Sunday, July 22, 2007

Crianlarich to Stirling - 73k - Sat 21 July

We wanted an early start. The midgees wanted an earlier one! We were happy to leave this place behind, nice as it was because the midgees didn't leave us alone. We headed off down the A85 towards Killin, but would be turning south to Stirling at the tiny hamlet of Lix, just 8k away, where the famous 'Kyber Pass of Scotland' would begin, and hopefully the flat rail trail for bikes on the NCN 7 that was promised to avoid it.

The road started to rise a mile or so before Lix - by Lix we were doing it hard in low gears, and as the road turned south beyond Lix it got steeper for the next 2k where we reached what I thought to be a temporary summit, in anticipation of the real 'Pass' to come. What we had done was not so bad. At the crest we found the NCN 7 (using the old railway line to Killin), so we hopped on that, leaving the highway and the steep climbs. From the rail trail, which I must say was fantastic, we could see that the road then dropped steadily for mile after mile, while we stayed high up on the old railway line. The truth is that there never was Pass, and in fact the road continued to descend until it met Loch Lubnaig, and remained flat all the way to Stirling. The climbing we did was the 'steep' section that the guy said to avoid at all costs!

The rail trail was great though. It crossed some viaducts, giving superb sights across the Glen, and down on villages, farmhouses and the road full of traffic. But after 7k it finished, dropping by a series of tight S bends in concrete down to roaf level where it turned us out on tracks, old bits of road and paths winding up and down through forests with tough short hills, tight bends and all adding to extra distance.

It took us away from the road several miles into the village of Balquhidder, which we would not have normally visited, but it was the village where the great Scottish revolutionary Rob Roy was buried with his wife in the ruins of the village cathedral. Buried with him was his son who was hanged by the authorities for abduction of a woman. We kept faith with the NCN as it then took us across country again, just adding miles to a day when we really didn't need it, and after several more miles of mountain bike riding (where you'd be in your element Angus!) on dirt paths with steep sections where we just made the crests - (which is not meant for touring bikes laden with panniers!) we decided that enough was enough and took the first chance to get back on the highway at the village of Strathyre. After Balquhidder, as we were wrestling with the tight ascents and twists and turns of what was the old road, it dawned on me that this would have been the road travelled by Queen Victoria, who labelled this section as Scotlands equivalent to the Khyber Pass. We were probably on it, so rather than the NCN avoiding it, it probably put us on it! We got off anyway.

From the highway, we were in high gear immediately and flying along the Loch at high twenties and thirties, which is basically how we covered the final 30k or so to STirling. The Highlands had disappeared now, and the land was flat, and the road good. Julie led the way for the final 40k or so, and rode superbly. She has certainly improved and become a competent cyclist. It is a thrill to see her climb mountains with determination, to rise out of her seat and take on the steepest climbs. She is hard to keep with on the flats - I tell her its because I carry more load - but she has done superbly well since the early days after leaving PAris.

After meeting Hamish the Highland Bull, who was just a crowd pleaser, entertaining the crowd through his fence at the hamlet of Kilmahog (he was a 500kg version of a labrador puppy), we cruised the rest of the way, via lunch stop at Callander, to Stirling.

We were about 6k out, the flat road heading straight for Stirling, when Julie shouted that we could see the Wallace Monument, a high point from where it is believed William Wallace viewed and commanded the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1290 something. Just a mile or so later the great Stirling Castle came into clear view, the road lined up perfectly with it, so we had it in a sights for the remainder of the way. We stopped just on the edge of town for photos with the castle as the backdrop, then at the town sign also with the castle as the backings creen, and then we cycled into this most marvellous o Scottish towns. It was said of the Scottish Kings that if you take Stirling, you take Scotland such was its geographical significance.

It was at 3pm on Saturadya afternoon, 21 July that our bikes finally came to rest outside the Alpine Bike Shop in Murray Place, across the road from Willy Wallace Backpackers, our home for the next two days. The Apline Bike shop had promised me two boxes for the bikes. We turned off our computer at 3486k, just 14k short of our estimated 3500k.

Our great ride was over, but certainly not the adventure. Life for us is full of exciting challenges. Julie has said she has an agreement with her bike to give it a rest for a while. I think mine will need some tlc before it goes on another adventure.

This was a massive undertaking, but we looked at each other with a glint in our eyes as if we knew we were thinking the same thing - we pulled off something that was seemingly impossible, with the good grace and blessing of the Lord Himself whose presence we were continually aware of.

