Roam Scotland Rally 2022: Access, freedom & limits
by Calum Munro
Everyone experienced loss of freedoms during the pandemic. Our access to connect with one another was disrupted, for the greater good. Safety and survival, should trump our need to come together. Limits and prohibitions can drive our curiosity to explore and connect anew when our freedoms do return. Our minds need that stimulation to grow by stepping out of our usual experience of the familiar.
Our bodies need to stand up from the chair and unfurl from the screen hunch, to rediscover that knack they have for self-propulsion. But without the access to ‘new ground’ our curiosity is caged and we can become stuck.
As the battle with the virus ebbed and flowed, there was the odd foray to explore N-S-E-W from covid homebase. Scrolling over Ordnance Survey contour lines and pinning Ride with GPS waypoints, is a kind of exploration; but there’s nothing like being out in the world. Out in your body, pushing through the arc of the pedal stroke to engage the grit under your tyres. These few trips sustained me, but it was a whole different thing to bring people together again to ride a rally.
The first rally gathered in Edinburgh May 2019 and rode to Inverness with some cold, some rain, and a lot of camaraderie. So to be free to gather in Lamlash on Arran and see who’d show up to ride, was a special treat after two years of frustrated plans. A week to immerse in the more than human world and connect with the soon to be more than strangers found riding alongside. This is what a Roam Scotland Rally is to me – fresh ground beneath my tyres, new light in my eyeballs and a fresh voice or two in my lug-hole1.
Us Scots are fortunate to be able to return, post-pandemic, to our legal right of access – the ‘right to roam’. Access is needed for freedom, but it’s not enough in itself, we need curiosity too. And so, we were inevitably a curious bunch who met in Lamlash, leaving our everyday constraints to wander up the west coast together. German gravelmeisters, Belgian baroudeurs, Kiwi cruisers, the courageous Canadian and many stealthy sassenachs2 raiding north of the border. I doubt many have the access privileges at home which we enjoy in Scotland.
Curiosity & Limits
I might be wrong, but I suspect most Scots rarely stray north of Perth or wander west of Loch Lomond, to exercise their access freedoms. I know not everyone has the money for a bike, a bivvy and some bike luggage, but I got to wondering if many of us are constrained more by our minds, than our bodies, or the limits of money or laws? What stops us pressing up against our physical or mental limits, exercising our freedom to explore and challenge ourselves? Are we too afraid of not being as ‘good’ as someone else, of getting hurt or wet or eaten by midges? Perhaps our curiosity can help us learn something new about how to be. The West & Island roamers: the native half, the return visitors, those new to Scotland, the female 25%, or the blokes; the skint and the wealthy, were to a person, open-minded, curious, adventurous souls.
I had the experience of a bike carrying me 100km in a day, before I was twelve. The experience of a tired body, intermingled with joy, was tucked away in a little corner of my mind. Of loose limbed spinning and straining muscle grinding. Of testing my limits, and of fear my dad might test me a step too far. A belief sown. I figure somehow or other, all my roaming companions had arrived at something similar. We’re privileged to have found this confidence to explore the new, without too much fear holding us back.
At the start in Lamlash, I’m sure many of us were anxious about the tough riding ahead. I know my vulnerability and weaknesses well. I have periods of depression, my shoulders slip out of their sockets with little encouragement, amongst other things. I’m generally a sensitive wee sausage, despite being 6’4”. “Oh god he’s talking about his bloody feelings again”. That’s my missus by the way – aka the goddess. She soars up the road ahead of me, accelerating away from more chat about feelings. But none of us is actually superhuman, we all have limits. The rough stuff is not her favoured parcours, so the bumpier West Highland Way section towards Fort William on day 5 was met with grumbles, “grrr *#^~!! mountain biking hrmmph”… and worse. I kept my distance for a bit. Forgiveness blossomed along the flowing grade-A gravel carpet ride down the strip of Loch Shiel from Glenfinnan, but we all had tired legs to take on the brutal 20% grades of the Bealach Feith nan Laogh climb. The goddess joined us mortals, pushing up a hill.
