Sampling Scottish Singletrack
By Eric Porter Photos by Andy McCandlish and Ross Bell
History is a funny thing. In the USA, we think of a house from the 1950s as old. Our country is just over 200 years old, and mountain biking as a sport is less than 40 years old. Traveling to Scotland is a great way to put things into perspective. Riding mountain bikes here is a unique experience. On every ride you can imagine yourself here in medieval times, riding past castles and along stone fences built hundreds of years ago. The local riders may take this for granted, as history is everywhere here, but for me, it was a unique experience.
Eric Porter in Scotland
I have been curious about the riding in Scotland for quite a while. Scotland is pretty well known for producing some legendary talent in the Enduro World Series, as well as superstars in the bike world like Steve Peat and Danny MacAskill. There must be something about Scotland that creates riders like this.
Getting to Scotland was quick and easy. Just one connection in New York City, and next thing I knew I was eating fish and chips in Edinburgh. Our crew consisted of Andy, Aneela, and Paul from Go-Where Scotland (on their weekend off the clock), and Andy McCandlish shooting photos and videos. The first ride of our trip was right from our hotel in Peebles, a quaint little town 30 minutes outside Edinburgh. We brought lights, because we knew by the time we got to the top of the climb it would be dark, and the descent was a rooty one through dense trees. While riding through town, I was blown away by the age of the buildings and houses that everyone lives in, all hundreds of years old at least. Everything is made of stone and has moss growing on it from the frequent rain. The ride to the trail was lined with stone walls and trees on either side, making the road a tunnel. I grew up riding wet roots in the Midwest, but the first roots I rode over on the trail shot my bike out from under me before I knew what was happening. For the rest of our trip, we had a healthy respect for the roots. It seemed as though they were covered in ice. This was my first clue as to why the riders here are so good. These were the slickest roots I’d ever ridden, and it wasn’t even raining yet.
The next place was Glentress Forest, a massive ride center in the Tweed Valley, just minutes from Peebles and a quick drive from the bigger city of Edinburgh. There are over 50 miles of purpose-built mountain bike trails here, including some of the first flow trails anywhere in the world. In fact, Gravity Logic (who built Whistler Bike Park) came here in the early 2000s to meet with legendary Scottish trail builder Dick Hamilton to see what he was pioneering. This place has everything you need: kids’ trails, gnarly trails, jumps, flow trails, coffee shops and restaurants. There are even cabins and camping on site. As we were ripping down one of the many trails here, I felt the history again. Alongside the trail there was a stone wall that was likely 1000 years old. I could imagine knights in armor riding alongside this same wall centuries ago. High up in the mountains, you could even see a castle in the distance. This was part of Scotland’s defense plan against England. If Scotland were to be invaded, they would start fires on the tops of the castles as a signal, and the castles were built in a line of sight one after another to be able to pass a message quickly.
After a great morning session at Glentress, we packed a quick overnight kit for a trip out to a bothy. What’s a bothy? It’s the Scottish version of a mountain hut or refugio in Spanish-speaking mountain zones. Anyone can use them, and they are free to stay in. That said, it’s essential that everyone treat them with respect and take care of them. They are maintained by volunteers and should be left in better condition than when you got there. We had to cross a river to get to the one we chose to stay in, and it didn’t have a wood-burning stove for heat, so we were likely to have it to ourselves.
The ride into the bothy reminded me of Iceland, with big, steep, grass-covered, treeless mountains everywhere, with water running down the bottom of every valley and no one around. We had a magical, sunny, clear day and made the most of it. Crossing the stream offered a great chance to take a swim in cold, clear mountain water, but Paul and I chose to employ the rock-hopping method and take advantage of our long legs, handing our bikes and gear to each other across the river. The rest of the crew went the arguably safer route of removing their shoes and socks and walking through the water. Both worked well enough, and we made it to our home for the night. By this time the sun had dipped behind the horizon and the temperature dropped quickly, close to freezing. Did I mention that this bothy did not have a wood-burning stove or any other source of heat? We lit some tea candles, both for light and for the false sense of warmth that they would produce for us.
We had a nice sampling of Scottish foods for dinner, including a delicacy called haggis. What is haggis? It is kind of a crumbly sausage-type mix of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs encased in the animal’s stomach. Oh yeah, it’s illegal to import into the U.S. I tried it, didn’t get sick, and thought it was actually pretty good! We also had vegetarian haggis, which was really good as well and is a good option for those less adventurous with their food. We stayed up late snacking on all the food we brought, talking about riding in Scotland and the U.S., and spoke about how crazy politics are in both our countries right now. We came to the conclusion that we’re all the same despite different locations and upbringings. Mountain biking really is a life-changing activity that helps a lot of people around the world come together.
After riding out of the bothy the next day, we made our way over to some fun trails around Neidpath Castle, an amazing structure dating back to the 13th century. As the singletrack wraps around the castle, you can see one of the corner turrets that was blasted open by cannon fire in the 17th century. I can only imagine what that must have been like to witness. The trail follows the River Tweed, one of the great salmon rivers of Britain that flows out to the North Sea. In fact, we saw massive Scottish salmon swimming around as we rode, making me wish I had time to spend a day fishing! We finished the weekend with a night at the Cringletie house, a beautiful stone mansion built in the 1600s that is now a hotel and restaurant—far too classy for some dirtbags like us, but entirely welcoming at the same time. We reminisced about the weekend in front of a roaring fireplace with a wee dram, which seemed the only appropriate thing to do.
