“I’ve found the perfect accommodation and it’s available over the Jubilee Bank Holiday weekend too” said my wife with a big smile on her face. The first weekend in June this year was a little unusual in the UK in that everyone was given an extra day off work to celebrate our ancient monarch reaching her 70th anniversary of being on the throne. Whether you agree with royalty or not, an extra day off wasn’t to be sneezed at and so we started to look around for somewhere suitable where we could go for a short break.
Unfortunately, it seemed like so did everyone else in the UK and no matter how long we spent trawling through travel websites we just couldn’t find that perfect combination of location, facilities and price. We weren’t being super fussy, but we wanted somewhere a bit special as it was also our wedding anniversary at the same time.
We’d spent so many fruitless hours searching that we’d become quite despondent at our lack of success and had almost given up hope. Then with one click of a mouse button my wife discovered the perfect place. Miraculously it seemed to be that goldilocks combination of beautiful, distinctive, reasonably priced and most importantly, not already booked up. We contacted the owner, got confirmation that it was all ours for the dates we wanted and then had a bit of a mental wobble. We’d been planning on taking our gravel bikes along and getting in some riding, but realised we’d booked our accommodation in somewhere we’d never been before and knew nothing about.
Obviously the gravel gods must have been smiling on us though, as with a few more clicks on a search engine it turned out that not only had me managed to choose gravel riding utopia for our destination, but that guidebook authors Markus Stitz and Ed Shoote had already done all the hard work for us and had loads of great looking route suggestions, most of which we could ride from our front door.
Our destination of choice was Dunkeld, a small and extremely beautiful town on the southern edge of the Scottish Highlands. Although it’s popular with tourists, many still only call in briefly on-route to the high mountains located another hour or so further north, but for us, hilly rather than mountainous sounded like much more suitable terrain for our planned rides.
Ed’s book contained a fantastic looking (and sufficiently challenging) looking route which started in Dunkeld, so that was one day of riding sorted. Markus’s book featured a ride not far from the area we were staying, but we were trying to keep driving to a minimum, so we used one of his digital route ideas instead, as we could ride those straight from our door.
It's a gross generalisation, but Scotland isn’t world renowned for having great weather but if we wanted guaranteed sunshine, we could have looked at Girona or Tuscany or somewhere significantly more southerly. We wanted to keep our carbon footprint to a minimum though, so we chose to travel only a few hours’ drive north of where we lived rather than somewhere more exotic.
Not having high expectations of getting perfect holiday weather, imagine our delight when in the week before our trip, all the different forecasts said we had somehow chosen to stay in the sunniest and hottest part of the UK over the bank holiday weekend. We raised our eyebrows in disbelief when the forecasts predicted temperatures of mid-20s degrees C, but I still packed extra cold weather gear just in case…
For our first ride, I’d amalgamated two of Markus’ suggested day ride routes to give us a total route of 40kms and nearly 700m of climbing – I hoped this would be the perfect gentle introduction. Riding straight from our door, after a few kms of quiet back roads and a brief traverse of Dunkeld’s tiny main street, we were offroad and riding beside the River Tay on some primo gravel trails. The sun was already in holiday mood, but our trail was nicely dappled thanks to some ancient broadleaf trees.
Markus’ route combined shared-use trails, sections of really fun woodland singletrack, ancient stone pitched drover’s tracks and some minor roads. He’d got the balance spot on and there was even one slightly gnarlier descent which made us glad we’d packed our monstercross bikes. We were soon at the end of our first loop, back into Dunkeld and heading out for part two. This started out with another fantastic riverside trail before arriving at something we experienced again and again on our stay in Scotland – a portal into an entirely different bit of the world.
As bizarre as this might sound, the route morphed from the Scottish Highland borders to the north-west of Canada within a few hundred metres. The combination of giant Douglas Fir trees, mountainous backdrop, azure blue sky and very Canadian looking lodges in the grounds of Dunkeld House Hotel combined to make us say almost simultaneously how weirdly Canadian it felt.
The second part of our route Markus had called Dunkeld Lochs Loop and the further we rode, the more this made sense. We rode on picture postcard perfect vehicle width gravel trails which frequently traced the perimeter of azure blue water. Although we weren’t brave/crazy enough to test the water temperature, it certainly looked significantly more like British Colombia than we were expecting.