The Value of Vulnerability
So heed the warning, I’m talking about the heid3 stuff now. I actually value my vulnerable feelings. Maybe that sounds a bit weird? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like having no energy, feeling low or anxious, or my shoulder erupting in a volcano of pain, but I value it. It’s my body and mind reminding me I’m fallible, that I’m vulnerable and need to look after myself. That’s what vulnerable feelings do. They tell us we’re human and that we’re sometimes going to struggle and fail. Suffering these uncomfortable feelings, tells us life is challenging, inviting us to step up to the struggle and learn to get the most out of ourselves. This incredible but flawed human being system will carry us through our three score years and ten or twenty or thirty. If we can access curiosity without fear about our vulnerability, if we can tolerate our suffering and learn our capacities, and our limits, we might learn better how to ride the ups and downs along the way.
Despite the benefits modern society brings, it seems like a tough ask these days to roll with our feelings and find some contentment. We’re in a crisis of mental ill-health. Many forces push us into seeking perfection or invulnerability, into always striving for more comfort or more control, rather than accepting our normal vulnerabilities and healthy limits. It’s getting us into all sorts of trouble. It’s making us more lonely, more miserable, more demanding or angry and more overweight. Its making us destroy the more than human world around us. This madness of more – more growth, more consumption – it does not make for more security, contentment or joy.
One section of our route followed a remote track into estates and forestry around the Morvern peninsula. It’s glorious. When I reccied it on a bright Saturday in October I found three locked deer gates to clamber over, deep into the loop. Simon, a local Gravelista, had tried to get them opened before. We joined forces to challenge the council access officers to press the landowner for access, our right to roam. Credit to the council and the landowner, some stiles were in place by the time of our ride in Spring. It was still a pain to lug our loaded bikes over three stiles in relatively quick succession, but it was safe and this is the sort of inconvenience I’m OK with. I get the desire for a landowner to protect their track and forestry from muppets driving up them and getting stuck, leaving rubbish or nicking their wood. I think it’s alright to rub-up against some limits, create some friction and see what gives. Perhaps what gave, was just about enough access, but not too much to make it easy for anyone to easily wander into this beautiful remote place and treat it badly. More isn’t always better.
Whether we’re riding our bikes or doing anything else, we all need to be safe enough. The balance between encouraging folk to be safe, yet free to ride the rally however they want, and where my responsibility begins and ends, is usually on my mind. Given I err heavily on the side of letting folk crack on, it was a surprise to find myself getting all pointy with my mate Patrick, when he pulled right into a passing place on a single track road by Loch Awe. The Highlander in me was getting all ‘Oi – you cannae do that- it’s against the rules!’, but to be honest, I’m not sure there was even a car around. I think I was just a bit tired and narky, when my mind seems particularly good at conjuring an Audi driver doing 100mph around every corner. Patrick with his usual droll delivery, punctured my narkiness with “What are you, the passing-place-police??” and the Goddess joined in, taking the piss. She knows the narky over-controller well. It was safe enough for us all to trust our awareness and common sense on the quiet single-track road that day. Nothing is 100% safe and trying too hard to make it so can crush our joy.
There are no rules that would’ve prevented the serious accident of the trip. Jim, our courageous Canadian, crashed on day 3 and suffered a knock to the head, a shoulder injury and broken ribs, needing a hospital overnight stay and ending his ride. It was disturbing for those on the scene to see him seriously injured and in pain, but if you’ve seen the joyful Jim, revelling in the toughest days, who is anyone else to set rules limiting his bikepacking hit? Perhaps that risk-reward relationship will shift as he gets deeper into his 70’s, or perhaps not. That’s up to him right? I was glad he made a decision to wear a helmet because that undoubtedly saved his life, but he didn’t need me to tell him. I like to think he and the other riders, like that I give them a line on their bike computer, over some good enough tracks and wee roads, for a reasonable distance, with some places to eat. Some guidance, some limits, some containment. But nobody needs the joy-crushing passing-place-police getting all pointy mcpointy!
The Rhododendron made me think again about access. The big bright pink blooms blossoming above their dense shrubbery were spectacular on our ride. I’ll always associate them fondly with my Granny & Grandpa’s house by Loch Melfort. The Rhodie arrived in Britain courtesy of landowners seeking more bling for their formal gardens and thick cover to shelter their game birds, increasing the ease with which the tweed-clad could blast birds full of lead. ‘Sport’ apparently.
