There’s a wonderful place of wildness in the heart of central Scotland that is a weave of water, wildlife, woods, hedgerows and hills. The place is Loch Leven and the recently completed trail that encircles the loch is the thread that binds together this weave of wonder. On a grey November morning thick with mist, I set out to explore the loch trail by bike.
About two thirds of the route has been in place for a number of years and provided a pleasant enough little pootle. But the completion of the trail around the whole loch has created a super little journey through a fascinating landscape. It’s instantly become one of my favourite things to do in Scotland.
I joined the trail at its southeast limit where the River Leven flows out from the loch. At this point the straight lines of the river make it look more like a canal. About 200 years ago the level of the loch was lowered to create more farmland by digging out a deeper and straighter channel for the river. It’s known as the River Leven Cut. The water flow was controlled by sluices and gates, allowing mills to be built to take advantage of the more reliable water supply. Linen mills and weaving were common here as it was said the soft waters of the loch were excellent for soaking flax before it was turned into linen.
On my clockwise circuit of the loch the next stop was the RSPB Vane Farm Reserve. From the visitor centre a series of trails radiate outwards, heading down to the loch shore and its associated wetlands, or climbing up through the birch woods on the steep flanks of Benarty Hill which is more romantically known in these parts as the Sleeping Giant. It rises above the southern limit of the loch. Vane Farm is best known for its winter visitors from Iceland, the pink-footed geese and whooper swans.
Beyond Vane Farm the trail crossed open farmland via a small rise that gave views across the loch and the Lomond Hills as mist rolled atmospherically over the sharp edge of the Bishop Hill. A little further on and the route reaches the largest settlement beside the loch, Kinross. It was from Kinross that the great “bonspiels” or curling competitions were held when the loch froze in winter. It takes two weeks of continuous deep cold to create ice to a safe enough depth for curling so it’s perhaps a sign of a changing climate that there hasn’t been a bonspiel for 50 years. Here’s another meteorogical snippet. Did you know that isobars were invented at Loch Leven by Alexander Buchan?
At Kinross the trail hugs the shore, passes the pier and skirts round the cemetery close to its old watchtower from where a lookout was once kept for body snatchers. It’s from this point that you get a good view of the islands in Loch Leven. The most distant is St Serf’s Island which was settled by monks. 600 years ago they wrote the complete history of Scotland called the Orygynale Cronykil. That’s their spelling, not mine! The most famous island is Castle Island which housed royalty and of course imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots. It’s said that the key to the door that imprisoned Mary fell from the boat as she was eventually rowed away and today still lies somewhere at the bottom of the loch. The history of Loch Leven dates back much farther than monks and kings, and it’s believed the area was first settled 5000 years ago. There are the remains of a crannog in the loch and ancient burials and standing stones at Orwell, close to the trail.
The human history of Loch Leven is fascinating but when you superimpose on that the natural history, the atmosphere and magic of the place is tangible. All day as I cycled the skies were full of big skeins of noisy geese and huge flocks of greylags gathered in the quiet bays of the loch, their orange beaks providing a flash of colour on a grey day. In the last few weeks approximately 14,000 pink-footed geese have been counted at Loch Leven. That’s almost 10% of the world population. I pedalled passed flocks of widgeon on the water and put up moorhens and herons from the wet areas and a buzzard from scrubby hedgerows. There is so much to see here, especially if you have your binoculars which I somehow forgot to stick in the pannier when I left the house. The strange thing about Loch Leven is that it has the atmosphere of a wild place but all around there is a manmade landscape of farmland and small villages. Somehow the vastness of the water and the big, open skies create a wilder arena where nature is dominant. I think that’s the magic that I love about this place.
Beyond Kinross the character of the trail changed as it became enclosed by hedgerows whose red hawthorn berries each held a droplet of water condensed from the morning mist. It then passed into dense, damp woodland which, on a quiet day with nobody around, was slightly primeval. Here the steep-sided Bishop Hill rose right above the route.
The trail is only 13 miles all round so, even with lots of stops including one for coffee and cake, it wasn’t long before I cycled over the bridge above the River Leven Cut and was back at my start point. I took a seat and lingered a while longer, looking out over the calm, grey water. There are lots of seats placed around the trail. Some are works of art and most have a fun little inscription on them. For some reason, I remembered above all the others the inscription below. Although I've added my own ending!
To island homes of monks and kings, come visitors on boats and wings. And bikes.
Start/finish/route: There are several access points around the trail, the main ones being at Kinross pier, Findatie and RSPB Vane Farm. I took the train to Lochgelly on the Fife Circle line which is the nearest station. I cycled north through Ballingry along the B920 and then turned left onto the B9097 which is signed for Vane Farm. The first access point is at the cafe and lodges at Findatie Farm. Once on the trail you can't get lost!
Map: OS Landranger 58 and you can download maps at Loch Leven Heritage Trail.
Tip: On the north side of the trail is a spur which is signposted to Loch Leven's Larder, a cafe/farm shop/mini House of Bruar. There's also a shop and cafe at the RSPB Vane Farm Reserve, accessed by steps under the road.