In the Saddle on the Inner Hebrides

On the ferry from Islay to Jura, I checked my phone. I had an email from the Jura hotel, letting me know that they’d cancelled our dinner reservation and they were shutting the hotel and distillery due to COVID. Bollocks. Lucy and I don’t usually frequent restaurants when cycling, but it was Lucy’s birthday (Christmas in March (25/03) in case you were wondering). As we were only on Jura for one night, we didn’t bring any food to cook for dinner, but luckily the one shop on the other side of the island was still open.
2 hours later, we were sat on the beach watching the sun set and eating pasta pesto out of a jet boil next to our tent, in what can only be described as an idyllic location. Perhaps the pasta wasn’t gourmet, but the Jo Downham birthday carrot cake certainly was, and it concluded a delightful meal. 

It had been a long day, waking before sunrise on the mainland in Lucy’s van, as we scrambled to get all the bags on our bikes in time for the first ferry of the day to Arran. Once there, some quiet and serene Scottish roads (a repeating theme of the trip) took us over a saddle to the west of the island, and up the coast to the Lochranza for the next ferry. As well as spotting oystercatchers and buzzards, we were very surprised to round a corner and find two peacocks strutting their stuff on the roof of a barn. It seemed bizarrely out of character for the island, and how did they get up there anyway? Can peacocks fly? In hindsight maybe one was a peahen. We left Arran and its exotic birdlife on the ferry bound for the Kintyre peninsula, under a morning sun climbing higher in the cloudless expanse of blue above.

The traverse of the Kintyre peninsula was an eventless episode and before we knew it we were on the third ferry of the day, steaming towards Islay. The beckoning Paps of Jura stood proud on the horizon, over the glass still sea. Next, a fleeting stop on dry land on Islay before being whisked onto our fourth and final ferry of the day for the short crossing to Jura. Which is when we got the email. We consoled ourselves by drinking beer and eating crisps on the pier at Craighouse, the capital of Jura a short cycle round the South coast of the island before buying some ingredients to cook with. Capital seems too grand a word for a village with a population under 200. 

Day 2 held better luck in store and more cracking weather. We rose early, stashed the bikes in a forest and climbed two of the three Paps of Jura – the iconic mountains dominating the skyline – on foot. Back at the coast, we cooled off in the sea and then set off Islay-bound once more. This time by chance we had the small ferry to ourselves much to our amusement. Once ashore the ride south to Port Ellen seemed interminably long into a hostile headwind. Luckily for Lucy, my bike with big panniers and tent had the coefficient of drag of a garden shed providing a sizeable slipstream. Also luckily for Lucy (and me) we had booked dinner in Port Ellen that night to make up for the lack of birthday meal the night before, which was delightful until the after-dinner 5km ride to Lagavulin bay in the dark with heavy legs and sore buttocks.

We had rented a camping pod for a few nights, given that it was a birthday trip and we fancied a bit of uncharacteristic luxury. Over the next two days we relaxed at the pod on the rocky shore, watching herons fish, catching up on sleep, and reading Sense and Sensibility (part of my goal to read one classic a year). We went on nearby saunters to the local distilleries and Dunyvaig castle, which was once home to the Macdonald Lords of the Isles. The ruins blend into the rocky headland which provided the perfect spot for a swim in the hazy sun.

The Mull of Oa is a remote and exposed RSPB reserve on the South West of Islay. The road that led us there had two interesting quirks in store. The first was the Shop in the Box – a repurposed Phone box now selling an array of local crafts and goodies. There I bought a lino print of a brown hare by a local resident, and we both bought a RSPB enamel badge of a Puffling. A puffling is a formless ball of fluff with a beak and eyes, also known as a baby puffin. There are no pufflings (or puffins for that matter) on Islay so I still don’t know why they were there or why we bought them, but they were and we did. I’m also unsure why the Latin binomial Puffinus puffinus belongs to the Manx Shearwater, and not the Puffin which is Fratercula arctica.

The second quirk that the dead end road proffered was a man named Gus. He was brandishing several long sections of threaded bar fixed together with nuts to make a rod several metres tall. Naturally we stopped as we passed. “Is that a peat probe by any chance?” It was and he seemed a little surprised. After discussing his work there surveying peat depth, and peat restoration in general, we got talking about birdlife (his twitter handle is @PinkFootedGus which tells you everything you need to know about his aviary interests) and ecology. Gus told us where to find eagle nests, flowering purple saxifrage, and stopped mid conversation when he heard the call of a twite (not a bird I’d even heard of before that day). He also told us of his involvement in the Mountain Birch Project which is worth checking out! Telling him about our time on Islay, he mentioned his girlfriend is called Islay and that they were coming back to the island on holiday the following month. Fast forward 10 months and I find myself in the mountains of Slovakia with the very same Islay tracking wolves for the White Wilderness project. It was an opportunity I found out about indirectly through Gus on Twitter, so that fateful encounter on the Mull of Oa is to thank for my inspiring experiences this winter (more on that and non-invasive monitoring of large carnivores in a future blog post). 

After our relaxed pootle we headed for the distilleries on the South Coast, only to find Lagavullin, the most expensive, was the only one open. After getting nicely merry in the late afternoon sun drinking whisky and plum cocktails, we perused the shop and eventually found something we could afford - a £4 nosing glass. Unlike RSPB reserves there was no half price discount for people travelling by bike or public transport. Back at the camping pod we got creative with the Jetboil and BBQ combo, putting together a surprisingly good meal of grilled fish with new potatoes, green beans and parsley sauce for our last evening on the island.

The last day was similar to the first, featuring lots of ferries and island/peninsula hopping. We sampled the other side of Arran’s coast to the way out, the highlight of the road from Lochranza to Brodick being a steady climb rewarding us with exquisite views over the mountains and ridgelines on the island, which we hope to return to on foot sometime soon!

Photos are all shot on my beloved Kodak Portra 160 film, using a Nikon FE and 50mm lens.