On the Road
On the Road

With an old bike ...
... by Bill McLaughlin.

   Go to Chapters ...
Glencoe to Loch Lochy
Westward Bound
Towards Torridon

Glencoe to Loch Lochy

I turned to the task in hand, through Glencoe, with the hostel my goal. The glen had a welcome awaiting me - it was raining! Raining hard! Stair rods! Bouncing so high that it seemed as if they were trying to get back to the cloud that had abandoned them.
I stopped for a while, sheltering amongst the rocks where the road cuts through, at the head of the pass. I watched the water pour over a large cliff and disappear into the glen. The clouds descended low like a big grey blanket over the mountains, and although it was still fairly early, it got really dark. I stood feeling very alone and very small.
The rain stopped and I suddenly realised how quiet everything was. It was intimidating, and it took all the nerve I had, not to panic and break into a run!
As I mounted my bike, ready to free-wheel most of the way down to Glencoe village, I realised I could see under the clouds, It was as if I was on a level with the cloud base. I could see the length of the pass, almost 8 miles, but it resembled a tunnel. The clouds formed a the roof, the mountains the sides. There was no sky to be seen, and it was getting darker by the minute.
I took off like a bat out of hell, going way too fast for the road conditions.

About 5 miles down the road, I pulled over and realised that I was at on the site of the 'Glencoe Massacre'.
I had read all about this abysmal business; the massacre, in 1692, where the Campbells slew the MacDonald Clan. I decided not to dithe,r and through a fresh downpour, made my way to the hostel.
I got a real Highland welcome from the occupiers. There were a number of mountaineers and hill-walkers, who had been rained off the mountains. Tea was being brewed up, and they were all enjoying the company.
They were a mixed bunch; mostly up for the weekend from Glasgow or thereabouts. There was three women in the company, and they immediately decided to look after me.
"Yer soakin, son. What made ye go oot in on a day like this?"
When they heard that I wasn't just 'oot for the day', they almost feted me.
"Imagine a wee boy like you taking the bike. For two weeks ye say? Ullapool ye're heading for?"
I told then them about the deer, and about the haunted Inverbeg. They listened!
Then they told tales of their own ventures. I began to feel part of the group. I wasn't just a wee boy now - I was a Fellow Traveller!

The next day, I headed off to my next destination. Loch Lochy was some 25 miles north, if I took the ferry at Ballachulish. I knew, however, that the long road around Loch Leven, was beautiful, and winding, so I opted to cycle the additional 15 or 16 miles. The rain had petered out to a light drizzle, and the sky was clearing. I was on holiday.

My new 'mothers' had provided a fry-up of eggs and bacon.
"Ye've got tae have something mer than toasted breid!"
They had noted that I was on light rations, and insisted on 'Giving me a proper start to the day'.

Breakfast over, I took the bend in the road which led away from the temptation of the ferry, and headed towards Kinlochleven.
The road runs east for about 7 miles, along the banks of the loch. At Kinlochleven it swings round in a long hairpin bend, then goes back west, following the steep-sided north bank. 9 miles further on, I reached North Ballachulish.
As the crow flies the distance is only 3 miles. For me and my bike, it was about 16!

I decided to stop at in Fort William for a while, but instead of resting up, thought it might be a good idea to do some climbing on Ben Nevis. At least, I had ambition!
I left the bike at the side of the road and took the path that winds to the top of the highest mountain in Britain. I soon discovered that cycling shoes are not made for hill walking. After about a mile, I abandoned the venture. I had climbed a fair bit and the views were spectacular.
Going back down was an adventure in itself. The steep slope carrying me in a headlong rush, with giant leaps, as I bounced down the hill. I yelled out for no good reason.
It was exhilarating, and gave me a peculiar feeling of freedom!

There was a small stile at the bottom, over a dry stane wall. I took it in one mighty bound, my foot touching the top of the stile.
Too late I realised that the wooden step was wet and slippery. I crashed over the other side, turning over and landing awkwardly. Shit! I had injured my knee.
With no one else around, I could only hobble down to where I had left the bike.

Time for tea!
Fortunately I was only bruised, but my pride was hurt. Funny that, even with no one to witness my fall, I was embarrassed. I finished the 'drum up', repacked the saddlebag, then painfully set off.
I pedalled unevenly for a few miles, as I stretched the pain out of the joint. I came to a decision - I wouldn't climb Ben Nevis for a while!

