The Spine of Scotland: the first Roam Scotland Rally, 2019


A momentary idea on the Torino-Nice Rally kept on coming back to me for more attention. But an idea is a flimsy thing on its own, it needed some substance. Bike? Check – the Shand Stooshie. ‘Spare’ time? Hmmm, check. Functional body? Well, sometimes, check’ish. Commitment to map obsessing. Oh yes, double check! Imagining a route up the centre of Scotland from my home in Edinburgh to my childhood home near Inverness, the spine of Scotland began to emerge, a foundation and a scaffold around which to build.

I set to work in late September, enticing others to join me or setting off solo. I traumatised Andy P on some 20%+ inclines up grouse shooting tracks in Perthshire; I froze with Gavin on a bright but ice encrusted foray into the Ochils; and I press-ganged the Goddess into some Christmas reccies up North.

There were new wind farm access roads with solid foundations and slick surfaces. Old drove roads and estate tracks, sometimes crude and lumpy, but layered with the history of hooves, boots and tyres. Occasional encounters with others pursuing their rural livelihoods – foresting, game-keeping, or in hospitality, providing welcome warmth, food and fluids. Contrasting landscapes and people brought flesh to the bones of a route.

Contrasts, Alex Heinmann
[Contrasts, Alex Heinmann]


I reached the final weekend of testing in late March in the company of the Goddess and two club-mates. Patrick and Hamish joined us on a joyful rampage up Strath Vaich and into Glen Cuilleanach on a crisp bright day.

A short way up Glen Cuilleanach, needing a wee pick-me-up, we concocted a new tradition. I collected the highland stream water, Patrick brewed up the coffee, the goddess tipped in a good slug of Highland Park, Hamish cracked out the dark chocolate and the weather gods played along with a patch of sunshine. A Cuilleanach coffee – highly recommended.

[Cuilleanach coffee brewing, Tobias Koepplinger]
The next day was a return journey to my parents’ house that was more unpleasant than we’d bargained for, lashed by a 60mile/hour side-wind laced with sleat and snow. Numb bodies and minds, we eventually stumbled into the house, totally drookit. Revived by a large whisky from my dad and a good feed from my mum, Hamish succinctly captured our weekends’ experience – ‘brutiful’. Such vagaries of the Scottish weather were, unfortunately, to become familiar to the RSR riders.


I was a little nervous. Who was I to think I could make a decent bike-packing route, never mind subject other folk to my map meanderings? Thirty-four riders pitched up at Castello Coffee for last minute fuel before trundling out of Edinburgh along the Union canal tow path. The cheerfulness among the group eased my nerves, but I was still glad to get to the Forth Bridge with no reports of unscheduled dips in the canal.

Old companions were there too. I’d climbed Highland hills with Robin and explored Europe on bikes with Col. They escaped London with their virginal bike-packing kit, intrigued to dip their toes in this new scene. I remember two twenty year olds on a hill top overlooking Köln making excited vows to ride around the world. There’s still time Col! Great to be making new memories and galvanising our bonds

Round the world?, Robert Mundell
[Round the world?, Robert Mundell]


We awoke in Killin to snow on the hills. The Goddess’s cold-wet-windy Scottish weather rule: two out of three doable, all three = stay in the warm. Thankfully the wind was light. In fact over the high passes between Glen Lochay, Glen Lyon and Loch Rannoch, we experienced that lovely dampened peacefulness that a light tail wind and a dusting of snow can give you. Our companions that morning didn’t seem that troubled by the unexpected chill, riding on appreciating the added element in the landscape.

However by the time we reached Kinloch Rannoch for a late lunch, we were cold and damp, with much riding still to do. Spirits were waning. Step up the tough guys.

Glen Lyon & Snow. Steve Grace
[Glen Lyon & Snow. Steve Grace]

Gaick Pass Heroes

Steve had come all the way from the white cliffs doon sooth. You quickly warm to his unrelenting cheerfulness. The pairing with Jim, our Canadian randonneur, emerged on day two in the bowl of Glen Almond as it snakes through to Loch Tay.

Jim and Steve have ridden too many wild places to be cowed by the Scottish weather. As the rest of us considered the shortest least painful route through Drummochter Pass to somewhere warm to sleep, they committed to the Gaick Pass. A true wilderness section running 35km North via a bog trot, challenging single track and a river crossing.

