Fastpacking the Grande Traversée du Jura (GTJ)

Below is a full description of our experience on the GJT. To view the Komoot collection, click here.

The Grande Traversée du Jura (the GTJ or Jura Grand Traverse) is a 400km-long trail following the Jura Mountains that stretch along the border between France and Switzerland.

Europe is famous for its long-distance Grande Randonnée (GR) trails and, indeed, you could easily be drawn down several that run over and along these sub-alpine mountains.

When planning our trip to Jura, we were keen to remain on French soil, for the simple reason that things are not as expensive as in Switzerland. The Jura Ridgeway (or Jura Crest Trail) is a famous long-distance route, but remains solidly on Swiss soil, and so our eyes were drawn elsewhere.

We stumbled across the GTJ which – we realised later – is a family of routes. In fact, you can complete the GTJ is seven different ways, with paths designated for walking, cycling, snowshoeing, skiing and even horse riding.

The trail worked perfectly for us: We were staying with family in the Morvan, which meant the Jura Mountains were just a few hours away.

We had a slight logistical hurdle to overcome in deciding just which part of the trail we wanted to run.

Spanning from the northern tip of Switzerland’s border with France, the GTJ wiggles its way through forest and over lush rolling mountains to the southernmost point near Lac du Bourget (close to Annecy).

Originally, we had intended to get a train or bus back to the start. That, plus the fact we only had three days to do the trail meant we selected a 100km section between Pontarlier in the north and Morbier in the south.

Albeit we would be missing the highest point of the trail (Grand Cret at 1702m), we would still have nearly 3000m to ascend over our 100km route.

Day 1 – Pontarlier to Chez Liadet (42km, 1800m)

Pontarlier sits astride the Doubs River, which would be our companion for much of the day and to the source of which we would visit that day.

With an hour to go before we reached Pontarlier, we were already starting to feel the more alpine climate emerging around us, with thick forests carpeting the hillsides. I was incredibly excited: Though I had studied the map and plotted the route, I was still very unsure as to what would await us on this trail.

Without realising it, we had driven to a height of 900m above sea level already, before dropping into Pontarlier at 840m.

The GTJ map

Driving through Pontarlier, we made for Chateau de Joux, where we had spotted an aire on the map that we reckoned we could leave the car.

Chateau de Joux is an underrated chateau. Now a fort, it commands an enviable position above Cluse de Pontarlier perched right at the top of a rocky outcrop and, if it were in a more popular region, would likely be the most photographed chateau in all of France.

Had we not been focused on getting started on the trail (and had it not been closed for renovations) we may have stayed a while to look around; it felt almost rude to park here only to run away from this stunning building.

After a customary selfie in front of the GTJ route board, we followed the famous white-and-red stripes out of the car park and down the hillside through the heavily shaded forest. As a side note, if you happen to be looking for a trail to run in summer, this may well be a good option as the abundance of trees allows for a cool run throughout the heat of the day!

The day started with a couple of punchy little climbs followed by long, gradual descents on quiet roads towards Montperreux. This is where we had our first encounter with the French habit of everything being closed during the day.

We had hoped to stop in Malbuisson on the banks of Lac de Saint-Point, but we discovered both were shut and so we cut out the dog-leg down to the town and instead headed straight uphill towards Les Hopitaux Neufs.

It was no great chore. The forest tracks – wavering between tarmac and gravel – were hemmed in by a beautiful mixture of woodlands, with pines and broadleaves happily nestled together.

What we quickly came to realise was that, bar one other person, we were the only two people we had seen on the trail that day. In fact, everywhere we went, we seemed to be alone except for the omnipresent chimes of cow bells that wandered to us through the trees. This would become a theme for the whole trip, actually.

We emerged from the forest to the warmth of the day and could look down upon Les Hopitaux Viex and Neufs. Ahead, the rising bump of the Métabief ski slopes loomed – our biggest climb and highest point of the whole trail.

Hopitaux Neufs looked very much like somewhere you’d expect to see the Tour de Romandie peloton passing through, with a wide central road and quaint stone buildings either side of it. We wolfed down our pastries and baguettes, fuelling up before the long climb to Métabief.

The trail started on meandering trails, every now and then passing over the ski slopes and downhill mountain bike tracks that zigzag through the forests. It was also where we came across one of the most spectacular highlights of the GTJ: the wildflower meadows.

Jura is dairy cow country. Morbier, our final town of the trail, is famous for its Morbier cheese. Because of this, the dairy cows require a diverse range of food, and so Jura is bursting with these enormous wildflower meadows which the cows visit rotationally.

Morbier cheese is distinctive thanks to the black line running through the centre of it. Traditionally, when making comté cheese, the cheesemakers would leave the leftover curd overnight and cover it with a layer of ash to preserve it. The next morning, they would add a second layer to it, and so Morbier cheese was born.

These floral oases were straight from a Sound of Music scene. The sun shone down on the hundreds of flowers nodding lazily in the light breeze. As we climbed higher, the meadows gave way to the Alpine climate of the top slopes. Any time I looked at my feet, I could see Alpine Lady’s Mantle carpeting the ground.

We headed straight up the ski slope. No one was around, so we had the opportunity to enjoy the expanding vista of the French-Swiss border alone, savouring the mountain air and sun.

Eventually, we popped out at over 1400m. From the summit at the Métabief ski centre, we looked south over the famous limestone escarpment towards Mont d’Or, just 500m from the Swiss border.

The steep descent to the artificial lake is followed by a lazy climb to the escarpment, which provides some exquisite trail running – a sense of running in the sky as the earth disappears to one side of you. Water Avens hugged the edges of the footpath; a plant you would ordinarily have to go well out of your way to find in the UK was sat right here by the path, essentially in a cow field.

We dropped west off the side of Mont d’Or, back into cow pastures and wildflower meadows. About halfway down, we came across an auberge which was miraculously open, so we stopped for a coffee and a water refill before setting off on the final 10km towards Mouthe.

My watch had said the rest of the trail was downhill to Mouthe, but every so often there’d be just a little climb to break up your stride. After just under two hours, we arrived at the Source du Doubs – the source of the Doubs River.

We had originally planned to stay at the hostel nearby, but after a bit of a miscommunication ended up booking a stay at Chez Liadet, which we thought was “just around the corner” – but in fact turned out to be a further 3km away up a drag of a hill.

Time to put the feet up!

At the bottom of the climb, I was thinking of dinner and beer, so the poles came out and we marched up the hill at under 10min/km pace. Finally, after the long climb, we reached the flat tarmac road that leads to Chez Liadet.

Chez Liadet, it transpired, was a small collection of log cabins next to a large house and barn, in one of the quietest valleys we had been in, broken only by the soft ringing of cowbells.

We went to check-in at reception, but were waylaid but a huge, lazy Bernese Mountain Dog, who almost instantly rolled onto his back to get a belly rub. Chez Liadet is run by a family, who are all passionate about the mountains. Nicolas, one of the owners, bore a Salomon t-shirt and wouldn’t look out of place at the start of UTMB.

After a heavy pot of fondue and a bottle of beer, we headed to bed, falling asleep in minutes – dreams filled with the soft tinkling of cowbells.

Day 2 – Chez Liadet to Foncine Le Haut (33km, 723m)

Over our breakfast table hung a dozen enormous cowbells, some of which I struggled to conceive how massive their owners must have been. According to our paper placemats, this was the family business: Making cowbells.

Leaving our tranquil valley behind in the blue-green hue of the morning, we followed dew-heavy trails back down the hill we had come the previous afternoon to Mouthe. Our objective for the day was Foncine-Le-Haut.

Huge cowbells!

When planning the route, this day had raised an eyebrow a couple of times. The route through the valley had some strong heatmap traces on Suunto, but the route of the GTJ actually headed up the other side of the valley and into some forests, in which there was little sign of any previous runners of walkers. It meant the 8km valley trail from Mouthe to Foncine-Le-Haut was actually a 33km day for us.

We debated whether to take the well-worn trail through the valley, but decided the alternative provided a greater opportunity for adventure, and was truer to the GTJ hiking route. After grabbing extra water in Mouthe, along with a couple of baguettes (knowing this was the last time we’d see a shop all day) we headed uphill towards Les Pontets.

The heat of the day quickly rose. The mid-layers we had on were quickly discarded, with the humidity incredible high. We were in need of a good thunderstorm to clear the air.

We had a fun time of trying to evade the enormous swarms of bluebottles that were happily feasting on fresh cow muck across the roads and trails. Any time we’d get to a long stretch of them, we’d run around them together as though evading land mines, causing swarms of them to burst forth as we passed. Fun? Yes. Pleasant? No.

Finally, we entered the cooling air of the forest, continuing on a tarmac road uphill to Cerniébaud. It was here we again encountered the odd feeling of being the only people on Earth. I suppose it was mid-week out of peak season, and a number of the houses would be second homes, but there was an eery quietness to the towns, as though they had been forgotten but were lightly maintained for appearances. At one point we passed a primary school full of shouting children, which seemed at complete odds to their surroundings.

It felt as though we had been on (rough) tarmac for much of the day, so it was a relief to finally turn into the forest again and find some gravel tracks. The dappled understory provided a tranquil setting as we headed slowly up the long climb of the day, which would eventually zigzag to bring us to 1100m above sea level.

Bo had a bit of a bonk at this point. Thanks to the tarmac and reasonably flat roads, we had done quite a lot of running until that point, and had possibly not taken on as much fuel as we needed. Thankfully, we always seem to leapfrog one another in our energy dips, so one person has the chance to gee the other up. I handed her a heavily loaded baguette of cheese and ham, a pole, and put on the Moulin Rouge soundtrack to pull us up the long forested climb.

After an unexpectedly steep section through churned up mud and grass, we reached the flat top of the forest, which began to open up to show the final climb of the day ahead, up to a towering mast. We made a quick check on Google Maps to see if there were any shops open in Foncine-Le-Haut and found a tobacco shop that was apparently open until 10pm. Result!…

Our short respite of flat ground was quickly over as the trail turned upwards again and, this time, required the poles to come out for both of us. Despite it being just 150m of ascent, the gradient was punishing on tired legs, and even turned into steps close to the top, which seem so much harder than a simple pine needle-covered trail.

At the top of the knoll, we were treated to a panoramic view of a seemingly endless carpet of forested countryside, unfolding onto a hazy horizon. Leaving our treetop vantage behind, we dropped down through the forest – first gradually, then steeply as we made our way down into the hot basin and our destination of Foncine-Le-Haut.

Our hopes of a refreshment at the local tobacco shop were dashed as we quickly came to realise that Google Maps’ advertisement of opening times and the reality on the ground differed vastly. So we sat, slowly wilting in the clammy afternoon sun, waiting for the nearest auberge to reopen.

