Neil Braidwood takes to the slow lane as he pedals around the island of Islay.
The Isle of Islay is known as the Queen of the Hebrides. Devilishly difficult to get to by car, Scottish airline Loganair has been operating flights there from Glasgow for decades. Earlier this year the company launched a daily flight from Edinburgh, so I hopped on board for a mini adventure.
The island is relatively small, but home to eight whisky distilleries (actually another one opened the weekend I visited, bringing the total to nine!) Most are big players – Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Bowmore are no strangers – while Kilchoman is classified as a micro distillery.
I knew the island was relatively flat, so my plan was to hire a bicycle from Islay Cycles, based in Port Ellen in the south, and tour around at a slower pace.
Owner Jim Lutomski had my steed all ready for me – he has an extensive fleet, which includes children’s bikes and a tandem – but the one I was after was an electric bicycle. The weather can be unpredictable on the west coast of Scotland, and I reckoned I could use all the help I could get. Jim explained that the Raleigh Captus was “not like a moped” – the onboard Bosch motor merely assists with pedalling, and the battery would need recharged when required. Jim throws in a helmet, lights and a pannier, and I’m on the bike and on my way.
There are four settings to choose from: eco, touring, sport and turbo. Use the bike in turbo all the time and you will quickly deplete the battery, so I stuck to eco for my first journey – to my B&B for the night, the evocatively-titled Glenmachrie House, near the airport.
Rachel Whyte runs the B&B with her husband Alasdair, and she welcomed me at the door of the Victorian farmhouse, ushering me into the guest lounge for a very welcome afternoon tea. Cheese and ham sandwiches, homemade date and walnut cake, banana loaf and a cafetiere of coffee were brought through, and I made short work of the lot while perusing a superb photography book of the island.
There are four rooms, and mine (named Leorin), overlooked the gardens at the front of the house, and Leorin farm beyond. I figured I needed a nap after that afternoon tea, and when I wake up it’s time for dinner.
Rachel doesn’t offer dinner at Glenmachrie, so I decided to cycle to Bowmore, the island’s capital, about six miles (9.5km) away. There are a few restaurants to choose from here, and I venture into the Harbour Inn, owned by Bowmore (the distillery). The restaurant is quiet, so I choose the lively bar, ordering a half pint of langoustine and some fries. It’s not long before I fall into conversation with two men sitting next to me, and after a while, we are sharing a Bowmore 12-year-old malt, putting the world to rights.
My cycle back was uneventful, but I am glad of the bike lights, as it is dark before I reach the comfort of my bed at Glenmachrie.
On the road
The next day, I want to get on the road as quickly as possible, so I have breakfast at 7.30am. There is a groaning buffet of cereals, fruit and juice, followed by porridge, and then the full Scottish – one of the biggest fried breakfasts I have seen. I make a valiant attempt, but just can’t complete it.
Rachel sends me on my way with a couple of slices of date and walnut loaf for the journey, promising she will try an electric bike sometime.
I make my way to Bowmore again, this time, to take a tour of the distillery. It’s just me and a couple of Americans on the tour, and we are shown the whole process of creating Bowmore whisky. Our guide, although only 20 years old, has a grandfather who worked at the distillery in the 1960s, so is able to pass on anecdotes from him. It is my first distillery tour, but the Americans have already visited three on Islay, and rate this as one of the best. We end the trip in the bar, naturally, and are presented with a 12, 15 and 18-year-old dram to sample. My new American cousins and I spend a few hours getting to know each other over the whisky – this really is living the good life.
My second night on Islay will be under canvas. Scotland has a ‘Freedom to Roam Act’ which allows you to wild camp pretty much anywhere – within reason – so my next quest is to find a suitable spot to pitch my lightweight tent.
I have already decided on the west coast, and I can see from my trusty Ordnance Survey map that there are few houses on this side of the island, but a couple of interesting looking beaches. Machir Bay, near Kilchoman Distillery, takes my fancy and I plough on along a single track B road until I reach the dunes.
It’s a stunning day, and there are a few cars parked up already, including some vans with surfboards. I begin to doubt my decision, but decide to look for a suitable spot anyway. Climbing the dunes, the beach takes my breath away. The sands stretch out for ages, and as I look out over the horizon, I realise that the next stop is America.
I find a suitable discreet hollow and make camp. My intention is to pitch my Rab Ridge Master and head off for some dinner, returning just before sunset. Without my backpack I feel considerably lighter as I cycle off towards Port Charlotte, the nearest town. I make good progress, passing through Bruichladdich, site of yet another distillery.
Port Charlotte is a quaint town, with a couple of eateries. I pull up a seat in the bar of the Port Charlotte Hotel. There are some great views from here, plus, they have an electrical socket where I can recharge my bike’s battery. I try a pint of Big Strand lager from the local brewery Islay Ales – it certainly hits the spot and I begin to relax.
The cycle back to my campsite at Machir Bay is tiring, but I know I’ll sleep tonight. There’s only one van left in the car park, so I pretty much have the beach to myself. It’s a spectacular sunset, and as the last flame of orange dips below the horizon, I pull the zip on my tent and turn in for the night to the sound of the waves lapping the shore.
I woke the next day, after a fitful night’s sleep. The wind had picked up and buffeted the tent through the night, but it was lovely to gaze out over the empty beach as I packed up my kit.
It was a frantic cycle to Bowmore to catch breakfast at the Lochside Hotel (they stop serving at 9.30am). I was ready for my plate of porridge (with honey and cream), and the eggs benedict was delicious; the yolks reminded me of the setting sun last night.
One last task was to cycle to Port Ellen to drop off my bike, and as I passed the sign for the village, the battery gave up on me, and I felt the bike get considerably heavier.
I was still able to pedal myself to Jim’s house though, and catch my taxi back to the airport.
My two days have flown by – but I feel they have been spent well. Having a bicycle made me plan things more, and also factor in the time to see everything. I crammed so much into my mini adventure, and met some great people along the way over a dram.