CRUISING THROUGH SCOTLAND AT LOW ALTITUDE AND HIGH SPEED - motorcycle trip
Now FINALLY with some pictures (or rather, links to pictures) added. WARNING: the pictures are not top-notch quality. They were scanned from slides with much difficulty and so-so-results. I ended up converting them to b/w images. Shortish photo descriptions giving size in italics inbetween paragraphs.
In the summer of 1996 me and the man of my life, Magnus, went on a 12 day motorcycle trip to Scotland and the Orkneys. It was my first long bike trip and it probably will be the last for a while - thanks to our son Joakim who went along for the ride also (I was 4 months pregnant at the time) We rode on Magnus` trusty old bike, a Honda VRF 750 from 1987. The teo of us and luggage weighed close to 200 kgs and the bike STILL made it to 180 kms / hr! Magnus has since traded in the bike and bought a brand new Honda VTR. Read all about it on his VTR page.
At first I was going to write this as a straightforward tour report (roads we took, miles ridden, speed limits broken etc.) but since I only consider myself a budding biker-to-be, I decided to make this a story from the "back seat" instead - Scotland and motorbiking from a beginners point of view!
And on that note, the trip began with the discovery that Magnus did not have (nor ever plan to have, alas) sidebags on the bike. Eeeek! Our combined luggage was reduced to a 30 litre backpack (which, of course, had to ride on MY back the entire way) plus the tank bag. Darn. Out the window went my hopes of bringing something nice (and non-essential) to wear. No high heels, no skirts, no hair dryer... I gathered the things I figured I would need for a 12 day holiday and put them on the floor, whereupon Magnus promptly halved the pile and said "you`ll manage..." (easy for him to say!)
I borrowed Magnus old leathers and rainwear, and took my own helmet and old army boots. The leather suit and rainwear, while excellent for safety and weather protection was absolute hell on a pregnant woman. I had to pee every 5 kms or so it seemed and it took forever to get the clothes off each time!
We started out from Oslo on Tuesday, July 2nd for a 470 km ride to Bergen. We thought it would take 8 hours...little did we know.... For starters, it rained ALL THE WAY. Except when we crossed the high mountains of Hardangervidda, where the rain turned to sleet. I was happy to be riding pillion as Magnus caught most of the rain (well, a few litres made their way into my boots and gloves). I was actually surprised how comfortable I was snuggling up to him. As if the weather didnęt slow us down enough, once on the west in the fjord country, the road was closed for an hour due to (much-needed) roadwork. We had to be at the dock by 4 to pick up our ferry tickets. But 4 o clock saw us a good 50 kms away from Bergen. Spirits sank and speed rose considerably. Magnus drove like a maniac the rest of the way, breaking speed limits, overtaking everything that moved and winding through rush hour traffic in the center of Bergen like a pro. I sat behind wishing I didn`t have to hold on - I would really have liked to join hands in prayer ;-) At 5.05 we arrived at the dock, got our tickets and were the last ones to board the ferry which then promptly left at 5.15. We then discovered our cabins had been given to someone else. Eventually Magnus managed to get us a cabin - in which the beds weren`t made and all the towels were dirty. Oh, joy. At this point I also discovered that the backpack was NOT waterproof and that it pays to put everything in plastic bags. A learning experience ;-)
In A Foreign Country
The next day we arrived 2 hrs late in Newcastle. Magnus remembered that the Brits drive on the wrong side of the road and soon we were headed north, towards the Border Country and Scotland (on the A696 and A68). My happiest memory of that trip was scaring a little old lady at a wayside loo - she actually jumped at the sight of me decked out in leathers and helmet. We stayed the night (and the following night) at the Harrow Hotel in Dalkeith, just south of Edinburgh. Though I wouldn`t exactly recommend the hotel they had a very nice bar. Magnus impressed the locals no end by entering in his motorcycle gear, which adds to his already considerable size. When the natives discovered we were harmless they promptly proceeded to buy us whiskies which Magnus was only too happy to accept.
This is a picture of me in the backyard of the Harrow Hotel, waiting for Magnus to finish the photo session so we can get on the road and head north.(jpg image 38 K)
The following day, the 4th of July, was spent sightseeing in Edinburgh. Undoubdetly a nice city but the rain made for short stretches of outdoor sightseeing interspersed with lots of pubs and shops. Magnus bought a video camera which went straight into the backpack adding yet more weight for me to carry. To relieve my shoulders of some of the weight, I let the straps down far enough for the backpack to sit on the metal bars behind the seat, thus rubbing off all the lacquer. I felt great but Magnus didn`t when he found out!
