I always had an idea to go island hopping in the Hebrides, with the condition that they had to be served by public ferries, usually Caledonian MacBrayne. The Mountain Bothies Association had closed all bothies, which together with complicated accommodation bookings at critical resupply point meant I had to abandon my plans to walk the Scottish National Trail in 2020.
Why not combine the use of my campervan with a bicycle and explore the Southern Hebrides, wild camping on the larger islands, or simply taking a day trip? With no fixed plan, other than to start in the south, I set off north in my campervan with thunderbird pack 2: full cycling camping gear and my faithful Thorn Sherpa touring bike.
After an overnight stop in Moffat, I reached Kennacraig, on the Kintyre peninsula in time for the ferry to Islay. With only 30-minutes until boarding, I hastily packed four panniers with full wild camping gear and food and pushed the heavy bike on to MV Finlaggan, the first of 25 ferries I would board in the coming weeks.
Over spring and summer, I had been using my Thorn Audax for casual day cycling, so it is a shock to be pedalling a fully laden Sherpa up the initial steep climb out of Port Askaig. I was not planning on doing high mileages, so I settled into a relaxed pace to seek out a wild camping spot around Loch Gruinart. Spoilt for choice, I found a pitch in the dunes and settled in for the night – the day punctuated with a clear evening sunset over the incoming tide, the silence so intense I can only hear my thoughts.
Waking with the dawn sunrise, I pack before any midges find me in the still air and cycle the backroads to Portnahaven, passing Bruichladdich distillery – one of eight active locations on Islay producing some of the worlds finest single malt whisky. I have heard of a day cycle route challenge to visit each of them and sample a dram. I am content to return through Port Charlotte to Bowmore (another distillery) for lunch, before cycling on quiet roads back to Port Askaig, for the ferry to Jura, choosing not to visit Port Ellen, having cycled there during my LEJOG Atlantic route in 2018.
The Argyll and Bute Council run ferry takes you across the Sound of Islay to Feolin, the start of a single road that almost runs the length of the island. I head north through Craighouse, looking for a wild camping spot, which I vaguely recall from earlier visits to the island (20-years ago). Red-breasted mergansers are diving and preening in the bay in the calm winds. I stroll along the beach and find a few cowrie shells, known as Groatie Buckies – considered to bring good luck.
I wake early, now sleeping well as the evenings draw in, to cycle as far north as I dare, in the early morning light dappling in the waters of the Sound of Jura. I return to Feolin and the ferry to Port Askaig and Kennacraig, to find a local campsite to act as a base for the next 3-days.
It is a short drive to Tayinloan to board the Sunday service to Gigha the next morning. A simple day trip with no more than a packed lunch to carry. There are several cyclists with the same idea, many having booked tables at the local restaurants. It is an easy cycle north, where I leave the bike to walk the beaches at Bàgh na Dòirlinne, befriending a local dog that happily follows me, expecting a treat. With time to spare, I cycle south to the old pier at a relaxed pace, soaking up the friendly atmosphere and traffic-free roads, before returning to Kintyre in the afternoon.
I need to conserve energy to meet the challenge of cycling 90km around the Isle of Arran the following day. This means an early ferry to make sure I can complete the route in time for the last ferry from Lochranza to Claonaig. Riding clockwise I ascend steeply along National Cycle Route 73 and enjoy a thrilling descent to Brodick, reaching a frightening 72-kph (45mph). The Thorn is rock-solid stable, and I am full of energy as I decide to press on to Whiting Bay and the quieter roads to the south. The views to Ailsa Craig are dramatic, as the sun strafes through the clouds, igniting the waters below. It is a roller coaster ride until Blackwaterfoot, where I pick up a pleasant tailwind, which sails me back to Lochranza on level roads that hug the coastline. My timing is perfect for catching the penultimate ferry home.
