“One of the most important days of my life, was when I learned to ride a bicycle.” Michael Palin
Quite often I love to have weekends away from home on my own. A mini-break for one. Going somewhere I haven’t been before, doing things I’ve never done. If you’ve read any of my previous posts you’ll know I can get a little scared sometimes so by doing these trips it short circuits that annoying voice in my head and then I’m set for a few more months.
Colonsay was an easy choice. An island I could get to after work on a Friday, good for cycling (but I didn’t want to undertake lots of miles as the aim was to get in some walking too), and somewhere quiet. Being October, out of season, a 2 hour ferry ride from Oban and with only 135 inhabitants it was ticking all the boxes. Then I ‘google imaged’ the islands beaches and that was that. Booked and ready to go.
The ferry from Oban runs once a day (there are a few ferries running to Islay a couple of times a week) and it takes around 2 hours. Dropping me as the sun went down at Scalasaig I followed the Hostels instructions for the couple of mile ride to the Backpackers Lodge.
I had my Dahon folding bike as it was easy to put in the car and as I wasn’t camping it could take my small amount of clothes and necessities. I hadn’t expected the hill out of the port and the wind nearly sent me flying at the top of the pass. It started to drizzle as I paused to look down on the brightly lit Cal Mac pulling away from port and leaving me on what felt like a very remote and wild island. I was pretty slow on the downhill the other side of the pass as although Colonsay is great for cycling the roads are like anywhere in Scotland, potholes and standing water. After a straight crossing over Loch Fada I was a teeny bit scared going up the very dark driveway to the hostel through the woodland. It felt like I was in a Thomas Hardy novel.
On that first night I met two young ladies from the Isle of Harris, Mairi and Iona. I must have looked a strange sight arriving with a bike folded under my arm, head to toe in black waterproofs, carrying a mini bottle of wine and no food. Their smiles and warmth were exactly what I needed and we chatted in the front room of the hostel as though we had known each other for years. I think the gentleman on his own was a little shocked at some of the in-depth matters we obviously felt the need to discuss but red wine on a tired and rather empty stomach made me rather over excited.
The next morning I arranged with Mairi and Iona to meet them at the little parking spot above Kiloran Bay. Brandishing my hand drawn ‘guide to Colonsay’ from a good friend I headed the 10 minute cycle ride down to the beach. The photos and my friends descriptions had not prepared me for the glorious wild expanse of beach curving round and under the hills with the huge and protective dunes rolling inland. If Henry Beston had lived in Scotland he may well have built his Outer Most House here. I locked my bike (which I honestly don’t think I needed to do but old habits and that) and waited. I was sure the girls were only a few minutes behind me in their car so I waited a little longer. I saw some surfers in a Landrover pull up and nearly half an hour had passed. By this point I can hear my friend Anna in my head telling me I’ve been phased out (!) and ruminated for a few minutes on what I could have done to offend them. But I was here and wanted to see the beach so I headed over the dunes to avoid the river crossing and down onto the gorgeous white sand. Rain, sea spray and roaring wind whipped around me and I pottered north looking at seaweed, shells and weird sand formations.
I sat down for a while and watched the surfers getting their boards off the roof a long way back down the beach and then bumped into Keith and Elizabeth, retired teachers and keen bird watchers on holiday. They pointed out the Sea Eagle and Ravens and then I used their binoculars and spotted the two girls car (and the girls!) up by my bike! But that was so far away! I waved and jumped about but they didn’t see me and it looked like they were walking down the road to the track which would take them to Balnahard Bay. I decided to head them off and Keith and Elizabeth (by this time up on my tale of being ditched) came with me. At the track I noticed lots of cows and Keith offered to walk me through them (yep, major cow fear which obviously this man I had known for all of 10 minutes knew all about) and help me catch up with the girls. Oooo we could see the top of their heads! So we headed up the track but by the time we got to the top they had disappeared. Keith was 100% sure they had dropped down through the dunes onto the north end of Kiloran Bay so I said my fond farewells (starting to feel like a stalker at this point) and headed down through the huge dunes back to the beach. And guess what… they were not there. I do have some dignity so I decided it wasn’t meant to be and as the rain was back I sat in a little hollow between two rocks for a long time, watching the waves, enjoying the roar and thunder as they hit the beach and taking photos.
