Inner Hebrides Cycle Touring

Written by Jono Hawkins on 16 Jun 2023

The Route

Originally, the Hebridean Way was in our sights but logistics to get to the Outer Hebrides proved difficult. Adding the train strikes into the mix and some last-minute replanning led to a bike-by-ferry tour of the some of the Inner Hebridean isles - namely the Isle of Arran, Isla, Jura and Mull. This would allow us to come back along the Ardnamuchan Peninsula to spend some time hillwalking in Fort Willian. We intended to spread the 260 miles cycling over 6 or 7 days.

Ardrossan to Arran

Friday After a closely timed rendez-vous on the train to Glasgow but a less well timed arrival to the train station, Faye and I missed our connection to Ardrossan Harbour. We waited for the next train, which took us as far as Ardrossan South Beach, from where we cycled along the promenade to the harbour for the ferry to Brodick.

The skyline of Arran - known as 'The Sleeping Warrior' - as seen from the coast.

The crossing of the Firth of Clyde took just short of an hour and was the first of many glassy smooth seas. Approaching Brodick, the Sleeping Warrior loomed over the horizon. From the harbour, we made our way south to the village of Lamlash. Our plan was to spend the night at Middleton’s Camping which we were relieved to find was in fact open - despite our repeat attempts to find out in advance over the unanswered phone.

Prior to making our dinner, we wandered along the shore in front of the campsite. Among the oystercatchers, sandpipers and great crested grebes we were fortunate enough to spot three otters. Through the binoculars - for which the larger SLR camera had been jettisoned to make space - we were able to watch them catch and eat their dinner of crab! They were a joy to watch, but our stomachs started to rumble and eventually we wandered back amongst the rock pools to find our own supper.

An unexpected inhabitant of the Isle of Arran enjoy their dinner.

Saturday The following morning, we elected to alter our route slightly and take the more direct route to Lochranza in the north of Arran via the east coast and Glen Sannox. As we enjoyed the descent to Lochranza via Glen Chalmadale, a sign to the Arran Distillery appeared at the side of the road and a few hundred metres later we turned into the car park. I purchased a miniature, having decided that where possible I would pick one up for each island we visited. Fortuitously, the detour has meant that when we arrived in Lochranza we had just missed a ferry, and so there was plenty of time to visit the famous Sandwich Station for lunch.

The queue says it all - visit The Sandwich Station if you're looking for lunch on Arran!

We both left Arran aware from the glimpses that we had snuck along our morning bike ride that there was still so much more to see, excited to visit again in the future and explore the glens and granite peaks. As the ferry chugged across the Kilbrannan Sound, the peaks Beinn Bharrain and Cir Mhor skulked into the distance and we approached Claonaig. The last stretch of cycling that day would take us across the northern end of the Kintyre peninsula to Tarbert, where we had booked to stay in a camping pod at The Gather for the evening.

Glancing backwards along the road the peaks of northern Arran cut above the modest Kintyre hillside, but eventually we descended towards Tarbert and checked in to our pod. Ditching the panniers, we cycled the remaining kilometre into town and enjoyed an ice cream looking across the quay. Opposite a pub, a guitarist was playing live music which - accompanied by the clear blue skies - cemented the holiday atmosphere. Returning to the pod and cooking dinner, we were both excited for the following morning where we would find ourselves on the second and third islands of the trip - Islay and Jura!

Islay and Jura

Sunday The ferry to Port Ellen on Islay leaves is limited to two sailings on Sunday; a menial yet crucial detail that would allow us to cycle across the south of the island without retracing our tracks. We left Tarbert at 08h30 which meant we weren’t short on time for the short 5 mile cycle to the ferry terminal at Kennacraig. Having arrived, the water in West Loch Tarbert was again perfectly still - there were to be no hairy crossings in questionable weather on this trip.

As we sailed closer to Islay, the whitewashed distilleries of the island’s south coast came into view and the ferry navigated its way through the rocky mouth of Port Ellen’s natural harbour. Based on the previous day, we had started to gather an idea of the pace at which we were cycling and decided that there would be ample time to take a detour to the distilleries that we had seen from the boat journey and pick up a ‘souvenir’. We followed what seemed like the relatively new Three Distilleries Path which links Laphraoig, Lagavuilin and Ardbeg. After being shamed out of Lagavuilin for daring to ask if they sold miniatures, and finding Ardbeg shut - it was a Sunday, after all - we returned to Laphroaig and gladly found the visitor centre open.

