Scotland: to like or not to like?

We’re in July 2022. I’m trying to keep the heat out of my house. I’ve stripped to the bare minimum and the fan under the desk opposite mine blows a soft cool breeze towards my legs. I’ve just come home from Corsica and Sardinia where the heat was unbearable, but even back home the heatwave seems to follow me... and so I’m starting to be homesick for... Scotland. 

We were in Scotland a few weeks ago in June and, as far as we can remember, we did not once complain about the heat. On the contrary, we rode approximately 5000km in ‘fresh’ spring weather and several days’ non-stop drizzle and rain. And even today while the rest of Europe is paralysed by a heatwave, I’m checking the weather app and – yes, on the Isle of Skye it’s merely 20 degrees and rain is still falling all day.

Earlier this year we were thinking about ideas for our next Motorcycle Diary trips and looking at a digital map with all the routes we’ve ever ridden highlighted – but then we spotted several places on the old continent we didn’t visit very often. First thing we noticed was a lot of blank spaces in the east – still a lot of countries we haven’t ridden that much: Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Turkey. But also, in the west, there are two places we’ve barely set wheels in: Ireland and Scotland. It shouldn’t be too warm in summer we thought, especially in Scotland. While consulting the average weather statistics we kept noticing the phrase, ‘May and June are the driest months in Scotland.’

Hence we had our next destination.

We should have known, however, the internet is full of fake promises. Maybe someone wrote that comment online one day and, combined with some scientific weather statistics, it pops up whenever anyone searches for: ‘What’s the best time of year to go to Scotland?’ Halfway into our trip across Skye we worked out that local knowledge has far more wisdom: “How’s the weather for tomorrow?” we asked on arrival in the hotel. “Well, it’s always like this… We love summer in Scotland; it’s our favourite day of the year…”

So if you want our advice on when to visit Scotland, we say: avoid winter from November until the end of April. As for the rest of the year, it’s a pure gamble. Don’t even bother to check your weather app. It’ll always show you the same every day: some clouds, some rain, some sun. So pack your thermal underwear as well as your swimming gear, and look out of the window when you wake up! And remember, a day without rain is a great day...

Enough about the weather. Did we enjoy the trip? Yes, very much, as it managed to change our ideas about some long-standing clichés, and confirm some others. Before we go in detail about the route, we’re happy to share some of our findings:

Scotland is beautiful. Many views are just incredible and as long as fog isn’t hanging around many of the landscapes match up extremely well with the ever-changing weather. Some views can be – depending on the time of day – gloomy, mystical, magical or splendid, all in the same day. This means you can make the same trip through Scotland several times, but always get the impression you haven’t been that way before. Sometimes we even thought that, once we arrived at the end, of doing the trip the other way around. It would have given us most likely the sense of being completely diverse.

So, Scotland is to be admired for its incredible views and landscapes – but sometimes you get the feeling these views are exclusively for the rich and the hikers. Let me explain: we have never ridden so many kilometres through such long tunnels of trees. Lush, green, beautiful forests with winding roads demanding utter concentration, with small gaps that give a fleeting impression of beauty beyond the trees, but without any wide-open views to enjoy the panoramas. And while we’re riding through these tunnels and suddenly spot a signpost for a scenic viewpoint, it usually leads to a car park from where we can walk or hike to the place where we can then probably enjoy the breath-taking views.

Unfortunately, the sheer quantity of filming to shoot on the bikes didn’t leave us time to park the bikes up and wander off sightseeing for hours and hours. Please also remember that most parking places, even in the middle of nowhere, will bear a warning sign: ‘Have you paid the parking fee?’

Other times we searched the GPS and noticed the road would soon be hugging the shores of a lake, and therefore the most wonderful landscapes would unfold on our sides – but nah, even with a few meters between the road and the shore a dense forest would appear so we couldn’t catch a glimpse... or suddenly a wall would spring up and endlessly continue with just an enormous gate somewhere saying ‘Estate this’ or ‘Estate that’. After a few days we came to conclude that big parts of Scotland and England are just made for hikers and the rich. Luckily, the latter need a lot of trees to fill their fireplaces so the further north we get, the fewer trees there are – and there are more wide-open landscapes to reward our eyes.

