The Pan Celtic Race invites riders to explore the Celtic lands of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, to face challenges along stunning roads that wind around ancient landmarks as their story is told. Stage 1: Scotland is full of vast landscapes, remote wilderness and cultural treasures from the past and present. Here are just some of the highlights awaiting riders.
Before Race Day
The race starts in the city of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, which has a lot to explore and the locals will make everyone feel welcome. Also, if Clan riders have some time to spare before the race, there are places to visit and soak up Celtic culture just short journeys outside the city. A few miles east of Inverness are the Clava Cairns – a Bronze age cemetery complex of passage graves; ring cairns, kerb cairns and standing stones in a beautiful setting. These ancient ruins will stir your soul and give you a sense of the aged land. Not far from Clava Cairns is Culloden Moor. In 1745 the Jacobite Revolt came to a tragic end with the last pitched battle fought in Scotland to decide the fate of the uprising. Commemorative stones mark the loss of life from both sides of the battle. About 15 miles north-east of Inverness is Groam House Museum in Rosemarkie. On display is a stunning collection of Pictish carved stones, which are over 1200 years old. Also on show are artworks by George Bain, who designed and taught the methods of medieval Celtic art. The museum admission is free and will help you connect with your inner Celt!
Full Route Only
As riders make their way out of Inverness, having received a rousing blessing from a Celtic Druid, it won’t be long before they are journeying through ancient lands. The small town of Beauly, whose Scots Gaelic name is A’ Mhanachainn, meaning ‘Beautiful Place’ contains the ruins of a 13th century priory which was founded by the Valliscaulian Order who came from Burgundy, France. As the route twists and turns north, the wild remote nature of the landscape becomes an awe-inspiring sight, such as the view of the Dornoch Firth at Struie Hill. Further north, riders can look out for the national cycling network signs and be sure of a hearty welcome at The Crask Inn to enjoy a traditional highland pub experience!
Continuing north alongside Loch Loyal, the route takes riders across the Kyle of Tongue. We recommend pausing and taking a look back towards the village for stunning views of the ancient Castle Varrich, high up on the cliff. A Norse fort may have been built here as early as 1000 AD. It is believed that the current Castle was built by Clan Mackay in the 14th century. About a mile east of Durness along the north coast is Smoo Cave. If riders want to take rest and explore the cave, it’s one of the largest in Britain and artifacts have been found from the Neolithic, Norse and Iron Age cultures. ‘Smoo’ is thought to come from the Norse ‘smjugg’ or ‘smuga’ meaning a hole or hiding-place. Journeying west along the north coast, each twist and turn of the road opens up to reveal stunning vistas such as the route to Durness Beach. Keep an eye out for the megalithic ‘Druid’s Stone’ along the way!
The landscape of Sutherland is a joy to behold and the roads will last in memories for ages to come. Making their way south towards Ullapool, riders can absorb the stunning view of three epic mountains framing the landscape – Canisp, Suilven and Cùl Mòr, all rising up majestically out of the surrounding moorland. Northern most stands Canisp at nearly 3000ft, which takes its name from Old Norse meaning ‘White Mountain’. Suilven’s highest point is called ‘Caisteal Liath’ which means Grey Castle and Cùl Mòr means ‘big back of’ (the landscape) in Scots Gaelic.
With legs and lungs tested, the scenic port town of Ullapool will provide a warm Scottish welcome at Checkpoint 1. Ullapool Youth Hostel is nestled along the side of Loch Broom, with friendly pubs and restaurants all within a short walk. Make yourselves at home, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy some fine Celtic hospitality. Having replenished at the checkpoint, the call will be heard to journey on into wilder land. The ancient landscape of the Torridon Estate will greet riders with the route winding past rugged mountains that rise over 3000ft, creating a breathtaking spectacle. Rivers flow into lochs, which then pour out to sea continuing the timeless cycle of life. Whilst Clan riders weave through the landscape, keep a watchful eye for magnificent Golden Eagles souring high above and wild roaming deer crossing roads, especially in low light.
From Loch Torridon, riders will follow the coastline as it snakes round to Applecross, which dates back to 7th Century AD, when Máelrubai travelled from Ireland to found a monastery. The name derives from the ancient Pictish word ‘Aporcrosan’, meaning confluence of the river Crossan. The local church contains relics from the past including finely carved fragments of Celtic cross-slabs and the area provides an opportunity to rest before taking on the mighty Bealach na Bà. In Scots Gaelic Bealach na Bà means ‘Pass of the Cattle’ and this mountainous route was once used by Cattle drovers. As riders begin this climb from Applecross, keep in mind it reaches the highest point of the whole route with over 2000ft of climbing! Once at the summit, it’s worth taking in the stunning view south over the spectacular landscape and a much-needed rest. Caution is the word for the technical descent, with steep switchbacks. Take care and enjoy the experience.
