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Writer Franka Leehr’s trip across Scotland on a motorbike shows that the journey can be more important than the destination.
Text by: Franka Leehr
Country: Scotland

or me, the adventure began at the Forth Road Bridge that connects Edinburgh, Scotland, with the Kingdom of Fife. I had never crossed the bridge on my motorbike before, so I felt like Samwise Gamgee about to take his first step outside The Shire. Being limited to 11 bhp I usually tried to avoid dual carriageways as much as possible, and the idea of high winds on the bridge had so far stopped me from venturing north and crossing the Firth of Forth.

This time, however, I was in the mood to leave my comfort zone and test my limits. And while at first I pretended to be confident and fearless in case my friends drove by, I soon realized that the only risk for me would come from not looking at the road. It was a bright morning and the view on Queensferry Bridge and the Forth was stunning. And as I rolled on, one eye on the road, the other one enjoying the beauty of this place, the anticipation of the coming tour made me smile in my helmet. Adventure, here I came.

A real adventure, of course, demands less than favourable travel conditions. It started pouring rain not long after I had crossed the bridge, and by the time I reached the first stopover in Kirkcaldy, I was soaked and had to warm up with a hot cuppa. I met up with the rest of our little expedition group at a lay-by next to the A92, a country road in the middle of rolling hills and green pastures. The sky had cleared up and we were all in an excellent mood and anxious to get going.

My three friends had hired bikes in different places between there and Edinburgh, and although I was the only one to actually own a motorcycle, I was the junior member of our little group in more than one respect. I had held my motorbike license for less than two months and had until then only undertaken short trips of about 50 miles. But what made matters even more challenging for me was that I also rode the smallest and slowest of the four bikes: my wonderful white and shiny Honda CBF125. Competing with the bigger machines my friends were riding would not be easy and I was prepared to listen to complaints about holding the group back or to simply being left behind.

We started out in an easygoing pace heading in the direction of Perth, then turning west, where the fields and neat rows of hedges along the road slowly started to give way to woodlands, lochs and weather-beaten, treeless mountains. It is hard to resist the temptation of a winding country road and soon the others took off, leaving me to catch up with them in Tyndrum, where we had lunch and mingled with other bikers, admiring their machines and dreaming of faraway days when we would zoom along deserted roads on knobbly tyres with aluminium panniers on the sides of our adventure bikes.

The afternoon took us through the valley of Glen Coe and then north along the shores of Loch Ness towards Inverness. I forgot I was riding a 125cc and immersed myself in the landscape, eager to discover what was hiding behind the next turn and experimenting with my skills. As if my bike was enjoying itself too, we went faster and leaned deeper into bends, my heart skipping a beat when we came too close to the kerb or when the wind or uneven road surface carried us in the wrong direction.

One of the great things about motorcycling is that you become a part of the landscape around you. No artificial shell separates you from the elements. No air conditioning protects you from the heat, no roof from wind and rain. With every breath you smell the fresh air or taste the dust you are stirring up with your tyres. And you feel the surface of the road underneath you as if you are touching it.

So much the better still when you are riding through a fascinating landscape shaped by prehistoric volcanoes and ancient glaciers. Green and brown moorland grasses covered the slopes to both sides of the road, and massive cragged peaks cast their shadows over the road. I love Glen Coe, and whenever I’m there, as soon as the iconic pyramidal shape of Buachaille Etive Mòr comes into sight, my normal life, the one with work and obligations and responsibilities, feels a million miles away and I begin to wish for – please excuse this loan of cowboy movie imagery – an everlasting sunset to ride into.

Our next break was at the famous Commando Memorial. A huge bronze statue of three soldiers commemorates the British commandos who fought and died in World War II, but the place also offers a stunning view over the River Spean and Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain whose peak is covered in clouds throughout most of the year. The rain had stopped completely by now, and the bright sun made the panorama yet more impressive.

We followed the busy but scenic A82 road through the Great Glen, a geological fault that cuts through the Scottish Highlands from southwest to northeast, and then turned on the smaller A833 for a last sprint up to the small town of Invergordon on the northeast coast, where we spent the night.