Day 3 – Foncine-Le-Haut to Morbier (22km, 490m)

That night, we were treated to one of the most fearsome thunderstorms I have ever experienced. At around midnight, the light show started, with flashes almost every second as though we were in a nightclub with flashing strobes.

It made sleeping in a small box of a cabin in the hills an electrifying experience, to say the least.

However, it did mean the next morning dawned clear and dew-covered, making the air far less stifling and much more agreeable for running. Leaving our hilltop cabin behind, we ran up through the forest again.

The day started quintessentially Swiss, with soft morning rays piercing through clearings in the pines. Except for the ringing cowbells, we were alone, enjoying the tranquillity of the morning along singletrack trails.

Our first town of the day, Chapelle de Bois, sits close to the border with Switzerland, watched over by a huge iron cross sat high on the cliffs above. We dunked our hats into the fountain before making our way through town to the foot of the cliffs.

Here, we turned to run south-west, heading towards our destination of Morbier and passing the twin lakes of contrasting names, Lac de Bellefontaine and Lac de Mortes – Lake of the Beautiful Fountain and Lake of Death.

The mercury was slowly rising as the morning passed into midday, with a large chunk of the route so far being on tarmac roads. While my legs felt fine, I noticed I was dipping in energy levels earlier than I had the previous two days. The previous night’s storm had kept me awake for a time, so by the time we reached Bellefontaine I was starting to flag in the heat.

We chomped down some supplies and kept moving, sticking to the shade as much as possible and throwing the dog in the rivers where we found them. As we made it to 18km for the day, we waved goodbye to the official GTJ route to head to Morbier, home of the famous cheese.

After running through a sleepy wooded gorge, we began a stiff climb which would eventually tip down into Morbier sat nestled in amongst the hills. As we rounded a corner in the hillside, the ground dropped to our left, revealing the valley below and the town of Morez which neighbours with Morbier.

The descent into Morbier is very steep, with an exposed drop to one side, which I became acutely aware of after nearly stumbling down the edge of the hillside!

Arriving in Morbier, we rendezvoused with family. Sadly, because this is France, we could not sample the famous cheese – because nearly everything was closed. Had we not had the luxury of meeting family, we would have taken the TER P8 bus that runs twice a day to Andelot and then the TER P18 to Potarlier.

Summary

In summary, the GTJ is an excellent trail running experience, despite my grumblings of closed cafes! Had we had more time, I would love to have experienced more of the trail and get into the heart of the mountainous region of Haut Jura.

If you want to do the trail yourself, you can do as we did and drive there. There is the option of a flight to Geneva airport followed by public transport to Potarlier; or, if you want to take on the full distance, there is the option of Bern in the north to reach Audincourt and Geneva for the southerly point on the shores of Lac du Bourget.

If you have any questions about the trail, just drop me a message and see our Komoot collection for the full route.

Release of Running Adventures Scotland and other bits

Since I last wrote a blog post, the natural world has exploded into a kaleidoscope of colour.

I am incredibly fortunate to have a relatively large garden, which the previous owner managed to transform into an absolute haven of wildflowers. Yesterday, I counted 14 different wildflower species at a minimum – and with more on the way!

In a similar explosion of excited, my book Running Adventures Scotland was officially released on 5 May.

The past couple of weeks have been nothing short of extraordinary. Each of my social media platforms has go into a frenzy of notifications, as people unbeknown to me have come along to follow what I get up to.

The most surreal experience was – after a shameless plug for the book on a running Facebook group – several people I don’t even know commented say they already had the book and were actually using it.

Insane to think people would actually purchase my book and use it for its intended purpose!

Yesterday, I picked up a copy of Trail Running Magazine and found one of the photographs from the book splashed across a double-page spread with the title ‘Great Scot!’ and details about the book.

I feel immense gratitude to those people who have bought the book. To have worked on something privately for over a year and to then finally let it go is a nerve-wracking moment.

Will I be found out as a fraud? What if I missed something? Did I choose the right routes? Will it just gather dust on a shelf?

These thoughts have brewed in my head but, in reality, I am able to answer them:

  1. No. You were selected to write a book for a reason
  2. You did. You meant to. You cannot fit everything into 190 pages that you’d want
  3. As best you could. You had a criteria, you knew you had to miss some, and there is always more to explore
  4. If it does – who cares! It’s your book gathering dust. At least you’ve got one.

When 5 May rolled around and the pre-orders started landing, I didn’t bounce around like an idiot. I suddenly felt quite exposed for those above reasons. Something you put that much work into will be judged by others, and you’re at particular risk with the immediacy of social media.

However, it all seems to be going just fine and I am immensely proud of it.

If you haven’t grabbed a copy yet, you can do so over on the Vertebrate Publishing website.

In other news, I recently had the pleasure of accompanying Alex Roddie on a Lake District fastpacking trip, someone I have long-admired in the outdoor writing world. I intend to write a post about it in the coming few weeks.

Alex is preparing for a sensational 1000km fastpacking trip across the Alps this summer, which sounds absolutely brilliant and I cannot wait to see how he gets on in his training and in the ultimate execution of the trip!

I also had the delight of interviewing Finlay Wild a couple of weeks ago for a low-key new venture for me in the world of podcasting.

Finlay has just recently broken the Paddy Buckley Round record, thus completing the three Big Rounds in the UK: Ramsay’s Round, Bob Graham and Paddy Buckley.

It was a great conversation and an amazing learning curve for me. Having never done any sound editing whatsoever before now, it was great fun to delve into that world and try something new. I am hoping to get a steady stream of them going, and hopefully the process will become slicker each time.

You can listen to that podcast by clicking the link below.

May is an incredibly busy month for me. Most of that is the day job, with several key events and a massive project on the horizon. On 29 May I am driving to Morvan in France for a little over a week and going to be running across the Jura Mountains on the border with Switzerland.

Hopefully by mid-June things will settle down a bit and I can get on with some fun projects.

Until then, thank you once again for all the support over the past month or so, and I hope you enjoy the book and the podcast.

Pre-order Running Adventures Scotland…and surfing

The last week has been quite an incredible ride.

On 18 March, my book Running Adventures Scotland was officially released for pre-order over on Vertebrate Publishing’s website.

I am very grateful to Ourea Events for supporting the pre-order launch by offering one lucky customer an entry to the Ring of Steall Skyrace – a race I would highly recommend!

Since then, I have been on two podcasts. One – the Young Hearts Run Free – enjoyed having me on so much we had the conversation twice! Though, maybe that was because the vagaries of technology meant the first one didn’t record!

There are a number of other exciting events on the horizon, with a few livestreams, more podcasts, interviews and an Instagram live with Damian Hall to mark the publication day on 5 May.

I am mindful to both be excited and seize these opportunities with both hands, but also be prepared for the come down, which will inevitably happen.

While at the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival the weekend pre-orders launched, I watched Learning to Drown, following the turbulent and heart-wrenching story of stunt snowboarder Jess Kimura.

In amongst all the nasty accidents, there was a thread and a philosophy at the end which I found compelling. To paraphrase: Life is just a series of waves; at times you are riding them and others you are falling off. Though, without recognising that one must follow the other, you are living for those good times to only experience half a life.

I think we should all be more aware of the fact that there are times when we are riding a wave and feeling great, but you shouldn’t live your life waiting for those times. We cannot prevent the hard times, but know how to react when they do come.

Needless to say, it’s OK to not be OK, and I am certainly learning how to be kinder to myself when those not OK times roll around.

For now, this is an exciting time, and if you do want to collaborate with me, just check out the other pages on this website for other ideas!

Keep exploring!

Bothy nights and mountain days at Ben Alder

I recently wrote a piece for Edinburgh-based brewery Top Out. You can read the whole piece over on their website here. The below is a short excerpt. I highly recommend you try the Kellerbrier beer they sent us!

According to Tom’s 1:40,000 map, the Aisre Ghobhainn looked like an extremely narrow ridgeline. Agreeing we’d head over to suss it out and having made a get-out option, we trotted along the soft, easy top to this thin shoulder.

When we arrived, we could see the scale of the map had exaggerated how serious the ground was. Even so, it still required care – even more so given my attention was suddenly drawn elsewhere. As I stopped halfway down the ridge, I looked up to Tom and saw a cascade of ice clinging to the coire. A series of freeze-thaw cycles had created a stunningly beautiful natural phenomenon, with the water fixed in never-ending motion.

As I dropped further, I couldn’t help but say, “Woaaah!” The Loch Coire Cheap the lies at the foot of the coire was partially filled with sheets of ice, most of which clung to the southern shore, probably due to the wind. On its northern edge, the water looked like a teardrop as it ran its course to Allt Cam below. This was really a moment for the memory book.

We had now left the clag behind, running along easy ground to Carn Dearg. Once or twice, a white ptarmigan would erupt from behind the rocks, while a heard of nearly 40 red deer bounded across the heather ahead of us. Once over Carn Dearg’s rocky red peak, we had to shoot off right to Culra Bothy.

Culra is currently closed due to asbestos, but word on the street is it is to be demolished in 2022 and rebuilt. That’s the rumour, anyway. As we dropped down through the heather, I looked ahead and thought Beinn Bheoil. looked reeeeeally far away.

Full blog here!

Running Adventures Scotland – Podcasts and interviews

Here is a collection of the podcasts and interviews I have done talking about Running Adventures Scotland.

Young Hearts Run Free Podcast

I sat down for a good old chat with Steve and John over at YHRF. We discussed my personal running history and touched on mental health, before diving into the book and the people and places therein. Highly recommend the podcast if you’re on the hunt for some great crack and food patter.

Interview with Karla on whatkarladid

‘I love Scotland, mostly for the excellent people but also for the awe-inspiring views, rugged terrain and long summer days. It was a pleasure to ask Ross about his running and adventures in Scotland. It certainly has inspired me to get back into the hills and book a trip north of the border.’

Read the interview here.

Conversation with John Burns

I sat down for a chat with writer John D Burns, author of The Last Hillwalker and Bothy Tales. Listen to it here.

Interview with Inverness Courier

I chatted with John Davidson of the Inverness Courier. Read the interview here. You can also listen to a podcast version of it here.

Live chat with Wild Ginger Running

Claire Maxted invited me on for a livestream on her YouTube channel, Wild Ginger Running. Watch it below.

A tale of two landscapes

Tucked around a corner of the Monadhliath mountains in the Cairngorm National Park, Geal Charn rises to a modest 925m above a juvenile River Spey.

After setting off from Kendal early that day, we left the car park at lunchtime to make the 12km out-and-back to the summit before a long weekend in the Cairngorms.

The rivers were at what Bo described as their “happy weight” – full and frothing, but not so high to be considered “raging”. As we began the climb proper after a few kilometres’ walk in, the path became sodden from recent snow melt, but was clearer at 700m.

