RSF - The Off Road Cycling Club

The Adventure Starts Here

Taking it Lying Down

by a Vagabond (Fife)


Coll from the tentRecumbent tandems aren't ideally built for rough-stuffing and, truth to tell, this wasn't supposed to have been a rough-stuff trip. But you know how it is - the sight of a good track winding away to who knows where? The lure never dies.

So there we were up to the gunnels in sand, marram grass soaring above our heads as the pitiless sun beat down. No, this wasn't the Sahara. We were in Western Scotland: the island of Coll to be exact. 'The Sand Road' joins two tarred road ends between Totronald RSPB Reserve and Ballyhaugh. It was shown on our well-out-of-date OS map as a large area of sand dunes at the back of Hogh Bay. Local opinion as to whether we could get through varied from "Oh yes, lots of bikes go through", to "No chance, it's two miles of soft sand."

As usual both were right - and wrong. Lots of bikes (usually hired ATBs) are pushed through with much sweat and tears but it's actually only about a mile q,nd a half, some of which is moderately well compacted. A few superior types in 4x4s got in our way, one lordly offering us a tow and guffawing with mirth as we politely declined.

Coll is a lovely island, much nicer we thought than Tiree, though it's worth combining them as the same ferry trip from Oban serves both. However neither equals the scenic rough-stuff delight of Colonsay, another of the Inner Isles served by boat from Oban with a weekly connection onward to Islay.

Colonsay is very much a holiday island, privately owned with almost every house rentable and an estate-run bunkhouse. As on Coll, caravans and campervans are not allowed which does make life easier for cyclists on the few narrow winding roads. Camping is discouraged but perfectly possible if you are discreet. On Coll our idyllic beach site was discovered by the lady landowner who became almost embarrassingly apologetic when she realised we were not car accompanied. A bumpy ride of 500 yards across the tussocks was well worth the peace and quiet of a people-free beach replete with otters and seals.

Colonsay includes the tidal island of Oronsay with its well preserved medieval priory. The hired ATBs were pedalled across the mile or so of salty mud flats but, for this occasion, we took pity on our Greenspeed and preferred the feel of sand between the toes. There can't be many work sites where the electricity board men have to come and go from work according to the tides. They were setting up a new transmission line and the unit prices will no doubt reflect the salt water damage suffered by their vehicles as they enjoyed making a splash.

Our 1" OS map - we unfortunately later lost it - showed a yellow road direct to the Bunkhouse from the pier at Scalastaig. This we found has been bypassed by a wide red road. Following what remained of the original route we were soon in Rhosiedendrum Wonderland with giant flowered bushes meeting over our heads. A small loch is infiltrating the track and things became rather soggy for a while but eventually the long machine was manoeuvred under branches and through bogs to emerge onto old estate roads and past the secluded mossy edifices of yesteryear.

The snag with islands is that you are tied to ferry times. The enticing looking track out to the famed white sand beach of Balnahard will need to wait for our next trip but we did manage a distant glimpse after a walk up to the highest point of the island, Ben Eoin.

Our time on Islay is best glossed over. Was it MacBraynes curry or the local sheep-dip? Whatever, we were glad to have the snug wee bothy to ourselves as we lay bedbound for a couple of days with rather too frequent trips to the beach in low cloud and drizzle. Blessings on the local farmer for a supply of fIrewood, for sheltering the Greenspeed in his barn (where the cock o' the dungheap made it his special perch) and for sending out runners to check on our welfare. Forty-eight hours later we staggered weakly back to the road, scoffed "scones" at the islands poshest pub (all decor and no service), failed to find a B&B and sailed to the mainland at Kennacraig.

We hadn't finished with islands yet though. Gigha had long been due for a visit. There was just time between ferries to pedal the island's one road, tarred in places, potholed in many. Not much rough-stuff potential but a nice wee island all the same.

The next island was another tidal one - Davaar just off Campbelltown. Once again the Greenspeed was pensioned off for a while as we explore this offshore grassy rock, famous mainly for its cave painting, a very impressive copy of an Old Master, originally done in mysterious circumstances many years ago and kept in repair by locals ever since. The tide creeps in fast over these wide flat bays and, finding our route awash, we had to make a hasty detour to retrieve the recumbent from becoming sub-aqua.

The final island was an old haunt - Arran. Here we were doing a simple ferry hop; on at Lochranza, off at Brodick, so the only rough-stuff was to a rather esoteric B&B which involved negotiating a "hole in the hedge" and a barely visible track down which, we were assured, "the pony and trap used to go". Our hostess departed to work as dawn cracked, leaving us to find our own way out via an even more complicated but, thankfully more rideable route.

Cycling has become quite an industry in the Scottish Western islands. Most of them seem now to have bike-hiring businesses though some of their machines looked pretty hairy to us. We were astounded to count over fIfty cycles on one of the ferries and that was without including the ones that had cars attached. Recumbents are ideal in these windy, wide-open climes and ours coped well with the load carrying needed for camping. However its low-slung frame makes it vulnerable to knocks, or salt water; locked gates and fences are an effective barrier, and pushing on foot is a recipe for a slipped disc.

Never mind, it was excellent for watching the Transit of Venus.