Some time last winter my very good friend Mike rang me and suggested we had a few days on Islay to do a bit of cycling and visit some of the malt whisky distilleries on the island. I had bought him some time before the book “Raw Spirit: in search of the perfect dram” a sort of alcoholically enhanced road trip round the distilleries of Scotland written by the author Iain Banks. Mike suggested we undertake a mini version of his quest by exploring the single malts of Islay. Last April, shortly after Mike and I had made our plan, Iain Banks announced he was suffering from cancer of the gall bladder and had only a few months to live. Sadly he died in the early hours of Sunday 9th June at the age of 59 while we were on the island following in his footsteps. (Added 15th June: Iain Bank’s last interview in the Guardian).
This would be my first cycle tour for over 20 years so I approached it with some trepidation. Since starting cycling more regularly again last July I had only done one ride over 20 miles and had not ridden for more than two consecutive days. However, the island is fairly flat and quite a few of the distilleries would be within 12 miles or so of our B&B so all should be well. So on Thursday 6th June we drove to Kennacraig where we parked up Mike’s car and caught the 1.00 pm ferry that got us to Port Askaig about 3.00 pm. In the bar we met a young couple doing a cycle tour of the islands who told us about the beach rugby tournament at Port Ellen on Saturday and recommended the Bruichladdich distillery tour, information we would find very useful.
We disembarked in bright sun under a cloudless sky with a gentle cooling breeze – ideal weather for cycling. The climb out of Port Askaig turned out to be the most demanding of the whole holiday. It starts up a fairly steep hair-pinned ramp (about 17% or 1 in 7) and then continues at a gentler gradient for a mile or so. I didn’t have to resort to walking but I did stop a couple of times to admire the view! Our bikes were quite heavily laden which didn’t help but we soon got into a plodding rhythm and began to roll along quite comfortably over the top. The main road continues for about 3 miles to Ballygrant where there is a much more picturesque minor road signposted left to Mulindry, the Glen Road. I got this information and much more from the cycling guidance published on a blog called thewashingmachinepost run by Brian Palmer and his article cycling on islay. If you are thinking of cycling on Islay I would recommend this for route suggestions and some good advice and local knowledge. He also offers a bike repair service in Bowmore should you need it. I had had some contact with Brian via Twitter and hoped to at least say hello to him while we were there but the best I did was to see him ride past on two separate occasions! Next time. This was a lovely traffic free (except for a post office van) single track road and within 4 miles we had seen a group of red deer and, amazingly, a couple of Golden Eagles. Unfortunately a little later we had the only mishap of the holiday. I had strapped my helmet to my carrier (a lesson here perhaps) but the elasticated bungee cord had come adrift and got caught in the gear block bringing me to a shuddering halt by winding itself round and jamming between the sprockets. I had to take the two water bottles out of their cages and remove the pannier bags and handlebar bag before turning the bike upside down to get at and free the block. This was quite a struggle and I had just about finished when Mike came back to find out what had happened to me. My hands where black with grease and muck but he had a packet of alcohol-moistened baby wipes which helped me get the worst off. Fortunately there appeared to be no damage to the rear mechanism and so I reloaded the bike and we continued our journey. It wasn’t till we got to our destination that I realised I had left the two water bottles by the side of the road, in the grass. For all I know they are still there but if anyone finds them, they are very welcome. We eventually dropped down into Bridgend where we turned left along the main road towards Bowmore and our accommodation for the next four nights, the Allandale B&B at Gartnatra, a small hamlet a mile to the north of Bowmore. We recommend this B&B unreservedly. The room we had was excellent as were the facilities. The breakfasts were great and ideal for setting us up for each day’s exertions. Fiona, our hostess, could not have been more helpful and made us feel very much at home. The house is ideally situated for seeing the whole island and it is only a 15 minute walk or 3 minute drive to Bowmore where there is plenty of choice for eating and drinking and a good range of shops. It is also right on the shore of Loch Indaal with expansive views across to Bruichladdich to the west and the Paps of Jura to the north. Every evening we had spectacular sunsets followed only a few hours later by splendid sunrises! We would particularly like to thank Fiona for introducing us to Stornoway black pudding and The Botanist gin (more of which later). That evening we had a nice meal at the Lochside Hotel overlooking the sea and a stroll back for an early-ish night after a long day.
The following morning, Friday, we set off on what would turn out to be our longest ride and only distillery tour. Another warm sunny day with a gentle breeze. We set off through Bridgend where we turned left onto the A847 just past the Bridgend Hotel and the car park and Spa. The main road was very pleasant and had great sea views but after about 3 miles we turned right on the B8017 inland towards Loch Gruinart which we followed to the RSPB Visitors’ Centre and Nature Reserve.