Every so often, Togo (our cocker spaniel) would detonate a grouse mine, causing them to warble and whirr in an explosion of wings from the heather. The higher we got, the stronger the wind grew. By 900m, we were bending sideways to stay upright, staggering drunkenly across the summit plateau. Every so often, we would come across a remnant snow patch that had been polished icy smooth by the cold wind. Packed solid, they provided little grip and so all three of us were on our backsides at one point or another!

We quickly made our escape. Frustratingly, a roll of dog poo bags was whipped out of a pocket, whisked across the hill and into the distance. Despite Togo making a valiant chase, they were gone. I kicked myself, but reminded myself that even the best of us have things blown out our hands and accidentally become a “litterer”.

As we walked (more casually now we weren’t in a permanent side crunch) along the Feith Talagain, I spotted a huge herd of red deer ahead of us. Though my view of red deer is tainted these days, I am still in awe of them; they really are fine creatures.

As we neared, they surged away. There must have been 50, 60, perhaps more in the herd. We chatted for a few moments about how amazing deer are, and I wondered what had brought such a large group here.

Then I looked on my right. On the skyline, I could see half a dozen stragglers standing around huge piles of feed. My heart sank. As we continued towards the car, we could see the herd now on the road. They didn’t seem to mind us now, because they were preoccupied with something else.

On the road ahead of the deer, a pick-up truck was moving slowly, with a figure on the back tossing feed onto the road. I noticed, too, that every single one of the deer was a stag.

Scotland is now home to around 400,000 red deer, up from 150,000 in the 1960s. This “wild animal” has seen its populations both deliberately and accidentally boosted in numbers thanks to the lucrative business of deer stalking and lack of natural predators – except us, of course.

It was sad to see this emblem of Scotland in such a vast landscape which is now unable to sustain their numbers naturally. Every year, red deer perish due to exposure (hypothermia) and starvation. Deer are woodland creatures by nature, and it’s only in the last hundred years they have had to adapt to open hill life. Thus, methods such as feeders are now necessary to ensure survival and deer for hunting parties.

Valued at several thousand pounds a head, shooting is a lucrative business for estates, so it is no wonder they want to keep them healthy in these bare landscapes.

As we left the glen, it was clear the pick-up had made its way along the whole road. Driving along we encountered several dozens-strong groups of stags everywhere. It was like being in a safari.

Shaking my head sadly, we left the glen, heading off for our camp spot for the night.


We woke up the next morning at the mouth of Glen Feshie, with a soft light masking the forecasted rain of the day.

Glen Feshie has gained a reputation over the years: For some, it evokes memories of a massive deer cull that made the headlines in 2004; for others, it marks a progressive step change in Scotland’s land management.

The estate is owned by Anders Povlsen, a Danish billionaire who is now the biggest private landowner in Scotland (maybe even the UK) with 12 estates clocking up around 220,000 acres (over 890 sqkm).

He may be the biggest shareholder of Asos, but Povlsen’s reputation is now becoming that of a landowner with plans to ‘rewild’ much of the Scottish Highlands – particularly in the Glenfeshie Estate – with a 200-year vision.

We sheltered in the van for over an hour, waiting for the latest band of rain to wash over us. Some intrepid souls set off as we sat drinking tea, enjoying the fact that – as runners – we needn’t be in such a hurry. Eventually, we couldn’t hold it off much longer, and set off up the road to join the track into the glen.

Immediately, the difference between the two landscapes I was visiting that weekend became apparent. Here, pines were sprouting up all over the place, with the old granny pines now standing among dozens of their saplings.

Regenerating pines

Much of Scotland’s ancient Scots pines have been lost over the centuries due to a mixture of livestock farming, demand for timber, and an increase in the Highland sporting estates. Gnarled granny pines were all that were left – twisted old trees that weren’t useful for timber and were left to fall over themselves.

These trees are usually hundreds of years old and, thanks to high herbivore numbers, will see most of their seedlings nibbled back every year until they can grow no more. Thus, we end up with trees standing alone in huge landscapes, without a chance of cross-pollination from other trees.

Just a few kilometres into the run, we came across an obstacle. In 2009, a storm ripped up the bridge across one of the burns that needs to be crossed to access the glen. That day, the burn was a raging torrent. Hitching the dog under my arm and locking our free arms together, Bo and I forded the thigh-deep river, which did its best to push us over.

After 6km, we passed the junction that marked the furthest I’d been into the glen before. Left headed up the Mullach Clach a’Bhlair, while straight ahead took us deeper into the glen. Shortly, we came across the Feshie Bothy, where we found a few of the wet souls who had set off before us from the car park. It is a phenomenally cosy and well-built ‘bothy’ – in fact, it’s more like a self-catering cottage than a bothy.

Another river!

Continuing on, we traversed around some steep banks where the wide river was reclaiming the land. You could just feel this river was natural: it widened and narrowed as a river should, with gravel bars and banks helping control the flow; here and there, tree carcasses lay like barricades, forcing the river to find a new direction.

As our world becomes more susceptible to flooding, awareness of the role of rivers and trees in flood management is increasing. For years, our rivers have been straightened and shoved to the edges of fields and roads, which only increases their speed, and spurt out sediment and water across towns and villages further downstream. Trees can help stabilise soils and slow down the currents, preventing landslips and excessive amounts of water and debris destroying homes.

As we rounded a water-logged bend, our way was blocked by a huge fallen tree. Beyond, though, we caught a glimpse of what we’d been looking for. It looked like a school playground for trees: Dotted around, the parent trees stood watchfully over the dozens of juvenile trees that crammed the ground around them.

This is a forest in the making. And not one tree has been planted.

A glimpse into the regenerating forest

When we returned to the Feshie Bothy, we met Lindsay, the warden. We chatted with him for a while about the regeneration. I asked him what he thought made this regeneration so special. Before the deer cull, there were around 40 deer per sqkm. Now, there is maybe one.

Glenfeshie Estate has a zero tolerance for deer at present. The result of that is clear to see, with every tree we had seen having naturally seeded from the remaining woodland.

For many years, people have rubbished the idea that trees could grow much higher than 400m in Scotland. Now, Lindsay told us, they have found trees up to 930m. It makes sense – after all, Norway has a very similar climate to Scotland and we share a latitudinal line, and there we see trees growing upwards of 900m easily.

Specialised species such as rowan, birch and willow varieties will happily grow around 900m above sea level. I have been out planting varieties of willow on Helvellyn at between 700-800m where they are having a jolly old time. These montane trees provide excellent habitats for insects, mammals and ground-nesting birds, which in turn encourage predator species such as raptors and eagles to find food there.

Downy willow at 750m

Of course, deer are a natural part of Scotland’s ecosystems, but the lack of apex predators and artificially boosted numbers has meant they are now reaching unsustainable levels. What does that mean? It means deer are now perishing due to starvation and hypothermia in winter, with minimal tree cover to protect them.

Temporarily reducing their numbers allows trees to return. Lindsay was clear when he pointed out the situation in Glen Feshie will change once the estate thinks it is good to do so. At some point, the trees themselves will need management, and deer will be reintroduced at low densities, before more monitoring takes place to assess impact.

We start to see regeneration happen at around eight deer per sqkm, but ideally we need three or four to see the regeneration we need.

While reducing deer numbers may ring alarm bells for some whose livelihoods are reliant on them, the good news is that the demand for high-skilled stalkers has never been higher. Charities, public bodies and private landowners are attempting to bring deer numbers down, so having skilled stalkers is vital for that work.

Of course, other methods have been tried, most notably fencing. While effective, fencing is incredibly expensive, at around £7.20 per meter. Furthermore, the problem is still there, creating unnatural divisions in ecology between wooded fenced areas and barren non-fenced areas. Deer will naturally try to get into the trees in winter, so often they can be found dead at the edges of fencing due to hypothermia.

Birth control has also been suggested, but – in order to fire a dart – a stalker must be much closer to a deer than they would with a rifle. It would also require a massive data tracking process for the 400,000 red deer in Scotland.

We forded the river again as we left the glen, the weather slowly clearing. It had been fascinating to see how two different estates were doing different things so close to one another, with markedly different goals and results.

Nature sorts itself out quickly, but we’ve knocked it out of kilter. It needs our help to return to its natural processes to help capture carbon, manage rivers and increase biodiversity in our hills.

UKC – OPINION: Premium Events – How they affect us, and our connection with wild places

Would you pay hundreds or even thousands of pounds to compete in the stage managed adventure-lite of an exclusive organised race or walking event? Are the huge fees charged by premium events just a rip-off? Perhaps runners and hillwalkers hate that a big monetary value can be placed on things which many see as against the ethos of our sports. But if you don’t like it, don’t sweat it, suggests Ross Brannigan; put something positive into the outdoors instead.

Read the full article over on UKClimbing.

Cycling 1000km for wild places – Part 2

Day 4 – Pitlochry to Glen Nevis (155km/1850m)

Schiehallion had been glinting cheekily at us as we cycled along the high road to Tummel Bridge, its famous conical form immediately recognisable on the skyline.

Andy and I pulled into the sunlit Braes of Foss car park at the foot of the famous mountain. Schiehallion, of course, is famed for its place in the weighing of the world experiment, but there are other great advances afoot here.

As I alluded to in the first part of this series, Izzy is one of the rangers at Schiehallion, and had brought her expertise in montane woodlands to her role here. While reducing browsing pressures from herbivores like sheep and deer, she and the team have been attempting to slowly regenerate the diminished montane woodland cover at Schiehallion.

Montane (mountain) woodland is a forest in miniature. At 600m above sea-level, these wee trees leave the oaks and hazels behind to advance up the hill, creating a beautiful ground canopy of silvery-green, providing excellent homes for mammals and insects – plus the animals that prey on them!

The UK’s montane woodland has largely diminished to but a few small pockets, nibbled back or burned. Dave Macleod recently made an excellent film (featuring Izzy) all about the subject.

As we stood around the large interpretation panel, a small group offered to take our photograph. “He’s cycling all the way to Sandwood Bay!” Andy said, really bumping me up. “He’s raising money for the guys looking after this place.” I really appreciated his pride, making sure I didn’t undersell myself.

The road to Loch Rannoch is an undulating and beautiful road for a cyclist. As we crested the little climbs, we could see Loch Rannoch ahead of us and beyond that, the distant Glen Coe.

The ride to Schiehallion was the starter. We were now onto the main.

Now onto day four of the trip, I had settled into a rhythm of my day. I knew this was just what I was doing now. It didn’t require much effort. I felt quite free, gliding through the village of Kinloch Rannoch, at ease with the pace of it all.

Loch Rannoch

It’s a long way down the road alongisde Loch Rannoch, but soon we reached the point where we would depart the tarmac. Here we would enter the Corrour Estate. The area is one of the country’s largest shooting estates for deer, with the 2017/18 deer count estimating around 2300 deer (12/sqkm).

