Harp-playing racing cyclists are something of a rarity. Drummers, guitarists, the occasional pianist – we’ve met a fair few in Rouleur over the years. But this ethereal-sounding stringed instrument which stretches back from Ancient Egypt through to the extraordinary modern jazz wonder of Alice Coltrane and the contemporary twist of Joanna Newsom is somehow a bit... other.
Even the harp Isla Short strums is somewhat different. She is at pains to ensure we get it right. The clarsach, or Gaelic harp, is Scotland’s oldest instrument, predating the bagpipes by centuries.
Isla, while not exactly ‘other’, certainly sits happily outside the mainstream. From a dedicated family of cyclists and all-round outdoor enthusiasts, family holidays involved loading up the tandem and the triplet, with mum and dad at the controls, the three Short sisters providing the stoking power from behind for their camping trips in the wilds. Dad Graeme was pretty tasty at endurance mountain bike racing, at least until a 13-year-old Isla got bored of watching the old man in action and gave it a crack herself. She won straight off the bat, and so began this young woman’s upward trajectory, winning Scottish junior national titles in MTB and cyclo-cross alike.
She has represented Scotland at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, competed in South Africa, North America and all over Europe. Having spent several seasons racing for major mountain bike teams, Isla recalibrated and reached the conclusion she’d be happier with a smaller set-up: individual sponsors such as Orbea and Hunt Wheels, dad on board as one-man support crew, a tight-knit unit with no spare parts. Short Factory Racing (yes, it’s a family joke) works nicely for her approach to racing and life in general.
So when we discuss what route Isla would like to tackle for this feature, it’s no surprise she thinks outside of the box again.
“Let’s do the Rob Roy Way,” she says. “Everybody knows the West Highland Way – it’s pretty common. This is more unusual. And it almost runs past my front door.”
Rob Roy, you say? Sold. An outlaw folk hero and a stunning off-road ride in one package sounds perfect to us.
It’s a relatively recent route, opened in 2002, running for either 79 or 96 miles, depending on which version of the route is taken, from Drymen in the south to Pitlochry in the north, crossing the geological divide where the Lowlands meet the Highlands. Mountains, lochs, Roman remains, spectacular views and challenging climbs are guaranteed, while the weather – this being Scotland – is most definitely not. But the covering of winter snow on distant hilltops and crunch of fresh powder under gravel tread tyres just adds to the beauty for our ride with Isla. And provides wonderful photos too.
Isla recommends spring or autumn for a more manageable temperature and likelihood of finer weather, but no guarantees. You take the rough with the smooth in Scotland, but it is absolutely worth it. The infamous midges can be horrific in high summer, so best avoided if swarms of tiny biting insects give you the heebie-jeebies.
Setting out from the start point in Drymen, the dramatic snow-capped peak of Ben Lomond looms over Isla’s left shoulder, lapping the shores of the famous loch. It is the most southerly of Scotland’s 277 Munros – mountains over 3,000 feet classified by mountaineer Sir Hugh Munro in the 19th century. The pastime of “Munro-bagging” has become something of a sport itself, with the record for ascending the full set broken as recently as 2020 by Donnie Campbell who cycled and kayaked between each mountain then climbed them in just over 31 days. Probably the best-known Munro completist was former Labour Party leader John Smith.
“I’m obsessed with them,” says Isla, mentioning the huge map in her hallway showing the location of every Munro in the land. “And it’s got all the Grahams, all the Donalds and all the Corbetts...”
Munros, we know about. But Donalds? Grahams? The amusingly mundane-sounding monikers are all names of the sorts of people who like to make unnecessary lists and have them published eponymously, each with their own little twist on the rules of what separates a Corbett from a Graham Top. And Isla loves them, so we’ll go with it.
“I just read a book about the history of Scotland and everyone seemed to go around killing for no reason."
As for Scottish folk heroes, like the man this trail is named after, Isla takes them like her porridge – with a pinch of salt. “I just read a book about the history of Scotland and everyone seemed to go around killing for no reason. William Wallace and Robert the Bruce are obviously the other two big Scottish heroes, but Robert the Bruce was an awful person. Everyone remembers him for defeating the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, but he killed his rival for the crown, John Comyn, in a church. We don’t learn any of that growing up, just that they are Scottish heroes.”
Fair point. As for Rob Roy, don’t make the mistake we did and watch the 1995 film of the same name starring Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange, with two of the most stupendously wayward attempts at Scottish accents you’ve ever heard. Isla and her pals have a Bad Film Club and this has now gone straight to the top of the list.
But what of the real Rob Roy? Despite hailing from the MacGregor clan and being a big cheese in the family, he was not above operating under the name of arch rivals and hated enemies, the Campbells.
