Take the low road

If you fancy a first Scottish cycle tour you can’t do much better than this two-part, two-day lochside ride in Perthshire. The first part takes you from Pitlochry to Rannoch Moor and the second part (which follows this post) brings you home.

Loch Rannoch beach (near Kinloch Rannoch)

Loch Rannoch beach (near Kinloch Rannoch)

As Kathmandu is to Nepal so Pitlochry is to Perthshire. For yak hair read tweed. Both towns are multi-national base camps for expeditions and mine was to take me 40 miles due west by bike to the fringe of Rannoch Moor, one of Britain’s last great wildernesses.

The route followed the southern shores of Lochs Faskally, Tummel and Rannoch on the outward leg and the northern shores on the return. Being largely loch-side there are only a few hills – a rarity in Scotland – and, with essentially just one road out and one back, navigation isn’t an issue either. Getting to the start point, Pitlochry, is also easy as the town has a direct rail link with Edinburgh, eastern England and London.

Suspension Bridge, Pitlochry

Suspension Bridge, Pitlochry

Day one began gently by traversing a funny little suspended footbridge over the river and past Pitlochry’s Festival Theatre. A couple of turns later and I put away the map and headed down to the pines and the water, features that would become very familiar. A sign read ‘Road unsuitable for coaches and HGVs’. Ah, great, I thought: just perfect for cyclists, then.

Loch Tummel is so close, narrow and choppy I could have been travelling up an estuary by speed boat. Where the road left the lochside the snow-capped peak of Schiehallion – the county’s Everest – loomed ahead. Its name translates from Gaelic as “Fairy Mountain of the Caledonians”. Hardly appropriate for such a macho mountain.

Beef shorthorn cow admires Schiehallion

Beef shorthorn cow admires Schiehallion

Schiehallion would be a companion for most of the ride but I had no plans to scale it; a two-mile push up its foothills was more than enough for me. I’ve never been so glad to see a limekiln which I knew marked the top of what was the only significant climb of the whole trip.

The limekiln was built around 1865 to produce a fertiliser which neutralised local land, helping increase crop yields and extend pastures. Much of the soil was acidic having been reclaimed from bog and moor by drainage. The kiln fell out of use in the early 1900s.

From the top of it I watched a shower blow in from the west and, when it arrived, I discovered a design feature of a limekiln that is useful to this day. The draw arch at the bottom from where processed lime was removed is just the right size to provide shelter for one man and his bike while he has lunch.

The conical shape of Schiehallion lures hikers today as it lured astronomer royal, Revd Neil MasKelyne in 1774. The relative symmetry of the 1,083-metre high peak made it well suited to experiments which measured the extent to which plumblines around its base were pulled out of the vertical and towards the mountain due to its gravitational force. Through various calculations MasKelyne was then able to determine the mass of the mountain and subsequently the weight of the world, so to speak. Another outcome of his work at Schiehallion was the invention of the contour line by Charles Hutton.

Motorists out for a spin around Loch Tummel

Motorists out for a spin around Loch Tummel

The contours gradually spaced out and traced a downward trend as I pedalled my way to the half-way house of Kinloch Rannoch, a village between two lochs and the only staging post on the ride. The wind whipped up waves on a little beach at the eastern end of Loch Rannoch and, as I continued eastwards, I was glad of shelter from the forest that comes right up to the water’s edge and extends almost the length of the loch.

A lonely man in a camper van boiled billy cans on the beach. Some 250 years ago the area was relatively well populated, several clans laying claim to sites around the loch. You can visit them on The Clan Trail which is described in a leaflet available locally. The most poignant site is the Cameron graveyard which is all that remains of a settlement of about 20-30 houses that existed here before the notorious Highland Clearances of the 18th century. To say that some of the clansmen were barbaric is an understatement. To the left of the graveyard gate is a stone upon which the children of a Cameron chief were brained by the chief of the rival Mackintoshes following a lover’s quarrel. You wouldn’t want to argue with him.

Stone of the Heads, Cameron graveyard

Stone of the Heads, Cameron graveyard

On the opposite loch side shortly after the graveyard you can see what looks like a set of giant tubes in a water fun park. The structure is, in fact, Rannoch hydro-electric power station, one of six on or around Lochs Rannoch, Tummel and Faskally which were built in the 1930s and 40s. Between them they generate over 200 megawatts which is the same amount of electricity needed to power Glasgow and Edinburgh with some left over.

At the start of the ride at Clunie I’d passed an arch formed from a section of tunnel which was built partly as a memorial to men killed during the construction of the hydro-electric scheme. They became known as the Tunnel Tigers because of their cavalier approach to safety in their quest to earn the huge bonuses that were available.

The final five miles cover terrain a world away from the sanctuary of the trees. Towards Rannoch Moor everything is brown and the grass is all tussocks. Rivers don’t gurgle here, they churn. After every crest I expected to see journey’s end only to dip down again and then up again. At long last, and heaving a sigh of relief as I dismounted, I reached the hotel at the end of the line. Which is the middle of the line if you’re travelling on the West Highland railway from Glasgow to Fort William. A journey on that form of transport would form part of tomorrow’s adventure.

River Gaur

River Gaur

Fact file

Distance: 41 miles or 28 miles (see below).

Time: 4½ hours excluding stops.

Bike hire: Available in Pitlochry. See http://www.escape-route.biz.

Steel figure at Pitlochry station_6_1

Steel figure at Pitlochry station

Directions: Starting at Tourist Information Centre in Pitlochry turn right then first left onto Route 7 and under the railway bridge. Push bike over foot suspension bridge. Turn right onto A9 and after ½ mile right signed to Clunie and Foss. After 10 miles, at t-junction with B846 turn left towards Aberfeldy then first right signed ‘Schiehallion Road’. After 7 miles fork left (just before Kinloch Rannoch) and follow minor road along southern shore of Loch Rannoch. After 11 miles at Bridge of Gaur turn left onto B846 to end of road at Rannoch Station.

Alternative shorter route: At t-junction with B846 turn right to Tummel Bridge and return to Pitlochry via B8019. The route from Tummel Bridge is described in the second part of this feature. Total distance: 28 miles.

Eating: After Pitlochry there is only one village with any services, Kinloch Rannoch. Highly recommended is the Poste Haste café (next to the post office) and there is also a supermarket and hotels.

Sleeping: Moor of Rannoch Hotel (www.moorofrannoch.co.uk).

Moor of Rannoch Hotel

Moor of Rannoch Hotel

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