The estate backs onto the John Muir Trust’s land at Glen Nevis. Ironically, though, we would have to take the long way around. Though there is a path leading into Glen Nevis from the east, it would make for some hellish hike-a-biking. Instead, we would head to the most remote train station in Scotland, Corrour, before riding around Loch Ossian and out to Fersit. It would be a long way, but on what is reputed to be the best gravel in Scotland.

First, though, we’d have to negotiate the broken, rocky ground alongside Carn Dearg to a high point of 550m – the highest for the day. Annoyingly, this was when we were starting to get wet.

Jackets went on, came off, went on, came off. Pockets of rain swept in across the the moor while, on our left, the Blackwater Reservoir and distant Loch Leven were bathed in spring sunshine. Most unjust. The climb was just easy enough to stay on the bike, but it was hot work.

Prior to the trip, I had spent days going back and forth to the workshop with my bike. It seemed the week before, this machine that would transport me to Sandwood Bay was throwing a tantrum. Everything went wrong with it. All things considered, it was fairly restricted in its capacity, in particular its tyres.

As I trundled up that rocky climb, all I could think of was the terror of the downhill. The clearance between my tyres and the chainstays could be measured in hair-widths. Literally, any stone that fancied a ride on my tyre would gouge a great scar in my frame. And with just 32mm of tyre on this ground, the chances for punctures was high!

Thanks to this, my total focus as we descended to Loch Ossian was on the ground in front of me, not the views. However, I was keenly aware of the light slowly ebbing from the world around us. Once I hit the bottom of the descent a good minute behind Andy, I looked up to find us in a gloomy pit of the world.

Andy loving life in the Corrour Station cafe

Loch Ossian is surrounded by a vast, remote landscape, surrounded on all sides by towering peaks – Carn Dearg, Beinn na Lap and Leum Uilleim. The sky had descended upon us, not only lowering the ceiling, but blocking every valley with darkness.

We scooted off towards the sanctuary of the Corrour Railway Station in search of a venison burger. As we ate, the rain began, ricocheting off the benches outside and smearing the window. Suddenly, staying here in this warm pub seemed like a far better idea. “Besides, we need the energy”, we said, smacking our lips with burgers and chips.

All too soon, we had to face the inevitable. We pulled on every item of waterproofing we had, and set off into the darkness. Without a watch, you would be justified in thinking it was 8pm, not 2pm!

I must say, the gravel around Loch Ossian more than made up for it. We zoomed around the northern shore on delightful tracks, eventually turning north up a climb that would take us to Fersit.

Just a few kilometres later, we broke through the curtain of rain. We didn’t notice at first, but suddenly the sky was turning blue, and ahead of us Creag Meagaidh came into view without a black veil over it. Looking back, we could see we had definitively been within a microclimate. It was like peering into the depths of the darkest sea.

Stripping off layers, we laid them across our bike bags, zooming down the gravel roads towards Fersit, drying ourselves off. “This is like Dirty Kanza!” Andy whooped. It was sensational; the roads were just gravelly enough to ensure you felt ‘off-road’ without being technical.

We breezed through forests, the mountains building on either side of us as we reached the foot of Loch Treig, famous for being one of the only road support points for Ramsay’s Round.

Eventually, it had to come to an end. We joined the road and followed the wide A86 to Fort William that Andy and I had ridden in the other direction on our last trip. The last of Andy’s long flowing locks had just dried out as we passed the Nevis Range junction when, naturally, it started to rain again.

Entering Glen Nevis

We could see in the west the looming buttress of clouds forming, ready to meet the towering peak of Ben Nevis on our right. Groaning, we pulled our now dry jackets back on. It had been so good while it lasted!

“I cannot be arsed setting up camp in this”, Andy said. I couldn’t agree more.

I rang the Nevis Inn and asked if there was space for us to grab a pint. “Aye, sure. If you’re just having drinks then there’s plenty space upstairs.” Excellent. We sped our way through Fort William as the rain came down, but we could see glimpses of clear sky chasing the darkness.

Not too long later, we were pulling off damp clothes and groaning with delight as we plopped ourselves into sagging sofas. I bought several packets of crisps and a shandy, and we lounged around on the sofa while our phones charged and the rain beat down on the Velux windows.

“Not too bad for someone who’s not done a lot of riding recently”, I winked at Andy.

“Man, I am not looking forward to the ride home tomorrow”, he confessed, rubbing his backside and calves.

I opened my phone. Tomorrow would be the day I would get my ferry from Kinloch Hourn to Knoydart. Peter, who I had arranged the crossing with, had been largely incommunicado for a week. I didn’t think too much of it, but said I would text him that I was officially in Fort William and definitely would be there tomorrow. I sent the text before we would leave signal behind, hoping he hadn’t forgotten somehow…

On Trust soil again

Eventually, we did have to peel ourselves from the embrace of those most lovely of couches. The rain had eased off after 30 minutes, so we nabbed an extra bag of crisps and made our way up the winding glen to the Trust boundary line.

How this site came into the Trust’s hands is an interesting one, and I will leave it to them to tell you how that happened. Of course, looking after Britain’s most iconic mountain can be a poisoned chalice at times. With all the potential for publicity in owning such a prestigious national monument comes with it the burden of dealing with increasing visitor numbers.

Post-lockdown, Nevis – like many places – saw a skyrocketing in visitor numbers, along with their problems: Litter, fires, parking issues, locals becoming frustrated, footpath erosion. In the past, I would have done what many people would have: Rallied against it and deplored this insensible behaviour.

Now, I understand it, or at least sympathise. I have spoken to so many people who have had barely any experience in the outdoors that they can often be found wearing puffer jackets in the pouring rain because they think don’t know better.

Things many of us take for granted these new visitors have hardly been exposed to. I see the issues of visitor pressures as a societal problem: Litter is normalised in our cities, thus people litter themselves; our schools don’t have equal access to outdoor spaces for children to learn to care for; our public transport system is appalling when trying to access these spaces; signage is often aggressive, not helpful.

All these little things develop into bigger problems. We have to take people on the journey with us.

We set up camp, finally with clear skies above us again. The damp forest brought with it the early season midges so the two of us perched ourselves on a rock and held a midge coil between us, looking like two monks carrying out a bizarre ritual.

Day 5 – Ben Nevis to Skye (147km/1786m)

Caledonian Canal

When organising the trip, I was aware that I was going to be joined by a fair few people. I admit that bummed me out a little. I knew I would love seeing all these people, but was that what I was doing this for? Surely I needed time for introspection? Solitude? It was my trip.

In the end, I was sad to be saying goodbye to Andy at Gairlochy, but in a way it was at the right time. Today and tomorrow I would be by myself, and it was where the going got a little bit more technical, with ferries and wilder landscapes.

Peter had finally called to say the boat was on. Amazing! The tracks and roads along the Caledonian Canal were sublime. With the wind on my back, I was now on the hunt for adventure..

Grimy but lots of fun

The day was driech, is the best I can describe it. The forest track along Loch Laggan was split and mucky with the turning of machinery wheels. Very soon, I was clarty, mud splattering everywhere. The thing is, though: I was having an absolute blast. In fact, as I zoomed through the forest, I deliberately splashed through some puddles and mud, feeling an unshakable sense of euphoria.

I was so excited for this, day five. It was the day of (what turned out to be) two ferries, riding on an island, and a whole day riding alone.

The rain eased off again as I left the forest at Invergarry and turned left to follow the long, winding road to Kinloch Hourn. Out of the corner of my eye, a pine marten dashed into the trees. While the threat of getting wet didn’t truly leave, the breaks in the cloud were like honey, as I whizzed freely along and the landscape continued to widen around me.

Once I was over the big hump at the Loch Quoich reservoir, I put my headphones in for some extra entertainment (though, the mountains in every direction were doing a good job at that anyway). The first song that came on was Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty.

It was like God had taken control of my Spotify. In that moment, that song was everything I wanted to listen to. I played it on repeat for the entire length of the loch, bellowing the lyrics at the top of my voice. Even now, months on, I still get that feeling when it plays.

Descending into Kinloch Hourn demands total concentration, though. Tom Petty was turned off as the road turned nearly vertical in spots, with sharp hairpins, dropping 200m in under 5km. After finally releasing my brakes, I coasted into the little hamlet, which is comprised of a steading and a couple houses.

The first local I came across was a young stag. He was walking casually like one of the local lads out to check his patch, gazing lazily at me as I stopped ahead of him. I have never seen a more nonchalant stag in my life.

I was early, so I popped my head in at the cafe that had been advertised to me the whole way from Loch Quoich. It was 2.30pm, and I had 30 minutes to wait for Peter to pick me up, so I ordered a pot of tea and a scone as I sat in the courtyard, enjoying the high sun of the day.

In my head, I’d imagined Peter as this old school salty seadog who I’d have very little reference to draw upon. As I stopped at the jetty, he greeted me with a wry smile. “Ross?” he asked, and looked me up and down, then at my bike.

“So, are you wearing clipless shoes, then?” he said. Turns out, Peter was quite the triathlete in his day, and with the Cape Wrath Trail basically on his doorstep, he’d become quite accustomed to the vagaries of backpackers and the gear they brought with them.

As I slid into the little boat, Peter explained that a landing at Li would not be possible. The water was extremely choppy beyond the strait, so we would land at a bay closer by. It wouldn’t be John Muir Trust land, but it was the best that I could do, and I didn’t mind too much. My rule was fairly arbitrary anyway.

As the boat thudded through the waves, I spotted a bucket at Peter’s feet. “You’ve been catching mussels?” I enquired. “Aye”, he said gloomily. “No much, though.”

Peter and his family had, I learned, lived in Arnisdale for generations. His father had been the head gamekeeper on the Arnisdale Estate, and he’d watched this landscape change as landowners changed and private interests made their presence known.

One such private interest is Mowi. As we made our way along Loch Hourn, Peter told me about his work with Friends of Loch Hourn, and how they were working to prove that the opening of the new fish farms at the mouth of the loch were affecting biodiversity.

“The rock faces”, he indicated towards the shore. “They were full of mussels before. All up the rocks. Nowadays there’s none at all.” As I listened, I could hear the sadness of a man who’d grown up in this area, had generations before him live here, and it was changing. And this wasn’t all about selfish interest; this was a loss of nature to this remote corner, that to many would appear pristine and wild.

We bumped into the bay and I bounced out the boat, gazing up the incredible Coire Odhar. It stood out so starkly due to the huge fence that ran the outside of it. Within the exclosure, vegetation was exploding across the hill, regenerating in front of my eyes. This was what reduced grazing pressure looked like.

Regeneration on Knoydart

After a photo, I hopped back in the boat and we made our way north to Arnisdale. We made landing on one of the piers and we lifted my laden bike out of the little boat. Thanking Peter, I passed him the little wad of notes Nicky had given me and made my way to dry land.

