Ancient, often mist-wreathed and mysterious, Scotland has a pull for those seeking solace.

From dark, craggy, mountain ridges to exquisite, empty, beaches this is a country as diverse as its myriad islands, dramatic Highlands and rolling Lowlands. Through it all runs a deep and vibrant culture and a richly welcoming, though guarded, people.

For a relatively small country – it's about the size of South Carolina in the USA – with a population of 5.5 million concentrated in the 'central belt' it feels remarkably large. That sense is due to the fact that away from this urbanised area there are vast tracts of quiet land, especially in the remote Highlands and islands.

This, coupled with the stunning scenery, makes Scotland a cycling mecca. It has the highest road climb in the UK, some of the most highly regarded mountain bike routes and centres in the world, and miles and miles of idyllic roads to ride.

Cycle Touring South Uist The Outer Hebrides

Cycling on South Uist

Visitors to this proud nation will experience a visual overload and be struck by the living sense of history; it's not uncommon to finish a day's riding with a meal in a 16th-century former coaching inn or by marvelling at the architecture of Scotland's numerous castles, tower houses and grand keeps. And, of course, there is that wonderful sing-song accent of the locals – soft as a breeze on the western islands, hard and nasal in Glasgow and lightened with a sense of realism in the Highlands.

Many attractions and visitor centres are seasonal, opening from Easter to September. Broadly speaking, that is the best time for cycling holidays in Scotland. Favoured months are May and September as the weather can be at its most crisp and stable then. In more recent years heavy rains drop in July and August and tourist traffic levels are high, especially in the Highlands.

Best places for Scotland cycling holidays

Cycling the Islands, Highlands and Scottish Borders

Choosing where to base yourself for a cycling holiday in Scotland isn't easy -- there are plenty of options and many excellent cycling routes. Here are three of the best places for a cycling holiday in Scotland.

Cycling the Outer Hebrides

Time passes slowly on the Outer Hebrides. It's the place to relax and to enjoy cycling by crystal clear waters and some of the world’s finest beaches: pedal by Luskentyre or Scarista beach on Harris as spray spins off a turquoise and emerald sea and you’ll agree. Throughout the Outer Isles there are miles upon miles of such coastal scenery.

Also known as The Western Isles, The Outer Hebrides comprise a 200 kilometre-long chain of islands, linked by causeways and ferries, from Barra in the south to Lewis at the northern end. A tour of the archipelago reveals their individual charms and character.

Always have provisions and liquids onboard – in northern and western Scotland shops are few and far between.

Barra offers a good introduction to the islands. A 42km circuit of the island on the rolling single-track roads – prevalent throughout the islands and Highlands – is highly recommended.

Scotland Hebrides Shetland pony south Uist outer Hebrides

Shetland pony, Uist, Outer Hebrides

Like Barra, all the islands have magnificent, pristine, golden, or silver, beaches, and yet the western coast of Harris is unbeatable. Allow time to soak up the island life. Park your bike by Horgabost next to the beach called Tráigh an Iar, the Western Beach. Take a picnic on a warm summer’s day and you’ll want to stay forever. Here, where few venture, one can see the dramatic monolith of MacLeod´s standing stone.

Harris also offers more of a challenge with its mountainous interior. The highest hill is the Clisham (at 799m) which in common with the Harris hills is formed from Lewisian gneiss and, at almost 3000 million years old, is among the oldest rock in the world. Intensely deformed by heat and pressure some parts appear like a lunar landscape.

Man´s ancient hand is in evidence at the eerie Callanish standing stones on Lewis – a must-see, especially at dawn or dusk when you will have the site to yourself. Stornoway, the capital of Lewis, makes for a vibrant, culturally interesting, finish to any island trip.

Cycling on single-track roads

Passing places allow traffic both ways on single-track roads. Don't feel overly rushed to pull into these if a driver is behind you or oncoming; by law cyclists have the right to use the road and indeed all of it if they feel the need to do so owing to potholes, a heavy load, strong wind, etc. Be confident, not aggressive, but be safe if a driver is determined to pass you outside the diamond-marked passing places.

