Otters, eagles and rainbows – An Island Odyssey

With Kim Jones

Kim travelling down Glen Sligachan, Isle of Skye

Kim Jones and his partner Tracey have recently returned from a trip to the Hebridies in Scotland, where amongst other things, they experienced flying sheep, beautiful beaches and of course whisky galore.

 

“You look as if you have been travelling a long time!”

“Thank you, I shall take that as a compliment”.

TOP: Crossing Rannoch Moor four days in to our journey. BELOW: Glen Etive later that same day

I think judging by the expression on his face it might have crossed his mind that I am perhaps homeless. I give myself and the bike the once over; yes, I can see that, for together, we look like an explosion in a charity shop and could probably both do with a good wash. He reaches into his pocket and I wonder if out of pity he’s going to offer me some money but instead, he pulls out his camera and asks if he can take a photo of the bike. We talk freely about travelling, land access in the USA (he was from Oregon) and the benefits of Merino clothing, before our conversation naturally reaches its conclusion. For a brief moment I wonder if I should offer him my address, perhaps to reassure him, but decide against it and we say our goodbyes. I quite like the thought that he thinks of me as some itinerant wanderer.

Six days, that’s all it had been six days! With a sun drenched, wind blasted, unshaven dirty face I’m outside a pub belonging to a well-known chain that offers cheap food and beer and very little else, waiting for Tracey who has gone in search of a loo. It’s odd to be here in Oban amongst all this hustle and bustle, and after almost a week in the hills, it all appears rather noisy and if I am honest, just a little uncomfortable. On T’s return and taking heed of the conversation I had earlier, we decide to book a hostel for the night, before heading out to Barra on the ferry tomorrow.

Isle of Ulva

As arranged that evening we met up with a friend who I had met in The Tap (Ed. Kim’s local hostelry in Brecon) last winter and who had offered “If you ever find yourself on the west coast….”. Laura had very kindly taken delivery of a dozen or so OS maps for us which saved us carrying them that first week. Over several drinks and a rather excellent burger, we discussed our plans for the next month which resulted in us abandoning tomorrow’s trip to Barra and instead taking a shorter crossing to Mull where we were to spend a few days. Mull is where I saw the first otter of the trip; we were on our way to the bothy when I saw him ahead running along the path like one of Wales’s finest chasing down an English player. Marvellous!

The following morning, we were making our way towards Ulva cautiously travelling through a dispersed herd of sheep when one of them, for no apparent reason took a flying leap and collided with Tracey’s shoulder just managing to avoid getting its horns caught in her bars before performing a tour jete and leaping off to join the others. Now I’m not sure whether this was some deep-seated ancestral grievance against the Sassenachs from which T managed to escape unharmed, but I’m ashamed to say that with tears of laughter running down my cheeks it took me sometime to regain my composure. I think it is fair to say she was not impressed and this, combined with her finding out that the previous night I had sneakily filled her treasured spare water bottle with Balvenie Doublewood meant I needed some help to redeem my actions. And it came in the form of a wonderful full rainbow on the western slopes of Beinn nan Lus, the first of many we were to see throughout our trip.

Tracey heading across Ulva back towards the ferry

Ulva is an interesting island. In 2018 it was purchased, with significant help from the Scottish Government, by the local community the number of which you can count on the fingers of both hands, with thumbs to spare. Now, they are looking to rejuvenate the island and increase its population, perhaps not to the original eight hundred plus that once lived there, but certainly substantially more than today’s numbers. Currently over five hundred people have applied for residency and are now on a waiting list. Apparently, these will all be subjected to a yet undecided selection process. One of the many problems the islanders face is the lack of available housing – there simply isn’t any, or indeed any roads, except for some old stone tracks around the part wooded eastern end and one rough track which traverses the island and links it via a stone bridge to the western isle of Gometra, which of course we follow-ed, finding ourselves on an island, off an island, off an island, off an island! And another otter encounter, this time around the tent in the night. I had hoped when earlier in the evening I’d spotted various signs, but what a joy to hear her sniffing around the tent, mumbl-ing away to herself before returning to the water.