After a perfect mix of gravel tracks, tiny backroads and some fun singletrack we practically popped out by the door to our holiday house. While sitting outside in some impressively hot and un-Scottish sunshine we ate a late lunch and raised a glass of something alcoholic and appropriately holiday-like in Markus’ honour. Our gravel guidebook test had passed its first day test with flying colours.
With holiday endorphins coursing around my veins, I decided to do a bit of self-guided exploration in the afternoon and headed back up the hill behind where we were staying and off into singletrack heaven! Stunning broadleaf forest, carpeted with bluebells (that had ‘gone over’ at least a month before south of the border) and laced with mind-blowingly good techy singletrack was what I discovered.
I was very very underbiked on some sections of it (even on my monstercross beasty) and an enduro bike would have made more sense, but where’s the fun in that! It was so good that I did two circuits and took in some of jumps and berms on homemade trails obviously built by the local MTB community. I got back to our accommodation buzzing even more and then spent a few hours browsing estate agent websites to see if we could afford to move to Dunkeld. Which we couldn’t.
Day two of our trip dawned with crystal clear blue skies and sunshine again and it was warm enough to have breakfast outside, much to our disbelief. We decided for our second ride to try out one of Ed’s routes which would take us north and west from Dunkeld into an area that none of Markus’s routes ventured into. The route was called “Dunkeld and the Tay Forest Park” and promised “a good mix of road and tracks through dark forests and open farmland” with “the highlight being an epic view when you ride through a wind farm”
Ed’s route initially took us out of Dunkeld the same way that we had done on our first ride, but then deviated off and sent us climbing into the forest on a sun-bleached forest road climb. The climb was pretty steady, with gradients of between 5 and 10% percent – enough to make you feel you were earning a good descent, but not too hideous even on cold legs.
At regular intervals as we climbed there were intriguing looking ribbons of singletrack crossing our fire road and disappearing off into the forest below. I made a mental note to come back with my XC MTB and go and explore. That descent that we were rewarded with was a great one – fast, flowy, pretty smooth and it seemed to go on and on. Even though we were only in the foothills of the Scottish Highlands, everything was a different scale to back home – we were well accustomed to hour long climbs and 5km long descents by the time we headed back to England.
Ed’s route differed from what we had ridden before (and afterwards) in that it contained quite a long section of road. In the most part it was quiet and the beautiful scenery, stunning weather and even a helpful tailwind sped us along to our destination with lunch at a riverside pub in the village of Glantully. We’ll gloss over the imbecilic overtaking manoeuvres of some of the drivers we witnessed on the road after lunch, but it made us realise why we love riding away from traffic so much.
The almost mandatory-on-a-gravel-ride post-lunch climb took us out of Scotland and back in Canada again, particularly as we rode around Loch Kennard, with what we later discovered was an Osprey circling above our heads. We were so used to bone dry trails, blue sky and sun beating down by then that we’d almost become blasé about it. But the lack of the infamous Scottish midge was something akin to miraculous. We had obviously made the right offerings to the gods of gravelling.
Ed’s description of the views from the wind turbines wasn’t wrong – you could see for miles and it felt like we were significantly higher than we actually were. His route traversed at a similar height for a good distance and was perfect under wheel for riding along, relaxed, just soaking in the views. Eventually the trail headed downwards and after an initial rubbly and filling-loosening section, things smoothed out and morphed into a super-fast and flowy descent, peppered with rolling water bars which were perfect for jumping off!
I adapted the final part of our ride to take in some of our morning route from Day 1 and it spat us out back on the River Tay close to the Birnam Oak – a 500 year old behemoth thought to have been the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Birnam Forest in Macbeth.
With skin glowing from the sunshine, legs nicely cooked from the climbing and souls topped up to max from the stunning scenery and miraculous weather, we headed back to our accommodation for a well-earned post-ride G&T.
Glancing at the weather forecasts, they promised another couple of days of perfect weather so we altered our plans and decided to head out on another ride the following day. Yet again, our intrepid gravel guidebook authors came up trumps and we had another brilliant day of gravel riding in Scotland/Canadaland, but we’ll save that story for another time….
Although we relied on digital mapping and a bike computer to get us safely around our different routes, it was inspiration from guidebook authors Markus Stitz and Ed Shoot and their respective books that helped plant the seed in our brains that Dunkeld was gravel riding heaven. They were spot on with their recommendations and we will definitely be back.
If you would like to buy a copy of their books, you can find Markus’ here and Ed’s here