SCOTLAND: Delightful surprise!

Click on photos to enlarge them.

2/3 of the team crossing from England.

Lonely Planet map
Google Earth, Scotland in context.


Getting in shape to ride?
Starting this blog chapter after only a week of daily riding since Manchester and Wheezy is merely 62 – but damn, I’m tired! So is Thao, who is a tad younger.

We'll grow into this, but meanwhile I'm astonished how baffed one is by the end of the day; have done much iron-butt riding prior, without being so tired. Age? Fortunately for my ego, Thao's in great shape, but is exhausted too.

Non-stop concentration on the road while still watching a beautiful world go by; rushing fresh and often-chilly maritime air adds to it I suspect; becoming accustomed to narrow left-sided roads; staying alert and ready to ditch it in case of surprise oncoming around the next bend; really riding the constant lovely curves, honing the weight-shifting skills of both rider and pillion. No riding mistakes allowed for the next couple years, controlling a fully-laden two-wheeler. Body, arms, hands and mind feel it.

So much fun those curves, we seldom get to play with the bike like this in North America.

Crossed the 3,000 km mark within the UK yesterday, just 16,500 km total on Black Bike's clock, which although barely broken in, has been perfect in these narrow twisties – especially for such a big beast. That new front suspension is really doing its work, fixing the bike's major flaw. Daily dancing with relative grace through made-for-crotch-rocket roads.

Yessss ...

Packing is the daily chore; on a bike, it's a small but important one. No space to waste. Thao is getting good at it, has taken over the task. The bring-along selection and trial-error fitting took weeks back home, but it worked. I think we almost have the system micro-organized, no redundancy, it all fits.

Let's see how we feel in six months. The body will catch up, so will our skills. Meanwhile we both can't wait to climb back in the saddle in the mornings.

Lovin' it.


Syke: Did Skye (Isle of) bottom to top after ferry arrival from mainland. The Town of Portree [map link] where we stopped for the first night, is very touristy; Skye is awash with touristas. The vibe is a bit standoffish, like 'gimme a break with the attitude' crossed both our minds a few times. Many non-UK accents, often people look at Black Bike with askance envy, not generally a warm chummy feeling. To us, an easy miss.

Portree Hotel at non-bargain £100, internet doesn’t work as they otherwise claimed, no one on staff cared less about anything, room small but clean. If you pass thru find another hotel.

Liked, but didn’t adore Skye that is until we reached the very top, when we got away from the crowds. On way north it was all 2-lane smooth top and pretty, but not major.

However once we hit Uig [route map] at the top, here it becomes way better – a paved 1-lane farm road along the lovely coastal cliffs and farm land. Minimal traffic, cars come in opposite directions every 5 minutes or so. One of you finds a wide spot, stops to let the other pass.

Perfect winding road, no pushing the danger envelope, moving at 50-60 kph, absorbing it all, trying not to drive over cliffs in frequently tight switchbacks. Drivers are courteous and waved us through most of the time, very gentlemanly.

A perfect ride at the top of Skye.


Loch Ness: Wound our way across to the Inverness/Loch Ness area.

We liked Whitebridge [map link] outside Inverness, actually on edge of Loch Ness. Drove most of the Loch and it’s certainly pretty, mountain lined, rocky shored.

Loch Ness itself is scenic, not in itself a reason to come here – but there are other good reasons. If you do the Loch, drive the south-side B852, it's way nicer. Monster-seekers will find doctored photographic hard evidence of it online, but not from our camera.

The main reason to visit Whitebridge is, it's a good launching pad for the truly spectacular drive described below.

Loch Ness

Whitebridge Hotel [link] is owned by David & Sarah Murray, is highly recommended. Lovely people and place, internet, pub and a superb breakfast.

Met a very nice Copenhagen biker couple at the hotel; the Rosbergs were there on a full-dress Harley he had paid $90,000 for (!) – maybe triple the Canadian price due to Danish taxes. Damn, that's a costly roofless ride – you get a lot of Mercedes for that in Canada.


