Originally published in Slipstream magazine, May 2016.
Scotland is one of those tour destinations that’s often overlooked, particularly by those of us in the southern parts of these British Isles. There are plenty of reasons for this: it’s still in the UK, and so it doesn’t feel like you’re really going on holiday, yet it’s far enough away to be out of reach of a weekend trip. The French climate and German beer are not only more attractive than cold rain and warm lager, they’re actually closer, and in many cases cheaper destinations for bikers looking for sublime roads and epic vistas.
It’s a shame really. Because after years of procrastination, I finally decided to give Scotland a go. What I found there took my breath away.
Just like a trip to the Black Forest, a motorcycle tour to Scotland is invariably going to mean a day or two on the motorway simply getting there. You could pick your way through the Midlands and Yorkshire, and I heartily recommend it if you’ve got the time, but we only had a week.
Once you get north of Glasgow things quickly get dramatically different. After more than 2,000 miles door-to-door, the overriding impression I’m left with is the sheer variety and scale of the place. In a single short day we passed through picturesque villages, climbed arid hills of sandstone and chalk, rolled through forests beset by castles, carved through dramatic valleys and dark-hewn mountains and finally zig-zagged between cliffs and conifers along the edge of one of Scotland’s innumerable estuaries and lochs.
Sitting down to eat dinner overlooking the most spectacular sunset I’d ever seen it occurred to me that I’d just crammed more interesting roads, more breathtaking scenery, and more plain variety into one single day than I had encountered in some whole continental tours.
As we progressed I expected more of the same, but found that while the pace of change remained, the country had yet more surprises in store. Single-track hairpins up wind-blasted moorland overlooking azure-blue bays, gnarled green hills dotted with sheep and threaded by miles of exposed single-track roads followed by dense birch forests with stretches of beautifully cambered and surfaced tarmac.
We’d gambled on the weather, choosing to plan our trip in May to dodge the worst of both winter and the annual plagues of midges, and ended up with a positively Mediterranean week of 29-degree celsius sunshine. The northern cost feels like the edge of the world, which in a way it is. Gazing outward from Dunnet Head, knowing that there’s no more land that way until you reach the frozen pole lends the view a sense of unrivalled gravitas.
The highlands are like a colourful version of the Yorkshire or Devon moors, with yellow and purple heather covering the empty miles of wind-swept hills. Unlike in England, very little there is demarcated by hedges and fences; no patchwork of farmland indicating that the countryside has been domesticated. Out there, amongst the feral goats and stone cairns you could believe that you were the last person alive, or that you’d somehow discovered some entirely new land where no human had previously set foot. It’s truly wild and untamed in a way that nowhere else I’ve ever been is.
If all this weren’t enough to convince you to make the trip, then remember the following: your RAC coverage will work there, even if your mobile phone won’t. You won’t need euros, or phrase books, despite the local accents being occasionally hard to decipher. You won’t have to deal with toll booths, border controls or the Eurostar. You might have to deal with rain and midges, or you might get lucky and find better weather than the south of Spain. But you certainly won’t regret it.