked blaeberries for a wee snack on the way.

…and pretty soon we were on top of the world.

After a swift descent we filled our bellies with pizza in Fort Augustus before getting a room in Morag’s Hostel for the night.  The first hot shower of the journey and the chance to hand-wash our clothes (as opposed to just rinsing them out in the loch) was very welcome.

Next morning we found ourselves once again pushing the bike up the steep forest track leading north from Fort Augustus.  I have to say that the route wasn’t quite ‘as advertised’ in that regard, but I guess you can’t really expect to cross Scotland without climbing a few hills along the way.

Lunch at the Redburn cafe was very welcome – always room for seconds!

Shortly after leaving the cafe we found a locked gate barred our way – something which I believe is illegal in Scotland as no pedestrian alternative was offered. We had to backtrack down a steep hill and climb it again further along the glen.

But worse was to come….

The next part of our journey was the only part we didn’t enjoy of the entire trip.  The track from Glenmorriston to Tomich was bleak, unendingly steep, boring, dull, hard work and had no redeeming features whatsoever.  The cloud was down and the cold and damp sucked all the joy out of the day.  It was really miserable.  We both hated it – it just went on and on and on. It was most definitely not my happy place.

We reached the ugly concrete bothy at the top of the hill with relief rather than triumph.

God help anyone who is actually desperate enough to have to stay here overnight.

We rolled down to Tomich to find the pub and cafe both shut, so not even a hot meal to cheer us up.  Home-brewed noodles are a poor substitute when you might otherwise have had fish and chips. We camped by the riverside between Tomich and Cannich, but in the morning we discovered that we would have been better to have pushed on to Cannich as the campsite there was open and accepting tents.  It also had a fine cafe attached to it which we made good use of for breakfast, all thanks to EO2HO.  We loaded our bikes up with food again at Cannich Spar and headed along the River Glass to Struy.  Everywhere that we hoped we might have bought hot food was closed.  Slightly dispirited, we began the climb north from the Cnoc Inn, only to find it a truly stunning ride through a beautiful landscape.

The sun was shining and the heather all in bloom. This was Scotland at its very finest.

We reached the top fairly easily and began the long traverse of the moor, following both the contour and the hydro pipe.  We fairly bombed along, which was good as the midges were fierce once again.  At the dam we stopped briefly to eat some snacks, but trying to eat with a midge net on is not the easiest or the most pleasant. The little bastards always find a way in somewhere – a slightly untucked sock, a tiny gap between net and neckline, or in my case at the point where my jersey met my shorts.  I wore a belt of bites all around my abdomen for much of the trip. We whizzed downhill on the smooth tarmac track from the dam and made it to Contin in good time, hoping we might find a spot for the night in the campsite there, only to find it closed for the season due to Covid.  We camped in the community woodland across the street and at more bloody noodles.

We later found that a better place to have camped would have been the forestry carpark just north of town, which had really great toilets and acres of flat grass.  It says ‘no camping’ but if you stop late and leave early then I’m sure you would get away with it. In the morning we were first in the queue waiting for Contin’s new cafe, The Coffee Bothy to open.  What a treat it was – really wonderful food that was innovative, delicious, locally sourced and good value. It doesn’t open til 11am, but is worth the wait!

We rolled away barely able to move and took the opportunity to rest a while at Rogie Falls.

The ride through the forest to Inchbae Lodge was fun, but the 3km road section from there to Black Bridge was not.  Since being struck by a car in the US last year I have completely lost my nerve when it comes to riding on the road.  This was a very fast, very narrow road on which large trucks and cars towing caravans were thundering along.  Thankfully the distance we needed to travel along it was not too great – we simply walked our bikes 3km along the grass verge until we reached the turn-off.  It took a while, but we were both happy to do it and not take the risk.

Once again we found ourselves in a stunning glen in the evening, although the light wasn’t quite so good on this occasion.

We camped further up the glen and woke to a beautiful morning in a beautiful place.

We rode on down the glen, past the derelict estate houses to Croik Church, a place that came to national attention in 1845 after The Times published an article highlighting the plight of the 80 crofters who had been forced to leave their homes and seek shelter under tarpaulins in the churchyard as a result of the highland clearances.

A ruined croft in the glen. I can’t imagine what a wrench it must have been to leave this beautiful place.

Historic graffiti scratched into the window panes denouncing ‘the wicked generation’.

The crofters were forced to leave their homes, communities and way of life. Many ended up in New Zealand.

The portal to a magical, car-free world…

We reached Oykel Bridge hungry and tired, but once again found no food was available from the hotel there.  We continued on to Rosehall where we gladly waited a couple of hours at the hotel til they began serving food at 5pm.  A very fancy-pants couple arrived in their chauffeur-driven car and sat at the next table for a drink.  Joe and I hadn’t had a wash for a good few days and it showed.  You rub shoulders with all sorts when the options are few and far between.  They didn’t stay long! After a good meal we put 20km under our wheels before pitching the tent for the night.  Here was the view as we ‘closed the curtains’.