Loch Ness to Ballater great ride: Here is a superb drive/ride, the itinerary was recommended by valued resource Ian Cardwell (see UK bike resources). Highly recommended [route map of next few days]:
. . . .– Drive to Dufftown from Loch Ness taking smallest roads on the map.
. . . .– These little roads are beyond merely wonderful; stay off the highways!
. . . .– Maybe 2-3 hours drive for first leg.
. . . .– Lots of different scotch distilleries are signed, offering tours & grog.
. . . .– In Dufftown we saw the Glenfiddich sign, pulled in and I bottled
. . . .– a quart of 57% 15-year-old finest, for a friend who has everything else –
. . . .– but the Gov't of Canada didn't let it in, poured it down the drain! Idiots.
. . . .– The ride is brilliant, twisty mountainous, largely one-lane farm-
. . . .– country, ski hills in the highest elevations, whisky-distilling, pine-
. . . .– forest, grain-fields, sheep-ranches, cow-grazing, horse-roaming,
. . . .– bucolic magificence, blind-hills, use-lower-gears & shift-often –
. . . .– this is heaven countryside.
. . . .– From Dufftown to Ballater. Another 2-3 hours and truly worth it.
. . . .– Let the map or GPS find the smallest roads, always.
. . . .– Lots of one-lane with 'passing points' as they are appropriately
. . . .– labeled. Brit-Scot courteous manners and common sense rule.
. . . .– Drive A939 from Ballater past Lecht Ski Centre which is a superb
. . . .– high mountain area, to Tomintoul – the highest town in Scotland.
. . . .– End up in Grantown-on-Spey.
. . . .– You will love this drive in a car, you'll whoop aloud on a bike, do it!


Ballater: Stayed in Ballater, [map link] close to Balmoral Castle where the Queen has her summer digs, but did not check out the palace on the advice of people who said it's not such a big deal. Besides its not too open for visitors while Her Majesty is in residence and she didn't invite us over, perhaps not having heard we were in town.

Hence stepped down a notch and stayed at the un-fancy but very acceptable £40 Loir Hotel mainly because they had a room. The town was virtually sold out, including a £250/night Hilton. It’s a cute village, where the British Charm Committee certainly had a hand in zoning and design, making this place very Blue-Rinse Tourist-Busload friendly.

Not a destination town for us, but a good stop-over and many readers would probably choose to visit the Castle. We're both perhaps a bit castled-out from previous trips.


Far North: Rode northwest through wonderful scenic variety in the Scottish Highlands to the top of the mainland at Thurso [map link] – thinking to perhaps catch a ferry to the Orkney Islands.

Studied the schedule at the ferry ticket office, learned it was a two-or-three-day trip, were told by returning visitors it's much the same scenery as the mainland – so decided to give the Orkneys a miss.

John O'Groats [map link] just 20 miles west, is a nature-walk treat, lovely. Rocky shore, fjords, enormous sheep population – and birds; all kinds of them in enormous numbers. Nesting on the cliffs, finally we found lovely puffins, thousands of them among the other sea birds nesting here.

It's a two-hour hike in sheep-grazing meadows overlooking the ocean and a great ride in. Worth it, especially if you have a telephoto lens or binoculars – bird-watchers' heaven.

A puffin! Saw none in Newfoundland, looked hard there,
but here were flocks of such a pretty bird.
View of cliffs at John O'Groats


Helmsdale: Best Fish & Chips on Earth? Heading back southwards, one little town warrants a rave for the best fish 'n chips on this planet. Plus one of best B&B deals. Clarissa, one of the 'Two Fat Ladies' of TV fame agrees – she awarded this normally boring meal 'among best six F&C places in UK.'

We found it only due to dangerous 20' fog-vision; really scary on winding roads and cliffs on the otherwise gorgeous east coast. Thus forced into the town of Helmsdale, we chanced upon the Kindale Guest House with four well-deserved stars [email: or tel: 01431-821415] one block off the main road. An inconspicuous £50 place, we got a huge ground floor room with a working radiator to counter the damp chill – laundering and drying our togs overnight, bikers' nirvana.

Back to the feed: A half-block away is Dunrobin St. where there is a clean teensy hole-in-wall place aptly named called 'Simply The Best Take-Away'. No false advert this! Not knowing what to expect, it was just some food in a largely-closed town – but we 'took-away' and back in our room downed a memorable feast from plastic boxes, one enormous portion we shared, a caloric pig-out to shame the biggest America has to offer. Honestly, that fish – amazing fish (spoken by one who much prefers meat), crispy coated in magic crunchy batter perfection; ditto the chips. Fish and chips as art, a taste buds explosion. How can one do such ordinary food so brilliantly? We can die knowing we've tasted another non plus ultra.

No exaggeration, this plebian fare which we would normally avoid, is a legit delicacy, worthy of a day's detour. Scoff ye not at such ebullient praise – 'till ye have actually tasted.


Hotel in Golspie: The night prior on our way north, just 10 miles down the road in Golspie we also really enjoyed charming, open, friendly Desirée the owner of the reasonable and very comfy Hotel Ben Bhraggie [email: or tel: 01408-633242]. Fine rooms, internet connection, food, parking out back. Great hostess.

Indeed were planning to go back on the way south for a second stay, it felt like on-road home, but for the heavy fog stopping us ten miles short. Bad luck turns into good sometimes …

Route [map link] of this region.


Edinburgh is of course lovely, but we did not have time to explore in depth, drove around a bit, and The Festival was not on. Much is available online, we'll skip it here.

