I S L A Y
9 – 1 1 M A Y # 2 0 0 9
Glasgow – Islay t/r on a weekend on a pushbike and tent. Just a mad idea I got on the round of golf the previous day. My physical form is as good as it can get, being morbid obese. But I am still good for 75 miles a day. I had just bought a cheap tent, camping mat, a quick release rack for the bike and a 45 litres rucksack. Between the third and the eighteenth hole on the course, I asked myself: Can this be done…..? I completed the round and went home to check out the weather forecasts and the Kennacraig – Islay ferry time tables. I quickly found out that this weekend was the window of opportunity I had. I first thought to skip the sleeping bag, but I found one on the cheap and I decided to purchase it on the day of departure. I originally decided to take the 1800 ferry to Brodick, but I am very glad I didn’t. So I went for the 1515 ferry instead. More about that later…. I packed the gear in the rucksack and on the bike.
DAY 1 route. Blue = ferry / Red = Cycling
Full of adrenaline, I did not sleep particular well that night. The day started with a mad dash at 0830 to the shop to get the sleeping bag. It was a bit bigger than I thought, but I went for it. I went back to my flat, put the sleeping back on the top of the tent and the camping mat on the bike (see pictures) and then started the tour at 0945. I was hoping to get the 1515 ferry to Brodick. Hoping…….
The weather was a bit misty, but still almost perfect. Some wet patches on the road did not deter me at all. It took me a good half hour to navigate through the horrors of Paisley and get to the beginning of the disused railway line from Paisley Canal which now serves as the cycling & walking track between Glasgow and the Ayrshire coast at Irvine. The tarmac and the track are superb and I picked up good speed on the hill through Johnstone. The normal road is pretty hilly at this point (and all the way to the south coast), but the cycle path, being a disused railway line, bypassed all the hills and the climb was almost not noticeable. I was also pretty pumped up. The bike was also working superbly.
My bike and rucksack at Castle Semple between Johnstone and Lochwinnoch
Lochwinnoch and went for the B 780 road at Dalry where I left the superb cycle track. It only took me an hour to Dalry and I was more than surprised. I was now aiming for the 1230 ferry.
But first, I had to negotiate this hill-road over to Ardrossan and the ferry. First, I almost got lost due to bad road marking. But after a minute of confusion, I found the road again. The climb over the hill was a bit steep in the beginning, but it then got pretty funny with some sweeping bends up to a small dam. From there, I spotted the
at Ardrossan and I went for it down the hill. Some side-wind and traffic in Ardrossan made my life a bit difficult, but I got to the ticket office at and bought some discounted ferry tickets for the six ferries I was going to take. I cycled onboard the 1230 sailing, served by the impressive Caledonian Isles, with some minutes to spare. I am very pleased with 2.5 hours from Paisley to Ardrossan. Very pleased, indeed.
The car deck was full of cars. Both the one mezzanine deck and the main car deck. This ferry is the most busy ferry sailing in Scotland, being the main lifeline for the very vibrant and busy Isle Of Arran. A virtual crossing can be found . here (clicking on the arrow at “next point…”). The ferry was also full of Buddhists going to Holy Island for a yoga-event (!!) and the hour on the ferry was pretty OK with some conversations and taking pictures.
Brodick from the ferry
We docked in Brodick, Isle Of Arran. I did some work on the bike and the rack. Due to stupidity, the work took ten minutes more than I had anticipated. But trial and error is the best lessons… I went into Brodick and then met three Norwegians, including a bride-to-be. The wedding was the following day and they said there was fifty Norwegians on the loose in Brodick. I was seriously scared. So I quickly got some food and cash and then headed for the road around the south-side of Arran. I last cycled these roads eight years ago and I had vivid memories about vertical hills and suicidal descents. I soon learnt that nothing had changed.
Goatfell and the other majestic mountains of Arran from the Brodick - Lamlash Bay road.
The road straight south over to Lamlash Bay started with the biggest hill of the night. It was unrelenting climbing for two miles and then vertically down to the sea again at Lamlash Bay. The south-side of Arran is very brutal and hilly. The next climb from
Lamlash Bay over the hill to Whiting Bay was not that steep, but still a handful on the bike. I stopped in Whiting Bay to get some bottles of lemonade. The climb from Whiting Bay to the south-east corner and then along the southern flank of Arran was unrelenting and the road now followed a hillside high above the sea. Mostly in steep hills, with some pretty hairy descents towards some U-bends over small bridges, crossing streams and rivers. Very hard, intense and technical cycling at times. This road fully deserves it’s reputation as one of the most difficult and finest roads for cycling in Scotland.
The very hard – and beautiful - south side of Arran.
