There are around 60 SYHA and affiliated youth hostels across the length and breadth of Scotland, from city centres to remote glens. I went to two of the most beautiful to see what a hostel break can offer – and to explore the mountains and coast of the Highlands.
My first visit was to Allbeithe hostel in the heart of Glen Affric, often considered the most beautiful glen in Scotland – and for good reason.
After a rare couple of weeks without rain the ground there was drier than I’ve ever known it, so the cycle in from the road end on the mountain bike was more dust than dirt riding.
I was joined by my friend Malcolm, who was keen to add the remote Munros deep in Glen Affric to his bagging total, with only a few dozen left to “compleat” all 283. We climbed An Socach after dropping our overnight kit in the open porch at the welcoming hostel.
From the top of the hills it appears as barely a dot in the glen below, giving a real scale of the remote location. This hostel isn’t like any other – it’s eight miles from the nearest road and takes its water from the burn and its power from a small wind turbine and solar panels.
After a night in the bunks, we headed back into the hills the following day, climbing Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan and Mullach na Dheiragain, two of the most remote Munros. There were surprisingly quite a number of people taking advantage of the good weather out here, where self-reliance is key – there’s no phone signal, even on the tops, and unlike many hostels today, there’s no wi-fi back at base.
Reluctantly I had to leave Affric on another glorious morning before heading to Achmelvich Beach hostel in the north-west Highlands. This time I took the family, so we had a room to ourselves, as well as full use of the shared kitchen and common room facilities.
This hostel, a former school house, is just a short stroll from one of the most beautiful beaches in Scotland, and the children loved playing on the golden sand and searching for sealife among the rockpools.
It’s a beautiful place to come and relax, or to enjoy a number of walks. Many visitors were staying while climbing the nearby Assynt peaks of Quinag, Suilven, Stac Pollaidh or Cul Mor.
We took a few shorter walks to a 17th century mill a couple of miles along the coast and nearer to the beach a peculiar concrete castle tucked among the rocks.
There’s also great cycling in the area, with the road that loops around Quinag a stunning if strenuous circuit. Achmelvich beach is also on the North Coast 500, so it’s popular with people travelling this route, too.
* John Davidson was a guest of SYHA as part of a feature for Active Outdoors, which will appear in our local newspapers next week, Friday, May 26.
Ahead of the enduro mountain biking season, John Davidson visited Nevis Range with No Fuss Events to discover a new partnership that is paying dividends for the sport
In the shadow of Britain’s highest mountain, I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that there was a fair bit of climbing to start as we pedalled slowly up the fire roads.
Trails dart off here and there – some marked with fingerposts, others just a line disappearing into the trees – but we keep going up and up.
Eventually, we can see the north face of Ben Nevis ahead of us – or at least the lower part of the cliffs which rise up into the cloud – and those leading the ride come to a halt.
“Has everyone been down this one before?” one of them asks, casually, pointing his front wheel down towards a steep, unmarked path from the high point of the Nevis Range bike trails.
I hadn’t. In fact, this was my first time riding here at the home of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup and, while this wasn’t the downhill track used for that extreme event, I soon discovered it was a little beyond my comfort zone.
One by one we rolled down the trail, through earth and then onto a rocky section which just got steeper. It was here I realised my skills weren’t up to this level of riding. I managed to stop safely and walked a bit before successfully rolling down to a new bridge, which has been installed thanks to a new trail-building partnership.
Emmy’s Bridge in Leanachan Forest was unveiled by No Fuss Events, which organises the POC Scottish Mountain Bike Enduro Series as well as a number of other events here at Nevis Range and further afield.
The previous crossing was removed after it became too dangerous but determined mountain bikers had continued to ride this trail, known locally as the Blue Crane and which previously featured in the UCI World Cup cross-country route.
The project to replace the bridge has linked it up again and made it accessible for mountain bikers – as well as event organisers – and has also led to the launch of new enduro event guidance.
The bridge was built with support from Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) and funding from No Fuss Events, Nevis Range and local cycling club West Highland Wheelers, together with expertise from Thistle Access which helped build, transport and install the structure – which was no mean feat in the middle of this wild, remote stretch of trail.
This was a completely new way of working for a sport that has developed from the grassroots, with trail builders blazing their own paths and pushing themselves to the limits on them.