I headed back to the bike past the surfers. One of the guys was out and the other three were sat in this perfect line on the sand. I got my camera out and when I was directly behind them (and sure they weren’t looking) I took a photo. This is really not helping those stalker rumours but they just looked so perfect against the bleak sky.
Back at my bike I found a wet note tucked under my pannier from my new friends! Wahhhh I am not the kid in school picked last or not invited to the party! They had got lost, ended up at the airport (rather a long distance away) and hoped to catch up with me on the walk. Well, by this point I was ready to keep cycling, stop following them and see what else Colonsay has to offer so off I rode along the west road by the side of Loch Fada.
If you are still reading this please be assured this has a lovely conclusion!
So I cycled up the top road and there was a cool exhibition in the old Baptist church (next to the Primary School) so I sheltered in there for a while and read everything! From geology to the cultural and natural heritage of the island. Probably my favourite bit was the vertebrae of a number of different sea creatures.
I then went for a walk on a big stony beach I stumbled across as the sun made a little appearance and the wind died down. I cycled past the airport (blink and you’ll miss it) and went up the hill with the monument to Lord Colonsay on, just above the Colonsay hotel at Scalasaig. And that was the loop of the island. Easily done in a morning without all my diversions and stops. I bought a book from the bookshop near the pier and some Colonsay beer from the brewery, then went to check into the hotel for the night. As the rain returned and the sky went dark I headed down to the bar and guess who I found!? Mairi and Iona. Our shouts of delight and excitement and explanations went on for ages and we enjoyed a lovely meal together. They had indeed got lost and walked really fast up the track to try to catch up with me. They saw me on the beach but one of the surfers had told them I was a man so they didn’t think it was me and were therefore convinced I’d started the walk to Balnahard bay. I had a good meal at the hotel with the girls that night and rather a lot of merlot.
After the ladies had left to catch the late ferry to Islay a group of four people came and sat on the seats next to me. Only when I overheard them talking about surfing did I realise they were probably the surfers I’d seen on the beach earlier that day. And so the circle closed when I told them about chasing the girls, their small part in the whole sorry episode and the photo on the beach. Of course they wanted to see it, but having taken it on an old film camera they would have to wait a few weeks.
And then Sunday. Leaving day came and I cycled up to my friends grandparents house for morning coffee and shortbread. I’d never met them before but such is many people I meet or have coffee with all over Scotland, this doesn’t seem to matter. Bill and Annie were warm and welcoming and I left with directions to a beautiful beach I simply must visit. When I meet friends grandparents it always seems to sink me into an introspective mood about my own and the walk from the airport, over a boggy pass and through the dunes to Ardskenish beach was perfect for pulling me out and back to the moment. I didn’t see another soul for hours and just sat on the beach enjoying the low light, red seaweed and screech of gulls circling overhead.
The Pantry by the pier was the perfect supper before the ferry and the trip was over, arriving back in Oban just after 9pm. Cycling on Colonsay was easy, the best way to get around the island and each loop of the one main road could be ridden again and again with different views and places to explore each time.
One of the gentleman surfers had proposed to his girlfriend the day I took the photo so I’m going to organise to send them a copy. Each time I look at it I’m reminded of that Saturday on Colonsay. That I love being around people and would always rather walk with them. But when I can’t I am more than capable of cycling alone.
How to get to Colonsay:
Calmac run ferries most days from Oban. You can check their summer and winter timetables here: https://www.calmac.co.uk/
Hebridean Air fly from Oban to Colonsay a few times a week (weather dependant)
Where to Stay:
There are plenty of self catering options, a hotel and a hostel on the island. There is no campsites but you can wild camping responsibly
Accommodation on Colonsay: http://www.colonsay.org.uk/Accommodation
If you don’t have your own bike you can hire them from Archie’s Bike Hire: http://www.colonsay.org.uk/Amenities/Other
Bike and Kit:
I took my Dahon Folding Bike (which belonged to my Grandfather) with Ortlieb Panniers, perfect for the pouring rain!
- Iphone 6s
- Pentax ME Super SLR
- Pentax Espio 120 compact
- Film – Fuji Superia 400.