The trip to Loch Lochy Hostel was only about another 10 or 12 miles. The weather had cleared up. All was well with the world again.
I checked in to the Hostel, and was going through the usual routine, when a voice from behind, spoke.
"Hi! I'm Lena."
As I turned, I was trying to figure out the accent. It was one I couldn't place; foreign - yes - but from where? I turned to face her, and I stopped in my tracks. I couldn't say anything for a minute, I was stunned. She was beautiful. She was definitely foreign, and she was Black!
Her smile broke all over me. She beamed, her white teeth shaming mine. Her smile dazzled me. Her eyes sparkled as she took my hand, and repeated her name.
"Lena. From Rhodesia"
Lena was aware of my discomfort; I had never met a black person before, let alone a female black person, and it must have been pretty obvious. I gave myself a shake.
"I'm sorry."
She laughed, a laugh that seemed to come all the way from the back of her throat.
"I know. I startled you. Hey, I've got some tea on the stove. Join me?"

We sat and talked. Apparently she worked in London, some kind of Nanny to a big shot family. They were away in America on business, and had left her to her own devices for a couple of weeks.
She had a little Vespa scooter, and had come north to explore; staying in hostels like myself.
It turned out that Lena was about eighteen - an older woman by my standards - but great company. She was heading south the next day, so the time we had together was brief; like passing ships.
Before she left, I heard her asking the warden if there were any jobs she could do to earn some money, to pay for petrol.
Well the hostel was pretty isolated and although on the main road, it wasn't near any real habitation; there wasn't not much chance of work.
I gave her a shout, and said I could manage to give her about £2; not much more, since my own holiday hadn't finished yet. To say she was grateful was an understatement. If I had given her the moon, she couldn't have been better pleased).
We parted friends, and she promised to return the money as soon as she got back to London.
A few weeks after the end of my holiday, a postal-order arrived in the mail. An attached note said ... 'to my gallant lifesaver. Thank you'.
It was unsigned, and there was no return address. My foreign adventure was over.

Westward Bound

After Loch Lochy, onwards and upward. Westward actually, as I took the turning through the head of Glen Garr,y and past Loch Cluanie, heading for Loch Duich and the stop at Sheil Bridge.
The rain started again, so I stopped and donned the 'yellow tent'. The wind was blowing in my face, and with the big cape, I was all resistance. The road climbed again, and I struggled to keep things moving.

Just before the Cluanie Hotel, I sensed, rather than heard them coming.
Whoosh! Hiss! A large group of cyclists, all French 12-speed gears and professional kit, passed me, shouting encouragement and waving for me to catch up. No bloody chance! My morale took a hammering, I was tired, I was fighting wind and rain, and the land was open, with no shelter for miles.
Except for the hotel. I couldn't afford to go in and have something to eat, but I could stop in the lea of the building and have some relief from the, now, driving rain.
I rode down the slight slope and swung around to the left, parked the bike, then sat under my cape. I pulled my hat low, and drew my knees up so I was well and truly covered.

After a few minutes, a head appeared round the corner. An old lady (well, probably about ages with my own mother). She looked at me and said ...
"You can't sit there. That is not a shelter for travellers. This is a hotel. You have to come in to the dining room."
I started to say that I had not enough money for a place like this, when she fussed.
"Leave your bike there son, and come in out of the rain. There's tea and cakes left over from this afternoon - you can have them."
It was not the sort of place that I had visited before. This was a real highland hotel; all floral and tartan, with pictures of the 'Monarch of the Glen', and great big Highland cattle!
Reluctantly, I followed her in; the hospitality of those folks was overwhelming. A delicate afternoon tea followed.
"Help yourself to the cakes - they are already paid for. We had some visitors, earlier, who didn't finish their tea."
Three tiers of silver cakestand, scones and butter, shortbread - a feast! When I was finished, her husband, as I took him to be, came from the kitchen with a bag of sandwiches. He was very smartly dressed, white shirt, tartan bow tie and kilt, and a little black dirk pushed down the side of his long Highland socks. A wee round man, and the soul of generosity!
I couldn't give them money; if I tried, I thought I might insult their hospitality. They seemed content to listen to what I was planning.
"Mad!" said the husband. "You are one daft boy! Have another cup of tea, and when did you say you left Glasgow?"
He shook his head. Then shook it again, when I told him where I was headed!
"On that bike? Och, yer nothing if not brave son."

The sun came out, and I said it was time I was on the road.
"Aye, no far now son."
I seemed to be gathering mothers, as I rolled along.

