Since moving to the north east of Scotland, it has been on my bucket list to explore the Northern Isles by taking the ferry from Aberdeen. A different and more recent bucket list item has been to cycle a multi-day segment of the GB divide. This is a 2000 km, primarily unpaved bikepacking route which runs the length of Britain, between Land's End and John O' Groats. Looking at ferry and train connections, it looked as though I could tick off both of these wishes in one trip. The ambition was to travel to Kirkwall (Orkney) from Aberdeen, spend a day cycling around the Orkney Mainland to see the sights, then to get the short ferry to John O' Groats and begin the ride south on the GB divide until near Inverness, where I'd peel off to great the train home to Aberdeen.
With summer well and truly behind us, myself and my pal Adam who I'd convinced to join me didn't really fancy cold and wet camping on the trip, so we opted for hotels, hostels and B&Bs - well it would be a holiday after all! Most of the places we stayed were great with respect to their accommodation of bikes and I'll provide links to those that I would recommend.
After a great deal of faff, planning and last minute gear shopping, we found ourselves on the deck of the 17:00 Saturday ferry to Kirkwall, waving goodbye to Aberdeen. The journey up past Peterhead and across the Outer Moray Firth to Orkney's capital takes about six hours, plenty of time for overpriced beers and cards. We arrived in the dark, and unexpectedly at a pier a bit to the northwest of the town itself, though still only a five to ten minute ride away. We stayed at the Peedie Hostel, right on the harbour and easy for a late arrival with a contactless entry system. I was told we could leave our bikes in the courtyard but we discovered this wasn't really very secure so we just brought them into the room which was fine as they were still very clean!
Day 1 - A Tour of Orkney
After a comfortable night we had breakfast at the excellent Kirkwall Hotel which is just next door. The overnight rain was clearing and it was turning into a nice day, though rather breezy! We left some of our bike bags in the lockers at the hostel (another perk) and headed out on our tour of Orkney. First up was the stone circles of Stenness and then the Ring of Brodgar. These standing stones are very impressive and we were blessed with some lovely light for our visit there. After the stones we continued to head north to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Skara Brae. This is an intact Neolithic village dating back to 3000 BC, older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. You have to book a slot online to visit at the moment but the ticket also includes entry to a small museum, a mock up Neolithic house and the archaeological site itself.
From here we continued clockwise around the island with our next stop at the village of Birsay to go for lunch at the tea room. Unfortunately this was closed (it seemed like an irregular temporary closure), so hot rolls at the petrol station shop made do. We carried on around the coastline with splendid views towards the rest of the archipelago. The straight stretch of road heading south into Finstown past the intriguingly named Norseman Village was absolutely brutal due to the fierce southwesterly wind, which was to become a familiar companion in the days to come, though not as intense as it was here.
Following roughly 80 km we returned to Kirkwall to pick up our bags, eat some chips and buy some supplies. Our next accommodation was the Sands Hotel on the island of Burray, around 20 km to the south. Fighting hard against that wind again, we passed the Stena Don semi-submersible drilling rig moored up in Scapa Flow and cycled over the Churchill Barrier causeways which we later learned were originally WWII military defences. The Sands Hotel was a brilliant place to stay, having spacious and comfortable rooms, secure bike storage options, a good restaurant on site and also a great location for the ferry terminal in the morning.
I'll have one extra large purple and one medium orange please
A stone at the Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar
Skara Brae Neolithic Village
The Stena Don semi-sub moored up in Scapa Flow
Day 2 - Orkney to Kinbrace
Twenty minutes of riding through the dark and into that pesky headwind again and we were at the ferry. The ferry to John O' Groat from Burwick in the south of Orkney stops running for the winter at the end of September, but luckily there is a ferry to Gills Bay, just a few miles west of John O' Groats, which leaves from a place called St Margaret's Hope. On the crossing we saw a brilliant sunrise over the Pentland Firth, heralding the start of our GB Divide adventure.
