Riding Scotland's North Coast with Spencer Blackwood
Jul 05, 2019
I’ve always been fascinated by travel and motorcycles. But it wasn’t until a couple of years ago – when I got my motorcycle license – that I thought to combine these two passions. Ride Out! Motorcycle Road Trips and Adventures is a book I purchased from Steeltown Garage Co. that piqued my curiosity and provided endless inspiration. It was amazing to read about different people’s experiences around the world on bikes.
This got me thinking I could do something like that myself one day. After reading about Scotland’s North Coast 500 route, I immediately knew that a trip through its rugged mountains and foggy glens would be an unforgettable experience. Less than a month later, I booked my flight.
As a photographer, I’ve found that one of the best ways to experience a new country is on a motorcycle. It gives you a real sense of the road. Rolling past ominous mountains like Ben Nevis, I was awestruck at the sheer scale these places. Every corner I turned I found myself hitting record on my GoPro camera and thanking myself for buying spare memory cards before I left.
Riding solo is also beneficial because I can easily pull off to the side of the road if something catches my eye. On a new bike, it can take a few moments before you settle into a natural rhythm. But once you’re winding down mountainside roads and breathing in the fresh air, the machine starts to feel familiar. For me, riding is like meditation, I feel rooted in those moments.
The trip took nine days to complete and spanned a total of 2,000 km. It started and finished in Inverness, Scotland’s most northern city. I rented a Honda NC700X from NC500 Moto Experience, and followed the book’s coastal route clockwise. I also added Glencoe and Isle of Skye at the start, to take in the most of the Highland mountains. If you're thinking of planning a trip of your own and aren’t sure where to start, remember the internet is your best friend. I saved all of my points of interest into Google Maps, which helped me determine how far I would travel each day and where to stay each night.
To avoid feeling fatigued, I rode four hours per day on average. This way if any issues came up, I still had plenty of time to get where I was going. Of course, nothing ever goes exactly according to plan. In my case, the unpredictable ‘bumps’ in the road included rain, feral goats, broken gear, driving on the left and nearly running out of gas. I’ve learned that things are bound to go awry, so you might as well sit back and enjoy the ride.
In fact, one stand-out ‘mistake’ ended up being one of my favourite discoveries. As I travelled west, I planned to take a ferry from the port town of Mallaig (see map above) to the Isle of Skye. When I arrived at the ferry docks I was told they were booked for the day. This meant I needed to backtrack through the mainland, follow the roads north and cross the Skye Bridge, extending my day by another two hours of riding. Fortunately for me, this path took me through the Lochs, Alsh and Duich, home to one of Scotland’s most picturesque historical sites, Eilean Donan Castle. Keeping my final destination in mind, my footage of these places were limited, but I still dream of those misty lochs today. What started off as a miscalculation turned into a memorable detour I never could have planned.
In my opinion, one of the most important elements of any trip is keeping your schedule open enough so that you can enjoy the new opportunities that come your way. Staying in hostels and B&Bs, it was easy to make new friends and find out what their favourite places were. I found myself discovering hidden gems everywhere I went. Avoid filling your day with too many activities, and be sure to take in the local scenery.
One day I found myself in conversation with an older Scotsman and fellow moto-adventurist who was also touring the area. Pitched at the side of the road, we looked down into the great valley before us. The man, who must have been in his seventies, pointed to a row of bushes about kilometer from where we stood. I followed his gaze as he described a hike along The Hidden Valley, a path which follows the mountainside up into a vast, secret opening. Inspired by his words, I set out the next morning to see the place for myself. After a couple of hours – and briefly contemplating the state of my physical health – I came upon the lookout point. The old man wasn’t lying and I was not disappointed. You could spend months planning a trip, but it’s the people you meet, the stories they tell and the things you learn along the way that really make for a memorable adventure.
Every corner of Scotland had riders like myself, alone or in groups, looking to discover more about this beautiful country. Each time I passed one, I imagined they were also pursuing a passion, taking risks or seeking out a new experience. Being out on the road can occasionally feel isolating, but exploring it on two wheels is a great way to connect with people and feel a sense of community wherever I go. Returning home, I feel this connection continue to grow and the friends I’ve made at Steeltown have been a pleasant reminder of why I keep coming back to this riding community. Not everyone would say their ideal vacation spot is on a motorcycle, but it’s a fantastic way to see the world.
For more of Spencer’s work: www.spencerblackwood.com/scotland
Spencer’s Instagram: www.instagram.com/spencerblackwood