Video: Exploring Scotland's Best Riding Spots with Manon Carpenter & Ben Cathro in 'An Ode to the Land'

Aug 22, 2019
by Tommy Wilkinson  

Scotland is just epic, right? The land of Whisky, Warriors and Haggis is much vaunted, and rightly so.

While the mountains don't share the same sort of numbers as their European cousins, a weather window on the Cullin Ridge will send the hairs upright and make the buttocks clench with equal aplomb as our continental brethren. .But Scotland has a lot of other stuff going on too.

In 2018, over 11,200 hectares of woodland were planted in Scotland, of which 3,900 hectares were native broadleaves. In real terms, that means 84% of the UK's tree planting took place in Scotland. One of the many reason's (a lot them are too nuanced to go into here) this can happen is due to a low population density, coupled with vast tracts of open, wild spaces and terrain that makes sense for it. We've also got a diverse mix of moorland peat and great, fertile soil.

Scotland also has Britain's two cities with the most green space - Edinburgh and Glasgow, 7 Velo Solutions pump tracks and amazing land access.

With this in mind we invited some friends on a journey to see as much of the contrasting cultures of Scotland in six days as we could get inspired by the landscape at home, avoid flying to some far-flung location, use as little single-use plastic as possible and all while having a flippin' mint time.

When you add in a former World Champion, a Highlander who is fiercely Scottish, a Geordie who operates at either 100% or flat batteries and some esteemed riders, then there's sure to be some stories to tell.

Torridon is on everyone's bucket list right? Countless edits, rugged terrain and seemingly endless descents make Torridon a right of passage for the "literal mountain biker". Home to an ever re- increasing amount of native Scot's pine, a rich history and incredible mountains, Torridon can inspire anyone who rides a bike to take pleasure in the natural world.

Did we mention the riding is pretty damn good too?

The drive into Kinlochewe never disappoints.

Mark Clark of Alba Mountain bike guides, or Mark Dundee as we now call him, loves Scotland more than anyone I've ever met. It's his home, his playground and he loves sharing his knowledge.

Bothy's are an incredible Scottish asset. This tiny wee hut was to be our home for just a few hours. After a run in with some "flighty" cattle and some of the worst midges we'd ever seen, being able to cook up some dinner in relative comfort was bliss. Of course, when you add in the aforementioned ancient Scots Pine, Silver birch and a free-flowing burn surrounding the Bothy, the appeal and magic of being in such an environment is only heightened. The area here in Torridon is a prime example of how sound conservation management - re-establishing 1000 hectares of continuous native woodland in the process - along with an outstanding bio-diversity program, and tourism can work together.

bigquotesThe right to roam law in Scotland is just how it should be. Mountain bikes shouldn’t be restricted to Bikeparks in specific locations, there are so many places to be made the most of around the UK. As well as being able to ride in remote locations, rides from the house can be some of the best rides and you don’t have to drive anywhere, so having the right to roam in Scotland really does remove the issues that the rest of UK can face if there are conflicts with authorities or other users. The fact that it allows bikes to go anywhere ‘responsibly’ is important though. Sharing land access with other users means that we have to be mindful of others on the trail. Obviously, bikes can go much faster than walkers, so you’ve got to be aware of others who may be sharing the trail at a different speed or going in a different direction Manon Carpenter

Louise Ferguson is still developing her riding - often on the edge of control, ragged and loose, but with heaps of potential, compared with Manon's honed technique, ultra-smooth and very fast style. Both great to watch.

bigquotesMountain biking gets me to the local woods, to explore Scotland and just plain outside, it's hard not to feel protective over something that brings happiness. Even a commute to work gives a bit of headspace, lets you spend time outside and saves using cars.

My bike has increased my awareness of environmental impacts locally and nationally. It's so important to have a passion for outdoor sports like mountain biking to truly appreciate how amazing nature is. This understanding pushes me to live cleaner.
Louise Ferguson

Torridon is one of those places. Most people know about it now, yet it's still relatively remote compared to anywhere below Manchester, where the population density of middle England can make space a luxury. This area of Wester Ross is wild, free and offers riding unlike anywhere else south of here. It's a special place.

This poor guy was a bit flimsy looking, and extremely tame. While deer overpopulation and mass culls are a political hotbed in the Highlands (Along with re-wilding efforts, which are often compared to the clearances of the late 1800's - only a few generations ago - and still culturally sensitive for good reason), there's no doubting that deer are often seen as an iconic form of Scottish symbolism.