Friday July 5th saw us on the road again. It did take us a while to get out of Edinburgh (extremely bad signposting!!!!) but eventually we managed to get to the Forth bridges. The new road bridge sits right next to the old railroad bridge (which inspired Iain Banks great novel, "The Bridge"). Crossing the bridge was almost scary - it felt very flimsy as you could see through the metal construction, and it was a looong way down to the Firth of Forth!
And These Are Mountains??
We headed west, through Stirling (where mr Banks went to university) and then turning north, heading for the A82 and the Scottish Highlands! Images of kilts and caber-tossing and the like flashed through my mind as we drove though the drizzle (yup - yet another rainy day in Scotland) A82 took us through Glen Coe - the name means "Valley of Weeping" and it was the site of a famous massacre in 1692. It is probably the most famous of Scottish glens (a "glen" is a valley) and our Rough Guide guidebook claimed it to be "stern...breathtakingly beautiful.... spectacular mountain valley..." etc etc. I found it to be somewhat of a disappointment! Keep in mind that we Norwegians are a bit blase about mountains ("been there, seen that") and I am sorry to say Glen Coe was monumentally unimpressive. Like a Norwegian mountain plateau only greener (and wetter). Heading down into and past Fort William we also passed Ben Nevis, Britain`s highest mountain. It was draped in clouds so we didn`t get to see much of that either ;-)
Here is a picture of me looking miserable as hell in the middle of the Highlands, in the RAIN. Very grateful that at least, my helmet is waterproof ;-) (jpg image 27 K)
After Fort William we turned northeast, still on the A82. The road followed the "Great Glen", with three lakes connected by the Caledonian canal, that divides Scotland in two. The most famous of the lochs is Loch Ness. The only Nessie we saw, however, was a huge plastic thingie outside a museum / Nessie center in Drumnadrochit. This part of the road was great for motorcycling or so Magnus says. One short stretch had a great number of "twisties". We decided to videotape it, so I sat holding the video camera in one hand while Magnus drove up and down the winding road. We got some really great shots of my right knee and assorted roadside foliage... and some nice shots of tarmac, too.
We decided to stay the night in Inverness, on the Firth of Moray. We stayed in a B&B, one of the gazillion B&Bs in the suburbs heading in to Inverness proper, and one is probably just as good as the other. That night we went into the city center for a bite of something to eat, and at the Italian restaurant Bella Pasta (on Bridge Street, just up the hill from Ness Bridge) we got a wonderful meal. The pizza and pasta left us gasping and the desserts were great too!
Orkneys Here We Come
On Saturday the 6th we headed north, towards the real goal of our journey: The Orkneys. From Inverness we drove north on a teensy weensy little road, the A836. This day was my favorite ride of the entire holiday, despite the fact that it rained (again...). The road was definitely a minor one. It was one lane for most of the way and I guess we should be grateful it was paved! It took us through some of the most remote parts of mainland Scotland. But even so, apparently that road sees some tourist traffic because we passed a sign saying "Achtung! Lammer in die Strasse!", which is German and means `look out - sheep on the road`. And there were plenty sheep - we tried to take pictures of them but unfortunately that woke them up and they ran off. The colors of the highlands were just incredible. Green and grayish grasses and heather, some purple heather and much to my surprise we also passed some sizable rhododendron bushes. I also saw some bushes with bright yellow flowers and even a spot of blue heather! The road goes by the edges of what is called "The Flow country", a huge area of boglands that is environmentally protected.
Magnus had brought his cellular phone along with him so when we stopped for lunch in Lairg, we called ahead and reserved spots on the ferry crossing from Scrabster to Stromness. North of Lairg we really passed through some empty countryside. One of the "villages" we passed (or "Scottish metropolis", as Magnus said) had only two houses - both of them for sale! When we got down from the mountains and hit the north coast we stopped again for a quick cuppa tea in Bettyhill - another bustling big city - NOT...! We had our cuppas at the Bettyhill Hotel, which made me rethink my ideas of hotels. The lounge of the Bettyhill Hotel was about the size of our kitchen and crammed with sopping wet roadworkers (oh..I forgot to mention it? It was still raining...). After Bettyhill we headed east towards Scrabster, passing Dounreay Nuclear Power Station. Dounreay offers guided tours but we didn`t stop to do one. We arrived in Scrabster with two hours to go until the ferry left (it hadn`t even docked yet) and left the bike on the quay and went off in search of a dry place to have a bite to eat. That was not an easy task, almost everything was closed and we ended up eating chips at the Seamen`s Mission. It was not exactly a gourmet dining experience but it was warm and dry and friendly. When the ferry arrived we took our seats on the bike and waited to be let on board. And waited. And waited. All the cars were taken on board first and we, along with a few other dripping wet motorcyclists, were left in the rain for three quarters of an hour before they let us on. One of the seamen tied the bike down with some serious-looking knots and ropes. Magnus would probably have liked to do it himself but the crossing turned out to be rough and I guess the tying down was best left to a professional! The crossing took two hours and was quite rough. We sat in the lounge near the front of the boat and there were people PUKING around us! Yecch! I felt quite chipper and munched crisps for good part of the way. I figured I had just been though 4 months of morning sickness and deserved a break.
