Wo-Mans best friend – cycling adventure through Scotland with my dog

Wo-Mans best friend – cycling adventure through Scotland with my dog

Cycling round a beautiful country full of rolling hills, shimmering lochs, dramatic mountain ranges and bicycling round a beautiful country full of rolling hills, shimmering lochs, dramatic mountain ranges and breath-taking views all with your best friend – my dog Zuri. The beauty of cycling makes for a slower pace and a chance to truly absorb and breathe in the landscape; in our 6 week adventure we covered 2300km/ 1500 miles, the only way to fully experience England and Scotland in all its glory.

As travelling companions, Zuri and I could not be more different. Whilst I am shy, reserved and describe myself as an introvert, she is the exact opposite. Bounding over to strangers wagging her tail, she has a wonderful ability to capture the heart of anyone she encounters. Her wolfish smile and big brown eyes could melt even the coldest of hearts and I challenge anyone to not fall in love with her pure dog soul.

We made a great team travelling through Eastern Europe in 2019. Zuri has magical way of opening doors and ensuring everything slots into place – something very much appreciated when cycling in unknown areas.

Croatia 2019

Our journey began in Leicester, East Midlands of England, in early August 2020. England has a well-developed bicycle network, with the routes often running right alongside the picturesque canal system. This did however prove problematic at times, particularly when attempting to manoeuvre a bicycle loaded with luggage and a dog trailer through the canal barriers. Thankfully, the English hospitality shone through and help was always on hand. We even had a 91 year old willing to assist us both in straightening up the wedged trailer to help us get through the barrier!

This wonderful hospitality continued on our journey up the country. On and off the road, I found everyone was enamoured with Zuri and she managed to secure some very tasty treats! She was never short of plates of sausages, steaks and even a roast chicken from friendly pub owners and waiters. I am sure she hoped this gourmet dining would continue into Scotland. Whilst she is not a fussy eater and tolerates food changes well, a hearty dog steak from a friendly stranger is a lot more palatable than the 2-4kg of dry dog food I pack on the bike trailer for the road.

In the Lake District, happy after cycling up a 13 % hill

After about 300km and 8 days travelling, Zuri and I reached Scotland.

It was my curiosity that brought us to Scotland. I’d heard the tails of the stunning mountain ranges and wanted to separate the myth from reality. But here’s the secret, it’s all reality. Even on rainy days when the grey, murky sky blends with the road, the scenery was breathtaking. Dramatic, rugged mountains, vast unspoiled coastlines, crystal clear rivers, shimmering lochs and charming little villages.

We started our Scottish journey in the Southwest region, Dumfries and Galloway. Wanting to experience authentic Scottish wilderness we were tipped off by locals to use cycle path nr 7. which has a lot less tourists. I found the Scots loved to share knowledge about their country and were keen for us to experience all its beauty. As we cycled through vast flat agricultural fields, I found the landscape was very similar to Germany. This was a lovely comforting feeling and provided a wonderful start to our journey. It is well worth putting aside the bike to hike up Screel Hill. Despite only 344m high it provides incredible panoramic views into England.

As the sun started to set, my gurgling stomach could no longer be drowned out by the passing cars. Remembering the bountiful restaurants in England, Zuri and I were on the look out for a hearty pub meal. However, even though we’d just crossed the England-Scotland border, the density of restaurants appeared to be in harmony with the Scottish population i.e. not many! I soon realized that if we wanted to eat, I would have to strategically search for restaurants on Google and plan them into our route. Fearing my grumbling tummy and a fast-draining e-bike battery, we headed for the first (and only) restaurant in sight.

It was here that the differences between England and Scotland started to show. Firstly, it was obvious that Zuri would not be allowed to come in. Assuming it was a one off, I didn’t think anything of it. With the sun shining and the rays providing a gentle warmth, eating outside was lovely and pleasant. However, unfortunately we soon realized the Scottish ‘no dog policy’ was not an anomaly. The dog culture in Scotland appears to regard dogs as working animals rather than pets although according to the locals this is slowly changing. As a result, when it rained, I had to either leave Zuri in the dog trailer outside, or we ate outside together – she always has been my favorite dinner companion anyway!