The sound between Ulva and Gometra where the deer crossed

The following morning, as it turned out with most of the trip, we were blessed with what some people might call uncharacteristically Scottish weather. Sitting on the isthmus between the two islands we marvelled at the sight of a white-tailed eagle – Britain’s largest bird of prey with a wing span of up to two and a half metres – as it circled above us for several minutes, sometimes flying to within ten metres in its quest to investigate these two intruders.

I continue to be humbled by nature, but this really was a special moment and will stay with me for some time. Time passed as we rested in the autumnal sun and I spotted two shapes in the water; dismissing them as the hallucinatory effects of Co-op tea I wandered off to make another cuppa, but then only a few minutes later, one, two; seven, eight, fourteen. Fourteen deer swimming across the sound a mere thirty metres from us! Wow!!

Crystal clear waters on the west coast of Eriskay

That night having returned to Mull we camped alongside the Aros river which flows from Loch Frisa before taking a ferry back to Oban the following morning; then as originally planned another one out to Barra and again a hostel treat. We were becoming decadent, only three days that time with-out hot water! Hostel life is changing, once the preserve of university graduates full of ideas and attitude, they are now shared with less naive, mortgage-free fifty somethings with life experience, which of course makes for good conversation. Numbers were exchanged, half promises made, some of which will be kept, before we all retired to our rooms, a little later than planned, warmed on whisky and stories.

Barra airport on the beach

It’s funny the things that you come to realise you can live without when travelling by bike, surprisingly a shower being one. There is something incredibly invigorating about a river wash or a cold loch swim; you are left with a rather satisfying tingle to your skin and a feeling of cleanliness, different to that of a warm shower. Others include fresh milk, clean clothes, your mobile phone – isn’t it just great to be out of signal for days at a time?! Though I must admit there were several days when I ‘forgot’ to switch it on. And even your bed. But toast; oh, how I miss toast. So, the following morning it was time to make amends. A half-pound of butter and a loaf of cheap sliced bread was purchased and consumed together with three cups of strong coffee made from hot water from an electrical kettle, go us!

TOP: Where Kim and Tracey camped just above Whisky Galore beach BELOW: Island causeway

Personally, I am not a fan of riding on tarmac, but on the Outer Hebrides on a loaded bike there are very few practical alternatives. And so it was, travelling south initially to Vatersay, then northwards through Barra (home to the world’s only airport where schedule flights take off and land on a tidal stretch of water), South Uist – which looking at a map seems to be more water than land, Benbecula and on to North Uist. Crossing causeways and using ferries we made our way on flat roads with a tailwind. As a child I was enthralled by the film ‘Whisky Galore’ so given the chance, it seemed rather appropriate to camp on the headland overlooking the beach where events took place. The pub, which was rather disap-pointing, claims to have an original bottle from the ship wreck.

Island life is different, perhaps a little insular, although not through choice, and is not for everyone. Whilst travelling through, one experiences an almost voyeuristic romanticism, the reality though is really quite different. Unbelievably harsh winter storms, relentless winds which sometimes blow for days at a time and which can leave one housebound, and certainly for the more isolated crofts, it can sometimes be a lonely life.

As a shepherd said to us: “You are seeing this today when the islands are at their best, I have to come out in all weathers, and not because I want to, but through necessity”.

The barron landscape of North Uist

Another thing I noticed, similar to some Welsh farmers, many people seem reluctant to part with things which are clearly past their sell by date and certainly in their current state are of no use. But then it dawned on me, when your only contact with the mainland is by ferry, or your own boat, it can at times be difficult to get hold of things, especially vehicle parts. As a consequence, people often hang on to a wrecked transit for example, just in case bits of it might be needed sometime in the future.

So, it is left where it was abandoned, possibly an eyesore for the tourist, but in places, a reality of island life.

