Scottish Highlands need more cycle routes as safer alternatives to busy roads – Alastair Dalton

I’m just back from our annual trek to the north-west Highlands for another idyllic coastal break overlooking the Summer Isles near Ullapool.

The contrast with being at home in Glasgow is immense. It is splendid isolation. The area is so quiet that when the air is still, birdsong and sheep bleating can seem amplified.

It's true the weather can be a lottery, but that makes sunny days all the sweeter.

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But an added dimension in recent years that really makes you feel part of the landscape has been taking our bikes and being able to cycle on virtually empty roads.

Riding for the first time on a road I’d only ever driven before does extraordinary things to your senses.

Compared to travelling by car, with its narrow confines, it’s like looking at the view through a large TV screen, then having the walls and ceiling of the room removed.

There’s also the benefit to the environment amidst the current climate emergency, with Cycling Scotland stressing that every journey cycled makes a difference.

I therefore found it hugely ironic when stopping to admire a fine view of a row of mountains to find a driver pull off the road in front of my bike and leave his engine running as he got out to take a photo, and then for at least another ten minutes after he got back into the car.

A quiet, cycle-friendly road near Achnahaird in Wester Ross with spectacular views of the mountains of Assynt (Picture: The Scotsman)

The stretches I’ve enjoyed cycling the most have been otherwise so blissfully quiet because they are many miles from main routes – including the North Coast 500 – and also themselves near the end of the road, so there’s no through traffic.

However, it’s not like that in many areas of the Highlands where there are no quiet routes for cycling – just a single road carrying all traffic, often travelling at 60mph or more.

There are probably more off-road and segregated cycle routes in Scotland’s cities.

Three years ago, I reported on plans to address this anomaly, which is most glaring across a huge swathe of the country between the Great Glen/A82 and the Western Isles, the largest area of the UK without an official route.

There are no national cycle network routes between the Western Isles and Great Glen. Picture: Sustrans/OS

That means there are no traffic-free routes on the mainland west of the Caledonia Way that runs between Campbeltown and Inverness.

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Plans to divert cyclists from busy Highland roads to safer pathways

I had hoped there would be signs of progress when directed this week by cycle-path developers Sustrans to the leisure cycling journey planner it has jointly developed by VisitScotland. But alas, no.

Aside from the Caledonia Way, it only shows routes in the Central Belt, up the spine of Scotland to Dundee and Inverness – although the website promises more will be added “in the coming months”.

There is nothing in the north-east and north, or the south-west and Borders, while Orkney and Shetland aren’t even on the map.

I’ve had mixed reports about how busy roads to the west coast have been this month, but if more people holiday in Scotland this year because of the Covid travel restrictions, they are likely to become an even more unattractive prospect for all but the most dedicated cyclists.

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