I packed the cape away. I pushed the bike up the little slope of a driveway, on to the main road, then jumped on the pedals, weaving as I waved goodbye to my benefactors. Head down, hands on the dropped handlebars, and away!
There was only about 20 miles to my night's stay at Sheil Bridge, and I made good time as the road started to drop. About 5 miles on, and into the start of Glensheil, I began to feel the mountains swallowi up again. The road dropped; this time my speed almost unseated me, as a sharp left appeared. I got the bike back under control and stopped. I wasn't breathless, but the view took my breath away.
The Five Sisters of Kintail stood before me, rising straight up out of the steep glen that I had just ridden down. No mist, no hidden summits. One after the other, steep sides and conical tops. I counted them to make sure - one, two, three, four, five.
They lined the road, as if to welcome me into their kingdom.

I went meekly at first, but as I neared the hostel, the road got steeper and steeper, and I let go. Up to that point, I had been steadily holding back, with pressure on the brakes. The bike gathered speed, and I yelled out to no one in particular, and to the world.
"Ya beauty!"
My exhilaration echoed, and followed me down the hill; a tinny voice, following me all the way.

I swerved. I cut the corners, leaning over like a madman. First left, then right; a wild dash which felt like a hundred miles an hour!
I hit the village, at Sheil Bridge, like an express train. I looked for the little triangle, which would indicate the hostel. My map had indicated its location, on the shore of Loch Duich, about a half mile past the village.
I swung left, and at speed, hit a steep rise. The momentum of my descent carried me a long way, before I felt the need to start pedalling, or was able to catch up with the speed of the wheels!
The drive got harder, as the hill rose away above the lochside, until at last I got a break in the trees. I swung off the bike because it was getting really hard, and I remembered my promise to myself. I was on holiday! Walk if it gets too steep!
I was about 2 miles beyond the village, when I realised something was amiss. The Hostel should have been visible by now, my Youth Hostel map showed the damn thing just on the lochside. Here I was, about 2 miles up a hillside, looking down hundreds of feet to the loch!
I turned around, and headed back down; another exhilarating ride back the way I came. I saw the sign as I neared the bottom. On the left next to a small turning into a forest track.
'Hostel this way!' I said in my head! 'Daft bugger!'
I swung left, nearly taking a header into a large gatepost.

I rolled up to the door, and noticed ... No! I nearly fell over a large number of bikes parked around the walls. There would be about a dozen; this was worrying. It was only a small hostel - I could be in trouble for accommodation.
I walked in, and there was the crowd that had passed me earlier that day - the Professionals!
I was startled as I stepped across the doorway. They all cheered and whooped, slapping my back in a mock kind of congratulation. It turned out that one of their number had spied me accelerate past the entrance, and they had been taking bets on how long it would take me to realise my mistake, and return - if ever!
It was all great fun, and I enjoyed the joke at my expense. More so, when I found out that, indeed, the hostel was full - no spare beds - but one of the older guys said ...
"Hey, I'll sleep on the floor son. You have the bed. You worked hard for it today!

The talk that night, was of trips and 'runs', and I listened, fascinated. Most of the cyclists here, belonged to a Glasgow Cycle Club, who thought nothing of pushing a hundred miles a day!
Then one of them came in from outside.
"Hey, come and look at the bike this little sod's trying to go to Ullapool on!"
They trooped outside.
"A freewheeler. One gear! I'm surprised you managed to get this far!" exclaimed one.
All of their bikes, without exception, were fitted out with the latest in 'French' gears; up to 10 or 12-speed, and I found it difficult to convince them that I was determined to push on all the way.
They were heading back toward Fort William, and before we turned in for the night, they all solemnly shook my hand, and wished me luck. I thought I was being wound up, so took part in the ceremony as solemnly as they did!

In the morning they were gone.
The warden said they had taken off early, to make some kind of record-run, back to Fort William.
I went to the small kitchen, and found a pile of food, a pair of socks, a cool looking cap, and pair of cycling gloves! No note. Nothing!
"They left that lot for you." the warden said. "They think that you need it more than them!"
When I left that morning, I looked back up Glensheil, in the direction they would have gone. No sign.
I felt strangely lonely. as I made plans for the next port of call.

Towards Torridon

Pedalling along the shore of Loch Duich, I knew I had to stop and take pictures of 'Eilan Donan Castle'.
Well, one picture. I had a black photograph album back home, given to me the previous Christmas by my brother Bobby and his wife, Anna and I was determined to fill it. The camera was a 'Kodak Brownie', which took only small black-and-white pictures. But they were mine, and I could get them enlarged if they were good!
I stood on the spot where a thousand cameramen had stood before, and probably since. It is one of the most picturesque views in Scotland.
But it also proved I had been there!

