Author: Alice Lemkes | Photographer Maciek Tomiczek
In 1936 Mary Harvie and her two sisters embarked on a 500 mile, hostelling and cycling holiday around Scotland’s Cairngorms. They took roads which in their day were rutted and uncomfortable but are now some of our busiest A roads. They went toward the next hostel but without certainty about the road condition, the next place to resupply, or the long term forecast. They met kind strangers who gave them sustenance, gave them lifts when the going was too rough, or rode with them a while. Simply, they encountered the unknown, rose to it, and it was by all accounts a proper adventure. What is striking about Mary’s diary of her holiday was just how ordinary it all seemed. She was just on a holiday with her sisters. They even met another woman from Sweden solo-touring at the same time! But by today’s standards her feat appears intrepid and extraordinary and far ahead of her time. Did we forget - somewhere along the way during the twentieth century - that women touring by bike was a brilliantly ordinary thing to do?
Hostelling Scotland challenge us to ride Mary’s route
Lee Craigie, Philippa Battye and myself of The Adventure Syndicate were asked if we wanted to recreate Mary’s trip by Hostelling Scotland for Scotland’s year of storytelling. Obviously we jumped at the chance! But there were a few key differences. Much of the uncertainty of Mary’s day has been eradicated by the availability of information and omnipresence of mobile data. I can know exactly how many miles to my next resupply, what the road surface is like, and what weather I’m likely to encounter. Because of this, much of the mystery is gone, and those chance encounters with strangers are reduced. But then, thanks to the internet and modern mapping, we were able to plan a route that stayed off-road as much as possible: taking the West Highland Way, Highland Trail, Caledonia way and as much single and double track in between making for a much more exciting and adventurous route.
Cycling from Glasgow to the Cairngorms
We spent five days riding from Glasgow to the Cairngorms via Torridon. We stopped at Crianlarich, Glen Coe, Rattagan and Portree hostels along the way.
Glasgow to Crianlarich
We left Glasgow on the West Highland Way and, as the weather deteriorated, caught the last ferry from Inversnaid back to Tarbet to save the 4km of gruelling hike-a-bike and to get to the Dores Inn quicker.
Crianlarich to Skye
From Crianlarich we headed north and took the “scenic” route up and over the Devil’s Staircase before looping back to Glen Coe. From there we ferry-hopped our way to Skye via the Clachaig Inn and Rattagan. Despite thousands of miles in the saddle in Scotland, much of this route was new to me. I had never been to Skye and the afternoon we spent in the glen from Camasunary to Sligachan will remain firmly in my memory.
Skye to Aviemore
We edged our way along technical tracks with the black Cuillins looming on our left and the Red Cuillins burning in the golden hour; stags bellowed high up the hillsides and - as we watched patiently - we also saw an eagle soaring above. After another two days, a crash, and an impromptu karaoke party we made it to Cairngorm Lodge youth hostel where our journey together came to an end and we reluctantly went our separate ways back to our normal lives.
Our Scottish hostelling adventure
The three of us often ride into the night, sleep in ditches and can be too focused on progress to be able to stop for a swim, to admire a stag on the skyline, or spot the eagle catching a thermal current. This trip was almost the opposite. This was a brilliant, silly holiday amongst friends. We stopped to brew coffee, we went skinny dipping in dreich weather, we went to every pub. It demonstrated to me how much of an adventure is possible whilst staying local, and just how fun it is to stay indoors, not beast yourself on mileage, and stay open to the experiences which present themselves. I’d say we are all thoroughly sold on the notion of a proper hostel holiday with beds, warm meals, and time to relax with one another, and I’m already looking forward to the next.
What Would Mary Do?
We were lucky to have a friend and photographer Maciek Tomiczek with us who expertly (and unfathomably!) managed to ride his bike, fly a drone, and capture video and photos throughout the trip and ensure that the striking landscapes we passed through were all captured beautifully. A short film, entitled ‘What Would Mary Do?’ will be released soon and showing at Fort William and Keswick Mountain festivals, but the trailer can be seen here.