Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Gaick - A tale of two passes

If you pay any attention whatsoever to this blog, you might remember that a couple of months ago I had a clever plan to bike the Gaick Pass with my Belgian beau, Bart, and my bike buddy, Graham. At the time several feet of the white stuff put paid to that idea. However by mid-May the snow was gone. Sadly, so was Bart, at least for a little while as he gets to grips with some work back in Belgium. I really miss him for his cosy company, his sense of fun and for carrying more than his fair share of the kit on our outdoor expeditions! But, despite being a man down, the Gaick was back on!

The Gaick is a steep-sided, curved valley carved out by glaciers in the last ice age with a flat bottom that holds three lochs into which plunge the scree and heather clad slopes. For centuries it has provided passage for drovers, travellers and walkers between Atholl and Strathspey, being a shorter alternative to its more westerly neighbour, the Drumochter Pass. In the old days, anybody travelling to Kingussie on a tight budget to watch the shinty might have preferred the Gaick route – it was free while the road through Drumochter demanded a toll.

We were also on a tight budget so the bikes were loaded up with camping kit as we pedalled north out of Blair Atholl. We were cycling on the national cycle network, a very pleasant route along bike paths and quiet back roads through springtime woods bursting into life with daffodils and birdsong. The Gaick route leaves the cycle network and heads into the empty wilds of the Drumochter hills at Dalnacardoch. There’s not much here today but in the 18th century Dalnacardoch was an important communications post being at the junction of the Stirling and Perth roads as they came together to journey north to Inverness. For a number of years, the lodge here was an inn and during the 1745 Jacobite rebellions it housed many military types including Bonnie Prince Charlie who stayed there on his advance south. Judging by the number of "Bonnie Prince Charlie caves" that you see on Scottish hill maps, he must have decided it was time for a bit of luxury or at least a bath.

We, on the other hand, were advancing in the opposite direction of north, onto dirt track and open moor under a blackening sky. After a few miles, the hills closed in around us, the pass narrowed and the track disappeared, leaving us pushing heavy bikes through bog and peat hags. It might have been so different. When that great military road-builder General Wade was making tracks north and even when more modern planners were pondering routes to Inverness, the Gaick Pass was considered as a possible option.  However, the steep-sided hills were so prone to avalanches that the decision was finally made to take the main route over the safer Drumochter Pass. So on our bike ride Loch an Dun, at the head of the Gaick, was a forgotten and peaceful place as we partly pushed and partly cycled our bikes along the narrow path above its grey waters. As we crossed the watershed, the clouds lowered and the rain came on, creating a driech, gloomy atmosphere in keeping with the Gaick’s reputation as one of the most haunted places in Scotland. Fortunately there were no ghostly apparitions and the only ghoulish sight of the day was Graham’s bare legs when he rolled up his trousers for a river crossing.

Sunnier skies greeted us on the north side of the pass as we whizzed down into Strathspey, eventually popping out at Ruthven Barracks, near Kingussie. The barracks are a dramatic sight as they sit on their grassy knoll with a commanding view of the Spey Valley and the Cairngorm Mountains. There has been a fortification on this site since the early 13th century when it was the hub for Alexander Stewart, who was known as the Wolf of Badenoch for destroying Elgin Cathedral following a tiff with the Bishop of Moray. After the 1715 Jacobite uprisings, the site was strengthened as part of the British Government’s drive to tighten its grip on the Highlanders. The day after the battle of Culloden in 1745, three thousand Jacobites gathered at Ruthven with the intention of fighting on but, when a message came through from Bonnie Prince Charlie to disband, they set fire to the barracks before abandoning it. Today it looks pretty much how they would have left it. Their desire to leave the area was understandable – we found it impossible to get a decent cappuccino in Kingussie!

So we also fled, although the only battle we had was that with the wind as we made for the next village of Newtonmore. It had been quite a tough ride on rough tracks with a climb to 500m so there was no guilt as we rejuvenated weary bodies with coffee and cake. There was a little more pedalling to do to get up into the pretty environs of Glen Banchor, high above the village, to make a wild camp for the night by the river.  There were more hideous headwinds next day as we rejoined the national cycle network, this time heading south and back to Blair Atholl through Gaick’s neighbour, the Drumochter Pass. The Drumochter is a far grander pass with mountains either side reaching to nearly a thousand metres. However General Wade’s decision to build through it set in stone its long future as a major transport artery and stole what magic it might have had. Wade wouldn’t recognise the place today and with the bike path squeezed between the busy highway and the railway line, it was a sharp contrast to our remote route the day before.

As we pedalled along, even the wind didn't mask the noise of trucks and trains and we wished we could swap them for the calls of the oystercatchers and sandpipers of the Gaick.  

For more photos click here.  
Flickr has changed a little - when you are in the set of photos for Gaick Pass, hovering your cursor over the bottom of the photo will bring up the description. View individual photos by clicking on them.

