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Saturday, 3 September 2011

Ticket to Islay

A motorbike, a little tent, and a Calmac ferry ticket….. what more do you need to be happy?

Nigel and I have just returned from a two day motorbike tour of Islay – an island we missed out on our sea kayaking tour of 2009 because we got distracted by Arran. So many of our visitors travel on to Islay from here in Lochranza that we felt we simply must go and see the island for ourselves.

Getting to Islay involves crossing by ferry from Lochranza to Claonaig, then a seven mile journey across Kintyre followed by a two hour sailing to Islay. The route takes you through West Loch Tarbert and into the racing tides of the narrow Sound of Islay. On the brand new ferry, the Finlaggan, large, light windows frame the picturesque island-scapes as you travel.

Negotiating rough island roads on a motorbike is never easy but it’s always worth it. Little used roads take you through out-of-the-way places and give you glimpses of island life: highland ponies dozing; cows paddling at the edge of the sea; fields of geese, and seals singing on rocks. Islay is lovely in an understated way, with whitewashed villages huddled round harbours, and farms and fields that seem little changed in many years, though the island used to support a far greater population than it does now. On a motorbike you smell the whisky distilleries before you see them. You feel the place, you don’t just see it.

Islay was an important political centre in medieval times when the culture of Dalriada, which included the more southerly Western Isles and Northern Ireland, was a powerful influence in Scotland. If you think of the sea as the main highway it becomes comprehensible why such a now remote island should be a busy cultural centre then. Today Islay still has a thriving Gaelic culture and takes pride in traditional skills such as peat cutting, evident from the public notices in village shops.

Islay has two campsites- one at Port Charlotte, and another at Kintra Farm where we camped amongst the dunes, and watched a radiant pink setting sun tumble from a low grey sky. We ate our favourite camping meal of corn beef hash cooked on a Trangia. Later on, when it was dark, we watched lighthouse beams sweeping the sky.