On a windy, and sometimes wet, weekend, Pauline and I headed north to the small Highland village of Newtonmore, said to be just a few miles north from the centre of Scotland. The Ordnance Survey put the centre further south, 5km east of the mountain Schiehallion, but Newtonmore was near enough for me.
It was from here that we loaded up our bicycles and set off north east toward Aviemore for a weekend of cycle touring. The wind was behind us as we pedalled along, with gusts at times knocking us of our course together with the odd squally shower giving us a refreshing soaking. It wasn't quite the forecast the BBC had served up just hours before. While the rest of the UK suffered from major flooding, Pauline had pin pointed Newtonmore as having the least weather problems for the weekend. Despite the forecast being wildly inaccurate, again, on reflection we did get the best of conditions compared to elsewhere.
Three miles on we turned onto a quiet backroad and passed by Ruthven Barracks, a ruin of a fortress built by General Wade after the Jacobite uprising of 1715, and set on a prominent hilltop. He was a prolific road builder at the time, keen to make passage through the Highlands easier. To this day many of our main roads follow his original routes.
Just under 10 miles on we found a woodcarving sculpture trail near the small settlement of Feshiebridge. The carvings were all created by artist Frank Bruce who died in 2009 aged 78. The works depict icons of patriotism and tragedies of world poverty, yet set in a beautiful and tranquil wood. I found some a little creepy and unnerving while others were thought provoking.
Our plan was to do a loop circuit, camping for the night in Rothiemurcus Forest. Just two miles short of the 18 miles to Aviemore my bike developed a puncture. Used to this now, and with the help of a handy tyre lever I bought in the USA, I quickly changed the tube, only to find the tyre going flat almost immediately.
It seemed that on virtually every bike ride the rear tyre would get a puncture. Clearly something was fundamentally wrong, a fact Pauline was quick to remind me that she had said this many times. But of course stubborn me persevered thinking I had solved it each time I changed the tube. But the tyre was also now split due to riding with a flat. I had no alternative. I walked, pushing the bike with all it's gear, the two miles to Mikes Bike shop in Aviemore.
A new tube, rim tape and tyre later, and thanks to a very helpful staff, we were back on the road, but time was now not on our side. Picking up a trail through Rothiemurcus Forest, which lies adjacent and east of Aviemore, we found our campsite for the night, deep in among the old Scots Pines of the forest.
Rothiemurcus Forest is a remnant of the Great Wood of Caledon, which gets it's name from the Roman word for Scotland, and used to cover much of the country. Now just 1% remains, and most of that is thanks to recent regeneration projects. Rothiemurcus is the largest such remnant, and we both love its dense variety of native trees and wildlife. Many years ago Pauline saved the forest from near disaster as she ran several miles to raise the alarm on a fire that had broken out. This weekend however it was a little too damp for any risk of fire.
There was a bright half moon out in the evening, dispensing with the need for a torch as we fetched water from the nearby river. The wind died down, and under a clear sky we busied ourselves making camp and supper. I love this part of outdoor adventure. I look forward to it all day.
The following morning started off sunny and bright as we continued on toward Boat of Garten where we turned to start the 24 miles back to Newtonmore. Gradually the clouds gathered and the heavens opened, so half way we took shelter in a coffee shop on the shores of Loch Insh for soup and hot chocolate, before the final push into a head wind, retracing our steps back to Newtonmore, the centre of Scotland...