watercolour sketches of Inveresk, East Lothian, Scotland.
The red-billed chough was formerly reputed to be a habitual thief of small objects from houses, including burning wood or lighted candles, which it would use to set fire to haystacks or thatched roofs. You do find yourself wondering how anyone ever believed this stuff? What is not in dispute, is that one is flying over our camp. I am thrilled, having only seen them on BBC nature programs.
The chough, which is pronounced ‘ chuff ‘, goes by again. It looks like a crow but has a call like a startled octogenarian auntie, who has not noticed you entering the room. These are rare, very rare. Of course, within half a day you will meet someone who has one that for the last 20 years habitually nests by their kitchen window. Islay, and it is this bit of Islay, is the only place you will see them.
Another morning of perfect weather. You have to seize these opportune weather windows, particularly in West coast Scotland and just hope that the BBC weather app has got it vaguely right. ‘ He who dares Rodney, he who dares ‘, as a wise man once misquoted. We are in no hurry to pack up. Another tea brewed under what is becoming a Mediterranean sky and today, a crisp horizon.
We push the bikes back up to the road. The first few miles have some nasty steep, punchy little climbs. Touring on even lightly laden bikes is a subsection of cycling. They have a heft to them, an inertia that makes starting, stopping, turning and going up or down hill utterly different. It just shrugs off that flick of the hips that would send your road bike into a graceful curve. You have to steer a touring bike, there are no gifts, no using your speed to roll half up a hill.
We drop back down to the coast at Port Charlotte, which is having a bit of a lie in. A few people are having a late breakfast out on the street, sitting on steps and dinning chairs. This is so rare, so unHebridean they look self conscious. Another visit to Debbie’s for Cappuccino. There is a warmth to the air, it is all feeling rather luxuriant and more than a little bit Italian.
Clockwise around the bay this time up towards Bridgend. Three days ago it felt foolish and insanely optimistic to be buying a tube of factor 50. Anyhow, here we are lathering on a thick mask of the stuff on face and tips of ear lobes. Islay has very few lumpy bits. If you can see a hill, then it is probably the ‘Paps ‘ of Jura a short way off on the neighbouring island. The heat of the day is starting to smudge the horizon. We take the left to Kilchonan, towards yet another distillery. We are in a mood to ride some minor roads.
A big loop around brings us down to the main road at Bridgend and then we plan to take the high road ( which I think is called the low road for some reason ) beyond Bowmore. A mile to go and we are flagged down by a cyclist coming the other way. He is animated, and after repeating himself 3 times before we understand, ” there’s free food at the distillery! “. We get the message now, his is the sort of thing you need to know as a cyclist. ” I had beans on toast at a poxy cafe before I found out! “. He is anxious we do not make the same mistake. He cycles off, a picture of pure happiness in faded lycra.
Not 10 minutes later we are tucking into finest buffet courtesy of Bowmore. There are scallops and chocolate cake, possibly a free dram if I had the nerve to ask. Not a cloud in the sky, the sea azure through panoramic windows. We try not to attract attention. I am far from sure we have enough money on us if it turns out to be some ghastly mistake. Head spinning with sugar intoxication, we are back on the road and heading South towards Port Ellen.
We plan to ride down another dead-end track. The Oa peninsula is almost an island in its own right being cut through by several streams flowing both ways from Kintra. Before the clearances, the peak population of the Oa was around 800, which today would be a huge population. There are many abandoned crofts and cottages in what is now a remote landscape. We ride out towards Risabus, and beyond the road ends at a track. We have not got the enthusiasm for off-road gnarly touring and possibly nowhere near enough bike handling skills. We turn around.
After two perfect wild camps our expectations are high. A field on our right looks promising. Flat enough, with a stream but nothing too much you could call a view. We will need to lower our expectations. We pitch the tent and I go for a walk back along the road. Cragbus Chambered Cairn is small, possibly just a shadow of what has been lost over the millenia. It is still nice to have it all to myself. I sit at the end of the chamber and watch the sun drop a little further, shadows lengthen a little. A northern twilight last an age in summer. There is a strong breeze that you could call a warm wind, we have the extra guying points pegged on the tent.
Overnight there is the first Owl call of the trip. It hunts before it is even dark on these Hebridean white nights. The sun eventually drops and then the wind is lost. The tent is warm, unmoving, still. It will be a midge night.
Mist thick enough to call fog rolls in from the sea. A fog horn blast from Port Ellen. There will be little more sleep. A cloud of midges wait in the doorway. Thick black, a horrid cloud. I squirm into sticky cycling kit and trousers. It is too hot, but necessary. I do not do well with midges, Esther a little better. A Cuckoo calls.
Luckily I find a headnet quickly. I would pay a fortune for one right now. I try to walk in large circles, never once below midge speed. Esther is on her own, taking down the tent. I am useless. I hate them, hate them, hate them. You could tie me down and have my pin number, mother’s maiden name and possibly my first born’s hand in marriage in a thrice. I hate them.
