The Biker Bucket List: Scotland Pt 1: The West Coast
In the first of a passionate two-part series that could only have been written by a Scotsman intimate with the region, we explore some of the UK’s greatest biking roads, starting with the epic West Coast of Scotland. It’s the beginning of three days of riding around a country you’ll be hard-pushed to better anywhere in the world. Best read with a single malt in your hand.
First, I’ll get this out of the way. ‘Fecking awesome’ is my go-to description for Scottish trips. Childish, yes. Accurate, oh god yes.
I grew up in Scotland, learnt to ride in the North East coastal town of Peterhead and spanked every bike I could get my hands on around the gloriously empty roads during the mid-’80s, before leaving for pastures new.
I’m one of those that fit into the greying beard demographic now. We survived this long to rue failing eyesight, aching backs and thinning hair, but have a wealth of memories full of mistakes, hangovers and miles under our bums, ridden here and abroad.
And as I cut through the errors of the past I still find I get excited at the thought of riding a motorbike in Scotland and more specifically, the West and North Coasts. As they say, ‘travelling by car will get you there, travelling by motorcycle will get you memories’.
Reasons literally trip off my fingers. The great, nah fecking awesome roads up there, that there is much less traffic than down south; a lower police presence; that in the Highlands it’s over 1300 times less populated per square km than where I work; has a climate only 3C less than the South and where North Wales is wetter than Northern Scotland; the fantastic booze, culture, yes even deep-fried Mars bars; the ease of our very own coinage and that the Scots speak English, however thick the accent may be to some.
Yes, there are other superb areas of the UK to visit. Yes, from the South East, where I live, Western Europe is as close as some of the very best parts of Scotland. And no, I’m not saying don’t visit those areas, do. Really do.
Get to know your own country, as magnificent as it truly is. Touring the UK is so often overlooked for the lure of the Continent instead.
But Scotland is unique within Great Britain. You truly cannot find an experience like it anywhere else.
We’re going to Scotland and with the above in mind please take it as read that this trip is going to be fecking awesome (there, I said it again).
That’s it. We’re going. When?
It gets damn cold and potentially a tad dangerous to travel the north of Scotland in winter. One other consideration for planning is mi-jees.
No, this is not slang for small people, but for small insects which bite. Midges are very common in the north and west of Scotland, mainly from June to October, though fortunately aren’t as fast as a motorcycle, don’t go above 2000ft, can’t bite through leathers (or any other kind of clothes) and aren’t keen on any kind of breeze. I can’t say ‘lightweights’ because when they bite, you’ll know all about it. Take some repellent in those mi-jee months.
I prefer to tour Scotland in the late spring / early summer months (pre mi-jee).
Not just because of the warmer weather, but for the longer days (13-17 daylight hours Apr/May) allowing a more relaxed approached to the journey times.
Personally, and this really is a personal thing, I’m not a fan of travelling at night in the north or west of Scotland. The roads and weather can be unkind to the weary traveller. Plus, I want to be in a bar with a pint in hand before the sun goes down most days.
One observation on that point, Scotland has a lower drink-drive limit than down south, by around a third less than in England and Wales. Word to the wise, take care, don’t lose your licence sampling the local beverages.
What bike is preferable? Well let’s be clear, the choice of bike only affects how you travel, no one bike is perfect for a trip like this.
I’ve toured Scotland on a raggedy 125, on a hyper naked, small naked, on a superbike, supersport, adventure bike, tourer, two-stroke 500 (yes that was as mad as it sounds), almost anything but a cruiser and only because I’ve never had the chance to tour on one.
It’s not so much the bike, but the rider that makes the difference. Put some planning into your route, your fuel stops, your mileage, your accommodation and the rest pretty much falls into place. I use a satnav so I make sure it’s up to date and pre-load the trip, in day by day chunks. I use www.myrouteapp.com to create the routes and transfer them across to the satnav.
For this trip, I’m on a Fireblade. 110 miles of fast fuel, 150 of chilled fuel, I fill up every 100miles or so. In Scotland that’s easily done if planned properly, even in the Highlands. Just be careful if riding after dark though, the remote petrol stations can be closed by 8.00pm. (They have a life outside of filling up travellers’ bikes, to be fair).
Day One, Getting there from the South East – 395 miles
We leave the South East on Thursday, proper early to miss the rush hour traffic and for me I head north over the Dartford Crossing, still free to bikes thankfully. Meeting up at Birchanger Services, J8 M11, we then head up the A1.
The A1 may not be the quickest way North for many, but we’re heading this way because it has enough going on to keep us alert and visually it’s more interesting than the West Coast M6.
Plus, the ride across the A66 from Scotch Corner to Penrith is a welcome break from dual carriageway or motorway multi-carriageways.
