A Tour of the Scottish Highlands

For the second year running I was unable to make my planned trip to climb Ventoux, so again relied on travelling to parts of the UK I had not cycled before. At the top of the list for dramatic scenery was the Highlands but would that all be overshadowed by terrible weather and swarms of midges? I took the plunge.
 

Inverness


Due to complications with the trains, I drove to Inverness; a seven hour drive from Leeds, stopping in Edinburgh for a break. I stayed at the Crown Court Hotel. They had mislaid my booking and given away my single room. Fortunately, they had a much better room unoccupied which they upgraded me to. It was a ten minute walk into the town centre which was full on a Saturday night in the way UK towns are. There were, however, quite a few older tourists around. I had pre booked the River House restaurant, without which I would have struggled to find anything. The meal was very good – grilled asparagus with a poached egg, then sea bass. The owner chef was on duty and paid great attention.

 


Day 1 – Inverness to Lochcarron


In the morning I parked my car in a multi storey for £5 a day and then set off. Occasionally on my trips I have experienced a raised heart rate, that I have largely put down to dehydration. Whether it’s possible that I had dehydrated the previous day, I don’t know but as soon as I turned on my Garmin it showed a rate of 120. Perhaps unwisely I decided to proceed, knowing I had a fairly flat ride in front of me and was feeling well. 


The ride itself was fine, without being special. A cycle lane protects you from the busy bridge traffic, before turning off the A9 to hug the water of the Beauly Firth. It was spitting with rain but nevertheless an attractive ride to Muir of Ord. The A835 Ullapool road was busier until the turn to Lochcarron. The A832 road rises very gradually over 20 miles, following the single track railway line much of the way. I stopped for some lunch at the Midge Bite Café in Achnasheen after 40 miles. The last section was mainly downhill and the most attractive part of the route.

 

 

 

 

 


I stayed at the Old Manse, a beautifully situated property with great views. I ate at the Lochcarron Hotel, which was in the process of changing hands and showed it. 


My heart rate was still high and kept me up some of the night but it eventually settled.


Day 2 – Lochcarron to Gairloch


I decided in advance that I would not attempt the Baleach Ban. It would have made the day over 30 miles longer and the gradients would have been very difficult with panniers. Speaking to another cyclist later in the week, he said that the climb hadn’t been too bad but the coastal route had been hard. It would be good to return unladen with a carbon bike one day. 

 

The ride, although flatter, was still spectacular. After a stiff climb out of Lochcarron, the ride across to Shieldaig ran past small lakes. Shieldaig, on the coast, looked upmarket. I stopped for a coffee and a cake. The road then heads towards Torridon, a beautiful stretch, with high mountains looming above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I stopped for a sandwich in Kinlochewe and emerged with a few midge bites, having eaten outdoors. The road then follows Loch Maree, which is generally obscured by tree cover, before dipping to the coast.

 

 

 

 

 

 


I stayed at the Myrtle Hotel in Gairloch, which has a beautiful position, with a view in the far distance of Skye. The room was good but the food left a lot to be desired. The herring could have been fine but served with three boiled potatoes and an undressed salad made for a very dry meal.


Day 3 – Gairloch to Ullapool


The road leaving Gairloch crosses inland to Poolewe, where I picked up some provisions, unsure whether there would be another shop before Ullapool. The road generally follows the coast, with some lovely beaches in view.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The most spectacular part of the route is the oddly named Second Coast. Other than the very different Corsica, it’s the best coast road I’ve ridden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The last stretch of the day joins the A385 which links Inverness to Ullapool. Whilst not busy, it’s a very fast road and a bit of a shock after the tranquil 45 miles that proceed it.

 

I stayed at the Caledonian Hotel, which has friendly staff but looked very tired once out of the reception. I managed to get a launderette to wash my cycling clothes and then got a drink at the Arch Inn, overlooking the harbour. Ullapool conformed to my stereotype of small Scottish towns, as rather grey and dour. There were plenty of tourists using it as a base.


I ate at The Frigate, which had quite an interesting menu on its website but actually only served pizzas and burgers. In fairness, the burger was fine. Unfortunately, my heart became faster again whilst there. The staff were engrossed in the Scotland Croatia match which was 1-1 at half time. I had a quiet evening watching England beat the Czech Republic in my room.

