Bikes, Bothies and Boats – Scottish Island Adventures

Catherine Worsey
23rd August 2017

The Scottish Islands of Islay and Jura have a lot to offer cyclists, especially those willing to laden their bikes and set off into the unknown. Quiet roads, friendly locals, wild camping spots and whisky galore were all welcome companions on an adventure off the west coast while otters, eagles and stags added the romance that only Scotland can deliver.

I stand in the breeze looking at the growing mass of the Scottish island of Islay as the ferry approaches the shoreline. An early start before leaving the car at the port at Kennacraig and wheeling our bikes onto the ferry has meant we’re pulling up to the tiny town of Port Ellen with enough time to get our adventure on straight away. Islay has a lot of gems, the South peninsula is the home to Choughs, rare birds found in only a few spots in the UK, Golden eagles haunt the remote parts of the Island and charismatic seals and otters find refuge amongst the rocks and inlets. You might not have heard, but it has a few whisky distilleries too!

After a night in Port Ellen exploring the coast, as well as some of the distilleries dotted along the coast close by, we loaded our bikes and headed out into the unknown. After much decision making about bike and kit choice, we had decided on hardtail mountain bikes with bike packing bags rather than pannier racks. Most of our travelling would be on road but the mountain bikes gave us more flexibility than road tyres would have allowed making tracks and trails more welcoming and, with the destinations we had in mind, hopefully with less punctures.

I also made sure I was kitted out in Findra’s award-winning merino clothing which has been developed especially to provide maximum comfort and functionality at the lightest weight for women enjoying the great outdoors

Our first night out was to be spent at a bothy on the east coast of Islay, with only a map and rough route descriptions to guide us we didn’t know if the route was rideable or even ‘pushable’. With no evidence that anyone had ever got there before on a bike we were slightly concerned this was not the worlds best idea but, hey, this was an adventure and what’s the worst that could happen? The forecast was good and we had a tent crammed into a seat bag, we had chocolate, water, fuel for the MSR stove and books – we’ll be ‘right!

We filled up with coffee and scones at a roadside cafe before branching off the main road and towards the coast, the road became narrower as it weaved around the hills, eventually turning into gravel then a muddy path then spitting us out onto the rocky shoreline. Navigation turned out to be pretty easy from here, we turned right and we kept walking, pushing, riding, scrambling and carrying – an easy route it was not! Around the last corner we pushed and there it was, our home for the evening, nestled behind an ancient wall with the sun shining on the entrance way. Beautifully maintained, the one room stone hut offered everything needed for a comfortable night with gifts aplenty left by previous residents, comfortable sleeping mats and shelves heaving with books, a touch of humanity in this wild place. We were the only residents of the bothy for the evening so we made the fire, hung our clothes up to air and settled in with drink in hand to watch the sunset over the ocean. We settled into our idyllic liberation, we were the only humans within at least a 2 hour walk, our closest neighbours were the otters that we were lucky enough to sit and watch as they swam along the coast, catching crabs as they went. With no connection to the outside world and only the lapping of the ocean to break the silence, the feeling of complete escape from the modern trappings of the world was absolute and better than any meditation.

Morning dawned and all thoughts of an early departure escaped as we cooked a leisurely breakfast and made coffee in the chill of the early morning. Too fabulous a place to dash away from, we promised ourselves we’d come back and bring long lenses for the camera next time.

Eventually we convinced ourselves to get up and pack our bags before retracing our steps along the coastline and back over the hill, onwards to our next stop.

Our best laid plans had us staying at a bothy on Jura for the second night, any adventurer knows though that plans are adaptable and after having man-handled the bikes for several hours over rocks, struggling over boggy moorland with the bikes was less appealing that it seemed when the plan was made from the comfort of my living room. With no destination in mind we just pedalled, we pedalled to the ferry to Jura then up the hill towards the village of Craighouse then we pedalled further north into the untamed north. Jura is a small island but the wildness of it makes it feel much bigger, with considerably more deer than residents, it is a place that feels like a true honour to ride across.

After inhaling the whisky laden air of Craighouse we pointed northwards, swooping up and down along the rising and falling coast line, past lonely houses, stunning beaches and the occasional friendly car. On such a beautiful day we felt smug as day trippers from Islay looked through their car windows at the scene, not breathing it in and not being part of it the way we felt we were. With no plans of where to stay that night we felt truly free but pretty secure in the knowledge we’d find somewhere to pitch our tent.

The main road ended and we dropped down to a rocky cove with a few houses emitting happy laughter as children caught the last of the sunshine. And there we found it, the spot that we didn’t know we’d been looking for all day; tucked in on the sand amidst the rocks and above the high tide line, the perfect camping spot. Out of the wind and with the waves lapping the shoreline metres away, we pitched the tent, lit the stove and sat back to congratulate ourselves on having let go of modern life, turned off the phones and really settled into the beauty of carrying minimal kit and just riding our bikes to a beautiful place.

Islay and Jura offered the best possible introduction to bike packing, quiet roads, beautiful scenery and the friendliest locals that you could ever imagine. We were blown away by the welcome we received from every single person whose path we crossed. Does riding a bike with your life in bags make you more approachable and welcome? I’ll be testing that out on my next trip, now where’s that map….?

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