Island bagging by bicycle in Scotland 1994
- On 3 June 1994 John and I set off by train with our bicycles to Ardrossan via Glasgow for an 'island bagging' cycling vacation along the west coast of Scotland. We 'bagged' 11 islands. John had spent a huge amount of time and effort beforehand working out a route that fitted in with all the 'Caledonian MacBrayne' ferries, one or two only ran on a certain day each week! Also our route had to fit in with the Sabbath observance on some of the islands (main religion is the strictly protestant Free Church of Scotland on these). We were away from home for almost 1 month and we had pretty awful weather most of the time!
- We crossed over to Arran (island #1), from Ardrossan to Brodick and cycled south to Whiting Bay youth hostel. In the evening we walked 3/4 mile up to Glenashadale Falls, which was lovely. Unfortunately, above the waterfall is a large coniferous plantation which hides an Iron Age fort. In this area of Scotland the bluebells and gorse are still in flower at this time of the year and broom flourishes everywhere because it is regularly watered from above! The following day we continued our 'circumnavigation' of Arran towards Lochranza youth hostel and we passed fields with low beech and hawthorn hedges and we could see Ailsa Craig to the south.
- After Tormore we were on a flat road built on a raised sea-shore, Machrie Bay, with cliffs covered in greenery behind it. Sea thrift was growing on the shore and many birds were present, including oyster catchers and some LBJ's (I was not carrying a bird book). By now the sun had come out! At Catacol there is a lovely row of terraced cottages, white with black paintwork, known as 'The 12 Apostles'. These could be seen from a long way off and were built to house those forcibly removed from Arran's northern glens during the 'deer' clearances of the late 19th century. At Lochranza there is a 13th century castle.
- We caught the ferry to Kintyre peninsula but we decided not to go down to the Mull because of the recent 'Chinook' helicopter crash down by the lighthouse there when 29 top officials in N.Ireland security died on their way to Inverness. Instead we crossed Kintyre to the Islay ferry, an 8 mile hilly and wet ride. We crossed to Port Askaig, Islay (island #2) and cycled up the steep hill to Kiells. We had about 15 miles ride to Port Charlotte youth hostel with a head wind all the way. This wind was terrible by the time we reached Loch Indaal, a sea loch after Bridgend. It was so windy that 'The Royal Bank of Scotland' came flying by! Cattle and sheep were grazing by the shore and there were curlews, oyster catchers and a few of what appeared to be black and white ducks around. There are about 8 whisky distilleries on Islay and the new youth hostel had been opened by Magnus Magnussen.
- The following day bad weather forced us to abandon a diversion to Loch Gruinart (not to be confused with Gruinard)) RSPB nature reserve which is famous as a wintering site for barnacle and white-fronted geese. We had the wind and rain behind us cycling back to Port Askaig where we caught the little ferry to Feolin which is just a jetty on Jura (island #3), where there is only one road and this is on the east coast. The west coast is very wild with windy sandy Atlantic beaches. We took the very hilly single track road to Craighouse which was about 8 miles over moorland. The rugged moorland was broken up in a couple of places by an 'oasis' of mainly deciduous trees in the sheltered low-level valleys. There are, unfortunately, conifer forests scattered about over the moorland, many of them newly planted. Craighouse is a lovely sheltered coastal village with a number of little islands out in the bay. The 3 biggest mountains on Jura are known as the 'Paps of Jura'. The return ride to the ferry was into the wind again but there was no rain! Spent the night at B&B (Mrs Macmillan's) in Kiells on Islay.
- Next day, a Wednesday, we caught the weekly ferry at Port Askaig for Oban. The boat made a short stop at Colonsay. Superb views of the islands and the stone Telford's Bridge which is 'the only bridge across the Atlantic' joining Seil with the mainland! Stayed the night at Oban youth hostel which is on a part of the waterfront away from the awful traffic but the 'blot on the landscape' was 2 doors away in the form of a ghastly modern-looking church.
