Is the humble bicycle Scotland's greatest cultural export?

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Scotland certainly punches above its weight when it comes to the export of ideas.

Technological innovations such as TV and the telephone have helped shape the modern world while even the inventor of the ATM, John Shepherd-Barron, was of Scots descent.

Remarkably, for a small nation we can even lay claim to the invention of a somewhat older and much simpler piece of apparatus that may prove invaluable in combating the side effects of an increasingly mechanised society. Kirkpatrick Macmillan, pictured inset, a humble blacksmith from Courthill, Dumfriesshire, is credited with the invention of the first pedal bicycle. Inspired by watching someone ride a hobby-horse, Macmillan decided to make one himself and realised that it would be a vast improvement if he could propel it along without ever putting his feet on the ground.

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Working in his smithy, he completed his first model in about 1839 and, although the bicycle was extremely heavy, he was soon using it to complete the 14-mile journey to Dumfries in under an hour. Macmillan was clearly the first person to benefit from the exceptional health benefits of cycling as, in June 1842, he rode the 68 miles into Glasgow on a two-day trip that saw him promptly fined five shillings for causing a minor injury to an unfortunate girl who got in his way.

The thought to copyright his invention never occurred to Macmillan, but another Scot was quick to realise its potential; Gavin Dalzell, a cooper from Lanarkshire, copied and patented the design in 1846, so for about 50 years he was considered to be the originator.

Bikes are far lighter and much more user-friendly these days but their essential health-benefits remain a constant. Cycling is a low-impact aerobic exercise which increases strength, mobility and stamina while providing a time-efficient alternative to the sedentary nature of cars or public transport. In fact, as we face ever increasingly dire warnings about the encroaching worldwide obesity epidemic, this elegant design from the Victorian era may turn out to be far more revolutionary than we could ever have imagined.

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The benefits aren’t purely physical either. The Scottish former world hour champion, Graeme Obree, nicknamed “the Flying Scotsman”, has suffered depression for much of his life and credits cycling for his continued mental well-being. “Getting out and riding will help,” he once said. “Without cycling, I don’t know where I would be.”

While many associate cycle riding with China – yes, Katie Melua, there are a lot of bicycles in Beijing – it is most popular in two countries much closer to home. With a population of 17 million people the Netherlands is actually home to 22.5 million bicycles, which means the Dutch own 1.3 bicycles each, with 84 per cent of the population being regular cyclists. The runners-up are the Danes, who own 0.8 bikes per capita, and it is useful and instructive to look to these similarly small nations as we face increasing levels of pollution and city traffic congestion.

The impact and benefits of cycle usage are often so widespread that their exact economic impact can be hard to pinpoint exactly. A 2013 study by Transform Scotland, an alliance promoting sustainable transport, estimated the total economic contribution from cycle tourism to be worth up to £239 million. However, by 2017 a further study by Sustrans Scotland and

Scottish Enterprise, based on the usage estimates of the National Cycle Network, saw this estimated value rise to £345m.

The reason for the wide range of the estimates – aside from natural growth – is because as well as factoring in profits for businesses that cater to cycle tourists, there’s also monetised benefits from health, cycle infrastructure and events such as the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling – the seventh of which took place in June – now firmly established as one of the top cycling events in Europe.

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Sustrans Scotland estimates that more than 152,000 tourist visits to Scotland each year are by holidaymakers who spend a day or more cycling during their stay – and that figure is growing with increasingly easy access to hire cycles such asthe Just Eat bikes in Edinburgh.

The potential for growth is easy to see. Jim McFarlane, co-founder of the cycling clothing brand Endura, began his business making cycling shorts on the kitchen table of his flat in Edinburgh 25 years ago. Just last year, McFarlane and his co-founder Pamela Barclay sold their £25m turnover business to brands group Pentland, which is also behind major sporting names Berghaus and Speedo.

Endura still has its HQ and manufacturing base in Livingston yet its reach is global. Part of the reason for that is its relationship with its brand ambassador, Scottish mountain bike and street trials cyclist Danny MacAskill.

Originally from Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye, MacAskill became a YouTube sensation after posting a video of himself – “Way Back Home” – performing stunts on the streets of Edinburgh. The clip caught the attention of a French video-game developer, Sébastien Mitton, who was researching cities as the basis for the fictional setting of his 2012 steampunk game, Dishonored.

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Although originally drawn to London, Mitton found that the city had lost too much of its old architecture in the Blitz.

As a result, the multi-million-selling game’s fantastical, yet strangely familiar city of Dunwall is unmistakably set in a reimagined version of Edinburgh’s Old Town and the Shore district in Leith.

It’s just another unlikely chain of events that led from Scotland’s reputation as a centre of cycling excellence to promoting Scotland the Brand worldwide. As unlikely, you might say, as a Dumfriesshire blacksmith being inspired after seeing a hobby-horse to create a machine which, while improved upon, has never been bettered.

Do the Shand

Scotland has a long history of excellence when it comes to cycling manufacture. While there were many lightweight frame builders, the most famous and prolific was David Rattray’s racing Flying Scot and tourer, The Scot, which were manufactured in Glasgow between 1928 and 1983. The company produced more than 15,000 frames which were exported throughout Europe, Japan and the US.

Carrying on that tradition, Shand Cycles of Livingston specialises in hand-built production bikes as well as designing carbon fibre cycles.
Started in 2003 by Steven Shand, it produces distinctly Scottish-sounding bikes – from the all-road Stoater and Stooshie to the Bahookie and Shug mountain bikes.

While its steel models all begin life in Livingston, since 2016 its carbon fibre models are designed here and manufactured by a partner factory in Asia. However, these are hand-finished, painted and inspected in Scotland and ridden all over the world.

Shand was acquired for an undisclosed sum by the industrial and metals group Liberty House in 2017 in a bid to help expand the Livingston outfit’s production capacity even further, but nevertheless the company, and its bikes, retain their distinctive Scottish identity.

Way to go

Sustrans is a UK-wide charity committed to the promotion of cycling and walking. In Scotland they work closely with local authorities, the Scottish Government and other partners to help ensure access to safe cycling routes and a sustainable tourist destination.

Cycling holiday makers spend in excess of £50 million per year in Scotland. The average length of overnight stays ranges between four to six days, with an average spend of £60-64 per night, and Sustrans studies show that most visitors come between March and October. Cycle tourism not only supports bike-related businesses such as repair shops and hire firms, but also offers a valuable revenue stream for cafes, restaurants, guest houses, hotels, caravan parks and tourist attractions.

A Sustrans study of the 48-mile section of the National Cycle Network, pictured, between Oban and Fort William showed that 340,000 rides are made on the route annually – with 33,500 being home-based leisure cyclists.

Sustrans estimates that this 48-mile section alone contributes £361,300 to the local economy annually. Little wonder then that the Visit Scotland website now promotes cycling heavily, with guides to Scotland’s most picturesque routes as well as tour maps and a selection of cycling routes for beginners.