I break camp at Tarbert to drive to Seil and Luing, two islands south of Oban. Crossing the Clachan Bridge (a steep climb), I can cycle to the Cuan ferry to reach Luing. A temporary ferry, “Grey Dogs” can carry a couple of cars across the sound, where the tides can reach 8-knots. I learn that the ferry is named after the tidal race at Bealach a’ Choin Ghlais, between Lunga and Scarba, a pre-taste of the notorious Corrievreckan whirlpool, between Scarba and Jura. It starts to rain heavily, just after I visit the former slate quarries at Toberonochy. I am soaked as I drive north to Oban, my base for the next few days.
All the local campsites are closed, but a cyclist recommended staying at a hostel, which is practically empty, sufficient to meet social-distancing rules, with single occupancy dorms. It is cosy and a short distance from the ferry terminal, which serves almost all the islands I plan to visit. The first is Lismore, on MV Loch Striven, a pretty CalMac ferry. The weather is stunning, the air is still, utter silence descends as the ferry departs. I can hear every bird and rustling hedge, betraying a rabbit, or a rummaging blackbird. Cycling south I catch sight of an enormous raptor, gliding towards the sea, lowering its massive talon undercarriage. I pull my binoculars out in time to positively identify a White-tailed eagle. The hairs stand up on the back of my neck in excitement, or perhaps fear. It is such a thrill, my raised adrenaline levels power me towards the northern extents of this garden island. The Appin ferry pier an ideal place for lunch and to soak in the spectacular views across Loch Linnhie. If you caught that ferry, you could plan a circular route back to Oban along National Cycle Route 78. I return to Oban on the same ferry and cycle the short distance to reach Kerrera, expecting a quick cycle, but find the one road closed, which amuses the ferryman as I catch the very next ferry home. Kerrera is more of a walking destination and certainly worth a visit if you have a spare day in Oban.
I decide to ride around Isle of Bute the following day, which entails a 2-hour drive to Colintravie from Oban. It is a pleasant drive, early in the morning on traffic-free roads. The ferry is one of the cheapest – £2.40 return. Undoubtedly, my plan of leaving my campervan at the ports will save me a small fortune. Bikes go free, but it can be wise to book a place on the popular routes. I have low expectations of Bute, but I find I have ridden for almost an hour before the first car passes me. The roads are lovely as I venture west towards Ettrick Bay. The view to Arran is divine, as I potter south towards Kilchattan Bay for lunch. Bute is very pleasant indeed, even as I return north through the town of Rothesay. I meet a group of cyclists who are out for the day to complete the three ferries route from Greenock. They tell me of the more adventurous five ferries route, that requires precise timing to avoid a lonely night at a ferry terminal. This entails catching a ferry from Ardrossan to Arran, Kintyre, Cowal and Bute to Wemyss Bay.
I sleep deeply again at the hostel, after preparing my wild camping kit for the Isle of Mull. I plan to visit Iona, Ulva and Gometra over 3-days and pour over the maps to plan a route. I’d like to cycle around the whole island, which I have done before, so I ride directly to Ulva from Salen to avoid the dangerous single-track road into Tobermory, which many cyclists tell me is a real chore, waiting for traffic in the passing bays. I am disappointed that the Ulva ferry is not running, but cheered by the sight of a pair of sea eagles perched in the trees above Loch Na Keal. A small gaggle of bird watchers are waiting for the occasional flight and territorial aerobatics which ensues when buzzards fly past. A kind lady lets me look through her telescope at this magnificent eagle, the largest in the British Isles. One of them departs for a quick tour of the bay, revealing its vast barn-door shaped 2-metre wingspan. I camp below their nests that evening, hoping for a closer view, but instead enjoy the whistling buzzards overhead, a frequent sight over the past week on Islay and Jura.
