Harleys touring in Scotland
Two sassenachs cross Hadrian's wall and find a novel welcome in the hillsides.
For several years now I have wanted to tour the West Coast of Scotland so when my cousin Gordon decided to buy his first Harley, a much modified Heritage Softail Custom, from another cousin of mine I suggested we do the trip together and he jumped at the chance.
Although Gordon has ridden bikes almost all of his life they have been sports bikes so he was a little apprehensive at first. Me, I'm onto my 5th H-D, a black and chrome 1340cc Softail Custom modified to almost my perfect machine and I love it.
So we pick a day in early August and all was set. The day dawns wet and Gordon rings me from his home in Penrith, "weather's crap do you still want to set off today?" After 2 hours the sun comes out and I call him back to say I'm on my way over to him. I arrive from the North East dry but with dark clouds above. After coffee and a chat we decide to set off making for Gretna then the A75/A77 to Ayr on the West Coast. All went well for 5 miles then the rain started. At Gretna we stopped, do we continue and hopefully ride out of the rain or do we go back and start again tomorrow when the forecast was better? I looked to the west - the sky was lighter so on we went.
Soon the sky brightened, the wind was warm and the road started to dry out. Things were on the up. We rode to Newton Stewart on a great stretch of road which was well surfaced, almost empty of cars and had some superb views of the coast. This holiday was going to be a good one, I could feel it in my bones.
At Newton Stewart we picked up information on guesthouses and B&B's in Ayr and, over coffee in a café, picked out some likely ones.
Onwards again onto the A77. What a fantastic road with stunning views, one in particular. As we rounded a bend a couple of miles out to sea up rose Ailsa Craig - what a sight. With the sun shining, the beat of the engine, all was right with the world.
On the outskirts of Ayr we stopped to arrange somewhere to stay for the night. After 20 or so phone calls we found out that Ayr was pretty full for the night. With the sun starting to set and us starting to feel the effect of the ride and the cold we eventually found a place and with directions set off into the town. Twenty minutes later and having asked several people directions to the street we arrived 1 mile away at the B&B.
The owners were very friendly and said they had been listening to the growl of our engines for 10 minutes while we rode up and down all the adjacent streets, not helped by directions from one kind soul to follow the cobbled road which did not exist!
So after riding 239 miles we were parking the bikes in the walled and gated back garden. We unpacked in our very pleasant room and after a shower we hit the town.
When I say we hit the town we had a few beers in a few pubs. I discovered a taste for Tenants Larger and Gordon discovered a pub where the beer was so cheap we didn't want to leave, but we needed food so the local burger bar beckoned. On the way we asked a couple of bouncers outside a club if there was an off- licence close by. All closed came the reply (at 10.15 on a Saturday night!) However they pointed us to the pub just over the bridge which might be able to help us out. In we go, up to the bar I ask for a pint of Tennents and a pint of 80/-, "A pint?" queries the barman and I wonder if anyone has ever asked for a pint of this particular brew before. Anyway when getting the next round in Gordon also purchases 4 cans of lager so now supper is complete.
Next morning over breakfast we decide to head north and catch a ferry to Dunoon. However, on inspecting the bikes we decide they are looking dirty so it's off to find the nearest Halfords, buy some wet wipes and in the car park spend an hour or so in the morning sunshine cleaning off the previous day's crud (that's Harley riders for you).
Back on the road we head towards Gourock and the ferry. All the way the views out to sea are spectacular and the weather is fine.
At Wemyss Bay we spot a ferry to Dunoon and are onboard and under way in minutes.
During the ten-minute trip we meet another biker who asks to tag along- no problem - and on disembarking the three of us head off towards Loch Fine. The weather is now somewhat overcast but dry and the roads are empty and well surfaced and I have a grin on my face as we head for Inverarey. As we come to the A83 turn off our friend waves goodbye and we continue to our next coffee break at Inverarey.
Arriving we park alongside dozens of other bikes and wander up and down the small main street, the sun is now out and the leather jeans are too hot to walk around in, so in a sheltered pavement café we have coffee and plan where to stay for the night.
We decide on Oban so once again the guidebook and mobile phone come out and once again after 20 or so calls we can find nowhere to stay. A few calls later however, good news, we are booked into a B&B in Kilchrenan on the banks of Loch Awe.