Next day we climbed up out of Cassily Glen and then wheeled down to Loch Shin and Loch Merkel, where the midges were the worst we had encountered up to that point.  When you find yourself in a thick cloud of midges you expect it to just be a small patch, but these went on for mile after mile.

Trying to ride in a midge net is difficult and frankly dangerous. For the most part you can cycle fast enough to keep ahead of them though – but when you have to get off and push they will get you.  Our midge nets were always kept to hand.  We also used a lot of Smidge. By conducting some experiments we discovered that Smidge doesn’t act as a repellent at all, but it does stop them from biting you.  Something that actually repelled the little buggers would be very welcome.

The high moor was very boggy…..

… and Joe took quite a bit of it with him.

Strathmore River – do not follow the gpx along the river at this point – take the road around instead.  We took the river path and really wished we hadn’t – it was very overgrown with ferns and was a complete nightmare that wasted a lot of time and energy.

Looking across at Ben Hope.

Crossing Cashel Dhu ford with the midgie net on. The water was only knee-deep so not a big problem, though I believe it is a lot more challenging when the river is higher.

After crossing the ford we tried to change out of our crocs and back into our shoes but the midges were just appalling and we ended up riding off with one sock on, one croc on for a few metres before stopping to complete another step of the task before running away again.  We were to glad climb the hill and get some elevation and breeze to escape the midges and so took the decision to camp overlooking Loch Eriboll for the night. We weren’t far from Durness and so could have carried on but would have arrived in the dark.  In non-Covid times there is also the option of staying at Strabeg bothy which lies very close to the head of the loch.

Our first sight of the sea at Loch Eriboll.

As we packed up our tent in the morning we were slightly surprised when a large fleet of 4×4 vehicles roared right past us on the narrow track. They were on a ‘wilderness experience’ – naturally with guides and all equipment provided. Was it my imagination or did they look ever so slightly foolish to have stumbled upon a couple of true wilderness adventurers? It was definitely a big culture-clash moment. The cost of our entire trip will be less than they will have spent on a weekend of contrived ‘wilderness’ and our experience has been arguably more authentic.

We rode around the loch to Durness, stopping on the way to admire the beautiful beaches, something I had wanted to show Joe for a long time.

After riding less than 20 miles that day he still had far too much energy….

We checked into the campsite in Durness at lunchtime for a well-earned hot shower and got all our stinky clothes washed and dried too.  The next day, suitably refreshed and fragrant, we rode the short distance down to the Keoldale ferry for the final leg of our journey – crossing the Durness estuary and over the MOD bombing range to Cape Wrath lighthouse.

It was a little choppy and Joe began to regret the second pain-au-chocolat he had for breakfast….

The long slog over the moor – very bleak and empty – not even a sheep!  This path is frequently closed due to bombing practice so you will need to check with the gov.uk website for the bombing timetable.

Our first sight of the lighthouse and the end of our journey.

We took the obligatory selfie once again – 360 miles and 12 days after we set out from Glasgow.  It felt great.

Giving his mother a heart attack….

Apologies for the poor quality of this photo, but the dark splodges on the horizon are the coast around Stornoway and mountains on Harris, which were visible to the naked eye from the lighthouse.

After having worked so hard to reach such a beautiful area we were in no hurry to leave. The weather was more like the south of France than northern Scotland, so we stopped into Kearvaig bay for a couple of nights.  It is a stunning place.  Unfortunately the bothy is currently closed but there are plenty of flat areas around for camping.

Leaving the shelter of the bay after our mini-break we found ourselves in the teeth of a fierce storm.

We battled our way to the jetty to await the ferry, only to be told that it had stopped running for the day due to the weather. The ferryman agreed to come back out to get us though, which was very good of him.

We had planned on cycling to Thurso to get the train home from there, but the wind was so strong that was not an option.  We booked the bike-bus for the following morning and tried to book into the campsite again, only to find it full to capacity.  The wind was so fierce that the idea of camping on the coast didn’t appeal. I was also feeling unwell and needed a bit of comfort (something unrelated to either cycling or Covid, I should add!).  Joe came up with the perfect solution – sneaking into the family shower room and camping there for the night.  I didn’t feel too bad about this as there were two family bathrooms and we didn’t occupy ours til after most kids had gone to bed and were away very early next morning.  I would happily have paid for the accommodation but that wasn’t possible. It was perfect – en suite facilities including a hot shower. Bliss. The only issue was that the light couldn’t be switched off as it was connected to a motion sensor.  It turned itself off after a while, but came back on if it detected movement in the room.  I was able to turn over with sufficient care to not set it off, but the skill required to do this evaded Joe and he managed to trigger the lights about 57 times during the night.  Each time they shone brightly for ages before going off again. I have known more restful nights.

