Ard Dorch to Talisker, to Ratagan, 70 miles
Following some very rough calculations with a map and a bit of paper with the scale mile marked on it, I’d deduced that it was about twelve miles further to get to Talisker from my B&B in Ard Dorch than it would have been to get to this iconic distillery from the Glenbrittle hostel. Obviously, the leg taking me from the distillery back to the mainland would be the same as planned. Today would therefore be the longest of the tour to date, and looking at my distances for the remaining weeks, the longest; period. As the above figure shows, it exceeded my projections still further.
If there is a more perfect place or time to cycle than the Isle of Skye at around 9AM in early May, please tell me, but I doubt you can come up with one. The traffic was non-existant and the difference this made to my appreciation of the place swelled exponentially. The island felt new, undiscovered. It did not feel mine. Only after visiting Mull a few days later could I put my finger on what it is that Skye does to you. Falling in love with Skye is like Stockholm Syndrome. Skye is the most “there” place I have ever been to, it is so completely, fiercely its own place and it does not care one jot for your problems or concerns. It is aloof, it is punishing, it is capricious. It is not in any way friendly, but it captures your soul. Indeed, this is the only means by which you can truly experience it: you cannot see it or hear about it alone, and this is why the photos you see cannot hope to convey all of Skye’s personality and sorcery. My mum visited the year before at about the same time, and she said the same, although the pictures she took entirely failed to prepare me for it. With the clear, bright sun newly up, and the shoulders and caps of these great cones of ancient volcanic ire shaking off their clouds, to be cycling along at sea level beneath them was an awesome, humbling experience. I actually experienced fear: raw, thrilling fear. You can’t get to know Skye with the help of the conventional five sense. You are bullied into surrendering yourself to its spell because of how it acts on your very being. It’s the only way I can describe it. I sent a text to mum saying essentially: “I don’t know how I’m supposed to leave here.”
A little later I simply felt joy. The weather was perfect, the views were jaw-dropping. Only the traffic jams and road works spoiled it somewhat. With these cleared, the sign to Talisker appeared all too quickly. I was having a great time: these Skye miles were simply zooming past.
After making the left turn, you pass a hotel nestled in to the junction. You will also have to stop because you will have just spotted the Cuillins. They truly are like something out of a sci-fi comic book. You wonder how they don’t puncture the earth’s atmosphere, so sharp do they appear. After collecting myself following this far-off encounter, I free-wheeled down a very long, gentle hill, sensing the envy of those passing in cars. The approach to Talisker was a hugely significant one for me, and Carbost itself is worth a visit in its own right. All white-wash and cherry trees gleaming in the spring sunshine while I was there.
The tour over I had a super burger in the Old Inn, somewhere I would recommend for sheer informality and local colour. “Very Irish,” said one of the local lasses, “the fire on and the door open.” I had a lovely cheeseburger and then there was nothing for it but to head back to the mainland.
The reverse leg was just as moving, and vanished as quickly. I bought all of the stuff I thought I’d need for Ratagan from the Broadford Co-op, and had to hang around in the car park eating or drinking all the stuff I couldn’t actually fit in my panniers. 46 miles were up, and from the looks of the map I still had a not inconsiderable distance to go.
I felt quite glum as I crossed back on to the mainland. The traffic was giving me hell, though, so I hoped a different route would alleviate those whose journeys were just so vital they had to pass you at 80mph while cars came the other way. I disagree with Iain Banks’ interpretation of the island mentality. I think people get a false sense of liberation, that there actions can’t possibly have any consequences. Well they can for cyclists.
The road to Ratagan was unbearably long. After 50 miles I accepted that 6PM was going to come and go and I’d still be on the road. Apart from the quaint splendour of Eilean Donan Castle, I mostly had to suffer trees, cliff faces and yet more irritable motorists. However, it was sunny and I wasn’t about to knock it. After about 65 miles by lower back felt as if it had lost all structural rigidity. Nevertheless, I had to press on and fuelled by shortbread I eventually came to Loch Duich and what could only be one of the Five Sisters of Kintail. ‘Ratagan’ was written on a road sign, I cried with delight and pulled up at the hostel right on the shore of the loch.
After a mammoth plate of pasta and most of a McVities lemon sponge, I retired to my full 10-bed dorm. I have never felt such pure fatigue. It didn’t matter that the Dutch motorcyclists snored. I’d have slept in a Formula 1 pit lane.
Ratagan to Corpach, 61 miles
I has feared this day above all others, prior to having completed the previous day in the style that I did. No distilleries, just a solid 60 miles down the West Coast. If I completed this, I said to myself, the rest of the tour would be a doddle.
The road out of Ratagan towards Invergarry is undoubtedly spectacular. For the first few miles I kept expecting to be seized from above by a golden eagle. After the first few miles, I just felt plain tired. Hitherto, I needed to have covered about 10 miles before I stopped feeling dog tired. It was the break-in period for my legs of a morning. Well these West Coast roads expect you to be on top form from the gun. The road clung to the sides of mountains, then teased the shorelines of lochs. All the while up and down it went, and as the sun attained greater heights, out came the traffic. In the respect of the weather (painfully bright but rather cold), the maddening traffic and the sapping, never-ending road, it was not my happiest morning.
I kept eating and drinking, though, and with a little over 20 miles done I made the turn to Invergarry. It was a joy to actually encounter a junction of some description. I knew that from now on I was unlikely to be unmolested by other, motorised road users. All of the signs had the names of important towns on. The road I had just left had Inverness as its destination, and this one had Fort William at the end of it.
