Have you ever considered cycling in Scotland but aren’t sure what to expect or where to ride? Never fear, we’re a welcoming bunch with a vast and wild country filled with snow capped mountains, sandy beaches and quiet, picturesque single track roads.
In many parts of Scotland you’ll feel a million miles from civilisation, so if you’re after quiet cycling solitude not far from some of the most vibrant cities in the UK, start packing your cycling kit and head up north.
To help you choose where to go and what to expect, we’ve put together this guide to get you started on your next cycling holiday to Scotland.
We hope you have a fantastic trip - let us know how it goes in the comments section at the end of the article!
By Helen Langridge
1. Why you should try cycling Scotland
You may have already heard of some of the famous Scottish cycling routes. The North Coast 500 has been tipped as Scotland’s Route 66 and if you ride the UK end to end from Land’s End to John O’Groats, you’ll be finishing at a very rugged coastline on our north coast.
But did you know that Scotland has five of the ten highest paved roads in the UK and some of the toughest and longest climbs you’ll find on the British Isles?
Scotland is a country of extremes; yes we have the mountains and the steep climbs, but we also have quiet islands with small passenger ferries to let you meander between places at your leisure at a far more family-friendly pace. Or if you fancy a distillery tour after a heavy day of riding then, of course, we have plenty of those too.
Scotland is bigger than the BBC weather maps will have you believe, and the weather can be changeable (so remember those arm warmers and rain jacket) - but the good news is that it’ll almost certainly break into sunshine at some point in the day.
You’ll never be bored of the views here either. Even if they’re shrouded in mist, there might just be a snow-covered mountain, abandoned castle or herd of highland cattle around the next corner.
Cycling around Scotland is an adventure not far from home but you won't be alone if you find yourself coming back year after year.
2. The best regions for cycling in Scotland
Below you’ll find our pick of the six best areas in Scotland for your next Scottish cycling holiday. Or pick a few and build your very own cycling tour of Scotland!
We’ve listed our pick (roughly) starting from the most southerly and moving north.
The Central Belt
Great for: Flatter landscapes with some rolling hills and more plentiful café stops
Where to stay: Glasgow, Edinburgh or Stirling
Looking on a map and you instantly spot the line of conurbation that reaches from Glasgow in the west to Edinburgh in the east. You’d be forgiven for thinking cycling in the Glasgow/Edinburgh/Stirling region is an area to miss out on two wheels.
However, there are so many quiet back roads connecting smaller towns and villages that it actually makes for some incredible cycling but with less remoteness you’ll get elsewhere in Scotland.
Staying in or near some of the larger cities means you can have a cycling holiday with a big mix of activities and you’ll never be short of something to do.
For those feeling stronger, there’s the classic Glasgow to Edinburgh cycle ride (and return if you’re keen for a 100 miler), or a gentle pootle along the Union Canal for those wanting a more sedate day.
If you fancy a trip to Edinburgh, don’t miss our guide to cycling in and around Edinburgh.
Great for: Loch routes, ferry rides, great climbs and other outdoor adventures
Where to stay: Callandar or Aberfoyle
Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park are located just north of Glasgow and west of Stirling.
Often referred to as “the Highlands in minature”, cycling in the Trossachs can vary from gentle hills around Loch Venachar to impressive climbs such as the Duke’s Pass, which hits 11% and leads straight north out of Aberfoyle itself.
This region also incorporates the Loch Lomond cycle path, which runs from Arrochar to Tarbert and is suitable for all bike types. Note that this isn’t a circular path, but makes for a scenic and family-friendly day out.
The Trossachs is a varied region for those who want to do more than just ride, as you can tick some munros off your hill walking list, take ferries across lochs and spy rare wildlife such as the red squirrel and golden eagle.
Another big plus for Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park is that they are really close to Glasgow; it’s less than an hour’s drive from the city centre to Callandar or Aberfoyle – two great bases to explore from. If you’re short on time, this area could be a winner for your next bike tour in Scotland.
It’s without doubt one of the most underrated areas for biking in Scotland and a holiday you’ll not forget.
Great for: building climber’s legs, incredible quiet roads, mixing flatter routes with challenging climbs
Where to stay: Aberfeldy or Dunkeld
Perthshire is known as the gateway to the Highlands as it sits at the transition point between the central lowlands and the foothills of the larger mountains.
This means you can get a taste of the tougher cycling climbs on one day and then spin the legs out on an easy route with the family the next.
Perthshire is packed with glens, lochs and mountains for adventurous days out. If you base yourself in Perth, you have the best access to the historic Scone palace (the former Royal seat of Scotland) plus some of the more undulating hills, which characterize the central lowlands.