Joining us in our glamping pod that night, they eventually rolled in at 9.45pm, numb with the cold but exhilarated after 150km and 2000m of tough riding. Brain function was perhaps a bit glitchy. Steve’s enthusiastic purchase of a pizza on route, had lacked the association of ‘glamping pod’ and ‘no oven’. So he abandoned the pizza in favour of the higher culinary treat of a super-noodle butty. Tough legs, tough brains, tough stomachs. Ladies and gentleman, I give you the Gaick Pass two:

Gaick Pass two, Tobias Koepplinger
[Gaick Pass two, Tobias Koepplinger]

Dreich to Drumnadrochit

Let’s be honest, day four was a bit miserable. Barely mustering 5 or 6 degrees all day. Those who took on the cima coppi over the Corrieyairack pass in the snow, like Tobi here – chapeau.

[Tobias, Andy Parkinson]
Many struggled even on the easier alternative route up the Great Glen Way. The wisest of the crew sought lubrication and sustenance on the Eagle Barge at Laggan locks. Sam a Yorkshireman and Sandro from Switzerland enjoying a pint together on a canal in Scotland, hearing about the history of the barge as a German troop transporter in the war. It’s a funny old world.

The Lock Ness Inn in Drumnadrochit served me up a personal reward for ploughing on that day. A fan of fish & chips, I’d contrived to have it every night of the trip, and this was the best. The Goddess kept mumbling about scurvy, but I’m still alive. Scotland doesn’t have much by way of ‘signature cuisine’- unless oatmeal with sheep heart, liver and lungs, boiled in the poor wee things’ stomach, counts as cuisine. Fortunately Scots-Italians have saved us from haggis with fish & chips and macaroni pies!

Wildlife Encounters

The remote far north on day 6 through Strath Vaich, Glen Calvie and Strath Rusdale, offered up some wildlife. The red deer are abundant up there, but posing for selfies?? The Highland cows are pretty benign beasts too, but we edged our way past this fine specimen’s horns nonetheless.

Highland Coo, Calum Munro
[Highland Coo, Calum Munro]
My next reward, after the gorgeous climb to the head of Strath Rusdale, was to watch an eagle circling right above us until it nonchalantly floated over the hillside without a flap. Safe to say none of these encounters were as scary as the sight of Inverness’ finest out on the lash on the Saturday night – another kind of wild life I guess.

Rock Stars

There was a group within the group. I started thinking of them like a rock band. They’d debuted as a three-piece German-Swiss outfit with Christof, Anskar and Sandro arriving at the 3rd Torino-Nice Rally, then picking up Sam along the way. So an established super-group foursome arrived in Edinburgh, seeking inspiration for that difficult second album.

Rock Stars, Sandro Gianella
[Rock Stars, Sandro Gianella]
Anskar has to be the lead singer – just see his perfectly colour-coordinated bike set-up. Yet they were a team, greater than the sum of their parts. In harmony, looking out for one another. The driving force of our socialising and the first to get the beers and whisky in.

Worthy of note

Bike-packers seem to be modest self-effacing folk. So I’ll not get drawn into hyperbole, but there were many riders of note.

Vanessa apparently towed un-named male through Drummochter Pass in the drizzle. Her wheel-sucking chagrin only placated a number of days later on learning of the chest infection also being carried behind her that day.

Elizabeth dragged her husband John on an extra untested ‘track’ excursion up the mountain of Ben Wyvis. The only conquerors of the true cima coppi in the snow!

True Cima Coppi, John Goode
[True Cima Coppi, John Goode]
Roam Scotland Rally wouldn’t have happened without James Olsen and the alchemy of wilderness, hard riding and sociability he has conjured in the Torino-Nice Rally. I doff my tweedy cap to you James.

In the same understated mould, Jim Raddatz of the Gaick pass two. Maybe a career as a vet in Canada makes you tough – “there’s no point in wearing a watch in my line of work” he tells me, referring to the frequency with which his arm is deep in the rear end of a large animal. RSR was just a warm up for Jim. Next up at 68 years young he took on the 4,400km of the Tour Divide, and of course completed it no problem!

Gathering, sharing & reflections

Whilst a select few ploughed on venturing further North, a gaggle of us gathered around the Velocity Café and later the Black Isle Brewery bar in Inverness at the end of our ride. Beer was drunk, pizza eaten, stories swapped and friendships cemented.

