The Cairngorms Loop: Pandemic respite in the Scottish Highlands (29/08/20-04/09/20)

Amongst many other cancelled plans for 2020, I’d hoped to ride the Torino-Nice Rally in early September. Of course, that was postponed until next year way back in spring. For much of the year, it looked like any holidays would be impossible, but in late summer we did get a little respite from COVID-restrictions and gained some freedom to travel (almost) guilt free. I took full advantage of that and squeezed in a last minute bikepacking trip to Scotland.

I wanted to find some mountain riding, and with trips overseas more-or-less off the cards, I headed up to the wildest part of Britain – Scotland’s Highlands – in search of some solitude and big views.

It was a faff to get up. Once travel restrictions eased, you could buy train tickets in advance, but each trip required compulsory seat reservations in order to maintain social distancing. These reservations were only made available a few days in advance (including limited bike space), which made planning a bit difficult. I was also thinking about finishing on the East Coast, near Aberdeen, but the line was ruined after a landslide so that route wasn’t an option. In the end I settled for a train up to Fort William and then a return from Blair Athol in the Cairngorms.

There was a reason that Fort William as the start. A couple of years ago I toured the Highland Trail 550 route, but skipped the final sections from Fort William back down to Tyndrum. I always regretted this slightly. That leg goes over the Devil’s Staircase, which I’d heard was a tough but beautiful finale to the loop.  I decided to start this trip with that section, then I could pedal the HT550 leg I’ve done before over to Lock Rannoch, before joining the Cairngorms Loop at Calvine.

Although I hadn’t planned on going back to Scotland this summer, the Cairngorms Loop has been on the ‘to-ride’ list for a couple of years. Along with the HT550 it’s up there as one of the most iconic Highlands bikepacking routes. The good news is that’s it’s shorter, slightly more accessible and easier (I hoped). Not a bad back-up option.

I began as planned, from Fort William in the late afternoon after a long (all day) journey up from London. A quick obligatory Iron Bru with some supplied from Morrisons, and I was off…

I camped after about 10 miles, up on a quiet valley towards Kinlochleven. There were some other tents nearby – almost certainly walkers tackling the West Highland Way. It was a gorgeous spot on a dry patch beside a stream. Idyllic in many way but my God the midges were bad. I’d forgotten what a menace they can be in summer when there is no breeze. I’d pictured myself watching the light fade as I ate my dinner outside my tent, but instead I spent the evening inside to hide from the midges, desperately trying to kill the few that snuck in while there was still some light remaining.

There was still no wind in the morning, so it was breakfast in the tent. I’ll never eat porridge any other morning of my life but when I’m camping it’s the only thing I ever start the day with.

There was a horrible, steep and rocky descent down into Kinlochleven that morning where I picked up a second breakfast. Everything looked closed apart from the Co-Op. I wonder what affect the pandemic has had on these small Highlands villages, which rely on tourism through the summer months, but also probably aren’t the most equipped to deal with a local outbreak. The pub across the road has a sign on the door, reading ‘locals only’, which I assume was for a related reason.

From there I finally got to tackle the Devil’s Staircase, which was at the top of an exhausting climb. That drops you down into Glen Coe, and I sat on the same bench in the car park that I’d paused at as I rode down through Scotland at the end of my RTW in 2017. Last time I was there it was winter, and the mountains were covered in snow. It didn’t exactly feel like summer on the present occasion, but it was a damn sight more pleasant.

Past Tyndrum it was also a familiar a ride, along the HT550 route and I camped somewhere in an estate higher up.

The following morning I joined the Cairngorms Loop and rode into the national park. The riding was beautiful, especially the single track around Loch An Duin. I didn’t see a soul for hours – precisely what I was looking for. The first day had been full of WHW hikers, which I hadn’t signed up for.

The riding had been pretty straight forward so far. Not a single drop of rain, which was suspicious. When I cycled the HT550 it rained 10 days in a row. 

I stopped for lunch in Aviemore, a random little town that looked a little less sad than most highlands towns. It’s a real outdoor-sports hot spot, quite unlike anywhere I recall seeing in the UK. It probably wasn’t anywhere near as busy as it usually is this time of year, but there was plenty of hustle and bustle in the high street.