I am half in cycling kit and half civilian wear as we pedal away. The breeze of movement is pure joy. My arms are itching, my legs itching everything screams itch. Down we go towards Port Ellen to set up for breakfast.
We have one last dead-end road to ride. Back out onto the whisky road and take a left. The map shows a string of burial mounds and circles, worth checking out, and so we do. There are circles of rock laid out in a sort of platform. The hill has eight or more of them above the standing stone that we have come to see. I walk down for a chat with the farmer. ” They used to use those to build platforms to dry the oats on “. I have never come across these, so every day is a school day.
Back down to the ferry terminal to begin the journey home. You have two long ferry crossings, a short one and some demanding cycling to be done. It all has to fall into place. The final leg to Broddick is the usual 15 mile TT. The ferry to Lochranza is late, so now it needs to be done in under 57 minutes. We turn up on time, but only just. ” The ferry is full “. I am a quivering wreck of sunburn, midge streaked and ugly, with a bad case of lactic burn. I am also potty mouthed with frustration. The Calmac guy walks away and we watch the ferry out. It will be a late night home and there is one more ferry.
Ardrossan is a short drive from most of the populated bits of Scotland. Get yourself on a ferry, take a bike and a tent and make sure you pack a midge net. There is a whole world of remote beauty, just a little bit of effort away.
I do not travel well. Not in the same way that a ripe mango does not travel well, I’m just too easily bored with the process. I find driving tiresome in the extreme, and can start looking for a cafe stop less than an hour after setting off. I also get dreadfully seasick on boats and planes. I was told of a cure that works well, sit under a tree.
We have found ourselves at Ardrossan ferry terminal rather a lot of late. It’s a perfect start point being a tolerable 2 hours drive away from us here on the East coast of Scotland. You then have the wonderful combination of bicycle, and cheap ferry rides that open up most of the West coast of Scotland. Perfect, except for the seasickness bit. So I check the weather forecast days in advance of our trip.
We have a long weekend adventure planned and early Monday I have the BBC weather site open. I can not believe my eyes. Later, I have it open again to show Esther the good news. Wall to wall sunshine symbols and hardly a breath of wind block out Friday to Monday. This is rarer than a rare thing in Scotland. I may take a screen-shot to cheer myself up on a winter’s day.
We are going to ride and ferry hop our way to the wonderful island of Islay, for a few days of wild camping and biking slowly up dead-end tracks. There are 3 ferry trips out and 3 back to co-ordinate. This turns out to be a devil of thing to do. Luckily, I know to take care on Islay as there are 2 ferry terminals, and they are at opposite ends of the island. We have of course found ourselves sitting at the wrong one some years ago, which did rather spoil the day.
Thursday, and I am buying a small tube of factor 50 sun screen. Rain is sheeting off the shop window. The BBC forecast is still for unbroken sunshine, but it is hard to keep the faith. Friday morning and we pack the car with bikes and touring stuff under a grey sky. I do hope I put Port Ellen Scotland into the weather search and not some Port Ellen in the South Pacific. We are on the road and heading West.
One ferry trip later and we are on the island of Arran. Brodick to Lochranza is 15 miles and has a number of tough climbs. You could make a strong case for either direction being worse. There is usually just 1 hour for the ride if you want to catch the first ferry, so it is usually a horrid time-trial on heavy touring bikes. Today, we can take it easy, the next ferry will do.
The first climb begins out of Sannox bay. Off to the left as the landscape opens to moorland, the first Cuckoo of the trip calls. Fifteen minutes to spare at the Lochranza terminal. Over we go onto the peninsula and the climb over the spine and down to the coast to pick up the A83 to the ferry terminal at Kennacraig. The new ferry to Islay is huge and excitingly, it has a special area for bicycles. Still new enough to smell of paint, which mingles with car fumes, livestock, fish and the warm oily smell of industrial machinery.
The ferry route is tight into the land on both sides at first. We watch the early summer beauty of Scotland’s West coast go by through panoramic windows. It is a flat calm Whale watching sea under a light grey, thin cloud afternoon. Just perfect. Two hours, or thereabouts and we are pushing the bikes off the boat and about to ride into Port Ellen.
I did a bit of map gazing in the days before we left. There is a wonderful road that goes by the distilleries and then out along the coast to the North East. It looks perfect for an amble along, with the promise of wild camp spots towards the end. Through the village and on towards the first of the distilleries, Laphroaig.
If you open the tube that a bottle of Laphroaig comes in, you get a leaflet inviting you to become a ‘ Friend ‘. As we pass the ‘ beautiful hollow by the broad bay ‘, which is what Laphroaig means in Gaelic, there is a large field pin-pricked with small national flags. You get a square foot as a friend and the right to plant a flag. A quick look around the field shows the power of marketing. A few years ago this was the only distillery that was not mothballed or shut. It kept going, but only just. Now, it and the next two we pass, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, just up the road, are booming.
The air tastes of peat smoke and treacle. I have biked through some questionable and occasionally offensive and stomach churning smells in my time. Here on Islay, on a still evening it has to be one of the best. On we go, through a tunnel of verdant green with accents of bluebell. Bays open to our right, fringed by lichen shrouded trees. The world is soft edged and quiet.
