Breadalbane, "The High Ground of Scotland", is an area that spreads around Loch Tay and surrounding glens in the Atholl area of the Highlands of Scotland. Various routes have been devised and linked for walkers and cyclists, collectively known as the Rings of Breadalbane. It consists of a great many routes I have never experienced. Until now.
On a calm and warm sunny Saturday, something of a novelty this year in Scotland, Pauline and I set out for Kenmore, a small village on the eastern tip of Loch Tay, Scotland's sixth largest loch at 14 miles long.
Setting out from Kenmore we cycled into Glen Lyon, the next glen north of Loch Tay. I had never explored this area before, so this was a first. Within a few short miles we had arrived in a small settlement called Fortingall. On the outskirts of this collection of a few houses is a small church, and within its grounds is what is widely accepted as the oldest living thing in Britain. It was at one time thought to be the oldest living thing in Europe, if not the world, but recent modern expert examination has proven it to be younger. It is still very impressive.
As you would expect, at over 2,000 years old the Fortingall Yew is not the prettiest of trees. Age does not support beauty normally. But what is astonishing is not its beauty, but the very fact that this tree has been growing on this site since the Romans were in Britain! Leading up to the tree is a footpath of flagstones, with dates carved onto their surfaces. Placed at the time when it was thought the tree was 5,000 years old, the inscriptions lay claim to it growing in the stone age and being older than the pyramids of Egypt. I knew about the Fortingall Yew before coming to the area, so it was great to see it for the first time.
The road up Glen Lyon is an easy cycle along the 34 miles of this, the longest enclosed glen in Scotland. A lush Scottish valley, complete with a castle built in the 14th century.
Just five miles before the end of the glen is the Bridge of Balgie, where we stopped a while and enjoyed home made cakes and coffee, sharing our goodies with brave little Chaffinches and Robins. From here a narrow road turns south to take you back over to Loch Tay, past the visitor centre for the Ben Lawers mountain. But we were continuing on to the head of the glen where we would take a disused steep road up onto the saddle of the hills to camp for the night, away from the marauding midges. For the past few hours we had experienced a light head wind and squally showers, but during the night the wind and rain picked up, battering the tent into the early hours.
The morning of day two was less bright but with less showers of rain, and we had the previous days light head wind now at our backs. Once we were down from the hills on a fast road, albeit in poor state of repair, onto the valley floor, the weather brightened up. A quick six miles took us into the village of Killin, at the opposite end to Loch Tay from our starting point. Right in the centre of Killin are the Falls of Dochart, created by the river as it cascades over exposed rock on its way to Loch Tay.
After picking up provisions, and enjoying a morning coffee, we set off south west, along a fairly recently completed cycle path, through Glen Ogle and onto the next glen south of Loch Tay and its body of water, Loch Earn. There are two options here for getting to the eastern end of Loch Earn; either you take the busy north road, or take the single track, south road. The safer option is of course the south road, and once again I had never cycled this part of Scotland before. We picked a nice spot that overlooked the loch to stop for lunch before heading along the southern shore.
Just over four miles later we were in St Fillans at the Loch's eastern tip. In 2005 this little village hit the headlines. A new housing development was halted to avoid killing the fairies that lived on a rock on the proposed site! And yes, the campaigners won and the development was redesigned to preserve the rock!
From St Fillans to Comrie, about four miles further east, we had heard there was a cycle route, helping to avoid cycling the busy A85 Perth main road. It was well hidden but we did eventually find it. It is not signposted so you would never know it was there. Though short, it was a little gem, with the route making use of old wrought iron railway bridges. With this being yet another first it was a treat to "find" this little hidden route.
Our second night was in a small wood high above the village of Comrie. In order to reach the spot we had found we had to squeeze our bikes across a narrow footbridge, which had cleverly made use of the gap between three trees to support the span across a river.
Our final day first took us through the market town of Crieff, which was established in the early 1500s. After picking up more provisions we turned north, following a fun cycle path that cuts through the local golf course and neighbouring woods. From its end we turned north up the main road heading back over to the Loch Tay area and the town of Aberfeldy. Handily, for the cyclist in need, there is a convenient restroom in the middle of nowhere!
The road climbed continually and at just over nine miles we took a narrow road at Amulree heading north west up Glen Quaich, back to our starting point of Kenmore.
By now I was starting to feel exhausted, made all the more rubbish by being overtaken by a touring cyclist with a smaller bike and more luggage! Just as we set off up Glen Quaich we met Scottish cycling celebrity Mark Beaumont, out for a little pootle over to Loch Tay to meet a friend. So off he sped on his lightweight bike with little effort, as I engaged a low gear and groaned at the thought of yet another nine miles uphill.
But this is no ordinary uphill. About half way the road designers thought it would be immense fun to make the road rise almost vertically for over a mile! Getting up this hill without any kit would be hard enough, but with 12kilos of gear on the bike, plus a few extra kilos round my waist, this hill was hell.
So I got off and pushed! All the way!
By the time I reached the top Pauline had searched and secured a lunch spot, and I collapsed in a heap with barely enough energy left to pull open my tin of tuna.
Of course, what goes up must come down. I had cycled this glen about 16 years ago, but in the opposite direction, so I knew what was coming. At the Kenmore end the road dropped equally as steep, but this time with added hair-pin bends just for fun! This meant constantly pulling on the brakes to avoid taking an even quicker route to journeys end.
Eventually I popped out at Kenmore again and the south shore of Loch Tay, where it had all begun three days earlier. To round off a great three days of cycling, in the last few yards a Red Squirrel ran across my path and scurried up a telegraph pole, watching me from the top, most likely alarmed at my groans of pain from my burning, spent muscles. I did wonder for a moment why the squirrel sign displayed a large exclamation mark. Maybe it was because there were gangs of marauding squirrels jumping passing cyclists from atop telegraph poles!?