Slowly the weather started to sour. As I reached Tomintoul the wind was really starting to pick up. By the time I set up camp a strong headwind was blasting from the south. That’s the problem with loop routes. You can’t hide from it…

By the morning the wind had really picked up. It was still dry, but the cycling was incredibly slow going. On this section of the route – between Tomintoul and Braemar – there’s a big pass more than 700m asl. Throughout the morning a storm continued to brew, and finally unleashed just as I was tackling the climb. By the time I reached the top I’d been reduced to pushing into the wind, barely able to stand up. Visibility was barely arm’s length and I was soaked through. I’d forgotten how miserable and exposed cycling can be when you are caught in a storm somewhere high up without shelter.

I had a long lunch break in a café in Braemar, feeling bad about all the puddles I’d left between the door and my seat. It took a while to warm up again, and I was in no hurry to leave. It was a bleak day in the Highlands.

Besides, I’d been making good time. Usually when I head off on a short bikepacking trip like this one I feel less fit than I’d expected, but on this occasion I was feeling strong on the bike. I guess all the lockdown exploring had served me well. I had bags of time to catch my return train in 3 days’ time.  

That evening I reached Ruigh Aiteachain bothy which, for the record, I definitely shouldn’t have stayed in. I confess it hadn’t occurred to me that the bothies would be closed due to COVID-19, and this one was both unlocked and empty. The bothy book had regular semi-regular entries all through summer, so I made myself at home.

It was a blessing to be reach somewhere dry just as light was fading. It had been an incredibly wet day. And what a bothy it was! By far the ‘poshest’ I’ve ever seen in Scotland. It even had a toilet block built in a separate building. I lit some candles and settled in for the night.

I took my time leaving in the morning and at one point a couple of lads popped their heads in to check out the building. “This is a bothy!?” “Well, I certainly hope so” I replied. They turned around to the others in their hiking group and called out one of them, shouting “See! I told you it was a fucking bothy!”

Turns out they’d walked straight past in the rain as it was getting dark looking for a good place to camp. They assumed it was a private cabin, so put their tents up outside a little further up the valley and were now walking back past lamenting the fact they’d had a soggy night’s sleep for no reason.

I spent the penultimate day of riding tackling the highest climb on the loop, which involves a lot of pushing if you are a mere mortal like I.

There’s a remote bothy up in the mountains in a really exposed valley at the top. Nothing more than a shed – but could be a life saver if needed up there. It was raining again, so I popped inside for my packed lunch.

That evening I finished at Bob Scott’s Bothy, which also wasn’t locked, but had a very clear sign on the door: ‘CLOSED DUE TO COVID 19’. I put my tent up outside instead, which was fine by me. It was a beautiful evening and a lovely spot. Dry, and just enough of a breeze to keep the midges at bay. Overall, I’d been incredibly lucky with the weather. Certainly the best I’ve ever had in Scotland.

The last day was a very easy spin down to Blair Athol. I’d deliberately planned to make this holiday-pace (not a race), but I find it harder to go slow these days. Perhaps the TCR has ruined leisurely touring for me. 75km a day was quite easy, in hindsight I’d have booked my train a day earlier and ridden the HT550 section from Fort William + Cairngorms Loop in 5 days. Huw Oliver set a FKT on the loop shortly before I toured it, completing the route in sub 20hours. Insane!

The Cairngorms Loop is a cracking route, which some truly stunning scenery – what a beautiful part of Scotland. There’s a really nice mixture of slow-going bog, flowing single track and quick doubletrack. With plenty of options of resupply, it didn’t feel as daunting as the HT550.

I killed an afternoon in Blair Athol drinking Guinness in the pub, before pitching my tent as darkness fell across the road from the station. Sometimes wild camping is almost too easy in Scotland. I set up my tent literally just a stone’s through from the pub and station in a patch of woods beside of the road. My alarm went off at silly-o-clock in the morning and I brewed a coffee on the platform waiting for my train. I was even home in time to catch a birthday party on Saturday evening. 

I think my next trip to Scotland will have to be for the Deeside Trail…

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