The next surprise followed with a quick glance at the menu. I had recently converted to a vegan lifestyle but found myself having to give this up when travelling through Scotland. Even as a vegetarian the options available were very limited and my confusion grew when I learnt even the ‘safe’ option of fries were not vegetarian as they were cooked in beef stock and beef fat. What a welcome to Scotland! That was the both the first and last time I asked how my chips were prepared- ignorance is bliss as they say! This restaurant experience provided me with great amusement over the following weeks and also helped to mentally prepare myself for a Scottish diet consisting mostly of potatoes.

However, the highlight of Dumfries and Galloway was Galloway Forest. Set in southern Scotland it’s the largest forest in the UK covering an area 3 times the size of Frankfurt and is renown for its dramatic ancient woodland. Part of the route involves cycling along raiders road for about 14km, it is traffic heavy and exhausting but once you are past that the rest of the track is empty and beautiful. Unfortunately, empty and beautiful usually also tends to mean a lack of charging facilities!

On bicycle trips I always listen to my intuition and I knew in this instance I needed to find charging facilities fast! The tour through the forest took so long that we reached the park’s café 15 minutes after closing time. It was a devastating moment when we realised it did not open for another 4 days! Trying to quell the rising panic I searched for possibilities nearby and quickly aimed for the only campsite around. Cycling into the campsite after 10pm, the day turned from bad to worse when I realized the reception was closed. Calling the private number on the door, I had my fingers crossed someone would be there to answer and offer help. Two elderly women came out of the house next door. I started to ask if I could charge my battery for 1-2 hours to make it over the mountain, but before I could finish my sentence, they spotted Zuri. They looked each other in the eyes, smiled and one said, “don’t worry, the campsite is full, but I’ll unlock the common room for you, there you can charge your battery and also stay the night for free. There are also toilets that you can use.”

It is experiences and encounters like this that show me again and again that you can have confidence in the world. People are there and will and do support you whenever help is needed. Scotland was the 14th country I cycled through and encounters like that motivate and inspire me to continue exploring the rest of the world.

Carrying on with our journey we headed north past Glasgow. We didn’t visit the city as I was keen to experience more of the Scottish wilderness than the cities, however, it is known for being a vibrant city full of culture including the Scottish opera and ballet. Instead, we cycled along the west highland highway famous for its beauty and being the most popular hiking trail in Scotland. Unfortunately, our experience of this highway was a wet and soggy one. The striking mountain range mentioned in so many guidebooks was drowned in a foggy soup and the long endless road, perfect for admiring the beautiful mooreland and lakes had become a battle ground against the Scottish elements. With no cycling road and only two lanes wide, it was very traffic heavy and a continuous queue of cars passed me. The wetter I became the more breaths of envy ran through me as more and more cars passed me by. Some of them had a sad face and waved to me but others seem stressed and raced past me in such a way that I have to be careful that the masses of water created by the pressure wave do not turn me into a deep sea diver.

At this point my fingertips had clumped together as if after a long bath and my new Goretex gloves were frayed like a flannel. The rain cape, which I had creatively made for Zuri’s dog trailers, kept her dry for the most part but she didn’t like being sealed in and missed the wind flapping her ears and complained very loudly. She tried again and again to squeeze her head past the plastic foil getting her head soaked in the process. We made slow progress, completely at the mercy of the elements. Apparently, August is fondly referred to by locals as the Scottish monsoon and we could see why!

