Visit three of Scotland’s most iconic islands in this classic circuit, extend or reduce each section as you please.
Arran is often called Scotland in Miniature because of its spectacular, but varied scenery, all within a circumference of about 55 miles. Its quiet roads and easy access from Glasgow have also made a traditional magnet for cyclists. Many of these hardened bikers complete the island circuit in a day but, for me, its unique setting and laid-back mood deserve a more extensive visit.
Catch a train from Glasgow’s Central station and you will be at Ardrossan Harbour within the hour. Do check with ScotRail in advance about cycle reservations – on my trip there were nearly 20 bicycles – its Rail and Sail promotion, enabling you to buy combined rail and ferry tickets and its Open Return Fare. The ferry to Brodick takes around an hour, plenty of time to tuck into one of the hearty breakfasts available on board. See Caledonian MacBrayne for timetables and details of their Hopscotch tickets – combined fares for island hopping holidays where bikes go free! In summer 2010 a Hopscotch 16, covering Arran, Kintyre and Islay cost £25.45, a considerable saving on individual tickets.
Brodick, the island’s capital, is dominated by the bizarre red-granite pinnacles of Goat Fell. If you feel energetic, turn right out of the ferry terminal and head through the town on the coastal road to Cladach, passing the Duchess Court development of specialist shops – including Arran Aromatics and the Arran Brewery – until you see the public footpath sign on the left indicating the start of the climb up the fell. Arran is renowned for it friendliness and if you buy something from the shops or cafes, in most cases they will be happy for you to leave your bike there. The climb and descent will take up most of the rest of the day, so a good bet is to then head south to Lamlash and Whiting Bay where there are several good accommodation options, like Viewbank Guest House.
Whiting Bay to Blackwaterfoot in the south west of the island is a ride of around 13 miles, but it’s worth taking your time on this stretch – it’s the most undulating section of the tour anyway – to admire the dramatic coastal views. Add to the excitement by turning off the main road just after Dippin and head down to Kildonan on the extreme southern point of the island where you might be lucky enough to spot the resident namesakes of Seal Shore, along with the more reclusive otters, porpoises and basking sharks. You will find a campsite and hotel here too, if you fancy prolonging your stay before the heart-pumping climb back to the main road.
From here the road follows the direction of the coast and, given clear weather, the cliffs, rocks and sandy inlets to your left are dramatic. Lagg Hotel in Kilmory is a popular stop for cyclists and walkers and from here, the road turns to follow the coast northwards along to the sleepy village of Blackwaterfoot.
Arran’s west coast is relatively undeveloped and characterised by light grey pebble beaches and fabulous views across the Kilbrannan Sound to the Kintyre peninsular. Blackwaterfoot, built on a tiny harbour, is the largest settlement on the island’s west coast and accommodation is available at Blackwaterfoot Lodge. The village is also at the western end of the “String Road”, built across Arran in 1817 by Thomas Telford and, with its ascent of 230m in a little over 5km, a real test for even the most determined cyclist.
Keeping on the main road north by Tormore, you pass close to Machrie Moor, home to an amazing collection of stone circles and standing stones, dating back to Neolithic times. Pop into Old Byre Showroom and look round the collection of knitwear and leathers – their fingerless Aran gloves are a particularly good buy if it turns wet and your cycling gloves get soaked.
From here, it’s a relatively pleasant and level ride round the coast, always accompanied with superb views of the sound, to the ferry terminal at Lochranza. Much quieter than Brodick, it is an attractive village, with castle and distillery. Don’t miss the most stunning vista of jagged mountains in the glen south of the village on the road to Corrie and Brodick.
From Lochranza the ferry takes you to Claonaig on the Kintyre peninsular and you can cycle the five miles through the forest, admire the views and pick up the Islay ferry at Kennacraig. It’s a reasonably steep climb out of Claonaig, rewarded by an exhilarating free-wheel down to Kennacraig, but there are no real facilities at either terminal, so do your homework beforehand on ferry connections and take adequate supplies.