The sun was still high in the sky. My plan was to get to Glenelg this afternoon and make camp, but I was so in the moment of the adventure that I couldn’t contemplate stopping. I checked to see when the last ferry to Skye was, noted I had some time, and swung my leg over the bike.

That ride to Glenelg was something special. I have never come across a day where the phrase “with the wind in my hair” made so much sense. On my left, the sun gently crested the sky, shimmering on the sea, with the crystal clear air ahead of me bringing the mountains that must have been on the Applecross peninsula into sharp relief.

Pedalling felt effortless, as my enjoyment of the day spurred me on. I breezed casually through Glenelg and headed off to the ferry pier. As I rounded the bend, I could see it heading back over to the island, so hopped into the kiosk at the harbour to grab some snacks.

With a bag of Mini Cheddars and a thick slice of shortbread, I watched as the ferry drew in. The MV Glenachulish is the last manually-operated turntable ferry in the world. You may be wondering Glenachulish? Like Ballachulish?. Correct. This ferry once served the town of Ballachulish before the bridge was constructed in 1975.

“Foot passenger”, the ferryman noted. “You local?” “Nope.” “That’ll be £4, please.”

I stood on the deck, watching the men work the turntable and chatted to one of the locals. He lived in Glenelg and was off to Broadford for his shopping. Imagine getting a ferry for your shopping!

I was pleased to have wolfed down the slab of shortbread, because ahead of me was the devil of the day: The Kylerhea road. All 4.3km and 300m ascent of it. Gulp.

After disembarking, I set off up the tarmac as it slowly pitched steeper and steeper. The landscape dropped away behind me as I heaved the bike higher and higher above the sea. The last kilometre is a brute, with a heinous pitch in the road that forced me to walk.

The misty isle

It was all worth it, though: As I crested the hill, the Cuillin of Skye lay spread out ahead of me, like mountains in a pop-up book. The sun was now on its long journey towards the horizon, the sunset bringing a shimmering glow to the island. I gave Bo a ring and showed her the view. This was a moment to be savoured.

I drank in as much as possible and zoomed down to Broadford. Insatiably hungry, I stopped for food before winding my way along the Torrin bay to Blà Bheinn. The Trust owns a vast area on Skye, but Blà Bheinn struck me as a good ‘touch’ point, such is its magnificent form.

Bla Bheinn

Soon after, I was back at the northern bay of the loch, pitching the tent. Unbelievably, I had full signal, so made a few phone calls before going back outside to make dinner and to gaze at the mountain.

That’s when it hit me. Big time. I had fucking cycled here. Perhaps the fact I was now on an island hit this fact home to me, but I felt immensely proud that, despite the obstacles, I was here. On Skye! This was, like, a huge drive from home.

The sun set at long last and I retreated to my sleeping bag. I may have been alone but the delight I felt filled the entire tent.

Day 6 – Skye to Kinlochewe (114km/1344m)

Droplets clung to the outside of the canvas. It had rained overnight, which surprised me. I checked the forecast.

Rain – lots of rain. My plan was to ride to Torridon and camp, but as I scrolled through the forecast, the wind and rain did not look like ideal camping weather. I made a spur of the moment decision and checked the Kinlochewe Hotel for beds. Somehow, there was one room left for £90.

Done. Booked. Now, I had no excuses. I was invested.

I had made up some distance on my plan now, after pushing on to Skye instead of stopping in Glenelg. I headed back to Broadford before joining the long main road off the island and across the Skye Bridge.

Leaving Skye

That road lasts forever, especially with a rude headwind. That headwind, it transpired, would be with me the entire day. I did have my aero bars, but every so often I was having to stretch my neck and shoulder, as the pain on my left side cranked it up a notch.

Leaving the Misty Isle behind – played out by Runrig’s Skye – I made my way towards the peninsula road that would take me to Plockton. A storm was definitely in the air. As I rounded the headland and headed east, its grumblings buffeted along on heavy gusts while the Applecross peninsula brooded.

Passing Stromferry, I began climbing on an Alpine-like road surrounded by pines as the dark waters of Loch Carron dropped away from me. I was flagging by the time I came into Lochcarron itself, and quickly pulled into the cafe at Lochcarron Golf Club.

I was halfway through the day, but I would happily have stepped off the bike and fallen asleep. I devoured a soup and sandwich combo, guzzling coffee and tea and watching the trees outside sway in the wind.

My friend, Robin, grew up in Lochcarron. He’s a formidable cyclist, and I can see why. The climbs here take no prisoners, and you can hardly avoid them. The climb out of Lochcarron was brutal after my lunchtime feast, but I felt the energy coming back to me as I started along roads I have ridden before. I descended towards Sheildaig with a renewed optimism, rolling into the town that witnesses the start of the infamous Celtman Extreme Triathlon.

Often when I visit this area, I come across bikepackers cycling along the road between Shieldaig and Torridon. When I started planning this trip, I could envisage this scene at the drop of a hat, knowing it would be a high point of the ride. As it was, when I emerged from Shieldaig, I came across a far more ominous sight.

The ancient Torridonian sandstone grew from the shores of the loch, but they were not in resplendent, welcoming colours. Liathach loomed like Mount Doom, growling amongst steel grey clouds. From the north, an impenetrable wall of water was making its way slowly and inexorably towards me. Nature can be as awe-inspiring for its imposing gloom as for its beauty.

I quickly wrapped my waterproof jacket around me and pulled on waterproof trousers, preparing for the drenching. As I made the last of the undulating climbs along the road, the heavens opened. Rain didn’t just fall; it threw itself towards the ground. I pulled my hood over my helmet, vainly attempting to keep the water from seeping into every nook and cranny.

Uh-oh…

As I came through Annat, the wind battered into my right side – the direction I would soon be turning. Throughout this ride, I had been estimating arrival times by creating manageable goals. Even if I go at 10mph, I will still get there in two hours, was the kind of thing I’d tell myself.

I had done something similar for this stretch between Torridon and Kinlochewe – a long, steady climb into a block headwind. 10mph had seemed a suitable goal.

As I made my way northwards, weaving around on the road, I looked down at my watch: 6mph. Things started to get dark. The pain in my neck that had been manageable for the past few days started to shoot through my shoulder. I gritted my teeth, focusing on turning the cranks round and moving forwards.

In the end, it took 90 minutes to cover the 20km to Kinlochewe. I coasted, battered, into the town and turned a handful of pedal strokes into the hotel’s driveway.

Once I had hung everything up in the room and put on some reasonably dry clothes, I made my way down to dinner. After a day like that, my only focus was returning calories to my body, so I ate a full three courses – including a sumptuous venison casserole – and fell asleep at 9pm.

Day 7 – Kinlochewe to Ullapool (121km/1568m)

Rain dragged its fingers across the windows. For now, that didn’t matter. I sat in the breakfast restaurant, eagerly awaiting the waiter to take my order, giving a nod to the other solo resident across from me.

The waiter arrived, and turned to the other chap first: “Morning, sir. Tea or coffee?” “Tea.” “Toast – white or brown?” “White, please.” “Do you want orange or apple juice?” “Apple.” “And how would you like your eggs?” “Fried.”

The waiter came over, and asked me the same questions. My response: Coffee, brown, orange, scrambled. When the waiter left, I turned to the guy opposite and said, “Well, it seems we are quite different people.”

He laughed, and we started chatting. He was travelling the NC500 on his motorbike and was heading back to Balloch that day. I told him what I was doing, and he was interested, so asked more about the Trust. I gave him the sales pitch, and had a great conversation about National Parks.

Later that day, I checked on my fundraising. I had a £10 from a Jason: “Hi Ross. I met you during breakfast at the Kinlochewe Hotel and you told me about your fantastic adventure raising money for such a worthy cause. I hope you complete your journey safely. Ride safe.”

I had put a little call on social media before leaving, inviting people to come out to join me. Lou (who then I knew just as @lulublueberry on Instagram) had reached out to offer not just her company, but her friend and their van as a support vehicle!

Once I was dressed, I came back downstairs and saw two fluorescent figures outside in the rain. I had never met either of them in person, but was delighted for the company after a lonely day and a half. Louise’s friend, Cher, would join me to Gairloch, where they’d swap over the driving and we’d stop for food.

Cher, I learned as we headed out along Loch Maree (with a tailwind), was training for the Celtman, and had a mean bike setup to keep me moving fast. We passed the Beinn Eighe NNR – a stunning example of a long-term rewilding project and trundled along with Slioch on our right.

We made quick time along the loch with the wind behind us, and it wasn’t long before we were in Gairloch. Admittedly, I was still feeling quite groggy from the day before, but wanted to enjoy the time with Lou and Cher. We pulled into the layby to see Louise and noshed on pastries and the wonderful smorgasbord of snacks they had brought.

The support crew

Louise grabbed her bike. Immediately, I had doubts. It was a questionable looking Eastway road bike. Sure enough, as we left Gairloch, her chain exploded. I was keen to get moving, so left them to the bike and headed off to stay warm.

Weeks ago, a school teacher from Poolewe had got in touch to say she’d love me to stop by and speak to her kids. The pupils had been doing their John Muir Award and she said they’d love to hear me talk about what I was doing and why I was raising money.

It was that thought that kept me going as I cycled alone along the road, with a fresh band of rain clouds coming closer every kilometre. At the wild stretch along Loch Tullie, the rain came again, creeping down my neck and turning the world from May into December in a flash.

I kept moving, pedalling hard to get to Poolewe. Cher and Lou went past me in the van, saying they’d meet me after my visit to the school. I wheeled my bike around the front of the building and knocked on the main door. A teacher appeared, obviously confused at seeing a soaking wet cyclist at their door.

“Hi! I’m Ross Brannigan. One of the teachers said I should stop by.”

“Oh!” she exclaimed. “You’re here! I thought you had maybe forgotten!” She busied herself getting my inside and putting a brew in my hands, drawing me into the nearest classroom.

The rooms were quite dark, but I learned the kids were trying to save electricity. The teacher introduced me to the kids, who were around six-years-old and were full of questions. We got onto the subject of wild animals I’d seen on the way (evidently the pupils think the Lake District is quite exotic given the questions about elephants) and I told them with pride about the pine marten I had seen at Loch Quoich.

Big mistake. A boy shot his hand into the air. “Yes?”

“We-we-we had a pine marten in our garden once,” the boy said. “And it killed our chickens.”

And then it started. Pine martens are clearly old news to these kids, who all had a story about how pine martens had wreaked havoc in their gardens. What it did say to me was that these kids clearly watched and observed the natural world, and were no strangers to the realities of it.

What was quickly becoming a reality to me was the cold. I went to another classroom but my core temperature was seeping into the floor. I pulled on another jacket (a mountaineering waterproof Louise had given me), but couldn’t emit any heat.