Craving warmth and shelter from the rain I spotted a restaurant only 2km on a slight diversion up a mountain. I usually think twice about a diversion that goes up the mountain, I am on an e-bike and the trailer with Zuri in combination with my own weight costs range. However, I am cold and hungry and decide to risk it. The road leads to a ski area, which is currently open for walkers. The restaurant itself is closed due to ‘The Virus’ and there is only a kind of container, which resembles a canteen, where you can buy coffee and something small to eat. I already have a bad feeling. Zuri is definitely not allowed in here, even the torrential rain cannot change anyone’s mind. Tired and disappointed, I asked one of the waiters if they knew where the nearest restaurant was that allowed dogs. She encouraged me that the Kings Hotel would probably let dogs in just 5km away. Getting back on my bike I cycled back to the main road passing two soaking wet walkers on the way. We nod and smile at each other, the rain temporarily connecting us as we relate to how the other feels.

The Kings Hotel seemed to me too noble to be one of the exceptions in Scotland to let (wet) dogs in. So I’m all the more pleased when the lady at the reception tells me that Zuri can of course come in and I can also put my bike outside under their garage for me to see. I feel a little underdressed and every step leaves puddles on the restaurant carpet. I find a place to sit and dry and I was even more surprised when I saw that they had a vegan burger on the menu. Finally a place to recharge and escape the rain. After two good hours I see the sun coming out. This is one of the great things in Scotland. Rain can be very heavy but you can never be too sure to not to see a glimpse of sun again on the very same day.

With the last km of remaining battery, I reached Strontian, but unsurprisingly both village restaurants were closed. However, Zuri was working her usual magic, we found a small supermarket and the elderly owner allowed me to charge my battery behind the refrigerators. For two hours we waited outside in front of the supermarket, sheltering under the roofed area whilst the heaviest rain passed before continuing up and over the hills.

The middle part of our journey took place in the Scottish highlands. In England, when the terrain was relatively flat, I could ride about 70 km with a 500 W battery. But in the Highlands with my e-bike and dog trailer it often ended up around 40 to max. 50 km. I found the slower pace gave me more time to take in the breathtaking scenery especially in Ardnamurchan which could be straight off a postcard, however it is very hilly with lots of up and down!

One of my top tips on bicycle trips, no matter how charged your battery is or how many supplies you have, is to always listen to your intuition. This turned out to be a blessing in Ardnamurhcan. Although I still had enough battery, my feeling told me to stop here again.

You also need to be more mindful of charging spots in the highlands as they become far and few between. I always pack a spare battery but I also always listen to my intuition. In Eastern Europe I came a few times into situations in which I got almost stuck in the middle of nowhere without any remaining battery. I wanted to avoid the stress this time. The restaurant was full even in this small village. At first they didn’t even have the capacity to bring me some French fries at the outside table, but when they saw me in my wet raingear, they took pity on me. I ordered a cider and plugged my battery into the socket. The rain had stopped and so more guests reached the restaurant: the Scottish Midges. Whoever hates mosquitoes could hate the Scottish midges. Avon skin-so-soft works really well for midgy bites even though it was not intentionally designed for this!  Thankfully this time I did not have to endure the midges for long, the friendly Scottish nature saved the day, a female named Lauren had spotted Zuri’s friendly face and wagging tail and invited us both to eat midgy free under her roof.

 We started talking about Zuri, travelling as a woman and environmental protection. She works for the Scottish National Trust. Like so many others, she was surprised that I, as a woman, have the courage to go on such a journey alone. I told her that Zuri never makes me feel alone or insecure and that it is the most beautiful way to travel because you get to know the country and its people in a unique way. When I told her that I usually just sleep outside, in the place I find in the evening, she just said “tonight you can both sleep with us, I’ll cook us something and light the fireplace. Our house is old, but it has many rooms and beds. Please be my guest, she said smiling. I couldn’t believe my luck when a little later I was able to dry my wet shoes at the fireplace while Zuri was rewarded with freshly roasted chicken. Zuri is a magnet for kind humans and has taken the impossible step of making contact with complete strangers for me on countless occasions.