As we approached the Centre I nearly ran over a young woman lying hidden in the roadside grass. It turned out she was one of the Centre Wardens and was trying to photograph a Corncrake. When she joined us back at the Centre she explained that the Corncrake is a very shy and elusive bird and hard to photograph. You generally only know there is one about by its distinctive call, a bit like a brake block rubbing on a rusty buckled rim. She was very concerned about this rather boring looking bird as she explained it had RSPB Red Status signifying the highest conservation priority, a species needing urgent action. Overcome with emotion I bought a little Corncrake badge as my contribution to its continued survival. Leaving the Centre we took the narrow unclassified road opposite its entrance and rode the 4 or so miles to the heart of the reserve at the loch at Ardnave Point where we were entertained for a while by some very noisy Oyster-catchers.
Riding back down the road to the Centre we turned right to continue on the B road until we emerged at a T junction approaching Loch Gorm. At this point we made the what turned out to be gormless decision to go straight over the junction and onto an unmade track that ran down to and alongside the loch. We chose to ignore the sign that said there was no way though as the map didn’t indicate this and there were no buildings marked that might mean a privately owned obstacle to our passing. After a few hundred yards we also ignored a sign that said ‘end of public road’ despite the track being flooded at this point. We cycled on into the water and almost immediately ground to a halt in the deep boggy mud. Our shoes filled with muddy water that soon splashed up to our knees and we had no choice other than to dismount and push our bikes. The water was quite deep so we skirted away from the track to find a firmer dryer route but the surrounding land was water logged and deep water became deep mud. In retrospect we should have continued on the track. Even better would have been to take our shoes and socks off and walked along the flooded track. We rounded the back of a derelict barn and eventually heaved ourselves and bikes back onto the dry track beyond the bog beside another ‘end of public road’ sign for travellers coming from the other direction. A little later the track went alongside the edge of the loch and Mike washed the bright orange mud off his legs. We were going to the Bruichladdich distillery tour later and wanted to look vaguely respectable at least. We washed our socks out but my white ones stayed resolutely streaky orange and will probably never be the same again.
The end of the track brought us to a minor road at which we turned left to the equally picturesque B8018 at which we turned right to rejoin the A847 that would eventually take us back to Bridgend. But first we turned the other way for 2 miles to the distillery at Bruichladdich arriving about 30 minutes before the 3.00 pm tour. We were invited to try a dram or two while we were waiting. It would have been rude to demur so we dutifully tried a couple. I had one called Rocks, introduced in 2007 and designed to drink with ice. As instructed by our host, we tasted the whisky neat first and then again with a couple of drops of water if necessary. I then tried one straight from the cask (if you wanted to buy this one they filled a bottle for you). I can’t recall what it was called but it was from a sherry barrel and was a beautiful reddish colour. I do remember it being very nice and about £55 a bottle. The tour itself was conducted by an attractive young woman (this seems to be the norm) and was very interesting. Mike and I and our wives had done a tour of the Remy Martin brandy distillery at Cognac 12 or so years ago where we learnt that it was the Scots distillers that had set up their stills and showed the French how to do it. The equipment and process we saw and had described to us at Bruichladdich was pretty well identical to what we had seen at Remy Martin. It turns out that Remy Martin had just bought Bruichladdich, so what goes around comes around. Apparently the new owners are not going to interfere in any way with production techniques or processes but bring their marketing and distribution to the party. The process at Bruichladdich is very traditional and uses much of the equipment from the 1800s. The great copper stills are original and the processes are monitored with hydrometers and thermometers, dials and stop cocks. There are no computers and very little stainless steel. Many of the distilleries are now modern stainless steel factories, automatic and push button and employ relatively few people. Bruichladdich still uses wooden fermentation vessels and employs more staff than any of the others. After the tour we went back to the visitors’ centre to taste a few more malts. I was keen to try Octomore. Up to about 10 years ago Bruichladdich had mainly been producing unpeated whiskies for blending and did not have a reputation for the peaty single malts that perhaps the island is best known for. Octomore is their peatiest offering and I wanted to see how it compares with another one I am familiar with, Laphroaig. Octomore wasn’t one of the offerings at the tasting bar but none-the-less our hostess went off to fetch me a glass. It was very nice and, as best I could tell, I would prefer it to the Laphroaig I buy from my local supermarket. On enquiring I was told the one I was tasting was £109 a bottle. In fact neither Mike or I bought any malts while we were there.