Off we go again and with the sun shining continue on yet more great biking roads towards our next destination.
Around 3pm we stop for fuel and ask if there are any pubs close by. We get directions and pull up by the side of a canal a couple of miles away and end up sitting in the sun enjoying a pint watching narrow-boats go through a lock and cracking on to some locals and other visitors.
As we leave the canal side one of the woman from the group we were talking to came over, shook us by the hand and with closed eyes gave us a blessing and a kiss saying she hoped the God of the travellers was with us. Was that nice of her or weird? I couldn't decide then and still can't now.
As we get ready to ride off a car pulls up, out jumps the driver and walks over, as I look questionably at him he smiles and says "just wanted to hear the engine as you start up and pull away." Now that's not weird, it's normal.
More riding on fantastic winding empty roads then we turn off the A83 as instructed onto a very narrow single-track undulating road and are soon travelling along the side of Loch Awe. After a few miles we meet a car coming towards us. I'm in front so see the car first, slow down and pull into the left, the car does not slow but continues to come towards us at a fair lick, and at the last moment the car brakes and pulls slightly over to his left. I have nowhere to go as the road edges are crumbly and the verge is soft and strewn with rocks. I stop, swear and look behind to see Gordon fighting to keep his bike upright, more swearing and on we go looking for a "T" junction at which we are to turn left.
A couple of miles further on I see a motorbike coming towards us I slow pull to the left and get ready to nod a greeting when he flashes by us forcing us further over to the left and almost off the road! What's going on? Is it 'cause we're English? If so, how do they know?
Nothing much happens for several miles so we start to enjoy the road and the views then, about half a mile away a car appears. I slow, pull, over and Gordon and I stop to let him pass-well wouldn't you? but guess what, the car stops in a passing place and flashes us to go. I was so nonplussed I forgot to wave a thank you at him.
Gordon signals to stop so I pull over and we discuss the recent events, take a leak and look again at our directions as the road seems to be going on forever without any sight of the turn off point. On we go again and after about 10 more miles of narrow road (thankfully empty of vehicles) we come to the junction and 3 or 4 miles later arrive at our B&B in Kilchrenan, 230 miles from Air.
We park the bikes under a lean-to, unstrap our bags, lock the bikes and look around. The B&B is a very smart bungalow in a fair bit of land overlooking the Loch.
We are met at the door by Peter and Pauline Carruthers and welcomed in. The room is top notch, very clean with TV, coffee making stuff and a smart shower-room.
We are shown round and told to make use of the breakfast room whenever we want, this includes a TV, DVD and tea and biscuits. These people are warm and welcoming and I knew our stay was going to be a good one. This was borne out throughout our stay and started by us asking Peter if there was a pub nearby. There was and he said he would run us the mile or so in his car whenever we were ready, hospitality or what! And all for £25.00 per person, per night.
Twenty minutes later we were showered, changed and in the car. The pub, The Kilchrenan Inn turned out to be a gem, friendly welcome, good beer and a fine selection of malts. We ordered a round, including one for Peter which came in his own mug and with just a few protestations. The next day dawned wet and got worse so we decided to wait and see if the weather improved. It did not. I reluctantly agreed to a walk in the wet and returned grumpy and with sore feet. We agreed to stay another night and hope for better weather and of course spent another agreeable night at the pub.
The following day was not promising, no rain but very overcast and Peter, our host, did not forecast anything better.
At breakfast Gordon suggested we press on to reach Skye having lost a day I agreed. Now Breakfast at Peter & Pauline's place is excellent consisting of Fresh fruit, Yoghurt, Cereal, Full Scottish Breakfast, Toast with home-made marmalade. With wild birds on the veranda and spectacular views over Loch Awe even on a clear day this is the life.
If you are looking for a B&B in that area give them a call on 01866 833286. You won't be disappointed.
So after saying our goodbyes to our hosts, off we went on the next leg of our holiday along narrow single-track roads. After a couple of miles we rounded a bent with me in the lead only to see a large logging wagon coming towards us a fair speed. I braked and pulled over as far as possible, but he just kept coming and coming until he was almost on us. Then with brakes screeching and tyre smoke filling my nostrils, he passed with my wing mirror and the trucks tyres only inches apart and my heart-rate sky high. Again we were left wondering if bikers were not welcome on such roads. On we went with no further incidents and once back on the main roads, started to enjoy the ride again.
