7th August 2015
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Brit Singles In Scotland, Part 1
Considering touring Scotland on classic British bikes? Stuart Urquhart has done it afore ye, and offers advice on the roads best travelled and way-stations to avoid..
I can’t recall if an extended excursion through the Cairngorms National Park on big old British bikes was my idea or Dave’s, but once our third member had excused himself and his Fastback, I suggested we thumped up the road on classic singles instead of our Commandos. Ever since I’d dropped into the Allargue Arms Inn, half way up The Lecht ski slopes, and discovered their fabulous selection of real ales, the Inn became a ‘must do’ for an overnight bike trip. It was also far enough for a decent run, but near enough should any mechanical mishap arise. The first week in July was looking feasible, especially when Dave’s annual holiday coincided with warm weather over the Cairngorms. The singles were prepped and we packed our bags for an overnight stay and an exhilarating blast to the Lecht. Dave was taking his 1950s BSA B33 and I would make the trip on my reworked Indian Enfield 500.
A warm and sunny departure was soon a distant memory as we began to climb through a gloomy Glen Shee. Threatening showers and poor visibility hastened a coffee stop at Braemar and a time-out to see whether waterproofs would be required to continue north in comfort. Thankfully, the gloom dispersed and blue skies and sunshine began to dry up the single track roads that led to the Lecht and our first overnight stop, The Allargue Arms Inn.
Unfortunately the three years that had elapsed since my last visit hadn’t been kind to the Inn’s interior, or the snug bar that I’d fondly remembered. Welcoming it certainly wasn’t; having stepped back several decades with its limited offering of Guinness or Tennents lager. Tragically their real ales were off, so we politely declined a bed and made a swift exit to arrive some twenty minutes later at Tomintoul. However Tomintoul’s high street hotel was hardly better, and as a bus-load of American pensioners was about to book in we turned tail and moved onto the next town, Grantown-on-Spey.
To avoid the arduous practice of tracking down a vacant B&B we headed straight for Grantown’s high street hotels and secured a twin room at The Grant Arms Hotel, a three-star AA establishment. I confess I like to spoil myself following a long day in the saddle, preferably with affable surroundings, excellent food and tasty beers. We showered and dumped our gear before heading across to the adjacent Garth Hotel for a few real ales and a peek at their menu. I made short work of the chef’s special (vegetable curry), while Dave was tucking into the Garth’s recommended traditional steak; all washed down by the most palatable real ale. It was a lovely hot evening, filled with the sound of twittering swifts, and we remained outside supping beers and chatting bikes into the wee sma’ hours, before a nightcap tot ushered in lights-out.
Showered, then recharged by the customary full English breakfast, we wheeled our bikes into the already hot sunshine. The day promised 26C and the night before we’d hatched a plan to carry on north to Ullapool - gateway to Sutherland’s scenic and stunning north road to Durness. We followed the A938 through Carrbridge to shorten the boring A9 section to Inverness – but once on the A9 it was actually quite pleasant thumping steadily northwards at a sedate 55mph; both singles being capable of 70mph-plus spurts to pass any slower moving HGVs that clawed their way up the longer gradients.
Arriving at Garve, we stopped for coffees and an unscheduled ear-bashing from a rather enthusiastic Yorkshire chap who gaily sprang from a mutha-scale Harley that was carrying more stainless and chrome than Sheffield! I was suffering the symptoms from the previous night’s indulgence and begged Dave that we made a quick exit and escape to the tranquillity of the open road. Thankfully Dave agreed.
Once past a series of mind-numbing roadworks north of Garve, the road became deserted of traffic and began to serve up some impressive scenery; much of which I’d missed on previous trips with my head down on modern multi-cylinder missiles. The leisurely pace of classic singles certainly encourages a great deal of head-turning and jaw-dropping, as you soak up the stunning vistas that magically appear around every bend - and the A835 just kept on delivering panoramic gems.
We passed Loch Glascarnoch Dam then the beautifully remote Loch Droma (with its snow-capped mountains) before navigating the long, smooth, shore-hugging road along Loch Broom’s rhododendron coloured slopes to eventually arrive at Ullapool. Life felt good.
Our next overnight would be at the Ceilidh Place – a three star hotel that offers excellent value bunkhouses and showers, ideal for the touring motorcyclist. I’ve stayed here every Ullapool trip for as long as I can remember and I’ve often thought it’s the perfect destination for a classic inspired weekend, perhaps scheduled around the summer solstice, when it’s still light past midnight. The TVR club appear here every June and it’s a joy to share these splendid roads with such iconic classic cars. I’ve always been a fan of Sutherland’s north road, renowned for its alpinesque scenery and roadside cafes that pepper the route all the way to Durness. It’s the perfect afternoon run, with enough time to complete the 136 mile round trip and return for an evening meal (and the most agreeable ales) at Ullapool’s Ferry Boat Inn.
