August 17th 2016
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The Deluge in Deeside, Part One
Stuart Urquhart and his classic motorcycle riding companions always seem to attract heavy weather. However, they didn't let a few wee rain showers dampen their spirits on an extended ride around Royal Deeside...
Following our eventful trip to Ullapool in June 2015 (British Singles in Scotland), when Dave’s B33 suffered its catastrophic magneto failure, we both made a pact to return the following year and finish the holiday which was previously cut short. So unpredictable is Sutherland’s weather that experience dictated we chose a fortnight in late May or early June and be prepared to depart as soon as a high pressure system builds over the northwest. This two week envelope normally serves up a minimum of four blue-sky days - time enough to explore this fabulous coastal route.
Our proposed route takes the A93 through Glen Shee and into Royal Deeside before deviating north onto the A939 that leads to the Lecht ski slopes well inside the Cairngorms National Park. Continuing northwards to Tomintoul and Grantown-on-Spey with a brief stop at Inverness to refuel, the road then diverts west and climbs some of the A835’s most isolated stretches to reach Ullapool. It’s an enjoyable five or six hour road trip through some of the most spectacular regions in Scotland, and ideal terrain for exploring on old classics.
Unfortunately, due to other group member’s circumstances, we had to reschedule to July. If you live north of the divide you will appreciate that July is not Scotland’s driest summer month. Typically, June turned out to be ‘Barbados’ in Scotland, but July served up the usual mix of sunshine and prolonged showers. Initially our group would be four, and as the allotted time approached two dropped out and another signed up – making us a trio.
Our new buddy wished to travel on a recently purchased T120 Bonneville which he’d found on eBay. This was promptly delivered to my home address for me to check over before we travelled. When the Bonnie arrived it had a lovely patina but refused to run smoothly. I soon diagnosed rust debris in the fuel system as the carbs kept silting up - so I spent several days flushing out the T120’s petrol tank with an abrasive cocktail of washers, nuts and paraffin. After a back-breaking six washes, the seventh drained clear. A quick fill with fresh fuel and the addition of new carb gaskets brought a ‘hallelujah’ tick-over and easy starting. Several road tests later confirmed that the T120 was ready for a holiday.
Proud owner Dave2 was heading back from the North Sea and we prayed to Odin for high pressure and fine weather over the north. But two weeks later there was anything but an improving forecast. However dry weather over Fife meant Dave2 could familiarise himself with his purple T120, and didn’t the lumpy tick-over return – drat!
The relentless gloom over the west meant we turned our attention to the east. By the third week in July, Royal Deeside was ‘improving’ and a dry tour around the Cairngorms National Park was becoming the better prospect. So accommodation was hastily booked in Aboyne and we set off with eyes skyward and waterproofs stashed.
Rather than taking the direct coastal route east to Aboyne, we decided to head north through the wild and scenic splendour of Glen Shee. This popular biker’s road snakes and turns through mountain, moorland and stream, before it passes through Braemar and into Royal Deeside, where it skirts the River Dee and its rugged roadside views. Fortunately it’s a quiet road with sparse traffic, thus classics are the ideal rolling vantage point from which to explore this famous region of Scotland.
Royal castles and ruined abbeys abound, as do whisky distilleries, nestling in backdrops of pine forests and majestic purple mountains. Fortunately, these anticipated views were not shrouded in mist and the day continued to improve as the miles clicked up on our ancient chronometric instruments. Relaxed by our leisurely pace, we thundered through mountain scenery all afternoon, with only the occasional brief stop for pictures.
But today was about the ride: Dave1 and I periodically rode in close formation, entranced by the crescendo of our synchronised exhaust booms – an incredible symphony that engulfs the rider with day-dreams of piloting fantasy Spitfires. Dave2 followed up the rear on his Bonnie on the look-out for enemy rainclouds being shielded by the blinding sun. That evening over scrumptious food and real ales, we relived the first day’s intoxicating ride.
The next morning, recharged by a full English breakfast we fired up and took to the hills. Our destination was Grantown of Spey but not before a visit to the famous Grampian Transport Museum in Alford, followed by an afternoon tour of one of the many roadside whisky distilleries that pepper the route. The road first threw up the popular ‘Queens View’ - of which I’m sure Victoria has many in her honour - and we stopped to snap some pictures.
The view is over Cromar – one homeland (of many) belonging to the ancient warrior tribe known as the Picts. Fiercely territorial, the Picts emerged during the Dark Ages and rebuffed all threats to their Kingdom - a vast area which stretched from Fife to Caithness. They were a socialised and well-organised community of farmers who left their artistic mark throughout eastern Scotland. Many artefacts still survive in the form of beautifully-illustrated standing stones and museum treasure hoards - as well as countless hill forts that once stood against the might of the Roman Empire. When touring this area of Scotland, the ‘Pictavia Trail’ is another hidden gem waiting to be discovered, and is equally as engaging as the more popular ‘Victoria Trail’.
Before lunch we arrived at Alford and the Grampian Transport Museum, just as one of the permanent exhibits was being steamed up – ‘Birkhall’, a stationery steam engine, which we learned was once used to power a local sawmill. For a middleweight museum the GTM certainly punches above its weight; with a rolling exhibition of Guy Martin’s television exploits and Billy Connolly’s world tour trike - along with other superb and unusual exhibits, including a Tardis and a Dalek. So, there’s something for everyone in this eclectic mix! For my tuppence, the stand-out exhibits were a life size wire-frame Norton Commando Fastback and Guy Martin’s imposing Merlin-Spitfire engine.
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