Scotland is also to be loved for its food. ‘WHAT?’ we hear many of you cry! But wait, we can assure you; if you stay away from the ‘world famous this’ and ‘award-winning that’ and ‘incredible whatevers’ (and all the fish and chips), you can find pretty decent food in Scotland. There are plenty of places that understand the value of local produce – not only for making traditional dishes, but also for getting gastronomically creative. Unfortunately eating out is often expensive and if you want to keep budget under control,  the necessary Fish & Chips and burgers will also have to be stowed. Nice also to notice Scottish hospitality has been rejuvenated since the last time we were here. Okay, the Scots aren’t exactly Spanish in their welcome, but a smile is always sincere!

Other things that we take from our trip to Scotland are:

Trees – it’s incredible how many beautiful trees there are. Probably the locals won’t even notice, but if you live where we do in Belgium, you do enjoy the trees. All kinds, all shapes, all colours. And all ages. Our travel companion knows all about engines and two-strokes, but he surprised me with his botanical knowledge. If you like trees: Around Loch Garten in the Cairngorms the trees are direct descendants of the trees that stood there 10,000 years ago. It’s a beautiful place. Very tranquil.

Castles, ruins, houses and estates – everywhere there are architectural masterpieces, from the very small to the absolutely huge. Some are hidden in the woods, but some in plain view and open to the public. Many are surrounded by beautiful gardens and landscapes, which may look haphazard but are often the fruit of well-planned garden designs.

Ferry crossings – yes, a lot of people read Google too, so May and June are busy in Scotland. Therefore don’t make the same mistake as us – a motorbike doesn’t take up much space on a boat, but booking ferry crossings before you arrive is a must. There are some itineraries and routes that don’t need it, but longer, important crossings – like the one from Mallaig to Skye (although there’s a bridge, too!) and especially crossing to the Hebrides – need booking up front. Local wisdom for travelling to the Hebrides is ‘First you book the boat, then the hotel.’ So don’t say we didn’t warn you!

Road surfaces – you can do 1 km in Scotland and ride over 15 different road surfaces. One will be red, the next grey, then black, then bumpy, non-existent, smooth again etc etc. It’s incredible how many surface changes you can get. Combine this with cables following the roads, somewhere in the middle under them, plus cattle grids and manhole covers, and you have the most exciting combination surfaces a rider can wish for. Adventure bikes clearly have a reason to exist!

And while we talk about the roads let us at the same time compliment the most incredible things about English and Scottish roads: their common sense. From leaving the highway around Nottingham, till all the way around Scotland and back to Hull we have never been so surprised about the effect of a single word written a thousand times on every road: SLOW. This word, combined with a lack of visibility, tall hedges and narrow roads with a crazy lay-out (in the Scotland and the UK the roads follow the landscape, they don’t change the landscape to make the roads), means for all of the trip we haven’t been speeding at all.

And we haven’t been afraid of speeding, because there aren’t thousands of speed cameras (yes, there are some – but, compared to say, France, there are almost none). And there’s no police around either. The Scots (and the British in general) are sometimes thought of as weird and uneducated, but god do we love their common sense. The roads only need to say SLOW from time to time for everyone to ride and drive in the most enjoyable way – free to ride with some pace, but most of the time you won’t overdo it thanks to the nature of the roads and all the other reasons mentioned. On top of this, you feel thought of as an adult road user, not as a bit-player in ‘Big Brother is watching and controlling you’. 

So, a big shout out for this, and to the politeness and kindness of other British road users. An example: on the many narrow roads every 100m there’s a passing place – and so when someone coming the opposite way sees you approach on a bike, in 98% of the cases they’ll stop and give way to you. And if you come up behind someone going the same way, most of the time they’ll also pull over into a passing place to let you ride by (the 2% that don’t are campervans or rental cars with an underdeveloped “homo-turisticus” driver. Luckily, due to the weather conditions this species is underrepresented in the area). So, yes sir, we did enjoy riding a bike here very much. It’s not like riding in Spain – but hell, it’s enjoyable.

And finally there’s the Scottish fauna. Red in all kinds of shapes and sizes: deer, squirrels, grouse – and their monochrome opposites: seals, wildcats and badgers. There are pine martens and mountain hares and puffins. Even dolphins and whales. And there’s cattle, the Walker’s Shortbread or highland cows – there are black cows, grey cows, and loads of other cows. There are eagles everywhere, and plenty of suicidal smaller birds. And lots of mosquitoes. Remember those! 
 