After a cup of tea, the teacher asked me to come outside for a photograph. The kids were dazzled by my bike, asking more questions about my journey. After the picture, I pulled on my Sealskinz gloves and kept my five layers on, wheeling down the drive with the kids waving me off.

Cher and Lou were waiting outside, wondering what had become of me. I apologised, explaining the pine marten debacle. Lou got her bike out again, new chain fitted, and we pedalled out of town.

You may be pleased to hear that the next section is largely a blur. With my temperature at rock bottom and my neck stiffening up, I barely took notice of what was going on around me. I dimly held to the pace as we rounded yet another beautiful cove, up another climb, along yet another quiet road, buffeted by yet more wind and rain.

Lou looking rather happy; me less so

Not far from Dundonnell, the sun returned for a while, but I had to step off the bike and get Lou to put her elbow into my shoulder. It was now becoming unbearably sore, so I downed paracetamol and tried to keep my shoulders loose. Ullapool was surely close but we just weren’t going anywhere; every kilometre felt like 10.

Dundonnell was a checkpoint I had been waiting for all day. The red van was at the side of the road, so I crawled into the passenger seat to shut my eyes. My stomach was now starting to give me issues, evidently protesting at the mountain of calories going into it.

Around me, the world had turned into a general shade of dark grey. Features didn’t stand out anymore, and everything seemed to be turning on me. Once we got going again, I only managed 5km before having to stop for another stretch and paracetamol.

Cher practically dragged me up the An Teallach road climb. I saw some waterfalls. The gradient seemed incessant. It kept fucking raining. It was not fun.

I had a small revival once we reached the Braemore junction. I arrived and said to Lou: “Mars bar, Coke.” With that in me, I set off with her, focusing solely on getting to Ullapool. The last section to Ullapool seemed to never end, though. Every time I thought it was the last bend, it turned out to be another false finish.

After another nine-hour day, we reached Ullapool. I punched the air like I had won a stage of the Tour de France as we made our way to the chip shop. I flopped onto the bench, relishing the fact it was no longer raining, and ordered a scampi supper.

When Lou returned with the goods, we set about making it disappear. But, of course, the day wouldn’t have been complete without yet another downpour. We quickly grabbed our food and dashed under the cover outside the chip shop, which is joined onto the pub next door.

As we settled back down, a waitress came over and told us we couldn’t eat under the canopy. We looked mournfully out at the rain, feebly protesting at this move. We relented in the end, and decided to squish into the van to finish our food, which was by now a bit damp and cold.

I felt very delicate at that moment. My stomach was doing somersaults and I ached all over. Lou took a picture of me looking rather weary just as I said goodbye and turned to my accommodation for the night.

I have since learned that any ‘Bespoke Hotel’ should be avoided like the plague. After checking-in to the tatty Caledonia Hotel, I wandered down to my room, only to be greeted by pumping dance music from a room a couple doors down.

Whatever, I thought. It’s 8pm. They’ll probably stop. After a shower (where the water was stuck on skin-burning-hot) I crawled into bed frozen, the dance music still going. I must have drifted off, but when I woke up I was sweating profusely. My temperature had gone from freezing to boiling in a few hours.

I threw off all the sheets, desperately trying to cool down. I drifted off again and had a fitful sleep. When I woke again, the room was spinning. I got up to go to the bathroom and- we can leave it there.

In denial about how I felt, I tried to eat breakfast, but managed a measly half slice of toast and half a bowl of cereal before going back to my room. I pulled on my bib shorts, preparing myself for a solo 120km, when my stomach gave a sudden leap and I rushed back to the bathroom.


It wasn’t the most heroic way to end a 1000km journey. I had envisaged standing on Sandwood Bay, holding my bike aloft and whooping with glee.

I don’t think, even if I had pushed through those lonely 120km, I would have felt better for it. For me, the ride was always about people and places. Halfway through that last day, I had felt so awful that the world around me was just background noise; this wasn’t really why I was doing the ride.

It has taken nearly a year for me to feel OK about not completing the journey as I had set out to. I felt like a failure, but now I recognise that failing isn’t really a failure: I made the right choice given my recent health issue, and had an incredible week-long adventure, meeting so many amazing people and seeing stunning wild places.

People asked (naturally) if I would go back to finish it. I had previously said of course I would, but I think that’s not the important part. The journey was what made the whole thing special; those 900km+ were far more important than the last 120km.

I could have taken a rest day and tried again, but I was still weak and feverish several days later, so that wouldn’t have helped.

Ultimately, I did something which scared me and, while I came up short in the end, I will always remember it as an amazing journey that taught me a lot and helped me experience the country in a new way. Plus, I did raise over £1000 for the Trust, helping to protect places like those I had ridden through.

Day 4 – https://www.komoot.com/tour/371364854

Day 5 (part 1) – https://www.komoot.com/tour/371367377

Day 5 (part 2) – https://www.komoot.com/tour/371367671

Day 6 – https://www.komoot.com/tour/371790850

Day 7 – https://www.komoot.com/tour/372400652

Cycling 1000km for wild places – Part 1

Finlay Wild – The Big Rounds Ross Runs Wild

The young guy in front of me shifted awkwardly within the confines of the small hospital chair in which he sat, moving from one uncomfortable spot to another in a vain attempt to get some sleep.

I looked at my phone. No signal. The clock read close to 1am.

Beyond the walls of my fogged brain, I could hear chattering, the beeps and boops of machines, and general groans from other patients. This was the twilight zone of the A&E department; a place where time becomes irrelevant.

A few hours before, I was in the back of an ambulance, laughing drunkenly with the paramedic as the morphine caused my face to lose all sensation. That day, I’d been groaning on the couch with a terrible fever, migraine and stomach ache which, suddenly, at 10pm, had morphed into the closest I can conceive being stabbed in the abdomen feels like.

The Instagram story I made from the hospital

I had puked, cried, yelled. Bo had phoned 111 and they had sent an ambulance. I felt terrible for her; we’d moved house only 48 hours ago – which is stressful enough – only for me to be suddenly struck down by an intolerable pain.

Back in the hospital, the other guy had been taken away. I was starting to feel like myself again and shuffled out of bed in search of water. “No water”, said the doctor. “We might need to do a scan.”

I returned to my padded tray – the “bed” on which I had been carried from ambulance to examination room to the corridor in which I’d now been for four hours.

This bike ride was definitely not happening.

You will have read in a previous blog about my Pedal for Wildness – a 1000km bike ride to raise money for the John Muir Trust. As I lay on that bed, I realised how foolhardy it had been to schedule the ride within seven days of hosting an event, moving house and all manner of things that go with that.

Staring at the fluorescent lamps above, I kicked myself for it. Whatever this thing was that had torn my insides out, one of the likeliest causes was stress. Who chooses to do their longest trip ever while shopping in IKEA, building furniture, emptying their old house and trying to work all in advance?!

“Ross Brannigan?” the doctor called. I gingerly swung my legs off the bed, and made my way into the curtained examination room.

It was now 4am, I hadn’t drank in nearly five hours, and now the doctor was asking questions in such a random order I knew I was going to slip up.

After 10 minutes of questions he said I could go home. He said he’d give me anti-acid tablets and left the room. I was bewildered. Anti-acid tablets!? Shit, I thought. Why did I try to compare it to acid reflux?

I complained a bit, but that was all they were going to do. I sat in the waiting area and awaited collection.


The week went by. Furniture was built, the house took shape, but the trip nagged at me. Now, though, the expectations were low. Given I had just been hospitalised, even setting off would be a victory.

I rescheduled the ride, asked OpenTracking to shift my order date, moved my annual leave and prepared myself for departure the following weekend. It was worth a shot.

My plan was to set off from my front door and ride to Sandwood Bay, visiting each of the sites managed by the John Muir Trust along the way – Glenridding, Glenlude, Schiehallion, Ben Nevis, Knoydart, Skye, Quinag and, finally, Sandwood Bay.

I wanted to make this a ride for people to join in on, so had hired an OpenTracking device so people could follow my route and, hopefully, donate some money, too.

Day 1 – Kendal to Glenlude (187km/ 1770m)

The garden was in full splendour, with spring in the air. On 15 May, I lifted my laden bike up the garden steps and made the first pedal strokes up the road.

My partner (now fiancée) Bo and friend, Andy, would meet me on the Kirkstone Pass for a few photographs before I really set off north. I constantly reminded myself of the tortoise and the hare as I made my way up Kirkstone Pass – a pass which sits at 430m above sea level and my highest point for the day: This is just about moving forwards, not speed.

Final rise to the top of Kirkstone. Credit: Andy Milton

After an early pitstop atop the snaking road for a slide of pizza and a goodbye, I zoomed down the other side into Patterdale to my first checkpoint: Glenridding.

Arbitrarily, I’d decided that the checkpoints would be the easiest boundary point I could ‘touch’ that the Trust managed. I met Isaac, the Glenridding Conservation Officer, for a brief chat, before making the nasty steep climb from the town to the Greenside cottages.

Here the longest ride of the trip began. With the excitement of Kirkstone and Glenridding done, it was time for the hard miles to Glenlude in the Borders. I made my way up the roads above Ullswater, eventually joining the long farm roads into Carlisle. I was pleased my route planning paid off here: Suunto had plotted a route further west, which looked to me to do a number of turns; the route I took was on sublime, straight, fast roads all the way to the outskirts of Carlisle. Given the amount of crap roads I was likely to follow, I would take straight and easy while I could.

Isaac in Glenridding

Ask any cyclist what it’s like getting through Carlisle and they will likely use any synonym of “madness”. I laughed when I watched Jenny Graham do the same in GCN+’s Lone Rider. She said: “I feel like I have been coming out of Carlisle for, like…a month!”

After the sketchy roads of inner and outer Carlisle, I finally made it to the cycle path alongside the M74. In the run up to this ride, driving up and down the M74, I’d point out to Bo where the cycle route was and say, “It’ll be wild to say ‘I rode up this road’ after the ride”.

I will say, it ain’t the bonniest of rides; it’s just efficient. The miles churned by as I ticked off little milestones along the way, the biggest being getting into Gretna. I pulled into the cafe that sits astride the border and scoffed a fruit scone (which was on the Scottish side while the plain ones were in England) and a sandwich, and chatted to some other cyclists.

After a natter and a farewell, it was off to Moffat, which seemed to take forever to appear such is the mundane nature of the M74. Headphones certainly helped at that point.

Though not obvious, there is a slight climb up to Moffat where, after eight hours, I stepped off the bike again for an ice-cream. Remember: Tortoise, not hare. I knew I needed all the energy I could get for the last push. The interminable climb to St Mary’s Loch is never easy, especially with a fully laden bike and the best part of a day’s riding in your legs already.

The early stages of the climb passed without issue. Carrifran Wildwood sat on my left at the halfway point, a stunning example of a community paving the way for incredible ecological restoration.

