It’s been a while since I got around to posting on here, and part of the reason for that is that I’ve been on holiday; I took a trip which I started planning five years ago after I first visited Skye, and then never quite got around to doing, because it always seemed to complicated to actually do.
The trip involved cycling from the most southern island in Scotland (well, the most southern large island: a glance at a map reminds me that Ailsa Craig, off the coast of Ayrshire, and Sanda, just to the South of Kintyre, are both further South) to the most northern of the Hebrides (and again I’m cheating on this definition a bit too), the isles of Lewis & Harris, which are actually a single land mass. The whole trip involved nine ferries, twelve islands (and a peninsula), what seemed like hundreds of litres of rain, and nine days of poor internet connectivity (and sometimes a lack of radio reception too). It was all a lot of fun, and so, at the risk of producing a dull I-gone-done-this-on-my-holidays-type post, I’ve got a nice post about what I did on my holidays. For a change there’s almost no physics, statistics, or even programming references, so I guess the blog’s getting a holiday too.
Day One : Glasgow to Caol Ila
The first day of the trip got off to an auspicious start; with heavy rain overnight in Glasgow, making the roads to Central Station very wet, and giving me an early chance to practice handling a fully-laden bike in less than ideal conditions. I was pretty pleased with myself for having successfully prepared the bike and all of the bits and pieces I needed in one evening, having realised that I needed to start the trip a day earlier than I’d first planned, in order to make a ferry connection which only ran twice a week. The choice of the 0834 train to Ardrossan Harbour lead me through rush-hour traffic in the city centre, which is a memorabl experience when you’ve a tent strapped to the back of a bike.
I spent most of the train journey gripped by a nervous excitement. Coming from a part of the world which doesn’t really have much in the way of railways, taking a train always seems like starting a holiday (though the trip from Partick to Central may have dulled this experience slightly over the years), and I spent a decent amount of the trip worrying about just about anything I could think of: could I still remember how to pitch a tent? could I actually manage to cycle up a hill? what would I do when my bike exploded? I’m fairly sure I can put the concerns down to the fact this would be the longest trip I’d ever done on my own; I’d been travelling alone before, but only ever for a few days at a time, and to never having tried a long-distance cycling trip before. I was also aware throughout the trip that the Scottish summer weather would probably do all it could to make the trip unbearable.
I bought my ticket for the ferry to Arran along with the tickets for the trips between Arran, Kintyre, Islay, and Oban, and got onto the ferry. Bikes are the last vehicles put on, and I tied the bike up to a ladder on the car-deck (an activity which would become second-nature within a few days). The crossing on the MV Caledonian was smooth, but the island was shrouded in mist for the majority of the crossing, and the shape of the island totally hidden from its approaching visitors.
I got off the ferry just after ten, and set off up the coast at a (very) leisurely pace, and reached a village called Sannox around 1130 where I stopped for lunch, which I felt I fully deserved by that stage. The coast along the road had been quite striking, with impressive sandstone outcrops jutting out into the sea most of the way along. The road surface noticably deteriorates outside Brodick, the main town on the island, but it still made for a fairly comfortable ride.
With lunch out of the way it was time to tackle the climb up through Glen Chalmadale to Lochranza. My guide book described this stretch as “hard”, with a climb of 300 metres, to a peak of just over 150m. In reality the climb is to 199m, and one the first day of the trip this felt rather arduous, and lead to me getting rather angry at the guidebook (by Day 9 I’d forgiven it, and would probably have agreed this climb wasn’t too bad). I was joined in the trip by the first of many headwinds, and continuous drizzle, which didn’t do much for my moral either. On the left hand side the whole way up, however, was a spectacular view of Goatfell and the various smaller peaks of the island, which peeked out from the mist every so often.
The reward for the climb through the glen was a fast descent into Lochranza, and I called at the distillery before heading on to the ferry terminal (which may be a slight exageration, it’s a slipway with a hut to take shelter in. By this stage the wind was becoming quite fierce, but I waited around until the 1545 crossing to Kintyre in the hope that the weather would improve enough to get some photos of the island in the sun, that didn’t work-out, but I walked around the ruin of Lochranza Castle before boarding the ferry to Claonaig.
