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Issue 42 - King of the road

Scotland Magazine Issue 42
December 2008

 

This article is 8 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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King of the road

Enjoy Scotland as you've never seen it before. Richard Goslan shows the way.

The Scots are quick to remind visitors about our remarkable record when it comes to inventions which have shaped the modern world. You name it, a Scotsman can take the credit. The telephone?

Alexander Graham Bell. Television? John Logie Baird. When it comes to transport, James Watt came up with the steam engine, John Loudon Macadam invented what we now take for granted as the surface of our roads, and John Boyd Dunlop developed the pneumatic tyre. Even the bicycle originated in Scotland.

But the Harley Davidson motorbike?

Surely that’s as American as apple pie, turned out from the company’s base in Milwaukee since 1901, when 21-year-old Bill Harley came up with the blueprint drawing of an engine designed to fit on a bicycle.

But you can’t keep the Scots out of even this story. The three Davidson brothers who took their pal Harley’s plans and built the first model were the sons of William C. Davidson, a Scottish carpenter who emigrated to the United States in the 1850s.

Since then, the company has gained cult status for its iconic and uncompromising motorbikes. And now, more than 100 years since it was founded, Scotland Magazine is bringing the Harley home, for a whistlestop tour of some of the best roads and most amazing scenery in the world.

Our starting point is West Coast Harley, a dealership in Glasgow which is the first outlet to offer Harleys for rental in Scotland.

The bike is a beast of a machine – a brandnew, gleaming crimson and chrome FLHR/I Road King.

The Harley is a monster to ride, weighing in at a third of a tonne and throbbing with a 1450cc twin cam engine – that’s more than your average Ford Fiesta. But it’s built for touring, so the riding position is easy on the arms, and more importantly the backside, and the level of vibration is surprisingly low.

After a tentative start, I’m soon heading west out of Glasgow towards Loch Lomond.

On the open road, the bike settles down.

Progress is steady along the twisty road hugging the loch, but beyond Crianlarich the fun begins. I pause for breath in Tyndrum, and then head for Glencoe. Despite some traffic, the Road King is able to glide past cars with the minimum of effort. Just a drop of the gear, a twist of the throttle and I leave the motorists in my wake, opening up the road and the view across Rannoch Moor towards Buachaille Etive Mor.

I turn up over the Ballachulish bridge towards the Corran ferry, which runs south of Fort William across Loch Linnhe. On the other side, I’m on a deserted road, riding along the loch before heading for lunch at Strontian.

I push the Road King north along the windy road which passes Acharacle and then comes out to give glorious first glimpses of Eigg and Rum. I’m back into dream biking country here – a gently winding open road along Loch Ailort, which takes me up towards Mallaig. In the queue for the ferry, a middle-aged American drools over the bike. He rides a BMW back home and is driving a Volvo rental around Scotland, with the golf clubs in the boot. It’s clear what he’d rather be doing.

Mallaig to Armadale on Skye is the second ferry of the day, and I soon pitch up for the night at a friend’s place. We head out for a bowl of locally-caught prawns and a couple of pints, then round things off with an impromptu ceilidh, where some students from the Sabhal Mor Ostaig are in fine form on fiddles and guitar.

The next morning my friend steers me away from the road bridge, saying I should head to Kylerhea for the ferry crossing to Glenelg. The Road King eats up the twisty mountainous path and then the descent to Kylerhea. This is the ancient crossing point to Skye, the closest point between island and mainland. It runs from Easter to October, but timings seem to be fairly random – I wait for 25 minutes for more passengers to turn up, but when none do it’s just my bike, the two admiring crew and me.

After riding up Mam Ratagan, I appreciate why the road was recommended. At the summit, a stunning view of the five sisters of Kintail opens out across Glen Shiel. I consider taking a photo but I’m having too much fun riding the bike to contemplate getting off it.

I power along Loch Duich, past Eilean Donan castle and then turn towards Stromeferry. Now familiar with the bike’s power and confident with its handling, I push it through the twists and turns along Loch Carron, before opening up on the long straight sections approaching Achnasheen.

The harder I ride, the deeper and more satisfied the growl. There’s no high-pitched sports bike whining with this machine – just a contented purr as it’s put through its paces.

I realise time is running out and the bike is due back in Glasgow that afternoon. I boot it down the A9 with only one stop for petrol, and turn in to West Coast Harley with two minutes to spare before the shop closes. The rental manager asks me how I got on. He must be used to the reaction. There’s no need for words, just a shrug of the shoulders and a gesture towards the Road King. I know he understood. Maybe you do too.