This picture was taken, in the RAIN of course, on the ferry landing in Scrabster during the neverending wait to be let on board the boat to the Orkneys.(jpg image 25 K)
When we arrived in Stromness (The 2nd city of the Orkneys, with 3000 inhabitants) we found our hotel, the Ferry Inn, without any trouble at all as it sat next to the ferry landing. The Ferry Inn was the best place we stayed during the entire trip, and we can recommend it to anyone heading for Stromness. We were only sorry we hadn`t booked earlier because we could only stay for two nights but would have loved to stay on. For 48 pounds per night we got a spacious double room with all the works and our own bathroom plus a generous breakfast. If you go to Stromness, the Ferry Inn number is 01856 / 850449. Apart from being a hotel they have a wonderful restaurant (with great local seafood) and a pub which for several years in a row has been voted the Best Pub of the Orkneys.
On Sunday we left the bike behind and went sightseeing in a taxi! We went to Maes Howe, a Stone Age burial chamber that was robbed by the Vikings. The Vikings left all sorts of interesting graffiti behind ("He who carved these runes is the best carver in the Western seas", for instance) but the tomb itself was most impressive. It was made by huge (HUGE) slabs of sandstone that had been hauled overland from the coast and then put on top of one another. We did try to hitchhike back to Stromness but with very little luck. We ended up calling for a cab and going back with the same cabby.
Monday the 10th of July brought the first day of sunshine on this holiday! It was great to not have to wear the rain jacket anymore. Since we couldn`t stay at the Ferry Inn anymore, we went to Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkneys. On our way there we stopped and sightsaw some more. It is actually very hard to avoid sightseeing in the Orkneys, the islands are full of historic sites and Viking and Stone Age stuff. We saw the cliffs at Yesnaby, the Stone Age village at Skara Brae, the religious ruins at Brough of Birsay and the Standing Stones of Brodgar and still made it to Kirkwall for lunch.
On Tuesday we headed for mainland Scotland again but had to squeeze in a few more sights! Highland Park is a whisky distillery in Kirkwall that claims to be "The Worlds Northernmost Legal Whisky Distillery" and of course we had to go check it out! We were taken on an interesting tour of the place, learned quite a bit of whisky-making and had our free samples at the end of the tour. Actually we were the only ones to drink our free samples! Kind of strange to go on a whisky tour without drinking the stuff, but, hey - to each their own. To see some more of the Orkneys before we left, we drove south and over the Churchill Barriers to Lambholm and The Italian Chapel. The Orkneys form a natural harbor called Scapa Flow, which during WW1 and WW2 was used as a naval hiding place. One German sub snuck in there and blew up a British war ship, killing over 800 sailors. It was then decided to close off Scapa Flow by building the Churchill Barriers, "wall"-like structures between some small islands. The Barriers were built by war prisoners and some of the prisoners also turned two Nissen huts into the Italian Chapel, made to resemble a stucco church.
The ferry crossing back was uneventful (no puking anywhere) and from Scrabster we headed east, towards John O`Groats and the eastern tip of Scotland. From there we drove south on the A9 to Inverness where we stayed the night and, yes, had pizza at the Bella Pasta restaurant again! We stayed in another B&B place where Magnus got excellent service - the hosts beautiful red-haired daughter served him breakfast in bed(!!!) since he had overslept the normal breakfast hours. I thought this was most undeserved...!
Inverness is situated on the Firth of Moray, home to Britain`s northernmost dolphins, bottlenosed dolphins. There used to be smaller ones there also, but the bottlenoses killed them and chased them off. You can go on dolphin safaris in the Firth to have a look but it is recommended that you go on a "dolphin-friendly" tour, i.e. one that wont disturb them by going too close. We took a two hour ride on the Firth and much to our delight saw plenty of dolphins playing in the sea, and we even saw some seals!