Fact file
Start/finish: Blair Atholl served by Inverness trains though if you want to get your bike on the train, you'll have to book several years in advance.
Maps: OS Landranger 35 and 42 (yes, annoyingly the route is on two maps).
Route: From the main street in Blair Atholl follow bike route 7 signs north. Where the B road from Trinafour comes in, cross the A9 (there is a proper crossing point but be careful) and on the other side join the dirt track through the Gaick. After abandonned Sronphadruig Lodge there is a section with no trail just bog but after this there is a good path above the loch and then track on the other side. At Tromie Bridge cycle on the B road to Kingussie - you're back on bike route 7 and can follow it to Newtonmore, Dalwhinnie and south through Drumochter back to Blair Atholl. Most of this section is on traffic-free bike path.
Tip: there are three river crossings on the Gaick - the first one now has a new causeway, the second one shouldn't cause you too much trouble but the third one is tricky in high water. For big river crossings I wear neoprene socks with a sticky pattern on the sole - you get them from canoe retailers.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Knoydart - Something old, something new

The gravestones lay hidden among reeds and grasses, on the leeward side of the little island. Years of rain and salty winds had worn away the words. The blue waters at the remote head of the sea loch were driven onto the pebble beach by a keen wind and all around were craggy, wild mountains whose ridges and peaks were picked out in fresh snow.  It must have been a hard time for the people who once eked a living out here but in death they had a spectacular place to spend the rest of time.

We’d trekked along the south shore of Loch Hourn into Knoydart, a place that I always feel has an atmosphere of an older time in its quiet glens and remote headwaters. As the trail meandered along the coastline and through pockets of old forest smothered with mosses and lichens, we seemed to leave the modern world behind at the road end at Kinloch Hourn. 

After three strenuous hours of ups and downs along the coastal path, we turned into beautiful Barrisdale Bay. The rocky, snow-covered peaks of Ladhar Beinn and Luinne Bheinn rose into a dark sky straight from the grey-blue waters of the bay, their flanks softened by pockets of Scots pines. For a moment the sun punched a small hole in the clouds and the evening light revealed blues in the sea and yellows in the rock lichens, the pale sand and the stranded seaweed.

Barrisdale is an isolated community, just a farmhouse, a stalker’s cottage and a mountain bothy, accessible only by boot or boat. There is no road and there are no modern conveniences. 
When heavy rain set in and a strong gust of wind broke our tent, we moved into the bothy for the night. The gale howled and rain poured down the dirty window panes as we chatted with another walker, all three of us wrapped up in duvet jackets and woolly hats against the damp, dark cold of the bleak, bare interior. We discussed the chances of getting up a peak the next day and how a Belgian man living in Spain came to be in Knoydart with a Scottish woman he met in New Zealand.

High winds and regular deluges dashed our chances of a peak for the next few days so we stayed low. There is a sea loch in Knoydart that reaches deep into the land and at the head of its waters is a remote and beautiful place called Sourlies. 

Nestled on the shore at the foot of Sgurr na Ciche is a small bothy used today by trekkers and climbers seeking solitude or a remote peak or two. There are also the remnants of an older community who have left their mark in the tumbled down walls of their cottages and enclosures, now overgrown with rowan and birch and brambles. 

We trekked to Sourlies on the grey, wet days through quiet glens with remnants of Scots pines and knarled oaks, through a wooded canyon with sheer rock walls and over a high, rugged pass as snow fell. As we climbed the sun parted the clouds and for a moment the loop in the Carnoch River below shone silver like a ring of bright water. 

We walked along the sandy beach scattered with seaweed that clung to shells and small rocks, waiting to be refloated by the incoming tide. We crossed the salt marshes that are flooded daily by the waters of Loch Nevis, a few days too early to walk on the carpet of sea pinks that was about to burst into bloom. 

We watched deer nibble the grasses outside the door of the bothy, just a few feet from where we were sitting. We listened to the calls of the first cuckoos of spring echoing around the hillsides above.

And we climbed up the rocky outcrops on the small grassy knoll of Eilean Tioram, on the far side discovering the little cemetery.

On our last day in Knoydart the sun finally shone, sending faint fingers of warmth down into the dark glens. We trekked high into winter mountains on a dusting of fresh snow. As we stood on top a skein of geese silhouetted against the snow flew northwest below the ridgeline. Moments later a fighter jet screamed through the glen. We climbed on borrowed time as the next band of cloud and weather gathered in the west. In the sunshine the white of the mountain snows contrasted with Loch Quoich's sapphire blue waters far below us. 

Something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.

For more photos click here.

Fact file
Start/finish: Kinloch Hourn
Map: OS Landranger 33
Route: We trekked along the south shore of Loch Hourn to Barrisdale Bay where you can stay in the bothy or camp outside it for a tiny fee in the honesty box. Our route to Sourlies from Barrisdale was over the Mam Unndalain and down the glen that follows the Carnoch River. Our return route was via the Mam Meadail and the Mam Barrisdale then back out to Kinloch Hourn. The bothy at Sourlies is very small but there are great camp spots just outside. Stay close to the river when you are crossing the salt marshes to avoid villainous bog. We climbed Gleouraich on the boundaries of Knoydart via the steep stalkers' path from the road.
Tip: the farmhouse at Kinloch Hourn doubles as a welcome tearoom.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Sleepless on tour

Between 2010 and 2012 I spent over two years cycling around various parts of the world including a 4000-mile journey across America with my friend, Graham. We made a film about that journey called Sleepless til' Seattle and have just started a tour around Scotland giving a live show about the adventure with film clips, photos, music and a bit of comedy!

For tour dates, tickets and to buy a copy of the film on DVD visit the Sleepless til' Seattle website by clicking here.

Hopefully see you at one of the shows.