There is a scene in the film Crockodile Dundee that sums up the difference between town and country etiquette. Dundee is in New York, and is out walking the streets for the first time. He is saying ” Hello ” to everyone. There is a mass of people, but he is trying to maintain his country greeting code. ” Must be the friendliest place in the world “, he concludes.
There is a point when you bike out of a town when you must begin to wave at everyone and shout a cheerie ” Good morning ” to all you pass. Knowing where this begins, this line in the sand is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Once you are in the zone it feels normal to greet everyone, but you can stop doing it if you return to a town or built up area.
We have been biking on single track roads quite a bit recently, and I must say I love the feeling of community and sharing. You have to cooperate, and there is a mutual agreement to wave at the conclusion of the contact. I would build more of these, and possibly dig up existing roads and turn them into single track roads with passing places, just to get a bit more social interaction in society. I think it is worth giving it a try, and there is money to be saved.
A cold night made worse by being so damp you could wring out a pint of water from a pair of socks left out for an hour. We wake to the sound of the most foul mouthed farmer trying, and failing to load sheep into the back of a trailer. If there is a place where people swear more than anywhere in the world, you could make a strong case for it being Scotland. People use a swear word in place of a comma, or just part of the syntax of conversation. You have to get used to it, you are never going to change things.
We ride down to the ferry terminal and take the short hop across the sound from Islay to Jura. These are fast flowing and dangerous waters, and the boat sets of at a right angle into the flow. In a few short minutes we are on the island of Jura, landing just under the iconic mountains, the Paps of Jura ( I would guess that Pap means conical or breast in Gaelic even without looking it up ).
The main and only road along the length of the island is designated as an ‘ A-Road ‘ even though it has grass growing up the middle for a good deal of its length and is often not wide enough for a car and bike to pass without one of them stopping or backing up. It takes you over 3 lumpy bits, that on a bad day would make you turn back to the ferry, before you enter the shelter of woodland. It feels like a summers day and a glance down at my meter confirms it – 67’f. I can not hold back a whoop of joy. The weather in Scotland lets you down so often, this is a gift. The grief and anguish involved in planning a barbecue here can not be overstated.
Craighouse, home of the Jura distillery. Today there is not a breath of wind to move on the fumes of the whiskey. It hangs in the village clinging and filling your nostrils. If the very thought of Whiskey makes you wretch, today, this is not a good place. I love it. The sea is mirrored and horizon lost between sea and sky just a short distance off shore. Esther orders Haggis for lunch at the cafe.
The road is over 25 miles in length and shows every variation in road quality imaginable. It goes from recently re-surfaced, to shockingly bad and almost wheel crunchingly unridable in parts. How bad must the recently repaired bits have been, and why did they not do the other dreadful bits whilst they were here. How did they make the choice? Toss a coin or some form of divination? Where is the logic? We ride until we have had enough and call it a day when we find a flat bit of grass next to a stream.
Time to make some tea. A camping spot is not ready until the first tea is drunk. The pot is lowered into the fast moving waters and comes out full with water a two teabag per cup shade of brown from the peaty stream. It makes good tea, unusual and perhaps even harmful longterm, but good for now.
Once I move away from the tent and put some distance between my ears and the stream, the silence is total. No wind, no movement, no sound. So totally silent that it is disorienting. I feel giddy. The night is cold. A damp cold that no amount of technical goose feathers can keep out. The tent, the whole area is so wet in the morning it may as well have rained all night. We leave the tent, throw our heavy bags inside and head for George Orwell’s Cottage.
We cross Lossa River, dark as oil, reflecting the sky and trees an Obsidian black. The track goes from black-top to loose gravel and then to dirt and house brick infill mixed with fist sized stones. It is often beyond our bike handling skills. With 2 miles to go, we decide that it is not a good place to break a collar bone. The bikes are stashed at the side of the track and we start to walk. 20 years ago the art duo of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty came this way. They were driving a car into which they had recently piled £1 million in used notes. They took the car close to Orwell’s cottage and burned it partly as a statement but mostly for the sake of art.
The walk is wonderful in the water-colour wash of the landscape in mist. ” The walk to Barnhill is one of the most profound, beautiful and moving journeys anyone can take on this earth ” – Will Self, just about pitches it right. Orwell stayed here as he wrote 1984, enduring the remote self reliance that such a spot throws at you. He came close to drowning in his boat, sucked into the Corryvreckan Whirlpool just up the coast.
The walk back to the bikes is as uneventful as it is beautiful, right up until the point where my foot comes down 4″ from the UK’s only poisonous snake. It is a big one and could have chosen to bite, but turned to slither across the track. Adders occur on Jura in more number than anywhere else in the UK. I caught it’s movement in my peripheral vision. Next was a sort of arm flapping that javelin throwers use to stop them stepping over the line and fouling a throw. It would have been a very bad place to have a medical emergency and we both know we have been lucky. Within the next mile we see another Adder, but now we are scanning the track as we walk.
Back to the bikes and down with the tent. A final tea and we are ready to pedal back to Craighouse for a camping pitch in front of the hotel. This is a great spot to contemplate the world and perhaps your own very small place in it. A few years after burning the money Drummond had a moment to reflect on the event. The ashes of the fire were fired into the clay of a house brick and on reflection he thought the whole thing had not been the best idea he had ever had. Boats hang in a void at anchor on a perfectly cast reflection. We catch the fast ferry service from the bay to the mainland after a rest day, and the adventure continues. I catch a last full lung of Malty Aroma.
