Island Life – MMM’s Hebrides Adventure (Exclusive to MMM)
by Ian Caswell
My home in Northern Ireland provides scope for many good, scenic runs on a bike. One familiar and rightly popular local run follows the coast north through County Antrim, from the narrow confines of the Irish Sea to the open Atlantic. The two waters meet off Ballycastle, a harbour sheltered by the rugged cliffs of Rathlin Island three miles offshore. Look west and the coast winds off toward Donegal and the open ocean. Look north and off Scotland’s coast, the horizon is broken by Islay, the first of the Hebrides; and by the hills of Jura beyond that.
There is a magic to these places. Perhaps from place names like the Rinns of Islay, the Paps of Jura, or the Mull of Oa. Perhaps from old books or films like Whisky Galore. Or perhaps the history of Viking raids and the Lords of the Isles. Whatever the reason, I have long wanted to go exploring there. And a bike, as we all know, is the ideal tool for the job. Plans were made, an apartment and ferries were booked, and tourist guides were studied to let us know what to expect and where to visit.
Islay is the home of many of Scotland’s famous single malts, and as a result the ferries to and from Islay are block-booked by the distilleries, often for months in advance. When booking the bike on, we got the outbound ferry that we needed to connect with our Irish Sea ferry, but were on a waiting list for the return one; right up to one day before the end of our trip. In a car, we would have no chance of getting the ferry that we needed.
Even then, the best laid plans of bikes and men can be laid low by the not-so-glorious summer weather on this side of the Atlantic. After all, who would spend a wet week wrapped up in waterproof motorcycle gear, when more normal holidays in sunnier climes beckon? While the Gulf Stream may give us mild winters, we are its victims where the summer is concerned, with no guarantee of two consecutive days of sunshine. As our planned August departure approached, the long-term forecast looked as ominous as it had all through the summer of 2007; and I began to have doubts about persuading my wife, Trish, to accompany me on this trip. To her credit, she donned waterproofs when they were needed, and her only complaint was about the comfort of the pillion seat after 200+ miles.
Despite Islay being only 25 miles from the north Antrim coast, getting there by bike requires a somewhat more circuitous route. First, a boat to Scotland. Followed by a wide loop through Glasgow and the maze of sea loughs, islands, glens and mountains to the north. Then south again, travelling down half the length of the Mull of Kyntyre peninsula, to the ferry terminal at Kennacraig where we boarded the ferry to Islay. By this route, 25 miles as the crow flies turned into 240 bike miles and 4 hours on two ferries! I know that by the standards of the States this must sound like a paltry daily mileage, but believe me, on these roads it is quite enough.
The bike, an old 1987 BMW R100RS, was generously loaned to me by my brother-in-law when my own, older, R75 developed a terminal sounding rattle. Since this is his second bike, it is little used. There was only time before departure for me to change the battery, check the oil and fit my GIVI top box. On the way to our first ferry, the back brake started to bind; a problem not resolved by slackening off the adjuster. I took the wheel off as soon as I could, finding that the brake lining was breaking up. This was easily resolved with a new set of brake shoes, but it meant that I was driving fully loaded with front brake only until the shoes were delivered. Fortunately, other than this initial worry, the RS performed faultlessly.
At its longest and widest points, Islay measures approximately 30 miles by 20, and is almost split in two by sea inlets at its north and south. The main town of Bowmore lies at the head of the southern inlet. There are two ferry ports, Port Askaig and Port Ellen, and two main roads. One road joins the two ferry ports via Bowmore, and one leads from Bowmore to the western part of the Island, ending at Port Charlotte. The west of the island, being open to the Atlantic, is much wilder and more sparsely populated. Beyond the two roads, which are only wide enough for one lane of traffic in each direction, there are a maze of tiny, single track roads with passing places every once in a while should you meet something coming the other way. Since the whole island is covered in peat bog (this is said to flavour the water supply, making Islay’s whisky unique), the roads have subsided and been repaired countless times, making the whole surface somewhat erratic. Even on the main roads, anything more than about 50mph resulted in the fully loaded BMW jarring our bones as the suspension bottomed out with monotonous regularity. Strong words from the pillion seat soon led to a more subdued riding style!