No doubt in the 1760’s bringing ‘exotic’ species to botanical gardens was considered progress. We know better now. Rhododendron Ponticum is a rampaging threat to Scotland’s biodiversity. It’s insatiable appetite for territory and sunlight see’s it block out native species and attack them with its toxic leaf litter or with the phytophthora disease it smuggles in whilst we’re distracted by its flashy pink blooms. All that appears strong and bright is not necessarily good. It threatens much of our west coast temperate rainforests, with their ferns, mosses and lichens.
It’s not the Rhodie being a ‘non-native’ that’s the problem. The problem is their behaviour. Given access and opportunity, they dominate and accumulate more than they need of the wealth of the sun’s rays and the grounds nutrients. Disrupting the finely balanced interactions between our land and diverse native species. They need limits to contain them and their rapacious behaviour. We know that now I guess.
Sea Pinks & Thrifty Scots
Quite different is the Sea Pink. I rode past the wee pink bobbles of the Thrift – it’s other name – swaying in clumps by the shores of Loch Sunart. Learning more about it and it’s thrifty associations, I’m reconsidering my perception of the thrifty Scot. These pink pom-poms have adorned our shores, cliffs and mountain tops for millennia, unperturbed by us colonising their native territory. Co-existing with our forebears, eking out enough for an existence from our craggy bit of earth’s crust. A delicate looking wee thing is the Sea Pink, but like the thrifty Scot, it thrives in tough environments. Listen to one of our stellar folk musicians, Karine Polwart in her song “Dig In”, inviting us to consider Thrift as an example of conserving scarce resources, as a healthy challenge to us, rather than a miserable hardship.
The idea of the thrifty Scot, in my mind at least, was associated with a Calvinistic over-cautious miserliness. Too afraid of not having enough to enjoy the richness of life. Maybe it came from being a relatively poor country with a tough climate, who’s people needed a strong work ethic and an ability to thole4 discomfort. It’s not like that now, we’re a rich country with plenty of resources to go around, and comfortable buildings to protect us from the elements, even if these resources and comforts are far from equitably shared. Perhaps we need to rediscover the wisdom of our thrifty Scottish ancestors and learn from these modest wee plants too, rather than follow the example of the rapacious Rhodie or those humans who behave similarly?
I was far from sure I’d manage the rally this year. A bout of Covid and my usual seasonal mood dip, left my training a bit light. Listening to my body as best I could, I choose a short-cut on day 1, let go the wheels of my faster riding companions, and went light on the beers. I rode myself into the week and found some more energy. I found a balance that worked for me, somewhere between pushing into the joys of the ride and holding back from blowing up. I spend my time, as a therapist, helping people push into their emotional discomfort whilst also finding a gentle enough nurturing way to be with themselves, because we all need that too. I fear how our society drives us into the madness of more and excess. To find some psychological comfort, I think we need to find both our gentleness and our limits more often, for our mental health, never mind for the sake of saving the planet from our rapacious tenancy.
Perhaps the question of access, like many things in life, lies in finding a balance. Limits are not always negative, they can be containing, help us feel secure. Unfettered freedom would terrify me. To have no boundaries, no limits, no rules, no norms – aaargghh!! The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 is perhaps worth returning to here for a moment. The right is not, as it may be misinterpreted, the ‘right to roam’ wherever you choose, but the right of responsible access. To access Scotland’s land responsibly invites us to consider others, the human and the more than human. Others freedoms, needs and safety, in balance with our own. Perhaps that’s why I’ve come to love the camaraderie of this kind of rally bikepacking ride because it feels like we are coming together to do exactly that. Of course, when roaming or in life in general, perhaps we all occasionally become a joy-crushing twat, despite our best intentions. So if you have some forgiveness in your heart for the failings of your fellow human beings and you like the sound of sharing some responsible access to Scotland’s glorious gravel, come join us to roam, replenish and find your own balance.
Scottish words glossary:
- lug-hole: ear
- sassenach: English
- heid: head
- thole: to suffer and endure