NORTH WEST PASSAGES - PART TWO - OF JOHN NEWMAN'S MOTORCYCLE TRIP
OVER THE SEA TO SKYE
Examine a map of Western Scotland. From towns and points up along the coast blue lines indicate the myriad ferry crossings connecting and servicing the islands and peninsulas that form a spectacular and beguiling land and seascape.
Speed Bonnie Boat
My next ferry plan was to board at Wemyss Bay and cross to Rothesay on the island of Bute. At the northern end of Bute another very short ferry crossing delivers you onto one of the peninsulas attached to the mainland, from where my road journey towards the centre of the Hebrides, the Isle of Skye, would continue.
What a contrast! On the previous day's ride cloud, rain and low temperature dogged the miles. Now I could enjoy wearing dry unlined gloves again as I tracked along the west coast in sunshine, through the resort and sailing town of Largs towards the ferry crossing.
The pier and station at Wemyss Bay was a surprise. Built in the 19th Century it's a piece of Victorian industrial craft work dominated by a sixty foot Queen Anne style clock tower. It was built as a terminus for the railway line to Glasgow twenty six miles away, and to serve the island steamer service. Like many relics of this period it was consistently neglected until a 'friends' group began to revive it in 2009. They restored the once famous floral hanging baskets, and have opened various station rooms as a book, CD, and DVD shop, and a cafe.
I purchased tickets for both crossings, not cheap at twenty quid for bike and rider. (Nearly all ferry services in the Hebrides and other islands are operated by the Caledonian MacBrane company - known as CalMac – which is owned by the Scottish government). After a few road miles to Rhubodach, the brief crossing of the Kyles of Bute to the mainland peninsula put me on the road (A886) towards that day's destination, Fort William.
Sunshine, forests, hills, mountains, lochs...
Sunshine, forests, hills, mountains, lochs and the lazy V-twin engine of the Guzzi pushed me along well surfaced roads with enough swervery to keep the reactions sharp. A good part of the road runs along the Loch Fyne shoreline, famous for its oysters, before looping back round the loch to Inverary an attractive tourist honey pot and a very popular stop off for motorcyclists. This is a cracking day's ride out if you live in Glasgow's urban sprawl – and it's the location of Inverary Castle, a Gothic pile, home to the Dukes of Argyll, but now open to any 'commoner' who hands over the admission fee.
The main road into Fort William from the south is B&B alley, with most of the large residences offering accommodation. Or on this day not, as 'no vacancies' signs predominated. But I soon found a small room in one of the larger hotels that specialises in welcoming the stream of tourist coaches that use the town as a jumping off point for the rest of the Highlands. Not really my kind of place, especially as in the middle of my evening food and beer 'Donald Where's Yer Troosers' invaded my consciousness via the inescapable muzak system.
Another day, another ferry
Another day, another ferry. Just south of Fort William the Corran ferry crosses a narrow point of Loch Linhe and deposits passengers and vehicles at Ardgour on the Sunart and Ardnamuchan peninsula – just £2.40 for the ride. It's the long route to Mallaig from where the Skye ferry departs, and it's a slab of Scotland well off the 'normal' tourist track.
Myself and three Belgian riders on BMW R1200's with seemingly every conceivable accessory and copious luggage attached, were jammed together on deck for the few minutes it took to swing from one jetty to the other side. Our bikes were all on side stands and one of the Belgian guys had to get his mate to shove him upright. I slung my leg over the Guzzi and was determined to left leg lever myself to the vertical, as it's essential to maintain 'dignity control' in situations where there are onlookers. Success, despite the wet deck.
Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar
Another day, another weather system. On the road through Glen Tarbert towards the peninsulas main village Strontian, monstrous clouds hung over looming mountains. They hadn't yet begun to deposit yet more rain into the cascading rivers and streams; and more importantly onto me. But it could only be a matter of time.
A sign outside the village informed me that a derivation of its name had been given to the mineral Strontium first discovered in ores taken from lead mines in the area in the 18th Century. It was used commercially in the extraction process in refining sugar beet, but more notoriously Strontium 90 is one of the atomic fragments thrown up as result of nuclear testing, and has a long half life. At one point research was carried out to determine if it had harmful effects on humans, particularly to bones – lots of info on Wikipedia if you enjoy scientific information.
