We pop in to their site to say goodbye to Martha, Rob and Ed. The latter is looking very cute in his wet suit and I am allowed to accompany him to the site pool. Then it is time to leave. Despite a slight issue when the automatic caravan leg winder only seems to want to lower the legs not raise them, we set off for the Kintyre peninsula. The sat nav tells us is seventy miles to our new site but that seems to involve two ferries so we opt for the land route, which is more than twice as far.
We cross the Clyde via Erskine Bridge and are in beautiful countryside by the loch in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. There are many single story, white washed cottages. Then we are travelling alongside Loch Fyne and arrive on Kintyre – as in Mull of, although Mull is one Scottish island we won’t be visiting. Despite having read the Caravan Club’s instructions to ‘only approach the site this way’ several times, my eye has missed out a vital word. This means that I navigate us the wrong way, which involves twenty miles of single track road. Fortunately there are frequent passing places, marked by black and white poles. When Chris finally accomplishes the feat of getting us to the site entrance there are more problems. First we negotiate a long bumpy track to reception, then we take a wrong turning on the site. We find ourselves in a field full of tents on soft ground with no way out expect the way we have come and very little space to turn a car and caravan. Despite some wheel spin Chris accomplishes this and drives our unit between two cars with the proverbial cigarette paper space on either side. All I can say is that it is a good job our wing mirrors were higher than those on the cars. If caravan manoeuvring were a Commonwealth sport Chris would be in with a chance of a gold medal.
The next day we leave the van at 5.50am, yes 5.50am, to get the ferry from Kennacraig to Islay. It is cloudy but serene across the bay with many baby rabbits. We are trying not to mention our destination as we don’t know how to pronounce it. Is it ‘Iz-lay’ or is the ‘s’ silent (as in ‘island’) making is ‘I-lay’? Turns out it is ‘I-lah’, well, who knew. A shower means that the outside seats on The Hebridean Isles are wet so we sit in the reclining lounge. It is the seats and passengers that recline, rather than the lounge itself you understand. Reclining is all very well but in order to see out of the windows of the reclining lounge you have to adopt a meerkat like pose as the windows are very high. We complete a customer service questionnaire. Actually, I complete two, one each on behalf of my travelling companion and myself (still no reading glasses). Now, what to do for the next two hours and ten minutes of our journey? One of our party is already asleep, so conversation is limited. Mind you after three short nights who can blame him?
We land at Port Ellen and our pre-ordered hire car is ready and waiting. Then begins a roughly clockwise tour of the island, starting at the Mull of Oa, just as the sun comes out to greet us. We have noticed that cemeteries here seem to be seriously in the middle of nowhere and Islay is no exception. There are some impressive highland cattle roaming the beach and I also spot some hooded crows that are new to me. We fail to make the sands sing; that would be because we weren’t quite in the right place. A tractor passes with a huge trailer full of clam shells; the aroma lingers for a long way. We notice evidence of peat cutting and arrive at Bowmore Round Church. It was built in 1767 by Donald Campbell. The idea behind it being round is to prevent the devil hiding in the corners. A coach is disgorging its passengers as we arrive at the Round Church and we seem to have gate-crashed some filming; we suspect it is a new series of An Island Parish. The graveyard has numerous second world war graves to unknown sailors. Incredible scenery is interspersed with unsightly but no doubt necessary, signs of industry. This is of course the land of whisky distilleries and we see several.
At Port Charlotte we stop at the Museum of Islay Life, which has been set up in a disused Free Church. There is an eclectic mix of exhibits and one can imagine their hearts sinking when a well meaning local donates yet another bit of tat that has to be lovingly displayed. There are pictures of a D & N MacKenize bus of the 1930s; this is the firm that we have hired our car from. We chat to the friendly staff member. It seems there are variations on witchcraft prevention in Scotland – red string round the door, rowan trees instead of bays and quartz stones on the gateposts. I ask if there is a toilet. There is a staff one that I can use but health and safety requires the custodian to tell me that this is at my own risk. I fail to see what risks could be attached to this activity but maybe I am not thinking hard enough. In any case I emerge unscathed.
We drive down to the westernmost point of Islay, a fishing village called Porthnahaven; now we are further north than Ireland, next stop to the west is America. We get the very small ferry from Port Askaig to Feolin on Jura. I am already panicking in case there isn’t room for us on the return trip; perhaps we should join the queue now. Jura was granted to the Campbells in the early seventeenth century and the last Campbell left in 1938. A famous resident was George Orwell, who wrote 1984 on Jura; I guess there weren’t many distractions!
Jura appears deserted with no sign of habitation for several miles as we travel north on the only road. There is a complete lack of livestock and no sign of farming activity. Apparently there are cattle and 6000 red deer on Jura but we don’t see a single one. The human population is about 200, virtually all of whom are concentrated in the one settlement of Craighouse. Chris enjoys looking at the boats and we set off back to Feolin in good time for the ferry. Suddenly a warning light appears on the dashboard and the car loses all power, this is seriously worrying, are we going to be stranded on Jura? We have no idea how we are going to resolve this, it seems unlikely that Chris’ AA membership will extend to rescuing us from Jura any time soon. Chris turns the engine off and on again and all seems to be well. Inevitably we arrive in time to be first in the queue for the ferry but this is just as well as one car does get left behind.
