'' things are not what make you happy... memories are ''
Give me a Football Hooligan, a renowned thug or the local Yob of the neighbourhood and so long as you don't mind paying the expenses, within three days I will turn him into an Artist and a Poet! Expenses for what, I hear you say. The expenses for visiting the Islands off the West coast of Scotland. Inspiring and alluring places. Beautiful enough to turn a Hooligan into a Poet!
We didn't set out to bag ten Islands in ten days, more like seven Islands in eight days but that doesn't sound like the title of a blog does it? The whole escapade had an Ingramic touch to it, that is things didn't quite go according to plan but the unexpected events actually made the whole package more interesting. Let's face it Deer Blogfans the livelier blogs are the ones where things go completely wrong. If I was to write a blog where everything is 'just so' it would be a bit predictable or maybe even plain boring but my blogs are not boring are they? NO I hear you answer !
Skye - Sgurr Alisdair
I think the best way to describe Skye weather is 'fickle' . Perhaps it's because they're coastal hills and are more susceptible to changing on a whim I'm not sure but over the years I've found that the Cuillins can favour you one minute and abuse you the next. The day before we arrived it was all sweetness and light apparently but today we were just being sullen! This was the extreme opposite to our friend and guide, Scotty, not just the life and soul of the party but the all time no.1 aficionado of the Cuillin Mountains. He doesn't need much of an excuse to make the wee trip up from Oban to cavort in his favourite Mountain playground. This was his twenty fourth ascent of Alisdair and he knew it like an old suit, every ledge, pitch hand hold etc truly one of the Cognoscenti! This gave Deb and myself confidence.
As the odd wandering spoke of sunshine illuminated the verdant Glen Brittle we entered behind the sacred grey curtain and were to experience sunshine and good visibility no more for the next six hours. You could feel Scotty's disappointment that half of the Mountain's jagged features and cliffs were being hidden. I didn't share his disappointment, you take the Hill for what it is on the day and here is a Mountain Sanctuary set apart from all others in Britain. Truly rocky, real Mountains, all vegetation has abandoned it's right to survive as low as 400 metres! As we enter into Coire Laggan a Tolkeinesque feel obtains, Boiler Slab plates emerge through the mist, this was to be our scrambling practise for what was to come!
Eventually we made it to the top of the Stone Chute, what a relief that was all that clambering around on all fours had kind of given me a bad back. The route to the summit along the ridge is graded as a 'moderate' scramble. The summit of Sgurr Alisdair has one of the finest viewpoints in the Scottish hills, it has an unsurpassed view of the Coulin Ridge and you can pick out Islands for miles and miles. Today our visibility is reduced to about twelve feet!
The gloom was impenetrable and profound though this didn't bother me, in some situations on the scramble there was a considerable amount of exposure and I preferred not to see what was over the side. I'm maybe getting a bit old for hanging off ledges and walking on church roof ridges! Deb seemed to make it to the summit as if it was no great shakes but there was a slender slab of rock between me and the summit that didn't seem to have any purchase so I prostrated myself along the rock, shuffled along and patted the cairn! It's surprising the 'lengths' some people go to, to bag Munros.
Colonsay - A Special Island
There is certainly no need to rush around Colonsay, it has a pace of life like that of a bygone age. At just ten miles long, three miles wide and 143m high you can afford to amble around and feel the 'heartbeat' of the land. The 135 inhabitants are all very friendly and there is virtually no crime on the Island! The last infringement of the law was about ten years ago when a fight broke out in the Pub!
