If you believe the statisticians, each year over 33,000 people come to Scotland on a motorbike. I’d seen many of them slogging up the M74 on their way to Skye or the NC500. What they need is a guide book, I’d often thought, to tell them that Scotland starts at Gretna, not Stirling, and that the best-known roads don’t always make for the best day’s riding. Like a bee on a visor, resolve hit me one Saturday morning when I’d
taken the motorbike out as a way to avoid mowing the grass. Since I’d left “proper work”, money was tight and I’d been riding a 38 year-old BMW airhead. My R 100 RS was happiest on open roads but I prefer the byways. My favoured circuit is north from Moffat on the A701 to Tweedsmuir, then right, onto a spectacular single track by Talla Reservoir and steeply uphill, past Meggat and down to St Mary’s Loch. The bike was shaking itself to bits on the terrible tarmac – since resurfaced – but I couldn’t have been more content; out on a bike, alone in the hills and heading for a coffee at the Glen Café. I’d been earning a meagre crust, since I left the BBC, by writing guide books for walkers. My equipment list was basic – a pair of boots and flask just about covered it – but if I was going to write a guide book for bikers, I’d need to ride the roads – all of them. Top of that equipment list was a bike.
For 35 of its 38 years, my BMW R 100 RS, had belonged to an old BBC friend who freely admitted to adopting a light touch maintenance regime: Unless something rattled louder than the engine, or had actually fallen off, he left it well alone. To be honest, it didn’t seem to have done the bike much harm. Brünhilde usually started, always got me back and rarely gave trouble. But she did prefer to spend the night at home, plugged into a charger where she felt most comfortable. Short hops didn’t suit and, if I asked too much of the battery without giving her a decent run between times, she would take the huff. In 2014, I’d ridden from my great-grandfather’s home in South Ayrshire to his graveside in Northern France, visiting the places he’d lived and worked along the way, and arriving on the centenary of his death on August 17th. The bike started at every time of asking – except twice. First, when I left his childhood home to begin the journey and second, when I tried to leave his graveside in Le Havre after finishing it. (I’ve always wondered whether it was in the spirit of the pilgrimage to use a German bike to mark the centenary of the death of a British soldier. Perhaps that was the problem.) I knew I’d have to put in some high miles to research a biker’s guide book and I knew my faithful fräulein probably wasn’t up to it. She would carry me round the country for sure, but if I leapt on and off, stopping and starting to take photographs as I was bound to do, or to test the quality of the ‘full Scottish’ at roadside cafés, she would eventually roll over and play dead.
So when I got home that morning, I rang Rentamotorcycle in Dalkeith, part of the BMW dealership Motorrad Central Scotland, to ask if they’d “lend me a bike in return for a mention in the book”. I’d never spoken to them before but, with years of experience in the bike touring sector, I thought the request would be good litmus test to tell whether the bikers’ guide idea had legs. If they lent me a bike, they liked the idea. If they didn’t, I’d probably forget it. Their response lit the blue touch-paper. After being offered a free choice from their hire fleet, and deliberating for hours I selected a shiny new, long-legged, keyless, fully-panniered, sat-nav’d, cruise controlled, utterly wonderful R 1200 RS.
Because I was new to the blagging game I said three weeks should cover it. In the end, that got me round the north of Scotland. For the south - where I live - I was back on my old R 100 RS. While I’d been touring the north, constantly reminding myself that I was working not holidaying, my old bike had been sitting forlornly in a corner of the BMW dealership in Dalkeith. She knew I was being unfaithful with a younger model and she sulked when I returned to collect her. When we eventually coaxed her back to life – four hours on a charger did the trick – I stopped in the car park in Morrisons down the road to check I wasn’t dragging a bag of cement behind me, such was the difference between the RS of 1978 and her 2018 equivalent.
