Farewell Islands, Hello Highlands: Loch Ainort to Fort William, via Glenfinnan Viaduct

When we woke, it was blowing a gale. Packing the tent away proved somewhat challenging, as it felt as though at any moment the parts we hadn’t yet rolled up would take flight. On the plus side, the pesky midges had all been blown away.

Loch Ainort

We coasted down the hillside, scree slopes and dramatic peaks giving way to lochs and forests closer to the coast. At the tip of Loch Ainort, where it meets Loch na Cairidh, we caught a glimpse of the Isle of Raasay – derived from Old Norse and meaning ‘Isle of Roe Deer’. (I didn’t see a single deer on this trip. Were they all chilling over there?)

The Isle of Raasay is the mound on the left in the distance

A wee bit further on, Laurence spied a small opening in the bushes which led to a forest track. I’m not a huge fan of gravel – with 25mm tyres, you feel every bounce – but it was a chance to leave the main road, and the cars going at three times our speed, behind for a short while. For the first few hundred metres, it was easy-going as timber lorries had compacted the gravel and made it fairly flat to ride on.

Pre-puncture

After the turning for the lorries, it was a different story. Short but steep slopes and larger chunks of rock entered the equation, and I realised the only way I was going to stay upright was if I proceeded on two legs rather than two wheels. Laurence ended up with a puncture – only the second of the trip between us, which we felt was pretty good going – so I plonked myself on a bench to admire the view while he repaired it.

Before too long, the track tipped us back onto the road at Camping Skye, on the outskirts of Broadford. A caffeine and sugar hit was high on our agenda so we headed for Deli Gasta, which describes itself as ‘fresh, local, caffeinated, deli-licious’. Deli Gasta was a gem of a café, and I had a hard time choosing just one cake from their countertop full of homemade bakes. In the end, I opted for a wedge of passion cake with a pot of tea. Laurence, feeling hungrier, had a portion of scrambled eggs on toast, a slice of passion cake and a cappuccino.

So. Many. Cakes.

We pedalled on to Harrapool, then picked up the A851 at Skulamus. Either side of the tarmac: mile upon mile of moorland, with just the tiniest flashes of mustard-yellow gorse. There was a lot of up-down-up-down on this road, and my sore knee was not at all happy about that.

As we closed in on Ardvasar/Armadale, peaks on the mainland came into view (above). A small cluster of canvas tents stood on the grass outside Armadale Castle: the monthly farmers’ market, selling everything from local produce to plants and handmade gifts. We enjoyed a brief wander round, then pedalled on to the ferry. Luck was on our side once again, and we managed to swap our tickets for the earlier (and faster) crossing to Mallaig.

Views from the ferry

In Mallaig, I nipped into Coop for some oranges and a bag of Twirl bites (essential cycling fuel), and then we were on our way. 29 miles to Glenfinnan was doable; 46 miles to Fort William – well, that depended on my crunchy knee holding on for a further 17 miles. (Fortunately it’s fine now, but at that point on the trip my knee was feeling every single one of the 600+ kilometres we’d cycled and it was not thanking me for it.)

Ominous grey clouds hung over the hills ahead of us. At one point, we thought it had started to drizzle… only to realise moments later, that we were being hit in the face by an army of midges. Yuck. When the months of spring have gone away, the Highland midges come out to play (or should that be prey – on poor humans who’ve sweated off their midge repellent).

We pressed on, stopping only for me to munch the last Mars bar (a valiant attempt from Laurence to distract me from the pain in my knee). Just after 18.00, Glennfinnan Viaduct came into view: a sweeping curve of twenty-one arches. All that was missing was the Hogwarts Express. (If you want that view, you’ll need to check the timetables for The Jacobite steam train and head to the aptly-named Viaduct Viewpoint above the viaduct.)

