A Scottish Roadtrip sponsored by Leighton Vans



Words by Robert Johnston | Photos by Adam Lievesley

It’s safe to say the last 18 months have impacted travel in an extreme manner and encouraged people to explore a little closer to home for their well-deserved breaks from work – enter the boom of the “staycation”. Campervans offer one of the best methods for making the most out of holidaying in your own country, allowing you to go from spot to spot efficiently and avoid shelling out for costly accommodation that leaves you feeling guilty for not spending enough time in bed.

The Volkswagen California is as iconic as they come in the (European) world of compact campervans, powering millions of adventures since the original Westfalia version of the Transporter T25 in 1988. One of the UK’s leading Volkswagen specialists, Leighton Vans, has an extensive fleet of hire vehicles including the California to let you get your fix of that Californian road trip culture a little closer to home. Leighton Vans and our camera wielding maestro Adam Lievesley had been in discussion about a road trip photo epic for a long time, and of course I was interested in getting my fix of the California experience, so we set about plans to get on the road together and put one to the test.

When we had first started planning the trip, I had a relaxed week floating up and down the Scottish West coast in the summer sun in mind, with beach-side barbeques and nothing but chilled vibes in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. But as Summer passed and covid restrictions and busy schedules had pressed pause on our trip, we ended up squeezing the trip into a condensed week in the middle of September – a week that would leave us at the total mercy of the unpredictable Scottish Autumn weather. By the time we had factored in the travel time from the Midlands of England up to the middle-West coast of Scotland, the timeframe remaining had us effectively limited to two full days, during which we had to shoot photos of the Van itself, two bikes for their respective reviews, plus a whole host of kit. No pressure.

We began by meeting at the Southern point of Loch Lomond, after Adam had pulled a good shift driving 5 hours up from the Midlands. When it comes to a roadtrip, I get serious anxieties about what to pack as you just never know what could come in handy. So I had optimistically prepared nearly a week’s worth of clothes, gear and spares for our mini adventure, expecting that I’d need to cull my supplies to squeeze into what I’d envisioned being a pretty compact luggage store. Much to my surprise, the California swallowed it all up with only a small amount of Jenga skills employed, and after loading the bikes onto the rear rack we were good to hit the road north.

A Scottish RoadTrip sponsored by Leighton Vans

Day 0 was going to just be a travel day, and the weather had decided to be typically Scottish for it, with low clouds and limited light. The silver lining to this was the mountains looked extra-moody, much to the delight of Adam, so we set about seeking out some viewpoints along our way to get some snaps. We had our sights set on a little village called Taynuilt, which is home to one of my good friends who had offered to play tour guide the following day. So we set about the drive up the West side of Loch Lomond, before taking the left fork and heading through the stunning valley beneath Ben Lui. Low-lying cloud was shrouding the peaks that towered above us and made for some epic photo backdrops, then the sun decided to shine through the clouds just before it dipped below the horizon at sunset, so the journey ended up taking far longer than planned as we couldn’t help but stop and capture it on Adam’s lens.

This led us to way overshooting dinner time and both feeling way to beat to consider cooking, so we decided to seek out a restaurant for dinner. As it turns out, there’s not so many options for eating in the remote areas of the Scottish Highlands, who would have thought it? So, we were left with two potential spots about 10 miles apart. The first was a salubrious joint that turned out to be fully booked, so all hopes were pinned on the Taynuilt Inn…would we make it in time before they stopped serving? When we arrived, they were all but ready to call it a night in the kitchen, but clearly our hungry puppy eyes were enough to convince them to cook one last meal. What a relief! After a good feed, we were recommended a few nearby camp spots by my Taynuilt-dwelling friend Findley. In this area of the world you’re really spoilt for choices, but we opted to take his advice with a beach spot on the banks of the impressive Loch Etive. Arriving there in the dark we could only get a slight sense of the epic surroundings from the silhouettes of the surrounding mountains against the starry night sky, so went to sleep in the California excited to wake up in the morning. The beauty of the setup in the California, with a pop-top and rock-n-roll bed combo meant that Adam and I both had a solid sized bed each – no need to get too cozy together for this trip. The automated pop-top couldn’t be any easier to use, so after a quick brush of the teeth we were ready to hit the hay, or at least I was. Adam had other ideas and snapped some long exposures of the Van.