The minute we landed on Colonsay we were hit by 'Hebridean air'. Out of respect we procured a bottle of Colonsay Ale each, Colonsay is the smallest Island in the world with it's own Brewery and a tenth of the Colonsay working population work at the Brewery, that is both of them! We couldn't wait until we reached the Backpackers Lodge to consume our purchase so we drank them en route on our bikes and I was sporting a massive three stone Rucksack, I must have resembled an overburdened snail! Just to make things more memorable we experienced some refreshing Hebridean showers, these were the real deal not just spitting about or half hearted rain but massive raindrops exploding all around us. I reckon the raindrops were that big, if you could isolate one and detonate it, it would blatter an A4 sheet of paper! Thanks to the 'Hebridean Air' we hurtled up and down hills like children, getting soaked and finding it absolutely hilarious. A welcome display of 'crazy light' rainbows and gleaming sunshine performed during the interludes between the showers.
|A Cypress Tree in the delightful Colonsay Gardens.|
|Raised beaches on west coast|
|The Balnahard Whale|
It's hard to believe that Colonsay is so low lying, round every bend, over every hill there is a surge of green with plenty of crags to give it detail and breadth. Many of the indentations in the coastline are adorned with gallant sweeps of magnificent white sand - the two bays of Kiloran and Balnahard, on the North of the Island are just that, we sat on Balnahard beach for ages, only the scent of the sea and the warm ruffled air for company. You can get a splendid view of the North of the Island by taking a short detour up Carnen Eoin, the Islands highest point, at just 143m it gives some astonishing vistas.
Oronsay - The Semi Detached Neighbour
I say semi detached because you can only access Oronsay three hours either side of low tide and this is done by crossing the impressive mile long tidal inlet known as 'the Strand'. According to the 2011 census Oransay has a resident population of just five, all of which live on the Farm. The Island is currently owned by an American business woman who is passionate about the Island even to the point of designing it's own flag! The green and blue visibly represent sea and land the big hole in the middle can be filled by one of the many other colours that bestow the land. Unique don't you think?
Once on the Island proper an obvious track will lead you to the Farm and the acclaimed 14th century Augustinian Priory, a ruin but still remarkably well preserved. On the way back over The Strand, my handlebars became loose making my bike unrideable, this was not good, however we chanced upon a Blogfan called Keith ( they turn up everywhere) who just happened to have an Allen key that fitted and we were back on the road, or on the sand! His friend, who was clearly on Hebridean Air, was enthusiastic about pointing out some 'very rare' wild flowers to us. You have to be very opportunistic to see them though, they are dotted all over the Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland and are only in bloom only from June to September!
|Grass of Parnassus ( thanks Tim )|
Back on Colonsay we drank the local ale just losing ourselves in the warmth and colour of the sun's parting light. Life was good. With Colonsay being such a small Island and having just the one Pub, you tend to inadvertently meet up with everyone you stopped to have a chat with during your travels, I recall several couples dotted about the Beer Garden replete with a wall of British reserve around them, that was until someone recognised somebody who then recognised somebody else who then drew somebody else into the conversation and before long they had all become Blogfans! On the spur of the moment we decided to put our beer on hold and have a wee stravaig up a nearby hill that has a 'monument to nothing inparticular'! From this vantage point Scalisaig epitomised the 'Shangri-la' of the Hebrides, the late Summer sun illuminated every tussock of heather. We lingered for a few magic moments then came down on the wings of Bacchus to finish our beer only to find out that we had ...
Islay - Just!
That's right, we missed the ferry! The scheduled ferry had broken down, a replacement had came to get the car owners off the Island at 2:00 p.m, we were due to depart at 8:00p.m but as the only foot passengers we were not notified! This was clearly an oversight on the part of Calmac but I must point out they more than made up for it. We were hastily bundled on to an unscheduled sailing to Islay that docked at Kennacraig the following morning, this entailed an overnight stay at Islay's weary Port Ascaig Hotel. There was just one slight snag, our car was sixty miles away from Kennacraig, it was in Oban. Well, by courtesy of Calmac, on immediately disembarking the Ferry we were chauffeured from Kennacraig to Oban to be reunited with our car, how impressive is that!
|relaxing in the Campercar|
It is at this juncture my Deer Blogfans I would like to give you a fitting illustration, it is about how and why an Oyster makes a pearl! What happens is, an intruder perhaps a grain of sand enters between the two shells and irritates the mollusk. To protect itself from constant annoyance the Oyster quickly covers the uninvited guest with layers of nacre until an iridescent gem is formed. You can sometimes get situations like this in life, something unexpected may happen that can cause you some distress however you can sometimes use that situation to your advantage. That is precisely what we endeavoured to do.
