Thursday, 25 May 2017

The Mountains of Arran

Friday 21st April 2017

The weather forecast for this day wasn’t good with rain and wind prompting me to take the wet weather route that I planned around the north-eastern coast of the Isle of Arran, where I’d stopped after spending a few days on the Isle of Islay. There is a path from the youth hostel at Lochranza around Newton Point and the Cock of Arran past some geologically significant rock formations, most notably Huttons’ Unconformity. I’m sure this would have been a great walk, but it would have meant that I had not gone up any mountains during this holiday due to bad weather. After a closer look at the forecast I decided that the weather was going to improve so I, obstinately, decided that it was worth attempting my originally planned walk up the mountains of Arran. I was last on Arran ten years ago when I’d also started my holiday in Inveraray, just as on this holiday, and had spent five days in the fantastic mountains of Arran in glorious weather. That holiday had been so successful that there were no mountains in Arran left for me to visit, which was why it had taken me so long to return, but now I deliberately headed home from Islay via Arran so that I could reacquaint myself with these great mountains.

The weather when I started this walk was a bit cloudy but not too bad as I left the village of Lochranza, and immediately after passing the distillery turned onto a path that runs up Gleann Easan Biorach. Initially I enjoyed a good path, probably due to the distillery, and as the path climbs beside a narrow gorge formed by a spectacular waterfall I was reminded of similar paths in the Lake District. I was happy that I had chosen to do the mountain walk as there is nothing better than walk that is like the Lake District. However, above the gorge the path deteriorated into a bog while the valley levelled and left me thinking of the walk that I’d planned to do a couple of days previously up the Paps of Jura. I had not done that walk because I didn’t like the idea of traversing the miles of impenetrable bogs that defend those distinctive peaks. I had dismissively called that bog-trotting, and now as I was bog-trotting slowly up this valley the irony was weighing heavily upon me. When the valley began to steepen once more I decided that my best option would be to cross the river and to climb up the comparatively drier slopes on the other side.

The wind starting whipping up as a ridge began to develop and I was reminded of the weather forecast. Behind me Lochranza appeared to be enjoying some sunshine but ahead of me the weather was looking very poor and by the time I had plunged into the low clouds it had started raining. With strong winds and now rain I was beginning to think that it may not have been the best weather to go up a mountain, however underfoot the terrain was improving with a satisfying ridge developing that was a pleasure to walk along, despite the horrible weather. It was great being on a mountain again, no matter what the weather, and surprisingly I was actually enjoying myself. Slowly I kept climbing, but however much I climbed the summit of Caisteal Abhail seemed increasingly illusive and unreachable in the worsening weather. Eventually I decided that it was a waste of time going any farther as I could have wandered around for hours and not seen the summit of the mountain, and the weather was beginning to make conditions unbearable.

Turning around I followed a path down the south-western slopes of Caisteal Abhail. I may not have reached the actual summit, but I’d been there before in 2007 and now my only thought was to get safely down off the mountain. I had to make several course corrections when I lost the path descending too far west in the misty conditions until eventually I found the right route that bypassed Cìr Mhor to reach the bottom of the saddle at the top of Coire Buidhe. The rain had continued to fall heavily during my descent while the wind was blowing a gale, but safety was now in sight with a good path leading from the col down into Glen Rosa. After dropping a short distance I was sheltered from the strong, westerly winds so I dropped behind a large rock and with relief to be out of the bad weather I ate my lunch. This walk could have led to serious problems, but I was confident in my experience of bad weather on top of a mountain and in my map reading skills that brought me safely down to my escape route. The bad weather had added an exciting element to the walk and increased the sense of adventure, but if I’d known that the wind was going to be as strong as it was then I would have taken the coastal walk.

A well-made path brought me easily and enjoyably down into Glen Rosa while the rain finally eased and I was sheltered from the winds. As I descended into the valley I was determined to not feel that the mountain, or the weather, had beaten me. Climbing a mountain is not a contest, or a fight. I wasn’t trying to conquer the mountain, just climb it, and if the weather stops this being fun making it potentially dangerous then there is no shame in abandoning the planned walk. I had planned on walking over Cìr Mhor and Goat Fell after Caisteal Abhair, but in the end I had a thoroughly enjoyable walk anyway as I slowly descended into the valley. I had never taken this path before so was looking forward to walking down this distinctively, glacially shaped valley so that despite cutting the walk short I actually really enjoyed it as I slowly made my way down Glen Rosa. Ahead of me the weather gradually improved with blue skies appearing through the clouds while behind me the mountains clung onto the thick, dark clouds.

This walk was completely different to the walks that I had done over the mountains of Arran ten years ago with an approach, from Lochranza, that I had not did back then. Even the descent was new with a long walk-out through Glen Rosa so that despite what should have been a horrendous walk was actually an enjoyable one even though it had been cut short when I had decided that the weather had become too poor at the top of Caisteal Abhair. The weather continued to improve with lovely spring weather lower down the valley and made for a great, relaxing stroll down lovely Glen Rosa. I had enjoyed being at the top of the mountains before the weather had turned really bad, and that has motivated to want to return to these fabulous mountains soon. The Isle of Arran has been described as Scotland in miniature, while I would describe the mountains of Arran as being like the Lakeland Fells in miniature, and that is praise indeed.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Four lochs and two distilleries from Ballygrant

