The outside of a motorbike engine seen up close near the exhaust

Home Travel StoriesScotland In Winter 2015

Hanging On In There

By Ren Withnell

Sleep? Did I sleep? Well, sort of. You see I'm not a natural camper so I rarely get a full, complete night's sleep in a tent even in the best of circumstances. But when at 0200 you notice your hip is on the cold hard ground you assume your £5 for 2 lilo air bed has a leak. No problem, clever me has brought a spare because they're so small and so light. I spend a while huffing and puffing the spare into shape and slither onto that. It's cold but not sub zero, so why is my sleeping bag, rated to -3 for comfort, not roasty toasty warm? Because Vango and all other sleeping bag manufacturers are liars that's why. It's cold, but not cold enough to stop me getting a few more hours kip.

While I'm not asleep at 0600 I don't want to get up, which is not like me. It's warmish in here, it's cold out there. I lie there for a while, still mulling over thoughts about CBF 125 fuel injection systems, snow, ice and why I'm even doing this. When the thoughts become annoying I get up and start to decamp. I'm loaded and ready to rumble after a can of soup at 0800, first light at this time of year.

Ren's CBF 125 outside the reception at Glentress Forest Lodges near Peebles
Well I'm ready to roll, but is the bike?

Will the bike start? If it doesn't then at least I'll get a ride home with the RAC and be in my nice comfy bed tonight. How odd. I'm strangely disappointed but also pleased when it starts up just fine and dandy. Maybe it's fixed itself? Maybe it was just a hiccup? Well, there's only one way to find out and there's no excuses now because the weatherman has promised a little rain but acceptable temperatures for this time of year. Off we go.

The A703 takes me through rural countryside and relaxed villages. It's quiet, spookily quiet as it's early on a Sunday morning. The A720 leads me around the outskirts of the city, a typical mix of industrial and residential areas. Then I'm onto the M8 and the M9. The precipitation starts out as mist at first, then drizzle, that wet drizzle that soaks you through. While everything else seems to have gone wrong I must say my waterproofing is proving very effective. My gloves are useless but my jackets, yes 2, my pants, yes 2 and my boots with overboots are keeping the soggy stuff on the outside, which is nice. It's cool but I'm not shivering or suffering. The motorway is as dull and miserable as the conditions though. 

Penicuik, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Another small pleasant Scottish town
Penicuik on the road to Edinburgh. Another nice place, still retaining the red phone box.

Callander brings A roads and some relief to the boredom. It's time for a stop though to stretch my legs and feed. Callander's Co-op provides a triangle sandwich and the bike stalling again. Damn. I stand in the car park around the back of the shop in the unyielding drizzle, stuffing my face with cheese and onion as locals look at my bedraggled appearance. What is up with this bike anyhow? Idle air control valve stuck? Engine temperature sensor? Is it the new stator as that includes the crank position sensor? Something from the service like the air filter? I'm convincing myself the problem was starting before any of the recent changes. It's felt woolly for quite a while I think. Will it start again? It does.

the high street in callander. Another broad long street
Callander High Street. They have a certain style to them these Scottish market towns.

The snow returns to the hilltops and the drizzle becomes rain. At Loch Lubnaig I spot toilet signs and pull in, the bike coughs, splutters and dies. I use the facilities and take a few snaps before remounting. It doesn't want to start. I have to hold the throttle till it chokes into life and blip the revs otherwise it will stall again. Damn.

loch lubnaig in the mist, snow, rain and harsh conditions
Loch Lubnaig, as you can tell. The weather's really closing in now.

This is the Highlands now. The amazing, beautiful, stunning Highlands. It's hard to appreciate them though when the rain blurs my visor, the mist obscures the mountains and the bike troubles fog my mind. The road is fine though. It's wet and it's cold but there's no snow on it and the grip is solid. If it weren't for the starting and tickover I'd say the bike, under the load and the conditions, is coping more than admirably. OK, so I'm only doing 40 to 45 mph but it still feels great to be away from the traffic and the cities and the drudgery of urban existence. 

Tyndrum and the famous Green Welly Stop come into view. I need a warm, a brew and to collect my thoughts. I pull in...here we go...dum dum...dum dum dum...dum dum...dum...kaffffft. Nope, it's not magically fixed itself in the last 35 miles. Inside the familiar surroundings the warmth and the tea are very much appreciated, as it the toilet again. I don't find the stop helps me solve the issue with the bike though. At least I'm here, I've only got about another 40 miles to go to the campsite. Actually, thinking about it I'll have covered 145 miles today in terrible weather, all in all I'm doing rather well. That cheers me up a little. I wonder what the infamous Rannoch Moor and Glencoe will throw at me though?