- We caught the ferry to Craignure on Mull (island #4) and headed north-west in wind and rain along the Sound of Mull coast to Tobermory youth hostel which is on the waterfront. Tobermory is a most attractive place with brightly painted waterfront buildings. The hostel had no showers and we were allowed to use the 'Mishnish hotel' showers for £1 coin-in-the-slot. This pays for the time and not the amount of water used and I had been very economical with the water. Luckily I had another £1 on stand-by! The next day we had a very hilly ride on the island as we stayed 2 nights at the hostel. We visited Dervaig and Calgary to the west passing through some very wild country with high level lochans. I think I saw a golden eagle and a dark-brown duckling beside a gushing stream! We first met John, a camping cycle-tourer, when we got back to Tobermory. He was a semi-retired Scot but now lives in Wales and he is heading in our direction. In the evening we had a superb woodland walk along the coast nearby.
- Next day we took the ferry to Kilchoan on Ardnamurchan, the most westerly part of mainland UK. This is a huge, wild, hilly uninhabited area except for red deer (I saw a herd of about 10). I think I saw a golden eagle too! The road to Salen was almost free of traffic! We turned north to Lochailort and then we joined the main Fort William to Mallaig road. This has been horribly widened and straightened in places. So much for the 'Road to the Isles'! Spent the night at Garramore youth hostel which is 5 miles south of Mallaig and I was exhausted after 56 very hilly and sometimes wet miles.
- Met the cycle-camper, John, again on our way to Mallaig. We all caught the ferry to Lochboisdale on S. Uist (island #5). We passed Skye (starboard) and then Eigg, Rhum and Canna (port). John and I stayed the night in B&B (Mrs MacLellan) near the ferry and soon the other John turned up as he had left his tent-pegs at his last campsite, a peat-bog near Lochailort, so he needed a bed! Later I went for a walk over the grassy hummocks and I saw a sea-otter catch and eat a fish and a seal was looking at me! In the morning John, the Scot, headed for the Barra ferry (about 12 miles away). He hoped to buy some nails to use as tent-pegs but first he had to find a shop! We never saw him again.
- We did not go to Barra or Eriskay because the ferry times were not convenient. Instead we cycled the 15 miles to Howmore youth hostel with the wind behind us! This is a converted 'black house' and belongs to the 'Gatliff Hebridean Trust' and can be considered 'indoor camping'! On the way there we saw the place where Flora Macdonald was born. A stone monument marked roughly the place where the house had once stood. We saw many birds including oyster catchers, lapwings, snipe, ringed-necked plovers and some ? greylag geese. Near the hostel there was blasting on the 'main' road which caused a 'traffic jam'! The single track road was being widened. In the evening we walked north along the beach toward the Uist Army Rocket Firing Station and we found a 6ft expended rocket on the beach. On the Atlantic coast the grassy area above the beach and sand-dunes is known as the machair.
- Soon after leaving the hostel on the following day we were cycling either through or very near Loch Druidibeg RSPB nature reserve with the wind behind us. This loch contains the largest surviving British colony of native greylag geese. We then crossed Benbecula ("The Dark Island")(island #6) which is only 5 miles long. This island is joined to South and North Uist by 2 causeways, the northern causeway being the longest.
- On N. Uist (island #7) we passed fairly near the old youth hostel at Claddach Baleshare, another Gatliff Hebridean Trust 'black house'. This had been closed since 1993. We were told that 2 Germans were sunbathing on the thatched roof when it caved in! Well they would be Germans, wouldn't they! (We stayed in this hostel 2 years ago and would have visited Balranald RSPB nature reserve on our way to Newtonferry via the west coast but the 1 morning of bad weather, in the whole time we were in the Outer Hebrides, put us off! The area is one of the very few places left in the UK where the corncrake can still be heard and maybe seen.). We continued to Lochmaddy youth hostel, 8 miles away. E.C. money means that this road is being widened and re-routed to 'iron out' the bends and hills during the last 2 years. Much blasting means they can route the road through a hill.