Volkswagen California - Leighton Vans

Sat in my luxurious rooftop bed, I decided it would be a good idea to study the weather in detail for the following day. We had plentiful options – head north to Fort William or Glencoe, ascend a local mountain guided by my friend, or head elsewhere. Scotland was our Oyster! The forecast had changed from the previous days, suggesting the West coast was likely to see sporadic rain throughout the day. In fact, this appeared to be the case for the majority of the country. The only exception I could see was Dunkeld, getting close to the opposite side of the country but at a similar latitude. It seemed like too much to ask from our schedule to make it over to Dunkeld the following day, but ever the yes-man, Adam convinced me it would be worth it and so the decision was made. The next morning we woke up to our alarms that would let Adam capture what we hoped to be an epic sunrise, but we weren’t blessed with quite as good light as we’d dreamed. Nevertheless, the stunning surroundings ensured it was far from the worst place to wake up in, and Adam set about working his magic with the camera to capture it all. We decided the soft morning light and scenic backdrops would make for good surroundings to grab the required images of test bike #1 – the Propain Hugene, and I think you’ll agree Adam nailed it with these.

Once the morning light had passed and Adam was satisfied, he’d captured the best of our first camp spot, it was time to hit the road east to one of Scotland’s best mountain bike zones – the surrounds of the quaint town of Dunkeld. The road there was yet another that cuts a line through the valleys below some towering peaks and past some beautiful lochs, so as you’d expect there were countless times, we’d pass by a photo op and pull a U-turn. Findley’s local knowledge came up trumps here, with the suggestion of a detour to drive up to the dam below the high peak of Ben Lawers offering up some incredible surroundings to capture the California experience. We deployed the van awning by the side of the dam, and I got to work rustling up some sandwiches for an early lunch while Adam worked his magic on the Nikon. As it turns out, we were relieved to have that 4motion system to get ourselves back up the slimy track down to the loch side, as the front wheels quickly span up and 4-wheel drive activated to power us back out. Embarrassment saved.

After getting a little carried away shooting van photos, we completed the rest of the journey to Dunkeld, excited to get up a hill with some bikes in hand. Dunkeld is an absolutely classic location for Scottish mountain bikers, with a wide variety of trails including some world class enduro tracks that just keep on getting better and more diverse thanks to the passionate locals. Given the character of the two bikes we had – Propain’s fun-loving Hugene and YT’s light-enduro Jeffsy, I selected a hill that had a good variety of mellower flowy tracks and some chunkier enduro race terrain, and we got to work. The first track, Electric Beaver, is one of Dunkelds most all-ability friendly trails, and although incredibly fun to ride it proved to be a touch uninspiring to photograph, at least with me at the reins of the Hugene. But when Adam is manning the camera, you always come away with something ten times better than you had envisaged, and Findley stole the spotlight opting to gap a set of rollers I’d chosen instead to manual.

Thankfully I had a more suitable, stimulating track up my sleeve – the excellent Rake and Ruin, that not only has exciting and varied terrain but also the scenery to boot. Unfortunately for Adam, who had his f-stop camera bag loaded up with all the gear, it meant a tough climb up to the summit in what had turned out to be a sweltering day. Still, better than getting rained on. We broke up the climb with a couple of photo stops to keep things lighthearted. On the second, Findley told the story of the wind turbines on a neighboring hill that once formed part of his Father’s assets as the largest privately owned windfarm in the country and could power 114,000 houses for a year!

Once we had summited the small but perfectly formed Birnam Hill, we figured it was as good a chance as any to snap some product shots of a few items on test, including the YT Jeffsy. When Adam and I had first began shooting together a couple years back, I’d go through a bike and let him know the details that were worth picking up on. These days Adam needs no instruction, and just a few minutes later there’s a whole range of sharp and well composed images that’ll make any machine look a million dollars.

This meant it was time to descend and capture some action before we had a chance to get cold, so we set about working our way down the top-notch Rake and Ruin trail. A few bike swaps along the way, some jibs and skids and some white-knuckle charging led to a gallery of shots racking up in time for sun-down that we were pretty stoked on.

It had been a long and exhausting day by the time we got down to the bottom of the hill and pedaled through the town. Passing by the fish and chip shop, it was impossible to resist that quick hit of delicious energy-rich food, so we grabbed a quick meal and sat slumped on the pavement outside as we gorged. A quick hose down out the back of the California upon our return to the van had us feeling refreshed, albeit not too warm thanks to the dropping air temperature and lack of water heater. We loaded the van up quickly and set about a drive in the darkness to the eastern tip of Loch Laggan, where we would spend the night before completing the journey west to Fort William for an action-packed following day. A closed main road left us at the mercy of the creativity of Google Maps, who chose to send us on an adventure down a singletrack road in the middle of nowhere. An ill-considered joke alluding to a horror story had the pair of us on edge as we drove into the abyss, with low-lying cloud reducing our visibility to a handful of meters and the surrounding woodlands producing a seriously eerie atmosphere. We were thankful for the relative agility of the Volkswagen van here, with some portions of the road unsuitable for a vehicle much bigger. As moody as the resulting photos may have been, we were tired and the creepy vibe left Adam quite comfortable in his passenger seat within the vehicle, so we trundled our way along the road without stopping, eventually rejoining with the main road to complete our journey in the pitch black. Once we reached our rest spot for the night, it was a quick camp setup and lights out, looking to maximize our shuteye before another big day ahead.