With a tailwind we made short work of the trip to the start of the route: John O' Groats. We cycled up to the iconic signpost and took some snaps and I put a Scottish Adventure sticker on the designated sticker-board. A fridge magnet and shortbread were purchased and we set off south and into that wind...
A beautiful sunrise on the Pentland Firth
The end of - but our start of - the GB Divide
Adam pointing at something
The first fifty or so kilometres was on paved, mostly single-track road. Some sections here reminded me the American Midwest, with huge long straight roads which seem to stretch out to the horizon. Once we crossed over the A9, the terrain felt wilder as the settlements got smaller and we ascended up onto the moor. We followed the River Thurso until the transition from tarmac to gravel at the entrance to the forestry trails near Loch More. Our joy at getting onto gravel was short lived as we discovered that this gravel was not nice gravel. It was loose and rough and thanks to the passing shower, now very wet. After Altnabreac railway station the gravel improved hugely and we sped up on our way west out of the forest and into the Flow Country. Atlanabreac must be surely the strangest location for a train station in the UK. No public road goes there and it is located in the middle of a forest, which is itself in the middle of nowhere! The Flow Country is the name given to the area of extensive blanket bog in the very north of Scotland. It's a unique landscape with huge wide open skies which gives a vast feeling of space. On the flip side, all that space results in ferocious winds which we were still feeling the brunt of.
The first of the windfarms as we approach the end of the tarmac
Cycling through the Flow Country with the start of the highlands ahead. This was the nice gravel.
Ben Griam Beg and Ben Griam Mor
After 25 km of gravel we enjoyed a great descent down to the A897 at Forsinain. The road south to Kinbrace was stunning with sunshine and showers bringing epic light and rainbows galore. Fighting the wind all day was taking it out of us so we took a rest at Forsinard railway station before the final stretch to Kinbrace. Now after first seeing the size of the word 'Kinbrace' on Google Maps, I thought that there must be somewhere there to stay. After all it has a railway station and appears to be at a junction of two roads, but I was very wrong. Apart from a garage, a primary school and a collection of houses, there's nothing really there. Serendipitously, just 13 km further along the GB Divide is "mainland Britain's most remote hotel": Garvault House. Whilst I'm not sure how true this accolade is, it certainly felt like it whilst in the twilight we triumphantly, but tentatively cycled up the gravel driveway to this dark and seemingly empty house, high up on the moor. With no sign of life and the rain on again, I made my way inside and hesitantly called "hello..." into the darkness. No response. I went back outside and round to the other side of the house and to my relief found a window with a light on. I knocked and thankfully was waved at by a lady who was reading a book on a sofa. It turned out that we were the only guests that night and due to the fact the building is off-grid the hotel wing isn't lit when empty. The owners made us very welcome, taking our bikes to an outbuilding to be locked away and showed us to our room. The three-course dinner provided was excellent: soup followed by wiener schnitzel (one of the owners is Austrian) and finished with chocolate cake. We ate with the owners and after seeing how quickly we polished off the schnitzel we were offered extra spaghetti and cheese! After a couple of beers by the fire and discussing the plan for tomorrow we headed for bed.
Sunshine and showers on the road south
The River Helmsdale was our companion from Kinbrace
The final approach to Garvault House
Mainland Britain's most remote hotel
Day 3 - Kinbrace to Lairg
Day three turned out to be bit of a disaster, but an adventure nonetheless. We always knew that the Tuesday was going to the worst day of weather during our trip, however at short notice the forecast had deteriorated and now we were contending with heavy rain for most of the day, combined with that unrelenting headwind. That, combined with the fatigue felt after two 100 km days, meant that we changed our route and deviated from the GB divide. Taking the direct route to Lairg would turn 120 km into 70 km, still a respectable distance we told ourselves.
We said goodbye to the folks at Garvault House and stepped outside into the rain. It was pure dreich. I've had plenty of character building mountain/ hill days in my time but this was my first character building bike ride. I don't have too much to say about it other than it was utterly, utterly miserable. The consolation is that even in the rain and fog, the views were stunning and the road along Loch Naver was, to be fair, sublime.