The journey home

The next morning we caught the bike-bus to Lairg but were denied boarding on the train at the station there as I had forgotten to book our bikes on separately to our tickets.  I hadn’t done this because it didn’t show up on the website – apparently if you can’t see an option for adding a bike to your booking then that means there are no slots available. You are somehow supposed to know this even though it doesn’t tell you so. It didn’t occur to me as booking isn’t necessary on our local train line.  The crazy part is that there are only 3 bike spaces available per train from the NE of Scotland to Inverness.  As this is the area where everyone who has ridden Lands End to John O’Groats, the North Coast 500, the Great North Trail or An Turas Mor will end up (with their bike!), it seems completely crazy not to have made more provision to transport bikes away again.  The next train wasn’t for 5 hours, but after many calls to Scotrail I was only able to secure a booking for our bikes on the train the next day.  We showed up at the afternoon train anyway on the off-chance and found a much more amenable guard on duty this time.  He was an old hand at squeezing bikes on board and was determined not to leave anyone behind.  I counted 12 bikes on that train in the end.  This would have needed 4 trains to transport if the rules had been followed. The train from Inverness to Edinburgh was no better – only two bikes were allowed on that train and both were expected to fit into a tiny alcove just big enough for one bike.  Joe had to stand the whole way holding his bike and moving it out of the way every time someone wanted past. It is a ridiculous situation that really shows up how poor the UK is at cycling and public transportation infrastructure.

Because of our forced five-hour delay in Lairg (a village I worked in 31 years ago), we then missed the last bus from Galashiels to Hawick and had to ride home in the wee small hours instead.  We finally collapsed into our beds at 4am, after a 22 hour day on top of a very poor night’s sleep in the shower room.  It was good to be home but it took quite a few days to recover from the final part of our journey. It could all have been done so much better.

Final thoughts

We rode the route when we did as we were desperate to get out of the house for a holiday after several months of Covid lockdown.  I don’t regret that but I don’t think it was a very good idea either – a lot of places were closed which either created logistical difficulties or diminished our enjoyment. I also had the distinct impression in a few places, most noticeably Durness, that the locals would rather we hadn’t come at the time we did. Although we didn’t break any rules by going when we did, Durness in particular was very busy with visitors from all over the UK, which I think had left the locals feeling a bit under siege.  Nobody was particularly hostile towards us, but they weren’t always terribly helpful either (I must exclude the ferryman and bus driver from this comment though). This was in complete contrast to how I have previously found people in the Highlands to be. It’s fair enough that they consider visitors to be a great risk at the moment. It did make me feel irresponsible for having gone there just now if I am honest.

We also travelled at peak midge season, which meant that we frequently had to hide ourselves away in our tent instead of being able to sit outside and appreciate where we were.  It wasn’t ideal and as most folk will tell you the months of April, May and September are the best time to visit the Scotland in order to avoid the dreaded ‘winged teeth’. The clegs (horseflies) were also pretty bad, but fortunately neither of us picked up a tick along the way.

The route was well-thought out and put together.  We found the first few days to be the hardest and fell very short of the distance that Obscura Mondo claim to be possible with ease on those sections. Breaking the route up into shorter sections meant that we often overnighted away from resupply points and so had to learn quickly to carry far more food than usual.  Travelling on a bike in the company of a teenage boy is a bit like having your own private plague of locusts following you wherever you go – our supplies were decimated in short order.

We found the route fairly tough, with ample steep sections where we had to get off and push the bike uphill.  Again this is contrary to the breezily optimistic tone of the official An Turas Mor guide book, but overall we still enjoyed the experience. Mentally I think it helped that we were aware that the route didn’t go uphill unnecessarily and sought to avoid this whenever possible.

On the positive side I lost a lot of weight in a very short time.  Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but I left my lard in the Scottish Highlands. A lot less of me returned than had left three weeks earlier.  We both also returned considerably fitter and that felt very good too – now we just have to keep up the good work to maintain our hard-earned fitness.

Many thanks for reading this epic to the end. We hope it will encourage more of you to embark upon this beautiful route in future.

Most definitely the final word – Critters

We encountered a lot of wildlife along the way – some of which we managed to photograph.

A dragonfly…

A field mouse….

A newt…

A squashed snake…

A rare white deer….

…and a sadly squashed owl.

We also saw foxes, red squirrels, weasely things, birds of prey and badgers, all of which were memorable experiences.

Joe made friends with a lot of ducks and chickens….

and the lighthouse cat.

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