Missing the Ferry was a complete shock, the ramifications of this were an even bigger blow, the domino effect upskittled our plans entirely. This was the low point the 'grain of sand' yet as we tried to gather our far flung thoughts together we were determined to turn a negative situation into a positive one, to turn the grain of sand into a priceless pearl! How were we going to do that? Thankfully on this occasion we had the latitude to extend our holiday by a couple of days, that was a stressful decision ( ! ) but it meant we could catch the Rum ferry on Wednesday instead of Monday, it would still mean spending one night on Harris instead of three but we will just have to go there another time. It's a chance you just have to take when you visit the Islands. An area rich in serendipity.
Kerrera - The Green Isle
Having two spare days meant we had to fill them wisely. We decided to do justice to two local Islands : Kerrera and Lismore. In the past I could never really be bothered with Kerrera, it was always there in the bay when we visited Oban but an Island you could swim to negated the quest for adventure in my opinion. Where was the lure of a remote Hebridean Island when it's only about two miles away from Tesco's !
However I was wrong! Sure the tail end of the Island stretches into Oban harbour yet the Island is a world apart! I've called it the 'green' Isle because it is just that : rolling green hills, lush green pastures, green shrub woodland, quaint green meadows, even the streams seemed green !
At one point we were relaxing in some machair laden meadows near Slatrach Bay, we had managed to lose the handful of people on the ferry so we were completely on our own, the rectilinear shapes of the Lochaber Mountains beckoned beyond the Loch, it was as if the whole frieze had been superimposed by a Constable painting. We could have been anywhere! Carefree shadows cast by aimless clouds enhanced the green of the hills, all you could hear were the gentle stirring sounds of nature. The piece of grit was certainly becoming a pearl.
At this point I'd had enough of relaxing, you don't come to the Motherland to relax do you ! I checked out a hill maybe only 100m or so but I thought it would give a splendid viewpoint so I ran up it. What I didn't appreciate from the ground was how steep it was, I had to grab hold of clumps of heather to assist me to the summit! It was indeed a fine viewpoint but now I was very edgy about the descent then I had a formidable idea, I would Ozslide down! What a glissando, gravity completely replaced effort, the ascent took me ten minutes the descent took me about twenty seconds!
Just a final thought on Kerrera, if you do decide to stay on there, there are no shops but it does have an advantage over other Hebridean Islands. . . Tesco is only a couple of miles away!
Lismore - An Island Of Surprises
I had never been that fussed with Lismore either. We had seen it a few times when we visited Port Appin, a pencil shaped Island - ten miles long a mile wide, a road down the middle with half a mile of pasture land either side of the road, not exactly a 'must visit' Island is it? Well Old Ingo was wrong again but now the resplendent pearl is complete!
No sooner had we crossed the ferry and pedalled a couple of miles there was a road to the right leading to the small Township of Port Ramsay . These cottages were built in the late Eighteenth Century for Lime Kiln workers and is now listed as a Conservation village. We took this road reluctantly because we knew we were playing the 'Devils advocate' you see we'd had enough of being thrown around on Mountain Bikes and wanted to ease off a bit, bag the Island and then perhaps have a leisurely afternoon sauntering around Malaig.
Howbeit a track beguilingly led us away from the Village and we were successfully enticed to go and explore it. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, the early morning mellow lighting drew our eyes hungrily to a sweep of rolling green hills. The soft greens of an old Kilt sloped saluberiously into the glittering blue of the sea loch. This Geography didn't tally up with the symmetry of the Island yet here were hills upon hills giving walking/ wilderness exploration of the highest order anywhere in Scotland!