On tarmac, gravel, pine needles and mud, roads and tracks carried us through varied landscapes and between small communities. We all faced challenges at times, getting enough food, keeping warm, and keeping our tired legs turning. Sometimes we had to rely on ourselves and that self-sufficient bike-packing spirit; other times turning to others, making connections and finding acceptance of each other’s foibles and eccentricities. It was the bonds we forged between us, which breathed life into this route.

We all took different paths. Some seeking the rough stuff, some the smooth ride. Long stretches of solitude or constant companionship. A comfortable bed or a wild camping spot. We each found our own way to meet the physical and psychological challenges of navigating a journey by bike up the spine of Scotland. We may each prefer a different blend, but we all need enough of the good stuff: safety, food, sleep, exercise, connection with others, care and acceptance, and the freedom to be the author of our own destiny. Oh aye, and the odd nip of single malt of course.

Bike-packing in a group of like-minded folk is a fine way to meet these basic human needs. Come and join us next year or gather a group yourself to ride the route when it suits you. Ride, roam and replenish.

Reflections, Steve Grace
[Reflections, Steve Grace ]

Write to Roam

Bikes are the ultimate vehicle of freedom aren’t they? The freedom to explore and the freedom to be. Throw in a tent, some provisions and some like minded folk, and you have yourself a bikepacking rally. This spring, my husband Keith and I took part in a unique event and the first of its kind in Scotland: The Roam Scotland Rally. This may be the most enjoyable multi-day ride I have ever done, so I wanted to capture it and write it down to share the story of this special event.


Photo Credit: Shona MacPhearson

Sometimes bikes can be way, way more important than simply the freedom to explore beautiful places for a week or to reconnect with yourself and the world around you. Sometimes bikes can be about improving physical health, they can be the conduit to confidence and self esteem, they can build community and even be a reason to get up in the morning.

Rather than paying an entry fee for this event, riders made a donation to the Gallatown Bike Hub in Kirkcaldy. This is a social enterprise which brings all good bicycle related things to the local community and beyond. It would be our hope that by making this connection with a great community based project that a bikepacking rally could spread the biking love and perhaps give opportunities and inspiration to youngsters and their community that would give biking benefits stretching way beyond the event itself.

Photo Credit: Gallatown Bike Hub

So what was the inspiration for the Roam Scotland Rally? In part, it was the Torino to Nice Rally and in part,  Scotland’s right to roam. The first Roam Scotland Rally took place in 2019, with a small hiatus for Covid, we signed ourselves up for the next one in May this year. For 2022, the Grand Depart was at Lamlash on Arran with  around 50 intrepid bike packers from as far flung as Shetland to London in the UK, and Holland, Belgium, Canada and Germany for our international riders.

To roam is to move about or travel aimlessly or unsystematically, especially over a wide area. When this wide area takes you through stunning and rugged parts of the Scottish West Coast, Highlands and Islands, you want a  capable, dependable steed that will accommodate your kit and efficiently cover large distances day after day whilst defying you not to have a ridiculous, goofy grin on your face as you fly down long, snaking hill passes. A bike that will keep rolling that front wheel up and over craggy, bouldery sections of the West Highland Way as perplexed hill walkers look on in slight disbelief!  Most of the Roamers chose gravel bikes, but there were one or two others like ourselves who chose hard tail mountain bikes to get them across the 700km of mixed terrain to the finish in Oban.

Photo Credit: Bernd Wichman

The basic formula for the rally is for all of the riders to gather at the start and then ride the route in their own way, at their own speed and finish somewhere in and around the finish area for each day. It is not a race, more a chance to discover new places, meet like minded folk and take time to drink in the views, wildlife and local sights. That, and you have carte blanche to eat as much as you like guilt free as it is no longer calories, but fuel!

Each rider is given a detailed route plan and gpx track when they sign up for the rally with options for a long or short route each day as well as top tips and local knowledge. This proved invaluable when considering places to resupply, places to eat as well as places to stay. It is very much a case of riding the rally your way. This might be on your own, or with a group of friends. It could be traveling fast and light with minimal kit and staying in B and Bs or hotels each night.  For us, a bikepacking adventure means carrying tent/camping gear and other essentials.  These include items such as our water filter, copious amounts of Smidge to keep the pesky midges at bay and a frame bag often bulging with flapjack and bananas! We knew that to be able to cover the daily distances for the long route each day (averaging 100km) we would need to travel light, so for the first time ever, we left behind our camp stove. This sacrifice shows you just how seriously we were taking this challenge as it meant starting the day without coffee. No coffee!!  It also meant that we were able to trim the rolling weight of the loaded bike and kit to around 26kg.