If there's anywhere to inspire a love of the natural world in the UK, then it's the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland. From Golden eagles to the re-emergence of Beavers and the pods of Basking Sharks and Dolphins to be seen, to be amongst this all while riding our bikes is something pretty special.

Scotland now has 7 Velo Solutions pump tracks, and the cycling facilities in cities are amazing compared to a decade ago. Street riding isn't so big anymore, but it is awesome.

Pumptracks give us the best of both worlds, and the area of Glasgow couldn't make for a more marked contrast to Torridon.

Having green, and public, spaces in cities is so amazing in Scotland. It allows the culture of nature to ferment amongst the young, provide full access space without hindrance and give communities a sense of mojo through participation. There's pretty good riding to be had not far from home for a lot of people.

Manon was a joy to watch around the pump track. Ultra-smooth, style for miles and despite the 32º heat, able to bust out lap after lap.

Mark Ducat is a kid going places. Already making his stamp on the pumptrack world series at 16, Ducat is more than a one-trick pony. With his skills on off-road terrain developing rapidly, this is a name you should keep an eye on.

It was amazing to see what has been going in Glasgow, and how many young people are out on their bikes. Any bikes at all - old junkyard heaps to racing BMX's - this was run what you brung spirit at it's best. This is riding in it's purest form - free from the constraints of image and societal pressure.

Hopefully, these kids will stay on bikes right the way through to adulthood and beyond.

The Hightower himself, Ben Cathro, was to be our guide for Dunkeld, Perthshire. Coincidentally, it's also home to Britain's tallest tree.....!

Dunkeld has been around on the riding scene since about 2001-2002, when Scottish scene legend Peter Pollock pioneered what was, at the time, an absolutely savage DH track. Since then, Dunkeld has evolved into something of a riding mecca for trail bikes. With its mix of rocky, open and forested terrain high above the Salmon filled, and now thriving Beaver colony of the Tay (Which does bring some problems for farmers), and with decent rail connections, Dunkeld is a modern classic.

The area of the Tay Valley is prime agricultural land; The terrain and views from high above Dunkeld couldn't be more different to that of Torridon but were no less beautiful. It highlights the diversity of the land in Scotland, a stunning view at every point.

Cathro led us to some of the mellower trails in Dunkeld, but definitely on the faster side of the spectrum. Cathro is still fast - very fast - and it was rad to watch him play his way down the trail.

The riding was belter, if different to what I'd expected Cathro to take us to. I expected the rocky terrain and brutality of Cathro pummelling the ground, but seeing him in chilled and playful mode was a pleasure.

At this point, having had the option to fly or go overseas on this trip, I think we were all pretty happy to be here - whatever motives each individual had - and surprised by the sheer amount of good stuff in Scotland.

Aye, that's right. Everyone else can take their bench cuts, berms and kickers and leave them where they are, as this is all about pure and unadulterated old school filth!

Pioneered by some Hazzardous types, it's a type of riding that is much admired but seldom copied. If you can ignore the endless midges and near-constant threat of rain, there's a lot to delight in beneath the shadow of Ben Nevis.

We were lucky enough to bump into brothers Brodie and Jake Hood, along with the fairly famous Australian Sheepdog Lumi. They happily guided us to a Dudes of Hazzard Classic (We tried to meet up with them, but they were out of town) where typical chaos ensued. Manon was calculated calm and pretty much nailed the trail immediately whereas Mick and Louise, being more do or die type riders spent a bit of time in the dirt, or riding sections at electrifying warp speed.

It's a unique type of riding that the Fort William crew seem to revel in - It's so wrong that it's just so right.

Jake Hood nailing it on the hardtail. So good to see.

Having barely scratched the surface on what Scotland has to offer, it was refreshing to know that we don't always need to spend fortunes, fly miles and consume as much as we're used to in the quest of having a good time. Creating an experience is always number one on the list, but more and more thinking about how we do that is becoming critically relevant. We can't be Carbon Neutral riding bikes the way we do as yet - but with drive and conviction, we can definitely improve things.

bigquotesAwareness of our impact on natural environments has come hand in hand with enjoying them. Spending time in wild places makes me appreciate the less altered world so much, and becoming more aware of things like single-use plastic and fuel consumption has made me think a lot about how I can reduce my own impact. Going out into wild areas shouldn’t mean you have to wrap everything you take in plastic or blow through a ton of plastic-wrapped bars. Some alternatives can replace a lot of that with a bit of thought and effort.

