Drams and dramatic scenery: hitting the Scottish Whisky Trail on a Harley
With all the makings of a mid-life crisis, this staggering trip around some Scotland's finest riding roads provided the perfect testbed for a monster machine
Sometimes a person needs to get away from it all. There’s no rhyme or reason for an impromptu road trip, other than a slowly building backlog of emails, unread letters on the kitchen table and a desire to de-clutter the mind.
In fact, this journey was the direct result of numerous abbreviations triggering synapses in the brain to escape from it all: bills for VAT, demands from HMRC, an invite to attend a DAS course to name a few. As a result, a digital map of Scotland was brought up on a laptop screen and pins were dropped around Edinburgh, Aviemore, Inverness, Elgin, Fraserburgh, Aberdeen and Perth.
The resulting loop, which slithers and snakes across some of the most beautiful scenery Scotland has to offer, covers more than 500 miles and appears to be the perfect tonic to a weary soul and a suitable testbed for one of Harley-Davidson's biggest bikes.
Big country. Big bike.
Almost without blinking, I’m standing in Edinburgh Harley-Davidson’s showroom. It boasts everything from gargantuan Road King models to the smaller and neater Sportsters, with a couple of Freewheeler trikes and an extensive clothing range thrown in for good measure.
But browsing is not the only reason for this visit, because the ride for this particular trip is a Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special – 1,745cc and 376kg of pure American muscle. It also features the marque’s latest Milwaukee-Eight 107 V-twin engine, which itself is an evolution of an iconic powerplant that has fuelled some of the most notable scenes in biker/road movie history. And provided that unforgettable soundtrack.
The Street Glide I throw a leg over might be a modern incarnation, complete with satellite navigation, a powerful sound system and Dr. Jekill & Mr. Hyde exhaust, which electronically alternates the muffling from really bloody loud to impressively quiet at the press of a button, but it still feels like a throwback.
Getting to grips with modern technology can prove a pain
While the showroom it is parked in front of might be a far cry from the back-street garage Peter Fonda probably purchased his 1951 Panhead chopper from in Easy Rider, there is no escaping the sense of adventure a Harley evokes when sat behind the bars - even if it does feel bit like an armchair on wheels.
This trip has no real purpose but the discovery of open roads and the promise of countless miles without seeing another soul. And despite its daunting size, this bike will be the perfect vessel.
Tackling tailbacks and heading for Big Country
The journey out of Edinburgh is taxing, to say the least. The Street Glide weighs 376kg and has the additional bulk of luggage placed in the rear panniers. Navigating the various traffic lights and one-way systems to the A1 takes time and patience, but myself and the brave photographer friend perched atop the rear pew have plenty of the former, so opt to take it slow.
It is not long before the Forth Road Bridge is in sight and we are able to leave the hustle and bustle behind. Our vague heading points us towards the Cairngorms National Park, complete with its epic vistas and ribboning sections of blacktop.
Once off the M90 we hit the gorgeous A90, a road that skirt the aforementioned national park but also does its own impression of the American Midwest, with tree-lined roads and stunning views out across lochs and lakes.
But the Street Glide peels off the route and makes a beeline for Braemar, where the A93 runs through Crathie and the brilliantly titled Cock Bridge before gripping the edge of Ben Macdui and spitting the bike and its rider out of the other side of the Cairngorms.
It is hard to believe scenes like this are basically on our doorsteps
The road trip is only a few hours young and the landscape has already knocked me for six on numerous occasions.
Perfectly smooth roads wind their way along the base of mountains, their highest peaks still capped with snow, while the distinctly beige foliage provides a stark contrast to the iridium blue sky.
The huge engine thumps away beneath me, the fresh air rushes up past the spindly chin guard of my helmet, while the road carves this way and that, requiring concentration and restrain to ensure senses aren’t overloaded and corners mistimed. Hours pass and the road continues to deliver, but the initial pressure of piloting such a large machine across such demanding asphalt has dissipated.