By taking on a challenge that you have hope, but no certainty of successful completion, you can end up surprising yourself with weird and wonderful solutions to the unique scrapes you might find yourself in! Somehow, I managed to damage the master cylinder for my front brake so that it leaked out all of the hydraulic brake fluid, leaving me with no front brake. The back brake alone could not cope with the weight of my fully loaded bike on the long descents. Back brake duly cooked, I had only my feet left for brakes! We were many miles from the nearest bike shop, so needed to conjure a better solution than my size 8s for brakes. Whilst there was no bike shop, there was a small cafe, and so using the resources we had at our disposal Keith came up with a slightly alarming, but none-the-less effective braking bodge! He reappeared from the cafe with a cunning plan and a cup of olive oil, much to the amusement and concern of our fellow roamers who had congregated at the cafe. The next tricky task was to somehow inject said oil into the tiny hole on my brake cylinder. Again, the universe provided, with a piece of stout cardboard from the cafe’s recycling bin folded into a v shaped funnel. Carefully, we were able to drip enough olive oil into the system that I had solid, functioning brakes once more.  Returning inside the cafe to buy us some celebratory snacks, the lady who had dispensed the olive oil voiced her concern over our Heath Robinson brake fix and wanted reassurances that we would go directly to the nearest bike shop. It turned out that this was not necessary as my olive oil worked a treat for the remaining 400km of the trip!

Problems aside, I love the simplicity and the daily rhythm of bikepacking.  Pedal, eat, sleep, repeat. Pedal, eat, sleep, repeat. It is a total reset and a tonic for the complexities and distractions of regular life. Time is of little consequence and is more governed by the rising and setting of the sun than by the time piece on your wrist. We tended to rise about 5,30am as the sun started to warm our tent.  The midgies are out in force, so we quickly pack up the tent and would often have breakfast on the hoof, out of the reach of the biting blighters! My bar roll and bag make quite a good breakfast table for my spread of banana, granola bar and milkshake. By rising early, we get a good head start too.  Most days the gravel bikes cover the ground fast, so would catch us up at some point and we would have other riders for a spot of company and banter. The miles fall away quickly whenever you are chatting.  Sometimes it genuinely would make us faster too. Our 29er steel hard tails could masquerade for a bit as racey gravel bikes as we would join the efficiency of an impromptu peloton and push our heart rates for as long as we felt like it!

Mostly we pottered along at a more relaxed pace. This allowed us to drink in the constant supply of incredible views, take pictures and enjoy some of the wildlife around us. We passed very close to a herd of deer plus geese and goslings on a coastal estate. I nearly rode over a snake-like slow worm and although we missed the otters and seals that other riders told us about, we made up for this by spotting a golden eagle on Mull,.  Maybe this is not so hard to do as Mull has the highest density of nesting golden eagles in Europe!

We had some comedy moments along the way.  Climbing up a long, winding fire road, we caught up with a couple of Belgian friends who appeared particularly heavily laden. It turns out that they were carrying an extra pannier belonging to a 3rd friend who was blissfully unaware that he had jettisoned half his luggage and gaily ridden off up the hill unencumbered. This situation was animatedly explained to us, and we were duly dispatched to chase down the errant Belgian! Once caught, this rider wondered why his friends were taking so long, and if they had had a problem that was keeping them back! We explained that they had indeed had a problem, in fact about a 6 foot problem who was standing right in front of us! He had had no idea.