But we can assure you there’s one species you’ll find more than humans on these lands – and it’s sheep. There are sheep everywhere. In the fields, in gardens, in the forest, in the ditches, in the villages, on the roads, on the rocks, on the beach, in the sea, really just everywhere…

But we sure did enjoy every km of our trip!

Scotland Trip Day by Day


Day 1: Ashford in the Water – Sedbergh: 231km

Hotels: Riverside House Hotel (Ashford): MD rating (3,5*) very friendly welcome, nice rooms, good food, easy parking, €€€

Black Bull Inn (Sedbergh): MD rating (3*) friendly welcome, nice rooms but a humid feeling, good food, limited parking, €€

Highlights of the day: Definitely the Peak District National Park and the Yorkshire Dales National Park

Minus of the day: The weather… :-)

Day 2: Sedbergh – Carlisle: 206km

Hotel: Fiddleback Farm (Carlisle): MD rating (3,5*) very friendly welcome, nice rooms, no restaurant, but you can bring your own food to the property. Parking €€ 

Highlights of the day: Lake District National Park, especially Coniston Water and the view from the east side, The Struggle (road out of Ambleside to the north east), A592 Kirkstone Pass, no comment, just wow. But top of the list is the B5289, including the Honister Pass (incredible on both sides, almost blown off the road by the wind, but what a view!) and further on alongside Crummock Water. Amazing

Minus of the day: The wind blowing the drone into the trees. Saved it, but the camera’s unusable.

Day 3: Carlisle – Ballantrae: 304km

Hotel: Glenapp Castle: MD rating (3,5*) Castle Hotel, very friendly welcome, nice rooms, restaurant, parking, a bit too old school and expensive. A little too expensive for what it is €€€€

Highlights of the day: Improvising the route, and the A747 coast road from Monreith to Auchenmaig. Main wow of the day is the Isle of Fleet in front of Carrick Beach

Minus of the day: Envying the owner of the house on the Isle of Fleet

Day 4: Ballantrae – Inverary: 291km

Hotel: Loch Fine Hotel: MD rating (1*) 4* hotel, friendly welcome, ok rooms, restaurant, parking, lamentable service in bar and restaurant, both for dinner and breakfast, it was a bad version of Fawlty Towers. There are other hotels in the village; this one should be your last resort, €€€

Highlights of the day: Loch Lomond and the A82, Kilchurn Castle

Minus of the day: The first full day drizzle, we could still make fun of it. The Loch Fine Hotel, luckily not representative of Scotland…

Day 5: Inverary – Tobermory (Mull): 282km

Hotel: Western Isles Hotel (Tobermory): MD rating (4*) Super friendly welcome, old but nice rooms, restaurant, limited parking, wonderful service in bar and restaurant, both for dinner and breakfast, it was a relief after our previous night. €€+1/2

Highlights of the day: A816 (unfortunately no pics thanks to the rain), Isle of Mull, wonderful, starting with the A849, Three Loch viewpoint and view to Iona Isle, the B8035 especially around Balmeanach and the Loch Na Keal, village of Tobermory

Minus of the day: We finally decided to book the ferry to the Hebrides, but no availability any more. See, we travel so much but even we still make beginner’s mistakes…

Day 6: Tobermory – Dunvegan (Isle of Skye): 363km

Hotel: Brae Cottage: MD rating (3,5*) Welcome by code, nice rooms, kitchen, parking, Brae Cottage isn’t a hotel, but a cottage. There are 4 rooms so if you need them all you have a perfect cottage with a kitchen. If you don’t, you have to share. €€+1/2

Highlights of the day: To be honest, nothing as we didn’t see a thing and there was constant rain. Not a good day

Minus of the day: Because of the late booking we only managed to get a ferry at 16:00 from Mallaig to Skye, but as we were there at 12:00 we decided to go by road and to do many more km than planned. 3rd day of drizzle and wind, starting to become a pain…

Day 7: Dunvegan – Flodigarry (Isle of Skye): 100km

Hotel: Flodigarry Hotel: MD rating (4*) Very nice welcome, very nice rooms, restaurant, bar, parking. Owned by a Dutch couple who fell in love with the place and the view. You can’t argue about that. Very stylish refurbishment. Very good food. Expensive but with this weather and the Hebrides frustration, very much appreciated. €€€€

