As I leaned over the handlebars of my rented bicycle and stared at the road ahead of me, stretching for miles into the Scottish Highlands; two thoughts ran through my head. The first one was that I could not recall ever having been in such beautiful country. I was somewhere off the east coast of Loch Ness surrounded by lush Highland mountains. Ancient stone walls, farmers cottages and fields dotted with sheep lined the road providing comforting proof that this land had been inhabited for a very, very long time despite its rugged appearance. A Highland cow, ten feet to my left, chewed thoughtfully on grass and looked at me as if to say, “Yep. Not a bad place to call home, bub.”
Standing there, I was hit with an overwhelming sense of joy. It felt as though my mere presence here confirmed that I was doing something right in this world. This feeling, however, was interrupted when the second thought quickly followed the first. The never ending road that lay ahead held a steady incline. An incline that I would have to pedal my bike, laden with camping supplies, up and over. The summit was so far away that it was anyone’s guess how many miles of excruciating effort it would take to get there. I wasn’t in the mood to dwell on the negatives though so I got back on the bike, put my head down and slowly headed uphill.
A few days prior to that moment, my friend Matt and I sat in my Edinburgh flat pouring over a map of Scotland trying to find the perfect adventure. With the courage that only comes after a couple of beers, we considered attempting a demanding and exposed traverse of the Cuillin mountain range on the Isle of Skye . That idea was nixed though once we found out how long it took just to get to the island using the Scottish bus system. Climbing Goat Fell, the tallest mountain on the Isle of Arran, was also considered but I had been to the island and was looking for some new terrain. Throughout the night, we kept coming back to a long, narrow sliver of water just south of Inverness , capital of the Highlands. So after much deliberation and a desire just to be done with it, a decision was made to cycle around the famous Loch Ness, camp on her shores and perhaps get a glimpse of that pesky monster.
With the destination finally decided, we ironed out the details. We would leave Friday morning on the bus from Edinburgh. The journey would take about four and a half hours which normally would exceed my breaking point for bus travel. But, seeing as you need to take out a small loan for rail travel in the UK and renting a car was not in the budget, a bus it would be. After arriving, we would book ourselves a bunk at the centrally located Highlander Hostel, which would give us the perfect opportunity to explore Inverness and experience some Highland nightlife before setting off into the unknown.
As we readied ourselves for the trip, I tossed the needed supplies into my rucksack. A camping stove, pots, pans, a coffee mug, fuel, quick-dry clothing, a rain jacket, a flask, and, despite the fact that it was June, a four season tent. After a year of living in Scotland I had learned that experiencing four seasons in a single day was more of a regularity than an oddity. Matt noticed as I packed the tent and said, “You really want to carry that on the bike? We could just open bivy, sleep under the stars. It would be a lot lighter.”
“Nah.” I replied, dismissing the wisdom of his suggestion. “Weight won’t be an option. It’ll be on my bike, not my back. Besides, you’ll be happy I brought this baby along.”
Once we arrived in Inverness, we would rent bicycles with saddlebags for our gear and off we’d go. We would cycle down the eastern side of the loch on Saturday, spend a lovely evening camping on the shore and then head up the western shore and back into Inverness on Sunday. In all, we would cover roughly 70 miles and see some of the most stunning landscapes in Scotland.
We arrived in Inverness just in time to see the beautiful River Ness sparkling under the sinking Highland sun. A pedestrian suspension bridge that straddled the river was backdropped by the pinkish Inverness Castle providing the scenery I was expecting. The city of Inverness is as old as Scotland itself and Matt and I, carrying our rucksacks, walked down medieval lanes from the bus station on our way to the hostel. We passed ancient stone buildings fitting of a Highland capital. Welcoming pubs, local shops and restaurants smelling of hearty Highland cuisine beckoned us on our way through the city. I instantly fell in love with Inverness.
After checking in, we strolled along the river and stopped at the bank-side pub and restaurant Johnny Foxes to watch the sun go down. Located on the ground floor of Inverness’ ugliest piece of 1970’s architecture, Johnny Foxes is one of Inverness’ busiest pubs. After a bite to eat, the desire to get a good night’s sleep faded as we chatted with locals all too eager to tell us about Highland culture. Over pints of Scottish ale, Matt and I talked to a member of the Clan MacDonald about how, in the north of Scotland, they still hold a bitter grudge against the Campbells for slaughtering 38 MacDonalds in 1692 Massacre of Glencoe .
“Aye, there is still a lot of bad blood.” Our local history teacher told us. “My ex-girlfriend was a Campbell. My grandma has a sign above her front door that says “Campbells Not Allowed”. We had to lie about her surname to get her in the door. I still feel bad about having to lie to me own grandma.”
Our evening ended much later than it should have and long after the pub’s last call. Sitting on the ramparts of Inverness Castle watching the city lights twinkle below on the River Ness, we finally decided to call it a night and walked down quiet, cobbled lanes back to the hostel.
We woke the next day after a less than a fitful night of hostel sleep to the sound of rain lashing the windows. We were still rubbing the sleep out of our eyes as we walked out of the bicycle shop with our incredibly heavy mountain bikes weighed down with enough gear for a week’s expedition. Our bikes were completely inappropriate for our trip but we didn’t care. We were about to cycle Loch Ness. And, after talking to locals in the bike shop, our trip was cut in half.
We were told, in language not fit for this website, that cycling the west bank of the loch would be unwise and that our intellects should be questioned just for thinking it a possibility. It was explained that the western road is a very busy trucking route where many a cyclist had pedaled for the last time. Sharp curves, narrow lanes and little visibility made for a very dangerous ride. They suggested taking the ferry back up the loch. A suggestion we planned to accept.
