“You want me to do what?” I asked again incredulously.
“I want you to ride the bike up and down my driveway a couple of times,” said Peter, matter-of-factly.
Peter McIntyre, owner and sole employee of Highland Rider Motorcycle Tours, was to be my guide over the hills and dales of Scotland for the next four days. Signing up for the tour months earlier via the internet, I’d just met him the afternoon before. With my family, I had successfully navigated my way in a hired (i.e., rented) car from Glasgow’s airport to the historic town of Linlithgow after flying across the Atlantic all night. I’d found Peter fiddling about his garage and bounded down, extending my hand to him in greeting. He was ebullient and convivial, boisterous and charismatic. I liked him immediately.
The tour I’d chosen was to the Isle of Skye, a mountainous, Manhattan-sized island off the rugged west coast, the only major island accessible by bridge. Peter offered many tours over the course of each summer season, of varying lengths and going to the remotest places in Scotland; the Hebrides, the Orkneys, the Shetlands, and more. The Skye tour was the right length for me and fit my summer schedule.
“I like to be able to assess my riders’ skill levels before I send them out on the road,” he continued. He had fitted me to his Yamaha XJ-600, a four cylinder air-cooled bike similar to what Yamaha calls the “Seca II” in the States. I protested briefly, telling him I regularly log 15,000 miles a year. “I know how to do this,” I grumbled to myself. But rather than making a scene, I acquiesced and did his requested maneuvers. Later, he told me that one rider couldn’t negotiate a stop at the end and rode across a busy street into the hedgerow, luckily missing traffic.
Earning Peter’s stamp of approval, I donned my “kit” (i.e., riding suit) and with our small group of Clive, a pleasant young chap from Bath, England, riding his own Kawasaki, Kevin and Wendy from Liverpool, England, riding one of Peter’s BMWs, and Peter, set out under dark, tempestuous skies. Soon the rain began in earnest. My Cordura suit is aged and has lost its water repellency, so at the first stop I draped my rain suit over it. Within a hundred miles, northward towards the Scottish interior, we were pretty well soaked, dripping water on the floor at our first coffee stop. Leaving there a half-hour later, still in the rain, we watched an inattentive driver sideswipe another, shattering mirrors and my nerves further. Then our elevation rose and the temperature dropped, adding cold to our sullen wet. Further on, the lowland hills gave way to the Highland moors and the clouds began to break and the brightening of the sky fostered a brightening of my mood. Beyond a monument to Britain’s Army Commandos, we rode alongside Loch Lochy and stopped for sandwiches at a lovely hotel with a grand view. We then descended into Glen Coe and the town of Fort William, enjoying views of the surrounding mountains including Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest. Rains came and went the remainder of the day. We decided early on that Western Scotland has two types of weather, “Raining right now,” and “Going to rain in a moment.”
At one point on a rest break, I wanted to cross the highway to take a snapshot, but mum-hen Peter said no. A wee bit overprotective was this man, I thought to myself. Fifty miles later on the bikes, he began to pick up the pace to beyond entertaining speeds. I couldn’t help but chide him about it at our next stop. “For a guy who won’t let me cross the street by myself, you sure can wick it up!” I stayed right with him, though, both for his help navigating round-abouts and what-not, but for the exhilaration, too.
What what-nots, you ask? How about the electronic policemen, otherwise known as speed cameras? Where in the States, an actual cop is required to give you a speeding ticket, Scotland has hundreds of radar-equipped stationary cameras that gauge your speed, determine if it is excessive, then thoughtfully take a photo of your license tag and mail you a ticket. Maddeningly, you’re forewarned of their placement, but never told how fast you’re supposed to be going! Also entertaining are the “blind summits”, “cattle grates,” and “liable to icing” signs. Not a highway sign per-se, but my favorite warning nonetheless: over low-hanging doorways were signs saying, “Mind your head;” perennially good advice to all!
There is one bridge onto Skye and it’s new, modern, and dramatic. We stopped for gasoline and received with it the first shock that would come to accompany every gas fill-up. Prices for most things, and first glance, seemed reasonable. For instance, a sandwich might be marked 3.95. But I had to remind myself that this was Pounds rather than Dollars, and a Pound was twice as valuable. We’re talking an $8 sandwich! Gasoline was much worse. Typical prices were 80-pence per liter. With about four liters per gallon, let’s see, that’s, uh, ought three, carry the four, divide by six or was that eight? Homigosh, we’re talking upwards of $7.00 per gallon! Filling the little Yamaha cost over $25! Good thing this was a small country.
Our hotel for the first two of three nights was an old, stately stone structure by the edge of Loch Sligachan. The proprietors were a young couple with a 10-year old boy named Oscar whose birthday was the next day, the day before my own. Mischievous Oscar entertained us by drawing pictures of each of us with our bikes.
I checked into my room and rather than hitting the bar, I hiked onto the hillside across the road. The ground was soaking wet. Dozens of sheep roamed the low shrubs. Looking back across the field and nearby bay, I was struck by the dynamic sky, the exquisite interplay between cloud and light, the sunlit patches racing across the green fields and onto the waters. In the distance through unpolluted skies, I could see a rainbow in one direction, a downpour in another. Even when I sat still, waves of light and wind swept over me; the movement of the planet seemed palpable.
