Riding the road less travelled in Scotland
A bike tour though the Hebrides reveals castles, dramatic cliffs and the region's history of Christianity
We were standing inside Oban Cycles, a small shop stocked with everything one might need for a bike tour through Scotland's stormy Hebrides. It was early afternoon and outside gusts of wind were lashing stalwart Victorian-era stone buildings. Dour-faced Scots hurried along clutching umbrellas and holding the collars of their coats closed.
My plan was to take a ferry from Oban to the town of Craignure on the Isle of Mull, the second-largest island in the Inner Hebrides. From there, I would cycle 57 kilometres across the island to the port of Fionnphort, followed by a short ferry trip, which would land me at my destination, the fabled island of Iona, for centuries the centre of Gaelic monasticism. Today, it serves as a touchstone for the Celtic Christian revival movement.
I examined the sturdy 27-speed bicycles and the bright-yellow waterproof panniers we were renting, while mentioning my travel plans to the store's clerk, a fit young Scot with a beard. "That could take you 12 hours," he cautioned. "You might not get there until after dark and then you would miss the ferry."
John, a septuagenarian cyclist and a connoisseur of Scottish landscapes, looked concerned and suggested I accompany him on a less arduous ride to a town on the Isle of Mull called Salen.
I thought about that option as we cycled through a chilly drizzle down Oban's main street past pubs and shops toward the town's port where we lined up along with a score of other, mostly grey-haired cyclists and waited for cars and trucks to board the enormous ferry.
Once inside, we took up position in the boat's restaurant, which with its semicircular bank of windows was a perfect place for sightseeing on our 45-minute voyage. The ramparts and peaked roofs of Duart Castle emerged from the mist ahead. The sighting of this fortification signalled that we were approaching the hamlet of Craignure, where my cycling adventure would begin.
Bidding John goodbye in the pattering rain, I began pedalling furiously. The dense vegetation and houses alongside the road gave way to rocky fields and I saw a herd of enormous shaggy Scottish-Red cattle that looked up with curiosity at the panting human riding by. About 20 km into the ride, I was soaked from sweat and rain. I arrived at the beginning of the mile-long ascent I had been warned about and gritted my teeth.
My route took me past a winding access road to Duart Castle, which has seen its fair share of bloody clan warfare. Upon reaching the top of the hill, I met a beaming young English cyclist who informed me that the rest of the trip was relatively easy cycling – and that if I did not tarry in damp windless places, I would not fall victim to Scotland's infamous midges, small flies that swarm their victims. "We got eaten alive at a campground several nights ago," she told me.
The road frequently narrowed to a single lane and there were places for cars to pull over to allow one another to pass. I was relieved that they extended the same courtesy to cyclists. The skies cleared and, descending a hill, I was greeted by a stunning view of Loch Scridain. At a brackish mudflat called Leth Onn, I saw one of the many groups of birders that flock here to view the island's famous birdlife, which includes whooper swans, bar-tailed godwits and sea eagles.
Just before the town of Bunessan, there were several large standing stones, thought to have served some kind of ceremonial function in Neolithic times, which looked like shrouded human forms. They were adjacent to a barrow that may at one time have contained a burial site.
The sun began playing peekaboo through ominous clouds gathering overhead. Around a bend in the road, I saw a middle-aged woman with a field guide examining a striated cliff that looked like it was right out of The Hobbit. Plates of stone, folded or smashed in places, were evidence of a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago. The woman, who identified herself as an amateur geologist, told me that the cliff consisted of Moine rocks, among the oldest stones in the Hebrides.
A five-minute ride on a small ferry from Fionnphort landed me on Iona, a slip of an island with only 120 permanent residents, but an estimated 130,000 annual visitors – most of them day trippers.
I found the Argyll Hotel, where I was staying, on a small lane of historic-looking stone houses with pitched roofs and dormer windows overlooking the island's small harbour. Inside there were cozy sitting rooms with fireplaces and tourists reclining in armchairs reading books.
After checking in, I took a walk around the stone ruins of a medieval Augustinian nunnery located at the border of the town. With its missing sections of walls and roofs, the place looked as though it had been sacked for building materials.
The next morning, I rode my bike down a dirt lane to Iona Abbey, a large compound of buildings on a hill overlooking the sea that was the site of the original church founded by Saint Columba, the Irish saint who brought Christianity to Scotland back in 563. I wandered through the long arcades that bordered greenswards and ended up in an enormous hall illuminated by an ethereal light shining through a large Romanesque window.
I took a day off from cycling to visit the tiny Isle of Staffa, a bewitching place of strange sounds and sights that became world famous in the Romantic era when German composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote an overture about it. Staffa's biggest attraction is Fingal's Cave, which looks as though it was sculpted by some lost civilization. Here, I listened to a group of women intoning nearby. Their voices created an accompanying chorus of haunting moans from deep inside the cave.
The following day, I was back on my bicycle, retracing part of my route from Craignure two days earlier. At the end of Loch Scridain, I turned onto a road leading out to the Ardmeanach Peninsula. It was a perfect day and even the cattle were celebrating the weather. I rode past glades of white birch dappled with sunlight, ancient stone walls covered with moss and large grey stone farmhouses with narrow windows. Big flowering bushes of blue and purple bougainvillea, an invasive plant in this region, were in the process of strangling the local roadside flora.
After passing another section of standing stones and dodging a group of goats crossing the road, I turned away from the coast at Gruline and went inland on the road that would take me to Salen. The road there took me past well-appointed white stucco farmhouses and manicured lawns that looked as though they had been converted into vacation homes for the wealthy.
Eventually, I pulled into Salen, a small town with all of the conveniences of modern-day life: pharmacies, gas stations, hotels and even an upscale Italian restaurant. I ran into John reading a newspaper in a sitting room at the Salen Hotel, which overlooked a main road thrumming with traffic. "You made it," he said, smiling.