The single-track roads were similarly interesting, with patches of loose gravel, tight corners, farm animals and occasional preoccupied tourists all vying for my attention. In addition, a few of the distilleries are sited on these roads, since their original Victorian owners shipped everything in and out. One particularly memorable blind corner that we turned was hiding a 40 foot lorry full of barrels of single malt, with a driver who appeared to think he was driving a rally car. The road was barely wide enough for him, and certainly did not have width enough for us to pass. A fortuitously placed farm entrance saved the day. On the worst of these roads, our average speed must have been around 15mph. The lesson to be learned from this, should you ever be fortunate enough to find yourself touring here, or any area in northern Scotland or western Ireland, is to allow a lot of time to travel relatively short distances. This is the iron butt, but in miniature.
Other customs are worthy of note. On our third day, the bike ran onto reserve, despite me having filled the tank on the previous day. This was at 4:30pm, and the nearest town was Port Ellen, about 20 miles distant, all of which was single track. It took us slightly over 45 minutes to cover that distance, only to find the town’s one petrol station had closed at 5:00pm. Since the next nearest town was Bowmore, the islands capital, I could only hope that petrol would still be available there if I could make it in time, and pray that reserve would last that far since the bike was obviously not achieving anything like its normal petrol consumption. Needless, to say it didn’t and on a lonely road in the middle of a peat bog, we spluttered to a halt. The one nearby house was empty, so I tried flagging down a passing van. Its driver, Richard, was a local builder on his way back from fixing storm damage at the Ardbeg distillery. He phoned two villages ahead to keep a garage open for us, and loaded our stricken bike into his van to get us there. Thank God for friendly locals. The lesson learned, I then filled up every day, irrespective of need.
There is plenty to see and do on the island. Far more, in fact, than we could reasonably cover in our week there. We divided the island into rough quarters; allowing a day for each, with time to stay on at, or return to, any location should we desire. At the island’s south western tip lie the twin villages of Port Wemyss and Portnahaven. It was an easy trip from our base in Port Charlotte, and gave us a first taste of the awful surface of the single track roads. Here and slightly offshore, lies a lighthouse built by the father of author Robert Louis Stevenson. It is said that his visits to Islay with his father during the construction of the lighthouse were the inspiration for the famous adventure story, Kidnapped. As we walked around the shore to watch the Atlantic break against the rocks outside the harbour, we could see a group of bikers pulling into the village below us. They never even got off their bikes, and must have stayed all of 30 seconds before pulling out again. They passed us occasionally over the next few days but always seemed to be going somewhere in a hurry. I never felt as if we were giving these places enough time to do them justice, but these guys weren’t even giving them a chance on their “been there, done that” tour.
By the time we had made our way further around the west cost to the beautiful sandy beach at Machir bay, I was already wishing that the BMW had the longer travel GS suspension. And this was only day one! The ruins of a medieval church are said to be accessible from the road we had just covered, but we couldn’t find the path. And this island is not short of this type of relic, so we passed on to visit our first distillery up a rutted, stony track at Kilchoman. Further up the west coast at Saligo Bay lie the remains of a Second World War radio transmission station used to keep in touch with the Atlantic convoys and listen out for U-boats. It’s a wild spot where even on the calm day of our visit, the ocean breakers filled the air with a salty spray. It must have been a bleak and very remote posting during a 1940’s winter.
If your name is MacDonald, then at some point your ancestors came from here. Their clan ruled a sizeable domain from the Isle of Man, to parts of the Irish coast and Scotland’s western and northern isles. The Lords of the Isles ruled from Finlaggan, and among the ruins there and at many other sites around the island lie the ornately carved grave slabs of knights and crusaders, the great and the good of a medieval kingdom long since passed.
