Around the Sound of Jura: a bike and ferry day trip

Author: 
Nick Jones

For nearly 20 years I’ve stared across the Sound of Jura to Scotland’s most captivating isle. We’ve watched to-die-for sunsets over the Paps of Jura – night after summer holiday night. We’ve been bedazzled by stormy skyscapes of speeding rain storms and shafts of golden sunshine. All at the same time.

These magnificent views are found at the Port Ban camp and caravan site. It’s position on the west coast of the mainland at Kilberry gives a grandstand view. This was to be my base for my long planned cycle around the Sound of Jura.Long planned because Jura is difficult to get to. Only recently did a direct ferry link it to the mainland. And that’s ‘just’ a fast RIB boat taking only a dozen foot passengers.

Over the years I’ve watched the Islay ferries shuttle across the horizon on the route from the mainland terminal at Kennacraig to the island they call the Queen of the Hebrides. From Islay another ferry is needed. Albeit a much shorter crossing, this one cuts so hard across tidal races that the ferry goes sideways for much of the voyage.

I’d seen the ferries on the horizon, picked up their timetables and heard a few tales about long day trips to Islay and Jura. Kennacraig is a twenty plus mile drive or cycle from Port Ban. Add on a two-hour ferry and a day trip to Jura is ambitious. Could it be done by bike in a day? The recent introduction of the foot ferry closed the loop on paper. It eschews returning to Kennacraig via the short Feolin ferry and the southern ferry route back from Islay. Instead it plies its fast crossing from Craighouse, Jura’s village, to Tayvallich – a cosy hidden harbour at the top of a long sea loch that slashes in to the mainland.

So, was it possible to cycle to the Islay ferry, cross to Jura and return via Tayvallich to Port Ban? Could it be done in a day? Did I mention the secret closed-to-public traffic road that is the missing link from Tayvallich to Kilberry

Last winter I sat down with timetables and scouted through cycle blogs and community web sites. Building up a route, timings and things to do on the way. Here’s how to go around the Sound of Jura in a day.

The route

To get the big picture of Around the Sound watch this Relive fly-through video of my route. Warning, there’s a lot of doubling back on your self on this route. After all, the West Coast of Scotland shares a certain Slartibartfastesque quality with the fjords. It may double some distances but you get twice the views.

They key places passed through are Kilberry, Kennacraig, Port Askaig, Craighouse, Luss, Tayvallich, Keills and Ellary. All tiny but worth reading about on Wikipedia.

Timing and distance

I was travelling for about 15 hours. About 10 were in the saddle, 3 or so were on ferries and I had two hours to fill in Craighouse, population 137, I did it and will tell you more about that below.

Strava reckons the total distance was 138 miles. I reckon 95 were cycling. The unexpected advantage of riding remote roads is I finally got my first KoM on Strava on the Ellary road.

Starting point

I started from the Port Ban camp site, well, because I was staying there. Tarbert is the closest town and accommodation to Kennacraig. Indeed, talking to a cycle tourer on the ferry revealed she’d stayed there the night before after cycling over from Glasgow via the Cowal peninsula. I guess you could start on the mainland as far up as Tayvallich, Crinan or Lochgilphead – the local metropolis. There is a faster main road down the east side of the Kintyre peninsula that would still get you to the ferry for the 7am sailing. You would miss the wonderful Ellary and Kilberry roads though.

Getting to the ferry

Did I mention the early start? My alarm went at 5am and first light was good. I was on the road at 5.15 but didn’t quite have the Kilberry road to myself. I think it is the most beautiful road in Scotland to drive or cycle. Empty single track roads abound but few have the panoramic views of the Sound of Jura, the Paps of Jura, and as you turn the corner south of Kilberry the magnificent vista that comprises the island of Gigha and Islay – even Ireland on a good day. At this early time my appreciation of the road’s beauty rose even further as a herd of red deer, disturbed from the road by my not so silent cycling, leapt the ditch, hedge and fence. Led by a stag, they charged to the forest. The first of many wildlife sightings of the day.

The 20 odd miles to Kennacraig takes you over small crests, past gentle misty mosses (see the pic above) and through ancient Argyll forests of a gentle and verdant nature. Dropping down to the north shore of West Loch Tarbet allows you to up the speed and scud along to almost Tarbert. But the downtown lights of Tarbert mean turning left. Instead I took off right down the trunk road for the four miles to Kennacraig, the Calmac ferry terminal for the Southern Hebrides.