Islay is known as the Queen of the Hebrides. Renowned for its ivory beaches, white painted houses and unique light, cyclists enjoy its relatively level main roads. It can, however, be windy and bleak and, there are not too many accommodation options near the harbour in Port Ellen – use Islay Accommodation Directory Port Ellen – so ensure you plan carefully to avoid a potentially long cycle from the ferry late in the evening.
The main road north out of Port Ellen towards Islay’s biggest settlement, Bridgend, is almost completely straight and level. From Bridgend the A847 heads west towards Port Charlotte and Portnahaven, while the A846 turns east to Port Askaig. Main roads are quiet on Islay, while minor roads can be roughly surfaced and, as there is little traffic, isolated, so remember your repair kit and spares.
Islay is famous for its distilleries: Bowmore, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardberg are among its eight malt whisky producers. Many have visitor centres and, even if you wisely resist sneaking a bottle into your panniers, their cafes are good re-fueling stops on an island circuit. Local cyclists, like the Velo Club d’Ardbeg, recommend a trip to the distillery at Bruichladdich, not only for the whisky, but for the best coffee on Islay at Debbie’s Mini Market. For details of a lovely ride round the south west of the island click here.
Islay Weblog is a good place to find out information about Islay, a community with a thriving cultural life, including a jazz festival. Its distinctive light and peerless landscape have also long attracted artists and craftspeople: Discover Islay Arts Crafts and Shopping, and Made on Islay.
Port Askaig on the east of the island is the ferry connection for both Jura and Oban. It too, has a limited range of accommodation. Use Islay Info and also consider Ballygrant, around three miles inland on the road to Bridgend. There’s a steep hill to contend with, but enjoy the payback on the return, particularly if you are rushing for the ferry with a loaded bike!
Separated by less than a mile, the close proximity of Islay and Jura allows many visitors to combine a visit to both in one trip. However, this localism does not equate to any geographical similarity: conically shaped, rugged with the three peaks of the Paps of Jura rising to over 2,500 feet, Jura has fewer than 200 residents and is much more sparsely populated and remote than its neighbour.
The Isle Of Jura is a comprehensive and almost definitive bank of information on Jura.
The Feolin Ferry takes about five minutes to cross the Sound of Jura. Other than some public toilets, there are no facilities until you reach the island’s only major settlement, at Craighouse. It’s about eight miles along an undulating and, at times, bleak road but on a clear day the views are stunning.
Look around on the hillsides and you will almost certainly glimpse some of the 5,000 or so red deer resident on the island. Jura is famous for these magnificent creatures, who are frequently spotted swimming through the strong currents to Islay and many people claim the island’s name derives from the old Norse word for deer.
Drop into the beautiful gardens at Jura House, before reaching The Jura Hotel alongside the eponymous whisky distillery and the island’s only shop, in the centre of Craighouse. Enjoy its relaxed atmosphere and impressive array of local information: it is used to welcoming walkers and cyclists, hence the efficient drying facilities, and its grounds stretch down to a camping area next to the shore.
Suitably refreshed and refuelled, you might consider cycling the 20 odd miles, along the “Long Road”, then a rough track, to the north of the island to visit the remote Barnhill, where George Orwell wrote 1984. The cliffs overlook the gulf of Corryvreckan and its unavigable whirlpool.
Search for accommodation here.
Jura is wild, wondrous and be-witching. Much of it, particularly in the west of the island, is accessible only on foot, or by boat. Weather permitting, climb the Paps, visit the white sands of Glenbatrick on the isolated west coast and enjoy the ultimate walking and cycling destination.
I concluded my tour with the ferry from Port Askaig back to Oban, Caledonian MacBrayne then the wonderful West Highland railway back to Glasgow. For booters and inexhaustible bikers, there is now an excellent summer ferry from Craighouse to Tayvallich in Argyll (bus services link to Lochgilphead, Oban and Glasgow). Jura Passenger Ferry.