Thats the end of the ride story, but given another chance here today I will add some reflections when time permits.

As I write it is Sunday morning 22 July, our free day in Stirling. As has been the case with every free day except Kilchoan, and every big town - it is raining, a fitting tribute to our trip where for some five of the seven weeks of the ride, it rained on our parade.

We are very grateful for the faith, love and prayers of a lot of people back home whom we know followed and supported us with great love and affection. We will be home soon, but our hearts are in Scotland, and as the sign says that we have seen so often leaving Scottish villages 'Haste ye back again'.

Thats a definite!

Glencoe to Crianlarich - 73k - Fri 20 July

It is hard to give credit to such spellbinding magnificence as the mountain of Glen Coe. We were packed and riding just after 9:30am, wondering whether we were riding into steep climbs. But we had to ride nevertheless. The place was a photographic paradise. After stopping at the Glencoe Visitors Centre, we headed up the Glen. The bottom line is that for 27k we climbed in altitude, but we didn't mind because the road ran up the Glen, always gradually rising, and although it was low gears all the way, with Julie preferring her bigger gears but out of the saddle, we climbed out to the top of the Glen and through the PAss of Glen Coe. The views back were just spectacular, the mountains and their rugged beauty failing in words that capture them. We took photos knowing full well they would appear nothing like the scenes before us.

Through the Pass we entered Rannock Moor, nothing like below but still beautiful in its own way. Its here we passed the sign that said that at 28k we had climbed to 1140ft to the top of Rannock Moor. The moor opened out enabling the bikes to move along much faster, we were looking for a great spot to make lunch, which we eventually found alongside a Loch that lies in the centre of the Moor. We then pressed on with now heighted views of Loch Tulla still on top, but then we had a delightful long but steep descent that took us down and along the Loch for many miles.

We were keen to get to our camp by now, which was still a way off, and some 10k past the village of Crianlarich. The hamlet of Bridge of Orchy came next, from where we knew it was still a further 30k. Tyndrum had a TIC, so we stopped, and the fellow told us about the steep climb the following day, and the NCN alternative, saying Queen Victoria called that stretch (Glen of Orgy) the Khyber Pass of Scotland. We were grateful for the information, and couldn't wait for the moment to come!

Crianlarich is another lovely but small village at one end of Glen Dochart, along which we now turned, still on the A85, for the final 10k to the caravan park. It had been a solid day, especially the 28k or so uphill from Glencoe village to the top of the Moor. We were following the river Dochart, so the road was nice and flat, and eventually the welcoming signs of the Dochart Caravan Park enticed us finally off the road, as did the welcoming band of midgees who were lying in wait for us about which we could do little except cover ourselves in good old aussie aeroguard and stay in the tent for the night. Two days later we are both still scratching!

It was a great day, and as we prepared for bed in our tent we realised with some sadness that this would be the final night in the tent, the final meal on our fantastic little Trangia cooker, and the final walk to the shower block running the gauntlett through a waiting army of little midgees!

It was our third day in a row without rain!

Kilchoan to Glencoe - 86k - Thurs 19 July

It was grey and overcast as we peddled out of this idyllic little community by the sea, just across the Loch from the Isle of Mull and the beautiful village of Tobermory. The first 6k was a roller coaster with tough ups and downs as we climbed out of the village, the ruins of castle Mingary just to our right. At the 6k mark we had reached akind of summit, where ahead of us we could see the village of Kilmory, then across the sea to the Isle of Mudle, with the outline of the ruggedness of Skye behind it. We turned east though, and completed the long collar around the back of Mt Hiant, with its long and delightful descent now with the Holy Mountain on our right, and to the west, past where several villages were cleared of families to make way for sheep for the Mingary Estate.

The remaining 20k back to Salen was just as tough as the way out, following the rugged coast with its climbs, drops but always beautiful scenery, through Britains national treasure of Sunart Oakwoods, but today no rain. We hit the A861, and still in an easterly direction, continued the tough road with its long climbs and steep descents that wound its way to the village of Stontian, where we had lunch in the park.

From Stontian we cut through the Glen of Tarbert, which gently climbs into the Glen, then gently descends - the rough country having now smoothed out to make it really glorious cycling, as we approached the ferry that ran from Ardour to Corran, the last several miles tracking the coast again with its many examples of cute houses that date from the earliest time of the crofts. The ferry was a welcome sight, and crossing just a delight as we looked up Loch Linnhe to Fort William and Ben Nevis for the final time.

