HIGHLANDS & ISLANDS

0800 27 August 2015 (a Thursday morning). An 8-hour drive from London up to Edinburgh in a transit van loaded with bikes after zero (read: zero) hours of sleep the previous night, and the potential complication that Dunc’s bike may not have been fully ship-shape when we picked it up from the mechanic that very same morning, was hardly the ideal way to start another TGAC trip. However, given that our “plans” usually involve muddling our way from one issue to the next, this felt like reassuringly familiar territory.

The plan was for Dunc and Rich to whiz up to Edinburgh on Thursday in the van with the bikes, stay in Edinburgh that night, meet up with Cal early on Friday morning and then set off up the west coast for a highlands and islands adventure on our respective two-wheeled steeds.

On Friday morning at Rich’s house, with phase 1 complete, we faced our first real challenge: that of squeezing three motorcycles into the back of a single transit van under significant time pressure. It would have been much quicker than it ended up being, but given Cal’s bike was just a few inches too long and he was surprisingly unconvinced by the argument that if we just slammed the door shut really hard then his bike would ‘bend accordingly’ and everything would be fine, we resolved to up-tools and dismantle the entire rear sub-frame of his motorcycle. Though this involved nothing nearly as technical as removing a torx-head bolt (God-forbid), we were still suitably pleased with ourselves for our mechanical aptitude with the socket set. Glowing with satisfaction, Rich’s sense of urgency evaporated as he treated himself to a couple of fried egg sandwiches.

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All told, by the time we had driven to the start line (the car park of a Dobbies in Stirling), unloaded the bikes, set up all the gear, eaten second breakfast in the garden centre and debated freeing the resident parrot from his cage, it was well past noon. Which was fine – only a few hundred miles to cover before nightfall on bikes which top out at 50mph. ‘Nae bother’, as they say.

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Our intercom headsets got some good use as we blethered about how awesome the roads were as we headed north west towards Calendar and Glencoe. As on any beautiful Scottish summer’s day, the rain drove at us horizontally, which forced Rich and Dunc to don the breaking bad-esque rain suits before we reached Skyfall country.

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A not so brief lunch at what seemed to be a Jamaican reggae bar attached to a Scottish country hotel surrounded by grazing deer was enough, we felt, to give us fuel to brave the conditions once more and absorb not only the rain but the stunning scenery of Glencoe. This was around 1630 by the way. Our precious daylight hours were running out quickly.

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After a further stop in Fort William to refuel and catch a bit of the “under-14’s mixed doubles” shinty match which popped up out of nowhere, we pressed on with more purpose to Kyle of Lochalsh.

The rain became heavier and we became wetter, but put good miles under our belts on the stretch up to Fort William with few interruptions. Feeling pretty positive about progress at that point (though obviously not appreciating quite how far we had to go, as you’ll read), we picked up whisky and cigar provisions to be consumed upon reaching our destination; Applecross.

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Invergarry came and went as we ripped up the tarmac at a blistering 50mph. We headed due west from there, passing Eilean Donan Castle as the sun began to fade behind dark clouds, making the scene even more impressive. Choosing not to follow the coast, as it started to dawn on us quite how far we still had to go in the fading light, we cut north at Auchtertyre to aim for Stromeferry.

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We followed the snaking road which hugs the shore of Loch Carron, side by side with the old railway. It felt pretty James Bond-y as we drove through the tunnels in the rock with the Loch out to our left, black and still. Eventually, as low, grey clouds gathered around us in the dark, we reached the famous sign that marks the start of the Bealach na Ba.

It was 2300, in the pitch black of night, and we were about to drive a notoriously dangerous road in mist and cloud so thick we lost sight of each other’s tail lights after 3 metres. The road narrowed to the width of a single car at points and, without any markings, became indistinguishable from the open voids of fog that waited ominously off to the side, ready to catch out the unwary driver who missed a bend. To make things even sketchier, none of us could feel our hands from the cold and Dunc and Cal were riding bikes with tyres about as wide and grippy as those you’d find on Chris Hoy’s bike at the velodrome. Oh, and another thing, it would have been more illuminating to each hold on to a firefly and point its arse in the direction of the road, such were the quality of our headlights. Needless to say, Rich’s Guzzi took point. ‘Treacherous’ would be the most apt description of the drive. So slowly were we creeping through the fog that grazing herds of deer and sleeping wabbits were caught unawares, and merely watched as we felt our way along the road at walking-pace.

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After dumping our stuff in the chicken-hut we were staying in in the Applecross camp site, we popped down to the pub, near midnight, for a restorative pint and bowl of soup served to us by a man who looked identical to Hamish from Braveheart.

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A very brief sleep of around 4 hours followed before we were saddling up our steeds once more, ready to hit the road to Skye, and Harris beyond. Up against the clock, and with driving wind and rain threatening to unseat us, the ride from Applecross to Uig was a difficult one. Especially for Duncan, who was particularly disturbed by the lack of breakfast before setting off at 0530.

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We made it to the ferry easily in the end, despite being limited to about 55mph and Rich’s brake pedal rattling off en route, leading to some GP-esque ‘wind-breaking’ on the entries to the wonderfully sweeping corners. There is no other word than ‘bliss’ to describe the feeling of wrapping our hands around a mug of hot tea and filling our bellies with a fry up from the ferry canteen. First class dining if ever we had it.