Next thing I knew we were walking up these hills, with our bikes! Well when Hebridean Air hits you, you never know how you are going to react. Shamefully this led to an epic 'Sense of Humour Failure' on my part. Like any good Scotland track it withers away into nothing and we were on our own, at this point the bikes were steadily becoming more and more of an encumbrance. We had to cross Styles, circumnavigate streams, climb barbed wire fences and cross ditches! At one point I was up to my knees in bog and my neck in thistles floundering with my bike! The more Deb found it absolutely hilarious the more I found it totally ridiculous.
Eventually we got back on track and my sense of humour made a welcome return, back to my old self I thought I would give an encore. We approached a steep track so I got out the saddle and really gave it some power in the pedals but to my consternation the back wheel shot out! This was humiliating. I called on an elderly Gent who lived nearby who just happened to have some Mole Grips, we were back in business again. The Gentleman wasn't a Blogfan when I came but he was when I went!
Now it was Deb's turn. We had somehow managed to swap bikes and I neglected to mention that the brakes only work when you squeeze them right in, they had been getting worse and worse all week! Sometimes in life you have to make snap decisions, Deb had the opportunity to do just that whilst hurtling down a hill on a bike with no brakes - an iron gate in front of her and a grassy knoll to her left - would she crash into the gate or jump on to the grass? Deb chose the latter, she sustained a couple of bruised ribs but the lesson is clear, always wear a crash helmet!
On the spot where Deb did her stunt riding there is an excellent Cafe just across the road with a large Veranda full of people sipping 'afternoon tea', whether anybody witnessed this scene is anybodies guess, my theory is that they maybe just politely ignored the incident. '' . . more tea Darling! ''
Lismore is indeed an Island full of surprises. There is always something to avert your gaze, I was amazed to find an 18th Century Mill, it has long since fallen into desuetude but the wheel is still in place. There are Brochs, Burial Cairns and even a Castle in half decent condition as Island Castles go. Mmm a bit more than ten miles of pastureland either side of a road down the middle of a pencil shaped Island.
Isle of Canna - Peace and Tranquility
Canna rose up out of the water like a green Humped Back Whale. With the afternoon sun still handling the world gently I appointed Canna as the Queen of the Small Isles. From the vantage point of the ferry the newly appointed Queen was adorned with the Crown of Peace and garlanded with a necklace of Tranquillity.
The deadline of two hours didn't exactly give much time for exploration, there was clearly no point in 'going high' or 'off piste', we were quite happy cycling the unsurfaced road through the strung out Township of 'A'Chill'. The stone washed colours of the harled Cottages slotted into the collage of the landscape with serene dignity. In the airy sublimity of a Highland afternoon nothing could have been more joyful. The Post Mistress yarns away the hours with a couple of locals while the line of Customers grows, clearly conviviality still has the upper hand here and we had absolutely no problem with that.
In an instant of time docile streaks of cloud melded together to form a united conglomerate of tainted white. An island peltdown ensued but even in this moment of undisturbed instability I spied a cuticle of sun as if through a fine gauze. Within seconds the magnanimous sea once again gently teased the arcs of unspoilt white sand and everything as before had that newly painted look.
Maybe down to our camera's clicking wildly, I'm not sure but our number was up the Ferry was in the dock and it was time to be extricated from our own little private world of wonder.
Isle of Rum - The World Beyond the Metalled Road
Nothing could have prepared us for discovering Rum. I had poured over numerous books, trip reports and Television documentaries but experiencing it first hand was different from what anything could have prepared us for.
