Bikepacking in Scotland: Coast to Coast through the Highlands
Scotland’s Highlands are rugged and sublime. I spent 7 days bikepacking in Scotland, pedaling from Aberdeen to Ullapool (390 km) and exploring the tastes of a new breed of Scottish breweries.
When I was 15 years old, I went to Scotland to study English in the city of Edinburgh. I spent three months going to class, traveling, and immersing myself in a different culture. One could say these three months solidified my passion for exploring the world. Twenty years later I was on flight from Germany heading back to the US when I looked out the tiny airplane window to see this rugged landscape down below. It was winter and the land was covered in snow. As I gazed at the landscape down below, I thought it would make a great place to explore by bike during the summer months. I did not recognize this landscape. I quickly reached for my GPS to log the coordinates. Later when I arrived at home, the GPS coordinates showed I was flying over the Scottish Highlands.
Planning the Route: Bikepacking in Scotland Coast-to-Coast
I scoured the internet in search of the perfect route. I was hoping to eventually click on a link that would lead me to the perfect GPX file. That never happened. I wanted to stay off-road as much as possible. After all, that was the whole point of this trip – explore the rugged landscape I had seen from the airplane window.
I found some clues of smaller off-road segments and started to stitch them together. The Deeside Way, consisting of inactive railroads connecting Aberdeen to the Cairngorm National Park, at the edge of the Highlands, would be my first segment. Paths across Cairngorm National Park looked too good to leave out of my trip. I found some MTB trail references and made sure to include them in this route.
This route will take you coast-to-coast: from Aberdeen, shoring the North Sea, all the way to Wester Ross, on the west coast. It will take you through classic Scottish landscapes that are both powerful and serene, tiny villages and big cities, endless burn (creek) crossings, and plenty of world class mountain bike trails.
The first day was was relatively easy. Although I was not gaining much altitude, the uphill never let off to give way to a downhill section. The route from Aberdeen to Ballater is almost exclusively on bike/walking paths or roads not accessible by cars. Banchory, the half way point, made it a nice place for a lunch stop where I chose to eat at a local restaurant. It was nice to not have to pack extra food or prep a bag lunch. After lunch, an unplanned detour through a logging forest was a nice surprise. The pine forests and farmlands were not what I was expecting to see as part of the landscape but I guess I had not made it into the Highlands yet.
Oh the second day! Classic Highlands terrain and beautiful landscapes made it an awesome bikepacking day. I think I pretty much spent the whole day with a smile on my face. The section between Ballater and Tomintoul was all I was hoping for… and more. Leaving Ballater, I followed the River Muick 15 km heading south to end up at Spittal of Glen Muick. This was the only section where I passed many hikers along the trail. I maintained a casual pace and stopped along the way to take pictures. Believe it or not, I had been in Scotland for 5 days and I had yet to see rain – something unheard of.
After Glen Muick, the hikers dispersed and the the dirt roads heading north turned out to be in good shape. The terrain started to get more and more rugged as I went north. The Salsa Fargo faced many burn (creeks) crossings without hesitating. The rocky singletracks around Loch Builg are challenging but rewarding. Loch Builg is the highest point in this section of the route. After camping for the first night, a nice guesthouse room was waiting for me in Tomintoul.
The third day was a bit of a flop. I left Tomintoul and tried to stay true to my route but dense vegetation and boggy terrain turned a pleasurable activity into a stressful hike a bike section. I was by myself and decided it was too sketchy to continue, forcing me to take an alternative route. In hindsight, I should have followed the route for a little bit longer. I looked at some aerial images after the fact and saw that the challenging portion was very short. At the time, I was afraid I was going to have to push my bike for many kilometers. Oh well, better safe than sorry.
The beautiful campsite in Aviemore made up for the disappointment earlier in the day. Rothiemurchus Camp Park just outside of Aviemore is located in an elegant pine forest. I pitched my tent close to a nearby creek so I could sleep to the sound of running water. The campsite is a short 3 km ride to town where you can resupply and enjoy a brew or two. During the summer months, Aviemore is an welcoming mountain town bustling with hikers.
After a night of constant rain, I broke down camp and started moving towards Inverness. Along the route, I stopped at the Mountain Cafe for a delicious latte. The hard work on the bike makes simple things in life, like a latte, even more delectable. The fourth day was planned in a way that I would have to bike 30 km all uphill and then enjoy the last 40 km going mostly downhill. I followed a hiking trail towards Boat of Garten and then Carrbridge before jumping on a few quieter roads all the way to Inverness. This was the first time I saw other bikers (tourers or otherwise) on the same route. Arriving in Inverness, I checked into my modest room at the Black Isle Bar and Rooms for the night. Black Isle has great beers, arguably some of the best beer in Scotland and passing up the opportunity to stay at their bunk rooms was not an option.