- Next day we headed for Newtonferry via the east coast to catch the ferry to Berneray (island #8). The weather was grey and windy. The ferry had room for about 5 cars. The Gatliff Hebridean Trust youth hostel, in 2 converted 'black houses', is situated on the east beach in beautiful surroundings. (We stayed here 2 years ago and heard the plaintiff calls of the seals in the night!). The warden is an elderly lady, one of a pair of identical twins called Annie and Jessie. We later had a walk part way around the island. The small rocky north beach had a number of fulmars sitting on their nests. They did not move as we passed by their nests which were at ground level. The west beach is huge; above are the sand-dunes and the huge area of machair. This was covered with wild flowers which included magenta coloured pyramid orchids. We crossed the island but had to go around Loch Bhruist before we got back to the east beach and the hostel. The island is bigger than we had anticipated and most of it is a lovely wilderness, loch, moorland and machair.
- The following day we cycled the short distance to the ferry for Leverburgh, South Harris (island #9a). This was a passenger ferry; no cars and taking half an hour. We passed between the 2 islands, Ensay and Killegray (I think). The sun came out soon after arriving on S. Harris and we took the minor road along Loch Steisevat, over the hill Braigh-nam-bagh, along a bit of Loch Langavat and down to Ardvey on the east coast. We then continued north-west along the minor coast road to Stockinish youth hostel. Harris is mountainous but the mountains are not quite 'Munros'. The east side of S. Harris has a strange 'lunar landscape' with many lochs and lochans with water lilies, superb views across the sea to Skye and very little traffic. Everywhere there is cotton grass and yellow flag irises; the latter appear to harbour the Highland midges!
- Here is some very bad news! About 2.75 miles south-west of Ardvey, along the east coast road is Lingarabay and about 1½ miles north-west of this village is Roineabhal mountain (1507 feet). Apparently there are plans by Redland Aggregates to build Europe's largest coastal superquarry in this area and a public inquiry should commence on 11 October 1994 in Stornoway. The Western Isles Council are backing Redland.
- We continued along the minor east coast road next day until we reached the main road into Tarbert, but after leaving this village it started to rain which got worse and worse as we headed up steep hills on the main road toward Stornoway. This road was being widened and/or moved and there was a quarry nearby which I could remember from 2 years ago. At the highest point we turned right along a minor road to Rhenigidale Gatliff Hebridean Trust youth hostel, North Harris (island #9a). Most of this little road was built about 4 years ago with 12½% and 13% hills which meant a lot of bicycle pushing in horrendous weather conditions! We eventually reached the hostel in the seaside village but since the road has been built a ghastly modern suburban bungalow has sprung up right above the shore! Before the road was built the villagers walked the superb 6 mile cliff path to Tarbert or they went in their boats to Tarbert or Stornoway.
- The weather was very bad the following day, a Saturday and shops to buy food are very thin on the ground in this part of Harris. On top of that there was the Sabbath to contend with. Nothing moves on that day up here so we decided to 'dig in' for 3 nights at the hostel! The warden very kindly drove us into Tarbert so we could stock up on food. On the Sunday we had a lovely walk in cool sunshine (mostly) on the Tarbert footpath to the highest point overlooking that village. We met a Scots bird-watching couple on the top and the wife said, 'There's more life up here than down in Tarbert as everybody is in church!'. There are known to be 2 pairs of golden eagles in this area but we never saw them. I guess they were in church too! Later we went for a walk behind and above the hostel and came upon Loch Seaforth. By now we are bored out of our minds by a fellow hosteller, a big, fat, bearded, middle-aged chap called Colin Setchfield who has been at the hostel a day longer than us. He cannot stop talking and often repeats himself from both ends!
- Originally we were going to spend 2 nights at Garenin youth hotel on the west coast of Lewis (island #9b). This is another Gatliff Hebridean Trust converted 'black house' hostel but as it is very near the Callanish Stone Circle we decided against going to the hostel as the summer solstice was coming up and Colin told us the it would be overflowing with 'New Age travellers'. We were also running out of days now.
- We waited for the rain to stop the next day before we set off for Stornoway. On the right of the 'main' road was the rest of Loch Seaforth. The only way of telling Harris from Lewis is the latter is mostly flattish moorland that goes on forever and as the wind was getting worse the nearer we got to Stornoway, it put the kibosh on cycling to the Butt of Lewis! 2 years ago we often heard the 'clickety clack' sounds coming from the weaving sheds in people's gardens but this time we did not hear much at all. I guess the sounds were muffled by the wind and also we were told there is more Harris tweed making in Lewis than in Harris. We did not spend so much time in Lewis on this vacation. We caught the 5pm ferry to Ullapool and checked into the hostel there.