As we rode out of Inverness and towards Loch Ness, the sun popped out occasionally through “sucker holes”, breaks in the clouds that give one hope the weather will improve. The first five miles were relatively flat as we followed the River Ness on its way to the loch. Our first glimpse of the famous Loch Ness clued us in on the day we would have ahead of us. We pulled over and walked to the northern shore and saw low, dark clouds coming in. The view was amazing. Thirty-odd miles of one of the most famous bodies of water on earth stretched out before us. The loch was carved into the rugged countryside with steep, green Highland mountains on either side. Despite the fact that we had a long and very wet ride in front of us, it was hard not to smile.
Leaving that view behind, we got back on our bikes and followed the B852 as it cut away from the water and snaked its way south. The road climbed steadily as it wove its way through a mist shrouded forest. Occasionally, we would catch a glimpse of Loch Ness that would inspire us to keep going through the rain, eager to see what was around the next curve. We rode through a village named Inverfarigaig that we had planned on stopping at for a warm meal and a pint. But, with tourist season still a month away, the entire village was closed. Instead, we found cover under some trees near the Falls of Foyers and ate our lunch out of can. Already soaked, lighting the stove and waiting for the stew to heat up would have taken far too long.
After lunch, we stopped at a cemetery overlooking the loch. As we looked at gravestones dating to the 1700’s, a heavy fog hung over the loch and we both stared at the water, taken in by its beauty. Centuries of Loch Ness monster sightings were starting to make a lot of sense to me. If a creature like Nessie existed anywhere on Earth, this would be the place. Across the road, clouds raced through the pine forests and I could picture a pair of gnomes emerging from the woods, skipping along and playing pan flutes. This was a place of monsters and myths.
We carried on as the road cut away from the loch, rising mile after mile. We passed shuttered cottages and stone bridges built by the English during the Highland Clearances , forced evacuations of Highland people during the 18th and 19th centuries that virtually destroyed the traditional clan systems. The Highland Clearances are a particularly painful part of Scottish history and perhaps one of the reasons the Scottish have such an affinity towards American Indians. The Clearances are Scottish people’s Trail of Tears and those memories give the landscapes a haunting beauty.
The road cut east, away from the loch and we finally got to that open stretch of road that went up and up. Stopping next to the Highland cow, I snapped a photo of him chewing on grass. We’d named them “hipster cows” because of the tuft of hair that hangs over their eyes like bangs. Highland cows look as if they are equally capable of discussing the London indie music scene as they are of providing very tasty meat for pasties and pies.
The setting couldn’t have been any better. I felt as if I was standing in one of the postcards of Scotland I’d been sending to friends for the past year. Of course, I may have preferred it to be a postcard as opposed to something I now had to cycle up through. I was exhausted and soaking wet. As I caught my breath and steeled myself for the ride, Matt took off wanting to get it over with. He shrank from my view until he was the size of an ant before I decided I’d best move on too. By the time I caught up with him at the summit hours later, I had long been off my bike, pushing it uphill promising myself the next adventure would include a sunny beach in Spain. Perhaps Malaga or Tenerife.
When we did get to that summit though, we saw something that brought tears to my eyes. A small road-sign alerting vehicles there was a six mile descent into the town of Fort Augustus, our destination. We could barely contain our joy. Six miles of pure downhill. No pedaling. No struggle. Just gravity having her way with us.
We stopped only once on our way into town to admire the scenery. A small loch with requisite fog and mist backdropped by stunning Highland peaks. The sun even came out for a minute and this sucker hole was very much appreciated. Our moment of peace was interrupted by the emerging midges – small, biting gnats whose only reason for existence is to drive people trying to enjoy the outdoors insane. A proper Scot would have made some comment here about how things can only be enjoyed for so long in this country before something comes along and bollocks it up. But I was feeling like an American, optimistic and thankful for the descending road.
We pulled into Fort Augustus and stopped at the first inn that met our needs: beds, food and beer. There would be no using the tent I dragged along and Matt asked if I was reassured by its presence. As we were getting our rooms, Matt joked to the receptionist that we were on our honeymoon and wanted something romantic. He’s a funny guy.
I don’t think she got the joke though. She laughed nervously the way people from small towns do where alternative lifestyles aren’t as familiar. She handed over the keys, happy to be rid of us and we dumped our bags on the two beds (she obviously wasn’t accepting of our false lifestyle choices) and headed back down to the bar. I ordered the only thing appropriate for the conclusion of a Highland adventure; haggis, neeps and tatties with a pint of Guinness.
After dinner, I left Matt to talk to a man who was cycling the length of the UK. He had started in the south and had clearly been on the road too long. He made little sense and seemed far too eager for human interaction. He didn’t get it from me though. I headed up to the honeymoon suite and did something I hadn’t done in a very long time; drew myself a hot bath and soaked the dampness out of my bones. Matt showed up an hour later not happy that I’d abandoned him. I said I’d be right back but once I saw the bathtub it was over. Besides, I was the one who had to carry the tent.
After a night of sleep where the horns of hell could not have woken me, the sun was shining brightly through the windows. We walked around the small but ridiculously gorgeous Fort Augustus, watching locks move small sailboats in and out of Loch Ness before hopping on the ferry back to Inverness. Our mission of cycling round Loch Ness was only half-realized but that didn’t hurt our sense of accomplishment. We were going back north first class and sat on the prow of the speedboat as it raced up the water. The best view of the trip was yet to come. The captain piloted the boat into a small cove and the glorious ruins of Castle Urquhart came into view. I felt an instant kinship with the 800+ year old citadel. We were both battered, bruised and worse for the wear but still standing. Ready to face another beautiful Scottish Highland day.
Written by, photos by Robert Lovik for EuropeUpClose.com