Given the conditions we made good progress to Altnaharra, where we sheltered behind a shed and physically and mentally prepared for the climb ahead. The next eleven kilometres felt like the slowest of my cycling career. The driving rain and the howling wind seemed to sap all my energy and it was depressing to know the higher I got, the worse it was going to get. We greatly appreciated the enthusiastic encouragement from the handful of camper-vanners who gave way to us on the ascent.
To our horror, just before the apex of the climb we were met by a queue of cars stopped at a "ROAD CLOSED" sign. We had seen signs for a road closure earlier on but we were told by the owners at Garvault House that the work was to begin the day after we would be there, so thought nothing of it. The driver at the front told us that there was an escort vehicle checking to see if the road was safe to pass. Thankfully within a minute or two, a Toyota pickup came down the hill and a driver got out to put the road closure sign to one side. We let the cars go first and then set off again for the final climb. It turns out that there is a new wind farm being built in the area, so the closure was for the construction of access tracks. We later passed an accommodation block and a bulldozer smashing a trail through the hillside, obviously part of a huge operation. We felt for the workers having to endure the abysmal weather. The descent to Lairg was uneventful but we were happy to be moving at over 15 kph again. As we approached the crossroads to the north the rain finally abated after nearly four hours of cycling into it!
We stopped at the Spar shop to get a present for our host, my friend and colleague Fiona, who has recently moved back to her ancestral home in the Highlands from Aberdeen. The driveway up to her house turned out to be the steepest climb of the whole trip but we were rewarded with great views and a warm welcome. I felt bad to arrive utterly soaked to the skin but Fiona was great and had all our gear hanging up to dry in no time.
It was at this point I realised that there was something seriously wrong with my phone. I stupidly had it in the front pocket of my waterproof jacket, which by the time we reached Lairg had become a small pond. Fiona kindly put it in rice overnight but to no avail, I'd be phoneless for the remainder of the trip. Lesson learnt!
We chilled in front of the sofa for the rest of the day and consumed a fair amount of calories. Shout out to Fiona's delicious fajitas!
Day 4 - Lairg to Contin
The rain mercifully stayed off and the day dawned cloudy, but dry. Following much faff and some left behind socks, we said farewell and thank you to Fiona and set off back to the Spar for more supplies. We had roughly a 20 km road section to get back onto the GB Divide at Oykel Bridge. It was here that I realised the discomfort felt in my right knee from day two onwards had now exacerbated into fairly significant pain. I think this was due to cycling for around 150 km with a loose cleat which I tightened near Altnabreac station, though this may be a coincidence. At the Oykel Bridge hotel I had a plan to replace my clipless pedals with a spare pair of flat pedals that Adam was carrying (long story). The problem was that with both my multi-tool and the rather crappy allen keys that I borrowed from the hotel neither of us could get my pedals off. I decided to soldier on, and treated myself with a regular application of deep heat, paracetamol and ibuprofen, which thankfully seemed to work.
We were now back off road and snaking through a series of glens which slice through the wilderness between Okyel Bridge in the north and Garve in the south. The first glen, or rather strath, Strath Cuileannach was used by the Scottish Adventure folks who did the Bonar Bridge to Ullapool Coast to Coast trip earlier in the year. The terrain was difficult, loose and boggy to begin with but markedly improved as we went east. We hit tarmac at Croick and at The Craigs turned south into the Alladale Estate. I had heard of the Alladale Wilderness Reserve before due to the owner's ambitious plans to reintroduce wolves there, however I was pleasantly surprised at this stunning place. There were beautiful native forests of Scots pine, birch and rowan which were a joy to cycle through and I was amazed at how far down the glen they sprawled. The estate covers Glen Alladale and Glen Mor (big glen) and we took the latter south west which certainly lived up to its name as it just went on and on. Midway down the glen we encountered our second roadblock of the trip, this one quite a bit furrier than the last. Stood right on the track between a river and a steep wooded hillside was a big, horned highland coo'. We waited for him to moo've and when he didn't, we edged closer. At this point he began to stamp his feet and snort his nose and it was then we saw he was at the front of a bovine convey in which were several calves. We didn't fancy getting within a metre of an apparently pissed off 800 kg bull, so with our tail between our legs, we hiked the bikes up the hillside and around the herd.