Of course, in these days of litigation, wild trail builders were causing serious problems for the landowners. These type of paths were beyond the control of the Forestry Commission but, as the landowner, it was often deemed responsible and faced a number of civil claims.
Now it looks like this pilot project could have helped solve the impasse in trail building and maintenance of such enduro trails.
The bridge building has allowed the events team to work closely with FCS, and in particular its health and safety adviser John Ireland, as guidance on wild trail building on FCS land is developed.
Mr Ireland said: “Mountain biking is really important to Forestry Commission Scotland and we welcome all responsible mountain bikers onto the national forest estate.
“We are a funding partner in Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland and have a national agreement with Scottish Cycling that sees us host a range of cycling events on the estate.
“Enduro events are fun and accessible to riders of all abilities and this new guidance will help move the activity forward. We’re looking forward to the coming events in 2017 and working with event organisers.”
Frazer Coupland, partner at No Fuss Events, said: “The policy is important to us and other event organisers across Scotland.
“It will ultimately give guidance on which wild trails we can host events on and, more importantly, give us a framework where we can carry out remedial works to ensure trails are maintained and kept safe for riders.
“If Scotland is to remain as a world-class mountain biking destination we have to be able to give world-class riding experiences to all riders using the trails and taking part in enduro events.”
The 2017 enduro series begins here at Nevis Range in two weeks’ time – but looking at the challenge in these wild trails I think I might leave that one to the more experienced!
But Leanachan Forest is so big that there are plenty of other paths here for riders of all abilities, so I was happy to get back on the official trails and tackle some sections of the wonderful red routes which wind their way over some rocky obstacles and tight bends.
I had great fun blasting down these routes, which are a bit more within my comfort zone, as well as the easier blue trails. In fact, there are possibilities for mountain bikers of every level here, from trailer-pulling parents to expert downhill riders, to enjoy cycling in this magnificent setting.
The bridge on the Blue Crane was named after a friend of those involved in the project who died last year. Emmy’s legacy now lives on and her family are delighted that her love of the outdoors and the importance of outdoor recreation in our lives will be remembered.
It’s a lasting message, and one that everybody involved in this new partnership is clearly proud to support.
What is enduro racing?
Essentially enduro racing is like rallying – but on mountain bikes! Riders are timed on a number of downhill stages and must also ride between the stages as well, though these (often) uphill sections are untimed. The rider with the fastest combined time for the special stages wins. Simple. Part of the spirit of enduro mountain biking is that elite riders and the rest of us can enjoy the same event – you don’t have to be an expert to take part.
Events not to miss
The POC Scottish Mountain Bike Enduro Series, organised by No Fuss Events, begins on March 11-12 at Nevis Range. This is also the home of classic MTB races 10 Under the Ben (April 29) and Relentless 24 (October 28-29).
* For more details visit www.nofussevents.co.uk
* Don’t miss our Active Outdoors spring/summer supplement – out next month – for more events taking place across the north of Scotland throughout 2017
As well as a range of mountain bike trails, Nevis Range offers mountain and forest walks, gondola trips, high rope courses, paragliding and, of course, ski-ing and snowboarding on Aonach Mor in the shadow of Ben Nevis. Bike hire is available as well as the Bike School, which offers coaching and guided rides in Leanachan Forest.
* For more information see www.nevisrange.co.uk
* Article first published in Active Outdoors | February 24, 2017
Shipwrecks, castles and snow-covered mountains could all be seen yesterday as I joined other members of Inverness Canoe Club on a paddling trip on Loch Oich. There were open canoes, sea kayaks and river kayaks all doing their own thing, and I joined the sea kayakers in a boat I had borrowed from Boots n Paddles.
We headed south from Bridge of Oich, enjoying an easy ride with the wind behind us and exploring the western shore at a leisurely pace.
The Great Glen Water Park kindly allowed us to have lunch inside at the park, which gave us chance to warm up before the rather more testing return journey.
We were battling our way against a gusting force 4 wind now, which was hard work but, with a bit of technique coaching along the way, we slowly made our way north again, pausing for rest whenever we found a little bit of shelter.
It was a fine winter’s day on the water and great to be out in the kayak again. Hopefully there’ll be more of this in 2017!