The incredible hills we passed as we travelled south through Skye

After two days on the road it was time for a change and with North Skye beckoning across the Little Minch, we caught a ferry from Lochmaddy and cycled the short distance from Uig to the bothy on the northern most tip of the island. This was another great night; with a sleeping platform for only three people, six of us were left to sleep on the floor taking up all the available space, where friendships were made which will be sustained. I love this life, I really do.

LEFT: Bothy on northern most tip RIGHT: The renovated bothy

TOP: Barmy weather at Camasunary Bay, Isle of Skye, on the southern tip of the Cuillin Hills. BELOW: Camasunary Bay just before dusk

Two days later and we were down the opposite end of the island, having had one of the best days on a bike for some time, cycling through Glen Sligahan and at day’s end were blessed with a recently renovated bothy to ourselves, at least for the first night and which we shared each evening with a herd of deer that came down to graze. Unfortunately, coming down the gorge Tracey picked up a flesh wound which needed cleaning, stitching (plastic stitches) and dressing (I’ve since decided I don’t particularly like the look of an exposed shin bone) so, here at the southern tip of the Cuillin Hills we declared a rest day and, in an attempt to lighten our loads, gorged ourselves on what food we had, breaking only to swim in the sea.

Leaving South Skye for the long trek north through Skye. Kim pushing up from Camasunary Bay with the Isle of Soay in the background right and Rum in the far distance.

Gatliff Trust hostel on the island of Bernary with the view from the hostel window

Much as we could have stayed a lot longer, having eaten all our food we were forced to leave, and having restocked, camped about twenty kilometers south of Uig, where we would catch the ferry to North Uist the following morning and cycle up to Bernary then onto Harris. That night on Bernary we shared one of the Gatliff Trusts hostels with a chap from Swansea, small world! The Trust own two crofts, one which houses the ‘common room’ if you like and the other, two rooms which both contain bunks. Rather refreshingly, they maintain a promise that anyone turning up on foot, bicycle or canoe, will never be turned away, even if all the beds are taken. Interestingly the croft containing the bunks, although having only been re-thatched fairly recently was being re-roofed again, island style this time using machair (the coarse grass which grows on the edge of sandy areas, usually dunes and which is unique to the north-west of Scotland and Ireland) replacing the traditional English thatch which had lasted only a few years. One of the many advantages of machair is its obvious saltiness which acts as a deterrent to rats. Traditionally, once the roof had been laid, it is covered with wire netting and weighted down with stones. Each year, opposing sides of the netting are lifted and new machair added on top of the old, thus creating a well-insulated and dry croft.

Whilst you were all experiencing some rather damp weather, we spent an extended day here walking on white sands and dipping our feet in crystal clear turquoise waters. And while I have never visited a Caribbean beach, having only experienced one vicariously through photographs, I can testify that the beaches here on the western seaboard which benefit from the Gulf Stream are very similar and an absolute delight.

TOP: Sound on Isle of Harris BELOW: West Lewis beach

Our penultimate ferry took us further north onto Harris where the captain certainly earns his stripes navigating the boat on a tortuous route through hidden reefs and islands. Harris, unlike the other Hebridean islands seems closer to the Highlands in landscape with some sizeable rugged hills and lochs. And some big climbs to boot. Our time here would be short, just two days, but we will return, soon. Camped in the lee of the Sgurr Sgaladail, the tent pitched where it would catch the rising sun as it promised to be a cold night. I was leaning on the old bridge, hip flask in hand, studying a sheep who had been closely scrutinising us as we made camp, when I was approached by a well-fed lady whose camper van was parked on the side of the road and occupied by her husband. It seems that she had been attracted by the loaded bikes and together with the sheep had watched us unpack. Greetings were exchanged and she enquired where we were going, I started to explain when she interrupted me saying that they too were on their way back to Ulapool.

I grimaced at the thought, as it would seem we might well be on the same ferry. She then went on to say that they too had ‘done’ Skye.