Alternatively, hit the big cycling climbs of Glen Quaich or Schiehallion road with a base in Aberfeldy or Dunkeld.
Perthshire has some of the best road cycling in Scotland with a huge number of extremely quiet roads which criss-cross the county and don’t take half a day to get to. You’ll never be short of a new route, but take those climbing legs with you for the extra challenge.
Great for: Rolling countryside, farmland with the occasional taste of the bigger peaks.
Where to stay: Aberdeen or Stonehaven
The east coast of Scotland generally has less rain and more wind than the west coast (making the east v west decision a difficult one as a cyclist!).
However Aberdeenshire gives you the best of both worlds when it comes to terrain. You can choose either a gentle, rolling farmland route or head further inland to tackle some of the beasty climbs as you border the Cairngorms.
Either Aberdeen or Stonehaven give you easy access to the famous Cairn O’Mount climb which is a devilishly short challenge to tick off your list of must-do cycling climbs in Scotland.
Speyside and Cairngorms
Great for: Some of the toughest cycling climbs of Scotland, high roads, abundant whisky
Where to stay: Aviemore or Dufftown
You’ve probably heard of ‘Speyside’ from the wide array of whiskies available from this north-east area of Scotland. There are around 50 distilleries to visit if that’s your thing!
The defined region extends west to Inverness, east towards Aberdeen and stops south at the boundary of the Cairngorms, so for the purposes of this guide, we’ll include the Cairngorms so we can add in some extra special road climbs to ride before you head for a dram.
Whisky aside, the roads in this rugged region of Scotland are tough going and during winter are usually snowy and icy because they’re so high.
You’ll find three of the top ten highest roads in the UK in this region, so make sure to bring your climbing legs with you.
Because it is a mountainous region, the roads aren’t very family-friendly. Base yourself in Dufftown or Aviemore for the best cycling on offer including the Lecht, Cairngorm Road, and Cairn O’Mount, plus excellent access to the distilleries and hill walking in the area.
The Scottish Highlands
Great for: Rugged remoteness, unrelenting climbing
Where to stay: Inverness, Ullapool or Portree
Scotland was traditionally split into the Highlands and Lowlands along the Highland Boundary fault line, but along this delineation was also a difference in culture and language. The Highlands and Islands spoke Gaelic whereas the Lowlands spoke Scots.
In modern times, ‘the Highlands’ is loosely defined, but for the purposes of this guide we’re considering it everywhere west of a line travelling from Oban to Pitlochry to Inverness.
After the Jacobite rebellion in 1715, roads were very quickly built across the Highlands to move the English military around to quell further unrest. A steep hill wasn’t seen as a barrier to road building, and nowadays this means cycling the Scottish Highlands is a pretty challenging experience. It’s these kind of roads that’ll allow you to visit some wild and remote places before circling back to your hotel for a wee dram before dinner.
If you’re wondering where to stay for your Highland cycling adventure, you could consider basing yourself in the bigger towns of Fort William or Inverness, which are connected to Edinburgh and Glasgow by train. Alternatively, you could go a little more remote to Ullapool or Portree on the Isle of Skye, which are best reached by car.
Wherever you choose to stay, there’s bound to be a famous Scottish cycling climb nearby – from the old drover’s road of Bealach Na Ba to the Quiraing pass on Skye, which is possibly one of the most photographed views of the Scottish Highlands. The cycling around Loch Ness is also a popular option.
If you do stay at Fort William, it’s worth knowing Fort William’s cycling is more mountain biking focused than road cycling. The Nevis range is home to the UCI MTB World Cup and the roads can be quite narrow and fast and there’s rarely much space to escape to if needed.
3. Cycling routes in Scotland
Scotland benefits from a vast network of small single-track roads, that makes road cycling here a joy.
We’re currently preparing an article that shares our favourite Scotland cycling routes in the regions we mention above – sign up to our email list so you don’t miss it when it’s published!
Check out the Sustrans Scotland National Cycle Network, which is excellent, often utilising paved railway paths which are suitable for all bike types and old-main roads which parallel the new busy ones. Some of the classic NCN routes include:
Long distance cycling routes in Scotland
There are a number of famous long-distance cycling routes in Scotland including:
The Five Ferries route
This cycling route let’s you visit the islands of Arran, Kintyre and Bute in a circular loop around the Firth of Clyde.
You can start and end this route in Glasgow and make it an epic day ride, or split it up into a longer cycling holiday.
CalMac ferries sell a specific ticket for this cycling adventure and we’ve plotted the route for you so you’re ready to go, here.