Where possible I've been trying out 'real' food instead, sandwiches wrapped in wax wraps and reused plastic bags to keep them dry if needed, carefully packed bananas, and I was recently introduced to Stoats oat bars - Scottish no less - whose wrappers are suitable to go in the garden compost bin, which I take for backups! For me, the less waste I create the more I can be certain that it won't end up somewhere I wouldn't want it to be. Obviously only so much is possible but we do what we can.

Fuel consumption is another big issue and is not something easy to avoid when it feels like the whole world revolves around it. Getting out to these wilder places to ride almost always involves burning fuel, and I like that Tommy has thought about offsetting our carbon footprint from this trip. It doesn’t exactly cancel out the fuel we burnt, but hopefully, it helps a bit at least and could be the way to go for projects wanting to celebrate our natural world with minimal impact.
Manon Carpenter

bigquotesProducing media is another form of consumption which takes time, money and energy to produce and watch in an age of constantly charged electronic devices. It's an area I've struggled to be at peace with for a while now, given it's how I, and a couple of others here, make a living. Who really wants to stick their head above the parapet on an issue so emotive, scary and one that has so many connecting strands?

I've really tried to travel less and avoid flying as much as I can. I'm not perfect - If I have to fly, I have to fly. I'm not a scientist, botanist, ecologist or zoologist, so don't fully understand all this, but I trust experts. I have turned down jobs we'd have to fly to though, which is tough, and has meant modifying my business. I still eat meat once a month from Peelham Organics, drive a dirty diesel van, ride an EBike for work etc... I'm trying, but it's not easy.

I also want to have fun. It's kinda important.

This is as much about preservation of ourselves as it is our land, and that's scary, but also provides a stimulating opportunity.

My thought process was; the terrain at home is inspiring and I wanted to enjoy that and show we don't always need to travel to far-flung corners for inspiration.

Often mtb media that takes an environmental tone is shot at a huge cost, in remote parts of the globe, and carries massive energy output. It just doesn't add up to me. Are we inspiring people to change, or copy our idols into travelling all over the world? This film hasn't taken a strong tone on the environmental considerations, as it should be part of the process anyway. Maybe we'll look at that more closely next time.

If you're a business and worried about your bottom line (as you should be), we've seen that brand activism builds brand loyalty, and a circular, skilled-staff model for product life cycles (repairs, retrofit parts manufacturing etc..) can work - but only if you really adopt change that goes deeper into your brand than your latest marketing campaign - and I appreciate that is a complex challenge in a big business compared to a small business that can pivot quickly.

On this production, we travelled approximately 3000 collective miles. Using the (what seems rudimentary) Carbon Footprint calculator based on our models of vehicles this gave us 1.16 tons of C02 output for 5 of us, about a fifth of one flight to New York and a 30th of a flight to New Zealand for 5 of us. I tried to work out other areas, but couldn't.

We tried to limit single-use plastics in the trip - which was also hard - both in terms of shifting culture from linear purchasing to circular purchasing (Re-usable coffee cup being a prime example) in a large group and over 6 days, we ran out of food I'd got from Refill stores and pre-made at home from ingredients. This is both a consumer habit issue and availability issue.

Carbon Offsetting is a moot point as it doesn't address the real issues as Manon says. Carbon Retirement and Cool Earth might have some traction as schemes, so I'm exploring those options. However, it does feel a little like moving food around on a plate. If companies (and governments....) can first streamline and vet their material sourcing, manufacturing processes, shipping logistics, pension and assets investments, land and energy management, energy sourcing etc.. all while protecting peoples jobs (this is critically important) then we can talk about offsetting schemes. These are huge tasks that take time, but must be looked at in a holistic strategy, starting now.

Offsetting schemes are commendable and can inspire change, but they are often a symbolic touch. Unsure, and not fully convinced by offsetting, I planted 20 trees sourced from Cheviot Trees ltd on a site of felled mixed crop. I figured direct action is better than armchair action. I'm going to do this after every project (If we get any more work after this, haha!), but only after the other elements of the production have been looked at first.

The main point is, travel is incredible, stimulating and soul-enriching, but you can have just as much fun by looking closer to home and getting a real connection to the land around you on your bike. I love this land, and that's my real motivation.
Tommy Wilkinson

With special thanks to Radon bikes, Industry Nine and Funn components.