Fiona at our B&B had introduced us to the new gin that the distillery was now producing called The Botanist. Only one batch has been made so far using a still called Ugly Betty. There has been no marketing and the rapid sales have been due almost exclusively to word of mouth. When it was first made available it briefly outsold the whiskies by 3 bottles to 1 apparently. I’m not usually a gin drinker but this is lovely and aromatic. In addition to the usual 9 primary gin elements it also contains 22 wild botanicals sourced from the island by their own team of foragers. One day this is likely to be available in English supermarkets but for the moment there is neither sufficient supply or any marketing. Both our wives, Julia and Cathy, quite like the odd glass of gin so we did the decent thing and bought the gin rather than the whisky. The tour cost £5 (an absolute bargain) but you get this back as a discount if you buy anything. Our tour was just us and two young women who did not intend to buy anything and they very kindly gave us their tickets. This allowed us to get a £5 discount on two bottles each.
It was now 4.00 pm and we wended our way back along the coast road towards home stopping only for an hour or so at the Bridgend Hotel for a coffee and a scone with cream and jam. We had read somewhere that the secret to successful cycling was regular intakes of food and we felt a little scone-power would help us cover the last 2 miles home. By the time we got back to our B&B we had been out for about 8 hours and covered 31 miles on our bikes. For me it had been a perfect day’s cycling. That evening we ate at the only Indian restaurant in Bowmore, the Taj Mahal. Living in Bradford I was expecting to be disappointed. In fact I thought the food was good, certainly in terms of quantity, flavour and service. However, despite both of us ordering medium strength main courses, mine turned out to be rather mild and Mike’s was very hot. He was given a dish of yoghurt to dilute the heat but this didn’t help much. Despite this I would recommend the Taj Mahal but just make sure you get the ‘heat’ you want.
Next day, Saturday, was the day of the Beach Rugby at Port Ellen that we had been told about by the young couple we had met on the ferry. This is the 10th year of the event which apparently has gone from strength to strength. From our B&B to Port Ellen is through Bowmore and up the little steep climb to the distinctive round church (so there is nowhere for the Devil to hide we were told). The road bares right at the church where you can either continue on the very straight main road along the coast to Port Ellen past the airport or, which we did, turn left and climb a little for a couple of miles inland to join and turn right on a quieter and more interesting road. It was on this road that I got my first sighting, I think, of Brian Palmer going back towards Bowmore. A later conversation with Fiona and another sighting on the Sunday probably confirmed this initial sighting was the real man! Only Brian will know if he was at that place going in that direction at mid to latish Sunday morning.
We arrived at Port Ellen and parked our bikes behind the public loos. The format is quite simple. There is a separate men’s and women’s tournament. The teams are divided into groups for a round-robin stage where each team plays all the others in their group. The matches are two halves of 4 minutes each way. There are no scrums or line outs. Once tackled the player must get the ball back to his team within 3 seconds or the ball is handed over to the other team. Fouls and infringements give the ball to the offended against team. A try is 1 point and points for each team are added at the end of the group matches. The group winners, the ones with the most points, go through to the knock-out stages of the main competition. The runners up go into a Plate competition and there is a another consolation competition for teams finishing third in their groups. The eliminated teams can now, as the commentator said, drink even more than they were when they were still in the competition. There are three pitches marked out for the early stages with a halfway line and two try lines.
The games were fast and furious and great entertainment. There was no messing and the tackling was often ferocious, both in the men’s and women’s matches. The sand was fine, loose and deep and no doubt moderated the speed of running and the force of tackling to some extent but none-the-less a few injuries were suffered, hopefully not too serious. Apart from the games there were two notable entertaining features of the event. The first was the free Bruichladdich whisky and gin tent. I say free but you had to make a charitable donation in exchange for your drinks. Mike and I had a number of gin and tonics and, from the food wagons, a large portion of cracked crab claws. Not quite cracked enough as it happened but Mike had his emergency pliers with him so the day was saved. He generously lent them to one of the eliminated women’s teams that had sat in front of us and were having a similar problem with their crabs. They charitably engaged us in a little banter which ended abruptly when one of the eliminated men’s teams came to join them. Pity. We had so much to offer. The other notable feature was the commentator who was very droll and entertaining. He had a clever way of dealing with lost property as well as plugging the various items available for purchase. Amongst these were ‘Eat Sand’ T shirts which he informed us were available for men in medium, large, extra large and extra extra large and for the women, extra tight. After the main final we rode home along the bottom road around 6.00 in the evening and called in at the Harbour Inn Hotel Restaurant in Bowmore to book a table for two at 9.30 before going home for a shower and changing for the evening.