“His dad was well respected and had a military commission from King James II, and his uncle was chief of the MacGregor clan, so they were pretty important people,” Isla explains. “The main thing with Rob Roy is the illegal cattle trading. He operated within the Campbell clan, even though he was a MacGregor, and he played these two clans off against each other. But he ended up in loads of debt in the late 1600s. By the early 1700s, he was not trusted by either side.”
The cattle trader turned cow rustler fell foul of his creditor, the Duke of Montrose, and spent five years in jail before finally being released. “He was actually imprisoned in London but was pardoned just before he was due to be deported to Barbados,” Isla tells me. We mull over this so-called punishment for a while and decide that if you were going to be deported, you could do a lot worse than ending up on a Caribbean beach...
It certainly beats the sticky end afforded his fellow Scottish folk hero. William “Braveheart” Wallace was taken to the Tower of London, stripped naked and dragged through the streets to Smithfield, then hung, drawn and quartered – basically, being released from the noose while not quite dead, having his private parts cut off and bowels removed, then chopped into four parts just for good measure.
What a way to go. Rob Roy Macgregor got off lightly by comparison, converting to the Roman Catholic church – not being a man to stick to his religious principles when saving his neck and keeping his bowels intact were top of the priorities list – and returned home to live the remainder of his life quietly in the village of Balquhidder. It lies a couple of miles off the route, so Isla puts in a little diversion to swing by and pay her respects at the grave of the loveable rogue turned Scottish legend.
“I think the reason he is so well known is because he got away with a lot,” she says. “Not only fighting in Jacobite rebellions, but making several escapes, plus all the illegal cattle trading.”
This seems a suitable point in proceedings to pitch the tent and set up camp for the night. The beauty of bikepacking is the ability to stop and rest wherever and whenever it suits. In the mood for miles? Press on and save it for later. Not feeling it and want to see the sights or visit that tempting pub? There’s no hurry, tarry a while.
Wild camping is permitted in Scotland, unlike the rest of the UK where it is technically illegal without landowners’ permission. Leave no trace and you are welcome north of the border, which is how it should be.
“I like doing big days, so I’d do it with one overnight stop. For the general public, I’d recommend three or four days,” Isla advises. “There’s loads of little villages along the route with cafés – when there are no Covid-19 restrictions – so it’s worth taking your time. It’s 96 miles for the long route, mostly off-road or there’s a shorter version that’s 79 miles – still a decent ride.”
“I like doing big days, so I’d do it with one overnight stop. For the general public, I’d recommend three or four days,”
Back to the trail, and ten miles further on is the wonderful former railway viaduct at Glen Ogle. This stretch of the line from Balquhidder to Killin Junction closed in 1965. Now walkers and cyclists are the beneficiaries of this fine piece of Victorian engineering.
The Falls of Dochart, white water cascading through the centre of Killin, are a must-see before following the 14-mile length of the banks of Loch Tay. Once the water has been left behind, it’s another 20-mile push to reach the endpoint in Pitlochry, home to the Blair Athol distillery, producing fine single malt whisky in the town since 1798. It would be rude not to drop by and sample a dram.
Not that Isla does, on this occasion at least. But she does seem to have achieved the perfect balance of being a professional athlete with that love of simply riding a bike for the freedom and sense of adventure that it gives us all.
“This time of year, I’d normally be doing exactly this kind of thing. My summer is very focussed around racing, interval training and being on form, so when I go into winter I switch to base training and lots of volume. I have always ridden a bike and that is my first love, so I will always find ways to do bikepacking adventures, or find a route I’ve not done before and follow my nose.
“I think a lot of people think that training has to be this really boring circuit they do every time and don’t explore. I love racing, because of the places we get to go, but you only really see the hotel room and the race track. You don’t get to see the country. So when I’m back home, that’s an opportunity for me to explore and see new places and get quality training done at the same time.”
We’ll raise a glass to that. Slàinte.
Behind the bike | Orbea Terra M20 1X
Years ago we might have called bikepacking touring, and we would have done it on a steel tourer bedecked with pannier mounts and ample luggage. But, somehow, affixing a couple of bike bags to a carbon gravel bike makes for a very different experience – injecting the excitement of road riding into a multi-day adventure. Case in point: the Orbea Terra.
In character it cuts a similar silhouette to a road bike, with racey curves and tight angles around the seatpost and headtube, but off-road you can see where the design has been well tuned to gravel. With a 430mm chainstay, and an elongated fork, the long wheelbase makes for really stable handling when descending off road. That saved a few palpitations when shooting down snowy inclines.
Isla’s bike used a GRX 1x setup, which offered a huge amount of range with an 11-40 tooth cassette, but saved the weight and potential mechanical woes of the front mech. Shimano’s GRX clutched rear-derailleur kept the chain clinging to the chainring with resolute determination, meaning we didn’t once hear the disconcerting tip-tapping of chain slap. Don’t even get us started on the advantages of the disc brakes – we can’t imagine what it might have been like to brake on icy rims when fully laden with luggage.