- The following day found us cycling 15 miles along the awful A835 beside Loch Broom toward Dingwall and then on the A832 which was a bit quieter. There was a bit of snow on the nearby 'munros'. We went over a moor and along Little Loch Broom, over another moor and then along Gruinard Bay. The infamous Gruinard Island which had been rendered uninhabitable with anthrax during the last war was clearly visible. This was the 'dress rehearsal' for a future germ warfare! We went up and over another moor and along Loch Ewe and then the over one last moor to Gairloch where a right turn and a 3 mile ride took us to Carn Dearg youth hostel on Loch Gairloch. A long gruelling 60 mile ride! The hills around here we have to cycle up might be 'marilyns' to John but they are 'munros' to me!
- Next morning we headed back to Gairloch and cycled along the shore of Loch Maree. Many tourist coaches heading north like the previous day but none going south. Before reaching Kinlochewe we passed along one side of Beinn Eighe National Nature reserve which is mostly the remains of a natural pine forest. We then made a right turn along a single track road with the nature reserve still on our right. We were now going through Glen Torridon with heavy traffic and heavy showers including hail and very strong head and side winds. The weather problems I could just about tolerate for the 10 miles we had to do on this road but the traffic, especially that sneaking up on me from behind, was 'beyond the pale' as I could not hear it's approach! Consequently it would overtake me without waiting for a passing place. I was very glad to reach Torridon youth hostel but a group of about 30 French people in 3 mini-buses arrived and they all traipsed through the door carrying holdalls or suitcases on wheels. They did not realise that they had to be in by 1100 hours and at 0125 hours precisely 9 of them climbed in any open window they could find. John was woken suddenly as one guy landed on his bunk shaking it violently. I guess this is how the expression 'foot in mouth' came about! The warden gave their tour leader 'hell' the following morning for treating the hostel like a hotel and has decided to take early retirement!
- Not so much wind next day when we set off along Upper Loch Torridon and then south to Loch Kishorn via a big hill. The more spectacular and much longer route here is via Applecross and takes in a 2000ft climb. A road sign says this route is not suitable for learner drivers and others of a nervous disposition! We went over another hill to Loch Carron and then around this loch to Achmore because there was no ferry at Stromeferry! Many foxgloves are in flower alongside these moorland roads. We turned off the main road along lovely minor roads to Kyle of Lochalsh, only spoilt by 2 school bus drivers who separately forced us off the single track road! The longer I live on this planet, the more I hate vehicle drivers! We caught the ferry to Kyleakin, Isle of Skye (island #10) and grabbed the last 2 beds in the grade 1 youth hostel which used to be a hotel. We got the last 2 beds because we were on bicycles! Staying here is a guy (cyclist) who works at Winfrith, a member of the running club there! From my 4-bed room I could see the new bridge being built which when operational will mean the end of the ferry and foot-passengers will have a very long walk to Skye.
- We set off in rain the following day to Broadford and then Loch Ainort, opposite Scalpay, along the busy main road. We turned right and continued along a lovely minor road along the coast to just before Sconser where we rejoined the main road. Once the Skye bridge is open I guess the traffic will be much worse. The minor road had once been the main road before the one high above us had been cut through the rocks. We caught the small car ferry to Suisnish on Raasay (island #11) and cycled to Inverarish where the only store is the post office/food store straight out of the 1950's! A steep uphill 1½ mile climb through a very dank coniferous, mostly larch plantation and then a short distance across a moor where the simple youth hostel was situated. In the conifer plantation fuchsia bushes are numerous where there is enough light and the ground under the larch stands is covered in damp, emerald-green, spongy clumps of moss. A type of oxalis grows amongst the mosses. The hostel warden was a very tall middle-aged Englishman who as a follower of the Baghwan Sri Rajneesh had taken the Sanskrit name of Satyam. His New Zealand 2nd wife was known as Laleete and they usually spend 6 months of each year in India during the winter. They are both Vegans. (Satyam was the warden of Stromness youth hostel on Mainland, Orkney 2 years ago.). Unfortunately, many of the residents on Raasay are 2nd home-owners.