Whilst Zuri’s highlight of this region was probably the chicken, mine was the little town of Mallaig and its surroundings. The station here hosts the Hogwarts Express (the train used in the Harry Potter franchise), you can board the train and take a journey right passed the 21-arched Glenfinnan Viaduct (also seen in the films). It was here that I also visited the ‘last wilderness in Scotland’ or the Knoydary Peninsula, only reachable by foot-walk for 2 days or boat. This was the most beautiful spot I’ve been to in Scotland and remains an untamed beautiful area of striking mountains and twisting lochs.

By only planning a rough route we relied on the world and our intuition. This intuition told me to make a detour towards the Isle of Skye. I booked a ferry ticket online from Mallaig to Armadale Skye and off we set. Skye is Scotland’s most famous island and known for its wild and rugged coastline but it is also one of the wettest areas in Scotland. Cycling up to the island I was not disappointed. The sky was low and dark and we were greeted by a dramatic grey cloud cover, but within an hour the sun had broken through the clouds to reveal an endless canvas of colour. We continued cycling far into the island, marveling at the shimmering lakes and beautiful stretches of coasts and lochs. I was overwhelmed by the rare beauty the sun had prepared for us. Once again I was glad of the slow-pace cycling provides; I could immerse myself in the devastating views and truly savor the crisp un-touched air.

According to locals, tourism has increased considerably in recent years and in summer campervans wind their way along the many small and winding roads. As a cyclist I experienced the most frightening overtaking maneuvers of the whole trip, sometimes up to 20 in a day. Not many Scottish roads have cycling lanes and most of the time even a signed cycle path is actually just a small country road, often with the same amount of traffic thundering down- a terrifying experience! All too often I just squinted my eyes together, as the oncoming traffic was within touching distance when a second and third car overtook me, despite the honking and raising hands of the oncoming vehicles.

Despite the traffic, the Scottish people are very friendly and keen to share their beautiful country. I had been told I could not leave without a visit to the island’s main attraction, the Fairy Pools. A river that rises from a gigantic mountain and meanders over many waterfalls into the valley. Whilst the scenery was stunning my visit was dampened by the never ending rain and swarms of midges. Normally you can trust that you only have to fight off one of these two things, but this was one of the rare moments when the midges joined the rain dance in droves. Nothing helped and so I went with Zuri and the black swarm to the Fairy pools. Even in this weather the place was full of people fighting bravely up the mountain alongside of the river. It was hard for me to appreciate the waterfalls under these circumstances and so after half of the way I turned back and decided to go to a restaurant instead, where I was at least dry and safe from my new bitey friends.

Whilst the guidebooks describe the Fairy Pools as the highlight of Skye, my recommendation is to visit the bridge in Sligachan. The mountain views are stunning and there is a restaurant with lovely food right next to it. If you continue on the road to Satran you will be rewarded with more incredible views and some brilliant wild camping spots.

This spot was recommended to me by a passing jogger, Gill, and originally gazing at the extensive road ahead of me, I was unsure whether it was really worthwhile. But upon reaching the woodland I knew why it had been recommended. Pitching my tent under the stars there was no civilization for miles. Just Zuri and I wrapped under the vast blanket of the night sky. It was times like this I truly appreciated the luxury of nature and the secrets travelling off the grid unlocks. Which is a magical place and a very beautiful valley.

The next day, heading back down the mountain luck was on our side, I had received an Instagram message from Gill, the jogger I had met the night before. She apologized that she hadn’t thought of inviting me to her place for the night right away, but that she kept repeating my Instagram name that she saw on the dog trailer until she came home to be able to still invite me to her place to warm up by a fire and to let me stay as long as I wanted. I only received the message the following day because I didn’t have any signal up there in the mountain. Gill lit the fireplace, baked some cookies and let me do my laundry at her place before we spent the evening in a dog-friendly pub. However, I didn’t see the beauty of Gill’s home until the next morning when I was able to look out over the whole fjord from her living room in bright sunshine. Like most of the locals I meet on my travels, Gill is very fascinating. She spends most of her free time cleaning the island of rubbish left behind by tourists or washed up on the island’s many coasts. She has even crowdfunded a boat for this. Other people I have visited during the journey were parents of a famous Scottish folk fiddler, a retired Indian adventure guide, people who work for huge oil companies and people who work in wind power companies, including a Scottish canal boat restorer. Cycling with Zuri gives me insights into many lives and many ways of life.