What we did there however, was have an overnight super-reunion visit, with old friends and fellow teachers from Kpandu Secondary School in Ghana West Africa, where we were all volunteer teachers from 1968-70. Dave & Moragh Gibson are very seasoned fellow Africa hands – we have somehow staying in touch over the 40 intervening years. Indeed, we once even bumped into each other by a swimming pool, when I went to Africa for a short business visit and they were changing flights with an hour to spare – talk about freaky coincidence.

Moragh & Martha saying good bye.
Anyhow, here we were in Edinburgh 40 years later. What a nostalgia trip, and such hospitable fine people with a very beautifully decorated home – a great collection of wall-to-wall African art and other very good stuff. We even had a reunion phone chat with Buzz Reed, a 1970 US Peace Corps buddy, now living on a stunning 50-acre ranch in Kentucky I popped in on a couple years back. Sigh, time does march on – but friendship and memories endure.


A half hour from Edinburgh is the justly famed Falkirk Wheel [link]; it uses virtually no electricity, the equivalent of a few toasters, due to its uncanny efficiency. A brilliantly innovative lift-lock, engineering art in fact – certainly a must-visit if in the area. If you have time, boat trips up the canal and through the wheel-lift are available; it's quite remarkable to watch, an amazing departure from the normal canal lift-lock that exists worldwide.


We could have spent more time in Scotland, just loved it and enjoyed every day, but timing dictated we head to the mainland. We'd had our little warm-up trip in an English-speaking land – a perfect way to start a long often-difficult journey.

Friends were meeting us in Prague soon, plus we wanted to do quite a bit of the Alps, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Romania-Bulgaria, Turkey – all before it got too cold.

Back into the saddle and a straight freeway shot to the Channel Tunnel or 'Chunnel' to France.

One aside, on British freeways you can fly; I do not know the speed limits but sandwiched between other speeders we were doing 160 kph = 100 mph one gas tank after another. After a couple weeks in 3rd and 4th gear – gobbling miles in 5th was fun!


Scotland Postscript: It's among our of our most pleasant travel surprises, for both of us. Spectacular, beautiful, rugged, the people and culture a delight. We hadn't expected it to be this good.

Driving seldom gets to be more fun. Two wheel or four, if you haven't done it, put it high on the list.

Landscape is surprisingly similar to spectacular eastern Canada; but it has uncanny bits of the Canadian Arctic far north landscape thrown in.

Stunning Newfoundland, Gaspé, Cape Breton were evidently part of the same landmass as Scotland prior to the continental drift – so we were told by an encountered geologist. But add to that, ranges of big bald rocks with colorful scrub all over them, akin to that at the western Arctic Circle for reasons unknown – previously seen only in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. It is many days worth of ogling at rather uniquely combined rugged natural beauty.

But there the similarities to east and west Canada pretty well end, aside from the shared Scottish heritage; they called it Nova Scotia for a reason. I can see why the Scots were long ago attracted to Eastern Canada; it’s much like home on the surface – Scots who have seen both places agree.

The differences are worth it: Scottish culture, people, buildings and fences of such great stonework, abundant twisty one or two-lane roads challenge anyone on two wheels or four; castles galore, too many to see; charming inns of all sorts. And those enormous delicious breakfast feasts included in the room price.

No surprise, they are famed for grazing wooly animals in the steep rocky hills, not much arable tractor land was in sight. More sheep than people it would appear, lots of woolen goods for sale in the shops. And somehow they also manage to find land suitable to growing the makings of the finest whiskey, also abundantly for sale.

We were surprised by the lightness of road traffic, during summer holidays yet. We fail to understand why it's not more packed with Europeans.

Rashes of rugged rock outcroppings in the coastal waters.

Small fishing boats motionless at anchor.

Still waters reflecting gorgeous red-clouded sunsets.

Driving the remote countryside: twisty, hair-pins, narrow, unpredictable – but in good condition. Tree-lined, coniferous, cliff-defined, sheep and cow-strewn.

Countless unmarked lanes off of narrow roads, and not just someone's driveway, rather public roads.

Some days of riding we were seldom vertical for more than a few hundred feet, non-stop leaning into turns for miles. That's what sport-touring biking is about.

Scotland is a biker's, or a car driver's, holiday heaven for a week or two. The prices seemed quite reasonable, less costly than England; likely we kept it close to $175/day all-in.

The perfect little trip to kick-start the big one.


Here's a Scottish joke I just received by email while writing this section, apparently voted best Scot short joke by some august joke-judging body:

. . . .A Scot walks into a Glasgow library and says to the prim librarian,
. . . ."Excuse me Miss, dey ye hiv ony books on suicide?"

. . . .To which she stops doing her tasks, looks at him over the top of her
. . . .glasses and says, "Fook off, ye'll no bring it back!"


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