Cycling the Scottish Highlands

This age-old part of Scotland is more varied than you may expect. The Northern Highlands, for example, has many eye-catching mountains such as Suilven, Canisp and Quinag and a formidable sense of wildness. But it is also home to gentler areas like the Flow Country of Caithness, in the far northeast, where Europe’s largest blanket bog supports hundreds of species. Getting around is easy, with roads radiating from Inverness and a train line that runs through the Flow Country to John O’Groats.

There is a grandeur here that is unrivalled. It is a place to fully engage physically with the landscape – whether on a long, hard, road ride or a mountain bike experience through the glens. There is great beauty too and one can experience that on secluded peaceful cycles, especially enjoyable on a summer's day.

Intrigue, bloodshed and power struggles fill the pages of the history of the clans. But one man – Robert the Bruce united the Highlands and the Lowlands in a fierce battle for liberty, taking up arms against both Edward I and Edward II of England.

Scotland Highlands mountain biking

Mountain biking in the Scottish Highlands

Inverness, the capital of the Highlands, is a place to absorb the vitality of the Highlanders. It can be visited after crossing the country on a route through the Great Glen.

The Highlands also has two globally recognised geoparks – areas of outstanding geology and landscape. The North West Highlands Geopark and the Lochaber Geopark are both excellent.

The Lochaber area as a whole includes some of Scotland's finest mountain scenery. Its most famous view is that of Buchaille Etive Mór from the road before it drops into Glencoe. This scene of Highland grandeur is, however, tinged with sorrow as it was also the setting for the infamous Massacre of Glencoe, another tragic event in Scotland's clan story.

The UCI Mountain Bike World Cup is regularly held under Ben Nevis, at Nevis Range, where there are excellent trails with something for all ages and tastes.

Avoiding the Scottish biting midge

The infuriating midge bites from June to late September. Always carry repellent and clothing that will cover your limbs. It's advisable to keep these items accessible along with a head midge net and peaked hat. Thankfully once you are on the move on the bike they won't bother you. Stay away from bodies of freshwater on warm sultry days. On bad days, head to the coast where the breeze will help keep the insects at bay.

Cycling the Scottish Borders

Southern Scotland has an allure that can prove irresistible. Perhaps it’s the array of gentler rides, the laid back locals, or the rolling hills. Come and visit and you’ll soon see why it’s a firm favourite for a cycling holiday in Scotland.

The Borders, in the south-east, is famous for its four great 12th century abbeys: Melrose, Dryburgh, Kelso and Jedburgh. An aura remains in these ruined buildings. The signed 4 Abbeys route visits them on an 88km/ 55mile circuit. These cloisters are especially atmospheric at quieter times of the day when it’s easy to imagine how the monks were drawn to these beautiful locations.

In character, the Borders and indeed southern Scotland as a whole is quite different to the north and the islands. The country is bisected by the 390 million-year-old Highland Boundary Fault, which extends in a diagonal line from Arran in the west to Stonehaven on the east coast.

Melrose Abbey ruins Scottish Borders

Melrose Abbey ruins, Scottish Borders

Its creation joined two distinct landmasses. To the south, the rocks are younger and softer; these give rise to an undulating, lusher landscape. These differences have helped shape Scotland and continue to influence agriculture, culture, and even climate.

Fabulous road cycling awaits in the Borders. And, stretched across southern Scotland are the 7 Stanes – mountain bike trail centres that offer high-quality off-road riding for both adrenaline seekers and novices.

Interact with the locals at the Hawick Reivers Festival, held in March, where you can gain an insight into the people who shaped the Borders. There one can learn about life in the mid-sixteenth century when the Borderlands were in constant feuding with loyalties to kin rather than king and country and when “Reiving”, or cattle-rustling, was a means of survival.

Independent, loyal, hard-working and prepared to fight for what they believed in the men and women of the 1500s shaped the character of the modern-day Borderers.

It’s always a big party whether you're a Scot, of Scottish descent, or simply love Scotland!