However, it was just after the Grey Mare’s Tail that the legs really fell off. I crawled my way along the Loch of the Lowes, eating anything I thought might bring some energy back to my system. Not only that, but my signal had dropped just as Bruce Springsteen shouted “Can’t start a fire!”, leaving me singing the rest of the lines by myself.

It wasn’t until I reached the Gordon Arms Hotel did life return to me. With 183km ridden in 10 hours, I knew Glenlude was right around the corner. The climb dropped away without too much misery and the edges of the former conifer plantation came into view. I have never been so excited to see a row of larches and sitkas in my life.

Glenlude was gifted to the Trust in 2003 after the passing of Sheila Bell, a remarkable woman who made the restoration of this place for nature one of her lasting legacies. I had contacted Karen, the site manager, asking if I could stay in the small hut there.

I could have camped, of course, as people are welcome to do in the dedicated camping circle, but after what would be one of the longest days in the saddle I fancied some home comforts. I opened the cabin and wheeled the bike in, noting a large charging lamp on the table.

I flopped into a chair and pulled my helmet off at last, and read the note on the whiteboard: “Welcome Ross. Andy JMT Volunteer. Camping -> Blue vehicle beyond.

“Please use mini USB charge lead or Samsung. Sorry no iPhone lead. Some networks available round hut.” Here he drew a diagram.

“If you would like a carry out – my treat. Cheers Andy. 6pm+.”

In that moment I swelled inside. It was what I had dreamed would happen but dared not hope for: These kind interactions with complete strangers who would become the characters of this trip.

I had an hour to kill before 6pm, so decided to wander from the hut to the south edge of the site. Since 2003, the Trust has been slowly thinning the old plantation to make way for native broadleaves like hazel, oak and rowan.

One of the major successes of the site – in huge thanks to site rangers Karen and Sarah – is how it has become a jewel in the hearts of many, and even changed lives.

Phoenix Futures is an organisation working to rehabilitate those with drug and alcohol problems. With the Trust, the group has created a Phoenix Forest – an enclosed area where people come to plant trees and maintain brash hedges to recover from their addiction.

I stood over the juvenile forest, watching the early phases of a new generation of woodland begin. A symbol of what can be, along with all the biodiversity that will come with it. The whole forest will soon have all its larch removed, as the pervasive larch disease (Phytophthora ramorum) has spread through the wood.

I marched my way back to the hut, my borrowed wellies fawumpfawump-ing against my legs and the new vegetation scraping by. I felt strangely not-tired, which was a surprise. Perhaps all that training had yielded some benefits!

Andy showed up at 6. He had wild scraggly hair and beard, a broad nose and a bubbling smile, and told me about his time volunteering with the Trust as we made our way down to Innerleithen in his Berlingo.

It was clear Andy had been through the pointy end of life at times, but nowadays found companionship and purpose through his volunteering and his walks with the Ramblers up near Edinburgh. We parked the car and made our way to the Innerleithen chippy, ordered some food and headed off to find a bench on which to eat it.

The sun was now low in the sky, the sky turning that beautiful pastel blue. A glorious sunset outside with a chippy is such a rare thing in Scotland, as much of the time you are being chased off by swarms of midges. It was such a simple pleasure.

It was interesting that, although relative strangers to one another, Andy spoke very openly about his mental health and the solace he found in getting out into nature. It was clear to me that there are simply so many individual reasons people go out to enjoy or work to protect the outdoors, whether it be for a sense of responsibility to the environment or a responsibility to one’s own mental state. We both understood that, and so perhaps it wasn’t so strange to be talking about such things.

Given there was no signal in the lower areas of Glenlude, I made a few phone calls before we headed back up the B709 to Glenlude. As we rounded the corner and Glenlude came into view, Andy said: “Wow! Would you look at that!”

The sun was hanging just above Deuchar Law on our right, casting striking shadows across the plantation and its slowly regenerating native woodlands.

A moment in the spotlight

“I’ve never seen the brash hedges as clear as that”, he said. He dropped me at the side of the road right there and parked the car a hundred meters away so he could enjoy it, too. Sure enough, the Phoenix Forest and its neighbouring Jamie’s Wood stood out clearly as the brash hedges around them were brought into sharp relief by the waning light.

Within a few minutes the magic had gone, the edges softening again and reclining back into the landscape as dusk took hold. “A couple minutes later and we’d have missed that”, said Andy, clearly awestruck by nature’s show. The blackbirds and starlings began their evening song as we returned to the car and to our home for the night.

Andy left for the campsite while I laid out my sleeping bag and mat. The hut has an enormous cast iron stove, under which they had to lay a concrete foundation because when they originally tried to set it down – it fell through the floor.

Home sweet home

It took a time to get it hot but, once the fire was going, the room was incredibly warm and I had to restrain myself from adding more logs else I’d sweat through the night. I fell asleep quickly, with thoughts now turning towards home.

Day 2 – Glenlude to Tillicoultry (110km/860m)

I awoke with a great sense of optimism. Dew clung to the pines outside and a crisp air lay in the forest. Today I would be heading back to ‘home turf’ – Tillicoultry, where I grew up.

My left shoulder and neck were a bit stiff from the day before, but I packed up and strapped everything back on the bike, ready for 8am. Andy had told me the night before about his homebuilt e-bike, which he clearly loved. Sure enough, he was at the end of the drive waiting for me on it, ready to join me down to Innerleithen before heading his own way over the local hills.

“A toast to you”

Before setting off on the ride, I had received an email from a chap called Tim, another volunteer at Glenlude. He was really keen to join me and was coming to meet us at No.1 Cafe for some breakfast.

Andy and I zoomed easily down the road to Innerleithen – barely turning a pedal for 8km. No.1 Cafe is often the number one reason I stop in Innerleithen – Craig and his wife have an incredible business and a tight-knit community built around this cafe in the heart of mountain biking country. Pre-Covid, you’d find a couple of tables around which half a dozen people would squish together and tell their tales from the trails that day.

We made our way to a table by the window after locking our bikes up outside, ordered a couple coffees, a sensational breakfast, and awaited Tim’s arrival. When Andy’s order of banana- and maple-covered french toast arrived, he held it aloft and said: “A toast to you!” and broke into an infectious laugh.

Tim arrived later than expected, but I hadn’t expected him to have already cycled from Gorebridge that morning! Waving goodbye to Andy, I followed Tim up the stunningly beautiful and quiet B709 north of Inners, which weaves its way around the ‘Hopes’ and ‘Laws’ of the Borders hills.

I decided to start by asking Tim what had brought him to be a volunteer with the Trust. He told me how he was in the middle of a total career move from a life in catering to one of conservation. Two different people; two different motives.

Tom giving it a thumbs up for wild places

“I was just walking in the hills and I realised, ‘What am I doing to actually protect these places?'” he recounted. We watched as a group of stonechats flitted from one telephone wire to another with their telltale stone-scraping call.

It was turning into another marvellous day as we neared the summit of the long climb we had been riding up for so long. At the top of the road, we came to a sudden and definitive geological intersection. The Moorfoot Hills came to an abrupt end and the ground dropped straight down to the low farmlands below. We also stood on a political boundary, now stepping into Midlothian and leaving the Scottish Borders behind. In the distance, the city of Edinburgh glinted in the sunlight, with the Castle clearly visible on its rocky perch.

We descended on the fast-flowing B7007 (“Call me 7 – 007”) to Middleton and, soon, Gorebridge, where I’d be on my own again. Tim had been excellent company, and I’d enjoyed learning more about his motivations for wanting to become a ranger, and all the hoops modern life throws at us for the sin of changing our minds.

Follow the blue line…

My trusty Suunto sat at the top of my aero bars, and had admirably guided me to this point. However, its lack of a clear map and confusion about just when I should turn left meant that once I hit the busier roads I had to keep my wits about me at all times.

My memory of the kilometres between Bonyrigg and Clackmannanshire is patchy and can be best described as: A series of wrong turns, small cycleways, hopping across dual-carriageways, traffic lights, traffic, a stoned guy, bunny-hopping dog shite and broken glass.

There were a few highlights.

As anyone who has done long-distance adventures probably knows, arriving in a place you associate with other memories having just propelled yourself a long way to get there is a unique experience. I’ve always associated Haymarket Station and the centre of Edinburgh with days out shopping or the rugby. Now, I had bloody well cycled there…from Kendal! It wouldn’t be the last time I’d experience one of those landmark “Shit, I cycled here!” moments on this trip.

Naturally, the Forth Road Bridge was a real highlight, with its neighbouring bridges resplendent in the sunshine.

I will say, the less said about Dunfermline, the better. It all went a bit wrong just after the Forth Road Bridge, where I lost track of the cycleway and ended up on what used to be a horribly busy sliproad of the M90. Thankfully, with the new Queensferry Crossing, the road was empty, but riding along essentially a motorway was thoroughly unenjoyable. After that, Dunfermline’s infuriatingly poor cycle infrastructure had me hopping over dual carriageways, riding the wrong way on roundabouts and undertaking all manner of dangerous manoeuvres.

Mercifully, after a steep climb around Pittencrieff Park, I made it onto the most astonishingly good bit of cycle path I have come across.

The West Fife Way is a veritable motorway for active travel. I joined it in Dunfermline and didn’t leave it for just under 20km where I reached Clackmannan. Almost pan flat, it had a whole 5km section of arrow straight path. What a treat after the purgatory that preceded it!

Crossing the Forth!

Part of this ride was me spreading the word about people – like Andy and Tim – helping to protect our wild places. The other parts were showing how amazing those places are and helping to protect them myself. Now, the West Fife Way isn’t exactly the wildest of places, but it is for some. As I approached two guys with their dog walking the same way I was cycling, I saw one of them clearly toss a plastic bag into the bushes.

Rage immediately sparked within me, but I played the dim inquisitor. “Sorry, mate!” I called. They turned. “I think you dropped something.” It was clear the guy was embarrassed at being caught. As he went to pick it up, I said: “Plastic bag, man. Fits in your pocket easy and you can put it in the bin when you get home. Cheers now.”

I pedalled off before he had a chance to reply, but his mate, who hadn’t heard me, asked: “What’d ‘e drop? ‘is wullet?”

I didn’t give a response, hoping that 1) they weren’t about to punch my head in; 2) they’d not just ditch it five seconds later. You can only do so much.

I rolled into Tillicoultry six hours after leaving Glenlude. Just because I could, I had booked a massage with family friend and masseuse Caryl at 5pm, so I had some time to kill beforehand.

Modern travel has totally skewed our perceptions of distance. In a two-hour flight, I can go from Manchester to Mallorca – an entirely different country, climate and culture. Driving from my house in Kendal to my parents would usually take around three hours. Instead, I had taken nigh-on 16 hours of cycling to get here, ignoring the time spent asleep! It’s impossible to conceptualise how vast the world must have felt to the cattle drovers of the Highlands as they brought their cows from across the country to markets in Crieff, Stirling or Falkirk. Imagine going back in time to a drover walking through Glen Coe and saying, “Where I come from, we could get to Stirling in a couple of hours.”