The short stretch of tarmac between Croick and the Alladale Estate
Cycling through the beautiful Alladale Wilderness Reserve
A lunchspot beside the River Carron
The entrance to Alladale Lodge
Glen Mor lives up to its name
Taking a moment to look back the way during our diversion
This detour did not help our progress, which was already slow. We were only at the half way point of a 20 km climb up to the high point of the day. After the coo's, the sides of the glen steepened and the intensity of the wind increased and even cycling the downhill sections felt a struggle. If there is a cycling equivalent of stumbling along, that was what it felt like! We were relieved to finally reach Deanich Lodge, a holiday rental property managed by the Alladale Estate. It's said to be one of the most remote buildings in Britain. Everything seems to be the most remote 'something' this far north. From here there was a final push to the bealach where we exited Glen Mor and enjoyed a well earned descent down to Loch Vaich. It was here we began to clock-watch as the only option for dinner that night was groceries from the shop in Contin which closed at 19:00.
Just before Strathvaich Lodge there was an option to bail out of the GB Divide route and the final climb to take the potentially tarmac road direct to the A835. We opted to stick to the GB Divide, mainly as we didn't want to turn around if we were wrong about the new route. I'm glad we stayed on course though as after the climb the descent down over the moorland then through forests along a river was stunning in the twilight. It must be said though that the final kilometre or so to the road was incredibly rocky and bumpy, and it was downright horrible on a gravel bike after a long day in the saddle.
Struggling with the intense crosswind on the bridge. Deanich Lodge in the background is one of the most remote buildings in Britain..
After about three hours, the top of the biggest climb of the day
Just before the heavens opened
Just after the heavens closed. The track up from Loch Vaich.
Stunning autumnal colours in the glen
A more agreeable herd of highland cattle. Ben Wyvis and Little Wvyis in the background.
Nearly at the road
Once at the A835, the GB divide route goes back off-road and winds its way either side of the A road to Garve and then to Contin. Our hungry stomachs, the fading light and the grocery store didn't have time for the additional adventure however, so we donned our lights, shifted to the big ring and gunned it in the dark to Contin. We arrived with just 10 minutes to spare and we filled up on pot noodles, chocolate and cake. Our final destination was back the way slightly to Loch Achilty and to Loch View Guest House. This B&B was excellent due to the ample space in the adjacent garage to store our bikes, huge room and bathroom to hang clothes in and delicious cooked breakfast. Following about five kettle boils for the various pot noodles, and a couple of tinnies, we hit the hay and welcomed a lie-in before the final (half) day of riding.
Day 5 - Contin to Inverness
We had a leisurely morning of coffee and breakfast and faffing, so much so that the Strava default ride name was 'lunch ride', rather than 'morning ride'. Before heading off our hosts at the B&B let us use their hose to clean off the bikes which was greatly appreciated.
After a brief stop at the store again for more paracetamol for my knee, we said farewell to the GB Divide and struck out for Inverness. We knew we were getting closer to civilisation when we were stopped at the first traffic light of our trip at Muir of Ord! We joined a cycle route and followed it along the Beauly Firth to the Kessock Bridge. From here it was a final stretch of traffic dodging to the symbolic end of the route: Inverness Castle. We arrived in the early afternoon, so after checking in to our hotel spent the rest of the day at the cinema! We stayed at the Redcliffe Hotel right next to the castle, however unfortunately I wouldn't recommend for cyclists as the storage for our bikes was in an unsecure building site next door (less than ideal!).
I would fully recommend doing this section of the GB Divide and I'll certainly be back to do the bits we missed in future. Next time though I'll definitely do it south to north!
Adam and the Beauly Firth
The view of the Inner Moray Firth from the Kessock Bridge
Obligatory end of trip photo at Inverness Castle
A self timer outtake