15 things I learned while cycling the Scottish islands
Scotland’s islands are very popular with cyclists. There is a real sense of adventure as you leave the mainland by ferry or boat, taking a bike with you, to enjoy a day, two days or a week of island hopping. In addition, the islands, such as Arran, Mull, Skye, the Outer Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney, boast many quiet roads and a huge range of scenery and attractions. I recently enjoyed a trip to the famous Scottish whisky islands of Islay and Jura. The idea was to spend time with friends, visit some of the famous whisky distilleries such as Bowmore, Ardbeg and Jura, enjoy the views and have a great adventure.
Here are some of things I learned:
1. Bikes are free on CalMac ferries.
2. Travel for passengers is a lot cheaper on the Scottish ferries than you might imagine. Just £6.50 covers a two-hour journey from Kennacraig on the mainland to Port Askaig on Islay. You can also catch a ferry to Port Ellen at the south of the island.
3. Island hopscotch tickets can be a good idea if you plan to visit several islands in one trip.
4. To visit the distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Arbeg, Port Ellen is the closest port. For the distilleries of Bunnahabhain and Coal Ila, Port Askaig makes more sense. Bowmore is a ride away from both ferry terminals. However, it's easy enough to get around Islay by bike so it doesn't really matter which port you land at.
5. Best-laid plans can sometimes be undone. Even if you have a plan in place that you think is perfect it’s fine to adjust it to suit the circumstances. For example, we missed a ferry from Islay to Jura. The next ferry wasn’t for an hour so we made great use of the time with a superb lunch at the Pork Askaig Hotel.
6. It’s worth taking an actual ferry timetable with you instead of relying on the internet. The islands do not always boast the best phone reception or internet signal and because of this we had no idea what time the next ferry would be when we left Bowmore distillery. If we had looked at a timetable we would have seen that pedalling a little faster would have got us there in time.
7. Some things are worth booking ahead. Distillery tours can fill up so it's worth calling ahead to reserve your place and you should book boats for alternative island connections, such as from Craighouse on Jura to Tayvallich on the mainland, to be sure of passage. (Note that Calmac ferries do not need not be reserved if you are a foot/cycling passenger although cars do need to be reserved in many cases.)
8. Islay is not as flat as you might think. It looks flat from a distance and it is flatter than much of the mainland but there are still some hills and undulations and that can make cycling a little slower. Leave lots of time for enjoying the experience rather than rushing to get somewhere.
9. The islands can be windy, especially the flatter ones! This makes cycling slower when it’s a headwind but fabulous when it’s a tailwind. We enjoyed a high-speed ride back from Bowmore to Port Askraig thanks to a decent tailwind.
10. It's better to embrace the weather than to be caught out in it. The weather in the Scottish islands is very changeable. One minute we were enjoying sunshine so warm that we cycled in short sleeves and the next moment it was raining. An hour later it was warm and sunny again. It’s vital that you take a range of layers and clothing to cope with the weather.
11. The weather can make a huge difference to the views. Blue skies and sunshine offer one view while moody skies offers another. I like both. The contrast is amazing and the changeable views only add to the experience of being on the islands.
12. Whisky and cycling can be good partners, so long as you do not drink too many drams. It’s great to enjoy the fresh air of the cycling, breathe in the distinctive aromas of a distillery and then sip on a small and tasty dram, before heading off for another exhilarating bike ride. Do save most of your drinking for later in the day when you can open a bottle of your purchased whisky.
13. Any bike will do. You could ride a mountain bike, hybrid or racer style bike on the islands. The roads and distances will suit all types and even if you can only manage a short ride there’s a great adventure to be had. The tarmac is mostly very smooth so it's a joy to cycle on.
14 Jura is strikingly beautiful. The famous “paps” – three mountains to the south of the island – look amazing from the mainland but when you can view them from Islay, the neighbouring isle, they look incredible. Whether in sunshine or cloud, they create a dramatic panorama.
15. There are many things to see, although, like many people, we did go for the whisky. Eight highlights of Islay and Jura include:
Kilnave Chapel on Islay, which is made famous by the Irish Saint, Columba, who visited in about 720 AD. St Columba visited the Islay on his way north, prior to founding the famous monastery on the Isle of Iona.
There are no less than eight working distilleries on Islay. There is one whisky distillery on Jura.
There are an amazing 200 different species of birds, from which almost 100 breed on Islay. See birds such as oystercatchers, gannets, terns, gulls, ducks, shags, cormorants at the coast and birds of prey including buzzards, hen harriers and golden eagles.
The coastal attractions of Islay are rarely far away. There is 130 miles of coastline on this relatively small island including sand, shingle beach, mud flats and cliffs. You may be lucky enough to see seals, dolphins, porpoise and basking sharks.
Despite its size Jura is inhabited by only about 200 people, who are outnumbered by the huge population of deer. It’s thought there are around 5,500 deer on Jura so you have a good chance of spotting them. There are many historical sites of interest on Jura, such as Iron Age forts, ancient burial grounds and standing stones. Walking on Jura is a great choice, especially if you enjoy a high-rise challenge such as the Paps of Jura.