Monday 25 March 2013

To Islay - Queen of the Hebrides....

Machir Bay with Coull Farm in the distance
Round about Eastertime, we usually head northwards to the Inner Hebrides for our first wild camp of the year. For several years we were always the first to sign the 'Camping Book' after crossing to the remote little island of Ulva. It took some time but eventually the dour ferryman came to recognize us and would greet us with "You're back again". And that's all he'd say!  Well thank goodness we hadn't planned to camp on this occasion as we drove through the southern uplands in sleet and snow before boarding 'MV Hebridean Isles' at Kennacraig to cross to the beautiful island of Islay. The weather was mainly dry throughout our stay but, taking the wind chill factor into consideration, the temperature was constantly below freezing. And it was the equinox whilst we were there. The winds gave us a fair old drubbing - all week.
Brown hare trying to hide
Thankfully, we'd decided to indulge ourselves with a little luxury. Well, more the height of luxury as we snuggled into the spacious well appointed flat at Coull Farm overlooking the vast expanse of Machir Bay on the west coast. We've stayed here before, on three occasions, and this time Pat Jones had left a rather nice bottle of Chardonnay and a bowl of sweets on the table to welcome us back. The wine was a good accompaniment to our roast chicken that evening - and the next.  Outside our window huge flocks of barnacle geese grazed the fields, waddling along in a great swathe, heads down, cropping the grass like some giant mowing machine. They'd been there in their thousands since October and wont leave until April so one can imagine the vast amounts they eat during that time. Farmers are not happy! Hares loped across the fields too and the odd rabbit fed fearlessly just over the wall.
Each morning, an hour or so after breakfast, we donned our running gear to churn out a measured four miles
Lonely bull
starting off along a farm track, down a stretch of tarmac road to Machrie and then on a sheltered sandy trail behind the dunes with hoards of black beasties, trekking horses and sheep for company. A notice on the gate that some might find intimidating advised people to beware of cows with young calves, also that there was a bull in the field.  In fact, the cows were more afraid of us hooded runners than we were of them. The bull was in a field of his own, fenced in, always in exactly the same spot when we ran past, and invariably facing in the same direction - gazing across at the frisky black beauties feeding on choice silage beyond the lochan, and out of reach. We felt sorry for the poor creature surrounded as he was with barbed wire and nothing to eat but the sparse grass beneath his feet.
Running the length of Machir Bay
Another gate led us out from the dunes and onto the pristine white sands that stretch for 1½ miles towards the fields of Coull Farm.  Here we'd oystercatchers and little ringed plovers for company. Giant rollers trailing whisps of blown spume came roaring in to crash on the shore in a mass of creeping foam. A tractor trundled across the horizon followed by a cloud of screaming gulls. Except for the farmer's wife and her friend walking their dogs, we saw no-one. Imagine, having one of the most beautiful beaches in the Hebrides virtually all to ourselves. OK, it was cold, and the wind was usually against us, but we were well wrapped up to face whatever the elements cared to throw at us for that short(ish) space of time. Those exhilerating morning runs across the white sands of Machir Bay are largely responsible for our repeated visits to Coull Farm. It's that beautiful.

