Aberdeen to Ft William; off-road coast to coast cycle / by Jerry Gillham

With the possible exception of one face-smashing over-the-handlebars incident I've been enjoying being out on the bike since getting back north. In search of a simple, good value, easy-to-arrange holiday I headed up to Scotland to enjoy a week or so of riding up there.

DAY 1. HOME TO ABERDEEN TO PORTLETHEN

 Packed and ready to go, with train tickets attached to the front.

Packed and ready to go, with train tickets attached to the front.

Leaving the train station at Aberdeen there's some pretty hectic traffic so I just walked along the pavement until I had crossed the River Dee and was on less busy roads and National Cycle Network 1. Almost immediately though there was a road closure so I had to miss a nice-looking bit of the coast. Still, there was another few km between the cliffs and railway that were pleasant riding.

 Narrow channels in the sea cliffs, populated by Kittiwakes, Eiders and traffic cones.

Narrow channels in the sea cliffs, populated by Kittiwakes, Eiders and traffic cones.

 Distance 17km, ascent 208m.

Distance 17km, ascent 208m.

DAY 2. PORTLETHEN TO BALLATER

Half and hour after setting off I had travelled 4km but barely moved anywhere due to missing the first turn and almost immediately getting lost in an industrial estate. The next hour was a frustrating one as each time I got going I met another road closure from where they're building a big new road out of Aberdeen. After a few diversions and backtracking I headed straight north to reach the River Dee at Peterculter and there the NCN 195, the Deeside Way.

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Most of the day from here was spent on this cycle way which alternated between roads and well-made tracks.

 After Banchory I headed through forest on the south side of the river before getting back onto the NCN again. The River Dee is lovely and was well used by walkers and anglers.

After Banchory I headed through forest on the south side of the river before getting back onto the NCN again. The River Dee is lovely and was well used by walkers and anglers.

 Stopping for lunch in Westertown Wood after an enjoyable little down hill through the trees.

Stopping for lunch in Westertown Wood after an enjoyable little down hill through the trees.

I arrived in Ballater early afternoon and spent an enjoyable couple of hours relaxing in the sun, eating a huge and delicious vegan ice-cream, before checking into the absolutely superb hostel there. 

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 Distance 86.2km, ascent 802m.

Distance 86.2km, ascent 802m.

DAY 3. BALLATER TO TOMINTOUL

Heading south of the river through Dalliefour Wood I pretty much straight away came to this:

 Which bridge? I don't think I'm going over a bridge.

Which bridge? I don't think I'm going over a bridge.

 Oh, that bridge. Joke's on you, I'm not going that way.

Oh, that bridge. Joke's on you, I'm not going that way.

 No, instead I've got a whole barrier across my route.

No, instead I've got a whole barrier across my route.

 Apparently it was too near the river bank and had eroded away. Thankfully I could sneak through a small path between fallen trees.

Apparently it was too near the river bank and had eroded away. Thankfully I could sneak through a small path between fallen trees.

Continuing on the road I was overtaken by a few teams of road-riders from the RAF before I crossed the river again and found yet another road, the main link for my route, closed. I continued a while thinking I could bypass it on a dirt track, but got the wrong track and ended up at a farm in the middle of nowhere. Identifying my location I turned to head back and found my rear tyre was flat. I repaired the puncture and put everything back together but then couldn't get the required pressure in the tyre, and every time I tried more air would come out than go in. I tried my spare inner tube in case it was a dodgy valve but came to the conclusion it was duff pump. At this point it was starting to feel a little like a horror film, that I had come to the wrong remote farm and now couldn't leave.

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Eventually I decided I had no choice but to head off slowly with under 15psi in there. It wasn't much fun but it also wasn't far to Balmoral. I wasn't expecting any help from the queen but here were a good number of campervans in the ca park, many with bikes on the back. I found one that had its owners present and ended up borrowing a foot-pump off a German tourist to get my tyre back up to pressure.

Following that close call I headed straight along the main road back to Ballater where I bought myself a new pump and inner tube. Then, having travelled 34km to end up back where I started, I set off again. This time a different direction on a small road up Glen Gairn. Where the road turned into track there were big signs saying 'welcome to the moors' and the heather-covered slopes became home to lapwing, oystercatcher and curlew, some of whom had chicks hiding at the edge of the track. A water vole also scuttled across the track in front of me which was a nice surprise.

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I continued on tracks up alongside the River Gairn, slowly gaining altitude and sweating in the sun. I didn't hang about as I was aware how delayed I was. When I reached Loch Builg though I was happily back on track and, having not seen anyone for hours, felt comfortable enough that I could strip off and go for a swim.

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After having to push a bit around the loch I got about 15km of straight downhill almost all the way into Tomintoul.

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Down in Tomintoul I checked into the hostel and went straight to get a beer and food.