Skirt the Yorkshire Dales & North Pennines towards the M6 by the Lake District and zip up towards the border, making sure you’ve got your camera running as you cross the border.
Take in the rather large ‘Welcome to Scotland’ sign at Gretna with a smile.
Fist pump the border crossing (only me?) and continue along the less than culturally impressive A74(M) to Glasgow where the world is your oyster for accommodation, drinking holes and Fish and Chip shops for that magical deep-fried Mars Bar you’ve heard about.
Personally, I prefer to travel that little bit further and skirt Glasgow aiming for Loch Lomond.
Makes for a 460mile Thursday for me personally, but leaving early gets us in late afternoon, more than enough time for a shower, bite to eat and something to drink whilst pouring over the map for Fridays riding.
Day Two, the ‘proper riding’ starts – 265 miles
Friday and we have the daily theme of early rise, full Scottish breakfast, plenty coffee, get ready for the days riding.
From here on in we’re in ‘fecking awesome’ terrain. We’re heading North, aiming to get up to the Strathcarron Hotel, a well-used and much-loved hotel in the Highlands at the end of a long, 265 rewarding miles.
A word of warning, up here the weather can change in a moment, which in many ways adds to the experience, but riders need to be prepared for this and acknowledging this in advance goes some way to coping with this, should it happen.
Leaving Loch Lomond, we grab some fuel locally, then head up the A82 towards the Argyll and Bute region proper, joining the A83 at Tarbet and ride towards Inveraray, dipping south to Lochgilphead.
The coastal road rolls alongside Scotland’s longest sea loch, Loch Fyne, before turning up on to the A816 to Oban, home of the whisky of the same name, founded in 1794.
As much as we may fancy a longer stop, 2 odd hours in we’ll maybe take in the views, grab some fuel if needed before heading east to the A85.
We pass Scotland’s longest freshwater loch, Loch Awe along the way, before stopping for a bite and rest at the famous bike friendly ‘The Green Welly Stop’ at Tyndrum.
On the summer weekends, this place is busy enough to justify the bike overflow parking area. By this point and much later you’ll know why so many bikers come by and have a rest here. This is an oasis in a biking landscape.
After resisting the urge to buy some whiskey and the like from their shop we’ll start to head north again, into the Highland region, along the A82 towards the often eerie, haunting, Glencoe.
Here 38 clansmen were killed in 1692 by government forces, known as the Glencoe Massacre. The views and roads are unforgettable, the history only adding further layers to the atmosphere you feel when you ride through this area.
From here we continue onwards to Fort William, home of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain at 1345metres above sea level.
No time to stop, though, we’re carrying on a little further north along the A82 still, towards the Commando Memorial just north of Spean Bridge. There are some great views here, but also the chance to stop and pay your respects to those the memorial represents.
But we got to keep moving, ride on, past Loch Lochy and yes, that is a real loch, because at Invergary we’re taking a left turn on to one of the great roads in the UK, the A87 towards the Isle of Skye.
The stretch leading up to the Kyle of Lochalsh is memorable for the superb open, flowing roads as it follows the banks of 6 Lochs, Garry, Loyne, Cluanie, Duich, Long and Alsh.
Though flanked by Munros on either side, their imposing beauty is matched by Scotland’s most recognisable castle, Eilean Donan. This 6th-century castle, destroyed by the English whilst ousting the occupying Spanish garrison in 1719, was rebuilt and reopened in 1932. It sits on 3 Lochs and leads on to the gateway of the outer islands through The Kyle of Lochalsh.
This stretch, from Invergary to Kyle, you just have to ride it to understand how good it is.
The ride to this point is superb, there’s an almost organic, connected reward riding this road. It’s an experience, not an explanation. I’ll say no more.
From Kyle of Lochalsh you have a choice, head on to the Isle of Skye (controversially and arguably it’s not an island any more, now there is a £25million bridge connecting it to the mainland), or head north to Strathcarron.
For this trip, we’re having a look at the Island from the mainland, but heading briefly north along the A890, past Loch Carron for a well-earned stop at the biker friendly Strathcarron Hotel at the loch’s crown. Good accommodation, great food and warm hospitality from the staff to help ready us for day two. Personally, I’m all over that Scottish seafood menu and with a beer that’s me ready for a chilled evening enthusing about the day gone, excited about the next day to come.
This article was first published in January 2017.
In Part 2: Biker Bucket List: Scotland: The North Coast 500 and Highlands, Jock reaches the top of the country, takes a selfie, before jumping back on the bike to make the most of the stunning scenery and grin-inducing roads.
Wondering what to pack, without weighing the bike down? Read Jock’s advice on packing light without forgetting the essentials.