The next morning, we allowed for a slightly more relaxed wake-up, then headed along the banks of Loch Laggan towards the Nevis Range center, just east of Fort William. Nevis Range is host to the famous Fort William Downhill World Cup track, for which it is renowned, but for years they’ve had a network of trails in the forest near the bottom of the track featuring a selection of tracks of all grades, from beginner-friendly flowy trails through to some more technically challenging “enduro” tracks. The gondola uplift runs 7 days a week from May to the end of October, giving visitors on foot or with a mountain bike a lift up to the upper lift station at 650m. There’s a cafe up top with stunning panoramic views looking down the World Cup track, some easy walks to slightly higher peaks, and of course the beginning of the three tracks that descend back down to the car park below. In addition to the World Cup DH are the black rated Top Chief, and the brand-new Blue Doon trail which hopes to make the mountain biking at the Nevis range much more accessible for all-abilities. I was excited to check out this new trail, something that the center had been begging for in order to increase the number of potential customers using the uplift, so we made a beeline for it off the first gondola ride up. Yet again the cloud had decided to linger at lower altitudes, so the first kilometer or so of track maintained the moody aesthetic that was beginning to define the trip.

After this first km of seemingly endless turns, the sun broke through the clouds which had cleared below us to reveal the incredible surroundings of the Aonach Mor mountain we were riding down.

We continued to work our way down the Blue Doon track, which boasts one of the longest descents in the country at around 8km long, and features hundreds of turns and whoops along the way to keep it interesting and maintain a relatively low average gradient. As a building exercise the true scale of this track is mind blowing, with an incredibly long and reasonably wide line of primarily smooth terrain to roll down what is a pretty damn gnarly hillside. The views from every single meter of the upper 2/3rds of the track are breathtaking, and they’ve installed picnic benches in a few spots to encourage people to stop and take it all in. Save for one short section mid way down that requires some pedaling, the majority of the trail allows riders to utilize our friend gravity to roll down the trail, but the turns aren’t quite built to the point that it’s entirely easy to maintain speed. This has received some very mixed reception from the community, with a lot of riders voicing the lack of easy flow it provides the experienced riders looking to go as fast as possible, but in my eyes it simply provides a challenge and allows you to pick up on any flaws in technique that cause you to stall and lose momentum. Being a newly completed track, they’ve done the hard part in the creation of the initial line down the hill, sorting drainage and overcoming the natural challenges produced by the hillside, so the track is likely to only get better as they add height to the corners that need it and create new trail features to add further excitement for the more experienced rider. It may sound stupid, but I was disappointed in a way to ride the trail and have a lot of fun, because it just showed how careless some people can be with over-voicing their opinions and damaging the reputation of what is a very positive trail for the future of the sport in the West of Scotland. The 8km all-abilities trail isn’t super easy to flow down? Boo hoo.

As you work your way down the Blue Doon trail and hit the lower third of the track approaching the tree line, the terrain and surroundings change, and it feels as if you’re on an entirely different flow trail. The theme of the track is the same, but there’s a touch more gradient, some tighter corners with steeper banking and some larger whoops – it’s almost as if the trail goes up a gear all of a sudden. After a couple of moto-esque straights full of whoops, you come into the trees and the dirt changes color from the browns on the hillside to the blue hues of the imported dirt, the foliage blocks out the sun and adds green tints as you wind in between the trees on the trailside. Although you lose the panoramic views of the neighboring hills, you can hardly complain about the look of the track’s surroundings here.