The first ferry

I bought my ticket in the small terminal building, queuing behind other cyclists. No need to book, the fare is the same as the foot passenger - just £6.70 for a two-hour cruise. Push your bike on and let the crew lash it.

The ferry has a good galley dishing up cooked breakfasts and tea. I joined the queue early but this mean missing the view as we departed down West Loch Tarbet, the first of many opportunities to look across at where you have just been. The loch is narrow and it more akin to crushing up a large European river rather than the open sea.

After breakfast I toured the decks, trying to pick the best view of the departing coast. I wanted to see where I had started from. A wind from the north did chill so I retreated to the observation saloon. Smarter cyclists than me were already in there asleep. I should have grabbed some kip then. I paid for the early start later that afternoon.

The last third of the ferry is along the Sound of Islay to Port Askaig. Now this was a mistake. I had planned to take the ferry to Port Ellen, Islay’s other ferry port. But being a Wednesday, Cal Mac sail to Port Ellen then on to Colonsay beyond. It did however turn into a bonus. The Sound of Islay has a greater ruggedness than the nearby mainland. Fell screes tumble down into its increasingly narrow waters. The Macarthur’s Head light house really does look like how a child would paint a remote one. And, below you the tide is running quicker and quicker. Silent turbulence is only detected as the ferry’s engines strain that bit more to beat the tidal forces. And, in the opposite direction, like ducklings going with a rivers flow, yachts and a twin mated sailing ship shimmied along in the sun.

As we approached Port Askaig I am sure I caught a glimpse of a heavy slow moving, flopping, bird taking roost on a seaside pine. It had that purpose of a raptor. A sea eagle, perhaps?

Just under two hours from boarding I pushed my bike off the ferry at Port Askaig.

Lord of the Isles, well the bends

My original plan to land on Islay at Port Ellen would have resulted in an 18-mile cycle to Port Askaig. I was ahead of schedule. So, I took a decision to pop into Islay the four kilometres to Finlaggan, the home of the Lord of the Isles. The road from sea level Port Askaig up onto the island meant I rode the mightily engineered set of hairpin bends up from the port. Warned as 13% they area actually a doodle with their own cycle lane.

Finlaggan’s access track was rough with grass growing down the middle but gave a taste of what the riding would be like later on upper Jura and on the Ellary track. The visitor centre wouldn’t open for another hour and a half so I turned tail and was back at the Port Askaig dock within half an hour.

The second ferry

There I bumped into a new set of cyclists, a couple camping on Islay and also wanting to cross to Jura. Together we worked out you bought the Jura ferry tickets on the ferry not in the terminal. For this ferry was run by the council not CalMac. With 20 minutes to kill before the next one I popped into Port Askaig Stores to get cash. The Jura Ferry was the one of only two cash transactions on the trip, the other being the foot ferry off the island.

Remember those tidal streams? As the ferry approach it appeared to be going sideways. We all reach for our phones. Such was the strength of the current the ferry came in like a crab. With 10 minutes we were on and off it.

Jura and the New Yorkers

Finally, I was on Jura, it was about 10 o’clock and I was keen to crack out the 7 or so miles to Craighouse where I had promised myself a coffee at 11 or so. However, Hebridean life is not to be rushed. What looked like mostly a coastal road climbed inland producing a sporting wee climb. Then, at a corner, I stopped to let some of the dawdling ferry traffic through. Also in the passing place was an older tourist couple. They looked American, even Yankee. All that smart but sensible active wear. They were taking in the view south over the Sound of Islay. “You can see Ireland on a good day… like today,” I ventured. Together we strained and did pick out the Ulster coast. I refrained from asking them “yaffayhat?” But, it did turn out they were off the twin mast ship I’d seen earlier. It had docked in Craighouse and let its passengers wander. The couple had been dropped off at the viewpoint by Jura’s bus. From the view we ended up talking about New York and sailing and the world. I think we put it all to rights. They hoped to hitchhike back to Craighouse but I took off and was soon into Craighouse.