Back on Islay, as instructed, we go to fill the car with petrol. We don’t seem to be able to open the petrol cap. The vehicle handbook is in the glove compartment and it seems to explain everything possible that one might need to know. I can use the cigarette lighter and CD player, I know all about the air bag but have no clue how to fill up with petrol. Fortunately the garage owner can cope; brute force is required. The ferry for our return to Kintyre is the Finlaggan. The gangway for passenger access is set at a slope of 1:2. Chris is manfully helping the ferry staff carry a child and bag-laden buggy up the gantry. Once on board we are once again in a media spotlight as photography is taking place, presumably for a new ferry brochure. We offer to move out of the way but are told this isn’t necessary; maybe we will be photo-shopped out. Finally a chance to watch Tom Daly and his new diving partner win silver in the synchronised diving on the ferry TV before returning, shattered, to the van.
A slightly later start today but only slightly, as the Claonig to Lochranza ferry operates on a first come first served basis and we spotted a camper van heading for the queue last night. Presumably they were planning to fly camp (legal in Scotland) to ensure their place on the ferry. Having seen none of Jura’s 6000 deer yesterday we do see two on the way to the ferry. We are second in the queue. Now I can stop worrying about whether or not we will fit on the ferry (surely it has room for two vehicles) I worry instead about whether or not we can pay our fare by credit card. Even with all the ‘emergency change’, of which there is quite a bit, we are £1.10 short. All is well, card payments are accepted and we are headed for Arran. It is raining, that would be raining quite a lot. We have worked out how to cover most of the island’s main roads, which form a figure of ‘eight’, assuming the eight has three circles instead of two. It takes a few goes to work out how to do this with as little repetition as possible (I can name at least two friends who now have paper and pencil out trying it! If that’s you, the cross pieces between the circles are roads from one side to the other and not just cross roads, so you can’t avoid some repetition).
We start off going clockwise from Lochranza and halt at Brodick Castle. This has the advantage of being under cover but the disadvantage of being shut. In the end it turns out not to be shut at all. In common with all those we have encountered so far the staff are really friendly. They explain that they have opened early and will be providing a single guided tour any minute now before shutting for a wedding. Hurrah! The guidedness of the tour is a bonus as normally it is show yourself around and ask questions of the room guides. Arran is of strategic importance as it guards the entrance to the Clyde and Brodick is one of three ancient fortifications on the island, the other two being at Lochranza, which we saw through the rain on our way to Brodick and Kildonan, which we didn’t. Brodick has been used as a defensive site since Viking times. The earliest parts of what now stands are sixteenth century but most is nineteenth century. The Castle was owned by the Dukes of Hamilton, whose main residence was in Hamilton and it was used as a hunting lodge. Cromwell was responsible for the death of the then Duke and Brodick was used as a Parliamentarian garrison before being returned to the family after the Restoration.
The entrance hall contains 87 stags heads. No one could be more opposed to hunting for sport than I but it certainly makes a statement. I score seven out of eight on the ‘what are these unusual historic objects?’ quiz in the kitchen, missing out on the pudding mould. There was a decidedly eerie feeling in the basement and that was before the guide regaled us with tales of bodies in tunnels. We decide it is not the weather for looking at the gardens and paddle back to the car. Some die-hards are still playing golf but we are trying to remain vaguely dry. Walking up tracks from the road to view standing stones are also off the itinerary. We head from east to west across ‘The String’. The roller coaster road and the surface water mean that this is a little like a water ride in a theme park. By this time we are in thick fog and even the most intrepid of cyclists, of which there have been many, usually on the narrowest parts of the road, have given up. Then there was the bus meets car (not ours fortunately, we were behind the bus) incident, when the car driver was another incapable of reversing. The bus driver solved this by making it clear he was in no position to reverse, which he wasn’t but it took some time for progress to be made.
After a brief detour to the southernmost point of the island at Kildonan, we headed north again. Whiting Bay seems to be the affluent side of the island, with large houses, probably designed for the golfing set. All this being in the middle of nowhere has meant we are a little low on fuel. We manage, with the help of the sat nav, to find a petrol station at the second attempt – the first was no longer open. This is at a combined petrol station and DIY shop, which makes sense. It was also the local off licence, which was a less likely combination. Although Arran provided our first view of Scottish heather there was no sign of the knitting to which the island has given its name. I don’t know why Scottish cars have reverse gears as no one knows how to use them. We encounter yet another example on a single track road. We are 200 metres from a passing place, the car coming in the other direction is about 5 metres past theirs. Their attempt at reaching the pull in results in their getting stuck in a ditch. The passenger has to get out of the car and push them out. As the rain is still torrential, Chris was a little slower than usual in offering assistance. So slow in fact that they were gone before he had the opportunity of getting wet.
We slightly revise our planned route, miss out Lamlash to Brodick and head west again, this time across ‘The Ross’, a higher road than The String and lined with pine forests, at least that’s the bits we could see through the rain. Deciding to call it a day, we return for a earlier ferry than the one we had intended. On a quick trip to the facilities I get caught in a downpour and find myself in the car in my underwear, having removed soaked clothing, for the second time this holiday. There is some delay with the ferry but eventually we are vanward bound. Considering Arran is sheltered on both sides the crossing is pretty jolly choppy and I am regretting consuming a packet of stale chilli rice crackers that I found lurking in the bottom of my bag. I wonder if I may be going to see them again. Fortunately I do not have to dwell on the logistics of being unwell on a boat when in a state of undress as we reach Claonig without mishap.