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And then it happened: once off the ferry and pottering around Tarbert ‘city centre’, trying to find some iron bru, Duncan washed out his front end on a wet, steep, downhill left hand bend at a dangerous 5mph, leading to a comedic fall in the middle of the road. Luckily he escaped with his life intact and no damage to the bike other than a snapped wing mirror (“I prefer it like this anyway”) and a bent gear lever. After recovering the limping steed from the tarmac and checking Dunc still had all his limbs attached, we set off to the B&B, tired but exhilarated and glad to be on Harris, in the Outer Hebrides.

The roads were empty as we swept down the west coast towards Leverburgh, and the beaches really are huge, white and beautiful. On arrival at the B&B our gracious hostess, who couldn’t have been less concerned by our appearance and collection of muddy gear littering the room, greeted us and otherwise left us to it for the rest of the day. We all had a steaming mug of tea, some complimentary shortbread and a little debrief of the ride down before jumping in the shower and changing into some warm, dry clothes. Rich quickly dropped into a semi-comatose state, finally seizing the opportunity to tackle the sleep deficit incurred on Wednesday night.

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Dunc and Cal encountered some intriguing characters at the garage whilst getting Dunc’s gear lever bent back into place, payment for which was allowing the mechanic to cruise around the harbour on Dunc’s motorbike – a fair price if ever there was one. With that task neatly completed, Dunc and Cal treated themselves to some coffee and slabs of homemade cake overlooking the sea at the only local café/restaurant/pub (/discotheque?). Given the host at the B&B also helped Rich to find the perfect size of bolt to thread into his brake bracket as a replacement brake pedal (there’s a Cinderella reference to be made here somewhere… anyone?), it was certainly an afternoon well spent.

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A hearty supper of fresh local seafood was served at the restaurant alongside some fine local beers by a strangely intriguing old maiden. The rain had decided to call it a day by early afternoon too, so we took our first chance to pop down to the beach for a stroll and to try our luck at soaking up some rays. None such luck came our way but we did bump into a very nice couple who took it upon themselves to bestow us with a whole bottle of wine. As if the Outer Hebrides didn’t already give reason enough to visit.

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We returned to the B&B to share the wine, whisky and fine cigars with our hosts, before watching Skyfall in front of the fire in the sitting room and dozing off. If it wasn’t for the wondrous smells of fresh bacon, eggs, black pudding, haggis and coffee that wafted up to our room early the next morning, we’d probably still be there in bed. After a delicious and thoroughly satisfying feed, we geared up and headed down to the beach to play around in the sand like we used to do as kids, only this time with engines! It was the only time we would have wished for blue sky and sun, and miraculously we got some. It would be pointless to try to describe the fun we had on that beach, especially given all the photos we took which can do better justice to the setting, but we certainly felt like we were re-living those scenes from ‘On Any Sunday’ – scenes ingrained into every biker’s daydreams. Amazingly, the locals didn’t seem to disapprove remotely. As families came out of Sunday church they were only too happy to come and talk to us and ask for a ride.

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After cleaning the bikes and packing up, we set off for the ferry back to Skye and our last night of the trip. Possibly the most enjoyable ride of all was the slow cruise we did from Uig to Kyleakin. It was odd to ride the same stretch of road but with totally contrasting circumstances. On the way to Uig it had been a slog: maxing-out our speed and bracing ourselves against the rain in a race to get there on time. On the way back from Uig we had no time pressure and the winds were fair, so we took our time and chatted on the intercom while trying to find a stretch of road long enough for Cal and Dunc to overtake a caravan and inconspicuously taking selfies while riding.

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We were in good spirits when we arrived at the B&B and there were a couple of signs that more fun was to come. These were in the shape of a cheerful looking pub called Saucy Mary’s and a Haggis Adventures tour bus parked outside our hostel. Sure enough, we were not disappointed! Saucy Mary’s played host to the Haggis Adventure’s Big Night Out, which mostly consisted of confused foreigners being shouted at by an inappropriately pissed (considering he was the driver) plump Scottish laddie named Fraser, who confessed to us over a cigarette that he regularly teared up at the sheer beauty of the Scottish landscape, and despaired at foreigners’ lack of enthusiasm to “get on the fuckin’ bus!” first thing in the morning, in order to make it to the next pearl of Scotland which marked another stop of the tour. Despite Saucy Mary’s best efforts we managed to avoid being dragged onto the dancefloor by Mary herself or the emotional and inebriated Fraz, though it was a close run thing!

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We dragged ourselves out of bed in the morning, as always earlier than we would have liked, and set off on the long road south. It was every motorcyclist’s dream ride: the bellies were full, the skies were clear, the roads were dry and the traffic was just heavy enough to present a few cars for fun overtakes. In a day we rode back down to Stirling at full gallop, where we reloaded the steeds into the van, and then drove down to Edinburgh where Cal was dropped off before Rich and Dunc pressed on to London.

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It was a long slog and the trip as a whole was shorter than we would have liked, but it was a brilliant inaugural 6-wheel trip for TGAC. Plus, there is always next year…

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