And so began the southern Scotland research segment for The Motorcyclist’s Guide to Scotland. Thank goodness I’d had the R 1200 RS for the bulk of the book because the R 100 RS made me suffer for the miles. I cursed the person responsible for the bike’s annual service (that would be me, sadly) when the front brake cable snapped as I was descending from the Lammermuir Hills towards Gifford. I’d just passed a sign warning of a 17% incline, and was in the middle of wondering what that meant, when I squeezed the front brake to take off some speed. The slight pressure on the lever caused a loud (in my head at least) twang, and the cable snapped. If you know the R 100 RS of the late 70s, you’ll know the back disc was not worth calling a brake and, if you know the B6355, you’ll know the steep hill is followed by a sharp left and right turn through the woods by Danskine Loch. I took the corners like Steve Hislop, throwing the bike from side to side and praying nothing was coming the other way. I’d given up smoking some years earlier but, when I limped into Gifford, I scrounged a cigarette from a bloke at the bus stop, and counted my blessings while contemplating my options. In the end, and after only a short pause while I considered the wisdom of the exercise, I rode the bike home. It took more than two hours to make the 65 mile journey. To begin with it was bowel-voidingly frightening, before becoming merely terrifying, then nerve-wracking, and in time just uncomfortable before ending up as really, really good fun. As an exercise in defensive riding, it was hugely instructive and I returned home a better rider than I set out. It’s almost worth doing just to improve your riding skills: Go a long way away, cut the brake pipes and then ride home. If you survive, you’ve passed the course. Oh, and make a note to check the cables from time to time.
The other memorable incident happened in Galloway. I’d been round what is now called the South West Coast 300 and was powering my way along the Solway coast making for home in the late afternoon. The bike had coughed a bit after being refuelled in Kirkcudbright and I’d put it down to dirty fuel. (Mental note - since deleted - not to fill up there again!) It coughed and spluttered again as I descended past the abbey at Dundrennan. I didn’t think much of it, apart from wondering if I’d make it home, as I continued along the road. I stopped - ironically as it happened - to take a picture of the Wickerman figure, which marks the site of the now defunct music festival of the same name. As I pulled up, the smell of burning made me think of Edward Woodwood, until I looked down and realised there were flames licking up by my right knee, rapidly warming the corner of the petrol tank (recently filled to the brim). A short circuit leading to the regulator/rectifier had fried the wiring and the slightly oily speedo cable (I blame the maintenance man again) had been set ablaze. After beating out the flames, ruining my gloves in the process, I pondered my position.
The choice was between effecting a repair or summoning a trailer. The old boxer has a cavernous compartment under the seat in which I carried a small engineering workshop, including insulating tape, retractable Stanley knife and a basic circuit tester. After 40 minutes pulling out the wires to the rear indicator and splicing them into the cabling for the regulator/rectifier, I remember the moment when I fired her up as one of the greatest moments of my adult life, better perhaps than the birth of my children. There was no way on God’s green earth the bike would start, but start she did, first press of the button. I didn’t even have to smack her bottom. But there comes a time in most people’s lives when they have to take things easy and the old airhead was no different. She’d carried me to France and back twice, I’d used her to commute from Moffat to Orkney while researching a walking guide up there, and I took her out at every opportunity for shopping, visiting family in Pitlochry, long distance journeys or whenever I wanted to get out of mowing the grass. She rarely missed a beat and only occasionally burst into flames or scared the Beejazus out of me on steep hills. I treated her most cruelly, I’m ashamed to say. When The Motorcyclist’s Guide to Scotland was published, and my finances slowly recovered, I rolled the BMW to the back of the shed, covered her with an old duvet and bought a Bonneville. The Triumph is a lovely bike, loads of power and, apart from the lack of oil leaks, feels very like the Bonneville I had back in my youth. The BMW is still in the back of the shed, awaiting the day her master calls on her once again. When he does it will be as a Sunday companion on trips down memory lane, rather than an everyday workhorse, to be flogged around the countryside, with seldom a thought to her state of health. She served me well and I couldn’t have written the book without her. Well, I could ….. but it would have been called The Motorcyclist’s Guide to Half of Scotland and that, I suspect, wouldn’t have sold half as well.