People’s random kindness and hospitality really helped when travelling around Scotland. On our previous trips, especially in the beginning when we were facing the bitter cold Swiss nights, I looked for people in advance on the web platforms couchsurfing.com or warmshowers.org, to secure a bed for the evening. Both are websites where private people offer their couch or a guest bed free of charge for other travelers. But this year with the pandemic, many were hesitant. I once asked someone who said that his neighbour was uncomfortable seeing so many strangers and I also met a French cyclist who said that she had received so many cancellations this year and that she would probably have to book a hotel for the night soon to have a shower.

The pandemic also affected campsite availability, I found they were either all fully booked or were not allowing tents as you were required to bring your own chemical toilet (all public washrooms were closed for COVID safety reasons). Thankfully, Scotland is one of the few European countries where you are officially allowed to camp in the wilderness and the country has an abundance of beautiful places with breathtaking views which Zuri and I thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed.

Next we travelled further north in direction to the nc500, over 500 miles of stunning coastal road scenery. Since the route became known through the media, it should be called the route of just over 500 miles of campervans (!) as campervans jostle and meander from passing place to passing place on the often single-lane roads. I took a small detour to the Eilean Donan castle and then cycled alongside lock carron. If you are looking for a picturesque place to pitch a tent I would recommend staying around loch Torridon close to Shieldaig, right on the water edge. This part is quite hilly but one of the highlights in this area was not to follow Applecross (which is supposed to be Britain hardest ascent but go straight and you cycle across a road with almost no cars and stunning mountains and lakes. As most people take Applecross this road is beautifully peaceful and you can fully take in the Scottish wilderness. Torridon also has a really nice community centre café with great food and really friendly staff – it also allows dogs!

Continuing our journey further north we reached one of the loneliest areas of Scotland. Whilst the views travelling to Kinlochewe were stunning, there were very few places to recharge my battery or go to a supermarket. I reached a village in the morning where there was supposed to be a hotel, where I wanted to charge my battery for the next mountain stage. Unfortunately the hotel was closed due to Coronavirus. I asked a resident where the next restaurant was and she said that everything was closed. There was only one hotel left until the next bigger town (Ullapool) which was still 70 km away and she hoped this would be open. She disappeared for a moment in the house and apologized that she had so little time because she had to take her child to school, but she gave me fruit and breakfast and said that she hoped I could make it to the hotel that way. Surprised by so much unexpected kindness, I continued on until shortly after, on a small hill next to me, I heard someone screaming “Iris” and saw four waving hands. It was Charlotte and Will, a young English cycling couple from Brighton who we had met along the NC500.  Zuri bounded over to them as joyfully as if she was going to see her lover again after a month of heartache. Like so many others, they were thrilled by Zuri and her joyfully vivid nature. They were overjoyed to see us again and asked if they could cycle with me and Zuri for a part of the way.

We cycled together for a while and after a few hours we passed the longed-for hotel. This was also closed due to COVID. So what now? There was another big valley with 14 km uphill but my battery would not last that long. I saw a woman sitting at a desk and I knocked hopefully on the window and described my predicament and asked if it was possible to charge my battery. The woman seemed surprised but offered straight away for me to charge my battery in the open garage in the backyard. A hotel employee came right out and told me about his dog and that if I didn’t make it to the town of Ullapool despite charging the battery, he could collect me on the road with his van after work. Will and Charlotte said goodbye and I stayed there for 1.5 hours until the battery was about half charged. I reached Ullapool without any problems. Grabbing a table in the restaurant in Ullapool I met Charlotte and Will again. They had booked a hotel in town for the night. They offered us to stay in their room with them in the third extra bed and to cover the additional costs for me. They clarified everything with the hotel, so Zuri was allowed to stay inside as well. Will told me that Zuri made Charlotte so happy that she would be thrilled to be able to spend some more time with her.