Pedalling south over lower terrain, riders will view Eilean Donan Castle rising up out of Loch Duich. This Castle was probably named after the Irish Bishop Donan who came to Scotland in the 6th century. A fort was first built in the 13th century to protect the lands against Viking raids and in later centuries was used during the Jacobite risings, which led to its destruction! In 1911 Lt Colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap bought the island and spent 20 years restoring the castle. From here the route turns east and winds along the spectacular valley of Glen Shiel, climbing towards Loch Cluanie with stunning views of the legendary ‘Five Sisters of Kintail’ or in Scots Gaelic; Beinn Mhor meaning ‘Big Mountain’.
Shorter Route Only
As riders make their way out of Inverness on the Shorter Route, they’ll be heading south, journeying alongside the mythical Loch Ness. On the north shore opposite stands Castle Urquhart, which can be seen across the loch. The ruins date between the 13th and 16th centuries. Heading away from the loch, the route climbs high showcasing the vast highlands to the south, before a sweeping descent will bring riders back to the south end of the loch and a stunning viewing point near Fort Augustus. Continuing south along the edge of Loch Oich riders can enjoy the lake views whilst cycling under the canopy of a woodland path.
The two routes converge at North Laggan and share in the landmarks and spectacular roads from here on. Of note is Castle Stalker on the edge of Loch Linnhe. The Scots Gaelic name ‘Stalcaire’ means Hunter or Falconer. Believed to have originally belonged to the MacDougalls, the Castle ownership has changed between Stewarts and Campbells over the years. In 1965 Lt. Col. D. R. Stewart Allward purchased the Castle and spent ten years restoring it.
As riders make their way alongside Loch Creran they’ll see Barcaldine Castle, the only ancient castle remaining in Argyll. Built in 1609 by Duncan Campbell and restored in 1897 by Sir Duncan Campbell 3rd Baronet of Barcaldine, the castle offers breath-taking views across the loch and over to the mountains of Glencoe. Riders are assured of a warm Celtic welcome here and refreshments will be available in the grounds.
Kilchurn Castle is positioned on the north of Loch Awe, with Ben Cruachan towering high above. By the end of the 1700s it was abandoned and now stands quietly among the ancient landscape waiting for our Clan to visit.
On the A83, just before reaching Loch Fyne, riders will see Inverarary Castle owned by Clan Campbell. From here they will head towards Loch Lomond, but before arriving on its shores, they must steel themselves for the climb ahead which promises to offer a strong test for legs and mind, but also rewarding views of Ben Arthur and Glen Croe. ‘Rest and be thankful’ are the words inscribed on a stone near the junction of the A83 and the B828 and that can be our riders’ moto, whilst saviouring the epic views.
Once they’ve reached Loch Lomond riders might want to consider resting and refueling in the ancient village of Luss. The village was originally called ‘Lus’ which translates as ‘Herb’ in Scots Gaelic. If you explore the village churchyard, you’ll find early medieval monuments including some cross-slabs, dating to approximately 7th century. The pier is a lovely spot to relax and take in the epic landscape and the village has small shops, the Loch Lomond Arms and even local kilt and bagpipe businesses!
As our intrepid Clan continue south, they’ll ride past Paisley Abbey. Originally the site was a Celtic church founded by St. Mirin in the 6th Century. In 1245 it became an influential Abbey trading throughout Europe and it’s believed that William Wallace was educated by the monks here. Inside the Abbey is displayed The Barochan Celtic Cross, which dates from between 900-1100 AD and is one of only three complete crosses surviving from the old kingdom of Strathclyde.
Riders will then travel through Kilmarnock. The town’s name comes from combining the Scots Gaelic ‘Cill’ which means cell, and a Saint’s name – Marnock, who according to tradition, founded a church here in the 7th century. For a short trip east across town and great spot for a break, riders can visit Castle Dean Country Park. The Castle dates to the 14th century and was a stronghold of the Boyds, Lords of Kilmarnock for over 400 years.
Further south the countryside will become wilder again as riders climb to higher ground, surrounded by moorland. From here the route runs along the edge of the enchanting Galloway Forest Park and sunlit woodland glades with views of Merrick mountain over to the east. Within the forest is the Bruce’s Stone, which sits atop a hill overlooking Loch Trool, just a short detour east of Glentrool village. This granite megalith was put in place to commemorate Robert the Bruce’s skirmish victory against English forces in 1307, during the Scottish Wars for Independence.
Before heading for the Ferry at Cairn Ryan, riders have a few places they can visit if interested. Glenluce Abbey is just off the main route, which was founded in 1190 AD and was home to Cistercian monks for 400 years. Castle Kennedy Gardens is a nearby attraction with castle ruins set in stunning gardens, which are open to the public to explore.
Adventure hardened and no doubt a little weary, Clan riders will see the welcoming sight of Cairn Ryan. Their journey through the landscape of Scotland will be complete. Here they will rest up on a ferry trip to the next land of challenges and adventures – Ireland and Stage 2 of the Pan Celtic Race 2019.
Words: Pete Borlace, Pan Celtic Race Team
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