Days 5 and 6 were pretty standard touring days along many paved roads and bike paths. Getting on paved roads was a necessary evil to get me closer to Ullapool. I broke down the 90 km section in two days in order to be rested for the last day. These are the days where you can just focus on pedaling and not think about anything else. No job headaches, no need to plan resupply stops, no worries at all.
The last section, from Bonar Bridge to Ullapool, turned out to be an epic bikepaking day in Scotland. This section had everything I was looking for back when I started planned this trip. Burn crossings, rocky sections, classic Highlands vegetation, and pure solitude just added to the experience of biking across a country. The road from Bonar Bridge to Ullapool can barely be called a road since I find it pretty hard to believe cars would be able to cross the entire 60 km segment.
I stopped at the Schoolhouse Bothy to rest a little bit and eat my lunch. It was nice to have a quiet place to sit down and eat my sandwich, and it was specially nice to be able to eat my lunch without being attacked by midges.
August is Scotland’s driest month and the weather proved to be in line with the statistics during the 7 days I spent bikepacking in Scotland. I did not get rained on during the day until this last day – it did rain at night after I was done biking a couple of times. The rain started coming down lightly as I got to the final kilometers approaching Ullapool, just as the dirt trail turned into tarmac. I did not care about the rain, I had been expecting worse weather and a drizzle was not going to ruin an awesome day out in the wild.
After spending my last night in Ullapool, I caught a bus to Inverness. Conveniently enough, D&E Coaches provide a bike bus service from Ullapool to Inverness on a daily basis.
All in all, Scotland is a superb Bikepacking destination.
Before leaving on my trip, I got in touch with Neal from ScottishBrewing.com. He was very helpful in giving me tips on which breweries to seek out along the route. Even with great tips from Neil, I got a little bit of a slow start finding some first class craft brews in Scotland. I had heard about the resurgence of craft breweries in Scotland, but I wasn’t quite sure where to find them or what to expect. My first experience was at the Innis and Gunn restaurant in Edinburgh. I have to say the food was better than the beer. I tried the Innis and Gunn IPA, one of Scotland’s classics, and was not too impressed. Not that the beer was particularly bad, but not distinct in any form. I could be drinking any other IPA in the world and would not even know. Is this what all Scottish craft beer tastes like?
That first experience didn’t curb my enthusiasm to find memorable beer in Scotland. Yeah, sure, Scotland is famous for their whisky, but can craft beers occupy a prominent place in a Scot’s drinking habits?
After this initial somewhat disappointing experience, I tried a Belgian style beer from Stewart along with some great fish and chips. What a pleasant surprise. Stewart is a craft brewery located just outside Edinburgh. First World Problem was full of flavors and a definite contradiction to the “Scotland doesn’t have any good beers” mantra. The rugged paper label on the aluminum can made an otherwise sterile object feel more organic – a nice touch. Unfortunately, I was not able to try any other beers from Stewart during my trip. Now that I had found the first gem, it was just a matter of time to find other good quality craft breweries.
To find other craft beers, I just had to look in all the right places. Most traditional pubs will not carry a wide selection of microbrews/craft beers, but there are an increasing number of pubs that are specializing in local and foreign craft beers. Brewdog, a brewery headquartered in Aberdeen, has taprooms all over the UK. I made sure to checkout their bar both in Edinburgh, before I started pedaling, and again in Aberdeen, at the beginning of the route. Their beer is top notch. One of their flagship brews, Jet Black Heart, now being produced year-round, is a sight to behold. This brew is true to its name and pours an 100% opaque pint of beer. Seriously, this thing is pitch black. Super smooth mouthfeel and a creamy head rounds up this well crafted beer.
Once I entered Cairngorm territory and started moving north into the Highlands, it became easier and easier to find pubs serving brews from Cairngorm Brewery. That was the case at the Clockhouse Restaurant in Tomintoul and at the Winking Owl in Aviemore. This last one is not really a surprise since Cairngorm Brewery actually runs the Winking Owl. I got to try their Black Gold, a good example of a modernized classic recipe. You can taste the crisp Highlands air in their beers. I bet the folks from Cairngrom Brewery would tell you all the crispness comes from the Highlands mountain water they use – yeah, I bet they would.
