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Motorcycle Northern Scotland

With nicely-paved roads devoid of traffic and stunning views left, right and centre, the riding in Scotland ‘s north shores is ideal for ripping it up or just looking around.

Seconds after picking up the rental Bandit 600 in late August with the goal of riding in Scotland I knew that this experience was going to be priceless. Even though I was minutes away from my cousin’s house in downtown Aberdeen, the country road approach was serpentine, smooth and pretty much the norm in the north. 

Because the Bandit is so easy to ride, it didn’t take me long to acclimatize to the two major challenges of Great Britain: the countless roundabouts, and driving on the left. 

Striking out from Aberdeen, and heading toward the Queen’s summer residence at Balmoral, riding conditions continued to improve. With virtually no traffic and very few blind corners, the winding heather lined roads running through the Cairngorm Mountains are an invitation to spirited riding.  

By late afternoon, nearing Granton-on-Spey, and wondering if finally riding in Scotland was too good to be true, the Suzuki started to misfire. As the bike’s health worsened, it became clear that my day was likely to end prematurely. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but think that even if the trip ended here the last two days had been worth every penny. 

On its last breath, I managed to pull the Bandit into the parking lot of a distillery—as a non-drinker, all I wanted was the phone. Even though I had been traveling most of the day, a circuitous route had taken me only about 130 kilometres from Aberdeen. So in less than two hours, Duncan from the motorcycle tour and rental company Scotland by Bike arrived with a replacement BMW R1150GS. Feeling a little guilty, I left Duncan with the Bandit, and headed toward Inverness on the street-shod GS, its throaty exhaust and torque making for an absolutely exhilarating ride in the highlands. But, it wasn’t until I stopped for the night at a rustic inn just north of Inverness and had to park in a gravel parking lot that I realized the big adventure bike is a handful at slow speeds. By the end of the trip I had far more respect for Boorman and MacGregor. 

a big bmw gs replaces a faulty bandit 600 while riding in Scotland

Even with a scalloped seat the bike was tall for my five-foot eight-inch stature and every low-speed manoeuvre had to be executed carefully. It was on those occasions that I longed for my 650 V-Strom.

The next morning I headed north toward the village of John o’ Groats with the intention of catching the ferry to Orkney—a group of about 70 islands at the northern tip of Scotland, where recorded human history dates back 5,000 years.

The riding in Scotland especially along the coast is constant with twists and elevation changes in the road and magnificent sea views. But John o’ Groats itself is too touristy by half. After an obligatory stop I headed straight for the ferry at Gills Bay, just a few miles further along the northern coast. 

On the one-hour ferry sailing I met a few other bikers who had come from London for their summer holiday. Most were on sportbikes, dualsports or sport tourers and were dressed for serious riding. Cruisers and luxury touring bikes were conspicuous by their absence—the twisty roads of the region are natural habitats for the sport rider. 

From the ferry, the coastal views are stunning and somewhere we passed Stroma, an abandoned island with Norse origins. Though its many stone buildings appear to be in good condition and inhabited, the last of the Stroma islanders left here in search of work 40 years ago. It’s said that now only a lone sheep farmer keeps watch over the island, situated in the Pentland Firth between Orkney and Caithness.

Arriving at Orkney, I rolled off the ramp into the port of St. Margaret’s Hope (population: 550), a typically tiny and quirky Orkney village where contestants in the annual Boy’s Ploughing Match wear horse costumes. Superb riding is to be found here on Orkney, as well as the 2,500-year-old Ring of Brodgar Stone Circle and Henge, one of the largest and finest stone circles in Britain.

Returning to the mainland on an early ferry gave me the whole day to cross the top of Scotland. Although I did this same trip almost 30 years earlier I had forgotten the absolute beauty of this northern coast with its heather covered mountains, coastal villages, and white sand beaches. With virtually no trees and a serious sense of isolation, there are the sensibilities of Canada’s far north here, except for the occasional village and the paved roads. I was constantly torn between making an aggressive stafing run, or sightseeing. The road itself is all smooth pavement, continual curves, and devoid of traffic as it rises and falls toward sea level. Sometimes it narrows to a single track for long stretches and sheep make appearances without prior notice. 

I found myself riding several sections twice, once for the pleasure of riding and the second time to take in the scenery. One of my shortcomings on days like this is an inability to stop riding. I set a destination and then inevitably get there only to say to myself, I will just go a little farther. 

By the time I finally stopped, I was on the west coast in picturesque Lochcarron and just a few minutes from Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle), a twisting, single-track mountain road that rises to 626 metres as it climbs 11 km of switchbacks from sea level to summit and then descends nine more to Applecross. The road itself, though paved, is barely wide enough for a small car. At times it felt as though I was mountaineering by bike.

From here my plan was to make the short ride to the town of Plockton, then cross over to the Isle of Skye. Unfortunately, by the time I reached Plockton, the sky had turned black and the rain began to fall in torrents. I was about to give my recently purchased Road Toads a very serious test—they passed with flying colours.

After a short tour of Plockton the weather continued to deteriorate so leaving the Isle of Skye for next time I headed for the east coast and to my temporary home in Aberdeen. 

Enroute to the coast the rain abated just long enough for me to view Scotland’s iconic sixth century Eilean Donan castle, but the rest of the day was a downpour. Despite the rain though, the scenery along the east coast was magnificent and the roads were again extraordinary. I was beginning to wonder what Ontario would seem like on my return after riding in Scotland. 

by Bill McKenzie Canadian Biker #261

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