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.