Riding without the Faff: Bothies, Ferries, and Gravel in Scotland

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With a dear friend visiting from Italy, Marcus Nicolson was eager to show off as many beautiful Scottish gravel tracks and remote bothies as he could cram into a long weekend on the bikes. Find his story of maximizing their time away by keeping the faff to a minimum here…

Words by Marcus Nicolson, photos by Chris Martin and Bruno Ferraro

Faff is a British term that means to “spend time in ineffectual activity,” according to the Oxford language dictionary. Bikepacking is ripe ground for faffing. Setting up bags, double-checking packing lists, oiling chains, adjusting the route, stopping at shops, searching for camping spots—faffing is an unavoidable aspect of the bikepacking experience and perhaps even part of its charm. However, on setting out for this adventure, we were determined to keep the faffing to a minimum and the riding to a maximum. This would require a concerted effort, but we were determined to make it happen.

Riding without the Faff, Scotland

The plane’s been sitting on the tarmac for over two hours. An old lady felt sick. Bruno was finally on his way to Scotland, but it looked like there was a chance he wasn’t going to make it after all. We were both a little panicked, having found a short gap in our busy summer schedules to get out and ride for fun. It would be a shame if it all fell apart at the last moment.

  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland

Truth be told, at the time of our planned trip, I was feeling a bit burnt out from the ultra-cycling scene that I’m very much immersed in. I’d been forced to scratch on my Highland Trail 550 race effort due to a front brake failure and had been suffering from the effects of a persistent knee injury that hadn’t quite recovered since the Italy Divide race in April. I wanted to reignite my love for riding, and getting out for a four-day trip around Scotland with one of my favourite riding buddies seemed like the right way to do it.

Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland

The rough plan for our Scottish gravel highlights tour was to head northbound from Glasgow on the Badger Divide route before taking a sharp left turn to take in Fort William, Loch Shiel, and the Isle of Mull before returning home on roads. Having visited Bruno’s hometown of Bassano del Grappa in Italy earlier this year, I was eager to return the hospitality he had shown me and give him a trip to remember. I knew that the Scottish culinary delights might not quite match those found in Italy, but I thought that the gravel trails and landscapes we’d encounter might compensate for this shortcoming.

  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland

Thankfully the delayed plane didn’t result in a trip cancellation, and on Friday evening, we were huddled around our Komoot screens to check out the route plan. We were encouraged to skip out a rough section of the West Highland Way that would have slowed us down considerably on the approach to Fort William. Bags were stuffed with midge spray, energy gels, and enough clothing required to deal with the unpredictable weather of the Scottish summer.

Riding without the Faff, Scotland

On Saturday morning, we set off from Glasgow accompanied by photographer Chris Martin and Badger Divide route-creator Stu Allan. The Badger Divide is a 340-kilometre gravel route linking Glasgow with Inverness, and it’s the route I’d recommend to anyone wanting to experience the best of Scottish gravel. The trails were dry and the skies were blue as we set off from Scotland’s largest city. We had to navigate a few fallen trees—remnants of storms over the winter—on the singletrack sections, but we were rewarded for our efforts with fast-rolling gravel and a tailwind too. It felt like we had escaped the city in record time and were quickly making our way to the southern foothills of the Highlands.

  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland

Stu holds the keys to a mythical cycling association hut that sits just above Lochearn in the central highlands. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is one of my favourite spots in the world. The hut sits inconspicuously up a hill track by the edge of the loch, where few would think to wander. Only a faint hum of techno music can be heard from the partying campers by the side of the loch from the quiet confines of the hut. On arrival at the hut, we set about the usual tasks required: gathering firewood, collecting water from the burn, and changing into our casual attire for the night.

Riding without the Faff, Scotland

It was the night before my 32nd birthday, and our small group was soon assembled around a campfire, eating pasta prepared by Bruno to celebrate the occasion. Someone even spotted a dusty bottle of Veneto (Bruno’s home region in Italy) white wine hidden at the back of the hut. We shared our stories of racing abroad, and Stu let us know of some wild contraptions he’s planning to weld up. By the end of the evening, we were ready to hit the bunks. Stu, ever the generous host, opted to sleep on the floor with neither a camping mat nor a sleeping bag!