I moved on. My intention, to take the Strome ferry across the narrows of Loch Carron, actually worked out, and I was pleased with myself. The short crossing felt like a sea voyage. The ferry ran in ramp first, and I was the only passenger. I felt like royalty, as the Ferryman waved me up the ramp. Once off, I swung up to meet the A896 at Lochcarron.
Turning left, I headed up the single track road, avoiding the wandering sheep. I wondered what would happen if one of those big rams took umbrage at this trespasser disturbing their highway.
Why do sheep prefer to eat the grass at the side of the road?

After 5 miles on this road, something caught my eye. There! Over that hill, on the skyline! An Eagle! It was an eagle; there was no one to tell, no one to say "Look at that!"
So I said it to myself. As this great bird flew closer, I could make out the shape of the wings, and the size. Definitely not a buzzard! Before I left home, I had seen pictures in our Encyclopaedia. 'Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia', bought a few years previous by the old man, in a collection of twelve volumes. I had treasured that encyclopedia.
I had also seen an Eagle, once before, on a holiday with Ma and Da.
The old man had proudly pointed it out, and made sure that I knew the difference.
"Would ye look at that, ya beauty! Look at thosewings!"
Just to confirm it, the bird turned, and it caught the sun.
"A Golden Eagle!" Nobody answered; nobody needed to.

I was a short-lived elation. I passed through Ben Sheildaig forest - all baby trees. One day, it would be a forest, but it didn't merit the description, then. Next, I came upon Sheildaig.
The map had shown that a new road was being driven from Sheildaig to Torridon. 'Complete in 1961' said the little indicator. This was mid- summer 1961, and the road was far from complete! Stretched before me was a line, a bed of rocks. Some the size of a fist, some a bit bigger.
I might be able to ride the bike if I could find a smooth enough route. No chance! The first few yards were all 'bumping and banging', I could hear my saddlebag bouncing off the rear mudguard, and every screw on the bike seemed to rattle.
That was that! Nothing for it but to walk. 7 miles, if I kept to the sides. Unfortunately, the bulldozers had churned up the land, and it was knee-deep in mud.

What was I thinking of? There had been a ferry between the two points before the road. Surely it would still be there, as the road wasn't open yet?
I trudged back to Sheildaig village. Sitting outside a cottage was a crofter; Kilmarnock bunnet, pipe, and grey moustache - brown with pipe smoke.
"I've been waiting for you." he said in a Highland lilt.
"I saw you passing earlier, and wondered if the sun had got to you. Thinking of walking were you? Would be better to take the ferry."
"Aye, a'right. Where do I get it?"
"Right by the jetty. The wee boat at the end of the pier."
I walked along to where 'the wee boat' was tied up. No one in sight. I turned, and went back to where the crofter was sitting.
"And where do I find the ferryman?" I asked.
"Och, you city-folk are gey impatient." he lilted. "Sit and have a chat while we wait for the crossing time."
We sat, and talked for about half an hour. He seemed very interested in what I had to say.
"We don't get many city-folk up this length." he paused. "Probably because the road runs out here, and the ferry can only take people - no wheeled transport you see. The boat, she is far too small for that!"
I started to panic.
"But it will take a bike surely?"
"Ah well, you will just have to ask the ferryman."
"When can I see him?" I asked, worried about the 7 mile hike.
"Well, let's just go to the pier now. It's about time that boat was on her way."
We made our way to the boat. I looked around for the ferryman, but there was no-one to be seen! I turned back, and the old sod was untying the boat!
"Well? Are ye going to Torridon today, or what?"
My crofter-turned-ferryman had been having a laugh at my expense.
He pulled the rope, and started the old outboard-motor.
"Come on! I've got a timetable to keep."

We sailed up the loch, turned through the narrows from Loch Torridon into Upper Loch Torridon, then headed past huge slabs of granite mountain. The scenery was changing dramatically. A few trees; lots of rock!
My captain for the day, chatted away in his Highland brogue; pointing out where to see otters, the occasional seal, and the high crags, where the eagles nested. I was spellbound!

I didn't want to leave when we reached the jetty at Torridon, but a good dinner waited in my bag, and I had worked up a hunger. I could eat the proverbial 'scabbie dug'!
To top it all, when I went to pay the man, he refused.
"Och! I had to take a parcel to the post office anyway. Let the government pay your fare this time."
As I walked my bike, the short distance to the sign marked 'Torridon Youth Hostel', I felt a sadness in leaving him behind.

   Go to Chapters ...
Glencoe to Loch Lochy
Westward Bound
Towards Torridon

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Original story and material © 2005 Bill McLaughlin
Layout, editing and additional material © Dave Sloan 2005, 2016
'tachras' and 'Winding Yarn' © Dave Sloan 2005, 2016

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