A wee dram to ease aching muscles
It would be rude not to bed down in a loch-side property and indulge in some local delicacies. Despite the abundant sunshine, it is still biting cold on the bike, so the fact a fire is roaring away in the corner is a bonus. A barman then delivers a dram of Glen Ord single malt, arguably once of the closest distilleries to the hotel, and everything is right with the world.
One dram turns into two or three and digital maps are once again pored over, with pins dropping around Elgin, Fraserburgh and Peterhead. It has been decided. Tomorrow’s ride will be distinctly coastal. The sea air required to shift a thick head.
Jets to Lossiemouth
With clothes and belongings crammed into the two side panniers, I point the Harley Street Glide east towards the A96, but it is not long before I feel the urge to take the road less travelled and make a beeline for the coast.
The Street Glide loves going straight
The scenery has changed dramatically from yesterday’s epic mountain vistas, as the gently undulating roads narrow and become lined with sandy forests. Numerous tourist signs begin to appear at the side of the road, tempting travellers to dip a toe into Scotland’s Malt Whisky Trail.
Strathspey and Speyside is home to a large proportion of Scotland’s whisky distilleries and it is madness not pay one a visit, but the roads get less interesting as the bike slices inland.
Instead, a spur of the moment decision is made to pick up the A9 and trace the western edge of the Cairngorms National Park. The picturesque Dalwhinnie Distillery a temporary stop-off to stretch legs and nose around.
No, the cops aren't busting the distillery. It's just the Street Glides demeanour
The place is packed full of Japanese tourists on arrival, a number of which have gathered around a display case that houses a bottle of single malt that costs a cool £450.
Dalwhinnie is one of the flashier distilleries in the area, but it is still possible to enquire about the process, have a tour of the facility and, of course, taste the wares on offer.
Alas, drinking and riding don’t really mix, so it’s best to keep things to a mere sip before jumping back on the big beast. The Street Glide is a daunting proposition to any rider, no matter his of her experience.
Don't drink and ride, gang.
Its hulking frame constantly threatens to tip over during low speed manoeuvres and navigating anything but large open roads is tricky. But when lochs, lakes, forests and peaks pass with quick succession (the breath-taking scenery apparently stuck on repeat in this part of the world) it really comes alive.
The Harley-Davidson thunders onwards, throttle set to cruise control and the revised steering damper settings in this model soaking up the majority of imperfections in the road. A cosseting, low-set seat hugs the backside and the large, if slightly ungainly, front screen does a good job of reducing buffeting.
It is here – with Scotland doing its best impression of Wisconsin – where the Glide really feels at home. The smooth roads and stunning scenery are tackled with ease, the large footplates and swept back bars offering a comfortable position from which to take it all in.
There’s enough torque produced by the engine to be lazy with the gearing. Simply tip the huge bike into a rolling corner and throttle out, the inertia enough to pull the hulking machine through the bend.
It is surprising just how far you can lean this thing before it bottoms out, while those equally enormous Brembo brakes do a great job of scrubbing off speed.
Over 300-miles of motoring have seen me form an allegiance with the Street Glide: it is cumbersome, heavy and not exactly styled to suit my tastes. Car parks are a pain, traffic is daunting and cornering at speed requires a certain set of cojones, but here, in its natural habitat, it is excellent.
Narrow country roads are not the Street Glide's natural habitat
The traffic steadily increases the closer the bike inches towards Perth, Dunfermline and, eventually, Edinburgh. And with every additional car, I’m brought back to reality with a bump.
Cruising the busy streets suddenly feels awkward, the bike has immediately gained a few pounds and my mind, which was borderline empty a few hours ago, is now racing with the prospect of scraping a wing mirror or having to swerve to avoid a tourist with a selfie stick.
It is safe to say that a busy city is not the Street Glide’s most natural habitat but it has served its purpose. In this quest for solitude, it managed to almost always find a stretch of road with few other souls around. And when it did arrive at an empty, ribboning stretch of blacktop, it delivered on its promise.
Styling doesn't matter when the roads are this good
Nothing empties the mind quite like a motorcycle and few places on earth can compete with the natural beauty of the Scottish Highlands. So, when was the last time you ventured out and just… rode?