I had lunch half way up a seriously big hill, just in front of the sign welcoming me to Lochaber. Invergarry was still another ten miles away or so.
Despite several near-death experiences in the space of a few hundred metres: first with motorcyclists overtaking me on a cattle grid which had a whacking great pothole waiting for me at the end of it, and again when a car overtook me, the driver plainly forgetting he had a caravan hitched to the back, I made it to Invergarry. There isn’t a great deal there. Just a few houses and a hotel in which was a very pretty girl who happily served this grotty, smelly yellow creature without revealing in any way how vile it must have been for her.
Things improved slightly after that, and my ride through the Great Glen was quite spectacular. A reasonable tailwind hurled me towards Fort William. I took the minor road turning to the right, which took me over the Caledonian Canal and brought me out again at Banavie. I was staying with family friends in Corpach, and was relieved to see their road, and finally house number, materialise before me. “130 miles in two days,” I reflected over my cup of tea. I couldn’t stop smiling.
Corpach to Oban, 52 miles
After a rather vital rest day in Fort William, during which I updated (or to be more correct: sought to alleviate some of the backlog for) this blog like crazy, wandered around Fort William and generally unwound, it was time to be moving on; on towards the isles.
Regrettably, I could not set off as promptly as I wished. Ben Nevis distillery could not accommodate me on one of their morning tours. In fact, they couldn’t squeeze me in until 1PM. This was galling, because 50 miles to Oban is 50 miles, and when I have a distance like that looming I like to at least spread it around lunch. I wasn’t about to miss another distillery, so I booked a spot on the 1PM tour and just accepted that it would be a later night than was ideal.
As you can tell from my review of Ben Nevis, I was glad to have lingered. I bounced and swerved through Fort William onto the south-bound road full of delight at this most immersive and educational of visits, and eager to see whether I would be lucky enough to meet Jim McEwan at Bruichladdich (“If you meet Jim, cancel all plans for the rest of the day,” John warned me), and whether I would encounter Willie at Jura. I was promised that there was nothing this man didn’t know about whisky.
The panorama kept my spirits fairly high, too. Once more I was giddily fortunate with bright sunshine and heat. The views of Loch Linnhe and Argyll slowly coming into shot were magical. The further I went, the more rock could be found protruding from the energetic aquamarine. The islands had technically begun.
During my time in Fort William spring had definitely been making unsubtle hints as to its entrance. Now, the trees were in fresh-out-of-the-box leaf, and green was assiduously establishing itself. The best place to have appreciated this reawakening of nature may have been the cycle path, which I would spy running in parallel every so often. I only used it over a couple of stretches, however, because every time it looked as if I could join it from the road, it appeared to head of in the opposite direction to that indicated by the nearest road sign.
Either way, I arrived in Oban shortly after 7PM. I was struck first of all by its location, within the hills and above the sea, secondly by the amount of people around. Fort William had been busy, too, but I had walked amoungst them. Now I was on a bike again and it was all rather overwhelming. I made it to my B&B by 7.30PM, unhappily discovering that it was some way out of town.
Once again, I had made it to a significant check point. I was in Oban now, so I could not fail to catch that once-a-week sailing from Oban to Port Askaig. Again, I could breathe a sigh of something like relief.
Oban to Tobermory and back, 45 miles
With no small amount of trepidation, I headed down to the harbour. I had spied out the ferry terminal the night before and let’s just say it was in impressive contrast to John o’Groats. It looked like a mini airport! I wasn’t at all sure of the protocols involved in getting me and my bike on to the ferry and how much it would cost. In a very short time indeed I was waiting at the head of a queue of cars to board, having paid half the John o’Groats to Orkney fare.
In the passenger lounges, there was a large contingent of Americans, Texans to be precise. I wondered if it was a school trip or a holiday. I suppose for the same reason we head over there they come here: a change of scale.
On Mull I allowed all of the ferry traffic to precede me on to the island and this was a very smart move. If I could recommend an island to cycle on, it would be Mull. Between Craignure and Tobermory there is essentially no traffic at all and until you get to the one seriously malignant hill it is relatively flat and well-surfaced. Much like on Skye, miles flashed past without me really registering them. I found the whole place charming: you could see the mainland at all times and this suggested a fraternity existed between it and Mull. Once you are on Skye heading north, the island seems to turn its back on mainland Scotland, shoving lots of other islands in between.
Mull is a friendly place, and even after the rather nasty hills which begin once you are through Salem, the island seems eager to reward you with views which are nothing less than perfect.
Tobermory is quite divine, too. Again, because it is a “proper” island in a transport sense, demanding a b-o-a-t to get there, you sense that it is more preserved than it might be if there were an easy road link nearby. It had everything I needed: a distillery, a superb cafe selling fabulously rich cakes and a Co-op for my day to day nurtrition. I was sad to leave, and didn’t overstrain myself to get back to Craignure in time for the 5PM sailing back to Oban. I made it back anyway, just as the last cars were shuffling down on to the car deck.
I elected to eat the food I had bought in anticipation of having to wait for the 7PM ferry on the rear viewing deck and quite marvellous it was, too. It was hear that I took the picture you can see above. My early return to Oban made dinner arrangements a lot simpler and hassle-free. I ate at a little restaurant called Cuan Mor on the harbour front. So impressed and inspired had I been by the unashamedly, committedly peaty flavours of Ledaig that I asked the waitress for one. They didn’t have it, incredibly, so I had a Caol Ila instead, in anticipation for the following day and its profoundly significant destination.