Tayvallich Bay is one of the most beautiful and peaceful places on gods clean earth. We pitch the tent at the campground and provide a meal for the local Midges. Before we left Jura I had a sneak look at the 10 day weather forecast – amazing, not a single rain spot icon.
On we go, making our way North along the coast, towards the local hub point that is the town of Oban. Dew hangs in pearls from grass hung spiders webs although it is after 11 o’clock and the sun has been up for hours. The Crinnan Canal, built to save ships the bother of rounding the coast, is to our left. We pass over it on the B8025, and head towards Kilmartin Glen.
Kilmartin would be chapter 1, paragraph 1 if I was writing a book on undiscovered Scotland. It has rock carvings and standing stones and enough history to fill the whole book. We take a walk around two of the most prominent stone circles – Nether Largie and Temple Wood. All around here there are outcrops of rock in the hills into which 4,000 years ago our ancestors carved intricate patterns. Spirals and hollows that may have been filled with offerings and cut marks that would have let sparks fly as their stone chisels hit. Many have panoramic views and sight lines to the sea. It is a place to visit and spend time exploring.
We head on up the coast along the banks of Loch Melfort. The road is quiet enough for us not to need to take the cycling alternative along Loch Awe. There are people gathering Clams among the seaweed and great expansive views ahead to the mountains of Mull. We pass the turning to the island of Easdale, a destination for another journey – it holds the World Stone skimming contest every year.
We enter Oban late in the afternoon. It feels more Mediterranean than West Coast today. Pale Scots walk along the prom displaying the most dreadful of sunburn and bad tattoos. The streets are busy and election fever is at a high. Cars pass in convoy, blue YES flags flying. There is music of pipes and high spirits. We get to our hotel and spend the evening in what animal behaviorist call ‘ mutual grooming ‘. I have collected more than 20 ticks on arms, back and unreachable areas. I am a mass of wounds by the end of the operation.
The 9.50 am ferry to Mull. It has a small huddle of fellow cyclists keen to head for the outer islands. It is a short crossing, giving just enough time for Porridge and a plate of toast and beans. We turn left out of the ferry terminal and head along the coast clockwise. A bird of prey. A flash of white confirms it is a Sea Eagle before it is lost behind trees. Oyster Catchers run the fringe of the Sea Lochs as we pass. Some take to the air with their rattling cry of alarm.
This is the largest island we have been on, room enough for mountains where we have biked through hills. These are big, easily touching the low cloud. The feeling is more dark, somber even. Winter is not far away now.
To our right as we approach the ferry port for Iona, we can see the small island of Staffa. It’s basalt columns give it a unique landscape. A small harbour goes into the columns and is called Fingles Cave. The sound inside the cove it amazing. Felix Mendelssohn was inspired by his visit here and included this in his Hebridean Overture. The sun is burning off the clouds now and we may have a clear view for the short crossing to Iona. It is also good to have the sun out as it brings out the colour in the water. White sand is just bellow the surface of this shallow sound, turning the sea turquoise when the light hits it right. We pass the last village – Bunessan. The vicar at the small church is passing around outside the church. He goes inside and the thinnest of voices sing out ” Halellluliah ” . Cars are only allowed on Iona by permit. We cross to the smallest and quietest island of our tour.
The ferry pushes up onto the concrete ramp in Martyres Bay, we are less than 10 passengers on this late afternoon crossing. Iona is a special place, a place to retreat to a place to recharge, a spiritual home. We have chosen to make this the furthest we will go in Scotland. We came here together on our first trip together many years ago. We will turn across the country and head for home now. This is the end point and we have time to explore.
You can walk around the island in well under a day and take in a dozen beaches of golden sand. There are pebbles of pink granite to be picked up and green Marble to be found. There is just one campground and it is perfect, we pitch there for 3 days, our longest pitch of our whole journey. Barnacle Geese fly over our heads as we climb a small hill to look over the campground and out to sea. This is perfect, this is home and we have come full circle.
The history of Iona is complicated for such a small island. It has a pivotal place in the spread of Christianity throughout the world. You can read a little about it and the voyage of St. Columba here. Vikings liked what they saw here and began to raid the island and eventually settled and mingled with the local population. The Abbey of Iona was built and then lay in ruin until it was taken on by the trust that now looks after it. Much of it needed to be rebuilt, a task that has taken from the late 1960’s. My friend Chris Hall, a sculptor has spent 30 years of his life working on the stone carvings here. The most obvious display of his work are the columns of the cloister. On a summer’s day you can walk in the Machair and hear the sound of Corncrake. Almost extinct a few years ago it is making a return. It needs a late cut of the grass for hay and low inputs. It is a fussy sod when it comes to what it likes.
The bells of the Abbey ring out as a service is being held. You can almost see a dozen islands from any lump of rock more than a mans height. The sea is the way to travel here, for religion, for trade to go to war. – ” As we moved away, we had a curious meeting with a boat from Iona, crewed by Hebridians, leading with a rope in the water three small black Scottish horses which were swimming around the boat, not with the anxious agitation that accompanies fear – but with the calm of very skillful swimmers: C.L.F. Panckcouke 1831.