After some time spent in the garden with my parents, I headed off to see Caryl. Caryl is an old schoolfriend of my mum’s, and her son, Lee, and I were good friends in school. Before I moved away, Caryl had been both a masseuse and psychologist as I mused about career paths and relationships while she drilled her knuckles into my back. More than anything, it was a nice chance to catch-up.

I stuck my head through the hole in the massage bench and said that my neck and shoulder had felt “quite tight”. As she worked her way into it, Caryl said: “This is going to hurt. I have never seen your neck so bad!”

She was right: It did hurt, like hell. I knew I had adopted a slightly ‘racy’ position on the bike, but was far more upright than I usually would be. Still, it maybe wasn’t enough because my shoulder and neck were in pieces, like a dull migraine.

After 30 minutes, I bade Caryl farewell and headed back home, prepared for a hearty refuelling before taking myself to Highland Perthshire tomorrow.

Day 3 – Tillicoultry to Pitlochry (108km/1220m)

The weather had to break at some point. I had been mindful of the forecast but had told myself to not set too much store by it day-to-day. After all, I had to get up and out the door whether I liked it or not.

It was to be a very sociable day, though. My uncle, Grant, was going to join me to Stirling, where I would then finally have a quick catch-up with old uni friend Luis. Having moved to the Lake District a year ago, this trip was also a chance to see old friends I’d missed for a while.

After a speedy spin along the Hillfoots to Stirling and a bite to eat with Luis, I turned to Bridge of Allan to collect my companion for the rest of the day, Lewis. For those of you who have followed this blog for a little while, you may remember Lewis from his Bob Graham Round in 2019.

Lewis the skallywag

Our route would take us along the stunning roads of Stirlingshire and into Highland Perthshire. Given I grew up in Tillicoultry and went to university in Stirling, it really felt like a return to an old stomping ground. The slow climb out of Dunblane eventually broke into a series of undulating roads to Crieff. Despite the grey and ominous skies, we were quickly throwing spare layers into our bags, which were sadly joined by odd bits of litter we found on some of the quieter lanes.

We managed to arrive in Crieff dry, which went against the weather forecast. Once we arrived in the old market town, we had to wait a short while for my colleague Izzy to show up, who was cycling for Perth and would join us to Dunkeld. Once she arrived, we cycled up and down the main street in Crieff on the hunt for an open cafe, eventually settling on Cafe Rhubarb and ordering some food.

As the three of us chatted and ate, the weather finally came in. As anyone who rides bikes will know, getting your temperature back up after a cafe stop is hard enough without a drumming of rain. There was only so long we could hold off, though, so we swung our legs back over our bikes and pedalled along the road to enter the Sma’ Glen.

This 6.5km-long glen has seen armies leave their mark here for centuries, with the Romans building a watchtower and General Wade laying a military road in the 18th century to quell the Highland clans.

As we headed north along the River Almond, the rain continued to beat down, but the miles flew by just as fast. Despite his bike probably weighing the same as mine without bags, Lewis kept dropping little wattage bombs as we sped our way to Dunkeld.

Izzy smiling in the rain!

Izzy is the John Muir Trust’s conservation officer at Schiehallion, one of Scotland’s most famous Munros. Its role in the weighing of the world experiment had given way to a collective effort with neighbouring landowners to bring back a tree canopy and nature corridor for wildlife to return to that corner of Perthshire.

Izzy had lately been re-branded as the Trust’s Mountain Woodlands Officer, given her expertise in Scotland’s wee trees – something I will come to in the next chapter of this blog. Not only is she a wee trees wizard, she’s also a pretty tough nut on the bike, regularly taking on absolutely epic rides with her boyfriend Innes, who himself has ridden the TCR on several occasions.

Very wet but in good spirits, we rolled into Birnam to make a pitstop at another colleague Nicky’s house. After I devoured a bowl of soup and most of a box of oatcakes, Nicky asked me how the rest of the trip was shaping up.

“Did you manage to get a hold of the guy on Knoydart?” she asked. Knoydart is one of the least accessible places in the country, really only penetrable by foot or boat. I had toyed with heading to Mallaig and getting a ferry to Inverie, but the trouble was my arbitrary rule of ‘touching’ the Trust boundary line would have meant climbing Ladhar Bheinn – the closest point on the south side.

Instead, I had opted for cycling to Kinloch Hourn and chartering a boat to Lì, or as close to it as possible. Besides, this also had a feeling of adventure to it, and would hopefully allow me to see the regeneration in Coire Odhair.

“Yeah, good”, I replied. “There’s a chap called Peter who is giving me a lift from Kinloch Hourn to Knoydart.”

“How much is the ferry?” she asked. I told her, and she turned to a drawer behind the dining table. She handed me a little wad of notes. “That’s my contribution”, Nicky said. It was so kind of her, and such a perfect contribution. I thanked her and pocketed the notes.

After another brew, it was time of Lewis and I to hit the road again. It was just a short pedal to Pitlochry and my stop for the night at my mate Andy’s place. The rain had moved off by now, so at least we had a drier departure from Dunkeld than we had arrival.

The road from Dunkeld is a wonderfully scenic one. With rows of woodlands on our left and fields on our right, the road snaked its way through Dalguise, where the looming figure of Ben Vrackie appeared ahead of us, towering above Pitlochry.

Ben Vrackie from the Logierait-Pitlochry cycle path (NB: Not taken on the day!)

This was another return to ‘home’ for me. Before moving to Kendal, I had lived in a small cottage just along from Dalguise. It had been a freezer in the winter, but I still had fond memories of cycling these roads and running up and down Ben Vrackie before Covid-19 had sent us all home.

There is a nasty series of climbs between Logierait and Pitlochry. Today felt like it had been very much a moving picnic, so we hauled ourselves and our bikes up and over each of the punchy climbs with a bit of grumbling. Meanwhile, the landscape began to open ahead of us, revealing the hints of the Cairngorm National Park to the north.

Once we arrived in Pitlochry, it was time for Lewis to catch his train. We made a quick stop outside Tower House – the John Muir Trust HQ and my old office before Covid-19 – for a quick photo. Lewis had been such a phenomenal companion on this ride – dead keen, fit as a fiddle, and lamenting that he couldn’t follow me all the way north. It had been a blast.

After a goodbye on the platform, I turned the bike round to head for Andy’s. He and I had become friends while I was living in Pitlochry and we’d already been bikepacking together before. He was actually working when I arrived, so I was greeted by his wife, Gilly, and their troupe of dogs – Maisie, Lui and Skye (who has sadly passed away. Andy is running 100-miles soon as part of a fundraising campaign they ran to help with the vet bills).

Lui (yes, I met a Lewis, Luis and Lui all in one day) was certainly the loudest of the bunch. He was the youngest and only boy in the group, so made a song and dance at this intruder in the garden. I realised I hadn’t taken my helmet off, which probably had spooked him.

“Louis!” Gilly chastised. “Sorry about that.”

“That’s fine”, I said. Gilly runs her own dog boarding and grooming business, so Lui is quite used to random people and dogs (one was actually there, too). However, it seemed my demeanour had given him cause to be wary. Meanwhile, Skye was dropping a ball at my feet and Maisie bringing small pebbles as though they were lucky offerings.

Once Andy arrived, we set about making a plan for the next day. Spending time with Andy is hilarious. I can only imagine what he’s like if he hasn’t spoken to anyone ‘into’ running for a while. We jabbered on and on and on about the various races, performances, personalities, challenges, and wacky adventures we’d both come up with while Gilly left us to it for a run.

Andy riding through the west side of Glen Lyon on our last trip

While he stirred the bolognese, I thought the mince would launch itself out the pan as he bounced up and down chatting about the shoes he was testing or the new training tactics he was trying out. If you can imagine a Scottish version of Anton Kupricka, you are getting close to Andy. With long hair and a beard, he floats along the trails, making it look effortless despite being out for 50km.

He was also pretty mean on a bike. He confessed to not having been out for a while, but that didn’t faze him. Tomorrow was going to be one of the hardest days on the bike, so I was appreciating his optimism. It was also going to be one of the remotest days and have the greatest amount of off-road riding. We would leave Pitlochry and head off to Schiehallion before continuing west to Kinloch Rannoch.

After that was the test of getting to Loch Ossian – a beautiful but rough part of the world. I’d heard the gravel around there was excellent, so was keen to see it for myself. We’d leave Ossian behind and make our way north to Fersit and a final trundle to Fort William, where we’d camp in Glen Nevis somewhere.

All in all: 156km and 1500m of ascent. At least 30% off-road. This would be fun.

At least we had a Corrour Station venison burger to look forward to!

Part 2 can be read here.

Day 1 – https://www.komoot.com/tour/369753007

Day 2 – https://www.komoot.com/tour/369756080

Day 3 – https://www.komoot.com/tour/370248012

Running Adventures Scotland – front cover reveal!

Over the past year, I have been working on something of a dream project.

Since I was a kid, I have absolutely adored writing, with a PC full of half-started or half-finished works of prose. As I grew up and worked as a journalist for a bit, my interests moved towards non-fiction and reportage, but still with a passion for the art of writing compelling stories.

Whether it was fiction or non-fiction, landscape and the experience of it has always captivated me. Whether I was world building in my own stories or avidly analysing Nan Shepherd’s works, I always loved playing with landscape.

Of course, my passions of running and cycling are fuelled mostly through this love, in particular thanks to a childhood growing up in the wild places of Scotland as my parents took us around in their caravan every school holiday.

Eventually, I developed such an encyclopaedic knowledge of Scotland’s geography that I began taking people around the country or sending them itineraries for their holidays.

Everything about Scotland fascinates me: It’s history, culture, landscape, language – you name it! To share that fascination with others is always a joy and now I have been given my biggest opportunity yet…


I met up with Kirsty Read, Vertebrate Publishing‘s Commissioning Editor, last December to chat about potential books. One stuck out at me immediately: Running in Scotland.

It wasn’t a ‘guidebook’ per se, more of an inspiration book with lots of other nuggets of information about the area, the route and the country. And this wasn’t just trail running or easy jogging trails – these were grander; a mix of trail, hill and ultra running.

I will go into more detail in future blogs/vlogs about how I came to decide on the 25 routes. Naturally, I ran more than those 25 routes, filtering out the good, the bad and those just didn’t fit, so I was kept busy this year!

Now, I get to share the exciting news that is the potential front cover! I have to send a massive thanks to my friend and hill runner-extraordinaire Finlay Wild for his neat snaps that adorn the cover.

The book will be out in May 2022. Keep an eye on my social media outlets for more information about the book!