WWe encounter a wide and softly flowing river.
After exploring the banks for the shallowest possible crossing, Sandy huffs, utters a refrain that would become common during the course of our trip – “→uck it” – and trudges into the knee-deep water.
You become accustomed to wetness in Scotland. Though we’d scheduled our trip for June, ostensibly one of the country’s driest months, we wore rain jackets and gloves 50 per cent of the time. The temperamental conditions could leave you both sunburned and soaked within the same day.
Yet we also came to appreciate the wet weather for the beauty it spawned. Crystal-clear creeks, from which we fetched water for coffee and oats. Tranquil ponds for a mid-morning bath. Damp bogs bursting with mosses, ferns, and wildflowers, and bright green grasses that blanketed the treeless mountainsides. Waterfalls that cascaded scores of metres down sheer cliffs.
I blessed the Scottish wetness for all the bridges it necessitated, from rickety wooden spans to architectural marvels made of intricately laid stones, and became a bit of a bridge fanatic. “Bridge porn!” I would shout, a signal for Sandy to photograph me riding back and forth, smiling gleefully.
After fording the river, we embark on our first of four quintessential bothy-finding experiences. An undulating path that forces us to push our bikes as much as we ride them. Cold, exhausted legs. Growling stomachs. Someone out front pointing excitedly. A small building in the distance.
A thick, wooden door and an unlocked latch. A shove, and it swings open. Inside, out of the wet.
You learn other things on a seven-day bike tour across the Scottish Highlands. You learn that if an online description of a bothy reads ‘No firewood’, when you arrive at the bothy – which is situated against a grassy hillside, without a tree in sight – indeed, there will be no firewood.
And if you wish to warm your aching body and dry your sodden shoes, then you should gather the fallen branches you encounter kilometres away from your lonely bothy and strap them to your panniers.
We learn this lesson after the fact.
Yet even without a fire, in this bothy we are overjoyed. The sparse shelters, which once served as lodging for farm families and sheep herders, were abandoned during the advent of the industrial age – and allowed to turn to ruins as Scotland’s rural inhabitants migrated to the cities. So there’s a certain irony in our excitement, a hundred-plus years later, to travel from the city to this restored stone hut.
We giggle as we explore the two large rooms – one for sleeping, another for cooking – and lay out our sleeping pads on the earthen floor. In the absence of firewood (or peat, the coal-like fuel source that grows in the Highlands bogs), we drink whisky to warm ourselves. It’s the burning of peat to dry the malted barley, we learn on our whisky-tasting tour of Scotland, that imbues the beverage with the unique, smoky flavour for which it is renowned (or reviled, depending on who you ask).
Glengoyne is historically distilled without peat, and we easily reach the bottom of the bottle. Then we pass out. In the morning we wake to blue skies, put on our still soggy shoes, and return to the West Highland Way, pedalling up and over a mountain pass on a cobbled road built in the 18th century.
At a ski chalet on the far side of the pass, we try haggis (a Scottish staple made of sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs), and then take a trail paralleling the busy A82, coasting through the Glencoe Valley, craning our necks in bewilderment at the soaring granite peaks.
We’d intended to make it to a bothy near the town of →ort William that evening. But even with the summer sunlight lasting until nearly 10pm, we run out of time. During our week-long ride across Scotland the sun never seems to set fully, with twilight lasting well past midnight. This benefited us when tracking down bothies late into the evening, but also led to casual morning departures, putting us up and out on the trail each morning by – as we joke – ‘the crack of eleven’.
After aborting that evening’s bothy hunt, instead we hop the last ferry across Loch Linnhe, with a plan to wild camp that evening. The practice is common in Scotland, where freedom-to-roam laws protect the public’s ability to cross private lands and even spend the night on them, so long as the property’s owners aren’t disturbed.
On the ferry, a local man points us to an inlet where a mountain stream feeds the loch, and then traces a line along our map – “I’d suggest you camp up there,” he says. We follow his instructions and find a small meadow situated next to a waterfall with a view of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest peak.
The summit of Ben Nevis, they say in Scotland, is clear only one day out of every 10, and today is one of those days. As the sun sets on the mountain, the rock face of the round summit glows in red hues.
That night, beside the rumbling waterfall, we warm ourselves with a fire.
Having become experienced bothy hunters and Scottish wild campers, we greet the morning with confidence. In →ort William, we pick up the Great Glen Way, which runs 127 mostly gentle kilometres along a series of placid lochs (including the famous Loch Ness). So great is our confidence that before we embark on the sunny ride, we sample some malts at the Ben Nevis Distillery and grab a bottle for that evening. We even crack open a six-pack of local craft beer, sipping as we pedal beside the lochs.
When we reach the tiny village of Aberchalder, where we intend to bothy that evening, Nick pulls out his phone and snaps a photo of a dirt road he notices slicing up the face of an abrupt hillside, simply for the reason that this road appears to be perhaps the steepest road he has ever seen in person.
“Imagine if we had to go up that!” Nick laughs.
Then we pull out our map and attempt to locate the bothy. Eventually we come to the certainty – though we wish we weren’t so certain – that the bothy is located beyond Nick’s hilltop.
RIDING TOWARD GORTON BOTHY. LEFT: THE AUTHOR NAVIGATES A SECTION OF THE WEST HIGHLAND WAY.
DINNER BY CANDLELIGHT IN GORTON BOTHY. LEFT: NICK COOMBES STOKES THE FIRE AT GLENBUCK BOTHY. BELOW: THE AUTHOR AT SUARDALAN BOTHY.