Highlights of the day: Neist Point lighthouse, the Quiraing Road and the cheese platter for lunch at the Flodigarry Hotel

Minus of the day: 4th day of drizzle and wind, now really a pain…

Day 8: Flodigarry – Isle of Raasay: less than 101km

Hotel: Isle of Raasay Distillery Hotel: MD rating (3,5*) Very nice Welcome, very nice rooms, restaurant in other hotel around the corner, bar, parking. Very nice stay but expensive. If price would be a little more affordable would be a MD 4* rating €€€€

Highlights of the day: A855 just outside Flodigarry, Isle of Raasay, very beautiful, nobody there, finally some sun

Minus of the day: Quiraing road and vista, if we could imagine it would be amazing, but for us it wasn’t. Hope you have sun when you go there…

 

Day 9: Isle of Raasay – Torridon: 166km

Hotel: The Torrid Estate: MD rating (5*) Very, very warm welcome, very nice rooms, two restaurants, bar, parking. Very nice stay, but expensive. Yes, it is as good as they say. Unpretentious and a very relaxed, warm feeling. I recently read an article in which someone said: while on holiday don’t always be a scrooge. Well, don’t be if you can afford it €€€€

Highlights of the day: Ferry from Isle of Raasay to Skye, Eilean Donan Castle (looking at it from far away), Applecross pass and the whole road up and down, Applecross beach, and from there all the way to Torridon. And the Torrid Estate

Minus of the day: There was none…

 

Day 10: Torridon – Scourie: 284km

Hotel: Scourie Guest House MD rating (2*) guest house. Basic, in all ways. Maybe we’re spoiled. Without pretension and very relaxed, warm feeling. 

Highlights of the day: A896 from Torridon eastwards, the A832 all along the road, A837 along Loch Assent, B869 all the way, and Kylesku Bridge

Minus of the day: Return of the rain…

Day 11: Scourie – Crosskirk: 146km

Hotel: Cross House Hotel MD rating (4*). Warm welcome, very nice room (in the cottages on the side of the main house). Restaurant, bar, parking. Very nice rooms in the houses next to the main house. Main house itself old but still charming €€€

Highlights of the day: Full day was beautiful, A838, watching the GP from the roadside, moody sky

Minus of the day: We didn’t really enjoy the ride because of the weather conditions, and didn’t have nice weather

 

Day 12: Crosskirk – Grantown-on-Spey: 317km

Hotel: The Garth Hotel MD rating (3*). Nice welcome, nice room, restaurant, bar, parking. €€+1/2, food in the restaurant is good, rooms clean and nice

Highlights of the day: Dunnet Head lighthouse, A9 between Dunbeath and Helmsdale, and a small tiny road between Kildonan and Krakaig

Minus of the day: Taking the motorway around Inverness, it gave us the feeling the tour was over, will make an alternative version of the route available

 

Day 13: Grantown-on-Spey – Whitecraig (Edinburgh): 246km

Hotel: Carberry Tower Mansion (3,5*). Nice welcome, nice room a bit small, restaurant, bar, parking. €€+1/2, food in the restaurant is simple but good, rooms clean and nice (but if you get 101 or 102 ask for a different one as is right on top of the kitchen and the heat is incredible)

Highlights of the day: Cairngorms National Park and the A93 from Braemar to Blairgowrie and Rattray

Minus of the day: Balmoral Castle, too many people. We turned around and left

 

Day 14: Whitecraig – Haydon Bridge: 350km

Hotel: Langley Castle (4*). Nice welcome, nice room in the old stables, restaurant, bar, parking. €€€, food in the restaurant was good, rooms very nice, we wonder how the rooms inside the castle are…

Highlights of the day: Beautiful views south of Selkirk, B711 around Buccleuch, great views! B6357 from Bonchester Bridge to Saughtree. Of course Hadrian’s Wall. And finally, nice blue sky and fluffy clouds.

Minus of the day: Nearing the end, thinking of going back the opposite way…

 

Day 15: Haydon Bridge – Hull: 246km

Hotel: P&O Ferry to Hoek van holland

Highlights of the day: North Pennines AONB, B6277 all the way from Alston to Middleton-in-Teesdale

Minus of the day: Bridlington. As we were too early for the ferry we decided to have lunch at the seaside. Wrong idea…

 


 

 

 

#FORYOURRIDINGPLEASUREONLY

 

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