I am sleeping well, light rain lulling me to sleep in my tent until morning. I continue west towards Iona, along roads that hug the lochside, save for a steep climb over Ardmeanach to Loch Scridain, to cross the old bridge at the headwaters. I am scanning the shoreline for otters, but only highland cattle being driven east delay me. I am soon in Bunessan village, before a final few kilometres to Fionnphort, and the ferry to Iona. Two coach loads of tourists have beaten me to it, and I join a long queue. I plan to wild camp but find a delightful formal campsite, run by a lovely family in the interior of the island. No vehicles are permitted, only cyclists and walkers. I pitch and explore; first, the famous Abbey – closed to the annoyance of the coachloads, and then the spectacular white/pink sand beaches – geologically distinct from Mull. The sunset and sunrise are dreamlike. The wind is still light, and the skies are clear. I have been blessed with gorgeous weather for over a week, although I find a thin veneer of ice on my tent as I wake.
I am the only passenger on the early morning ferry and cycle alone along the Ross of Mull road. My keen eyes spot a disturbance in the water – a pair of otters feeding and playing. I sit and watch them through my binoculars for half-an-hour. The rest is timely, as I ascend through Glen More to Craignure to catch a ferry just in time to Oban, giving me a few hours to re-stock and dry out my tent.
Colonsay is my next island, a couple of hours from Oban, on a service that operates Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday. This means two nights on the island, wild camping again, as the hostels are closed. The island is somewhat cliquey, welcome waves are replaced by stares of disapproval. Undeterred I explore rough tracks to find two comfortable pitches, far from civilisation. The first nestled in the dunes and the latter tucked behind a crag, to shield my tent from strengthening winds and rain. The island has remote golden sand beaches, on which I did not see another soul. I had pitched close to otter setts, but tracks and scats revealed it abandoned, perhaps. The cycle south was relaxed, but with the same unwelcome vibe, save from local farmers, busily rearranging the hay bails. My destination was Oronsay, an island on the southern tip which can only be reached at low tide, which was due at 11:32AM. Time to walk across and explore, returning early with adequate contingency as I had no local knowledge of the window of opportunity. My second night was rough, praying my tent pole would hold against strong winds, which had veered abruptly overnight. I survived, to be woken by what I thought was a screeching owl. I popped my head slowly out of the tent door to see another sea eagle, just above me, perched on the electricity pylon. Proper goosebumps.
Returning to Oban, I went to bed early and set my alarm for the early ferry service to Tiree and Coll. Riding in the dark to the terminal, the friendly CalMac staff recognised this mad cyclist. Boarding last, the ferry glided out from Oban Bay and through the Sound of Mull, to call first at Coll, but later at Tiree, where I disembarked. Tiree has a reputation for strong winds, but today a single dark rain cloud followed me around the island. I got soaked again, deciding between bothering to put waterproof trousers or cycling forward into drier air. I planned to wild camp, but the local campsite provided shelter and I could unload my bike and go exploring. First, I climbed to the radar station, to extensive views south to the Skerryvore and Dubh Artach lighthouses and then studied the historic ports used in the construction of the former, before chatting to the surfers on the beaches. Tiree is famous for wind surfing and surfing. It was easy to get into a pleasant conversation with chilled out guys, waiting for the tide. I woke early again, but after a group just leaving at first light to catch their wave. A gentle cycle to the ferry port and then on to Coll – a short crossing, made exciting my the sight of a pod of Common Dolphins, playing in the bow waves and showing off in general.
Both Tiree and Coll are friendly. I am stopping and chatting to almost everyone, learning about the island and picking up tips. I learn about an excellent wild campsite, near another beach and settle in for a walk to see the seals after a decent meal. I sleep deeply again, only once waking to pop my head out in the expectation of a clear sky. The Aurora Borealis has been active recently, but nothing tonight, although I do snap a few pictures of the milky way, using the night mode of my smartphone camera. It is a bit damp in the morning, but I explore the few roads left on the island, particularly in the south, where Crossapol and Feall Bay compete for the most stunning beach of the tour award.
I am saddened to return to Oban at the end of the trip. I had planned to drive to Skye and take a ferry to Raasay. I have ridden the Outer Hebrides before (National Cycle Route 780), and I would only need to complete a circuit of the Small Isles to run out of islands on the west coast. That shall wait for the next visit, perhaps walking in Rùm, Muck, Eigg and Canna and cycling on my Thorn Audax in Skye.