A pilgrimage to one of Scotland’s most renowned whisky distilleries became more about the journey than the destination… as T120 rider Greg Parmley reveals:
The day before my week’s holiday begins, I’m trying to decide where to go. A last-minute beach vacation? An extended city break? They might have worked, but I want to get out on my Bonneville. So when the weather forecast for Scotland looked reasonably clear, I put two of my most popular pastimes together.
I’ve always enjoyed a decent single malt. It’s something about the tradition of whisky making in Scotland, the purity of the three ingredients (water, malted barley and yeast) and the craftsmanship involved in the process. And with one of my favourite drams – Talisker – being produced on the Isle of Skye, a mere 600 miles from my London home, I make a plan.
With hours until I leave, my trip preparation consists of a quick kit update. A puncture repair kit, some bungie straps and two packs of earplugs later, I’m ready. After all, it’s a UK trip… what could possibly go wrong? I might not have packed waterproofs, but how wet or cold could it possibly be?
Early on the Sunday morning I’m off, straight north up the M1 motorway and waiting for the sun to warm the carriageway. Without a fairing, the first 100 miles are the hardest, the wind tugging at limbs and senses assaulted. But the body soon settles around the Bonneville, submitting to the environment and the frame.
Stones on the motorway
The journey is rarely punctuated by anything memorable. Mostly, it’s a day spent pondering the quality of tarmac on the M6 Toll and humming Rolling Stones tunes.
Day two, and with the motorway slog behind me, I’m soon over the border into Scotland and the scenery begins to rise and fall around the bike, roads cutting through the lowlands, at times sheltered from the fresh breeze, then exposed and buffeted.
It would be quicker to stick on major roads and then skirt Ben Nevis, north straight to Skye, but my route – planned the night before over a beer – takes me to some of the western isles and up the coast.
Challenging and intense ride
So from the A74, I head west towards Ayr on the A70, enjoying long stretches of exhilarating twists and turns as the road curves around hillsides and at one point seems to end abruptly ahead, as though to propel riders into the deep, blue waters of the loch below. Without other traffic, it’s a challenging and intense ride, before Ardrossan for the ferry to Arran, the seventh largest Scottish island.
The ferry is a mixture of locals, cyclists and caravans and I’m the only motorcycle. I turn up and roll straight on, the crew strap down my bike and we depart. Off the boat at Brodick and it’s north along the shore, past fishing tackle, rocks and a soft water with the texture of frosted glass.
The road drifts like a single ribbon
The smell of drying seaweed at low tide hits the back of my throat as I weave past guesthouses, hikers and ramblers. Then up across the island and some of the most breathtaking scenery I’ve witnessed anywhere in the UK. The road drifts across the landscape like a single ribbon, free from road signs to ruin the view.
I’ve owned my T120 Black since last June and only now am I starting to really appreciate its potential. Accelerating out of steep bends in third gear is a joy and the bike responds immediately. There’s always as much juice as I need, while it’s nimble, light but seemingly glued to the asphalt.
While my bike and I work in tandem, some strange symmetry between man and machine, it’s not the same fate for the local insect life. The Lake District boasts the largest number of flies committing suicide against my visor, but on plush, green Arran, my jacket soon looks like the scene of a green-blooded genocide. An open-face helmet is not an option here…
The joke everyone’s in on but me
The next morning, riding kit wiped down and reset for the day, I check out of the guesthouse in Lamlash, exiting my sea-view room overlooking the Buddhist settlement on Holy Isle. I ride back over the island to Lochranza to catch the ferry to Claonaig and the mainland.
I’m still the only motorcyclist I’ve seen, which leaves me wondering whether there’s a joke that everyone’s in on but me. But the A83 to Lochgilphead proves a curving, sweeping piece of pristine tarmac and with little traffic for company, I forget any concerns and enjoy the ride.
As I turn off to Oban, the A816 is the single most perfect hour of motorcycling I’ve yet experienced. The road cuts through the hills, churns, twists, doubles back in steep hairpins, then drops to skirt two lochs, running parallel to the deep waters. The late spring air is sharp and clean and now I do see the occasional motorbike, as equally intense grins loom fast and disappear in the other direction.
Hilltops, heather and flawless roads = elation
I head through forests, across hilltops and sparse plateaus of gorse and heather. Down into valleys, through postcard-perfect villages and on, it’s a road so flawless that when I arrive in Oban, with its eponymous whisky distillery squeezed between the seafront and the granite slabs behind it, I feel utterly elated.
