YYou learn things on a sevenday bike tour across the Scottish Highlands with a bunch of old BMX pros. You learn, for example, that your friends might not always prioritise your personal safety. As you straddle your burly adventure bike at the precipice of a steep, rock-strewn descent, covered in rainslickened moss, your friend will yell, “Ride it!” Another will encourage, “Yeah!” A third will photograph it.
The words of your wife – ‘Don’t do anything stupid’ – run through your head. You push hard with your right leg, throw your ass back over your saddle, and go.
At the bottom, you’ll turn to your friend, the photographer, and say, “Did you get it?”
Sometimes the stones we find are between our own ears. But for the first two days of our trip along Scotland’s West Highland Way, most are beneath our tyres.
We’d set off from Glasgow with a rough agenda: to pedal to the very tip of the Isle of Skye, the iconic landscape from which famous YouTube street trials rider Danny MacAskill hails, to visit some whisky distilleries (or to at least imbibe a few bottles of ‘malt’, as the locals say), and to overnight in Scotland’s mythical bothies, the centuries-old shelters that trail-worn travellers are free to use.
Though we’d read about the bothies, we still didn’t quite believe they existed, or know if we could find them. Most sit on private property and are accessible only by remote dirt roads or trails. A core group of UK hill walkers and cyclists, volunteer members of the Mountain Bothies Association, manage and maintain the shelters. And up until about a decade ago, the bothy locations were shared almost solely by word of mouth.
Today, the MBA lists the coordinates of Scotland’s nearly 100 bothies on its website using the UK grid reference system, which isn’t super-helpful unless you’re a professional surveyor. However, a recently released book, The Scottish Bothy Bible (written by a professional surveyor) offers more detail. Even with the bible, finding bothies isn’t
easy; but that’s one of the most appealing things about them.
During the journey, I was the fourth wheel on a crew comprising photographer Sandy Carson, a Scottish ex-pat who now lives near me in the US, and two of his old friends from the UK, Dean Hearne and Nick Coombes. Decades ago, Sandy and Dean had been among the best freestyle BMX riders in the world. Though they’d moved on from the BMX lifestyle years ago – Dean is also a photographer, and co-owns the online home decor and lifestyle shop The →uture Kept, while Nick has an office gig with the UK government – the three of them had stayed in touch.
Our first stop out of Glasgow had been the Glengoyne distillery near the town of Dumgoyne, which has been bottling Scotch whisky ‘legally’ (wink, wink) since 1833. We bought a bottle of the 12-year-old, and then rushed to a ScotRail depot 27km away in Dumbarton, making the train that would shuttle us up into the Highlands by mere minutes.
Outdoor recreation’s ingrained in Scottish culture, and northbound trains frequently stop at isolated trailheads. We sat with fellow bike tourists and hikers. Near Tyndrum, where the railway intersects the West Highland Way, we unloaded and began pedalling again.
A trail comprised of old military roads, abandoned railways, and drovers’ paths that runs 154km from Milngavie (just outside Glasgow) north to →ort William, the West Highland Way is better suited to hiking than bike touring. We made slow progress, muscling through fields of boulders and stopping to photograph the potential spectacle brought on by peer pressure.
Along the trail Dean finds a sheep skull, lashes it to his wooden basket, and later names it Doc. Sandy bombs a series of brick stairs beneath a railway bridge and breaks his rack. I discover midges, the tiny Scottish insects that swarm your face and bite you as you fix your friend’s broken rack.
As the evening light begins to fade, an intermittent mist rolls in. We turn onto a gravel road we believe leads to a bothy called Gorton. We’d seen the shelter described online as “large, lonely... no firewood,” but knew little else – other than that it was built with solid stone walls.