We arrived a little early at the restaurant and started the evening sat in the lounge with a Kir each. In the armchairs next to us were four very smart well groomed middle aged men. There was a predominance of pink in their attire and they appeared to be two couples. They were shown to a table in the restaurant a few minutes before us. When we were collected we found our table was next to theirs in the window with a beautiful view over the harbour and the sea; all very romantic. They engaged us in conversation almost immediately and within a couple of minutes they had succeeded in letting us know they all had wives at home, they were Norwegian and members of the Oslo Whisky Society. Likewise we managed to establish in our first couple of sentences that we also had wives at home and were old friends cycling together. We had a great evening with them and ended up in the Lochside Hotel, where they were staying, for a few drams. They absolutely insisted that we must cruise the west coast of Norway as it is one of the wonders of the natural world. I’ve heard this from others but I understand Norway is very expensive.The food at the Harbour was excellent except for one thing. Our main courses came covered with what looked like cuckoo spit. I understand there was a fashion in expensive restaurants to decorate food with ‘foam’ but I thought that died out years ago. I’m obviously wrong. I’m not sure what it adds to the flavour, if anything, but it looks pretty unpleasant, at least to our no doubt unsophisticated eyes. On returning home we had a dram of Bunnahabhian with Fiona who reported she had seen Brian Palmer during the day and told him she had a couple of cyclists staying with her one of whom had been in touch with him on Twitter. He asked her to let us know they (I assume his club, the Velo Club d’Ardbeg) would be going on a ride the next day starting at Debbies Mini Market at Bruichladdich and we would be very welcome to joint them. This was a very generous offer but realistically, given my current fitness and lack of miles, I really didn’t think I would be up to anything like a normal paced club run. If you read this Brian, thanks very much for your generous offer and, if all goes to plan, hopefully I will be able to take you up on it when we will surely visit your beautiful island again.
Sunday was to be our last full day and we decided to take it easy and make our way to Port Charlotte about 12 miles away further south beyond Bruichladdich after buying newspapers at Bowmore. Fiona told us the papers probably wouldn’t be in Bowmore until after midday so we set off towards Bridgend where we stopped for a coffee and waited for them to be delivered to the Spa there at 1.00pm. Then it was on to the Port Charlotte Hotel for lunch and a beer and a relaxing hour or two reading the papers. Unfortunately we didn’t arrive until 2.10 pm and the kitchen packed up at 2.00 so there weren’t any sandwiches on offer. We made do with peanuts and crisps and our emergency bananas. Sunday may not be the best day to go there as we were keen to see the Islay Museum but that was shut too, somewhat ironically as it was housed in an old church. Mid afternoon we made our way back to Bridgend stopping only at the Bruichladdich distillery as Mike wanted to pick up two more bottles of The Botanist gin but again we were just too late and the distillery was closed. Mike managed to score his 2 bottles from the Spa at Bridgend while I went over to the hotel to order our coffees, scones, cream and jam. Just as I came out of the hotel having placed the order who should I see riding past and disappearing down the road towards Bowmore but Brian Palmer again. It had been a day of near misses. We had another excellent meal that evening at the Lochside Hotel before home for a fairly early night. We had to rise early next day to pack and have a 7.15 am breakfast to set off in time for the 9.45 ferry from Port Ellen.
So Monday was just a matter of doing the 11 miles along the bottom road to Port Ellen in time for the ferry back to the mainland. This is the only day we had a bit of trouble with the wind and we had to plug into a brisk breeze for the whole ride. However, we had a pleasant unscheduled stop as we went past the airport. Our Norwegian friends from the Saturday evening had seen us grinding along, presumably from a taxi that had overtaken us, and were waiting for us as we rode past. It was great to see them again and have a brief chat and it was a good excuse for a break. We got to the ferry about 30 mins early and boarded with quite a few of the players from the Beach Rugby last Saturday. Some were a bit the worse for wear, for a variety of reasons, but all was good humoured and we were soon disembarking at Kennacraig.
So, for me, a near perfect return to bike touring was over. In the end we didn’t visit all the distilleries we had intended and didn’t try all the whiskies we thought we would although we still managed to drink a fair few. We probably didn’t ride as far as we thought we would either, only about 107 miles in all with 83 over the 3 full days we were there. But we saw much of the island, met and chatted to some very friendly people, tourists and residents, and enjoyed a perfect few days of weather. Mike was excellent company as always and, between putting the world to rights, we had some good laughs and some brilliant cycling. We had the unexpected pleasure of discovering and watching the beach rugby and finding what is possibly the finest gin in the world! Or at least the most exclusive. We had also seen eagles; the island is clearly a bird watcher’s paradise. I would heartily recommend Islay for a holiday, particularly for cycling. The few main roads are relatively quiet most of the time and there are many even quieter single track roads to explore as well as off road lanes. The relative lack of hills might not suite everyone but it makes for good cycling for the less fit or masochistic. And there are some challenges for those that seek them. The scenery is very attractive and often viewed against dramatic seascapes and distant hills. We found the vehicle drivers very patient and considerate. The island and its people are friendly and welcoming and there is much to do and see. As we said to Fiona, we will definitely be back.