The end of the road and back

I was in Craighouse by 11 and was rather chuffed. It felt like halfway. My ferry to Tayvallich wasn’t until 5pm. So, I would have time for my coffee at The Antlers Café, to belt up and down Jura’s sole main road and have lunch about….2ish. I then remembered I was off the beaten track and lunch should not be taken for granted. Now, Craighouse has an eponymous hotel where an old colleague’s son had been chef. So, I knew it served food. But when did it close after lunch? I popped in and found out it was 2.3opm. I needed to do some quick calculations. 18 miles up and down the road meant two hours at least. It was already 11.30ish. I cheekily asked if I could order now for 2.30ish. “I might be a wee bit late. Could you keep it warm for me?” The hotel manager agreed, wrote my name down and I hoped for a slap up feast after the sprint up and down.

And off I went, the sun shining, kids on bikes wearing wetsuits shouting hello. The first mile or two north from Craighouse skirts its bay. Sand trimmed, hemmed by little islands, nursing a brood of moored boats, it is idyllic. I flew along, this is what I had imagined. A high day cycling. Just keep riding to the end of the road and turn round. It wasn’t quite that simple. Leaving the shore the road climbed onto a more open moor. Then, the north wind hit the rider riding north. A novelty as first it started to grate then grind. At least the scenery was magnificent. The Paps of Jura to the left, the Sound of Jura to the right. The low moss of Ardfernal below.

Jura gets more rugged as you ride north. More marginal, more windswept, more hard won by the hand of man. Over bleak little cols I rode then down into farmsteads, each a wee oasis of colour.

Tarbert was a milestone for me. An isthmus that had fascinated me way back in the winter when I pored over my maps. Here I was, descending a steep hill down to it.

The clock was ticking. I reckoned I had 15 more minutes before the time to turn. I wanted the scampi lunch I had ordered. Battling headwinds build hunger. That meant no turning west to explore the innermost reaches of West Loch Tarbert. I had to crack on over one more col to reach the end of the road around Lussa. So, I stepped on it and struggled away knowing I would soon have a tail wind when I turned around. However, Jura is rugged and rugged means ups and downs and there were some unexpected additional ones before I dropped down to Inverlussa.

All along the road the traffic was busier than the Kilberry road on the mainland. The cars come off the ferry and drive up and down the island, stopping to gawp at the view. Often the car that over takes you turns up behind you. As we were near the road end familiar cars were now heading towards me. One was stopped and the passenger flagged me down as I approach. She pointed to the road side. There above us was a stag. It was my second of the day. Jura means deer in Norse. It was his island afterall.

I had a motivation to make it to Lussa. It’s home to a new gin made by three women who live there. Local gins are getting a bit too popular. It seems everywhere now boasts a geographically named gin. Add some marketing to raw spirit and off you go. Well, I think Lussa is different. Yes it has it botanical ingredients but gathered from the foreshore. Others do that but I take my hat off and my wallet out for the entrepreneurial drive to create something of value in so remote a place. So, I had already purchased a bottle the week before.

The headwind and some indecision meant that I rode past my turn back time but I did make to the farm at Lussa where the gin is made. Riding through the farmyard I spied an open door on an outbuilding. There was the new still, just installed. That means more gin.

Homage paid to the home of Lussa gin I turned around and hightailed it back. I wanted lunch. A road troubled by a headwind is a delight in reverse. I flew down hills and nipped up them too.

At 2.40pm I strode into the lobby of the Craighouse Hotel to meet the manager holding a plate wrapped in silver foil. Perfect timing. The scampi was devoured as I had that deep hunger that follows cycling as hard as you can for two hours. Accompanied by a pint of Irn Bru, I leant back and looked up at the ceiling to see a forest of antlers. It is the island of the deer after all.

Killing time in Craighouse

It was now 3pm and I had two hours to kill. So what to do in that village, population 137? Fortunately Craighouse punches above its weight Now, most folk know about Jura thanks to its whisky distillery. Well, there is the shop to visit. 15 minutes if you read everything.

Then there is the shop, a community store. Very well stocked indeed. Remember to go upstairs for the books, CDs, maps, fishing tackle, camping wotnots. Oh, and do read the community council minutes on the notice board outside. The broadband, the broadband!

To the left is the community hall, recently renovated. It looks resplendent in red and cream. It hosts a craft sale with tea and cake. I would have bought a set of antlers if I could have worked out how to cycle the 40 miles home with them. I also doubt if any other village hall has a view like this out the windows. A perfect little bay before the harbour with gigs drying out and kids snorkeling in the shallows.