This self-guided route takes in the Outer Hebrides, which sit way out west of Scotland and still have 50 uninhabited islands.
The Hebridean Way was launched as a cycling route by the Scottish world record holder, Mark Beaumont, in 2016 and covers 185 miles and 10 islands.
You start this route via a ferry from Oban, which can be reached by train from Glasgow.
We’ve plotted the route here.
Coast to Coast Scotland cycle route
This signed route starts in Annan near the border with England and travels north and east to finish at the Forth Bridge in Edinburgh.
Suitable for all bikes, this is a challenge easy enough to do on a long weekend.
We’ve plotted the route here.
Family friendly cycling in Scotland
There are also some famous routes outwith the National Cycle Network but are well established, family friendly and mostly off-road (but suitable for all bike types). These include:
There are further family friendly routes in our ‘Best Cycle Routes in Scotland’ article which is coming soon.
A note of warning when picking cycling routes in Scotland
It’s worth bearing in mind that some of the roads in the north-west of Scotland are becoming popular with camper vans since the NC500 has been advertised as a driving route.
This isn’t to say it’s not still idyllic on two wheels, but going slightly out of season (if you can brave the cooler weather) would mean the roads would be less congested.
Once you move onto the B roads, you’re still likely to get a very enjoyable ride with excellent surface conditions, and it’s all round advised to avoid the A roads as much as possible as they are still narrow and very fast moving.
4. Scotland bike tours and cycling holidays
If you’re looking for a full-on cycling holiday in Scotland, you’ve got the option of organising your own or making use of one of the companies offering guided tours of Scotland.
There are numerous cycling holiday companies who offer varying degrees of autonomy from bespoke tours all the way through to luggage transfer.
We haven’t used any tour companies ourselves but would love to know your experiences – let us know in the comments below!
5. Cycling events in Scotland
Given the incredible scenery and quiet roads, it’s no wonder there are so many organised cycling sportives in Scotland.
Every year there are opportunities to do sign-posted sportives which guarantee an unparalled view of Scotland, including:
Etape Caledonia and Etape Loch Ness made it to our list of the best sportives in the UK - check out that article here.
We are also lucky to host the Women’s Tour of Scotland, which had its inaugural year in 2019 and will hopefully be back in 2021. This is one for the pros, but you can cheer on from the roadside, then hop on your bike and ride the route yourself.
6. Tips for cycling in Scotland
When to visit (and midges)
Undoubtedly, the best months to visit Scotland are May and September when the weather is less unsettled.
Although the midge season stretches from late May to September, if you’re lucky you’ll just get the tail end of the season if you come in May/September.
You can encounter midges anywhere in Scotland but they swarm in areas outside of cities, particularly around damp soil. They’re found in their greatest numbers in the Highlands but can be blown away by a good breeze over 7mph.
Scotland’s climate is moderate, not usually getting hotter than mid-20s in summer. The average Scottish summer’s day reaches about 15 - 18 degrees, with a noticeable breeze and average cloud cover. The chances of rain are higher than in England, so always have a rain jacket handy.
Cycling clubs, bike rental and bike shops in Scotland
Cycling clubs in Scotland are mainly clustered in city hubs, but you’ll always be welcome to ride with them if you let them know you’re coming. It’s best to check out their individual websites for details of when and where they ride.
Road bike rental in Scotland is possible in the cities, but not common outside of that. Make sure you do your research before you arrive and if in doubt, bring your own bike.
As for bike shops in Scotland, while there’s usually one or two in the bigger towns, it’s unlikely you’ll find them in the more remote parts of Scotland. Given this and the fact phone signals can be patchy, make sure to take enough spares and repair kit with you when you ride to be self-sufficient enough to make it to the next town.
Village shops usually take card payments though wifi can be unreliable, so always carry some cash on you (and take it out of the ATM in a big town so you can enjoy our Scottish bank notes). The opening hours of most shops include opening in Sundays, though hours can be reduced.
If you are venturing to some of our wonderful islands, our ferries do take bikes, sometimes at a small charge and it’s best to book in advance in summer months. You’ll be asked to wheel your bike on and lock it securely, so make sure you take a lock.
To fuel those legs over those climbs or against the wind (of which there’s a lot of in Scotland and predominantly from the south-west), make sure you try our black pudding and haggis, followed by desert with ‘tablet’. As for what those delicacies are, we’ll leave it all as a pleasant surprise!
Do you fancy cycling in Scotland?
Share your experiences of cycling in Scotland in the comments below - we'd love to hear your tips!
cycling Box Hill, Leith Hill and friends