The final stretch of our journey we decided to cycle away from the rain in the north, to the east of Scotland, known for having more stable dry weather. This turned out to be the right decision because the sun was my constant companion and I did not have to sleep outside for almost another 600 km. Here we travelled to Inverness along the East coast to eventually end up in Edinburgh (cycle path 1). A great detour, only half a cycling day to the east from Inverness is Findhorn. An ecological community. Thankfully the east coast is rather flat which is lovely for cycling detours but the endless farmland does make for rather boring scenery.

From our travels last year, Zuri had gained quite a social media following and we were lucky enough that upon hearing that we were touring Scotland, people reached out and offered us both a place to stay.

One such invitation was from a Polish couple, Sylvia and Julian, who had driven behind us on the road in Skye. Polish hospitality sets a different standard once again and when we reached Aberdeen, they were excitedly waiting to see us. They had prepared a mountain of homemade food and Sylvia had even baked dog biscuits in little doggie shapes for Zuri as a welcome gift. They had both taken a shine to Zuri and she was given a little spa time out with lots of massages, good food and personal tick-scanning. Sylvia and Julian showed us both the area. Newburgh Seals Beach, where we could see seals, Sleighter Castle, which was used as a model for the Dracula movie, a place where you can see puffins and seabirds, and invited me for homemade ice cream on a berry farm. Many of the places could only be reached by car and I felt like being in a racing car with flux speed. After weeks of moderate cycling, my spirit was used to slow-moving speeds and I saw the landscapes in the car just fly past me like a movie playing fast forward. Almost too fast to be real.

After two nights staying with them I was ready to continue my journey. Sylvia and Julian gave me provisions and tips for the continuation of the journey and recommended me a place to stop for a break in a restaurant where Claudia and Ralf – some other strangers – ran into me. They invited me to their place for the next night and offered me a Scotch whiskey tasting. Most of the people we met were fascinated and inspired by this way of travelling, by relying on the world and following your intuition. Through meeting us they got back in touch with their own dreams and desires, which are often pushed too far out of their minds by work and everyday life. They were very grateful for that and weirdly enough it often felt that people were much more grateful having me stay over than I could ever be in having a roof, shower and warm bed provided unexpectedly.

One of the final places in Scotland we stopped at was Edinburgh. This is another city well worth a visit. Climb up Nether Hill to have an amazing view of the city. We then followed cycle path 76 along the coast to the south to get back to England and it was stunning!

The people I met by chance (or Zuri magic) in the year of COVID added an extra layer of kindness to my trip and were the only chance we got to not sleep in the wilderness and enjoy some modern civilization. The ability to take a hot shower, do my laundry, enjoy a warm fire and to fully charge all my electrical appliances has never been more welcome when you are battling the Scottish elements.

Scotland was the 14th country I have cycled through and encounters like this are my faithful companion. Cycling shows me again and again that I can have confidence in the world. People are there and support me whenever I need help. I can rely on the world. Coronavirus, with its overcrowded restaurants on one side and closed ones on the other, with no campsites and platforms like couchsurfing, has made cycling much more difficult, but it has in no way diminished the kindness, hospitality and generousity of the people.

Both Scotland and England have so much to offer. Besides all these amazing and beautiful people living here, I dived into incredible spots of natural beauty and stunning landscapes. I understand why for so many people Scotland is the most beautiful country in the world. It has everything: dramatic and rugged mountain sceneries, breathtaking coastlines with so many sandy white beaches, green valleys, crystal clear rivers, charming little villages, interesting and magical old castles, and many many beautiful lochs. I cycled through ever-changing landscapes – one more impressive than the other and still equal in its uniqueness. Every day I was surrounded by beauty. Once more it was an amazing adventure with many moments of pure joy. It was certainly not the last time I’ve been to Scotland. But next time I have friends to visit.

Our cycling adventures are all on YouTube as well with German audio and English subtitles:

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  1. fantastisch

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