Faye cycling back from Ardbeg along the Three Distilleries path.
Stopping in at the Laphroaig distillery on Islay's south coast.

From Laphroaig, we made our way to Bowmore along the incredibly straight and less busy than expected A846, which took us through the middle of Islay Airport. After the morning’s distillery detour, we were easily on track to make the last ferry of the day from Port Askaig to Feolin on Jura which allowed us the chance to have a snack in the centre of Bowmore. While we sat, a man - in almost a ritualistic manner - laid out the bottles of whiskey he had purchased at the location of each brewery on the mosaic map in the centre of the square. Compared to the coastal views of the morning, the scenery along the road to Port Askaig felt subdued as we left the sea behind and were instead hugged by gently rolling hills and pastoral fields on either side of the road. With plenty of time to spare for the ferry, we sat alongside the quay and tucked into our lunch of torilla wraps, cured meat and cheese - gladly supplemented with a packet of crisps from the general stores! Eventually the ferry appeared and we wheeled our bikes onboard with Jura in our sites and Islay behind us.

Faye cycling along the coastal path from the Feolin ferry.

Neither of us were prepared for the coastal road that snakes along the south east of Jura to the main settlement at Craighouse. Hidden out of view for most of the afternoon, the highlands of Islay were revealed to us across the Sound of Islay and we had the single track road almost to ourselves for the entire ride. As the incline of the hill began to peter out, the Paps of Jura came into view in the distance above a glen dotted with roe deer, from where we freewheeled into Craighouse and the campsite in front of the Jura Hotel. We treated ourselves to dinner from the pub - fish for Faye and a burger for me - and watched the light fade across Loch Na Mile.

Early evening sun falling on the harbour at Craighouse.

Inverinan Forest

Monday The community operated Jura Passenger Ferry between Jura and the mainland sails twice daily. The crossing took about an hour and crosses the Sound of Jura, where we were joined by a seal and a porpoise, before following Loch Sween inland to Tayvalich. Arriving just before 10h00, we were left with plenty of time for our route to Oban, eventually joining a long distance trail maintained by Sustrans (Route 78).

We left Tayvalich along the single-track road which hugs Caol Scotnish, cycling over small and tree-lined hills. The road merges into Route 78 as it crosses the Crinan Canal and sweeps across the expansive flood plain of Moine Mhor which provided brief respite for our legs - unaware of what was waiting for us in the Inverinan Forest ahead.

On the false-descent from the first hill along the Inverinan forest road..

Adjacent to Carnassarie Castle, we parted from the A816 and returned once again to single-track with the luxury of traffic free roads. Ahead of us lay an unexpectedly gruelling 10% climb which sapped the energy from our legs and left us aching to get to Dalavich for lunch. As we sat next to the football pitch on the village green, a couple approached us and kindly offered to fill our water bottles before they left in their car - it was gratefully received in the unseasonally warm heat.

Lucnh and the view of Ben Cruachan looming in the distance had made a difference and the next two hills felt less arduous. After Taynuilt, Route 78 makes it way along Glen Lonan through a wooded ascent and wide pastures before climbing over a final set of hillocks into Oban. We followed our stomachs to the widely recommended Green Shack on the harbourside and tucked into a portion of mussels, scallops and chilli squid. Eventually, we dragged ourselves up the last hill of the day to the Roseview Campsite, pitched the tent and set our heads down for the night.


The MV Isle of Mull at the harbour in Craignure.
Looking down to the three lochs before descending into Glen More.

Tuesday Another mid-morning ferry allowed us to indulge in the luxury of a ‘Lidl and Weatherspoons Breakfast` consisting of cheap pastries and fill-ye-boots coffee. Compared to the other crossings, which had been relatively quiet, there wasn’t a seat to be spared on the deck of the ferry to Mull as we joined coachloads of day tourers.and Also in contrast to previous days, the sky was overcast which painted a much bleaker atmosphere across the First of Lorn and the south end of Loch Linnhe as we sailed towards Craignure.