The next morning, I went outside the hotel to sample the incipient day’s weather. A sea otter walked across the jetty nearby and glided silently, gracefully, into the chilly seawater. Day two on the Isle of Skye was short on miles but long on interesting things to see and sample:
On the eastern edge of the island, we looked over a waterworks, a huge pipe carrying water from a small loch down a steep escarpment to a power plant by the sea. Built some fifty years ago, it was the first electricity source for the island.
Further on, we stopped at another cliffside overlook. In one direction was a waterfall spilling into the sea far below and in the other were cliffs looking stacked in a columnar fashion, reminiscent of the pleats of a Scotsman’s kilt. We watched a craftsman vendor, selling oval seashore rocks, hand-painted with an image of a thatched-roofed Scottish cottage. I bought one and had him write “MacAbraham” on the doorplate. His artistic skills were impressive as was the steadiness of his hand. His studio was the back end of his Subaru station wagon. A brief downpour sent auto-bound tourists scurrying towards their car, but we simply donned our helmets and waited it out. We lunched at a metal outdoor table at still another water’s edge hotel, this one built in 1895, enjoying a break in the rains.
Afterwards, we climbed a dramatic road to a mountain crest and gobbled impressive views of otherworldly rock formations carpeted in green and in the distance, the surrounding islands. Peter showed us a field where peat was cut to dry to be gathered for fuel, just as done in Stone Age days.
We motored to Skye’s northern coastline where we toured a “granite forest” (i.e., graveyard), with impressive stones from the 1500’s. Two commodities Scotland has in great supply are granite and deceased people, so graveyards are ubiquitous. Nearby, on a north-facing hillside swept by North Atlantic winds, was a re-creation of a prehistoric village, with huts of stone and thatch. With still another shower brewing above, we imagined aloud the life-style of these people, living in dark, cramped, smelly, cold huts through the forbidding, washcloth-wet winters.
We toured an ancient stone bridge, reputedly haunted by fairies.
Hoping to catch views of Skye’s impressive mountains, the Cuillins, we were disappointed by dropping clouds and pounding rains. The razor-topped 3000-foot Cuillins present Britain’s most dire mountaineering challenge. Peering through fogged eyeglasses and my helmet lens into sheets of fog and rain, I could see very little and focused solely on the road ahead.
Back at the hotel and still chilled from the damp ride, I filled a bathtub with steaming water, stained the color of chamomile tea. While we’re on the subject of bathrooms, the quaintness and charm of the prevailing architecture wore a wee bit thin when it extended to plumbing fixtures. Half the toilets I used wouldn’t flush until the third or fourth depression of the mechanism, and when they did the impressive gushing of water seldom cleaned the bowl. Sinks universally used dated two-spigot designs, where the hot tap water could have poached an egg. In private bathrooms, a plug could be used to fill the sink and mix the water temps for a splash to hands and face, but in public rooms, the hot was useless.
Rejoining the group, I noticed Peter had donned his blue and green kilt for dinner. Afterwards, looking and acting the Scotsman he is, he regaled us with ribald poems and silly songs, all the while downing shots of single-malt liquor. More than a bit pissed (i.e., inebriated), he lauded me with praise, proclaiming me the best rider he’d ever seen from America. Flattering to the point of being embarrassing, he had to be repeatedly interrupted to allow me to argue that there are many excellent riders from America. We wondered together why his tours, paradoxically, seemed only to attract those who couldn’t tell a choke lever from a gear shifter.
Our penultimate day, my fiftieth birthday, provided the finest riding. We crossed a minor pass on Skye and descended sharply to the ancient ferry which would take us back to the “mainland” (in quotes because the mainland of Scotland is an island, too!). The ferry, traversing a quarter-mile of rapidly moving tidal-stream water, was staffed by two men and a dog, and designed to carry only six cars. The entire car deck swiveled like a lazy-Susan aboard a floating skiff. The loading end of the deck was equipped with a pair of steel sheets which served as loading ramps. The swiveling deck was motored by man-power.
After debarking, we found another hidden backroad where we toured the ruins of a bizarre, conical, pre-historic tower, fifty feet high with seven-foot thick walls. I had a brief conversation with a carload of other tourists, reminding myself how much I enjoyed the local accents, which were so enchantingly, well, Scottish. Non-question sentences typically ended with an up-tone intonation, universally resounding in optimism. It was particularly attractive in the women, of course, who all resembled in inflection the heroines of some Brave Heart movie.
Morning tea was in the garden of a still another loch-shore hotel where the matronly, plump proprietress served hot home-made fruit scones, the most delectable I’d ever eaten.
