Cycle Touring in Scotland

A bike in the Highlands
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A bike in the Highlands

Cycle touring in the Scottish Highlands

The weather isn’t as bad as is often made out; in fact the eastern side of Scotland has a fair amount of sunshine. It may not be a huge country but that makes it good for short–medium tours and the long coastline and wide variety of landscapes make it seem much larger. What’s more if you’re looking to get away from it all Scotland boasts some of the wildest and most remote areas in Europe.

GEOGRAPHY AND SCENERY

  • Very varied landscapes for such a small country.
  • Terrain is mainly hilly and mountainous but some flat areas.
  • Some quite remote areas for such a small country.
  • Long coastline with many islands on the west coast.
A loch and mountains in the Scottish Highlands

Scotland has some fantastic scenery.

ROADS AND CYCLE PATHS

  • Most roads are tarmacked and of reasonable quality.
  • Motorways and some dual carriageways are closed to cyclists.
  • Some long distant cycle paths exist but are of variable quality and often only fit for mountain bikes and hybrids.
  • Many good smaller roads.
  • Few roads in the Highlands. Off road tracks exist which may be passable on mountain bikes.

CYCLING RULES

  • Cycling on the pavement is generally not allowed (though some cycle tracks are on pavements).
  • Helmets are not compulsory.
  • Lights and reflectors are compulsory at night.

PUBLIC TRANSPORT

  • Bikes can be taken on most trains for no charge but spaces are limited and must be booked on some servics.
  • Extensive ferries on west coast, most of which take bikes for free but some only run in summer.
  • Some ferries have free travel for cyclists.

MAPS AND NAVIGATION

OS Landranger maps give excellent detail but many are needed for touring.
Nicholson Maps produce 1:250 000 maps which have contours and are great for touring, however some minor roads will be missed and this scale doesn’t have enough detail for navigating cities.

BEST AREAS FOR CYCLE TOURING

  • The Highlands contain Scotland’s most famous scenery and offer some fantastic cycling. However most Highland areas have few roads except the main ones, which can be busy in Summer.
  • The coastline offers some wonderful cycling but it can be hillier than you might expect.
  • The central belt is heavily urbanised but even here there are plenty of opportunities for cycle touring.
  • Southern Scotland has an excellent blend of scenery and extensive minor roads which are ideal for cycle touring.

ACCOMMODATION

  • hostels
  • b & bs
  • hotels
  • wild camping/campsites
A tent in the Scottish Highlands.

Wild camping in the Scottish Highlands.

LANGUAGE

Almost everyone speaks English, though regional accents can be quite difficult to understand. Gaelic is also spoken in the Highlands and many road signs are in Gaelic as well as English.

PEOPLE & CULTURE

Scots can be very proud of their identity so don’t make the mistake of confusing Scotland and England.

PESTS

The dreaded Highland midge has a fearsome reputation. However they are pretty feeble creatures unable even to keep up with a well-paced walker, let alone a cyclist. But in hazy, windless conditions they come into their own and the sheer volume of them can make life pretty unpleasant. Their bites can be itchy but generally not serious. Cleggs are much larger and faster and are capable of keeping up with a cyclist at moderate speeds. They have huge jaws which deliver a painful bite and in some areas of Scotland are a big nuisance. A more dangerous pest is the tick. These are found in wooded areas, moorland and long grass. They are tiny but can deliver an extremely irritating bite. Worse, some carry Lyme disease which is potentially very serious. You may never encounter ticks when cycle touring but it’s best to be aware of the dangers and how to avoid them, particularly if you are intending on doing any hiking or wild camping.

Dogs can also be a serious nuisance when cycle touring. Many farms have sheep dogs which are often allowed to run loose onto roads and have a fondness for chasing bikes and trying to bite the panniers or the rider’s legs. Also, where dedicated cycle paths exist they are almost always utilised by dog walkers at least as much as by cyclists.

CLIMATE

The west of Scotland is wet and windy. The east is not so wet but colder and more windy.

WHEN TO GO

Scottish weather is very changeable. It can be wet, windy and cold at any time of year. Autumn and spring can be best times to go but days are much shorter.

DEC–FEB
Cold, long nights, can be very wet especially on west coast, often very scenic, snow on hills, many roads closed.

MAR–MAY
Cool, still snow on hills, less bugs and quieter.

JUN–AUG
Warm and humid, generally still wet and windy, lots of insects can be a pain, roads can be busy – especially in Highlands, days are long.

SEP–NOV
Roads are quieter, days can be short cold and wet, usually very scenic.

PREVAILING WINDS

Prevailing winds from south-west.

CAMPING FUEL

  • There are many outdoor shops in Scotland. Gas cannisters are fairly easy to come by but can be expensive.
  • Methylated spirits are not commonly sold nowadays and tend to be expensive. They can sometimes be purchased from outdoor shops or hardware shops.
  • Petrol stations are easy to find but petrol is expensive by international standards.

FOOD AND DRINK

  • Very good range of food in cities and reasonably priced.
  • Alcohol is more expensive than France or Germany but cheaper than Scandinavia.
  • Food is scarce and expensive in remote areas.

WATER

  • There are few taps where you can obtain drinking water and taps in public places are generally not safe to drink from unless explicitly stated.
  • The water from streams and rivers is not safe to drink from. It may be potable after filtering, boiling or other sterilisation methods but could still contain chemicals that won’t do you any good.
  • Bottled water is easy to come by but can be expensive outside major towns.

INTERNET AND MOBILE ACCESS

Internet access is available at some public libraries. Hostels, hotels, B & Bs, restaurants and cafes usually have free wifi but the quality is variable and security may be poor.

Mobile access is very patchy outside of major cities.

ELECTRICITY

Visitors from outside the UK will probably need an adaptor for electrical appliances.

ACCESS RIGHTS

Scotland has strong access rights similar to the Scandinavian right to roam.

Wild camping is allowed in certain circumstances.

HISTORIC SPOTS

One of the most enjoyable things about cycle touring in Scotland is the wonderful sense of history. Wherever you go there are buildings and landmarks of historical interest.

MUSEUMS AND CULTURAL ATTRACTIONS

Scotland has a huge selection of museums. Many are free, some aren’t.

MONEY

Scotland uses Sterling as a currency. Although there are Scottish banknotes English ones are legal tender.

Cash machines can be hard to come by in remote areas so it’s best to carry some cash.

BIKE REPAIRS/SHOPS

Both 26″ and 700c are widely catered for but 26″ is more common and easier to find parts for.

There are very few bike shops in the Highlands. Be prepared.

PERSONAL SECURITY

Scotland unfortunately has a fair amount of social problems like poverty and alcohol abuse. This can mean you should take care in certain areas and if cycling in large urban areas like Glasgow you should be aware of places that can be dangerous. In cities bike theft is a serious problem and you should always lock up your bike securely. Even outside of cities it’s best to lock up your bike if leaving it for any time.

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