Battling through the tour bus crowds, we eventually made our way back to the vehicle deck and rolled our bikes onto Mull. We bided our time and quickly had the coastal road to Straithcoil to ourselves, before beginning the climb up Glen More and stopping at the Three Lochs Viewpoint. For both Faye and I, the descent through Glen More to Loch Beg was a highlight of the entire trip; not only did it make for fantastic cycling but the geology was spectacularly atmospheric (Gabbro and Agglomerate).

We stopped for lunch on a rocky outcrop on the shore of Loch Beg; while we watched oystercatchers and herons pick along the shore, we were ourselves watched from across the road by an inquisitive group of sheep. As we lazily pedalled along the loch, the road turned inland and began to climb uphill adjacent to the Tiroran Community Forest and we passed a group of bird watchers who were observing a white tailed eagle nesting in the opposite hillside. We stopped (and after cheekily looking through their spotting scope) managed to see the eagle for ourselves through my binoculars.

Sun on the cliffs ofo Creag a ' Ghail.

After a while, we continued uphill and arrived at the summit of Gleinn Seilisteir to be greeted with an amazing view of the sun mottled across Creag a’ Ghail. We enjoyed another spectacular descent under more gabbro crags and played a game of relay with the bird watchers in their minibus as we headed east along Loch Na Keal. Eventually we found ourselves alongside the Killechronan Campsite and pitched the tent. As the sun began to lower in the sky, the breeze across the loch dropped and the midges came out, forcing us to seek refuge inside. To pass the time, I made a makeshift chess set from the notebook and we played a long-winded game before setting down for the night.

Sampling the local Midge population at Killechronan campsite.
...and retreating to the tent to play a game of makeshift chess.

Wednesday The campsite at Killechronan is rudimentary - the toilets are a 10 minute walk down the road from the camping field - which left us with no real wish to hang around for a leisurely morning. For the remainder of the day, we would follow the north western coastline of Mull along Loch Na Keal and then Loch Tuath, before passing through the beach at Calgary Bay, Dalvaig and finally arriving at Tobermory. It was another overcast start to the day and light occasionally pierced the cloud across Loch Na Keal and illuminated the cliffs we had cycled under the previous day in great crepuscular rays. The winding coastal road took us underneath the beautiful Eas Fors waterfall and after the white tailed eagle the day before, our eyes were fixed to the sky as much as the road in front of us. We followed a buzzard along the road as it traversed the treeline and flew from telegraph pylon to telegraph pylon, not noticing that we were instead drawn to the bottom of the climb from Kilninian.

The road pulled steeply upwards in a sharp change of incline; it was littered with false summits and culminated in a series of hairpin bends before the slope eased off and our front wheels pointed downhill to Calgary Bay. We pulled over to the side of the road and took in the views from the bay across the pristine white sands. While stopped, we had a snack to keep our energy up and decided, having noted that our progress was ahead of where we expected, to continue through to Tobermory for a late lunch. The road after Calgary was less remarkable than the coastal views of the morning - we had been spoiled by this point - and instead we had become objective (lunch) focussed. As we turned into Dalvaig, we had an encounter with another cycle tourer from Australia who asked us about the road ahead as he was looking to catch an afternoon ferry to Ulva. After another two hills, we descended into Tobermory past the distillery and were presented with its iconic multicoloured harbourside where I took the opportunity to purchase a miniature of whiskey (and another of gin for my parents) before tucking into lunch from the general store. The ice cream we had afterwards was spectacular - a straightforward scoop of chocolate for Faye, dark chocolate and cherry cheesecake for me - a must visit. Continuing to the end of the harbour, we queued at the jetty for the ferry to Kilchoan.

Pristine Hebridean sands of Calgary Bay.
Enjoying a snack break on a picnic bench at Calgary Bay.
The classic view across Tobermory harbour.

Ardnamurchan Peninsula

With much of the afternoon still ahead of us, we had decided that we would use the remainder of the day to visit Ardnamurchan Lighthouse - the most westerly point of mainland Great Britain - after checking into the camping pod just along the coast from the ferry. We were relieved to be cycling without the panniers on the back of our bikes and just shy on an hour later we arrived at the lighthouse. Clambering down the igneous and salt-stained rocks below the lighthouse, we made sure to touch the water and unintentionally begin a sea-to-summit journey that would conclude on Ben Nevis two days later. Dinner was calling after a longer than expected day in the saddle and we turned eastwards and began the cycle back to our home for the night. It became obvious that the day’s cycling had caught up with us while cooking dinner as Faye overfilled the pot with pasta - which I then proceeded to spill all over the grass in front of our pod while trying to strain it. The evening concluded with another game of makeshift chess, a podcast and then bed.