The late afternoon sun cast a coppery light over a fairy tale land. Enid Blytonesque cottages huddled together wherever there were clearings in the trees. Rustic signposts guided you to various tracks and the main points of interest on the Island. Hansel and Gretel Craft Shops glowed pink against the shadow of the brooding hills. Even the flamboyant Kinloch Castle wasn't deemed out of place, Rapunzell was seen letting herself down from one of the upper rooms while Peter Pan looks on in eager anticipation. We said ''hi'' to Tin Man walking down the Yellow Brick Road!
|notice bottle opener attached to the counter !|
We spent two nights at the luxury Rum Hostel the setting for which is truly impressive. It lies at the head of Loch Scresort where the tweed of the hills tapers off into the rippled smiles of the Sea Loch. How can you sit on a sofa with a field of vision like that around you and not write poetry!
Curtains of Mist
curtains of mist
swirling in slowly
lacking in power
strengthen in stealth
green are the hills
grim is the day
curtains of mist
strengthens the wind
light in the sky
breaks in the white
long lines of mist
in desperate might
mist clings to peaks
dare not let go
brittle blue skies
and a vengeful sun.
Our visit to Rum coincided with a Theatre production at the Village Hall, the first ever of it's kind on the Island. The Play was called 'Mallory', written and performed by John. D. Burns and was based on the life and exploits of the celebrated Mountaineer and his fixation with Mount Everest. I was personally blown away by the drama and pathos but above all I was galvanised by the singular uniqueness of the presentation, how can just one Man ( John. D. Burns ) move and captivate an audience! Impressive. Twenty turned up at the Village Hall that evening, not many you might think but Visitors aside that figure may represent about half of the Island!
There was a power cut that evening. You must appreciate on eight square miles of peat bog there isn't going to be the same level of infrastructure as there is on the Mainland hence you will get power cuts from time to time. We cycled home in pitch black, had to go to the loo in the middle of the night with head torches yet power was back by morning! Somebody had been up the hill to the Dam during the early hours to rectify the fault so that the thirty odd Residents of Cloud Cuckooland could have power. How thoughtful and dedicated is that. If I ever find out who it was I will grab hold of them with both hands and give them a good old Ingram handshake!
We were only on Rum for one whole day so that had to be the day we had a crack at Skye's little Brother the Rum Cuillin, a clutch of mighty Hills that drop up and down like a flow chart . As the pantomime motes of mist occasionally lifted they revealed ridges and slopes as green as tunics! There is actually a scientific reason behind this, as many as a Fifty Thousand pairs of Manx Shearwater's nest on the island. Their droppings over the centuries have helped helped to cultivate the bold colours that enhance the Glens!
Typically as we slowly climbed the Hill the wind slowly climbed the Beaufort Scale. We didn't even quite make it to the first summit before we were chased off by strengthening wind. I'm not normally put off my minor details like not being able to stand up or not being able to see anything but on a ridge like this with the greyness becoming unmitigating I thought we could make better use of our time. I find you have to be a little philosophical about what is rated as success on Scottish Hills, generally I think it's somewhere between a 'non starter' and a 'complete write off ' !
Were we disappointed? No, not round here. The views just from the first summit were enthralling: alluring Glens with snaking rivers, fascinating smaller hills that demand to be climbed and an overview of an Island that demands to be explored. Yes I think the seeds of expansion on this Island have been well and truly sown.
In the blink of an eye we were back at the Hostel having a quick bite to eat before pedalling down to Harris on the South West of the Island. Once out of Kinloch we saw no other people, it felt like we had the whole Island to ourselves. Once we had passed the high point on the track, Lag Sleitir, the last couple of miles through this unnamed Glen had us continually reaching for our cameras. It was the most joyous section of cycling that we had ever done, the warm air wafting in our faces, the sun on our backs as we effortlessly rode through stunning Island Mountain scenery - craggy hills to the left, all around extant Lazy Beds, attestation to the fact that this was once a thriving community - all of this against a stage set of a metallic blue sky and a shimmering sea. Rainbows came and went in Glen Harris, we named it Rainbow valley.