One of the more well-known spots to ride is the Golfie, or, as it is officially called, Caberston Woods. This started out as secret trails built quietly over the years until they were acknowledged by the forestry commission and included in the 2014 Enduro World Series. The interesting thing about this is that the Scottish have statutory access rights, known as “freedom to roam,” that allow everyone access to land and inland water for recreation and exercise. Basically, this means you can hike or bike on open land wherever you want, as long as you behave responsibly. Coming from the U.S., where you might find yourself looking down the barrel of a gun if you walk through the wrong person’s property, Scotland seems like ultimate freedom for an outdoor enthusiast. Riders who had become bored with the existing trail options in their area began scratching in new trails through the forests, to some extent thinking that they were just exercising their right to roam. While this is not allowed under current laws, it seems to have been handled in a very civil way, with many of these trails currently going through a process to become legal. In fact, DMBinS (Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland) has recently published a guide for both mountain bikers and land managers that explains both sides’ thinking on unauthorized trails, and has flow charts and suggestions for how to handle situations when they arise. As a trail advocate in Utah who runs an organization, I think it is amazing that everything is so transparent and on the table for both sides to use.
Back to the Golfie; this place is nothing short of amazing. It reminds me a bit of Galbraith in Bellingham, Washington. The climbs are mostly on gravel roads, and the descents speed through deep, dark forests filled with roots and rocks and loam. One trail felt like a never-ending pump track, zigging and zagging through the woods, with the rollers consisting of natural mounds of dirt from old root mounds or decaying trees. It has a spongy, bouncy feel almost, and begs you to stay off the brakes and trust your tires, using Jedi mind tricks to skim over roots without crashing. The tracks used for EWS were quite technical and steep, well-deserving of a world-class enduro. I definitely got a better understanding while riding Golfie as to why the talent pool is so deep in Scotland.
After riding a good bit of trail in the Borders region, it was time to head north for some rides with my good friends from H&I Adventures, Euan and Ross. Our objective was riding the Cairngorms, the largest national park in the British Isles and a beautiful mountain range. My ignorance of how mind-blowing this area is was purposeful; I wanted to be surprised on this trip. The look and feel of the mountains reminded me how far north on the planet we were, with a similar look to Norway. We were surrounded by the highest peaks in Scotland, with valleys carved out by glaciers during the last Ice Age, ending 10,000 years ago. National parks are managed differently than here in the U.S. There are different protection levels, and mountain biking is welcome in the Cairngorms, as long as it is done sustainably with good trail construction and the conditions are respected by riders. Riding from the hotel in Aviemore, we were quickly off-road and in a dense green forest. As we popped out of the woods into a clearing, we rode along Loch an Eilein, which is Scottish Gaelic for “Loch of the Island.” On that island in the middle of the lake is a castle from the 15th century, the home of the “Wolf of Badenoch,” Alexander Stewart, the third son of King Robert II of Scotland. He earned the nickname due to his notorious cruelty and greed and was forced to live on the island to stay safe.
Continuing on the ride, we later passed a tiny bothy where we learned the rule that no matter how many people are visiting, there’s always room for one more! Even though we had just ridden out of town, we quickly felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. It was a clear day, but the snow line was only a few hundred feet above us, so we had to keep moving to stay warm. We had multiple river crossings that could be ridden, keeping our feet mostly dry, but then we got to a river about 50 feet across and 1–2 feet deep. There was no avoiding the inevitable. One by one we accepted our fate of cold, wet feet and carefully waded through to the other side. We were surprised on the other side of the river by another local on the ride, Chris (“Bear”), who pulled out a flask of whiskey that had been found in a friend’s garden, buried for years to avoid being taxed. This did its job well and warmed us up from the inside as we wrung out our socks, trying our best to keep water from staying pooled in the toes of our shoes. We finished the ride with an absolutely epic downhill, ripping wide open down singletrack through an alleyway in the trees known as the Green Dream, due to the bright green grass on the sides of the trail. After a long, hot shower to restore feeling to our toes, we finished up the last day of our trip at a local pub with a pint of the local beer and food.
I’m not sure that I’ve been to another country that is this supportive of mountain biking. In fact, a pilot program was just started to determine how mountain biking can improve mental health and be used as therapy for many conditions. I was curious about this way of looking at outdoor activities after reading a recent article about hiking being prescribed by doctors as a healthy supplement to traditional health care. For those of us who love the mountains and see our time spent in them as necessary to our wellbeing, this may seem obvious. The difference here is that it’s accepted by the health department of the country and endorsed as a great way to stay mentally and physically fit.
If you want to find out more about what Scotland has to offer for mountain biking, check out the incredible work being done by DMBinS here: www.dmbins.com. Huge thanks to Ed, Graeme, and Colena for their hospitality on my trip and for everything they do to further our great sport of MTB in their incredible country of Scotland.
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