  • 4 0
 Just so good. Makes me want to return pronto.
I also rated the considered thoughts from the crew about trying to minimise their carbon footprint but in the context of maintaining a healthy balance.... cue argument about aluminium vs carbon vs bamboo??
  • 7 0
 That's the whole point of the piece for me. I perhaps didn't get it right in the video, but often balanced discussion is lost to louder, less balanced views. The big issues are huge - massive in fact - that require understanding on all fronts, but also relentless pressure and communication. We're all great at honing in on detail that's relevant to ourselves, but there's always a bigger picture that needs worked towards, and that needs balance. Pleased you enjoyed it and appreciate you comments!
  • 4 0
 Fantastic article. I was lucky to visit Aviemore and the Cairngorms twice in the past and it remains up to this day my favourite place when it comes to mountain biking, people and atmosphere. The train ride from Edinburgh to Aviemore is absolutely stunning too! I miss my hometown in France, but I think I miss Scotland even more.
  • 4 0
 Great. My wife just saw this after finishing Outlander. Guess we're going to Scotland next year (I'm a ginger that likes riding bikes and drinking scotch, so I guess I can't complain).
  • 4 0
 This is (almost) exactly what we already planned for holidays, starting from next week! Except from the fact we gonna travel by train and by bike Smile
  • 3 0
 Yes! Bike and train. I'm going to Eurobike week after next, and I'll go by train the whole way from Newcastle upon Tyne. It's a nice way to travel, and the more we do it, the better the infrastructure and pricing becomes. I don't think I need to fly to anywhere in Europe.
  • 5 1
 Did I miss it or didn’t they not ride in the rain. Can’t say you’ve ridden Scotland if you stayed dry lol
  • 1 0
 @mtb-scotland I know. Cathkin Braes on a sunny day where the wind isn't blowing you backward down the back straight.
  • 1 0
 Ride in Aberfoyle - the trails are permanently wet there anyway.
  • 1 0
 @Niseach1: dry trails there if you know where to look lol
  • 4 0
 Mountain bike heaven! Great photos. Wish I were there.
  • 3 0
 FABULOUS, that's wetted my appetite for the end of September, 4 days of fun in Glentress and Innerleithen, BEAUTIFUL!!
  • 1 0
 Great to see someone writing about the cognitive dissonance we suffer as mountains bikers in the context of climate change. There’s a lot of hype and no action these days - so thanks Tommy for walking the walk.
  • 2 2
 If by any remote possibility Manon is reading the comments please give racing another try. Also Scotland is awesome the trails on Skye and in the Kinlochleven area are ace.
  • 1 0
 great video and read. the bird dive bombing a fish in the scene is awesome and made the video... hhaah and the mud and Manon and the riding of course.
  • 2 0
 Random shot I got on the Isle of Barra. A real gem of an Island in the Outer Hebrides that I go to on holiday each year. First time I'd seen basking sharks, but the terns and other wildlife are incredible!
  • 1 0
 @TommyWilkinson: Some great stuff in Lewis and Harris.
  • 1 0
 Without a doubt the best clip I've seen in quite some time! The riding looks stunning, hopefully I get to ride there one day too!
  • 1 0
 Thank you!
  • 2 0
 Excellent article - a pleasure to read and beautiful photos!
  • 1 0
 Thank you!
  • 1 0
 There are so many videos on Pinkbike and this one thankfully stands above the crowd. Thank you
  • 1 0
 A shout-out to Peter Pollock in a pibkbike article! The Scottish scene wouldn't be the same without his efforts. Top guy
  • 1 0
 I spent many a formative year racing his creations. One of my favourite anecdotes has to be Strathayre, 2002. The track was ridiculously hard and incredibly muddy. It made Fort William woods 2017 look pish. Anyway, there was a lot of complaints. Peter tackled it head on - a rousing speech after practice where he invoked the riot act - duly telling people who weren’t prepared to challenge themselves that they should just go home, because this was downhill. It’s embedded in my memory, just like the scar on my knee from said race. I loved it. What a top, top man who deserves far more credit than he gets. I’d love to chew the cud with him once more.
  • 1 0
 @TommyWilkinson: I was there, tripodding my way down... My preferred memory: Peter taking bog roll up to the start hut at each race because I had a habit of getting nerve-induced shits every time I heard the beeps. And as a non-drinker he wouldn't take a beer as thanks. Hero
  • 1 0
 Good job Tommy.. Cracking video of the best little country in the world :-) Biased of course :-)
  • 1 0
 Street riding isn't so big anymore, but it is awesome.
  • 2 0
 Och aye!
  • 1 0

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