There was another international rider from Canada whom we had been most keen to get a chance to talk to at some point on the ride. He is an absolute bikepacking veteran, now in his 70s, who has ridden many long distance trails all over the world. Riding Roam Scotland his way meant flying into Manchester, collecting and rebuilding his bike and then pedaling it from Manchester all the way to the start on Arran! We did get to meet Jim and enjoy some of his tales of adventure first hand, but certainly not in the way we would have wanted. It was the only rainy day of the trip, and Keith and I were trying to make up some time on a road section of the ride, having had a delay whilst we poured olive oil into my brakes earlier in the day! Rounding a bend, we could see someone lying on the tarmac with 2 bikes on the ground. It had all happened so fast, but minutes earlier Jim’s front wheel pulled him further into the gravelly rough at the side of the road and resulted in an unscheduled dismount at such speed that his helmet was smashed in two. Fortunately, he had been riding with another Roamer who had already done the immediate first aid and called for an ambulance. We, and later a few more Roamers were able to assist whilst we waited for the ambulance. By alerting the very occasional traffic to the situation, they could pass by with care and we also got Jim wrapped up as warmly as we could and sheltered him from the rain with waterproof material that we held over him like an umbrella. Despite the pain he was in, he remained in remarkably good spirits and told us about some epic rides that he had done such as the iconic Continental Divide Trail from the Canadian border to Mexico. We knew of only one other Canadian Bike Packer, through spending too much time watching You Tube during Lock Down! It turns out that Jim not only knew of this fellow countryman, but had once bumped into him on the trail and ridden a section with him too. What a Legend! When the ambulance arrived, and the paramedic was checking Jim over, she wanted to know if he had any movement in his feet or legs. This hardy bike packer took this as an invitation to do some “air cycling” to demonstrate that he could ride a bike! Sadly, he was not able to ride his bike to the finish of this ride, but he got patched up in hospital, repatriated with his bike and was already planning his next adventure before he had even landed back in Canada.

There was one section of the ride that was billed as a “rough stuff”  alternative to the main route. For this section, the only other mountain bike on the trip teamed up with our pair of Moxies to take on Glen Kinglass to Glencoe. This was probably the most enjoyable day of the whole trip for us. We were truly in our element, concentrating on line choice as we rode through rough, loose, bouldery sections or revelling in the riding over slabs of granite.  It was lovely for me to get the chance to know a fellow, female mountain biker, and one who also shares my delight in wild swimming! Keith and I had both developed a bit of heat and swelling in our achilles tendons by this stage, so planned to submerge them in the cold river water for a bit. Fellow rider, (also Lindsay) had a better idea though and suggested full body submersion by the falls and pools further along the route. Total heaven on this hot and sunny day!

Keeping up with the laundry is just one small part of  the daily maintenance that is so essential to keeping bikes and bodies happy for longer multi day trips. We tend to ride in one set of kit, carrying a spare set to wear whilst washing and drying the first. Drying may be air drying with a cord washing line at camp or clothes secured to bar/tail bags with elastic when we get dry riding days. If it is wet, the only solution is to put the damp laundry onto your warm body inside your sleeping bag, and by morning it will be pretty much dry. In this way, we can have fresh shorts each day which is a key part of our strategy for avoiding saddle sores. It may be the physiotherapist in me, but I am also pretty determined about stretching regularly to keep the body moving well. Tight hip flexors and hamstrings are a perennial problem for cyclists. These can be stretched out from a standing position, but we also made use of our tent’s ground sheet to allow us more of a full body stretch. Yoga in a midge net is quite the look! Apart from brake servicing, there was rudimentary bike maintenance to be done. We carried a cleaning rag which allowed us to wipe the worst of the muck and grit off the chains each day before applying a squirt of good quality chain oil.


Photo Credit: Keith Terraventure

Sometimes the end of the day would bring us together with our fellow Roamers as we might share a pint of Guiness in a beer garden with loch side views or settle in to a cosy climbers’ bar for some hearty pub grub.  Other times, we would have found ourselves a remote wee spot to pitch our tent all on our own.  Once pitched we were ready to rest our tired bodies, so would nestle into our sleeping bags and have a small evening meal made up of something simple that we had stashed in our saddle bags. This could be a sandwich or maybe some oatcakes and hummus.

Our various strategies  paid off this time, and we managed to complete the long route every day meaning we rode 700km in 7 days, fully self-supported on mountain bikes and climbing more than the height of Mount Everest from sea level over the course of the trip.   What did we learn, apart from the fact that hydraulic brake fluid may be overrated?!  We discovered that Mull has its very own hill classification system!  I am vaguely familiar with the different category climbs that you hear about on the Tour de France commentary. Mull does it differently and I think more poetically.  You can tell how brutal a climb is by the number of yellow grit bins there are along it! We also learned that bikepackers are a really friendly and interesting bunch and have already been inspired to further adventures by some of the new friends we made along the way!

Photo Credit Shona MacPhearson