A sign points out Kildalton High Cross, and out of nothing more than curiosity, we follow it. I am so glad that we did. Kildalton Cross is one of the finest early Christian crosses in Scotland, the High Cross of Kildalton, is closely related to three major crosses in Iona, St John’s, St Martin’s and St Oran’s and dates from the second half of the 8th century. I doubt the place ever gets very busy, and this evening we have it to ourselves. There is an inviting swath of short flat grass just above. It is raised, giving a view to the sea and hills and catches enough of a breeze to keep midges moving. We have found a near perfect wild camp spot.
The tent is up, the Primus lit and the first tea just minutes away. To the North West the hills are draped with cloud that wraps around the contours in a tight caress. Little has probably changed in more than 1,00 years since the cross was carved. Fewer people now, more sheep, but fundamentally the same. It is a splendid evening to stand with a cup of tea and oatcake in hand. The Cuckoo calls, it is gone 9.00 and will be light for well over an hour more.
In the tent I lie back, eyes closed and try to count the number of birds that are calling. Half a dozen skylark call to claim territory from all points of the compass. A near perfect evening followed by the sort of deep sleep I only get in a wild camp tent.
In the morning I find a much better source for water. I filter four bottles and set about making tea and porridge, the finest way known to man to start any day. The tent is shaken of dew and packed and we retrace our route, now back towards Port Ellen. We soon find out that although it is early, this is Whisky Festival time. We are at ground zero.
The A846 towards Bowmore is arrow straight. We have had our share of battles with headwinds and rain along here. Today we have a tail wind and clearing sky. Cars are passing with drivers waving. You will have to pass on our apologies, the first few caught us out. This happens on all the West coast islands from here out into the Atlantic and I guess it was universal 60 years ago. We join in, waving at everyone and everything.
Saturday things are being done in Bowmore. Its relative size making it a bit of a hub for weekend things. Saturday things are different to Sunday things here and you can expect to see kids swings chained up on Sunday still on some islands. We ride through, we have an appointment that by good luck we may manage to keep.
Bruichladdich mini mart, known as Debbie’s to visiting cyclists and locals alike. It will always be Debbie’s even though it has been years since she ran it. It is the heart of all things cycling and we have arranged to meet Brian of Thewashingmachinpost for coffee and cake. The ride along the bay beyond Bridgend could not be finer, and now the clouds are pulling away to release an azure sky and deep blue sea. Like many of the islands it is fringed with the most perfectly golden sand that only remoteness keeps from being mobbed.
You can not live on cake alone, but we give it a very good try. We are back on the road and heading to the lumpy bits of this coast. Stone walls with birds keeping pace with the bikes as they dart along clicking. These are Stonechats, the clicking contact call like two stones being hit together. Portnahaven, a final short climb brings us to another coffee shop and a bench to sit and look down onto the bay. Crabbing boats are moored in the harbour, children and dogs running in and out of the sea in the bay. It is now warm, which for here is hot. Esther makes sketches, we have no deadlines. It feels wonderful. Today would be the worst day to be looking at property here.
We climb out of the village to an unfamiliar sound in Scotland. Our tyres are bursting bubbles of tar that is melting under the heat of the sun. Up onto the moorland we climb out amongst the lonely crofts and farmsteads and world of isolation. Sweeping curves and stiff climbs running with the sea under cliffs to our left.
A large bay opens up to our left as we round a corner. The land comes down to the sandy beach at a gentle slope that is grass covered with a few sheep grazing, mums and lambs. It looks like the perfect wild camping spot. Through the gate we push our bikes close to Kilchiaran Chapel. On a hillside terrace overlooking Kilchiaran Bay stands the roofless ruin of a 13th century chapel dedicated to the Irish monk St Ciaron, or Kiaran. Just off to the side is a flat stone, marked with cup and ring carving. It predates the chapel by as much as 4,000 years.
It is not easy to push the bikes across the small stream that runs to the sea down the valley. Why bother, we opt for a camping pitch just under the cliff that reaches up to the road. It is flat with sheep cropped grass, perfect for a tent. Water falls in a perfect cascade down the cliff, we have water for cooking. It could not be more perfect. A tea, followed by another tea, and then a bit of exploring.
The sun dropped bringing out the contrast in the land, showing it’s curves. Across the other side of the bay a series of parallel field marks show where people worked the land in lazy beds. Fertilized by seaweed dragged up from the shoreline for Oats and potato crops. Somewhere in amongst this a bird calls. It is a metallic sound of rasping of sticks. This is one of the rare birds that have been lost to the rest of the UK, a Corncrake. It is hard to pin down where the sound comes from. It migrates from Africa and still breeds in these remote areas.
We get into the tent well after 10. Still the Corncrake calls. The sound of the sea is much louder as you lie down. I can feel it ride up onto the shoreline. Not a bad place to end the day. A clear sky allows the temperature to drop, so it is down deeper into the sleeping bag for another perfect night.