We turned south on the A82 tracking the shores of the southern reach of Loch Linnhe, through the pretty village of Onich, and then veering east again up into the great Glen Coe. We went through North Ballachulish, from where the Glen opened up to us in all its great and unparralled beauty. The bridge that took us from the northern shore of now Loch Leven to the southern was just a spectacle, the road now tracking the southern shore of the Loch. The mountains and their splendour are unequalled in the english language. I personally don't think I have seen anything as majestic and spellbinding as the scene before us, with enormous highlands on both sides reaching to over 3300ft running all the way up the Glen, with the tiny village of Glencoe nestled just a mile away on the shores of the Loch, with a beautiful caravan park right on the edge.

We camped here, our tent just metres from the shore, but a tiny speck compared to the beautiful mountains that otherwise surrounded us on all sides now. Glencoe was the scene of the terrible Glencoe massacre in 1692, when after a failure by the head of the MacDonald Clan to give written assurance of his allegiance to the King, soldiers were dispatched who for weeks were hosted in the homes of the MacDonald clan, but who then received orders to kill every one of them under the age of 70yrs. The Clan chief was first to be murdered by gunshot, followed by his wife, and then followed 36 more - men women and boys and girls. The beautiful valley was the backdrop for such a terrible atrocity, for which leaders were later punished.

We slept here the night, looking forward but with some trepidation to the journey through the Geln the next day to our final camp at the village of Crianlarich.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Kilchoan - rest day - Wed 18 July

We woke to a lovely blue sky, occasional puffy white cloud and a gentle breeze off the water of Loch Sunart. Yesterday was a tough ride to Kilchoan, on the western end of the Ardnamurchan peninsula, virtually the western extremity of mainland Britain. We left Fort William in lovely sunshine, it was a fantastic run down the 12k or so to the Corran ferry, and the crossing gave glorious views back up the Loch to Fort William and Ben Nevis (4,000ft and highest in Britain).

By the time we got another 20k, the heavens opened and for the next hour we had more water dumped on us than I seem to recall. We had to keep going. The road was tough, long hills at times, and also steep long declines which is scary in drenching rain and very little brakes. This kept up as we turned west onto the 30k run to Kilchoan, only to change into sunshine again just before we hit the glorious climb up behind the neck of the Holy Mount, Ben Hiant which rises 1700ft, with the tiny but pretty village of Kilchoan on its western side. The weather is so fickle and unpredictable. We are glad the body is weatherproof, as are 'Pommie Pete's Ortlieb panniers that he lent me just before we left, for which I am daily grateful. Julie's are another story.

Today though was different. No bikes today. Julie is a Stewart, and our ride is more than a bike ride. It is physical for sure, but also spiritual. We are pilgrims, not just tourists. Julie is a daughter of Kilchoan and Sanna Bay. Coming here is not just as a tourist, but as a pilgrim to touch something of her past, her rich heritage which seeps from the very rocky outcrops of these heather covered hills.

The Stewarts were in the front line of Bonnie Prince Charles fight to regain the English and Scottish Crown at the battle of Culloden. There were 500 of them, the Prince himself of the royal line of Stewarts (he was Stuart, the french form from Mary Queen of Scots). The charge of the Highlanders ended in defeat and disaster, and the repercussions and aftermath led to much further bloodshed. We don't really know why the Stewarts were eventually found to be living at Sanna Bay, just around the headland from Kilchoan, a hundred years after the great battle that changed Scottish history forever, one of these being Julie's great great grandfather.

Following Culloden, things became quite difficult for people living in the highlands. One of the things that saved them was the introduction of potatoes, which could be grown in poor soil. They also made money from kelp (seawead), which was used for glass and soap production. Fishing was also a flourishing industry. But all this changed when cattle prices fell, kelp was no longer needed, and the fish had moved on. People struggled, and landowners saw money in something else - sheep. Families living on land owned under the old clan system were moved on (cleared) to make way for sheep. This happened later on the Ardnimurchan peninsular than other parts of Scotland. Families were cleared off lands where they'd been for generations under the old clan system, to make way for sheep farming by the land holders. Families ended up in scattered groups on impoverished soil, and expected to survive.

