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ACTIVE OUTDOORS: Making tracks across Moray, Nairn and Dava for others to follow

By John Davidson

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Steve Smirthwaite with a copy of his latest map. Pictures: John Davidson
Steve Smirthwaite with a copy of his latest map. Pictures: John Davidson

Making new connections is a sure fire way to give yourself a new lease of life – especially when those connections are across the hills.

More and more tracks and trails are popping up across the Highlands and one man has made it his continuing mission to plot them for others to benefit from.

Steve Smirthwaite began making maps as an orienteer, then branched out into making mountain biking maps, initially in the Cairngorms.

I met up with Steve at Tomatin, from where we headed out on the bikes for the short ride to the bucket bridge over the River Findhorn – where we spent some time chatting about bikes, maps and all things outdoors.

We followed mostly off-road tracks and paths through the village and into down the strath, but the route does involve crossing the A9 on the way out and back.

Following one of the paths on the edge of Tomatin.
Following one of the paths on the edge of Tomatin.

The area we were cycling in is included on Steve’s latest map, covering West Moray, Nairn & Dava. It joins up with his previous Badenoch and Strathspey Trailmap, giving extensive information on the various tracks and trails throughout the area, with useful information for mountain bikers and other cyclists.

“Last year was the 20th anniversary of the first of the maps,” Steve told me. “I went into Bothy Bikes in Aviemore and said to David Keegan that I’d had this idea and I’ve made a map, are you interested in it?

“The years before that I’d been thinking about the fact that I’d been cycling with my daughters around Loch Morlich and on the way round I was unsure whether we were going to get three-quarters of the way round and not make that last little bit - the bit on the west side, which is a little bit rougher than the rest of it.

“The whole of the way around I was worrying about this, thinking am I going to make it all the way around – and of course we did. When I got back, I thought, that’s important information and somebody should write that down – or I’ll make a map!

“So, I produced that map of the first bit of Strathspey and took it into David at Bothy Bikes. He took a look at it and said they’d take 10 copies. Then that afternoon or the next day he ordered another 30 and they never looked back.

Steve heads over the stone bridge.
Steve heads over the stone bridge.

“I’d always made orienteering maps, but it was that ability to transfer that skill into mountain biking and impart information to people on where they could cycle in that area, so that is where it all started.”

Those first maps were in A4 format printed on waterproof paper, but the most recent maps are in a larger format and folded, so they easily shove in a pocket when out and about.

See more from Active Outdoors

As they are printed in small numbers, Steve, who is based in Nairn, can update the maps regularly with any new information – and that means newer tracks are included, along with information about locked gates (one of which we encountered) and other useful pointers.

Many of the new tracks in the area come from the increasing number of wind farms being built, something Steve, a retired airline pilot, says he has come to accept.

He told me: “I’ve sort of grown to accept them – because they provide fantastic areas for recreation. The cycling tracks around them are absolutely terrific and they take you up onto these moorlands around here that you would never have been able to get to.

“I’ve had some fantastic memories and experiences of cycling around these wind farms now with amazing views that I wouldn’t have been able to do, so that’s one of the reasons I accept them.”

Steve with the bikes at the end of the track.
Steve with the bikes at the end of the track.

Steve is keen to encourage others to make the most of such opportunities, and the rise in popularity of so-called “gravel biking” shows that there is plenty of interest. Where the Trailmaps come in especially useful is knowing when you can link up routes that otherwise you may not be sure about.

His tracks and paths are divided into four “difficulty” levels, from singletrack routes that are just about passable to good quality tracks for comfortable riding – if you don’t mind a few hills!

Talking about hills, we soon get onto talk of Steve’s own bike – an electric mountain bike which the 66-year-old turned to after having a few heart issues that restricted what he was able to do in the outdoors.

“I tried this electric mountain bike and essentially, since I bought it, it’s transformed my life,” he said. “It’s allowed me to go and do all the things I was doing 20 years ago.

“There can be a little bit of range anxiety because you’re just having so much fun you want to go out all day. You don’t get particularly tired, and so it’s extremely good exercise, you’re out in the fresh air, and the moment you think you might get tired because there’s a big hill in the way you just put a bit of extra boost on the motor and it takes you up the hill.”

The bucket bridge across the River Findhorn.
The bucket bridge across the River Findhorn.

As we start to head back along the tracks to Tomatin, we bump into a group of cyclists heading for the bucket bridge and get chatting. One of them is also on an electric bike, and tells us how it has transformed his life, too, reversing type 2 diabetes and helping him lose a massive amount of weight.

These stories are really inspiring to hear, and shows how much the great outdoors, Scotland’s access laws and technology are helping to benefit people by bringing them closer to nature, as well as keeping them active.

Steve adds: “I’d struggle to get up a Munro now, but I could cycle for four or five hours through the hills, and that’s a fantastic feeling. We’re very, very fortunate that the technology has arrived just in time – it’s about three or four years we’ve had these high-quality electric mountain bikes and actually they are getting better and better.”

• Hear the full interview and more from this ride in the upcoming episode of the Active Outdoors podcast. Listen via your usual podcast provider.

• Trailmaps are available direct from https://www.trailmaps.biz/ or in selected local bike shops. The West Moray, Nairn & Dava map costs £13.

The cable reel is used as a handy table beside a bench.
The cable reel is used as a handy table beside a bench.

Route details

Findhorn bucket bridge

Distance 14 miles / 22.5km

Terrain Minor roads, forest and estate tracks (steep in places), potentially dangerous crossing of A9 trunk road must be made twice

Start/finish The Strathdearn, Tomatin

Map OS Landranger 27 & 35; OS Explorer OL60

A visit to the fishermen's bridge over the River Findhorn with local map-maker Steve Smirthwaite

Out and back to Ruthven and the Findhorn bucket bridge. ©Crown copyright 2024 Ordnance Survey. Media 034/24.
Out and back to Ruthven and the Findhorn bucket bridge. ©Crown copyright 2024 Ordnance Survey. Media 034/24.

Click here to see the route in OS Maps

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