After reaching the bottom of the track having done our best to fill Adam’s camera memory card, I was keen to get a top to bottom GoPro run of the track, so we wasted no time and headed back up the gondola to blast out a quick lap. For Adam this was the first proper mountain bike descent he would do, so he was very excited to head back up the hill in his cut-off jeans and BMX helmet to get his first proper mountain bike fix on board the YT Jeffsy. I flowed my way down the hill on the Propain Hugene, doing my best to add a running commentary of the track along the way, and hit the bottom after nearly 15 minutes of descending with only a couple of short climb traverses along the way. Much to my amazement, complete mountain bike rookie Adam (who I should add is a fantastic BMX rider), was not all that far behind. I’d barely wrapped up my video when he emerged into the car park, grinning from ear to ear. How good are mountain bikes?! The sun had begun to beat down on us unexpectedly, so we made use of the wind-out awning to shelter in the shade, while I cobbled together a sandwich to prepare us for an afternoon shooting on the Top Chief black trail.

Feeling recharged, we hopped back onto the gondola to make our way to the start of the Top Chief trail. This black (expert) rated trail is a more “enduro” style descent, utilizing a lot more of the natural terrain of the mountain and featuring some slower speed tech sections than the world cup trail. The track begins on a decidedly man-made wooden boardwalk, which winds its way down a decent bit of the hill above the marshy ground below. The exposed nature of the boardwalk means it can be a touch vulnerable to the wind blowing down the valley, and with a few chances to get airborne you can often feel the wheels shift over towards the edge, so it keeps you on your toes and makes for a unique descending experience for a Scottish bike trail.

Following the boardwalk, you spend the majority of the middle section of the track riding along the exposed natural rock faces, which the Nevis Range build crew managed to link up in a way that flows incredibly well given their chunky and erratic nature. There’s a natural rock drop, some interesting rock spines and a huge amount of potential to double up sections of trail but stray from the rideable line and things get hairy really quick, so you’ve got to keep your wits about you.

Once you’ve cleared the relentless rock sections, you’re dropped onto some fast-flowing bike park terrain that’s interspersed with technical rock sections, before joining in to the same lower blue trail as the Blue Doon for a steady cruise back to the car park for the next lap.  We couldn’t help but stop to shoot a few more pictures in this lower woodland, with the moss-covered trees making for a stunning backdrop for a little manual shot out of a berm.

And just like that, the day was over and with it the riding portion of the trip. We headed to a local swimming pool to decompress and get a good wash, before sampling Fort William’s finest curry in the Indian restaurant and making our way south to the banks of Loch Leven for our final camp spot. This area turned out to be incredibly popular, lined with campervans in seemingly every suitable (and unsuitable) location off the main road, but we managed to find an acceptable place to park the California. Before bed we took the time to flick through the fruits of our labors over the past couple days whilst sipping on some ice-cold beers out the fridge. Going to bed with the knowledge that we’d come away with some images to be proud of, we slept like babies before waking early the next morning to the most incredible views.

All that was left was the journey back home now, but thankfully we had lined it up to feature an epic beginning driving through one of the most stunning locations on earth, Glencoe. Mother Nature had held good on her delivery of moody weather once again, with clouds surrounding the peaks of the mountains along the valley and making us more than happy to sit in the long line of traffic trundling along well below the speed limit. Though the views were breathtaking, our time constraints and the busy roads meant we couldn’t stop often to shoot photos, however we couldn’t help but stop one last time at the southern end of the Glen to capture a few images when the sun poked its head through the clouds and made for some spectacular contrasting light in the plain below.

The final miles down to the bottom of Loch Lomond where we would part ways gave us a chance to discuss our feelings about the trip and how the Volkswagen California from Leighton Vans had performed for us over the intense couple of days. I’ll conclude this write up with a bit of a review summary from the point of view of mountain bikers looking to rent the campervan for a biking road trip.


As a fully stacked campervan, the California has a whole host of features within to make van life as close to home life as practical. There’s a full auxiliary power system, with an integrated control panel from which you can independently control the brightness of every interior light, raise and lower the pop-top roof, power on the fridge and control how cold it is, run the internal heater, as well as monitor the charge levels of the system that’s charged by the van when driving. This system proved to be simple and effective to use and sets the California apart from the typical self-converted campervans. We weren’t using the powered items much other than the fridge so had no issues with power consumption, maintaining over 18h of capacity left according to the control panel. There’s a little kitchen setup with a double gas burner, the aforementioned fridge and a sink for washing up when you’re done, with plenty of headroom to stand and cook comfortably when the roof is raised, though the worktop space is limited if you need access to the fridge or sink while cooking. Below this kitchen are some cupboards for storing the cooking utensils and plates as well as supplies that don’t require refrigeration. Below the rock n roll bed in the back is some open space for storage of the larger items, and there’s a few storage areas for organizing smaller bits and secreting the gas canister and a shower hose. If you were travelling as a group of 4 adults, storage space may begin to feel tight especially if you have mountain bikes and kit with you, but there’s an impressive amount of storage for its relatively compact footprint. The shower hose runs from a powered tap in the back, offering a slightly pressurized stream of cold water that is taken from the freshwater tank that’ll give a cold shower or low-pressure bike wash. On the back is the obvious integrated bike rack with 4 tire tracks, and independently lockable arms, though you’d be hard pressed to fit adult bikes to all 4 racks due to their close proximity and the way the main jaws attach to the rack. The sleeping capacity of the California will fit 4 adults, with the bed on the roof and rock n roll bed in the back of the van each providing a near-double sized bed. The front chairs spin around to face the rock n roll bench seat, giving a comfortable setup to sit and relax with 4 or 5 people in the van. There’s an easy-to-use wind-out awning that can be deployed in 30 seconds or so to give some outside shade or protection from rain. This adds some effective usable covered space to the California, perfect for a relaxed meal or drink or even wrenching on your bike on a rainy day.

