They were carefree times before the dark days of war, and for a trio of eager sisters with bicycles and a bold sense of adventure, the Highlands – unspoiled and with very bumpy roads – were waiting to be explored.

It was 1936 and armed with their haversacks, meagre supplies and – just as well, as it turned out - puncture repair kits, 17-year-old Mary Harvie and her two older sisters set off on an epic 560 miles cycling holiday that would take in glorious scenery, lead to a string of joyful encounters and countless simple but delightful pleasures.

The sisters’ remarkable two-week journey, faithfully recorded by the teenage Mary in her holiday diary, saw them gleefully conquer gruelling uphill tracks on bikes which came with none of today’s comfy saddles and slick gears, then savouring the glorious freewheel back downhill whenever they could.

Apparently undaunted by the huge distances that set themselves to cover during their two-week break - and quite unlike today’s road trippers seeking a good supply of restaurants, coffee stops and comfy beds - they grabbed sustenance on the way thanks to the kindness of locals, cooled off in babbling burns and bedded down in one of Scotland’s newly established youth hostels.

Mary’s charming diary of the road trip, which recorded the ups and downs of their route, the stunning views and the acts of kindness that kept them going, was found after her death by her son.

He then handed it to Hostelling Scotland as an enthralling memento of days gone by.
Now the sisters’ impressive cycling holiday is to be partly recreated by a modern team of women cyclists, to mark Hostelling Scotland’s 90th anniversary and VisitScotland’s forthcoming Year of Storytelling.

The trio from The Adventure Syndicate – a collective of female cyclists who take on mammoth challenges and work to inspire girls to cycle – will set off on Thursday for a week covering around half of the route taken by Mary and sisters Jean and Ella.

Unlike Mary’s handwritten diaries, they will upload images and reflections of their journey to social media sites.

Their bikes will also be in a different league from the Harvie sisters’ – they plan to tackle a route from Glasgow to Crianlarich and Glencoe, then to Portree, Torridon, Gairloch before finishing at Aviemore, on modern drop handlebar cycles with chunky wheels.

One significantly different factor will be the roads: while the sisters rarely encountered traffic, they did have to content with bumpy roads and loose gravel which caused more than one uncomfortable tumble and several punctures.

However, like the sisters, cyclists Lee Craigie, Alice Lemkes, and Phil (Phillipa) Battye from The Adventure Syndicate will stay where they can in youth hostels and be largely self-sufficient.

Mary’s diary, recently published in Hostelling Scotland’s members’ handbook, suggests that a route which even by modern standards would be a daunting journey, posed few problems for the plucky trio.

Having set off from Glasgow’s Anniesland Cross at 7am one July morning, they pointed their cycles north for Ardlui where they sunbathed and explored Glen Falloch before making their way to Crianlarich.

Despite having already covered around 60 miles, they spent the following day hiking up Ben More. Perhaps as a sign of the times, the sisters do not appear to have any ‘stranger danger’ fears while lorry drivers and other road users seem keen to help them on their way.


Their journey from Crianlarich to Ballinchulish was eased thanks to a friendly lorry driver.

“Lorry passed us and he waved,” wrote Mary of the journey from Crianlarich to Ballinchulish.

“When we turned the corner, he was stopped. He offered us a lift to Ballachullish, we didn’t refuse. Each held their own bike, we sat on the lorry. What magnificent scenery all round.”

Mary’s travelogue notes that while the scenery around Glenfinnan was also impressive, the roads were less so. “Beautiful scenery,” she wrote. “But the road becomes dreadful. Gosh stones, holes and no road in places.

“A lorry full of sand going past stopped and took all four of us, bikes & all.”

The kindness of strangers and camaraderie among fellow travellers is a common theme running through her diary. Having been dropped off, the trio went in search of food only to find a hillside house empty.

“We drank water from the burn and ate dry bread. A passing motorist and three women passengers stopped and gave us lemonade.”

The sisters crossed from Mallaig to the Isle of Skye, taking in a glorious sunset that cast a multitude of colours on the still water of a loch and marvelling at miles of moor with nothing but sheep and heather.

Their journey saw them travel from Kyle of Lochalsh south through Dalwhinnie to Dunkeld before swinging east for Coupar Angus, and then turning for home via Perth, Dunblane, Fintry and Bearsden.

While it would have taken a physical toll, the sisters made do with basic meals, some provided by locals happy to share their own food  with the unlikely adventurers.

Other times they simply had to make do: as they headed to Invergarry and having climbed four miles uphill with their bikes, the trio dined on “bare bread, cheese and water. But it was good,” wrote Mary.

Their most pleasing times were spent staying in one of the many youth hostels that had sprung up in the previous five years.

Mary, one of a rapidly growing number of Hostelling Scotland members at the time, wrote of encountering fellow travellers, swapping stories and freshening up – once bathing in a tub filled by kettles of boiling water, and on another occasion under a cold shower. “Gee, there were howls,” she wrote.

While the epic 11-day trail might have earned them a rest, the sisters arrived home anxious to get going again.

“The end of a great holiday while we wait eagerly for the time to come again,” Mary concluded.

Having arrived home, the sisters were soon ready to head off again – the next day they packed their haversacks and set off for an 11-day cycle tour of Northern Ireland.

A spokesperson for Hostelling Scotland said: “Since 1936, bike technology and bike apparel has evolved considerably but the roads have got incredibly busy and a great deal more dangerous for cyclists.

“However, the mentality of exploration and the thirst for adventure has always remained strong.

“Cycling is an accessible form of sustainable tourism, and Youth Hostels are great, affordable bases for cycling adventures throughout Scotland.”