Here’s the concluding part of a two-day bike ride around Perthshire from the wilds of Rannoch Moor all the way back to Pitlochry.
It was nine o’clock on a Sunday night and I couldn’t work out why my fellow guests were checking out of our remote hotel. Like them, I’d just had dinner and my thoughts were turning to bed. That, as it happens, was where they were bound too – on the sleeper train that remarkably connects Rannoch Station – a hamlet of just the hotel and a cottage – with London.
I watched the group cross the footbridge to the platform through the windows of a raindrop flecked telephone box while I phoned home. The train in the station was like a dragon in its lair, burring in the gloom. A party of Dutch motorcyclists who had also been dining in the hotel roared away into the night leaving me suddenly alone. By the time I was eating breakfast the following morning, contemplating my bike ride back to Pitlochry, the sleeper passengers were arriving at Euston, ready for a day’s work.
The previous day I had also used the railway line – to hop just one stop north and alight at Corrour, one of the most isolated stations in Britain. Literally all that’s there amidst the moors is the old station master’s house, a turbine and two platforms. The novelty of the halt, a walk around Loch Ossian and a scenic trip further north by rail to Fort William had made for an enjoyable day out.
Even if you’re not intending to travel, Rannoch Station is well worth a visit. According to one story the West Highland line was instigated by a wealthy laird further north who wanted to get his post and papers earlier. Although much was made of benefits the line would bring to rural communities, the majority of early traffic after the line opened in 1894 was made up of general freight (especially that linked to the distillery businesses), sightseers and people involved in the sporting shoots on the region’s great sporting estates. Given the railway’s insubstantial purpose and the inhospitable environment, it still seems incredible that it was built at all and heartening that it survives to this day.
Trains are far from regular, though. If you miss the 1105 to Corrour you have to wait four hours for the next service and, coming back, if you miss the 1828 then you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere for the night. When I visited neither of the station’s clocks were working either!
The first five miles of my pedal-powered journey back across Rannoch Moor made me realise why I’d so struggled on the same road on the outward journey. What had been a bit of a slog was now a glorious, undulating freewheel. The miles melted away and the whistling of the wind that had buffeted me on the outward journey had been replaced by birdsong and the whir of tyres on rubber. Cycling in the Highlands doesn’t come gentler that this.
I soon began following the northern shores of Lochs Rannoch and Tummel having previously travelled along their southern edges. The shore of Rannoch is scalloped by miniature sandy beaches with a backdrop of silver birch trees. From them you can see a little folly tower in the middle of the loch. It was built by a local baron simply to enhance the view. There are legends of prisoners being held on the island but since the loch is so shallow there any enterprising captive could surely escape. The island is more accurately what Scots call a “crannog”, an artificially built up land mass created for defensive purposes in prehistoric days. The map names it as Eilean nan Faoileag which, appropriately enough is Gaelic for ‘the island of seagulls’.
Kinloch Rannoch, the name of the first village on the trail, means “head of the loch” but, curiously, it is situated at the start of Loch Rannoch. Two great Scottish leaders, William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace and Robert the Bruce both spent time here recruiting clansmen for battle. Just outside the village I’d come across the Gibbet Tree which forms part of The Clan Trail telling the stories of the various clans that lived around the loch. The last man to be hanged on the oak tree was one Donald Ban in 1754. Government troops were punishing him for cattle thieving as part of a drive to finally quell the lawless clans.
I had soon swapped Loch Rannoch for Loch Tummel and begun a slight ascent. Flatness is, of course, a welcome feature of a bike ride but it made for a nice change to get up high and look down through the pines rather than forever across the water.
The climb ends at Queens View, one of the most photographed beauty spots in Scotland. Extending the length of Tummel, the View is associated with Queen Victoria who visited here in 1866 but it’s thought that it was actually named after either Queen Isabella, wife of Robert the Bruce, or possibly Mary Queen of Scots. The vista would’ve looked somewhat different in her time. In 1951 Loch Tummel was controversially dammed as part of the region’s hydro-electric power developments which resulted in water levels rising five metres and flooding of large areas.
Victoria’s diary records her discontent at John Brown, her aide on Scottish travels, being unable to boil a kettle for tea when she visited. There’s no such problem these days as the View comes complete with a visitors centre and café. As I had a look around, the stirring air Highland Cathedral played on the shop’s CD player just as it had done in the tourist information centre at Pitlochry at the start of my trip. I wasn’t quite being piped home – but the tune stuck in my head and heightened my sense of achievement as I polished off the final few miles back to the town’s station.
Distance: 38 miles.
Time: 3½ hours excluding stops.
Directions: Very simple. From Rannoch Station cycle along the only road (B846) to Kinloch Rannoch and then Tummel Bridge. Continue in same direction on B8019 and after 10 miles turn right onto B8079, all the way signed to Pitlochry.
Eating: Until 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. Teas and lunches are available at Talladh-a-Bheith Lodge Country Guest House at Killichonan towards the western end of Loch Rannoch.
Sleeping: Moor of Rannoch Hotel (www.moorofrannoch.co.uk).
Bike hire: Available in Pitlochry. See http://www.escape-route.biz.