Several months ago, our close friends, Mason, and Hannah Walker, mentioned over dinner they were planning a bikepacking trip across the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland. After a year of being almost entirely focused on preparing for the Tour Divide, I owed my girlfriend a vacation. While our initial plans involved a beach and no bikes, Kathryn’s face lit up with excitement when she heard the details of Matt and Hannah's pending adventure. I saw my opening to be relieved of my obligatory beach trip and potentially join our friends on their Scottish adventure. The conversation ended with an invitation to join them and by the end of the week, we’d swapped our plane ticket for a flight to Edinburgh.
Over the years, I’ve followed the Scottish Highlands 550, an annual bikepacking race through the Scottish Highlands. The terrain is a stunning mixture of single-track and dirt roads through impossibly green mountains. The route is known for its difficulty, made even more complicated by the unpredictable wet weather. The race is frequently compared to the Colorado Trail race, primarily for the technical nature of the singletrack and fickle mountain weather.
When deciding which bike to bring, the Pinhoti III was a no-brainer. I was never under-biked on any technical terrain but I also wasn't slowed down on the gravel roads. Swapping out the suspension fork for a rigid fork made it a fast and capable gravel bike. I’m always especially impressed with how the Pinhoti III handles when fully loaded with bikepacking gear. As an added bonus: Titanium durability is a relief when seeing the bike roughly loaded and unloaded at the airport.
Our trip involved crossing similar terrain but at a much more reasonable pace. This trip was an opportunity to disconnect from the fast and efficient mindset necessary for bike pack racing and enjoy moving slowly and spending time with friends. We’d packed our camping gear but would mostly rely on guesthouses and bed and breakfasts in the small towns we passed through.
After a day of getting situated in Edinburgh, we managed to puzzle piece 4 fully loaded bikes and ourselves onto a small train headed for Blaire Athol, which would be the starting point of the cycling. We kicked off our trip with a beer at a small pub attached to the train station. It immediately began to pour and our rain gear was earning its keep much sooner into the trip than we had hoped.
We wound our way through the Blair Athol Castle and Gardens property and followed country roads through grazing land for the first of the thousands of cattle and sheep we would end up seeing throughout the trip. A vast majority of the land we would be passing on our journey was privately owned. Due to Scotland’s “right to roam” laws, everyone has the right to be on private land for non-motorized recreational purposes. While the US has an enviable network of National Parks and Forest land, most private property is often accompanied by a “No Trespassing” sign.
Around dusk, we began to look for a camping spot when the first midges appeared. I’d been warned about these small pesky flies from a Scottish rider on the tour divide but honestly, didn’t take the warning too seriously. As the sun went down, whenever we’d stop for more than a brief moment, hundreds of midges would swarm us and bite every inch of exposed skin. We found a beautiful camping spot near a small creek but couldn’t enjoy the scenery. We scrambled to put up our tents as fast as possible to get relief from the swarms of midges. That night sitting in our tents, eating dinner, and drinking the packed Scottish ales, we tried to remain optimistic but were worried the midge swarms could potentially ruin our trip.
The next morning, the midges were still around but in much smaller numbers. As long as we were riding and generating wind, we had relief. Later in the morning, they magically disappeared, and we dared to stop long enough to make coffee. The afternoon riding, further into the valley, just got better and better. We rode a long stretch of rocky singletrack that filtered into a beautiful double-track road and eventually led us into Braemar. Probably the quaintest little village we’d pass though, it was the host of the Scottish games the week before our arrival, and word around town was that the King was still staying in the surrounding countryside.
We planned an extra day in Braemar. When our B&B host asked Kathryn about her plans for the day, she told her she planned to “explore the city.” Our host laughed and said, “That won’t take you long, we only have 3 streets.” Mason and I dropped our bikepacking gear and took off to find some singletrack. Entirely above the tree line, you could see green mountains for miles and miles. About ¾ of the way up the mountain, we noticed bikes left in the brush beside the trail. We continued up but soon found out why. The trail became too rocky to even push, we ended up having to carry our bikes on our backs on steep and exposed terrain. Eventually, we reached the top and were rewarded with one of the best descents I can remember. We pedaled hard back into town to not miss our dinner reservation with the girls. Our “2-hour ride” took the whole day. We were exhausted but happy.
For the rest of the trip, we fell into a familiar and welcome rhythm. We’d wake up slowly and eat an enormous traditional Scottish breakfast, mostly made by our Bed and Breakfast hosts. We’d be off riding around between 9-10. Never in a huge rush, we stopped frequently to examine old ruins, try to make friends with the Highland cattle, take pictures, and eat snacks. We’d arrive at a small town around mid-afternoon and have a big lunch and a few pints. No matter the size, every village had a pub. The Scottish food, while not having a ton of variety, exceeded our expectations. There were always hearty stews, fish, and chips. Different days had different challenges. One of the days, we crossed the same knee-deep river a dozen times, at first trying to keep our feet dry, but eventually just giving up and accepting our wet feet.
On the final day of riding, we rode into Inverness, packed the bikes into a small SUV, and drove to the Isle of Sky for the remaining several days. On the second to last morning, we woke up at 4:00 a.m. for a sunrise hike to a formidable limestone feature called Old Man of the Storr, with stunning views of the ocean. I’d been hiding an engagement ring in my bikepacking kit for the trip and luckily hadn’t lost it or ruined the surprise. Fortunately, she said yes, and we’ll hopefully have a lifetime of bikepacking adventures ahead of us!