The road bypassed high above Kildonan and I stopped in the small village Lagg for a pint of Coca Cola in the pub and I there met the groom in the Norwegian wedding. He was Scottish and happily unaware of the tribulations a marriage with a Norwegian girl means (lutefisk, geitost, mylse etc etc). I did not want to break the bad news to him (and create a fifty Norwegians big search-party for my neck) so I finished off the pint and then ran off up the big hill out of the village and over to the south-west side of Arran. The terrain was a lot more desolate and wild, but the road was less hilly. Blackwaterfoot soon appeared ahead.
The westside of Arran, looking back towards the southwest corner
The westside of Arran towards Blackwaterfoot
I had spent over three hours and the best part of my physical reserves on these 50 km. I was very pleased that I had got the 1230 ferry to Brodick because I had clearly grossly underestimated this road. I now have a newfound respect for the south-side of Arran.
I cycled through Blackwaterfoot and straight into a new hill. Not a steep one, but still a substantial hill. I paused halfway up for some drinks and a Mars bar. The hill was climbed and after some up and downs along the hillside, I descended down to the sea again at Machrie. The road now followed the sea towards the north and Lochranza. I was on my last legs and facing fading light. So I went for it at an average speed of 25 km an hour on the flat road along the sea. A new, pretty big hill punctuated my progress and I was soon looking for a possible campsite. I settled for a campsite next to a small river, three miles from Lochranza ferry. Not a good campsite, but it was OK for me. If I had continued 300 meters around a bend, I would have found a perfect campsite, though……… Well, the tribulations of a long distance cyclist !
My first night with the tent and a badly chosen campsite
I had never tried this type of tent before so it took me twenty minutes of head-scratching and frustrations to get it up. The tent is actually very good so the problem was me and not the tent.
The sleeping bag was also OK. The camping mat was pretty much useless and it will be dumped from all further tours. I slept for some hours of sheer fatigue and then cursed the bad campsite I had chosen.
D A Y # 2
Blue = ferry / Red = Cycling
I woke up to fog and some sun. I loaded up the bike at 0730 without any problems. My teeth got brushed and I was on the bike again the 3 pretty flat miles up the coast to Lochranza and the ferry over to Claonaig. My legs was OK. To my surprise, I then spotted the ferry (named Loch Tarbert) leaving land from what I believed was the bay one mile before Lochranza. Thirty seconds later, I came to the “Welcome to Lochranza” signpost and my trust in my own map-reading was shot to pieces. I had almost reached the 0820 ferry without intent. An hour waiting time at Lochranza was OK for me because I was in no hurry. The weather was OK with some sun. I spent the hour chatting to other passengers. As almost a “local” here, I happily passed on useful information and advice to the tourists. Most of the others was going to the same Islay ferry as I was. A virtual crossing can be found
here (clicking on the arrow at “next point…”).
Lochranza and the ferry
Leaving Lochranza and approaching Claonaig
The sailing to Claonaig on the Kintyre peninsula took half an hour. Claonaig consist of a phone box, a bench and a couple of signposts. I passed through this place eight years ago when I did the full Kintyre tour. A suicidal tour down the east side and then the wonderful flat west side back to Tarbert. One of the best and hardest cycling I have ever done.
This time, I was crossing over the peninsula and it was with no regret I headed straight up the hill instead of turning to the left down the coast. The hill was pretty steep. Then, the road dropped down a bit to a river and a bridge. The road then went up a hill and over to a farm where the road was very steep around a corner before it climbed steady along a hillside to the top. The view down to the West Tarbert lock was good and rewarding. The drop down to the loch was signposted 14 % and demanded my full attention. I made it to Kennacraig ferry port with two hours to spare. I cannot say this was an interesting road, but it had to be done.
This being the main road used by cyclists on their way to the Islay ferry, I would recommend setting aside 75 minutes on this leg.
Kennacraig is a man made island out in the loch, which only serve as a dock for the
Islay ferry. I spent the two hours here talking and relaxing. The only refreshment Kennacraig has to offer, is a coffee machine. The CalMac staff was friendly though. But the ferry appeared after an hour at the mouth of the loch and then came into full view.
The ferry was Hebridean Isles (which takes 70 cars). A virtual crossing can be found
here (clicking on the arrow at “next point…”). The ferry was full coming to Kennacraig and it left Kennacraig fully loaded too. Three big lorries and the rest of it was cars + my bike. The loading of the ferry was very interesting to watch. Every possible deck-space was used. It is obvious that the lack of tonnage and car-deck capacity on this sailing makes Islay a very exclusive tourist destination. The remoteness of Kennacraig (3 hours drive from Glasgow) also makes Islay very special. This despite of the massive success of the
whiskies from Islay. Islay is also called the Whisky Island. It is most certainly very popular among cyclists. This being my first visit to Islay, it was with a great deal of excitement I boarded the ferry.