Through the corners the California ended up feeling much more car-like than you would expect a camper with two people and load of kit and bikes to feel – not to the extent that we were driving it like a race car by any means, but we certainly didn’t have the excessive body roll of a typical camper. The tight and twisty roads weren’t too much of an issue, save for the times when it got really narrow and the bikes sticking out the back felt uncomfortably close to lorries coming the other way, leading us to hold our breath a few times in the narrow back roads. The ride is fairly comfortable, though the suspension is relatively stiff for the times the van is loaded even more, and it’s well insulated to reduce road noise as well as having limited rattles and squeaks in the back. The engine had enough grunt to make a couple of necessary overtakes without any issues, especially when the sport mode was selected to keep engine revs higher. Fuel efficiency ended up being a little disappointing given that we weren’t pushing the van too hard. Whether that just be a fact of the automatic gearbox on the very rollercoaster-esque Scottish B roads, or the effect of the sound deadening and stability of the California disguising your speed to the point that you often end up going faster than you expect, I’m not sure. But it’s certainly not an ultra-efficient machine. The 4motion automatic 4wd system wasn’t called upon often, but when it was, we were very thankful for it, helping us claw our way up a slick slope that we’d ventured down for a photo opportunity. It’s likely you’ll get yourself into a spot of bother once or twice on a camper trip, so having that 4wd capability is likely to come in handy. Though it’s important to remember the California is not designed to be an overland machine by any means!

Although we didn’t plan our camping spots particularly well, we still managed to find some absolutely stunning locations to spend the night. That’s a beauty of the wild camp set up that you get with the California – you’re not confined to a prearranged route where you can be left to the mercy of the different factors that can make certain activities less pleasant such as the weather. Instead, the fantastic ability to park up in essentially any spot means that you can tailor your trip to the weather or to how you’re feeling on the day. This led us to swap around the entire order of our trip to find the spots where the Sun is shining, letting us avoid the places that would have been a complete washout if we had done the trip in the opposite order.

Arriving at your chosen spot for the night and getting set up to sleep requires a few steps but is quick and easy once you figure out those steps and work together to complete them. Firstly, you use the in-built sensors to maneuver the van to be as flat as possible on the ground below, then pop the roof which takes all of 30 seconds thanks to the inbuilt motors that do the work for you. In the main van compartment, you’ve got a pull-out blind on every window apart from the side windows in the cockpit, which have magnetic blinds to pop easily in place. The rock n roll bed requires a lever to be pulled and the bed to be slid out, then you’re good to go. Between the two of us this took a maximum of 5 minutes and left us with two very comfortable near double-sized beds to sleep like kings. For how low-profile the upper mattress is, it’s impressively comfortable and avoided any of the typical thin-mattress pressure spots. In terms of sleeping space, having four people in the van would be no issue, but you have to feel that the relatively small internal volume may make it quite cozy to get set up and move around prior to sleeping.

Up in the roof tent things were a bit cooler and noisier than below in the van, but not nearly as bad as I’d expected, with a distinct lack of the noise of rattling tent poles or wind rushing through. The great part of getting the roof bed was being able to unzip the flaps of the tent in the morning and enjoy the view and fresh air while still wrapped up cozily in the duvet, making the beautiful camp spots all the more worthwhile.


All in all, it’s safe to say the California makes for an ideal vehicle for two or three riders looking to go on a road trip and maintain all the creature comforts desired. You have to do without a hot shower, but otherwise you can live in total comfort, get a good night’s sleep parked up wherever you like and drive about effortlessly in comfort. From £620 to £925 per week, depending on the time of year, you can have your own taste of that Cali lifestyle and see more of your own country. Head to Leighton Vans to book yours now.


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