Self-guided vs guided cycling holidays

Independent cycling vs escorted small group tours

Scotland has many excellent, long-established and expert tour operators specialising in cycling and other outdoor adventure activities. Their passion shines through in their love of providing cycling holidays in Scotland as more often than not they have spent a lifetime riding the roads, hill climbs, lochside routes, trails, tracks and old paths of their captivating country.

You will find there are tour operators – generally small, often family-run businesses – spread throughout the country. When deciding which company to go out with for a cycling holiday in Scotland, it's a good idea to decide on one that is based in the area in which you plan to cycle. This will help maximise your experience as the individuals running your trip will be immersed in the local community, ensuring you get the best possible treatment on the road and on your overnight stops.

Similarly, once you have decided (at least broadly) on the area for your holiday, make sure you check whether the operator is a good fit for your intended riding style. For example, all tour operators offer an element of mountain biking tours but there are specialist companies who will not only show you the very best Scotland has to offer for an off-road experience but even help improve your mountain bike skills along the way with top tips.

Scotland Isle of Skye Sunset evening Elgol

Sunset on the Isle of Skye, Scotland

Many operators will tailor their trip to favour cafés, pubs, restaurants and accommodation providers that are part of the tourist office´s VisitScotland Cyclists Welcome scheme. This recognises those establishments which go the extra mile to help make your trip go smoothly, from providing drying facilities to flexible dinner times.

The final decision before signing up to a trip is, of course, whether to opt for a self-guided or guided cycling holiday in Scotland. This is not always as straightforward as one may think so perhaps take a little time to chew over the options especially if you are new to this type of holiday.

Self-guided cycling holidays

Cyclists, being independent-minded souls, tend to like to do things for themselves. Which is great – the rewards are self won and the feeling of self-esteem is incomparable. So it is no great surprise that many coming for a cycling holiday in Scotland opt to go with a self-guided tour. The logistics are taken care of, your luggage arrives as you do and yet you can decide on a whim whether to stop for a picnic at some truly picturesque places, beside an ancient castle or on the banks of a famous loch. Or whether to spend half an hour trying to get that perfect photo of a changing seascape.

The downside is that you are responsible for the mistakes, the wrong turns, the running out of daylight because you got a puncture and the running out of energy because you underestimated the final leg of the journey. Naturally, the likelihood of these calamities occurring can be reduced if you plan meticulously.

Scottish Highlands cycling

Cycling in the Scottish Highlands

Guided cycling holidays

Having a guide will mean you don´t have to plan meticulously for every eventuality. When you are on holiday this can be a nice feeling.

Ultimately, having a guide means that you are in the best possible hands. He or she will know the route in question inside out, they will know who is serving the best fish chowder at lunchtime and they will know what to do if problems arise. In addition to knowing the locals, a good guide will double as an ambassador for the country filling you in on everything from natural history to the state of current affairs.

But you will not be able to cruise to a halt when your body says rest; to have a sunny snooze on a whim, or to indulge in a second breakfast if the rest of the group – and the guide – are not on your wavelength. Another drawback of signing up to a guided group is that the speed of the cycling will always be dictated by the slowest member. If that's you then it's not such an issue, but if you are the one straining to top that hill and diving down the other side it can be very frustrating, particularly on a multi-day outing.

However, on remote routes having a guide can be invaluable – not only for taking the worry out of route finding but for a general feeling of security. This is never misguided and can translate into real practical help if your bike develops a sudden mechanical problem miles from help.

To sum up: if you are unsure whether to go self-guided or fully-guided assess the potential difficulties of the trip you have in mind while taking into account your personal situation.

About the authors

Best Cycling Holidays In Scotland

Colin Baird

Edinburgh-born Colin is a cycling blogger. He became hooked on cycling in Scotland after his first-ever biking holiday to the Orkney Islands. He's been all over the country discovering routes and seeking out the best places to visit by bike. He blogs about his adventures on the Cycling Scot website.

Best Cycling Holidays In Scotland

Fergal MacErlean

Dublin-born Fergal fell in love with Scotland as a student, settling there to become a journalist and cycle guidebook writer. In addition to his guides covering Scotland, he has written for the BBC, New Scientist, BBC Countryfile Magazine and many travel publications. Andalusia is a second home.

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