A moment of appreciation for the best social distancing sign I’ve seen

Spanning 380m, Glenfinnan Viaduct is Scotland’s longest concrete railway bridge – an impressive record, when you consider the fact it was completed at the turn of the twentieth century. We locked our bikes in the car park, and set off for the Glen Road Viewpoint. The path meandered alongside the River Finnan for a couple of hundred metres or so, and beneath the viaduct you can either continue straight ahead or fork left to the viewpoint. By the early evening, it’s a midge-fest down there – so slather yourself in Smidge or Avon’s Skin so Soft if you don’t want to be on the menu for the midges’ tea.

We took some photos, but didn’t linger with the midges for long. Laurence checked the elevation profile for the last stretch to Fort William and, having established it was mostly downhill with a tailwind the whole way, we decided to go for it. We passed tiny villages – Clickety Clack Cottage, presumably so-called because it was right by the railway track, wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a children’s book – and fields of horses, and cycled along Loch Eil for what felt like forever.

A few miles north of Fort William, we passed Neptune’s Staircase: a neat set of eight locks on the Caledonian Canal. I wish I’d taken a photo, but by that point in the day my mind was thinking of one thing and one thing only: food. Around 20.00 – 745km, 7405 metres of elevation gain and eight days after setting off from Fort William – we rolled into Fort William’s West End car park.

Tea wasn’t the Wetherspoons pub grub we’d hoped for; despite there being several empty tables and food being served for a couple more hours yet, staff were busy turning away anyone prepared to wait. With every other pub on the main street packed to the rafters, we headed off to the Golden Arches. Even now, as a twenty-something, a Happy Meal is my default choice (and it even came with a set of Top Trumps, one of my favourite card games as a child).

With one successful bikepacking trip under our belts, I’m looking forward to exploring more of Scotland on two wheels over the months and years to come.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

  • Transport | Caledonian MacBrayne run around five crossings a day between Ardvasar/Armadale (Skye) and Mallaig and, as of June 2021, a single ticket for a foot passenger cost £3.10. There’s no extra cost for bikes, nor a requirement to reserve a place for them in advance. Book tickets at www.calmac.co.uk; their Twitter feed (@CalMacFerries) provides regular service updates and fields customer queries.
  • Amenities | If you’re after a caffeine hit, Deli Gasta in Broadford is well worth stopping at; there’s also a large Coop here. The Shed, right next to Armadale Ferry Terminal, serves up a decent portion of chips. Back on the mainland, you’ll find a small Coop and a handful of eateries in Mallaig.
  • Maps and guides | This is a route you’d have to try seriously hard to get lost on. For the first part of the journey, follow the A87 south, then turn right onto the A851 at Harrapool/Skulamos: this road will take you all the way to the ferry. Once across the water, follow the A830 all the way to Fort William. If you’d prefer to be armed with OS Maps, you’ll want OS Landranger 32, 40 and 41.
  • Distance | 116.15km/72.6 miles from Loch Ainort to Fort William, with 1,151m of elevation gain.

5 thoughts on “Farewell Islands, Hello Highlands: Loch Ainort to Fort William, via Glenfinnan Viaduct

  1. Getting hit in the face with tons of midges sounds truly unpleasant, especially when cycling at several km per hour…on the other hand, though, those views of the Glenfinnan Viaduct give me vague flashbacks to the Pont du Gard in France, although Glenfinnan’s doesn’t have as many levels as it does! Still a beautiful sight to see, and it’s a pleasure vicariously journeying with you through the wonders of the Scottish Highlands. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was truly vile! But at least it only happened at one point on the trip, and the area around Fort William is known for being particularly bad for midges. Ahh yes, the Pont du Gard is beautiful too. I remember visiting it as a child, and your post on the Pont du Gard brought back fond memories for me 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds like such an amazing adventure! I’m impressed at how much distance you covered each day. Also, how cool to see that viaduct! I didn’t realize it was a real place, I figured it was all just done on the computer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a great route for our first bikepacking trip – pothole-free roads, not too much traffic, well signposted and never too far from a shop/café to refuel. We could’ve seen Glenfinnan Viaduct a few years ago, when we had a spare day in Fort William after walking the West Highland Way – but I didn’t realise until much later just how close we were to it! I’m glad we were finally back in the area and could swing by, as it was a pretty sight.

      Liked by 1 person

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