Sanna Bay was one such place. Villages that existed around the Ben Hiant grasslands were all cleared, and many families ended up at Sanna Bay and Portuairk, a neighboring bay. Thats where several Stewart families were known to be living in the 1840's and 50's, one of them Julie's direct ancestors. They are buried in the lovely little cemetery on the hillside overlooking the beautiful bay of the village of Kilchoan.

We sat there today, having climbed the lovely green hillside. We found numerous graves of the Stewarts, all of Sanna Bay. We knew her great great great grandparents (Allan and Mary Stewart) were buried in this cemetery, but no headstone could be found (many are unmarked). We sat there. In Julie's hand she had her Aussie flag that came with her from Australia. It flew behind her on the bike all the way from PAris, across Normandy, and into Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. The flag followed her up through England, across the Scottish border into the Highlands, to a destiny on a sunny morning overlooking Kilchoan Bay. She dearly wanted to leave her flag, sort of a part of her and the nation that had now become part of her, on the grave of her ancestor, but she was not confident of which grave. Where to put it, she just was not sure.

We looked up behind the cemetery to another hill. We were hoping we might see Sanna Bay, so we walked over the heather and between the thistles to the high mount overlooking the town, and especially the cemetery. When we finally reached the summit, we knew what to do with her Aussie flag. Someone had been there before us. They had made an altar of rocks from around the hillside. It was't tall, but an altar it was. The Scottish would call it a 'cairn'. It was obviously done with meaning, because the top rock was painted especially blue, with the white cross of St Andrew on the blue background - the national flag of Scotland.

It was a touching moment for us, as Julie gently placed her Aussie flag in the top of the altar of rocks, the flag contrasting so beautifully with the Cross of St Andrew painted on the rock. We couldn't quite see Sanna Bay, but we could see the cemetery as if we had been suspended over the top, we could see Kilchoan bay, the isle of Mull to the south across the water, and the outline of the rugged hills of the isle of sky beyond Sanna Bay. We stood holding each other - it was a tender moment for two pilgrims who had cycled a long way for this, especially one - a daughter of Kilchoan and Sanna Bay - who had somehow wanted to honour those who had gone before, and her great great grandparents (Allan and Anne Stewart) who, possibly following the clearances of 1853, and only newly married, decided to leave their families and the the hardship of Sanna Bay, and sail to Victoria, Australia to start a new life in 1854.

We fought our tears as we stood on top of this mountain, watching the flag flutter in the breeze, giving thanks to God for His incredible providential care of the Stewart family, the generations, and especially those a long way off in our own land of Australia.

We turned many times as we walked the long way back to Kilchoan Bay, for the final flutter of the little blue flag before it disappeared behind the heather. We felt it was worth the struggle to get out on such a tough road, the drenching of heavy rain, and now to face again the road back, to in this small way make contact with the generations that had gone before, and the rich heritage we have now to build upon. The rest of the day was just beautiful, neither of us wanting to face the thought of our departure on the bike early the following morning, but face it we did.

Fort William to Kilchoan - 87k - Tues 17th july

We decided to change our planned route, and cut straight to Kilchoan the 'short' way via the Corran Ferry, rather than the long way round past Glenfinnan where the Bonnie Prince Charles Memorial is (where he raised his standard and called the rebels to the cause, which resulted in the debacle at Cullodden). It meant also missing the famous Glenfinnan viaduct, the rail bridge that features on Harry Potter with the Jacobite Steam Railway.

It also meant we would arrive at Kilchoan a day earlier, and therefore spend a free day at Kilchoen, where Julie's ancestral family originate.

I have run out of time on the net here at the Kilchoen Community Centre, so will complete this when we get to Stirling.

Suffice to say, we had a solid ride to get to Kilchoen, the Adrnamurchin penonsular a tough ride for any cyclist, with massive clombs up behind the holy Mountain Ben Hiant at 1700ft straight out of the sae.

But today (our rest day), we walked and rode our bikes at great leisure on a beautiful sunny day all over Kilchoen. We spent ages at the old cemetrery, and I want to tell you what Julie did with her Aussie flag that she has flown behind her bike for the last 3200k's - when I have more time.

It has been aspecial day.

We ride out tomorrow - back over the same ground - to Glencoe - the sight of the Glencoe masacres - then up through Crianlarich - some of the highesy mountains in Scotland - for hopefully a downhill finish at Stirling on Saturday.

So I'll fill this bit in with more detail later. We are both fine - I am much thinner than when I left, but ever so glad and enriched for this experience.

Until then - we send our love - Kelvin and Julie