Leaving Ullapool on the A835, the scenery immediately opens up and presents travellers with stunning views over lochs, mountains, streams and west over the sea to the Summer Isles. Stac Pollaidh (Polly) is our first photo-stop and I have pictures here on many different bikes going back to the 1980s. Stac Polly Viewpoint is a hallowed spot, the starter on a gourmet menu of mouth-watering scenery served up throughout this impressive region. This was epitomised by the famous 80s tourist board advert depicting a VW campervan jam-packed by a flock of sheep on a beautifully remote mountain road, accompanied by the caption, ‘Scotland’s Rush Hour’.
Sutherland’s roads also boast the perfect rolling surface, being remote and only subjected to light traffic they have few, if any pot-holes. I can’t ever recall being held up at road works either – although on this trip one section of the A838 single-track road to Durness was being upgraded courtesy of EEC funding...but mercifully, no RentaCrowd sheep hindered our progress north.
Nearing Lochinver we took a left turn onto the A837 past Loch Assynt. The plan was brunch at a lochside hotel Dave recalled offered quaint fishing harbour views and scrumptious cakes – a discovery made during one of Dave’s earlier ironman cycling assaults into Assynt. The detour turned out to be an introduction to a stunning and elevated road and I lost Dave when I stopped to take pictures of an approaching lightning storm over Assynt’s distant mountains. Actually I stopped many times, unable to pass by the numerous jaw-dropping views. However, we were soon reunited when Dave returned to find me, thinking I’d gone off the road, such were its many hazardous twists and turns.
Back indoors and tucking into jam scones at Lochinver’s Hotel, the heavens suddenly opened and thunder cracked overhead. Trapped by the deluge, we just relaxed and sipped refreshing tea until it passed, then kicking our singles back into action we headed north again to our next scheduled stop at Kylesku. I wanted Dave to see Kylesku’s most celebrated garden ornament – a classic T100 – before we moved on to the single-track sections past Laxford Bridge to Durness.
On occasions, long inclines allowed for close formation driving on full throttles, and the reverberating sound of our synchronising single exhausts sounded utterly stunning. Startled campers and fishermen all turned their heads in wonder, and on passing one roadside cafe we received a standing ovation from a crowd of German BMW bikers who’d obviously heard our approach. What scrumptious fun!
Soon we arrived at Durness and refuelled. At least that was our plan, but operating the new automatic 24 hour fuel pumps demanded some serious head-scratching before they would deliver. Then a lightning bolt caught our eye... followed by a distant rumble. Then another fork flashed close by and we dug into our saddle bags to retrieve our waterproofs. We planned to dash south and escape the approaching storm that was funnelling in on a rising easterly. But as soon as we’d kitted up, a tourist ensnared us, enthusing over Dave’s B33. By the time we’d politely scrambled from Durness the heavens opened with another crack of thunder. Dave was already off, but I was trapped by a stream of slow moving cars before I could overtake and catch him. The rain seemed to fall like a curtain of water, bouncing off the road and hammering my helmet. Then a tell-tale creeping cold began to invade my crotch - my brand new Richa waterproofs were leaking. I cursed my sodding luck.
If you’re familiar with the single-track road from Durness then you’ll know that passing room is pretty slim. I was frequently appalled that some motorists tried to push aside motorcyclists, rather than pull over for them. After being forced into the side-lines for the third time by a motorist who’d blatantly ignored a lay-by closer to him, I snapped and waved a clenched fist across his windscreen. A following car read my frustrated gesture and promptly reversed back to the lay-by. As I passed the retreating couple I offered an appreciative wave, but I still mumbled and grumbled into my steamed-up hat over the 18 wet miles back to Laxford Bridge.
Now that we’d left behind the single-track section, we upped our pace and thundered south in the drying sunshine. The road is equally stunning in reverse and I found it hard not to stop and take more pictures, but we were hungry and looking forward to some welcome beers in Ullapool. I was forever tail-hugging Dave just to get a buzz from our resonating exhausts when I began to notice it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with him on longer uphill sections. Previously, I’d easily overhauled his B33, being sucked along inside his ‘air envelope’.
This apparent loss of power became more worrying when Dave took off and chased a couple of modern bikes. I was soon lagging behind by quite a considerable distance with Dave well out of sight. For several miles I was alone. As I climbed the next hill the Enfield was struggling to make headway against a rising wind. Opening the throttle wide produced no response in top gear, only a soulful wailing that steadily rose from the carburettor and I pulled off the road to investigate.
Although the engine oil had mysteriously dipped to the dip-stick’s low mark, all seemed normal and the bike didn’t appear to be overly hot, starting and ticking over quite readily. The points however looked suspiciously tight, but I had no feeler gauges in my tool kit to check the gap (note to self…).
Dave soon returned and I explained the Enfield’s symptoms. Dave suggested he should return to Ullapool and bring back a litre of oil, just to be safe. We were approximately 15 miles from base so I prepared myself for a long wait, thankful of a pleasantly warm evening. Incidentally, during the hour or so that I was stranded not one motorist or biker stopped to offer assistance. Whatever happened to pioneer spirit and brotherhood?
Once Dave returned we replenished the Enfield’s oil and headed back for a few well-earned pints and a meal at Ullapool’s Ferry Boat Inn. The power loss problem could wait for a new day…
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