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In praise of the Scots

20 Oct 2020

The next time you ride, be sure to tip your cap to the Scottish inventors who made cycling just that little bit more pleasurable

Words: Trevor Ward Photography: Danny Bird

Are you ready? Good, because you're going to join me on a mini-road trip to celebrate the contribution of Scots to the evolution of cycling.

Yes, I know the Germans (Baron Karl von Drais’s pedal-less velocipede of 1817) and French (Pierre Michaux adding cranks and pedals to the front wheel in 1860) and English (John Starley’s ‘safety’ bicycle of 1885) all made big contributions too but, frankly, the editor of this magazine is Scottish and I happen to live up here, so this is an unapologetic tribute to cycling’s Caledonian heroes.

So I set off from my front door in the direction of the Cairn o’ Mount, a climb so brutal that local riders whisper its name sparingly like an ancient Gaelic curse.

These days, there’s any number of ways to research every nuance of such a challenge – Strava, VeloViewer and the 100 Climbs books all give accurate information about length and gradients – but more than a century ago, when cycling was largely the preserve of the wealthy, you’d have had no choice other than to pack your sandwiches, don your tweeds and pray for a tailwind.

Harry Inglis, an Edinburgh-based book publisher and keen cyclist, thought differently. He produced what could be considered the original, analogue prototype for the likes of Strava et al – a series of ‘Contour’ Road Books covering the UK and Ireland that featured profiles of hundreds of routes and described every impediment a road user was likely to encounter, such as ‘dangerous gradients’, ‘bad hills’ and ‘inferior roads’.

Inglis carried out most of his ‘special surveys’ on his bike during the 1890s and early 1900s. Cycling historian Nicholas Oddy estimates that Inglis rode 50-60km a day for 200 days for each book.

And yet despite covering more ground than many keen club riders of the time, he made little of his achievements. To him, says Oddy, ‘it was just a means to an end, which was in his case an interest in roads, landscape and cartography.’

He did, however, have the advantage of being born into a household wealthy enough to employ two maids and a nanny. ‘It can be argued that the Contour books are both the product of and illustrative of the bourgeois nature of late 19th century cycling,’ says Oddy.

The books, which sold for two shillings – the equivalent of roughly £10 today – were universally praised. ‘Absolutely accurate,’ said Cycling magazine. ‘Handy and reliable,’ was the verdict of the CTC Gazette.

For my ride over the Cairn, I consult my cloth-bound edition of the ‘Contour’ Road Book of Scotland, first published in 1896. Route 237, ‘Brechin to Banchory’, describes the climb as a ‘precipitously steep’ but ‘dreary road’ with an average gradient of ‘1 in 8’ (12.5%) for more than two miles. Immediately on the other side of the pass is ‘another bad hill’ of ‘1 in 13’ (8%).

Take the high road

My destination is the Aberdeenshire seaside town of Stonehaven, which means joining Route 239 – ‘surface is excellent; the gradients seldom exceed 1 in 20’. In 1822, this was the birthplace of Robert William Thomson.

He invented the pneumatic rubber tyre for use on horse-drawn carriages. Despite patenting his idea in the US and France, production of his so-called ‘Aerial Wheels’ proved more complicated and expensive than simple, solid rubber tyres, so never caught on until 40 years later in 1888 when another Scot, John Boyd Dunlop, patented the pneumatic bicycle tyre.

But this was challenged by the Michelin brothers who, using Thomson’s original patent, won the rights to produce the tyres. The rest, as they say, is history.

Continuing my road trip, I head south to Dundee, Route 225 in my ‘Contour’ Road Book, described as ‘a fine road throughout, taking the hills with well-engineered gradients. The gradients seldom exceed 1 in 21.’

My goal is the V&A museum, a startlingly modern building overlooking the Tay that was opened in 2018 to celebrate Scottish design. I don’t know what Harry Inglis would have made of its striking exterior – a Brutalist confection of concrete slats supposedly inspired by Scotland’s coastal cliffs – but suspect he would have agreed with many modern-day reviewers’ assessment of the interior as ‘Dundee’s largest coffee shop’.

I want to see if Dunlop, Thomson, Inglis or another controversial Scottish figure from the history of the bicycle – Kirkpatrick Macmillan – are celebrated in the museum’s ‘Scottish gallery’.

The only cycling-related artefact I can find in between the various catering and retail opportunities, however, is the Endura-branded skinsuit worn by Alex Dowsett during his Hour Record ride in 2015.

Which is a shame as you could argue all of them had a greater impact on Scottish – and British – social evolution than another of the V&A’s exhibits, a model of a flashy electric-powered Jaguar that takes up practically a whole gallery on the flimsy grounds that the brand’s former head of design had a Scottish surname.

Macmillan, for example, was a Dumfriesshire blacksmith credited with designing the first pedal-driven bicycle in 1839. In 1842, the Glasgow Argus reported that he rode it the 70-odd miles to Glasgow and was fined five shillings for injuring a child along the way.

It’s only fair to point out, however, that in recent years his story has been debunked as propaganda spread by a relative jealous of another inventor’s success (the machine described in the Argus report, says Oddy, could only have been a tricycle).

Macmillan’s rival, a cooper from Lanarkshire called Gavin Dalzell, produced a bike powered by pedals and rods connected to the rear axle that now sits in the Glasgow Riverside Museum of Transport where it is celebrated as ‘the world’s earliest surviving pedal-driven bicycle’.

Nearby is another distinctive bicycle, this one built more than a century later by another Scot from old washing machine parts and used to set a world record. But that’s another story…