The signpost for the Green Welly Stop and the snow covered hills behind it
I've been here many times, but there's never been snow on the hills before.

As I climb the snow gets closer and closer to the road. Soon the snow is at the roadside, I can see where the snow ploughs have pushed it off the carriageway. Still, the tarmac is clear and the grip is still there. The rain has become mist again but if I lift my visor it stings my eyes and face even at 40 mph. I can feel the wind strengthening as I rise with each mile. There's a little more traffic, I'm sure to pull to the left and wave the carefree drivers past as and when it's safe, in return each either waves or flashes an indicator in thanks. I know I'm moving slowly on what is someone else's everyday commute, they're not on holiday.

I climb and climb, the snow is thick over the moor and the boggy marshes are frozen solid. This stirs me away from my tickover thoughts and brings up some peculiar feelings. I feel wild and adventurous as well as a little scared. I feel thrilled to see this. I am doing it, I am seeing Scotland and The Highlands in the grip of winter, just as I said I would and have wanted to for some time. I slow a little more to appreciate it, waving another motorist past. The vast expanse of windswept moor, the soaring mountains in the distance, the snow piled by the roadside and the icy chill from the frozen bogs.

I have time to ponder. To wonder what the ancient Picts did when it was like this 2,000 years ago. Even the hardiest of walkers covered in the finest modern clothing is taking a risk wandering around here right now. I can only imagine in the past any sensible Pict would be in their shelters near a roaring fire. It's when I see this place like this I can truly understand how people can die up here. Without modern roads and the flow of vehicles then help could be a very, very long way away. And yet, perhaps some of them did make their lives and their living here. Hardy folk.

rannoch moor seen in 2 pictures, one in lush green summer the other in cold barren winter
Rannoch Moor. Summer and Winter. Can you spot the difference?

My thoughts are stopped when a solid wall of wind pushes me hard to the right, towards the oncoming cars. Strueth! I steer and lean hard left to compensate then the gust passes and I almost steer into the frozen marsh on my left. Concentrate and brace boy, concetrate. The red Audi behind drops back noticeably, I reckon he's expecting to have to rescue me any moment now. WHACK! Another blast hits me hard, I'm a little better prepared now but it takes all my effort and will to hold the bike on the left side of the centre lines. I'm riding at 30 degrees, steering left to hold my straight line. BLAM! Again I grip and prey and cajole the 125 into the middle of my lane, I'm hanging on but I know it'll stop for a moment then I'll be back in the gutter. 

Hell's teeth, it's stronger still! I focus and steer, lean and wrestle. I zero in to the distance, I know this road well thankfully and I know this will soon pass when I get in the lee of the Glencoe Ski Centre, another mile I reckon. I brace, steer, wobble and grip. My largest fear is the tyres not having enough grip and I'll be blown across the road. I hang on and as quickly as it started it stops. In 25 years on two wheels and perhaps 400,000 miles I can't recall a wind as strong as that. I reckon on my way home I'll take the low road. That was both thrilling and exciting yet scary and nervous. 

I stop to catch my breath on the layby in the Glencoe Valley. It is much calmer here and the snow is gone from the roadside, we're getting much lower much quicker here. I recall the first time I came to Glencoe. Ten years ago, gosh I was only 33 then. It was a pleasant if grey day in May. I was just so impressed with myself for getting so far and actually seeing for myself the famous Glencoe. I thought I'd be a world traveller by now and yet here I am, my only achievement is that I've dipped a toe into Europe a couple of times and come here in winter on a 125. Best laid plans of mice and men huh? Still, I'm just glad I survived the winds up there. The bike doesn't want to start, oh, hang on here we go.

Glencoe with steep snow covered sides and the 125 in the foreground
Perhaps the accursed CBF doesn't like the weather conditions in Glencoe.

The campsite isn't far at all. Soon enough I find the white house, mind you they're all white around here, and the tarmac driveway. There's a little snow on the steep hills behind but the valley and the camsite are completely clear. An elderly gentleman greets me, exiting the house with a smile and a look of surprise. "Och, we were expecting a campervan noo a tent, and definitely noo a bike!" Yip, I admit my little ego feels quite smug to hear that. Perhaps I can at least pretend to be the wild adventurous type after all. 