I made my way to the big open passenger decks. The sea was calm and nice. I had some lasagne in the excellent cafeteria and enjoyed the tour out and around the reefs in the loch and then over the open sea along Jura to the Sound Of Islay. The very lovely and impressive
Isle Of Jura soon appeared on the right side after leaving the loch. The following pictures is from this tour.
Paps Of Jura
Approaching the narrow Sound Of Islay
Entering the narrow Sound Of Islay
Approaching Port Askaig
Docking at Port Askaig
Port Askaig was a bit of a non-event as a village. Just a port, a small shop/post office and a hotel. Port Askaig had been modernised over the last years with new docks and a new road. It looked like a building site. I am sure it will be a bit prettier over the next years. But it is a pretty special place, indeed.
The views over to the barren, desolate Isle Of Jura and the dock at Feolin Ferry was also very good.
This island is even more remote than Islay, due to being served by this small ferry.
I also had a look at the road between Feolin Ferry and the Jura distillery from the ferry to Port Askaig. I was both sorry and glad I was not going on that road. But I hope to do that road sometime later in my life.
I had a look at Port Askaig (it took me five minutes), took some pictures, bought a bottle of sparking water and then headed up the steep road out of Port Askaig and onto Islay proper.
I have enclosed a map below:
I could not help notice the contrast between the barren and mountainous Jura and the pretty flat, luscious Islay. These two islands are as the picture below show, only separated by the narrow Sound Of Islay.
The road between Port Askaig and Port Ellen is 45 km long. The road was hilly for 2-3 km before it became more rolling over to Bridgend at the other side of Islay. The landscape between Port Askaig and Bridgend was dominantly farmland, with a couple of small villages too. The farmland was also dominated by sheep and newborn lambs. I was really enjoying the cycling and life in general. It was good rolling terrain. I hope the pictures gives it justice.
2 km out of Port Askaig towards the Paps Of Jura
Approaching Bridgeend with Bowmore in the far distance (left) and the sea (right).
Bridgend was nothing but a shop, hotel and a crossroad where the roads to the north side of Loch Indaal and the villages of Port Charlotte and
Portnahaven. Unfortunate, I did not have time enough to take this detour. I was also tired after the last two night’s lack of sleep and the hard cycling on Arran. I therefore went straight for the biggest village on Islay; Bowmore.
The road was rolling up and down the shoreline for (the hardly noticeable) 5 km before I entered this large village. I went to the Tourist Information who kindly advised me that I could pitch up my tent outside the hotel in Port Ellen if I got their permission. I also went to the shop for some food and met a couple of Norwegians again. They were visitors at the world famous Bowmore Distillery. We Norwegians are everywhere these days. I then went down to the harbour for some photo shoots. The next photos are taken from here:
A look back towards from where I came from (Bridgend and Paps Of Jura)
Port Charlotte on the other side of Loch Indaal
The superb distillery which has made this village world famous
Bowmore mainstreet with the very special church on the top of the village
I had a meal outside the church (see previous photo) and then cracked onto the big open road to Port Ellen. It is 17 km between Bowmore and Port Ellen. The first bit was a small climb. But then I went onto the 13 km long straight road over the peat bogs (and past the airport and the Machrie golf course) with no turns and some small, hardly noticeable undulations when crossing the rivers. With the wind from the back and a tired body, it was a very special experience which I will remember to my death. I hope the pictures below kind of gives it some justice:
The beginning of these 13 km
I now understand why the whisky from Islay are so peaty…..
Towards the Machrie golf course and Ireland (hidden in the mist)
The road turned sharply to the left, past a graveyard and then to the right again to Port Ellen.
I went past the very smelly malting factory at the disused distillery and then to the hotel to ask for permission to put up the tent. The permission was given by the nice people there (thanx !!!) and I pitched up the tent next to the (very well maintained) public toilets. I now had a better idea of what to do with the tent. But in the wind, pitching up the tent was not an easy job. I was also exhausted. I took some pictures before I fell asleep. The campsite was superb, but the sleeping mat destroyed some of my sleep. But I still slept OK. Here is some pictures from that night:
Finally a good campsite !
The Port Ellen bay with Ireland hidden in the mist
The beach towards the ferry (picture taken next morning)
D A Y # 3
Blue = ferry / Red = Cycling
It was raining during the night and I did not sleep too well. But I was still OK.
The ferry was not leaving before 0945 in the morning, but I wanted to do a personal pilgrimage to the
Laphroaig distillery. The distillery is 3 km outside Port Ellen on a narrow undulating road. So I packed up at 0700 and left my rucksack behind for this pilgrimage. The distillery was off course closed and I could not get anywhere near the buildings, but I got this picture as my proof of having visited my favourite distillery.
