Hills and sunshine
We had a wonderful holiday. For some reason, however, we failed to pay attention to the fact that this route was rather hillier than our previous trip to Scotland. With two children and all the associated kit to tow, the hills became a significant challenge. It was doable, but by no means easy. Also unexpected was the incredible weather that we had. Western Scotland is not known for its sunshine, but we had a fortnight of blue skies and 25 degrees Celsius. We rigged up sunshades at our camps and swam in the sea. In these conditions, this is paradise.
The drive up from London is pretty easy, considerably shorter than the drive to Skye. It could be done easily in a day, but we chose to break it in the Lake District so we would arrive in Ardrossan with time to catch a ferry to Arran. There is a car park at the ferry terminal which would have cost us around £35 for our trip; this seemed excessive to me so we took a chance and parked on a street, without issue. There are also trains from Glasgow.
The route you take will be determined by the ferry times. We spent two days on Arran before taking the Lochranza to Claonaig ferry. We rode from Claonaig to Tarbert and then took the B8024 all the way round the coast to Lochgilphead. From there we rode along the Crinan Canal to and the B8025 to Tayvallich. From Tayvallich, there is a small passenger ferry to Jura which requires booking, but takes bikes. We had two days on Jura, rode to Port Charlotte on Islay, then round to Kintra before taking the ferry back to Kennacraig on Kintyre. From here we returned to Arran, riding round the south of the island before heading home from Brodick.
Apart from the Jura passenger ferry, which opens up the opportunity of doing a circular route, there are a couple of other pieces of information which may prove helpful. First is the fact that the A83 is, in places, a dangerous road for cyclists. There are many warning signs along the road, but even in the few miles between Kennacraig and Tarbert we had a very unpleasant encounter with a lorry. We had intended to take a route back via the Tarbert to Portavadie ferry and Bute, but decided against this in order to avoid this section of A83. It may well be that returning via Arran is a better option anyway, but if you do wish to ride a circular route, going out via Bute and back via Arran avoids this section of road entirely; this is probably less of an issue if you are not towing two children. Second, there is a road from Achahoish along Loch Sween that we had considered taking. We were informed that this was unsuitable for our child trailer and so went via the B8024. It may be worth a try if you have suitable equipment as it would undoubtedly be spectacular. Third, in a bid to avoid the A83 section past Ardrishaig, we decided to follow a signed cycle route to Lochgilphead. It stated it was difficult terrain, and indeed it was (which meant that the Loch Sween alternative may in fact have been better!), but more annoyingly the signs disappeared and we had no idea which way the route went; plan this one in advance.
On the return leg of our loop, we missed our planned ferry to Arran from Claonaig. Having a couple of hours to kill, we rode along the coast to Skipness Castle. This proved an excellent excursion; Skipness looked a lovely little village with a little shop and tearoom and the castle ruins were freely accessible, with good signs and the opportunity to climb the tower. The views over to Arran were breathtaking and, had we wished, there would have been plenty of opportunity for wild camping along the coast road.
Arran is a mountainous island in the Firth of the Clyde (Firth meaning estuary) between the Kintyre peninsula, and the rest of the mainland. Because of this, it isn’t classed as one of the Hebrides. It is, however, spectacular and its relative accessibility didn’t seem to affect its charm. The road system is simple – there’s a route around the outside with a road, ‘The String’, across the middle forming two loops. The String tops out at 250m and there is another similar climb between Brodick and Lochranza on the northern loop, but the southern loop is at least as tiring owing to the constant undulations. We ended up doing the northern loop at the beginning of our tour and the southern loop on the way home. We’d recommend trying to ride it all, as it is varied and excellent riding.
We camped in Glen Rosa, which is pretty much wild camping with just a very basic toilet block. The setting is wonderful, but the damp location next to a stream meant there were a lot of midges. On the way home we camped at Lochranza, which is a fairly standard site and was busy but had a very nice feel about it and friendly owners. It is perfect if you want to mountain bike the fantastic singletrack route to Laggan Cottage. If the weather is good and you have decent mountain bike skills, you must ride this route! We spent our last night at Seal Shore, with great views over Plodda and Aisla Craig.
Kintyre to Jura
The Kintyre peninsula is in some ways further from Glasgow than Arran, because the road route around Loch Fyne is so long. Nevertheless there is considerably more traffic on some of the roads. Once off the A-roads though, all is calm and the B8024 proved excellent riding. We camped at the spectacularly situated, but rather odd, Port Ban campsite near Kilberry. It’s a large site with views over to Jura and has a strong Christian summer camp vibe with lots of prayer meetings. The tent area is nicely separate though and is down by the beach.
Tayvallich was a lovely place to spend an evening. The campsite is not great for tents, because your view is almost entirely of the static caravans, but we had a nice evening in the pub and the whole place, including the campsite, was very friendly.
Jura is one of my favourite places. Apparently George Orwell, who wrote 1984 there, called it a most ungettable-at place; and indeed it is. It is not just that it is ungettable-at, but that there is not really anything there once you do get at it. There’s a hotel, a distillery, a tearoom, a shop and a road. There is simply no reason to be there, other than just to be there, which gives it a lovely laid-back charm and there’s money from the yachts and the deer stalking to keep it all in good order. I can only conclude that Orwell and I have rather different personalities because Jura would have banished all thoughts of Room 101 from my mind.
You can camp by the hotel, and you can ride along the road. We rode as far as Tarbert and then wild camped by the loch on a patch of grass almost exactly the size of the tent, and about a foot above the high water mark. We stayed up until the tide turned! There also looked to be plenty of potential campspots on the Jura side of the Feolin ferry terminal.
We had been spoiled by the time we reached Islay. It certainly felt like returning to civilisation;and had a welcome flatness about it, but the riding wasn’t as spectacular as what had gone before. Nevertheless, the campsites at Port Charlotte and at Kintra Farm which face each other across Loch Indaal, but are 25 miles apart by road, have wonderful views. Kintra Farm should have been perfect, but the unbelievable bureaucracy of the owners – there’s a form to fill in, and a list of rules for absolutely everything – interfered with the otherwise relaxed vibe.