I'm instructed to camp at the far end of the field in the lee of the shelter, a sort of shed with one side missing and some tables inside. It makes sense as the wind is still brisk down here and the rain is coming down in sheets. Shame it's not closer to the toilets that's all. I ride across the soggy undulating field and slither uphill to get into a suitable position. I set up camp and decide that some of my gear can live in the shelter, there's no-one else stupid enough to be here. 

the shelter, the bike and the tent against the hillside covered in a little snow
The tent, bike and shelter against the massive hills at Lagnaha Campsite near Duror.

After I've blown up the spare lilo I lie on it, to relax for a while. "ssssssssssssss..." Damn. Surely not. Oh for goodness sake can ANYTHING else break? I mean really? I thought carrying one lilo is enough. Taking 2 in case of a puncture is being over-prepared. But for 2 of them to fail within 2 nights? It's 1530 on a Sunday. The shops usually shut at 1600 and the nearest shops are going to be at least 20 miles away. I'll have to cobble something up out of my bike gear. Maybe this trip was just never meant to be.

I sit in the shelter sipping tea from my stove and wondering what to do. It's all messed up. The bike's not right, both lilo's have farted out on me, the rain is coming in sideways, it's cold and there's nowhere to get warm here. It is also too early to settle in. I'll just end up spending the rest of the evening getting more and more moody with myself if I just stay here ruminating. It takes a while to get all my kit on but I set off for Oban. If nothing else it will kill a little time.

The bike splutters into life, I rev the hell out of it to stop it stalling. As soon as I'm on the road it's fine but at each junction or roundabout I have to blip blip blip to keep the motor running. Luckily there's not many junctions in Scotland. Just long, wet, soggy roads. It seems to take an age to reach the Connel Bridge. The rain becomes heavier. I keep the revs high as I wait at the lights for the bridge, the rain lashes into my face. I ride into Oban, I can't see the streets in the dusk as the rain runs down my visor. I find the Tesco for fuel and a cash machine, wondering if each time the bike will start. The pub I planned to visit in Oban is boarded up. Maybe this trip was just never meant to be.

Oban harbour in the fading light, mist, rain and cold of winter
I like Oban but it's as miserable as an episode of East Enders today.

There are other pubs but they look as hollow and empty as my spirit reserves at the moment. I don't even try to park up, I just head back to the campsite before the bike dies completely. The road is dark now, as well as wet. The rain is coming down in drops the size of marrowfat peas. My hands are cold and even though the waterproofs are working the odd dribble makes it's way through the joints between clothing. This is miserable and all I can look forward to is a night sleeping on my wet bike gear in a wet tent in a wet field. 

I get back and check my phone, at least there's internet via mobile here. Oh, oh. Weather forecast for snow Wednesday. I know I ought to be disappointed or even scared but to be honest the way I'm feeling in this dark shelter looking out over the tempest of Highland weather it feels like a lifeline, a reason to go home. 

I spend the evening communicating with the gf via Facebook and text, the internet is rather hit and miss. I ask her to keep an eye on the weather and to keep me updated in case I miss something or can't get it myself. At 1900 I settle in and decide to watch one of the films I have saved on my tablet. I make my bed out of my bike gear as best I can, climb into the sleeping bag and crank up the movie. Captain America - The Winter Soldier. While it's hard to get comfy while in the sleeping bag while lying on my bike gear while trying to get warm while trying to get dry...the movie provides just the distraction I need. It's mindless uncomplicated action filled fun and not at all challenging. 

I feel better. Maybe I can do this. Maybe I can see this through. Oh, the bike. Damn the bloody bike. I wonder if I'll sleep at all?

Prologue - Scotland In Winter The build up to Scotland In Winter doesn't go anywhere near as well as Ren might hope.
Thinking Too Much As Ren rides north his bike takes a turn for the worse and his over-active mind starts to fret and worry. Is it all really worth it?
Hanging On In There Ren is suffering at the hand of the weather, his bike troubles, his sleeping arrangements and the wind. Will he make it?
A Better Day The weather improves, there's hope for the 125 and there's hope for a better night's rest too.
A Long Ride Ren makes the long journey south to avoid the forthcoming snows. But what does he find in Kirkby Stephen?
Epilogue - Scotland In Winter Ren contemplates the Scotland In Winter trip. Was it really worth the effort?

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