The next morning we followed the coastal route up to the legendary John o’ Groats, the northernmost village of mainland Scotland. Both my bike and I were high-spirited and while back in the Lothian and Borders, 60 mph seemed to be the absolute maximum we could reach on a straight road, here she happily accelerated to 70 mph and more.

Soon enough though, we were reminded of our limits when my travel companions overtook a caravan and left me stuck behind it on the winding road for miles and miles. Just when I finally got the chance to overtake, I saw my friends waiting at the side of the road and used the chance to show off my newly acquired motorbike skills. Off we went, my Honda and I, dashing through the bends and slowing down only as the others caught up several minutes later. I was rewarded with admiring looks and basked in my glory for the rest of the day.

It was a great day and great place for riding. The weather was cool and dry, the tarmac smooth and the panorama stunning with nothing but the North Sea to our right, stretching for several hundred miles between Scotland and Norway. And we were not the only ones enjoying a day’s riding. Throughout our entire trip we had met other motorcyclists, locals who were out for the day and foreigners with luggage piling up on the back of their bikes. But the further north we got, the more bikers we saw. We greeted each other with a nod, and this little sign of solidarity among bikers gave me a feeling of belonging and affirmation. Other “pilgrims”, mostly cyclists, were on the roads too, all heading north towards the Scottish Mecca of overland travelling.

When we reached our destination and passed the place-name sign of John o’ Groats, I felt like crossing a finish line and was almost astonished that nobody was waiting at the side of the road to applaud us and cheer us on for the last couple of meters. I had been warned that the village of John o’ Groats was unspectacular, and so it was, but being there felt special nevertheless. We drove our bikes up under the signpost near the water’s edge, had our picture taken and loitered about for another while, enjoying the moment and the feeling of having accomplished something great.

Land’s End to John o’ Groats
John o’ Groats is a village with approximately 300 inhabitants that lies on the northeastern tip of mainland Scotland. Even though it is not the northernmost point of Great Britain (the tip of the Dunnet Head peninsula about 11 miles west of John o’ Groats lies further north), it is a popular tourist destination. Being on one end of the longest distance between two settlements on mainland Britain, it is visited mostly in the end (or beginning) of a traversal of the island of Great Britain.

The Cornish headland of Land’s End represents the southwestern end of this route. The traditional distance between the two points is 874 miles and is shown on two iconic signposts in Land’s End and John o’ Groats.

Crossing mainland Britain from Land’s End to John o’ Groats has been popular with motorcyclists since the early 20th century, but the route is equally favoured by cyclists, runners, long-distance walkers and others. The journey is often undertaken in form of a fundraiser for various charities.



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Trekking on two wheels

My motorcycle adventure begins at the Forth Road Bridge that connects Edinburgh, with the Kingdom of Fife, in Scotland. At first I pretend to be confident and fearless, but soon I realize that the only risk is not to look at the road.

On a bright morning with a stunning view, I go to meet my three friends in Kirkcaldy. Although I am the only one that actually owns her bike. I am the most inexperienced of the three, I have the smallest and slowest motorcycle and I only got my license less than two months ago.

We start at an easy pace in the direction of Perth and then turn west. Slowly fields and hedges give way to woodlands, lochs and treeless mountains. My friends keep getting ahead of me with their bigger and faster bikes, but I am having fun and immerse myself/ in the landscape, discovering what is hiding behind the next turn, going faster and leaning deep into the bends.

One of the great things about motorcycling is that you become part of the landscape around you. There is nothing to separate you from the elements and you feel the road underneath you, almost as if you are touching it.

The landscape is beautiful and we stop at many important spots along the way such as the famous Commando Memorial. Soon we reach our destination, the legendary John o’ Groats, the northernmost village of mainland Scotland. The village is not very exciting, but it still feels special to be there. We drive our bikes up under the signpost near the water’s edge, have our picture taken and loiter about for a while, enjoying the moment and the feeling of having accomplished something great.

 

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Trekking on two wheels

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