Relieved to have temporarily left our panniers behind..
Arriving at Ardnamurchan Point.
The camping 'pod' at Ardnamurchan Campsite.

Thursday Originally, we had planned to split the cycle to Fort William into two short legs of thirty miles each, starting Thursday with our detour to the lighthouse. However, having visited the day before we instead pedalled east towards Ben Hiant in the trail of another cyclist staying at the campsite who headed in the same direction to walk up the to the summit Ardnamurchan’s highest point. At the col below Ben Hiant where the road turns back to the coast, we passed the cyclist’s bike locked against the roadside barrier and looked uphill to spot him waving us onwards. Further along in Glenbeg, we stopped at the Ardnamurchan Distillery and then pressed onwards to the village of Salem for lunch. We found a village shop-come-cafe and tucked into our wraps, some quiche, crisps and a brownie before getting underway again.

It soon became obvious - as the day’s original destination of Strontian approached - that if we stuck to our original plan this would be a very short day of cycling indeed. Instead, upon arriving at the village green, we cooled down and refuelled with a soft drink and decided to continue to Fort William via Glen Tarbert and the Corran Ferry. The downside of this plan is that it meant we found ourselves on a busier road than for much of the rest of the trip, but as the hanging valleys and Garbh Bheinn passed us by. The miles began to drag, but another roadside encounter with a Buzzard and the view across to the Balachuilish hills helped to keep our motivation high as Corran approached. We arrived at the jetty in Corran and in fortuitous timing pushed our bikes straight onto the waiting ferry. What we had not considered about our change in route was how we would navigate the main road into Fort William, which became a tense forty minute choreography or finding opportune moments to pull in and let the building traffic pass us by. Eventually we pedalled into town and stopped by the signpost which marks the new end of the West Highland Way and although we still had the last few miles to finish to the campsite in Glen Nevis it felt as if the cycling for our trip was over.

Fort William

Friday After a lie in, we packed our rucksacks and joined the crowds along the pony track to the summit of Ben Nevis. There isn’t much to be said for the walk up the Ben, but the blue skies and visibility were a treat as we passed group after group on their way uphill. After the zig-zags and passing a few of the remaining snow patches on the plateau, we arrived at the summit but found ourselves not particularly keen to hang around given how busy it was. We enjoyed our lunch tucked away on the edge of Observatory Gully while a Snow Bunting danced in front of us on the remnant of a cornice. As the wind started to bite, we made our move and agreed to head down the Cairn Mor Dearg arete and return to the campsite via path from the CIC Hut. In an instant, we practically had the mountain to ourselves and were free to enjoy the scramble along the arete. At the summit of Cairn Mor Dearg we stopped and chatted for a while with a fell runner who was staying at the CIC Hut and looked across to her partner climbing on the Ben through my binoculars. By the time we made it to the hut ourselves by scrambling down the step and grassy side of CMD, I had run out of water and made strategic use of the artificial spring.

Faye starting the walk from Glen Nevis Youth Hostel.
Walking down Cairn Mor Dearg arete.
Walking up to the summit of Cairn Mor Dearg.
Celebrating the last summit of the day!

Our legs switched into autopilot as we continued to the halfway lochan and back down the tourist track to Glen Nevis. We passed a couple of groups where people were struggling with exhaustion in the heat of the afternoon and continued on to the bikes that we had stashed in front of the youth hostel. Feeling satisfied, we pedalled back to the campsite, showered and enjoyed some dinner from the onsite food truck before heading to bed.

Saturday We had managed to rearrange our train tickets for the following day and duly headed into Fort William to pick up some lunch and then the train station. Although the day dragged - not aided by the delayed train from Glasgow - we were eventually back in Oxenholme. It had been a fantastic trip and we were both impressed by how accessible the area felt to us as cyclists and - presumably as a result of this - the number of other tourers on the road.