After a quick change and a warm drink to replace lost fluids we drove off to do other things.   My wonderful
Kildalton Cross
partner was bitten by an archaeology bug that has her seeking out old chapels, ancient stone crosses, carved tombstones, standing stones and suchlike curiosities - of which there is an abundance on Islay.  Personally, I have little interest in the past and have a slight aversion to musty old museums, but dutifully I follow along, taking photoraphs and editing them to best effect when we get home. That way I derive some pleasure from the experience. One of the most photographed and must see relics on Islay is Kildalton Cross, carved around 1,300 years ago, which stands in the walled grounds of the chapel.  But it was a driech day when we arrived and my camera wouldn't do it justice in the poor light. It was a better day when we turned in to Nereabus graveyard to photograph glass covered tombstones of Clan Donald chiefs. As we came out a hearse came crawling towards us bearing the remains of a local dignitary, his coffin bearing a gold monogram, and the whole mournful entourage preceded by a piper playing a dirgeful lament.
My wonderful partner - arriving to claim her rent
However, one of the great things about Kildalton is that it's situated along what's very affectionately known as the distillery road where no less than three of these wonderful establishments impart their glorious fumes into the air. Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg are names that roll off the drinking man's tongue like a litany and bring a sparkle to his eyes. Now it so happens that my wonderful partner and I are 'Friends' of the former and have  a square foot of land, in the bog across the road, on which we can claim rent from the distillery. Rent is, of course, in liquid form consisting of a not so wee dram of the various single malts currently available. I chose my usual 10 year old vintage, and right well it went down. My wonderful partner was driving so couldn't indulge but each of us was given a good sized miniature to imbibe at our leisure when we got home.
We're both keen on birding too, though there are lots of times when we haven't a clue what we're looking at
Solitary Grey seal at Portnahaven
- like the large brown raptor that flew by on a couple of occasions while we were watching from the RSPB hide at Gruinart flats. We knew of several things it wasn't, but by no process of elimination could we actually tell what it was!  My most inspired guess was a marsh harrier, but no-one else seemed to have reported seeing one there.  Nevertheless, we did in fact identify at least 25 different species including choughs, hen harriers, whimbrel, redshank, kestrels, snipe and scores of teal in various places round the island. And it was while we were focusing our binoculars on a shelduck, swimming away from us, that we suddenly spotted a huge colony of seals. So that was a nice bonus.
It's ironic that some days we walked for goodness how many miles in arctic conditions, hurrying along to keep warm, searching for birds and wildlife the guide book told us ought to be there - and never found a ruddy thing. Ardnave Point, the sand bars out from Gortontaoid, Bridgend Wood and various other places never yielded anything listed in the guide book. Always, we came across things in quite unexpected places, like, for instance, the colony of seals mentioned above. And the picturesque little whitewashed village of Portnahaven had masses of photo friendly seals on previous occasions. This time there was just one of the Atlantic Grey variety lounging alone on a rock in the bay, and trying in a wry fashion to say cheese as we pointed our cameras at him.
All in all it was a good holiday, with apparently much better weather than it was in wild Yorkshire where this
Snow blocking my door and windows (Courtesy Shelley Askworth)

picture of my house was taken while I was away. Fortunately, my wonderful neighbours had cleared the doorway prior to my return home, otherwise I'm not quite sure what I would have done? My snow shovel was, of course, behind the drift!  It hadn't exactly been a relaxing holiday. Running an undulating four miles each morning, much of it on sand, then walking the hills for the rest of the day isn't every octogenarian's idea of enjoying themselves.  But it was both invigorating and stimulating, spent among superb sea and landscapes and I can honestly say I'm looking forward to going again to the island that's known to many as 'Queen of the Hebrides'. Besides, there are seven more distilleries we've yet to visit.    


  1. Looks like you choose a good week to get away as running on the beach is better than runnning in the snow... that said it doesn't look that warm!

    It also look like it was a good thing you didn't have to run through the field as Mr Bull looks rather large!

    1. Aye, Mr Bull was a stonking huge thing that bellowed and roared after we'd run past. But it was a great run we really enjoyed doing on five of six mornings. The last morning was horrendous, heavy snow driven by gale force wind with temperatures well into the minuses - so we never left the flat all day.

  2. Good stuff again. Blue sky, deserted beaches and a distillery - fantastic!

    1. Nay, eight distilleries. What more could one wish for?

  3. Fabulous scenery, it sounds like a lovely trip. Hope that snow has gone by now...

    1. The snow just keeps coming Liz, had to shovel myself out again this morning! Roll on Spring.

  4. What a gorgeous place! We must go. And being a 'Friend of Laphroaig' sounds a ruddy marvellous idea!

  5. wow great scenery, looks like fun