Ascending from water’s edge, we crossed another mountain pass with stunning views of Loch Duich and environs. Much of this road, along with many others, was single-track with wide-outs, “Passing Places,” that made for white-knuckle riding. Peter and his Yamaha FJR approached these and all highway situations like an orchestra conductor, with assertiveness and confidence, inspiring this in me and the others. The roads themselves were universally well-paved and well-maintained, although narrow and challenging. Scottish roads seemed to flow with the rugged landscape, not overpowering the land but complimenting it.
After lunch, Peter shepherded us up an intensely dramatic climb to the highest paved pass in Scotland, swittchbacking on a steep, gnarly, single-track road not much wider than a footpath. The pass was cold, windswept and austere, a quintessential Scottish scene. The leaden sky was just beyond arm’s reach above and in the distance was an endless procession of loch, bay, and ocean, lending new meaning to the term “liquid assets,” which Scotland has in spades. I drew a mental image of the country as a sponge in a swimming pool in the rain; water is a constant theme and a defining attribute. At the summit, instead of continuing we retraced our path. “Oh, this is a dead end,” Peter said. “I just thought you’d enjoy seeing this.” Aye!
As the day and miles went on, I came to better appreciate the nimble handling of the Yamaha. A loose headset kept my hands firmly on the upright bars, but the bike was light and flickable, comfortable to ride. It had a pronounced buzziness in the bars and foot pegs at around 4000rpm, much like what my Honda VFR has at around 8500rpm. On the more powerful VFR, it’s an indication that an upshift is in order, but the Yamaha is just getting into the meat of its power range, so I had to resist the temptation to shift and keep the little mill revving.
We passed through forest and moorland on a fine, high-speed road, where Peter and I swept the curves in synchronous arches, leaving the other riders behind. The Highlands have thousands of grazing sheep, and while fences exist ostensibly to contain them, the reality is that many lounge on the shoulders of the highways. Luckily, they munch single-mindedly and don’t spook, but it’s unnerving nonetheless to pass these animals at high rates of speed and close proximity.
Our destination for the evening was Peter’s hometown of Gairloch. On my evening walk, I ambled through the village, which was really no more than a smattering of houses and shops set against a barren hillside. The beach, sadly like so many others, was littered with old plastic bottles and the floats, lines, and other flotsam of the fishing industry. Calm winds gave way to clouds of midges, the local insect pest. Tiny, swarming bugs like gnats, the midges land and sting. When I asked Peter about them, he said, “In the Highlands, you get either wind or midges; pick your poison. Sometimes they’re so bad, we have to wear our helmets right out of the hotel when we get on our bikes, because if you put on your helmet after they swarm, you’ll capture some inside and they’ll sting while you ride.”
I poked my head out the hotel window late that evening and at 11 p.m. there was still twilight in the northern sky.
Peter’s mother, a trim and spry widow, still lives in town and joined us for dinner. The following morning, we had tea at her house. Like everyone it seemed in the Isles, she kept a fantastic flower garden. Her house, we learned, was a 500-year-old stone cottage which was completely disassembled, then rebuilt with modern construction using the stones reassembled as cladding. The interior had fine hardwood wood trim and was delightfully decorated with hundreds of figurines and objects d'art of Scotland. Enchanting!
Twenty miles from Gairloch, we rode a long single-track road eastward towards Inverness. For several miles, the road paralleled an “improved” highway under construction, earth-moving equipment laboring through granite rock and peat-black soils. Peter complained later, saying he hoped the special remoteness of the Highlands could be preserved by limiting the upgrading of the access roads. All I could think about was how much of the precious $7 per gallon fuel the bulldozers were gulping.
We bypassed Inverness and zoomed southward on the A9, the primary link from the rest of Scotland to the Highlands. I assumed we’d bee-line back to Linlighgow, but in the pouring rain Peter exited onto a 20-mph track through farmlands and forests. We stopped into a church we passed along the way; well I got down on my knees, and I began – slap! Stop that! Sorry, I must have been dreaming. In the church was still another magnificent granite forest with someone famous buried there, and a huge yew tree, reputed to be the oldest living thing in Europe. At Aberfeldy, a small, tourist-laden town near Loch Tay was a grand old stone bridge with a cascading river below. Owing to its one lane width, traffic was queued up twenty deep waiting alternately to cross. We talked at length with a couple who had moved to the area recently from England. They’d toured the area on holiday and fallen in love with it. I realized the thought had crossed my mind a few times as well.
Our tiny motorcade finally rejoined the highway near the trip’s conclusion in Linlithgow and by dinnertime we were back in Peter’s garage, unloading the bikes and saying fond farewells.
Jane was faithfully waiting for me in Linlithgow. A couple of days later, we drove our hired car south to Northumberland in England. We spent one afternoon hiking the Cheviot Hills with the mum of a young fellow we’d met the previous year hiking in the Alps. She introduced us to her parents, octogenarians who lived on a dead-end road in Northumberland National Park. Her dad, a fascinating man who built most everything of interest in their house, including sculptures in wood, brass, and marble, furniture, and etched glass, told me of a friend who, “collects some older motorcycles.” Not two hours later I found myself standing in a three-car garage beside a magnificent English manor house, staring at my first Vincent. Turns out this friend is president of the International Vincent Motorcycle Owners Association!