Despite the lunch I didn’t feel right, I felt a bit shivery. Nothing a decent cup of tea wouldn’t sort. So I crossed the road and returned to the Antlers Café. For £2 I got a pot of tea that served four cups, each of which I laced with sugar. I felt a lot better. I lay back on the outside bench and snoozed in the sun for 20 minutes. Around me drifted American and German accents. They were off the moored yachts and the sailing ship. Sometimes Craighouse gets the whisky cruisers. Russians sailing down from Skye in flotilla touring the distilleries of Jura and Skye. So, when I woke up I decide to wander down to the big pier to see the sailing ship.

And, what a beauty The Flying Dutchman was, rigging set against the blue sky. She was sailing out of Oban on a similar tour of the distilleries. She’d spent the night on Islay and had made her way around today.

As I turned my bike at the end of the pier I was hailed from the ship. One of my New Yorkers clambered ashore and offered me some of his beer. Island life. I pottered back past the patrol station stopping to chat to the lady locking up. It was community owned. It had been run on a honesty basis, letting locals self service. A change in regulations meant the pumps could not be left unattended. So, this entrepreneurial lady had asked the community council if she could use the attendants hut as her craft studio. Problem solved, prime retail spot next to the pier.

I then pushed the bike down through the hotels camping field, stopping to talk to another cyclist who was pitching tents. He’s returned to riding after a decade or two off. We compared notes on the road up the island then I realised it was 4.45pm and time for the ferry. Round the old pier others were waiting to board the ferry. It was the last one off the island that day.

The third ferry

I was really looking forward to this leg of the trip. A fast RIB ferry dashing over the Sound of Jura, yeehah! On the ferry were some returning holidaymakers, the distiller shop manager and some long haul commuters, oilmen off to fields around the world. The ferry can take up to four bikes lashed to the back. They will get wet so remember to wash it down when home, the salt is strong.

Remember to book a place and the bike on the ferry. It is £20 cash. It is a lifeline so don’t begrudge the cost. You can book by calling the ferryman’s mobile but remember reception is poor up here. It takes time to get a voice mail or call back. The ferry ran fast diagonally across the waves from the north. Spray abounded and I closed the rear hatch to prevent the spindrift entering. It was comfy in the big seats as we soared past the McCormiag Islands, up Loch Sween past Castle Sween and into the haven of Tayvallich

Starting the road home

It was now 5.45pm and I reckoned I was bang on schedule. I bounded up the dock and took to my bike. However, it was a 6km north before I would wind round south such is the unique topography of Knapdale. A set of s-bends took me round the top and back down to the side of Loch Sween. The wind was now on my tail and I was flying down the dozen or so miles. The dozen or so miles we had just travelled up in the ferry. By this time I was starving again and I munched away on my stash of chocolate chip oatcakes. I was homeward bound.

The Loch Sween road runs out at Keills, where there once was a plan for a roll-on roll-off ferry to Jura. Would have saved me some time. The road ends at the Ellary estate gate.

The secret track to the lily lochs

If there was a crux on the ride this was it. The estate track is only 4km long but it is the toughest surface. Two once Tarmaced wheel tracks separated by grass. Did I mention the Tarmac was heavily potholed? I rode it on Schwable Marathons. At 35mm wide they were plenty for this road and I never lost traction. I kept in bottom gear. My only regret was inflating them to 75psi. A tad too hard for the jarring. Evening sun lit the landscape exquisitely. The road is a climb up to a low summit then past two little lochs, each with a crescent of weather lilies. What a spot.

The gap to the left of the loch leads to the one potentially dangerous descent of the ride. It’s a short 33% slope with loose shale on the wheel tracks. Watch out for the slow wobble while braking, you don’t want a wheel to break away here. It’s worth it for this view over Ellary to Loch Caolisport.

That was it, I really was homeward bound. I’d cycled this before and knew home was less than an hour away. Once again, it was back and forward round some switchback bends, through a gate and onto the public road along the north shore of the loch. This shore was in shadow so the cold started to grip. Belting along to keep warm probably helped me achieve that KoM on this stage.

Once more into the sun and the tailwind on the south shore. Familiar resonant names, Achahoish – roll that around your mouth like a fine malt – and Ormsary, rolled past. After the latter, the road climbs up one last pesky time away from the loch to a headland that looks over the whole Sound of Jura. I could see the full extent of my ride. I had done it. I rolled down into the camp site, parked the bike and had a glass of Lussa gin to celebrate.

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