Danny MacAskill makes YouTube videos viewed by tens of millions of people around the world.
His secret? Riding his bike with the same spirit of adventure he had as a child growing up on the Isle of Skye.
I got my first bike when I was four years old. By the time I was five or six I was cycling just under a mile to primary school in Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye. Soon I was cutting up the road and getting really good.
All my friends had bikes, and we would do stunts and race each other home from school each day.
I still cycle with the same attitude I had when I was five-years-old. It’s all I ever think about, but I don’t take it too seriously. I just want to be creative and see what I can do.
The kids on Skye today still cycle to school. That is the beauty of living on an island – having all that freedom and not having to worry about the traffic.
It’s a great place to grow up. I was a pretty hyperactive kid, always racing around outdoors, climbing trees or jumping off the house. I pretty much grew up out doors on the beach or in the woods.
My dad, Peter, is quite a local celebrity. He manages the Giant MacAskill Museum, which is devoted to Angus Mòr MacAskill or ‘Giant MacAskill’, who lived from 1825 to 1863.
Angus was more than 7ft tall and weighed over 35 stone. His huge stature wasn’t the result of any abnormalities, he was just a natural giant, and could lift 25-stone weights with each arm at the same time. Luckily I’m 5ft 9in and a more slight build, otherwise mountain biking could be tricky.
When I was 11, I got my first mountain bike and got into trials riding (which is taking bikes over obstacles). My older brother’s friends all had trials bikes and I would follow them around, seeing what tricks I could do. I also started reading magazines devoted to the sport. My heroes were Martin Hawyes and Martyn Ashton – I used to watch videos of them in action until the VHS tape was worn out.
I have two sisters and two brothers and we would all mess around on our bikes. We’d build jumps and try to jump off the biggest wall we could, or whatever. But a lot of the time in Dunvegan I was riding by myself. There was no competitive element – I’d just go wherever I wanted and do what I wanted to do.
I always repaired my own bike. Every weekend I’d be in the bike shop in Portree to get the wheels set true. The weather can be wild in Scotland, especially in Skye, but I still went out on my bike in the worst of it. I still do that now, even in the rain, sleet and snow. Perhaps that has made me a more resilient rider.
I did get into trouble sometimes. I remember one Sunday in Dunvegan, we found an old teddy in the bin and were doing bunny-hops over it. The road was empty and there was absolutely no traffic, but the police came steaming along with their lights flashing and the sirens on, chasing us down. We all bolted and scattered. I thought we’d got away with it, but not long after that I had my bike taken off me for the whole summer holidays. That was hard. But I look back on it now and laugh. I was soon back on my bike, riding around the streets. Everyone knew me. That’s what it’s like on Skye.
I still ride with the same mindset I had as a kid. Now, of course, I might be being filmed for a promotional video, but to me it’s still just about going and riding around the streets and up and down steps, jumping on railings. You’re working things out. Work hard and you can be creative and do whatever you want on the bike.
I left school when I was 17 and went to work in Bothy Bikes in Aviemore as a mechanic. My friends and I would mess around on trials bikes, jumping off bins, balancing on walls, spinning around on rocks, bunny-hopping onto railings outside the public loos. In 2005 a friend made a video and the following year put it up on Myspace. I still remember a friend telling me it had gone viral. I didn’t even own a computer or mobile phone back then.
I moved down to Edinburgh for a change of scene and to find more things to ride my bike on. In 2009 I made a video of stunts around the city with Inspired Bicycles, a company that makes trials bikes to music by Band of Horses. That went mental. To date it has been viewed 35 million times.
It never crossed my mind that I could make a living riding my bike as a street trials pro rider, but work started to come in. I was asked to be in a music video for the song Winter Hill by Doves, and then I made a TV commercial for Volkswagen. But my focus was always on proving what I could do on my bike. In 2010 I made a video, Way Back Home, with Red Bull. It showed me travelling from Edinburgh back to Skye, cycling in some awesome places along the way.
I’m always looking for new places to ride. That is one of the things I love about Scotland – the right to roam. It is wonderful to be able to go down the road and enjoy the scenery. But if you’re using paths, you have to show respect. In 2011 we made Industrial Revolutions, for a Channel 4 documentary called Concrete Circus about the urban sports scene. I also made a video for the Commonwealth Games with Sir Chris Hoy. I had to wear the lycra suit! It was great to promote sport.
I’ve been on tour around Scotland a few times with other riders, doing tricks in shopping centres and on stage. I really hope I can inspire kids to get into riding. In 2012 I won a National Geographic Award for changing how others view urban landscapes. In 2013 I made Imaginate, a stunt video shot in a warehouse in Glasgow. The idea was to recreate a kid’s dream using giant balls, a loop-the-loop and a tank to mess around and see what I could do.
I’ve been injured a lot and even had surgery after a serious back injury, but hopefully I’m okay now. Everyone thinks I can do things first time, when in fact it takes a lot of practice. I’ve been all over the world riding. I’ve cycled around the Playboy Mansion. I did tricks around a deserted town, Epecuen in Argentina. It was flooded in 1985 when a dam burst, then forgotten about until the waters receded 25 years later. There are some cool places to do stunts among the abandoned buildings.
But it has always been my dream to make a video to promote Skye. Although I grew up on the island, I’d never actually been up to the Cuillins. They are hardcore – the Black Cuillins especially – and you don’t go up there unless you know what you’re doing.
But I always wondered what it might be like to ride my bike up there. I found out that it wasn’t easy! We had to hike for a minimum of four hours a day. The longest day started at 8am and finished at 1am. I carried my bike – I’m used to it and I always do – while the rest of the team carried loads of camera equipment. We used drones – cameras attached to eight propellers – to get the aerial shots. We always knew it would be risky with the weather up there, but we were incredibly lucky and got seven days of clear skies.
The resulting film is called The Ridge. I didn’t expect it to do so well – we made it because we wanted to make it, using smaller sponsors and taking ownership ourselves. I rode a mountain like rather than an adapted trials bike and I wasn’t really doing many tricks, so we thought in a year or two it might get one million hits. To date it has had 25 million views. The reaction has been unbelievable.
The most important thing for me was that friends and family from Skye liked the film and were proud of it. I just wanted to show Skye and the Cuillins off to the world. I’m still working with good friends who have been making the videos since the start, people like my flatmate at the time Dave Sowerby who made the first video in Edinburgh, and Stu Thomson who directed The Ridge.
I’m still close to my family – my mum has even been in one of my videos – and I try and get back to Skye whenever I can.
I live with mates in Glasgow. There are lots of good places to cycle there – lots of concrete. I still travel abroad a lot, though, so it’s hard to find time for stuff like relationships at the moment.
Later in the spring I’m interested in going to live in the Alps for a bit. There are some amazing opportunities for making videos there. But I’ll always go back to Scotland. That’s where my friends and family are, and for me it is still one of the best places in the world to ride my bike.
(This feature was originally published in 2015)