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 Distance 79.3km, ascent 968m.

Distance 79.3km, ascent 968m.

DAY 4. TOMINTOUL TO RYVOAN BOTHY

 A shorter day and one that started with no road closures, just a big, long uphill interrupted by a push alongside a river where the track disappeared for a while.

A shorter day and one that started with no road closures, just a big, long uphill interrupted by a push alongside a river where the track disappeared for a while.

 Ten a great descent all the way to Nethy Bridge where I picked up some food.

Ten a great descent all the way to Nethy Bridge where I picked up some food.

 Loch Garten. I didn't have time to visit the osprey centre but enjoyed a snack beside the beautiful stillness.

Loch Garten. I didn't have time to visit the osprey centre but enjoyed a snack beside the beautiful stillness.

 Heading back up into the mountains.

Heading back up into the mountains.

 Ryvoan bothy. There were plenty of people around during the day, and early evening, but I was the only one staying that night. Sitting outside that evening was glorious; warm, calm but with enough breeze to detract midges, at least two cuckoos calling. 

Ryvoan bothy. There were plenty of people around during the day, and early evening, but I was the only one staying that night. Sitting outside that evening was glorious; warm, calm but with enough breeze to detract midges, at least two cuckoos calling. 

 Distance 44km, ascent 583m

Distance 44km, ascent 583m

DAY 5. RYVOAN BOTHY TO KINGUSSIE

 A rather cloudy start for a change.

A rather cloudy start for a change.

 An enjoyable early descent to Glen More.

An enjoyable early descent to Glen More.

 Followed by some extremely enjoyable riding through proper Scottish forest.

Followed by some extremely enjoyable riding through proper Scottish forest.

 Loch Eanaich / Einich was just to the south and looked pretty dramatic on the map and had a track leading all the way up to it, so I decided to make a diversion.

Loch Eanaich / Einich was just to the south and looked pretty dramatic on the map and had a track leading all the way up to it, so I decided to make a diversion.

 It was quite a ride in with plenty of ascent and crossing of fords.

It was quite a ride in with plenty of ascent and crossing of fords.

 The spectacular Loch Einich.

The spectacular Loch Einich.

 Looking serious.

Looking serious.

Dropping back down towards the forest I headed toward Loch an Eilein and then Inverdruie, where I stopped at a lovely cafe for coffee and cake having arrived in the half hour period between the end of breakfast and start of lunch.

 Heading back up through the forest and then down through more managed woodland I arrived at Feshiebridge, site of many happy family holidays when I was young.

Heading back up through the forest and then down through more managed woodland I arrived at Feshiebridge, site of many happy family holidays when I was young.

 I headed quite far up the beautiful Glen Feshie before cutting up following forestry roads. The problem with following forestry roads is that they're often different to what appears on your map, thus a few wrong turns. There was also one long back-track as I realised the path I optimistically thought I could use to link two valleys was clearly too boggy to navigate by laden bike.

I headed quite far up the beautiful Glen Feshie before cutting up following forestry roads. The problem with following forestry roads is that they're often different to what appears on your map, thus a few wrong turns. There was also one long back-track as I realised the path I optimistically thought I could use to link two valleys was clearly too boggy to navigate by laden bike.

 I ended up coming down an exciting single track through the woods, something I'd feel more comfortable doing on a sturdier, not fully loaded bike. From there it was just a case of cutting across to Kingussie where I spent a very pleasant evening catching up with Chris about mountains, wildlife, conservation and Skomer and Skokholm days.

I ended up coming down an exciting single track through the woods, something I'd feel more comfortable doing on a sturdier, not fully loaded bike. From there it was just a case of cutting across to Kingussie where I spent a very pleasant evening catching up with Chris about mountains, wildlife, conservation and Skomer and Skokholm days.

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 Distance 89.3km, ascent 1,247m

Distance 89.3km, ascent 1,247m

DAY 6. KINGUSSIE TO BLACKBURN OF CORIEYAIRACK BOTHY

The forecast was for thunder and rain, but there was some uncertainty as to when it would hit. It seemed sensible to make an early start and get on with it rather than making too many interceptions. I took a direct route along General Wade's Military Road, one of the 18th century constructions that criss-cross the highlands, built to facilitate rapid troop movements to put down the Jacobite rebellions.

 Heading up the River Spey I found myself in the middle of Scotland.

Heading up the River Spey I found myself in the middle of Scotland.

 Passing the Spey Dam reservoir I was heartened to see a pair of osprey, but the first rumbles of thunder and dark clouds ahead were less welcome a sight. I soon felt the first spots of rain and with no immediate shelter had little option but to peddle into it. It could see it looking clearer a few km ahead and within half an hour I had passed through, with a big climb ahead of me to dry off.

