Travel: Following in the wheel ruts of three women who took on an epic cycle challenge 90 years ago

In 1936, 17-year-old Mary Harvie from Shotts, along with her two older sisters, Ella and Jean, set out on a 558-mile cycling holiday to explore the north-west Highlands, Skye, Perthshire and Stirlingshire.

Left to right: Alice Lemkes, Lee Craigie and Phillipa Battye. Copyright Wattie Cheung
Left to right: Alice Lemkes, Lee Craigie and Phillipa Battye. Copyright Wattie Cheung

The three sibling cyclers set off on the first stage of their journey, from Glasgow to Crianlarich, on Saturday, 6 July, and Mary – with diary in hand –documented their two-week adventure which came to encapsulate the spirit of the then novel concept of hostelling.

The Harvie girl’s trip was recently brought to life once again after Mary’s son, Harvie Patterson, transcribed her diaries during lockdown and then had a chance conversation with managers of a hostel on Skye.

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As part of Hostelling Scotland’s 90th anniversary – and celebrating VisitScotland’s Year of Stories 2022 –the organisation published Mary’s journals, before teaming up with cycling collective The Adventure Syndicate to develop a modern-day recreation.

Old Crainlarich

The group’s Philippa Battye, Lee Craigie and Alice Lemkes set off from Glasgow Youth Hostel on their own week-long 500-mile re-enactment tour last October, demonstrating that women can still head out to the great outdoors for such adventures in the 21st Century.

The Adventure Syndicate

The Adventure Syndicate was established by Lee, the Active Nation Commissioner for Scotland, in 2016, and it uses inspiring stories of adventurous females to promote pushing boundaries and the mental benefits of physical activity.

For this experience, the trio decided to put their own twist on the route and included as much off-road terrain and single-track routes as possible.

Ella, Mary and Jean

“We were given the brief to make the journey our own, and interpret it as we saw fit – as to how one is able to ride now in the 21st Century, with the bikes we have access to and our ability to take them off road,” explains Philippa, a Bath-based architect and long-distance cyclist. “We have more access to things like food and supplies as well.

“Lee is the Scottish local and so she put together the route. The plan was basically to stay off the busy road. When Mary and her sisters were doing it, they were probably travelling on very quiet roads, but now you have things like the A road going through Glencoe, so that was part of what we were trying to do.”

The route

Day one saw the team pedal 55 miles along the north side of Loch Lomond to the quiant village of Crianlarich.

At Inversnaid The Adventure Syndicate trio took a ferry across the loch to Inveruglas, before rejoining the West Highland Way and cycling their way along past the Falls of Falloch beauty spot.

The second day saw the route wind more than 43 miles towards the dramatic mountain peaks of Glencoe.

Along the way, they journeyed by the Lochan of the Lost Sword, situated between Auchertyre and Tyndrum.

Legend has it that Robert the Bruce threw his sword into a small lochan there following defeat at Dalrigh in 1306.

The threesome continued on below towering mountains before spending the night at the charming village of Glencoe, situated on the southern bank of Loch Leven.

The third leg was the second-longest at a little over 100 miles. The adventurers’ route wound by Ballachulish, Fort William, and alongside Loch Lochy to Invergarry before finishing at Ratagan at Loch Duich.

“Instead of going up the road to Fort William, we hopped on a ferry to the Ardnamurchan peninsula and ran up the other side of the Caledonian canal,” recalls Philippa.

“We then hopped back over on the ferry. It is all those things where you are adding a bit of complexity to the route that just make it so much more interesting.

“We wanted to go at it with a loose plan as it was for them 90 years ago.”

The Isle of Skye

Day four took Philippa, Lee and Alice to the Isle of Skye, where a sense of remoteness really settled in. “We went to Sligachan which was a beautiful bit of off-road section that took maybe four or five hours and you feel like you really are in the wilderness and heading through the heart of the Cuillin Mountains,” Philippa explains.

“It was just one of those beautiful days with low-hanging clouds and all the stags out bellowing. We ended up not seeing another soul, and that was when it really felt more wild and adventurous.”

The women gained some well-earned rest that night, finding peace in the island’s picturesque capital, Portree.

Each night of the cycling sojourn, the trio stayed at one of Scotland’s 60 hostels, operated by Hostelling Scotland since 1931, which Philippa describes as “amazing”.

She highlights the ability to make use of the drying rooms upon arrival and says each one was unique, noting that the four-star Rattigan Youth Hostel felt like its own piece of history.

Their route continued on from Portree to Torridon on day five, a distance of almost 80 miles. They journeyed over the Skye Bridge and past Plockton – known as the Jewel of the Highlands, and recently named Scotland’s prettiest village.

Through the remote landscape, the The Adventure Syndicate women powered on towards the small north-west Highland village of Torridon.

On the second last day, the trio had some mild respite with a shorter 30-mile cycle to Gairloch, ahead of the final 116-mile leg to the winter sporting destination of Aviemore.

Liberating

While it may sound somewhat arduous to those not so familiar with such long-distance feats, Philippa emphasises the fact that cycling offers a fantastic way to explore some of Scotland’s most impressive scenery.

Having met Lee and Alice four years ago at a cycling event in Spain, she advises joining a group to develop confidence and motivation.

“Finding like-minded people to share these journeys with has definitely had a huge impact on the way I have been able to feel more comfortable as a cyclist and to enjoy it more. There are loads of online forums and Facebook groups.

“For me, [cycling and camping] liberates the way you travel and the way you see the world because you are so reliant on yourself.

“It comes down to empowering yourself to be able to do these things, which I think is so important for women; for them to trust themselves, trust their instincts and ignore the chatter that the world is a dangerous place, and that you shouldn’t be in it alone as a woman. It is freedom and liberation.”

In celebration of VisitScotland’s Year of Stories in 2022, a six-minute video of Philippa, Lee and Alice’s cross-country adventure will be launched soon.

To find out more about The Adventure Syndicate, visit theadventuresyndicate.com

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