- We decided to 'dig in' for 3 nights here as this island is lovely and quiet and there was the Sabbath to be taken care of again! On our first full day on the island the weather was very cold and cloudy to start with and we cycled 8 miles toward the north of the island to the end of the horrendously hilly single-track road. The last 1.75 miles was known as "Calum's Road", which finishes at Arnish. This was built by Calum (Malcolm) Macleod single-handedly over a period of 10 years because the council refused to build a road to his house. He lived from 1911-1988 and received the BEM for his efforts! (Before we reached "Calum's Road" we could see that the east coast is very attractive and very good for walking). By now the sun had come out and we continued on foot along the coast beyond Torran, almost level with Eilean Fladday. We returned the same way until we came to the road down to the west coast at Holoman Island and we cycled along the coast through Oskaig to Inverarish.
- 'Plan B' was put into action the next day, which was to stay in as it was bad weather practically all day. Later, when the rain had stopped we went for a walk to Temptation Hill and Raasay House (Adventure Centre). From the top of the hill the view was becoming obscured by the stands of ? Norway spruce. John bought a postcard of the view from this hill which was taken before the conifers were planted. Skye was in the background with no sign of the quarry which is present now!
- The following day we caught the ferry to Sconser, Skye in showery rain and a south wind. Cycled back to just beyond Broadford and then turned right on a fairly quiet road to Armadale, into the wind. We passed a few attractive lochans in the moorland beside the first half of this road. At Armadale we caught the ferry to Mallaig and cycled to Garramore youth hostel. The Morar bypass is almost complete and the present road from Morar to Garramore is very hilly.
- We only had the 3 mile hilly cycle ride back to Morar railway station the next day in order to catch the train to Glasgow which arrived at 1045 hours. This is the West Highland Line. Our bikes went into a small luggage space at the front of the train which was much better than on the train from Glasgow to Ardrossan. On that train they were placed in the space between the carriages, 1 per space. The West Highland Line follows the coast down to Lochailort and then turns east along Loch Eilt and Loch Eil to Fort William, the 'metrollops' of the Highlands! After a 10 minute stop we made a huge loop around Ben Nevis, passing Loch Treig and stopped briefly at Corrour Station. A dirt road goes to Loch Ossian youth hostel and around the loch only. We then went across Rannoch Moor and then 2 more quick stops at Bridge of Orchy and Upper Tyndrum before reaching Crianlarich. Downhill, thereafter, to Loch Lomond, Loch Long and Gare Loch (not to be confused with Gairloch). We arrived at Glasgow, Queens Street at about 1545 hours.
- Due to the 1 day rail strike (a Wednesday) we had to spend 2 nights at Glasgow youth hostel. The hostel was full and I did not get a choice of bed. Above me was an Aussie woman and my only description of her was that she was the spitting image of 'Bea' from 'Prisoner, Cell Block H' and that is an insult to 'Bea'! When she got into bed I thought it was an earthquake! Next day John and I spent a large part of it at the Transport Museum where resides the oldest bicycle in the world still in existence which was made by a Mr Dalzell. The 1st bicycle ever made, by a Mr Macmillan (a Scot), no longer exists. In the leaflet handed out by the museum, it mentions the oldest bicycle being one of their most treasured possessions but the souvenir shop had no information about it or postcards for sale. That night I was able to get a good choice of bed in the hostel!
- We caught the train home the following day. This became overcrowded between Lancaster and Birmingham with hordes of people standing or sitting on the floor in the space at the end of each carriage. The stupid automatic connecting doors started opening and closing all the time, even with no people passing through them. The reason, I was told, was due to an overflow of baggage onto the floor because the baggage recess area was full. There was even luggage in the aisles! The lavatories became blocked and ran out of water because there were probably 2 days of passengers travelling on that Thursday! At Birmingham lots of people got off and there was one helluva stampede for the empty seats. An artist got on with a huge folder of paintings. A farce ensued as he tried to get into our carriage with his load! When he finally sat down the load lay in the aisle and had to be moved every time a passenger passed by which meant constantly! Later a 'Robin Hood' got on complete with bow and sheaf of arrows! When we got off the train at Poole it really felt hot after Scotland and we cycled home!