Moving farther north, you will be surprised to find out that Inverness, Moray Firths flagship spot, is a pretty happening place. Like many happening places, it is home to some great breweries. Black Isle Brewery is one of them. They have been proudly brewing organic beer for almost 20 years now. While Cairngorm is all about crispness, Black Isle is all about freshness. Balck Isle makes well balanced beers with a good punch of originality, claiming a deserved spot in the “new-world” style of brewing in Scotland. This is by no means a criticism. Au contraire, Black Isle is a splash of color in an otherwise muted Scottish traditional beer landscape.
I tried many beers from several breweries in the two weeks I spent in Scotland. Other breweries like Havierston, Cromarty, Tempest, Fallen (their Chew Chew Salted Caramel Milk Stout is oh-so-legit I can’t even describe it with words), Orkney, and Windswept all deserve a place in the Sun. If in Edinburgh, make sure to check out Jeremiah’s Taproom and The Hanging Bat. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
In summary, if you come to Scotland expecting to find the in-your-face flavor and the hoppines of American craft beers, you’ll be greatly disappointed. But if you keep your mind open and explore the new twists on timeless styles, you will find great beers in this culturally-rich country. From all the beers I had the pleasure to taste, brews from Black Isle Brewery take the top spot in originality. While Brewdog borrows some flavors from the new world, they keep true to their Scottish roots. You can definitely find world class craft beers in Scotland, but you will have to seek them out which is the fun part of discovering new beers.
Carrying a tent is definitely not mandatory along this route. Scotland has a pretty good network of hostels that serve many of the towns along this route. Hostels provide an affordable option to budget traveler and come with great amenities. Bunkhouses are another accommodation option while bikepacking in Scotland. Like the name implies, bunkhouses are more modest accommodations but are a good option if you don’t feel like setting up camp for the night. Like many places in Europe, you can search for guest houses, which may range from very modest to somewhat luxurious. There are also many private campsites (caravan parks) along this route. Most private campsites have great infrastructure and offer clean bathrooms at very affordable prices. I personally find more appealing to spend a night in my own tent at a private campsite than sleeping in a bunkroom with other travelers.
Bothies are free of charge mountain shelters spread across the UK. Most bothies are located in Scotland since that is where the most significant mountain ranges are located in the UK. Bothies will provide some shelter from the rain and cold and you are expected to leave a bothy just how you found it in the first place.
Wild camping is definitely an option in Scotland if that is your style. The Scottish Land Reform Act of 2003 allows wayfarers (and cyclists) to camp within the borders of private lands. Although there are some restrictions, the conscious and respectful bikepacker will not find any problems finding a spot to pitch a tent in the wild. Make sure to checkout Scotland’s Outdoor Access Code and Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland for more info. #leavenotrace
Good to Know
Midges – Tiny little flies that attack any exposed skin. Most people have a similar reaction to mosquito bites when bitten by midges. The Highlands is notorious for their midge clouds. There is some relief from these biting nuisances. Midge repellent can be purchased at most Scottish pharmacies; a popular brand is “Smidge.” I would highly recommend purchasing midge repellent upon arriving in Scotland and prior to embarking on a Highlands cross-country bike trip.
A pint is not a pint – A British pint is 20% bigger than an American pint. Enjoy the extra beer for your money, will you? In virtually any pub/restaurant you can order 1/2 a pint or even 1/3 a pint. Some stronger beers are served on a 2/3 pint glass.
ScotRail – The train service in Scotland is bike friendly. Make sure you reserve your bike spot on service routes that require a reservation (many do). I actually used Virgin Trains’ website to book my ride from Edinburgh to Aberdeen and then from Inverness back to Edinburgh. I find it to be more user friendly than ScotRail’s website.
D&E Coaches – They provide a bike bus service from Ullapool to Inverness. This is very convenient since you can connect to many other places by train once in Inverness. This service is not available year round. Make sure to call (very friendly staff) or check their website when planning your trip.
Deer Stalking – Deer hunting season runs from 1 July to 15 February. Stay on trails to make sure you’re not disturbing deer hunting.
Ordinance Survey – UK’s mapping authority provide printed and online maps. This is the gold standard regarding UK mapping.
Lonely Planet Scotland’s Highlands & Islands – This book is not specific to bikepacking/cycling but it has some valuable details on many towns in the Highlands.
Mountain Bothies Association – Organization that maintains about 100 bothies in the UK. Most bothies are located in Scotland, some in Wales, and some in northern England.
Sunlight – The Highlands region sits just shy of the 60th parallel north, which means there is plenty of sunlight during the summer months. You will not have to do any riding at night during the summer months. Having plenty of daylight when setting up camp in the afternoon is a welcome treat.