  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland

We woke up to an exceptionally sunny and warm day, giggling at the sight of Stu on the hard floor, covered in just a fire blanket. Chris and Stu had work commitments the next day, and so the group parted ways. Bruno and I left our comrades snoozing in the morning heat with a cafe breakfast firmly in our sights. That Sunday was exceptionally hot by Scottish standards, and I was sweating out the previous evening’s excesses as we made our way further northwest. A mandatory cool down in the small river leading to Loch Ossian was necessary. We even spotted a few Highland Coos—a unique breed of cattle—with the same idea.

  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland

Bruno was eager to stay in mountain bothies on the trip. Bothies are small huts in Scotland that are free for anyone to use but rely on membership and volunteers to maintain. They are typically located off-grid and usually require some gravel riding or hiking to access. The first bothy we encountered near Glenfinnan was rather luxurious, with wooden panelling inside, which kept things dry and warm for our second night. Another hillwalking guest was spending the night in the far side of the bothy, but our late arrival and early departure meant that we didn’t cross paths.

Riding without the Faff, Scotland

The next morning included a mandatory stop at the Glenfinnan viaduct, where Bruno could find some pin badges to add to his rather extensive collection. I swear I saw him purchase over 20 such pins during the trip! We caught a fleeting glance of the Harry Potter-esque steam train as it passed by, satisfying the large crowds of tourists who had gathered to witness the spectacle. After a quick refuel, we were riding down the gravel paradise that runs down Loch Shiel.

Bruno’s Reflections:

As an Italian, it feels amazing to ride through such a sparsely populated region. There is something special about the sense of freedom that being so remote gives you. It’s not something you can experience in my home region in the north of Italy, where even camping at altitude gives you plenty of views over the surrounding villages.

Mountain bothies are something similar to Italian bivacchi, with the difference being that bothies are easier to reach by riding a bicycle. Seeing them was an experience I was really looking forward to, and this trip definitely satisfied my expectations. Scottish gravel roads are often very nice and wide, too. I had never experienced such big stretches of unpaved sections. And the many lakes and rivers all around were perfect for a refresh due to the unusual heatwave.

Undulating roads and headwinds accompanied our ride heading southwest to Kilchoan. Bruno left me behind on a large road climb, putting his Italian mountain experience to use. Later in the day, the constant up-down of the Scottish hills was taking its toll on both of us, and we were suitably fatigued when we made our ferry connection to Mull with just a minute to spare.

  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland

In Tobermory, the largest town on Mull, we indulged in some fine seafood and took photographs of the brightly painted sea-facing buildings. As the evening began, we left the town behind, ready to explore a short section of the elusive Mull gravel. Thankfully, this was much more gravel bike-friendly than my previous encounter with off-road exploring on the island (find that story linked below)!

Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland

We stumbled across a shipwreck at Salen beach, where Bruno posed for an impromptu masked photo with his bike. As the sun was setting for the day, we arrived at our second and final bothy of the trip. An adventurous family was already tucked away in their beds when we arrived. Young children were watching films on a tablet computer in the next room. We were impressed that the family had cycled up the rocky bothy track with large sacks of firewood and many more provisions than we were transporting on our relatively lightweight setups. Kindly, they shared fire lighting provisions with us, and we were able to warm up our room and dry out our riding clothes for the night.

Riding without the Faff, Scotland

On the final day, our route took us back to the mainland by ferry and a long road section through Argyll to take us southbound towards Dunoon, where a short ferry connects back to the mainland. I’m not exactly sure why, but we set a breakneck pace during that day, perhaps testing out our endurace capacities for big rides to follow in the year. We slipstreamed and sped our way to the finish of the ride. In total, we covered just under 600 kilometres, slept in three huts, and travelled on three ferries and one train, all in a weekend’s time.

  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland
  • Riding without the Faff, Scotland

Dare I say it, but I think we succeeded in completing a minimal-faff adventure.

The Route

Marcus Nicolson

About Marcus Nicolson

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. His next event will be the Atlas Mountain Race in Morocco. You can follow Marcus on Instagram @marcusnicolson.

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