There in the distance on a plinth of green there appear to be two houses, on closer inspection one is a Blackhouse long fallen into disrepair, the other maybe only recently abandoned. In the foreground is what appears to be a Greek Temple! The last thing you would expect to find on a remote Scottish Island. This is in fact a Mauseleum, the grandiose final resting place of Sir George Bullough ( former Laird of the Island), his wife Monica and his Father, John. I ought to point out that this was not the original Mauseleum. On a hillock to the left you can just make out the ruins of his first attempt, an ornate vault with lavish Italian mosaic on the interior. One of his 'learned' guests at Kinloch Castle compared it to a Greek toilet! Sir George responded by giving it the 'dynamite' treatment!
As we sat on the edge of the rocky beach we were in a state of wonderment. Moments of profoundly inspiring scenes like this don't obtain every day. Harris exhibited a verdant and heavenly neatness, not a blade of grass seemed to be out of place. We were surrounded by something exceedingly special . . . and we knew it!
We really had a full day that day but there was still a bit of daylight left, still bristling with the sense of adventure we made the six mile return trip to Kilmory. This is undoubtedly the finest beach on the Island but there was an air of melancholy about it. The whole place seems a bit forlorn now, there are a collection of disparate buildings where Sir George used to get the Castle's laundry done and a 'Children's Graveyard'. Like Harris it once was a lively place but today it is just, empty! Here and there Red Deer flit cautiously across the Glen, stopping momentarily to eye you up before making graceful haste again.
A visit to Rum wouldn't be complete without a tour of Kinloch Castle. Sadly the Castle is in decline now but in it's heyday was a testimony to the opulence of the Edwardian era. The Glass Houses with Hummingbirds and Alligators, Japanese Walled Gardens, Golf course and Bowling Green have long gone. But the Cutting Edge Bathroom features, fully sprung Dance Floor, air conditioned Billiard Room and the 'Orchestration' are still in place. I ought to mention though the latter needs about £47K spending on it to bring it up to speed! The Bronze Monkey eating Eagle that he outbid the Emperor of Japan for, stands in the entrance!
Harris / Lewis - The Icing On The Cake
Rather than make the Ninety mile trek to Kyle round the A82 and A87, a tedious trip at the best of times but now made worse by road works, we opted for a much shorter trip - a ferry from Mallaig to Armadale on Skye, a distance of about three miles! Just one snag though, the Rum to Mallaig and Mallaig to Armadale ferries were not connected, even though there was a tantalising ten minute window between sailings. This was a major obstacle to me but it wasn't to Deb. It was also a major obstacle to every single employee of Calmac Ferries but it wasn't to Deb! There were sightings of Old Ingo running full tilt through the streets of Mallaig and transgressing the speed limit on returning and a frantic woman purchasing tickets that you're supposed to do at least half an hour before you sail. I do apologise to anyone on board for making you four minutes late but Calmac did owe us one!
Our time on Harris and Lewis was only a token visit. We made a round of some of our favourite places. It was a delight to 'Tweed Out' at Harris Tweed and Knitwear, have lunch at Firstfruits Cafe. It was heartening to see that the new owner of the D.I.Y store in Tarbert is just as random as the last one!
The final curtain came down at Izzybizzy a favourite Bay and a secret one, although I'm sure you could find it if you really wanted to. All I will say is that it is at the end of the road.
vast sea creased
into crimson smiles
stained glass sky
and white shell sand
for miles and miles
nature and solace
hand in hand
joy abounds in
nothing to hear but
the sound of the sea
the odd bleating lambs
still have their right
hand in hand
my dear wife
If you do find Izzybizzy we've left a fire for you, so you can enjoy a nice barbecue overlooking the bay. It's one of the most ravishing places on earth. The air is sweet, the panorama is alluring the sunsets are enraged and shot through with vermilion. When you have finished leave the fire for the next person. Don't worry about stoking it up, because my Deer Blogfans at Izzybizzy THE FIRE NEVER GOES OUT!!!
Please leave a comment, it would be good to hear from you.