Going off the Grid in Argyll

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In November, Marcus Nicolson and friends set off for a multi-day bikepacking trip through Argyll and Scotland’s Western Highlands, charting a new route that saw them clambering down rock faces, trotting through bogs, and savoring the refuge of the occasional bothy. Read on for the story of their off-season adventure, featuring a dramatic photo gallery from Doug Somerville…

Words by Marcus Nicolson (@marcusnicolson), photos by Doug Somerville (@dougdigs)

It was late November, and the dark winter nights were well and truly drawing in around Scotland. Not willing to let the winter months hinder our bikepacking adventures, my friends and I hatched a rough plan to leave the city behind and head out into the wilds to experience some off-the-grid riding around Argyll and the Western Highlands.

In particular, we set our sights on the Isle of Mull, which lies just beyond Scotland’s western coast. After some last-minute group texting about possible routes and destinations, our motley crew assembled at the train station in Glasgow, and we were on our way to the coastal town of Oban.

Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville

We opted to spend a luxurious night in a youth hostel in Oban before setting off on our adventure. We enjoyed full use of the comforts on offer, and the heating was cranked up to the max as we listened to the howling sea wind batter the window outside our dorm. It was a good opportunity to review our riding plans for the weekend and consolidate the route. The (very) rough plan was to ride a circuit of Mull before heading north and finishing in Fort William at the start of the following week.

  • Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville
  • Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville

Isle of Mull Coastal Path

Weather conditions didn’t look favourable as we took the ferry crossing to Mull the next morning. As we left the ferry in Craignure, a steady drizzle worked its way through our various attempts at waterproof clothing. We made fast progress along the quiet roads, relishing the escape from the heavy mainland traffic. It wasn’t long until our track diverted down a lumpy gravel track towards the coast, where a local tractor driver warned us that the coastal path would involve “quite some pushing” as we sped past without paying heed to his warnings.

Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville

The next few kilometres of “riding” were easily some of the most challenging conditions I’ve encountered in my time doing this kind of thing. We haphazardly manoeuvred our bodies and loaded bikes between slimy rocks and seaweed as we made our way around the coastal path. Our metal cleats clattered against rocks and we stumbled into many rockpools, but thankfully no ankles were sacrificed during our antics!

We were excited at the prospect of encountering a chain walk on the route, something of Rough-Stuff Fellowship legends. The chain walk in question was more of a chain drop—a few meters of clambering down a rocky face while attempting not to bash derailleurs or bones. We quickly developed a system for passing our bikes down to each other while Doug carefully found the best spot for capturing the action.

  • Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville
  • Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville
Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville

At this stage, it’s worth pointing out that we weren’t following any known cycle route. Rather, my pals took inspiration from long-forgotten heritage paths and poorly marked coffin roads. This roulette route planning led to unforeseen conditions as we traipsed along the hazardous coastal path. Markus Stitz has now developed a gravel bikepacking route around Mull that I would highly recommend checking out before setting off on your next adventure in the area.

As we finally reached Carsaig and ended the section of coast path we’d battled with over the last few hours, we were well aware that our initially planned late-afternoon ferry back to the mainland was now an impossibility. We grouped up under the cliffs to make a new plan for the day that would ensure we sought some indoor refuge from the elements. The changed plans and adverse route conditions didn’t take away from the beauty of our remote coastal location, and we paused for a moment to take in our surroundings as another shower rolled past.

Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville

We made an essential stop at the pub back in Craignure to dry out our soggy shoes and get some warm food after a day spent out in the elements. It was probably for the best that the pub had an early closing time of 9 p.m. as it gave us little alternative but to get back on our bikes in search of the closest mountain bothy on the island. We were more energised after the warm food and ales consumed next to the fire, and we rolled our way up a soggy gravel track to Tomsleibhee bothy just before midnight. We didn’t even bother attempting to make a fire that night, instead quickly wrapping ourselves up in our sleeping bags after the long day.

Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville
  • Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville
  • Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville
  • Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville

Things get boggy!

Camping stoves were blasting the next morning as we assembled our breakfast of porridge and coffee. The slow and careful preparation of the latter was no doubt responsible for the sluggish start, which would later result in a group time trial effort to reach our morning ferry. The eternal faffing, packing, zipping, tying, and strapping of the bikepacker! The descent down the gravel track led us past some Highland cows and back on the road, where we made up some time before eventually reaching our ferry with just a few minutes to spare.

Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville
  • Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville
  • Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville

Back on the mainland, we gathered food and yet more coffee to power us through the next stage of the trip. Again, a fast-rolling gravel start soon had us diverting up a rough walking path into the hills. We passed some friendly hillwalkers who warned us of the boggy section ahead. “Do you have a satellite tracker?” they asked nervously as we made our way further into the valley.