Passing the Spey Dam reservoir I was heartened to see a pair of osprey, but the first rumbles of thunder and dark clouds ahead were less welcome a sight. I soon felt the first spots of rain and with no immediate shelter had little option but to peddle into it. It could see it looking clearer a few km ahead and within half an hour I had passed through, with a big climb ahead of me to dry off.

 Back on the military road and approaching the high point of Corrieyairack Pass. The final zig-zags needed a bit of pushing. Not so much the gradient that was the problem as the terrain and getting a good grip with the rear wheel.

Back on the military road and approaching the high point of Corrieyairack Pass. The final zig-zags needed a bit of pushing. Not so much the gradient that was the problem as the terrain and getting a good grip with the rear wheel.

 Over the top it was a long, fun downhill that passed some lovely green valleys.

Over the top it was a long, fun downhill that passed some lovely green valleys.

 I reached Blackburn of Corrieyairack bothy at about 2:00 and within half an hour it started raining hard again. A couple of walkers dropped in to shelter until a break but other than that I didn't see anyone, hiding inside as the rain continued on and off until well into the night.

I reached Blackburn of Corrieyairack bothy at about 2:00 and within half an hour it started raining hard again. A couple of walkers dropped in to shelter until a break but other than that I didn't see anyone, hiding inside as the rain continued on and off until well into the night.

 Whiling the afternoon away with maps, journal and cup of soup.

Whiling the afternoon away with maps, journal and cup of soup.

 Trying to dry my clothes off. It didn't really work as I had next to no wood and coals that had already been used at least once.

Trying to dry my clothes off. It didn't really work as I had next to no wood and coals that had already been used at least once.

 Distance 57.3km, ascent 1,025m

Distance 57.3km, ascent 1,025m

DAY 7. BLACKBURN OF CORIEYAIRACK BOTHY TO FORT WILLIAM

It started off foggy and although the clouds looked lovely hanging low over the lush green valleys it did feel like it could rain at any moment.

 I headed down toward Fort Augustus following a mix of unmarked tracks until I found a sign to a waterfall. Another sign took me on a stupid path down to the main road but only by trapping me inside someone's estate. For the second time this trip I had to wait beside automatic gates until, as if by magic, they opened on their own.

I headed down toward Fort Augustus following a mix of unmarked tracks until I found a sign to a waterfall. Another sign took me on a stupid path down to the main road but only by trapping me inside someone's estate. For the second time this trip I had to wait beside automatic gates until, as if by magic, they opened on their own.

 Fort Augustus is nicely located at the south end of Loch Ness, but strangely I couldn't find anywhere with a view of the Loch without trespassing onto the property of expensive lodges.

Fort Augustus is nicely located at the south end of Loch Ness, but strangely I couldn't find anywhere with a view of the Loch without trespassing onto the property of expensive lodges.

 There are nice lochs there and plenty of movement along the canal. I got some food and a weather forecast and then headed south west on the Great Glen Way. 

There are nice lochs there and plenty of movement along the canal. I got some food and a weather forecast and then headed south west on the Great Glen Way. 

The going was pretty similar to day one; mostly flat along a well made track. Not so many walkers and not so warm. I felt pretty tired this day though, physically and mentally, and a large part of the journey through the woods alongside Loch Lochy felt like I was going uphill all the way.

I cut off toward Loch Arkaig and the bothy at Invermallie.

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 Distance 57.9km, ascent 545m.

Distance 57.9km, ascent 545m.

At this point I had a look around Invermallie bothy, a well constructed building with several rooms, but also scattered packets of food, packaging and, the last straw, a half full / empty pint of beer. I went and sat outside to eat my lunch and consider my options:

  1. Stay here, tidy up a bit, make myself comfortable, have another quiet night in a bothy.
  2. Stay here, whoever left this mess comes back, we probably don't get on.
  3. Head round the loch to have a look at a couple of the other nearby bothies.

After about two minutes of relentless midge attack I added a fourth to the list: feck off into Fort William, and immediately went for that option.

The next few miles were straightforward as I continued down the Great Glen Cycle Way into town. I had a look at the backpackers hostel but it looked like student accommodation and by this point I really wanted my own comfortable, quiet room with a good shower. I ended up heading to the Travelodge, eating an early tea at the Wetherspoons next door and heading to be about 9:00.

 I'd been getting quite close to the bike but this felt a little too much. However it's what they recommended, despite the difficulties that entailed getting it up through the lift.

I'd been getting quite close to the bike but this felt a little too much. However it's what they recommended, despite the difficulties that entailed getting it up through the lift.

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 Distance: 27.8km, ascent 267m

Distance: 27.8km, ascent 267m

DAY 8. FORT WILLIAM TO LOCH OSSIAN

I woke up feeling very refreshed and, after breakfast at Morrisson's was ready to get started. Even though I'd technically reached my destination I had another two days until my train and the forecast was good.

