Islay and Jura, small islands off the west coast of Scotland, are all that we dream of when we think of Scotland. Romantic remoteness, wild rocky beaches and majestic wildlife, smoky whiskey and fresh seafood all come together to create the essence of Scotland. And the best way to see it and be part of it, must be on a bike. By car the islands are a scattering of separate villages with miles of roads to get between them, by bike it’s miles of open space and adventure filled with smells, sights and experiences.
Despite having lived in Scotland for some time, I’ve never really traveled to any of the islands so it’s something I’ve wanted to experience for a while. Really get to know a place and understand it. Leaving Kennacraig on the early morning ferry with only our bikes and whatever we could tie to them, we set off for a mini adventure. Every millimeter of space in our bags was taken up with essentials so clothing was kept to an absolute minimum, only the bare essentials were packed and I resolved to wear my Route Merino T-shirt for the whole 3 day trip. Maps of the island and written descriptions of routes were stuffed into pockets, we were going off the grid so no checking google maps for locations or route planning, time to rely on map reading skills for a while.
On arrival in Port Ellen, we went for an exploratory pedal to check out the handling on our newly ladened bikes. The steering and weight went from unwieldy to normal within minutes, our muscles woke up and we were ready to pedal and get miles under our belts.
In my sheer excitement about this adventures I had plans galore, golden eagle spotting in the south, a quick zip around the entire island getting as much distance covered as possible. Arrival in Islay quickly changed all that, within 5 minutes we were drawn into island life, our pace slowed and plans changed. A 30km pedal taking in the south of the island? Nah, let’s hit the distilleries.
Islay had 9 distilleries and, if you like whiskey, bikes are the best way to visit them. A beautiful new multi-use pathway keeps you off the main road as you visit 3 of the most famous distilleries in the world, Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Lagavulin. Much to my husbands delight we arrived in time for a 3 sample tour at Lagavulin, and I am not a whiskey drinker! 6 tasters down he weaved back down the trail towards the town ready for our last night of comfort before heading for the hills.
After an excellent night’s sleep at the Islay hotel we repacked and pointed northwards. With an ultimate destination in mind but no particular time constraints the day was open to possibilities, onwards we pedal through the middle of the island. The ever-present wind was kind to us, not a tailwind but the gentlest headwind that kept us cool as we pedalled all our belongings up the long straight road.
Our destination for the night was a tiny bothy on the east coast of the island, the map showed a rocky pathless coastline route in and, estimates suggested, a 2-3 hour walk from the last car park. Well, if it’ll only take us an hour on bikes then! We quickly learnt that a lack of path on the map equates to exactly that, an absolute lack of path. The rocky shoreline was unrideable but leaving the bikes and carrying our packs wouldn’t have made the scrambles over sharp outcrops much easier so onwards we pushed farther and farther up the coastline.
Over the final outcrop, shoulders aching and legs wearying we spot the roof of our bothy home for the evening.
For those not familiar with the Scottish Bothy, they are a network of huts that you can stay in for free, taking what you need and leaving the place as you found it. Huts come in all shapes and sizes, some modern, some more dilapidated, some large, some slightly cosier. Not knowing who will be there is one of the exciting parts, you can’t book or reserve a spot, no option to book it out for private use. We were delighted to find that we were alone for the evening, enjoying this romantic spot to ourselves.
After we left our bikes we started out on an hour long otter-hunt. To us, every ripple of the water was a diving otter and every rock protrusion was a nibbling otter head but the real thing stayed ever elusive. Back we hike to the bothy, disappointed but happy, to get the stove roaring when who should appear but a beautiful streamlined otter, powering his way home along the shoreline. After that, otters appeared everywhere we looked, letting us sneak up to watch them feed on crabs caught on the shallow sea floor.
An evening of chopping wood and toasting marshmallows over the bothy fire followed, with clothes hung over the mantelpiece to air them before the following days onwards journey. The weather, the midges and the people of Islay and Jura were more than kind to us. Every person we met along the way went out of their way to be kind to us, from the man that stopped to help us with directions to the woman who gave us free coffees because we had to wait more than 1 minute for a table. There is something disarming about bikepacking, everyone welcomes and encourages the cycling traveller in a way that I’ve not experienced from the comfort of a car seat.
Here’s to many more adventures, I’ll raise my glass to that, as long as it doesn’t have whiskey in it!