Day 4 – Ullapool to Scourie


My heart remained up and I was in two minds what to do. I bought some aspirin and decided to try it out with a plan to either loop back or cut through to Lairg, rather than go to Scourie. It was a stiff start which got my heart up to 150 despite taking it easy. I stopped after a descent with a thought of turning round but miraculously my heart rate dropped to normal levels at that very moment. I had no further issue.


The main road was quite fast but after 8 miles the road to Achttenbuie takes the route into beautiful territory. The road all the way to Lochinver is spectacular. Passing a series of small lakes, mountains rear up beside the road.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were a few cars and  camper vans but these thinned out when I turned off to Lochinver. It felt at times like on a mountain walk rather than a ride and then the road dips again to the sea.


I stopped in Lochinver for a baked potato at which point it started for the first time since the beginning of the trip to drizzle. Suitably dressed, I then headed for Loch Assynt, rather than doing the coastal route. It was a bit of a drag to climb to the highest point of the day but the descent to Unapool is truly stunning. The bridge crossing at Kylesku quickly follows, also with great views.  The ride is probably the best I’ve done in the UK and ranks high among all the rides I’ve done.


I stayed in an Airbnb room, part of a house at the end of the Scourie Moor road, which was perfectly adequate. I had booked in advance to eat that evening at the Scourie Hotel, which is an upmarket spot. I ate in the bar which they had opened up to non residents. The smoked salmon and local cheese board were very good and made a welcome change to the previous three nights. Even getting a bit of a soaking on the way home didn’t change my view.

Day 5 – Scourie to Lairg

When I woke it was still raining and the wind was strong. The ride to Lairg was fairly short, so I held off a little while before departing at 10. I should have delayed another hour and would have missed the worst it. I popped into the only shop before Lairg for some food to take.


The road North to Durness was the hardest part of the day and also the wettest. Turning Southeast at Laxford Bridge towards Lairg, I had the wind behind me. It’s an isolated road, with no branches off and few houses and farms along the route. It follows a series of lochs, gently undulating all the way. I can’t think of another road with such great mountain scenery which requires so little effort.


I arrived early afternoon in Lairg, staying at the one hotel. There is very little there, apart from a pleasant cafe called The Pier, where I had some afternoon tea. In the evening I had a very traditional meal of soup, salmon and rhubarb crumble.


Day 6 – Lairg to Inverness 

On the ride from Lairg to Inverness I followed the well signposted National Cycle Route 1.   The start of the ride is very quiet and scenic, keeping to the west of the River Shin until the bridge at Inveran.  After a brief spell on the busier A836, I was surprised to be taken over a railway bridge to get back to the west side of the river.  It’s a beautiful bridge but it was tricky navigating the steps with a full laden bike.  On the other side there is an unpaved narrow path, which fortunately was firm and dry and therefore navigable on my road bike.


 

The route to Dingwall follows the B1976 Strurie Road, which after an easy climb turns into a log a plateau with good views.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Dingwall towards Inverness, the cycle route does its best to keep away from the busier A roads and where it can’t there is a dedicated separate cycle way which runs alongside the A835. The rain turned heavy a few miles from Inverness.  I eventually returned to the route alongside the Beauly Firth, before crossing the bridge back into the city. 


Whether it was just being away for 5 nights in the far North but Inverness seemed very busy.  I returned to the car, dressed in some warm clothes and got a sandwich before driving back to Edinburgh.  


In Edinburgh I stayed at the Premier Inn Hub on Rose Street, which was very reasonable and made a welcome change from the more old fashioned accommodation I had been staying in.  I ate in the Bon Vivant in the New Town. It was good to have a night in a beautiful city to end the trip.

Concluding Thoughts


This was a very good trip and better than some I have done outside the UK. The second, third and fourth day, in particular, were excellent, with stunning scenery.  With a bit better planning, it would have been good to have crossed the Ban Baleach and stayed in Applecross, rather than Lochcarron.  I should also probably have taken on the coast road to Unapool. I had intended to go all the way up to the North Coast and stay at Tongue but a lack of available accommodation ruled that out – I would recommend staying there if possible and then coming back to Lairg.  


I felt reasonably lucky with the weather and have had far worse in both the Alps and Northern Spain.  What’s more difficult to come to terms with in comparison is the general standard of accommodation and food in more out of the way places in the UK, unless one is prepared to spend a lot. Although this by no means felt like second best, I will still return to mainland Europe for my annual trip next year.