After the dolphin expedition we hit the road again, traveling inland to go south to Perth. We took some small roads (so small they weren`t listed on our map), enjoyed the scenery and had lunch in Granton-on-Spey, Spey being the river that has given name to the Speyside whiskies. Fortified by lunch we drove on and stayed overnight in Perth. Magnus wanted to buy new tires for the bike so with the help of the Yellow Pages we went through several bike accessories shops in Perth but to no avail. Luckily the old tires kept up and managed to get us home! In Perth we also started calling the ferry companies to book a crossing going home. With the wisdom of hindsight I can only strongly advise you to book your return tickets before leaving home! Especially if you go in the middle of the tourist season! We were very nearly stranded, but ended up getting tickets with Color Line from Newcastle, on the boat leaving Newcastle Saturday.
Rain And Thieves: Reasons To Stay Out Of Newcastle
On Thursday the 11th we drove down to Newcastle again, to spend a quiet couple of days before taking the boat back home. Unfortunately for us, that weekend was Graduation Weekend in all of Newcastle`s institutions of higher learning. That meant that all the hotels we tried, all the B&Bs were full. It had started raining again and I remember driving around from hotel to hotel, asking for a room and not finding one. I was sopping wet, totally miserable and had visions of having to spend the night under a motorway overpass. Me being pregnant and all, boo-hoo. In the end we gave up on Newcastle and went out to the coast instead. In a small sea resort called Whitleigh Bay we managed to get a room at last. As our room even had a bathtub my spirits rose quickly and after a decent meal and a hot bath I felt fine again.
We were not the only bikers to stay there - we met two other Norwegians who had been touring England on their brand new African Twins, who were going home on the same boat as us Saturday. After nearly missing the boat going to England, we were going to be sure to be up early this time but we woke up a lot sooner than we had expected. Saturday morning the phone rang at half past seven and the hotel manager asked if we owned one of the bikes in the yard. Yes, said I. He then asked us to come have a look and see if our bike was stolen as the yard had been broken into at night. Magnus, who normally is a VERY heavy sleeper (and never gets up before noon unless he really really has to) was out of the bed and into the yard in about two seconds flat. A miracle he managed to get his clothes on! Thank heaven Magnus` bike was still there. One of the African Twins was gone, though, and the other one was undriveable as the thieves had ripped out the ignition. Someone had tried forcing a screwdriver into the ignition of the VFR but Magnus was still able to start it. This was a major shock as we had thought the bikes were safe, locked in the hotel yard, behind a high fence and with the gate locked. In England about 19 000 bikes are stolen each year and most of them end up as spare parts. Please take care and try to find a safe place to park your bike! The African Twin owners were really down and we felt with them - but were most grateful we still had a bike.
Getting to the ferry terminal wasn`t easy. It leaves from North Shields but the exit was marked as something completely different but we managed to get there in the end. There was a good number of Norwegian bikes (and bikers) waiting on the dock so we talked to some of them. And once aboard the boat we all sat in the bar, drinking and swapping bike stories (I drank Coca-Cola and didn`t have a single biker story so I went to bed early instead).
It Rains Back Home, Too
We arrived in Stavanger early Sunday morning. And, yup, it was raining again... no place like home! Some of the bikers we met on the boat were from Stavanger and they had given us tips on a good road across the mountains to Oslo, and even followed us out of town and put us on the right way. From Stavanger to Oslo it is about 600 kms, and we had to go over two fairly high mountain passes. At this point I felt mentally done with motorcycle riding and thinking of having to go to work on Monday didn`t help much. I only wanted to get home, but it was a looong day. Not to mention cold. Having to stop for a pee and undress every few miles is no joke in the rain in the high mountains! When we had crossed the mountains and were drawing closer to Oslo my backside started hurting also. We stopped for gas near Drammen, about 50 kms west of Oslo and I could have gone to sleep on the grass by the gas station. We got home about 6 in the afternoon and, wheeee, what a relief....! To get out of the leather, into the shower and then a nice bed. Oh joy. My backside was so sore I didn`t feel like riding a bike again for two weeks. Just sitting in a chair was bad enough, thank you :) But all in all, I greatly enjoyed my first bike trip and I hope to be able to do more in the future! I hope I will get my bikers license in the spring / summer of 1997 so I wont have to do another "back seat tour story" again. The next time I will do the driving myself!