Scotland Awheel

Duncan R. Jamieson, Ph.D.

Ashland University

Ashland, OH  44805,  USA

Despite popular belief, there is no evidence that Scottish blacksmith Kirkpatrick Macmillan (1812-1878) invented the bicycle.  While he did build an early boneshaker which is on display in Glasgow, it is not the first, though it is an early rendition of a machine that went through significant changes until the 1870s when the high wheel appeared, to be followed by the safety in the 1880s, the diamond frame which remains the most popular design today.  Even if the bicycle was not invented in Scotland, the first woman to gain notoriety by riding one may well be Mary Marchbank who in 1842 rode the machine built by her uncle.

With the arrival of the high wheel or ordinary, people began riding further and further, traveling independently, when and where they wanted.  For those interested in setting records, John O’Groats became a popular destination, with the first ride from London made by members of the Middlesex Bicycle Club in June, 1873.  These men averaged ninety-seven kilometers a day, followed seven years later by two men from the Canonbury Bicycle Club who rode the 1407 kilometers from Land’s End to John O’Groats in twelve days, averaging 112 kilometers a day.  Not limited to bicycles, a tricyclist, Alfred Nixon, rode from Land’s End to John O’Groats in fourteen days in 1882 and then reprised the ride two years later, finishing in eight and one-half days (today with improved roads and better equipment the record is forty-one hours).  By 1892 the Cyclists Touring Club determined it to be a “classic route,” Though the first around the world cyclists, Thomas Stevens, did not venture into Scotland on his epic journey, many of the early imitators did.  The Australians George Burston and Harry Stokes, the Americans Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben and the Canadian Carl Creelman all cycled through parts of Scotland, with Creelman reaching John O’Groats.

Land’s End to John O’Groats may be a “classic route,” but there are many other parts of Scotland that have attracted cyclists for decades.  People racing from point A to point B to set a new record miss the pleasure of riding in the slow lane, which is enjoying the sights and sounds and meeting the people along the way.  When the American churchman Winfred Ernest Garrison rode through Scotland in the 1890s he took six hours to climb Ben Nevis before continuing north to Inverness.  There he turned south, touring Stirling Castle before arriving in Edinburgh, where he felt the presence of John Knox.  He found the Scott Memorial “as lofty as a cathedral and graceful as a lily,” but the bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln, a memorial to the Scottish dead in the American Civil War, moved him the most.  The American expatriate, Joseph Pennell, who cycled the length of Great Britain, enjoyed the Scottish lowlands for their scenic beauty, an opinion shared by several other riders who took the time to write of their experiences.  However much Pennell enjoyed cycling in England and on the continent, nothing surpassed the beauty of Scotland or the friendliness of the people.

A dozen American high school students, chaperoned by two teachers, rode through England and Scotland in 1892, developing a deeper interest in British history and literature.  When they returned to the United States they each made presentations to their schoolmates at Brookline High School.  The low cost of traveling by bicycle made the journey possible while traveling independently added to their learning.

Tony Hammerton spent two weeks in the Highlands with friends.  The freedom to travel where and when they wanted at their own pace made the bicycle the ideal vehicle in 1900. They saw the best of Scotland, from Loch Lomond, “the Queen of inland waters,” to the mighty mass of Ben Cruachan.  Familiar with the works of Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, Hammerton compared his experiences to those of Boswell and Samuel Johnson in Fort Augustus or Robert Burns in Aberfeldy.  Hammerton’s itinerary took him past Balmoral Castle, Queen Victoria’s Scottish home.  He noted the flag which signified her presence, the last time before her death in 1901.  A contemporary of Hammerton, the Reverend Alexander A. Boddy regularly rode through the borderlands.

E.E. Henderson found it disappointing that so many of his fellow Scots knew more of Europe than their native land. He reveled in the fresh air and freedom, making multiple trips of a few days to a few weeks in the late 1890s and early 1900s. He traveled in weather ranging from sunny and warm to cold and wet.  Nothing fazed him as he enjoyed his journeys so much words failed to capture the scenes.  He treasured these breaks from the crowded city which imprisoned him until his next bicycle escape.

Riding a few years later Walter Arnold Mursell’s travels always gave him a new lease and a new grip on life.  Not merely a machine, his bicycle, which he viewed as a dragon or a chariot of fire, allowed him to travel for the sake of the journey, not the destination.  The only drawback had become the motor car, The Road Hog, far more dangerous than dogs.  Motors spewed noxious fumes while their drivers were “infernally aggressive and provocative.”  Despite the increasing abundance of automobiles the passing scenery so struck Mursell he found words incapable of capturing the beauty.  Each ride was a miracle, with the continuous going the chief delight.

During World War Two Bernard Newman, the most prolific bicycle travel author, lectured frequently on the war effort due to his intimate knowledge of European geography from his many bicycle journeys on the continent.  He rode through Scotland often, reveling in the fact that he rode where Scott, Burns and Annie Laurie had lived.  While being transported to another lecture by the RAF he rode in a two seat airplane with no room for his bicycle, affectionately called George.  After he was seated the crew put George in his lap, a wheel on either side.

Two Americans posted to Great Britain during the war rode through much of Scotland.  Fred Birchmore who a decade before had ridden around the world toured Scotland awheel while Clifford Graves saw his first ten speed bicycle when posted to England.  It took him six months to get one, which he then rode through Scotland.

As nearly everyone who takes a cycling holiday will confirm, the last day is always bittersweet, though the journey’s memory carries the rider to the next event.  Though all these cyclists rode in many other places, they each praised Scotland’s varied beauty and encouraged others to follow in their wheel tracks.  If you’re interested in more about cycle journeying in general, may I point you toward my book, The Self-Propelled Voyager (New York and London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).  For the specific journeys mentioned above, the bibliography is as follows.

Birchmore, Fred A.  Miracles in my life:  tales of a happy wanderer.  Hockessin, Delaware: Cucumber Island Storytellers, 1996.

Graves, Clifford L.   My life on two wheels: with an appendix describing the most popular tours of the International Bicycle Touring Society.  La Jolla, CA: Manivelle Press, 1985.

Hammerton, Tony.  Tony’s Highland Tour. London: Horace Marshall & Son, 1901.

Henderson, E. E. and J. Walker. Camp, Cycle and Camera in the Highlands.  Edinburgh: John Menzies and Company, 1905.

Mursell, Walter Arnold. Two on a Tour.  Paisley, Scotland: A Gardner, 1909.

Newman, Bernard. British Journey.  London: R. Hale Ltd., 1945.

Yankee schoolboys abroad; or, the New England bicycle club in Scotland, England, and Paris. July-September, 1892.  Brookline, MA: C.A.W. Spencer, 1893.


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