Arriving at Mallaig we saw a Ferry was in so we rode straight up to the loading area. There was no room left however, not even for two bikes, so we parked up to decide what to do for the 3 hours until the next ferry arrived.
Arriving at Ardvasar on Skye and having already booked our hotel for the night we decided to tour around the island.
The roads and scenery were great and arriving on the outskirts of Portree we stopped to consult the map. Up behind us rolled the local police so we asked directions to the A850 over the hills. Thanking him for his help off we went, only later did Gordon tell me that he was looking hard at my less than legal numberplate.
We spent a couple of hours riding on empty roads enjoying the super views but as the weather was overcast we made for our destination for the night. The Kings Arms Hotel at Kyleakin was our destination where arriving in the rain we decamped for the night having covered 207 miles that day. After a hot bath and coffee I met Gordon in the hotel reception. He was asking where was the best pub in the local area. "The hotel pub is the best said the receptionist", "yer right" was our response "of course it is".
Soon we were in a pub down the road full of lively backpackers and enjoying a game of pool. After a while we moved on and there being no other decent pubs, we decided to check out the hotel bar-BIG mistake.
All went well at first the beer was OK the locals friendly and the barmaid chatty. Gordon tried and failed to win at pool so we both stood at the end of the bar conversing with a couple of local lads about bikes and riding in the area.
At this point in came a local woman who was told in no uncertain manner by Anne, the barmaid, that she was barred and to leave.
At this the woman started to swear and became very aggressive, so much so that she threw a heavy glass ashtray at Anne who, thankfully, managed to manouever out of the way as it sailed passed her head and smashed into optics and glasses behind the bar.
By now other hotel staff had arrived and were insisting that the "crazy" woman left the premises. She, however had not finished yet.
As she walked behind us to the door I heard a loud crash and glass showered in front of my face. I looked round to see Gordon crouched down on the floor hands covering his head.
At first I thought he had seen the glass ashtray coming, and ducked out of the way No such luck, it had hit him on the back of the head and blood was gushing from between his fingers. An ambulance was called and we ended up at the local hospital with Gordon having 14 stitches in the wound.
The "crazy" was arrested and next day we gave statements to the police. (She has since been in court over the matter).
Next day Gordon decided he was fit enough to ride even though his head throbbed as much as his H-D engine so with his head bandaged and popping paracetamol we set off home by the quickest route. The sky was overcast with the threat of rain but the forecast was for brighter skies towards the south-west - the way we were headed so it was over the Skye Bridge onto the A87 and across Glen Shiel. It started to rain and would not stop for the next 300 miles.
We joined the A82 and continued to Fort William were we stopped for food and fuel. Foolishly, very foolishly, I had not brought good-enough wet weather gear so being soaked to the skin I change into dry clothes.
Off again in the pouring rain I was once again soaked after a few miles and now Gordon's Bike was spluttering to a halt every 5 or 6 miles. (Turned out to be a fuel breather problem).
Continuing on the A82 in the rain we go over Glen Coe, it was tossing it down our speed was down to 30MPH and I was soaked through again.
Onwards ever onwards we reach the outskirts of Glasgow and with the rain now at a steady drizzle we pull in for fuel and- for me- yet another change of clothes.
All the way I have been aware of Gordon's injury and ask him again if he is OK. He says he is although the headache pills are not much use.
Off again onto the M74 and of course it is still raining. Around Beattock we stop and, wonder upon wonder, so does the rain.
We set off on the final leg of our trip and at Gretna, Gordon goes onto Penrith and I head for the North -East arriving home some 10 hours and 404 miles after leaving Skye.
What a holiday! Would I do it again? You bet I would, Scotland is a fantastic place for biking. Great roads, very little traffic, and nice people. (As long as there are no crazy ashtray- throwing women around of course).
Gordon, I am happy to say, is fully recovered but it took some time for the injury to heal. To end with I would like to thank my wife Joy for looking after things while I was away and ask her to do the same next year 'cos I'm planning a trip to Ireland or maybe back to Scotland.
John L. Humble