I book all the remaining ferry crossings at Oban’s tourist information centre (pre-booking is sometimes required) and the next morning it’s an early breakfast and the first ferry of the day to the Isle of Mull. From the port, I head along the coast and up over the island via the single-track road to the capital town, Tobermory. The road runs around the coast, past the wrecks of fishing vessels and the remnants of fishing nets and tackle.
It’s on the quayside of the fishing town that I meet another rider – my first on the trip. ‘Where is everyone?’ we marvel. I’m the first motorcycle he’s seen in days. He has followed a similar route but is wild camping over three weeks. We reminisce about the A816, doe-eyed. “That was my best as well,” he says.
Whistling wind and the Bonneville’s thrum
From Tobermory it’s a ferry to Kilchoan and an overcast mainland. What starts out as a farm track widens slightly to a single lane. And for the next hour, the bike is barely upright. We weave and track the coastline, moving up and down with the contours of the mountains and the occasional oncoming car.
It’s mostly second and third gear, as cattle grids fly under the wheels with a split-second rattle. The short periods of dual lanes feel enormous, and long. Wide bends are moments to try leaning a little further, tugging on the accelerator just a touch harder. The wind whistles in my ears, joining the thrum of the Bonneville as it works hard underneath me.
It’s dynamic riding that requires total focus. Scan forward, position, shift gear, counter-steer, repeat. In the constant wind, the chill of the day seeps into my jacket and trousers. By the time I arrive in Portree – the principal town on Skye – I feel the same initial burst of calm, relief and deep contentment as I did after my final A level exam.
Portree seems entirely arranged for the tourists that serenade its small streets daily, hunting for Hebredian crafts and gifts. But where Oban feels more of a seaside town, Portree is framed by the rugged mountains of the island that rise up from all sides around it.
Dark, deep greens, burnt orange and ochre
The landscape of Skye is harsher than the mainland; jagged, singed brown and windswept. Heather moor punctuates hardy evergreens and pine forests, while dark, deep greens, burnt orange and ochre turn to granite greys and white snowy tips on the jagged horizon.
After four days of riding, I’ve reached my destination and I head out for a celebratory meal. With fresh seafood in abundance, it’s the finest scampi I’ve ever tasted, then back to the guesthouse to rest up before my bus to Talisker the next morning. On four wheels the next day, I’m struck by how boxed in I feel, removed from this dramatic, rugged scenery. But with a whisky tasting booked, it’s the only option, so I sit back and enjoy the ride.
Taste unique to Skye
One of Scotland’s oldest distilleries, Talisker is the only one on Skye. Like the nearby Islay malts, it’s a peated whisky, part of the flavour coming from the 20 springs it draws water from, some of which run over peat. The unusual hint of salt is thought to come from the shape of the copper stills, but the whisky’s taste is unique to Skye and the remote landscape.
Heritage married with reinvention
The distillery tour takes us through the whisky-making process. The malting process, the mash tuns that remove the sugars from the barley, the two sets of copper stills that distill the spirit and the warehouse where the charred oak casks impart their flavour to the spirit over years.
Talisker opened in 1830 and soon gained a reputation for quality. In 1850, writer Robert Louis Stevenson described it as ‘The King o’drinks as I conceive it’. The artisanal process has changed little since then. The same Skye spring water is used and identically shaped copper stills impart the same flavour profiles.
In recent years, the distillery has released new expressions for modern tastes (releases include Talisker Storm, 57° North, Neist Point and Skye) and as our tour group tries samples of each, I can’t help but think about the Bonneville and the same sense of heritage married with reinvention.
Two days later and it’s the long trip back to London, but with the A82 rolling straight past Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK, it’s jaw-dropping stuff. Past Glen Coe, the remains of a supervolcano, and south as I join a ragtag mix of bikers who group together. Cruisers, racing bikes, touring monsters… there’s no discrimination surrounded by such total beauty.
By the time I head back into the capital’s ring roads and flat, urban landscape, the contrast with the enormity of the highlands is stark. As UK destinations go, it’s a must and the T120 Black handled it effortlessly. I’ve ridden 1,400 miles through some of the best scenery in the world, on some of the finest biking roads I’ve yet experienced, I’m already wondering when I can go back.