In hindsight; I should also have continued to the
Ardbeg distilleries, which is only some few kilometres away. But I was worried about my rucksack and I therefore turned back to Port Ellen. Anyway; I got a good view off them from the ferry. But next time……….
In hindsight, only 16 hours on Islay is too short because this island has a lot to offer. On the other side; this tour was only meant as a test tour in preparation for something bigger later this summer. I found out that the sleeping mat did not work and that was the point of this tour. But I live not too far away from Islay so I can easily go back again later for some more days there.
I returned back to Port Ellen and parked my bike for a short walk around the eastern bay of Port Ellen. The weather was nice and reasonably sunny, even in the early morning. I took some photos:
I really liked Port Ellen. It is pretty village with a nice ambience. Even at early morning. The people there was very nice. But everything good comes to an end………. I rolled my bike onto the half-full car deck and left Port Ellen behind me. A virtual crossing can be found
here (clicking on the arrow at “next point…”). I took some photos again:
Leaving Port Ellen
The two distilleries Lagavulin and Ardbeg
Meeting the “Isle Of Arran” ferry on her way to Port Ellen
An adventure was over, but I still had 110 km of hard cycling ahead of me. First the 8 km up along the West Tarbert Loch to Tarbert. The cycling was pretty flat, with a small hill over to Tarbert I bought some more lemonade in this village for the next, very hard road over to Dunoon. I waited here almost an hour for the ferry over to Portadavie.
The ferry docks in Tarbert
The sailing took around 30 minutes on the
Isle Of Cumbrae ferry. A virtual crossing can be found
here (clicking on the arrow at “next point…”).
I met another cyclist here who was going the same way. But he was faster than me so he disappeared at Portadavie. The Cowal peninsula is pretty much unknown territory and rarely talked about, with the exception of Dunoon. Which is sad because there are some beauty spots here. The climb from Portadavie over the two mountains to Kames and Tighnabruaich is not among my favourites, I have to admit. They are steep with a suicidal drop between them. Some pictures….
Facing back to Loch Fyne from the hill above Portadavie
Towards Kames and Tighnabruaich
Tighnabruaich. The road now goes up the hill from the first white house and follows the hillside to the left
I have heard a lot of scary things about the Tighnabruaich to Glendruel road. I can confirm that this hilly road deserves it’s reputation. The climb is unrelenting for miles. Facing south, it is also very exposed to the sun. I noticed, believe me….. But the view over the Kyle Of Bute makes it worthwile. See pictures below:
Kyle of Bute with the shortest ferry crossing in Scotland
Towards Glendruel and the next mountain crossing (middle of picture)
I managed to survive the drop down to Glendruel and the crossing of the said glen. I took the flat road to Kyle Of Bute for 2 km before I hit went for the steep road over to Loch Striven and Dunoon. This was the mountain I feared less when planning the tour. How wrong I was…. The climb up this mountain was both long and steep. On the top of it, I was actually looking down on the mountain I feared most when planning the tour…
From the top, overlooking the next mountain crossing (middle of picture)
The drop down to Loch Striven was the steepest drop I have ever experienced in Scotland and I was seriously scared during this descent. But my bike and the brakes held up superbly. Never again ! The road around Loch Striven was short and sweet. I was soon climbing up Glen Lean towards the dam and the loch.
I got headwind down the glen towards Dunoon, but I gave it my best and I soon arrived back at the sea level before Dunoon. Due to the wind, I decided to take the small hill over to Dunoon instead of the coastal road. I was in
3.5 hours after leaving Portadavie. I am happy with that. I had another hour of waiting on the ferry again. I spent that almost sleeping due to being exhausted. The good old ferry Jupiter finally turned up and the final 30 minutes ferry journey could be completed.
A virtual crossing can be found
here (clicking on the arrow at “next point…”). Some/the final pictures of the tour:
Bordering the ferry from the side of the vessel
Arriving at Gourock
I was pretty glad to arrive at Gourock again. A place I know well. I followed the flat coastal road to Greenock, before I went straight up the B788……..until I reached a school. From there, the disused railway line, now superb cycle path goes parallel with the hill to Port Glasgow and over to Kilmacolm and then Johnstone again. With the exception from two places, this cycle path avoids the hills and it is pretty good. I was exhausted and I packed my camera down and just went for it. I wanted to find my bed and I found it two hours after leaving Gourock, 255 km after I left Paisley two days before. A superb tour !
I would like to endorse and thank Undiscovered Scotland for their brilliant webpage. Most of the links on this website is taken from them.
Also a massive thank you to CalMac for their ferries.