Wildlife watching is another big draw in both Islay and Jura; with eagles, otters, whales, dolphins, deer, migrant geese and the very rare Corn Craik among the attractions. Two wildlife sanctuaries, one in the north at Lough Gruinart, and one in the south at the Mull of Oa, make good viewing places. We spent a pleasant, sunny afternoon on the Oa walking the cliff top to the prominent, pointed stone tower known as the American Monument. This commemorates the loss of two WW-I troop ships near the site. One, the Tuscania, was torpedoed a few miles off shore. The other, the Otranto, collided with another ship during a storm shortly before the armistice. Both catastrophes caused huge loss of life. For more information on these wrecks, or on other aspects of Islay life and history, try the islayinfo web link.
If Islay is sparsely populated, then its neighbor Jura is positively empty, with just 200 people on the whole Island. We reached Jura by the short ferry crossing from Port Askaig that dropped us off at one end of the island’s only public road. The residents euphemistically call this ‘the long road’, even though it is only 25 miles from start to finish. In common with the single-track roads on Islay, it shares the same, truly abysmal road surface. Again, allow time to get anywhere. You really do have to experience these roads to believe them. At one point, having travelled about 18 miles along “the long road,” we swept through a picturesque bay and up a steep incline with a precipitous slope on one side. Having passed a deer halfway up this slope, we rounded a corner to find a temporary repair to a part of the road, which had collapsed into the ravine below. At the side of the road, a thoughtful worker had placed a sign reading “No Heavy Goods Vehicles.” Quite. What the driver of such a vehicle would be doing there, or indeed how they would reverse for miles down such a twisting narrow road to find a place to turn, is beyond me.
The whole island appears to be run by a few large estates as a private hunting ground. As a result, any excursion off the road is not advised before notifying the relevant estate office, on pain of a skin full of buckshot! Needless to say, we followed this advice. We followed the road toward the north of the island in hope that we could visit Barnhill; the house where George Orwell stayed while writing 1984. Orwell loved motorcycles, and came to the island on his Rudge, but with worsening TB, he left Jura without it. The un-restorable wreckage of this bike was found a few years ago, gently decaying on a bank of nettles.
Barnhill is close to the Corryvreckan whirlpool; the second largest whirlpool in Europe. But access for the last 12 miles or so is on an estate road, and again has to be pre-arranged. The road simply stops; there is no settlement, no filling station it simply runs into a small bay with two houses and that is it. Orwell came to grief while fishing in a small rowing boat too close to the whirlpool and had to be rescued from a small and uninhabited island nearby. We hadn’t researched Jura in any detail, or at least not enough to know about the access problems, and had to retreat without visiting anywhere listed in the guide books apart from the one distillery located in the village of Craighouse. Jura is wild and very beautiful, but really is not geared for tourists, and with only one road, is not an ideal destination for motorcycles.
The ideal whisky lover’s day out on the Islay must start at Port Ellen. Outside this village and roughly a mile apart from each other, are the distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulen and Ardbeg. Each is set in its own small bay, and each manages to impart a unique flavour to their whisky. Since a sample or two of each will be necessary for a true appreciation of the whisky makers art, most visitors seem to take a bus to Ardbeg, the furthest distillery from Port Ellen, and then a leisurely walk back to town along the rugged coastline with a break for refreshment at each of the other two.
Our week on the island ended all too quickly, with much that we did not have time to explore. If we were to return, and both of us would like to, I would bring a fishing rod and chill out on the shore rather than exploring the more remote corners of the island as we did this time. With good diving, food, history and scenery all set in a compact space, Islay is well worth a visit. Beware of fuel prices. If you think that petrol is expensive in the US, then paying for it here will certainly give you heart failure.
If you are interested in touring Scotland or Ireland, I have included a few useful web links below. Or if there is anything I have missed, contact me through this publication and I will do my best to give you an answer.
www.yell.co.uk – Business phone book for all of the UK. Searchable for bike hire, accommodation, etc.
www.goldenpages.ie – Business phone book for the Irish Republic.
www.islayinfo.com – A good general site on Islay
www.ileach.co.uk – Islay’s newspaper. Good general information.
www.calmac.co.uk – Ferries to all of the Scottish islands
www.portcharlotteholidays.com – Excellent accommodation, and our base for the week.
www.multimap.com – Online map and route finder.