No, NO, NOOO. You haven’t ‘done’ Skye, you merely spent a day driving around it in your fuel guzzling motor-home, equipped with all your comforts, without any interaction or respect for the people who live there (and no, they are not ‘locals’ they are people who choose to live on the island) eating food you purchased on the mainland, filling the waste bins to overflowing and probably inappropriately dumping your chemical waste. All this without contributing a penny to the local economy. Sorry, rant over, but I do hate that word.

“I’m a photographer” she announced taking a photograph of our bikes before making her exit and thankfully, finally leaving me alone. I won’t say what I mumbled under my breath, but I think it’s fair to say they are words which do not appear on the current English curriculum.

On a serious note though, that is the exact perception the inhabitants of the highlands and islands have of the people who clog up the roads in their owned and hired motor-homes. The infrastruct-ure just isn’t here and a lot of the roads, although passing places are numerous, are single-track and simply cannot cope with the ever-increasing volume of traffic. It doesn’t help that many drivers, despite the signs, appear to think that pulling into a lay-by to let a farmer pass is beneath them.

Living as we had been for the last three and a half weeks; I found that I had little time for people like that. Perhaps I should have had a word with myself. However, a few more sips of my beloved Balvenie and a first sighting of a Golden eagle as she soared high above Tomnabhal in the last of the evening sun and my mood was positively Zen like.

Camp spot below Sgurr Sgaladail looking up towards Loch Mhisteam on the Isle of Lewis

Although probably no longer than forty kilometres, the following day was one of the hardest I have ever experienced on a bike, as we battled a constant, vicious head-wind, which at times blew us to a complete standstill as we made our way to Stornoway. The Heb Hostel was a welcome respite and despite initially having our ear drums rattled by someone snoring and passively inhaling their earlier supper we both slept like the dead.

It was a shame to finally leave the islands, but over the last week we had been poring over our three remaining OS maps (having mailed the others home) and had come up with what promised to be a mainly off-road route back to Inverness, which we were both looking forward to riding with gradually lighter bikes. No more nights in the tent or in hostels, the last week would be spent exclusively in various bothies.

Following the track, crossing the mainland on route to Inverness

Our return to the mainland coincided with the start of the rut and we had many enchanting encounters with bellowing stags and small herds of hinds. I had no idea deer screamed, and I wish they didn’t, but when they are afraid or anxious, they do, rather loudly. One night I had left the bothy and had wandered down to the stream to wash the pans unaware that upwind of me was a young stag. Upon sighting me or perhaps somehow picking up my scent, he let out the most fearful noise which scared the bejesus out of me. I hadn’t seen him as it was dark and it was much too windy for me to have heard any sound he might have made. It certainly heightened my senses and in the days that followed I made a point of washing the pans before it got dark, for a stag who has lost his fear of humans is a different proposition all together and they have been known to charge people.

LEFT: Interior of Old Schoolhouse RIGHT: Church window names

The route across the Highlands proved to be everything we had hoped though we had one day of particularly inclement weather. How can you have a head wind cycling up a glen then turning back on yourself to ride down a parallel glen you find yourself once again riding into the wind?! And then it started raining, horizontally! These glens, as are many others are now uninhabited and hold a dark secret, for they were both subjected to the infamous clearances. The inhabitants of Glencalvie were evicted in 1845 to make way for sheep and many took refuge in the church-yard in Croick. To mark this terrible act, many of the dispersed marked their names on the windows of the church, some of which can still be seen today. A poignant reminder to a darker time.

These last few lines are taking from my notes written towards the end of the trip.

‘I shall miss Scotland; its people and wildlife, its islands, hills and glens. The remoteness, the emptiness, the clear un-polluted skies and the way the landscape encourages you to immerse yourself within it. The conflict of the weather here and the peace that follows, but perhaps above all, the freedom, the freedom to roam where I like. We should leave tomorrow, we really should, but I know we won’t. As the wind screams like an angry sergeant major on the parade ground, and the rain like machine gun fire, rakes the bothy window, I put another log on the fire, one more day, just one more….’  

 

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