After passing an abandoned shooting lodge and crossing a very shaky wooden bridge, we found ourselves completely immersed in the moorland. Before we knew it, we were knee-deep in bogland with only a faint singletrack trail to follow. Dry feet were now a thing of the past, and we were once again riding against the clock, this time to make it across the moor before the sun set completely.

Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville

Gradually, a path came into view through the heather, and we were on track to reach the village of Strontian, where we’d envisioned possibilities for resupply and another opportunity to warm up in the confines of a hotel pub. The barmaid at the Strontian Hotel was somewhat taken aback as six rather smelly, muddy, and wet cyclists emerged from the darkness outside and into the quiet local bar. Thankfully, she didn’t throw us back out into the cold as we strategically positioned our boots and sodden socks around the fireplace. Inquisitive locals asked us about our riding plans for the evening and were rather shocked to discover that we intended to climb another hill pass over to the Resourie both.

  • Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville
  • Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville
  • Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville
  • Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville
  • Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville

A Heavy Climb

To make the following road climb that bit more challenging, we decided to carry large blocks of firewood from the village to take over to the bothy. Doug, the seasoned photographer, opted to carry a full bag of firewood on his handlebars. The night was clear, and we each established our own pace up the climb. Front lights flickered and eventually turned off in favour of riding to the summit under the moonlight. The steep descent down the other side was rather sketchy, given our extra cargo and the twisty turns in the road. It took another sustained effort to get up the other side of the glen towards our bothy location for the night, but a silver sign on a tree eventually signalled the secret forest path leading to the hidden bothy.

  • Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville
  • Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville

As luck would have it, the bothy had been recently visited and was well stocked with dry firewood. We weren’t too concerned with the extra effort we’d made and managed to warm up our home for the night in rapid time. Freeze-dried camping meals and pasta sachets were prepared as we settled in. The surplus of firewood allowed us to get the fire going again in the morning, and we heated some well-travelled potato scones—a Scottish bikepacking delicacy—on top of the stove.

In daylight, we could better appreciate the hidden forest location of the bothy, which is immersed in nature. Without a limiting time schedule, we took our time with morning activities, even gathering together to pose for a group pyramid photo. We’re not quite sure why, but it seemed the kind of group thing one should do on a trip like this. Maybe it’s to celebrate the sense of fellowship fostered through collective bog trotting in the Highlands in November? Regardless, it gave us a laugh and broke up the routine of packing, cleaning, and moving on.

Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville
  • Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville
  • Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville

Loch Shiel

The next section of the route was one of the most dramatically beautiful sections of the trip. Fast gravel roads wound along the glen along Loch Shiel. We passed a wild stag that tried to hide in a ditch, getting heather trapped in its long antlers in the process. After the terrain of the last few days, this riding felt fast and direct, leading us to our destination without the usual sidetracking or bog negotiating. This was the only part of the route that I’d properly planned out—less adventurous but no less beautiful than everything that had come before.

Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville

At the end of the Loch, we reached Glenfinnan, where we encountered the regular Harry Potter tourists searching for a view of the railway viaduct in the usual thick mist that descends on the area. Thankfully, the steady stream of tourists ensures that a cafe stand remains open through the winter months, and we were able to get a warm lunch before the final road stretch into Fort William.

On arrival in Fort William, we treated ourselves to a mandatory pint of Snow Goose beer, which had been one motivating factor in getting us all to the finish. The train ride back was spent musing on the tough terrain, tending to soggy feet, and getting a first look at the photography captured along the way. The trip firmly cemented the idea that the bike doesn’t need to be hung up for the winter season. Rather, taking care to plan a route with plenty of cafes and warm-up stops and being adaptable to changing weather and unexpected terrain are important factors to ensure a successful trip that can help unlock adventure, regardless of the season or conditions.

Bikepacking Scotland, Argyll, Doug Somerville

Resources

  • You can find information on Scottish mountain bothies at MountainBothies.org.uk. The MBA rely on donations and membership to maintain the bothies, and I strongly encourage anyone planning to use this great resource to become a member.
  • For details about Cal Mac ferries running to Mull, please visit CalMac.co.uk.
  • See more information about youth hostels in Scotland at HostellingScotland.org.uk.
  • Learn more about bikepacking routes in Argyll at WildAboutArgyll.co.uk.
Marcus Nicolson, Doug Somerville

About Marcus Nicolson and Doug Somerville

Marcus Nicolson is an adventure cyclist from Scotland. When he’s not out bog trotting in the Highlands, he can be found at various ultra-races around the year. You can follow Marcus on Instagram @marcusnicolson. Doug Somerville is a bike mechanic and adventure photographer based in Glasgow, UK. To see more of Doug’s photos, you can follow him on Instagram @dougdigs.

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