Onward! The sailors cry!
Along the stark and dark rocky shoreline of the sea loch, Loch Nnan Uamh, stands a cairn erected in memory of of Bonnie Prince Charlie. It marks the spot where he sailed into exile in France following the unsuccessful Jacobite uprising in 1745. Despite the 'fifty shades of grey' clouds allowing drizzly periods, there was no wind, and the surface of the loch resembled a darkened mirror. It was a mysterious and entrancing panorama.
By the time I reached Mallaig I was cold and damp, but the dismal weather had not detracted from the spirit of a motorcycle journey through one of Scotland's less explored areas. A ferry was ready to depart but rather than rush on I parked the bike at the front of the lanes for the following service. I warmed myself in the ticket office/waiting room (£16.50 one way), before wandering into the small town for a pint and a gawp at the tourists who had arrived on the magnificent steam train from Fort William.
Until this point there'd only been a sprinkling of motorcycle travellers, but on the Isle of Skye where I was staying, more were coming and going. A good proportion were from mainland Europe, which was good to see. Despite the vagaries of the weather, Scotland must rank among one of the all round best places in the world to take a bike. It had been many many years since I'd travelled this way and I made a promise to myself to return again soon, it was such a pleasure riding here.
You spin me right round
A Scots friend had emailed me before I departed to tell me to be sure to take the Kylerhea to Glenelg ferry from Skye to another part of the mainland. It's an old turntable ferry, and is now run as a Community Interest Company - any profits are used to keep the boat in good shape or used for the progress of the community rather than an individual or shareholders.
I'd promised myself a ride over the Pass of the Cattle to Applecross; one of those 'initiation' rides that just has to be done. A squint at the map showed me that I could accomplish the two goals in one day's outing.
A seven mile narrow and gravelly road winds from the main road across Skye into a hinterland of rocky hillsides and forests, before coming to an end at the ferry. The road, no more than a car width track at times, climbed gradually before giving out to breathtaking views over the Sound of Sleat, and then running steep through tight bends towards the shoreline.
You're never alone with a motorcycle
The old ferry is a sight to behold. It's a wonderful throw back to a previous era and an effective working antidote to often pointless modernity. It is supposed to take six cars, but that would be a squeeze. I'm on board with three other cars, and one of the drivers got out to admire the bike. He has a couple of sports bikes that he also uses for touring, and he had been visiting this 'remote' area on family holidays for many years. I extolled the virtues of a big V-Twin with a riding position suitable for folk of 'our age' and a good turn of touring speed and told him to get himself one. On the short crossing I leaned against the bike obeying a large sign advising: 'Hold motorcycles steady'...you're never alone with a motorcycle.
I'll take the High road
There are two ways to reach Applecross: take the high road (see picture), or the low road. As I was snapping a pic of the warning sign an old couple drew up in a car, read it and took the alternative route.
It's a grand and challenging eleven miles. Once over the highest point of the road, the wind on this day was pushing horizontal rain across the fell, and pushing the bike where I didn't want it to go. There's a campground, shop and Michelin rated pub at the end of the road, packed out with lunchers.
I returned over the pass and stopped at a less crowded cafe in Loch Carron, and as I was readying the bike after my break, an old guy on two sticks limped over; another Guzzi admirer who told of his more youthful exploits on these bikes with their less than effective brakes. I assured him there was a vast all round improvement in brakes and other (modern) components...you're never alone with a motorcycle.
At this stage of the game, comfortably into the touring lifestyle, and at one with the bike over all terrain and in all conditions, I could easily have ridden off further north to Ullapool, Lochinver, Scourie and the wilder Highlands. Or even ferried to the Outer Hebrides. Travelling can get you that way. But having sampled all the back roads of Skye, and gazed on the scenic grandeur of the Cuilin mountains under brighter skies, and supped Guinness at the Isle of Skye Accordion and Fiddle Festival I had to head south and my final ferry ride from Dunoon to Gourock which would deposit me close to my Scottish start point at Wemyss Bay.
…Irish Sea, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Fair Isle, Cromarty...for the next time.
Any comments? Anyone been to any of these places? Anyone else listen to the shipping forecast and sometimes feel grateful that they are not at sea? Tell us about it at: email@example.com
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