Assynt: Experiencing wilderness on two wheels
Why not explore Scotland's real wilderness on two wheels? Environmental researcher and microadventurer James Bonner takes us on a journey through the remote region of Assynt.
Drumrunie appears on the map as little more than a junction off the A835 road, about 15km north of the port of Ullapool in the north-west Highlands. But here a small single track road veers west and directly into the mountains of Coigach and Assynt - and where I experienced one of the most visually spectacular routes I have cycled in Scotland. Making this turn felt like passing into a scene from Lord of the Rings, where the iconic mountains of Stac Pollaidh and Suilven emerge out of a skeletal-like landscape of open moorland and coastline as the road snakes its way towards the almost mythical sounding Summer Isles in the distance.
Scotland’s natural landscapes are well known for their visual beauty: majestic mountains, unspoilt beaches, rugged islands and wild open spaces. We all know the images - just look at a VisitScotland advert! However, in recent years I can recall sometimes feeling a pang of guilt that I hadn’t spent as much time in such places as I’d have liked to. I have lived in the centre of Glasgow for much of my adult life, and with all the distractions of the city my exposure to Scotland’s wild natural landscapes seemed more likely to be through watching a TV documentary, gazing at images or time-lapse photography on social media, reading a book or outdoor magazine, or maybe interpreted through some art at a gallery or exhibition.
In some attempt to address this, in the last couple of years I’ve extended the range of my cycling experiences from a few short trips in the city, to a number of multi-day bike tours in Scotland - some with friends, but most as solo journeys. In April I took the chance to visit Assynt, a region situated on the north-west coast of the country - a place in Scotland that I’d viewed images of, and read about, but was now keen to experience for myself.
After travelling with my bike on a train from Glasgow to Inverness, I cycled about 90km cross country north-west to the port of Ullapool, before next day continuing my journey north along the coast. While the main road follows an inland route towards the village of Kylesku, passing to the east of the Assynt area, I instead turned west towards the Coigach peninsula at Drumrunie junction as described above. After a few quite tough little inclines on the way, I worked my way over to the village of Lochinver before then following the coast to Clachtoll, my destination for the night.
The next day I set off on what I’d really come to the area for - to cycle the ‘Assynt coast loop’ (here is a link to my actual journey on the day clocked on my Garmin cycling computer). Following an anti-clockwise direction I travelled south from Clachtoll, followed Loch Assynt to Ardvreck Castle (a nice stop to eat a bar of chocolate), and then over a long, but gradual climb north towards Kylesku (with a stunning descent past Quinag mountain). After a well-deserved lunch in Kylesku lay the road back westwards along the coast- a route not for the fainthearted, but nonetheless quite breathtaking (in more ways than one…). I found some of the 20% plus inclines really pretty tough going, but cycling up a hill usually always means coasting back down the other side; and with the surrounding scenery as an incentive to turn the next corner, I wound and undulated my way back to Clachtoll. An exhilarating 70km cycling, with over 1000m climbing (and subsequent descents) - more than the height of a Munro. A route of hills and thrills.
I would spend another day or two in Assynt before making my way back to Glasgow, but it was my couple of days cycling in the area that were such a special and memorable experience. Some of the little hill climbs were tough, and, I imagine, a challenge even to strong cyclists. But, as is my general cycle touring style, riding at a comfortable pace and taking plenty breaks (at castles, viewpoints, cafes, villages, etc…) along the way made it manageable, and not too gruelling.
Like most of my other recent bike tours in Scotland, while the cycling aspect of my trip to Assynt was quite a physical challenge, it was in many ways incidental to the wider experience. Instead, the sensation - sometimes which passed in fleeting moments or glances - of moving through (and occasionally pausing) in such a majestic landscape, and under my own steam, brought a much greater, and deep-seated reward. An opportunity to transform what was a remote appreciation of a landscape, into something much deeper, more personal and fundamental. A sensation of connecting with nature and a place that comes about by actually being in it.
Where to sleep and eat en route...
- Ullapool Youth hostel. A lovely and well-equipped hostel right on the waterfront.
- Achmelvich Beach hostel. A fantastic location on the Assynt coast loop.
- Clachtoll Beach campsite. I’ll let the images do the talking... See them here.
- The Ceilidh Place, Ullapool. ‘Hotel, Bunkhouse, Café / Bar, Bookshop and Music Venue’. I really loved this place for some food and a beer.
- Kylesku Hotel. A welcome stop on the Assynt loop (worth the detour of a few kilometres, and also to visit the sweeping Kylesku Bridge). A little expensive, but lovely food and a beautiful viewpoint.
- Lochinver Larder. Coffee, and an amazing selection of pies. Just what the cycle tourer wants.