 Getting out of Fort William was hard enough up some steep roads toward Lundarva. There I joined the West Highland Way.

Getting out of Fort William was hard enough up some steep roads toward Lundarva. There I joined the West Highland Way.

 The West Highland Way is a well made track but not the easiest to cycle along which is perhaps why I met zero other cyclists. Plenty of walkers though enjoying the last stretch of their trip into Fort William.

The West Highland Way is a well made track but not the easiest to cycle along which is perhaps why I met zero other cyclists. Plenty of walkers though enjoying the last stretch of their trip into Fort William.

 I stayed high above Kinlochleven when then WHW dropped down, worth it for the views alone as I continued to slog up the track to Loch Eilde Mor.

I stayed high above Kinlochleven when then WHW dropped down, worth it for the views alone as I continued to slog up the track to Loch Eilde Mor.

 It was a nice track until about here. Picking my way across stepping stones should have been a warning about the lack of track to follow, in fact at times I found it easier to ride down the shingle river bank than across the ditch-ridden bog.

It was a nice track until about here. Picking my way across stepping stones should have been a warning about the lack of track to follow, in fact at times I found it easier to ride down the shingle river bank than across the ditch-ridden bog.

 I was planning on bivvying or bothying but after pushing, carrying, dragging the bike as far as Loch Treig I thought I'd head down to the Youth Hostel at Loch Ossian and see if they had a bed for the night. They did and it was one of the most picturesque, delightful places I've stayed.  A lady there told me if I wanted a beer or wifi to head up the road. I looked at her like she was taking the piss but she insisted there was a licensed cafe at Corrour railway station, the remote station with no real roads leading to it.  Well it turns out she wasn't lying and I was able to get a beer and a curry. Fantastic.

I was planning on bivvying or bothying but after pushing, carrying, dragging the bike as far as Loch Treig I thought I'd head down to the Youth Hostel at Loch Ossian and see if they had a bed for the night. They did and it was one of the most picturesque, delightful places I've stayed.

A lady there told me if I wanted a beer or wifi to head up the road. I looked at her like she was taking the piss but she insisted there was a licensed cafe at Corrour railway station, the remote station with no real roads leading to it.

Well it turns out she wasn't lying and I was able to get a beer and a curry. Fantastic.

 Distance: 49.4km, ascent 1,070m

Distance: 49.4km, ascent 1,070m

DAY 9. LOCH OSSIAN TO FORT WILLIAM

Swapped my brake blocks over before heading out as they were looking a little worn, then headed back past Loch Treig and once agin onto a path rather than track.

 It's not the remotest place in the world but even in summer some of these routes are very rarely walked and don't have phone reception. You could quite easily get into trouble there.

It's not the remotest place in the world but even in summer some of these routes are very rarely walked and don't have phone reception. You could quite easily get into trouble there.

 At least when you get to tracks like this there's no way you can cycle it, the most frustrating ones are where you're constantly on and (falling) off.

At least when you get to tracks like this there's no way you can cycle it, the most frustrating ones are where you're constantly on and (falling) off.

 Time to stop and appreciate the local wildlife.

Time to stop and appreciate the local wildlife.

 The joy of being back on the path at Lairig Leacach Bothy, passing a load of paratroopers and, shortly afterwards, a long downhill.

The joy of being back on the path at Lairig Leacach Bothy, passing a load of paratroopers and, shortly afterwards, a long downhill.

 The Wee Minister, a surprising presence at the side of the road on a clear day, apparently terrifying approaching from the north on a foggy day.

The Wee Minister, a surprising presence at the side of the road on a clear day, apparently terrifying approaching from the north on a foggy day.

 The Kubrickian corridors of Leanachan Forest were fun but as with most forest tracks they weren't properly marked on my map. There are cycle routes through here but the signage at the east side is best described as frustratingly inconsistent, so I headed out and down to Spean Bridge for some lunch.  For my return to Fort William I didn't fancy navigating back through the forest or dodging traffic on the A82 so cut north west a bit and back onto the last stretch of the Great Glen Way, repeating my last stretch from two days ago.

The Kubrickian corridors of Leanachan Forest were fun but as with most forest tracks they weren't properly marked on my map. There are cycle routes through here but the signage at the east side is best described as frustratingly inconsistent, so I headed out and down to Spean Bridge for some lunch.

For my return to Fort William I didn't fancy navigating back through the forest or dodging traffic on the A82 so cut north west a bit and back onto the last stretch of the Great Glen Way, repeating my last stretch from two days ago.

 Distance 56.4km, ascent 617m

Distance 56.4km, ascent 617m

And that's it. The next day I had a relaxing breakfast then a somewhat farcical train journey home with delayed and replacement trains, never mind negotiating the cramped lifts of Glasgow station.

Total distance: 564km, total ascent 7,327m