According to ancient folklore, the rowan tree defends against witchcraft and evil—and the association with the color red stems from the vibrant red berries that grow on the trees. According to an old rhyme: “Rowan tree and red thread / make the witches tine their speed.” Red thread was often sewn into the lining of coats or carried in pockets to ward off any malevolent spirits or events. As he was relaying the tale, Craig began cutting the thread into individual pieces for each of us to carry on our journey together—a lovely introduction and invocation to our bike tour in Scotland.
I can happily report that it worked, too! The weather began to clear and everything started to come together: a week filled with rolling hills, more sunshine than rain, delicious meals, lots of laughs, and charming and informative guides—all woven together with historic tales and cultural insights. And, of course, whisky and haggis!
Seaside Life in Fife
We began our trip on a rather damp and chilly note in the seaside town of Elie. Neither wind nor weather was going to keep the local cricket match from happening on the beach, and it wasn’t going to deter our bike ride either! After a delightful lunch sampling the local seafood, we bid farewell and good luck to the wicket-holding players and set off to explore the coastal route of Fife. A pitstop in the town of Pittenweem found us visiting St. Filian’s cave, the home of a 7th-century Irish missionary with a magical glowing arm. Over the centuries, the cave was used for various other purposes—from a smuggler’s den to a prison during the 17th- and 18th-century witch hunts. The cave still stands behind iron gates, accessible by a key provided by the local chocolatier.
Exploring St Andrews
Riding through charming seaside villages, we eventually made our way to the medieval town of St Andrews where the sun greeted our arrival. This first glimpse of sunshine was a welcome sight—and led us to believe that those red strings were creating their own magic on the road! I looked down at mine tied around my wrist with a credulous smile—that red thread working wonders aside my Garmin watch.
Home base for the next two nights was at a lovely turreted mansion house surrounded by award-winning gardens. What a delightful spot to return to after a bike ride through the Scottish countryside. We cycled from the seaside through farmlands and then back to the sea, landing for lunch at the most scenic waterfront spot in St Andrews. Floor-to-ceiling windows looked out on West Sands Beach (famous for the running scene in Chariots of Fire). I think we were all humming that classic score as we dined at Seafood Ristorante with its panoramic views of the beach.
The rest of the afternoon was spent off the bike on a tour of St Andrews with our witty city guide Fergus. We began at the unique and iconic Old Course golf course where the first and 18th holes abut. From there we explored the University, the Cathedral, and Market Street—all the while being treated to stories ranging from historic legend to scuttlebutt about the Royal Family—especially tales of how William and Kate met here at school.
Pedaling Through Perthshire
We were back on the bikes the next day after a transfer to Pitcairngreen to explore the Perthshire farmlands and the town of Dunkeld. The highlight of the day was a delicious and delightful stop at Simon’s charming Scottish Deli for fresh sandwiches (don’t miss out on the homemade piccalilli!) and a cheese tasting of local specialties. We certainly worked off some of those calories as we struggled against a strong headwind our last three miles to the Fortingall Hotel! While the weather had taken a bit of a turn, we were greeted by a roaring fire in the cozy lounge and a dram of whisky in our rooms—a perfect way to warm up after the last chilly stretch of our bike ride.
Those red strings were clearly working their magic again the following day as warmer temps paved the way up the long climb in Pitlochry. The views from the top were well worth some time spent in the easier ring. Vibrant purple heather dotted the landscape set against a backdrop of azure skies and puffy white clouds. And the rolling bumps along the River Tummel made for quite a fun cycling adventure on rollercoaster-like terrain to our picnic lunch at Queen’s View. Talk about a breathtaking vista—perfect for a photo op!
It was hard to leave such a scenic spot, but the road was calling…and so was the whisky! Rounding off a long day in the saddle was a visit to Blair Athol distillery for a special private tasting of single-malts—a great way to “massage the muscles,” as they say.
A Wee Bit of Wordplay
Speaking of colloquialisms, I think we amassed a whole new vocabulary on this trip. From the ubiquitous use of “wee” to a trip to the “bog,” tour guides Craig and Scott were always happy to toss in some local lingo to keep us on our toes. We learned soon enough that what they considered a flat road wasn’t so flat, hence the designation “Scottish flat.” In fact, our last day on tour was filled with Scottish flats, plus some wee bumps and a climb thrown in—along with Scotland’s typical rainy weather. But we ended the day under a gorgeous rainbow and sunny skies. I guess there’s something to be said about those red strings…and the power of the rowan tree! Slàinte agad-sa to that!
I’ve decided to keep the thread around my wrist…it’s not just on a bike tour in Scotland that I could use some extra protection!