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There are two Gairlochs in Scotland - one near Glasgow (okay, it's actually Gareloch, but let's not be pedantic) and the other a long way further up the West coast. In the middle of winter it might seem more sensible to take a mountain biking weekend away in Gareloch, Strathclyde, less than an hour from Glasgow. For spectacular rides, however, the other one, on one of the highest and roughest edges of Scotland, and over four hours drive from Edinburgh, is a far more appealing option. For those who wouldn't even venture north of the Firth of Forth at any time of year, don't believe the hype. It's not that grim up north.

Having said all that, the rain was pelting down as we negotiated the final 50 miles of narrow, winding roads to Badachro, a tiny village five miles from the relative metropolis, Gairloch (approx. 3 public houses). Convinced every corner would be my last, I gently reminded the driver that I didnt want to go off-road until daylight, and not at all in a car. And then not so gently, bearing in mind the knowlege that, if you miss one of these bends, you will probably never ever be found. Not ever. Never.

The tourist info' states: "Gairloch is an area where one needs to return to hot baths, an open fire, good drying facilities...".......This was perceptive stuff, as we soon realised. But the pubs are warm, the people are friendly, beer is cheap and the same rules apply for snooker and darts. With that in mind the Fish Box Bar is worth a visit.

Andy McCandlish Photos

Ride 1

Map:OS Gairloch and Ullapool (sheet 19)
Ref:
start 858/721; finish 888/667
This ride is along a good track only about four miles from Gairloch by road :

  • Head along the B8056
  • Take a right along the A832 in the direction of Loch Maree.
  • Two miles on, just past Loch Bad an Sgalaig, leave the road and follow a well-established six mile track up into the hills leading to the similarly unpronouncable Loch na h-Oidhche.

The track to tackle is one of many climbing up into the hills. Apparently they are used solely, though rarely, by rich people in four-wheel-drive vehicles to fish secluded lochs miles away from the commoners. There are even huts by several of the lochs, offering welcome shelter from wind and rain. Of which there is, of course, plenty.

We battled against a raging headwind all the way up, until we came across a river roughly a mile from the loch and the path's end. On this occasion the river was, surprise, a little deeper than usual and thus presented a bit of an obstacle. Three of our party turned back (no names, ahem), but the rest waded, jumped, swam or fell through the river and carried on to the hut. Apparently it was worth it, with a stunning view to Torridon from the top and an awesome descent back to the road.

Including the road rides we were out for around two and a half hours, and ready to sample some Gairloch nightlife.

For Sunday we had a provisional, weather-permitting plan to tackle the "Redpoint Route", an allegedly highly technical track along the coast between Redpoint and Lower Diabaig. The only complication is that, unless you fancy riding all the way back to Redpoint, you need transport at the other end. It's a ride that comes highly recommended, but which unfortunately proved logistically impossible on this particular weekend, despite a bright rain-free day on Sunday.

 

Cycling in the snowy hills of Scotland

Ride 2

Map: OS Gairloch and Ullapool (sheet 19)
Ref:
start 808/724 (Shieldaig Hotel); finish 855/648

With no shortage of potential routes, however, we set off to try a nearby and unexplored track going from Shieldaig Hotel to Loch a'Bhealaich, approximately nine miles. The first mile might be described, in mountain biking circles, as "technical". Having not really mixed in these circles thus far, I call it "unrideable". Not just on the way up, but also on the way down. After my third crash I had to walk - I didn't have any brakes left.

Beyond the first steep mile, however, the path levelled out and turned into a mountain biker's paradise. We were all in agreement that this was one of the best tracks we had ridden, with a nice loch, a wooden bridge, a couple of awesome waterfalls and, best of all, a 100 metre stretch of river, replacing the path, that you could ride through. Unfortunately, with daylight fading, we had to turn back before reaching the hut.

Ride 3

Map: OS Gairloch and Ullapool (sheet 19)
Ref:
(Slattadale Forest), start 859/790; finish 888/717

Another of the routes is worth mentioning, since I am assured it alone renders worthwhile the long journey to the Highlands. It's a "fantastic single track", 90% rideable out-and-back track that takes you from the A832 (just after Loch Tollaidh if you're heading from Gairloch) up Creag Mhor to Slattadale Forest, with incredible views of Loch Maree in between. For "real mountain bikers" and mountain goats only.

GETTING THERE

By Road: a car or van is the main option:

  • Take the A9 to Inverness
  • Cross the Kessock Bridge, and leave the A9 to join the A835, at Tore.
  • After 19 miles, just after Garve, turn left onto the roller coaster A832.
  • You'll pass through Achnasheen and Kinlochewe and drive alongside the stunning 15 mile long Loch Maree, before the final twisty miles to Gairloch.

For the views - and your nerves - it's worth going during daylight hours.

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