The MV Loch Tarbert is a much smaller ship than the one which brings you out from the mainland to Arran, and I spent most of the crossing switching between standing outside to try and get a view of Kintyre, and trying to warm up again in the small passenger lounge which lacked any of the modern conveniences of larger Calmac ships. Getting off at Claonaig you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d landed on another island rather than on a part of the mainland, and I got my first experience of a single-track road on the trip as I made the short trip to cross over the peninsula to the ferry terminal at Kennacraig, with the intention of stopping and camping somewhere, and catching the 1000 crossing to Port Ellen on Islay the next day.
Just before I got off the ship a local assured me that the trip across to Kennacraig was “mostly downhill”, which Isn’t reassuring when you’re starting at sea-level, but he turned out not to be too far off the mark: there is a fairly steep climb up and out of Claonaig, but after that the trip was fairly easy and quick going. I arrived at Kennacraig to discover that there was nothing there but a ferry terminal, and there didn’t seem to be anywhere suitable to camp nearby, so I altered my plans, and took the 1800 sailing across to Port Askaig in the North of Islay, which was where I’d be sailing off Islay to Oban from on Wednesday. The ferry was a pretty good chance to warm up with a curry and some coffee, and I got the experience of sailing almost the full length of the Sound of Jura, with the two islands on either side of the ferry for almost half of the trip. Shortly before leaving Kintyre the cloud had receeded, so the day was set to end on a high from that point-of-view at least!
Port Askaig hasn’t got many amenities either, and is a tiny village built around the harbour, with a modern road down to the terminal which has been blasted out of a cliff-face. There wasn’t really anywhere to stay, so I walked the bike up the road, and started to search for somewhere to pitch-up for the night. A short distance along the road I noticed a sign for somewhere I recognised (from the side of a bottle…), Caol Ila, and after a little searching I found a sheltered spot within earshot of the stream which feeds the distillery further down the road. I wandered down to the distillery after pitching the tent (it turned out I could remember how to do that), and I managed to get a great view of the cloud licking the peaks of the Paps of Jura.
Day Two : Islay
The site I’d chosen to camp at in Caol Ila was perhaps not the most restful, between the odd sound which resembled the gear changers on the bike (which turned out to be the noise of one of the trees swaying in the wind, and not a thief preparing to pinch my bike on a small island at three in the morning) and the uneven ground I managed to do a pretty good job of staying awake, and I woke after a few hours’ sleep feeling pretty demoralised about the whole trip, but after a bit of effort, and some breakfast, I got up and set about planning a trip across the island, leaving the tent pitched up, ready and close to the departure point for the trip up to Oban the next day.
Before I left I walked down to the distillery, in the hope of getting a tour, but discovered that I’d already missed the first one, and there wasn’t another until after lunch, so I set off westwards towards the nearest village, Ballygrant, but ended up continuing all the way to Bowmore, which is a fairly sizable village.
The landscape of Islay reminded me a lot of County Down in Northern Ireland, with lots of rolling hills and fields, with the added feature of the traffic produced by the distilleries, with malt and tourists being carried in, and whisky and tourists in various levels of inebriation leaving. I arrived in Bowmore after a pleasant ride around the top of Laggan Bay, with the distillery chimney visible most of the way around from Bridgend.
At the very centre of Bowmore is a market square which has a map of the Island carved into the pavement, marking on each of the distilleries. The corner of the square closest to the sea is dominated by the Bowmore Distillery, and I tied my bike up next to this before searching for food (which I found in a Co-op), and having lunch (which I ate on the beach in front of the distillery). I found a shop selling an Islay Edition of Monopoly (which I didn’t buy), which had a cafe attached (I did buy coffee), and I spent some time looking around the time while I waited for a distillery tour.
Somehow I’d got through life to this point without having a tour of a distillery, and so Bowmore provided a new experience of its own. The distillery was in its “silent season”: it was out of production to allow maintenance to be performed throughout the distillery, which meant that the tour was shorter than normal, but they still found the time to boast of how the distillery, when in production, is able to heat the swimming pool next door.
After a bit of a walk around the town to clear my head after the post-tour whisky tasting I headed back to my tent, and to get a decent night’s sleep before leaving for Oban in the morning.