Wednesday 19th April 2017

While planning this holiday on the island of Islay I realised that it would be an ideal opportunity to do a walk up the Paps of Jura, the three dome-shaped quartzite hills on the neighbouring island of Jura, however this thought didn’t excite me. Nevertheless I did plan to do the walk up the Paps of Jura during this holiday even though my heart was never in it. Good weather is essential for a walk up the Paps of Jura so I also planned an alternative bad weather walk and secretly I wanted to do that walk instead of the mountain walk. Ralph Storer describes the walk up the Paps of Jura as “exhausting, sometimes frustrating” and that Paps are “defended by miles of boggy moorland and require a determined assault”. I don’t enjoy bog-trotting and prefer a good footpath underfoot, particularly in ascent, so even though I had kept my options open to the idea of going up the Paps I was always veering towards doing the bad weather alternative. In the event the weather wasn’t too bad with some sunshine during the middle of the day, but my decision was really made when I decided to do the Laphroaig Distillery tour the previous afternoon.

After my tour of Laphroaig I caught a bus from Port Ellen to the village of Ballygrant in the east of Islay, where I headed into the woods around Loch Ballygrant and camped at a spot just outside the woods to the west of the loch. My inspiration for this walk is to be found on the walkhighlands.co.uk website although I had decided to reverse the direction, so after overnight rain I set off back into Ballygrant. The footpath that follows the road east from Ballygrant is a lot better than the Three Distilleries Pathway on the south coast of Islay that I had been on the day before, as this was narrower and more undulating because it wasn’t designed to be used by wheelchairs and pushchairs, which also made it much more fun to walk. Already I could see the Paps of Jura on the horizon, the tops partially obscured by cloud, taunting me for taking the easy option, but they were not goal on this walk as I took the left turning road signposted Finlaggan. Walking along the minor road I came to the visitor centre at Finlaggan where the MacDonald Lords of the Isles had their base in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

There didn’t seem to be much to see except for some ruins on an island in the nearby loch so I turned around and followed the road heading north past the ruins of Mulreesh and just before I reached Balulive Farm I turned left onto a muddy track into an increasingly wild terrain. At one point I even saw a couple of young deer before plunging into a dark conifer plantation that was not nearly as bad as it sounds. The track is lined with young deciduous trees and around the ruins of Staoisha there were loads of celandines and primroses with even a few daffodils decorating the scene. I could imagine this being a delightful location before the conifers came and ruined everything. Beyond the ruin rhododendrons lined the track so that in a few months there will be a blaze of colour from this invasive, troublesome plant. After a sizable walk through the wood I suddenly came out to a view of the sea, and across the narrow straits the Paps of Jura stood strikingly close mocking me as what could have been. I had an enjoyable walk through the unspoilt landscape with the distinctive mountains ahead of me while around me lay heather and small rhododendron bushes.

Slowly I made my way down to the sea at Bunnahabhain where the next tour of the distillery was in an hour’s time, which was all the excuse I needed to wander around the coast of Bunnahabhain Bay clambering over quartzite rocks and gazing out across the Sound of Islay to the Paps of Jura. After eating my lunch I returned to the Bunnahabhain Distillery where I took the tour of this small distillery where they work to a traditional, manual ethos producing an unusually, for Islay, unpeated whisky. Although not to my taste, this is not a bad whisky and I left happy to have visited this tiny, isolated distillery. My next destination was the Caol Ila Distillery, which is some way south along a quiet road that rushed along as I was worried that I wouldn’t get there in time for the next tour only to arrive with half an hour to spare. This distillery at Caol Ila was rebuilt in the early seventies so that it now looks ugly and utilitarian while inside there is a lot of automation, which is in stark contrast to the one at Bunnahabhain that looks at least a hundred years old.

During the afternoon the fantastic weather that I had been enjoying with stunning views across the Sound of Isla towards the Paps of Jura deteriorated so that by the time I left Caol Ila it was starting to rain. This made for a depressing end to the day through what in better weather must be a lovely route as it follows tracks through woodland all the way back to my tent near Loch Ballygrant. Despite the rain at the end I had enjoyed this walk including the tours of the two very different distilleries in the afternoon, and even the extended road walking had failed to ruin my enthusiasm. I felt that the deterioration in the weather late in the day had justified my decision not to go up the Paps of Jura, while allowing me to visit two very special distilleries, which had been the main reason for my coming to Islay, although ultimately I didn’t feel as if I’d stay on this island long enough. The following morning I retraced my steps along the fabulous path that runs from the gorgeous woods of Ballygrant where bluebells were beginning to appear promising a stunning display in the weeks to come, to the eastern end near Port Askaig where a Lily Pond was sadly devoid of lilies because it was the wrong time of year.

Despite it being the wrong time of year for bluebells, lilies or rhododendrons I had really enjoyed my brief couple of days on Islay. There is so much to this island that I have not seen on this visit as I had taken the tour of four of the distilleries on an island that has eight. The weather was great when I arrived on Islay but it quickly deteriorated so that by the time I left it was cold, wet and windy even though this hasn’t prevented me from wanting to return. There is so much more to Islay than whisky as the walk on this day shows, and there are many more that I could have done. From the bus I had been impressed by the view of the extensive sands near Bridgend called Tràigh Cill an Rubha, where a great walk must be possible from Bowmore all the way around the northern bay of Loch Indaal, while the great sweep of Laggan Bay must also make for an awesome beach walk. These options are all in addition to the mountain walk up the Paps of Jura that will still be waiting for me when I finally decide to do it. As the ferry pulled away from Port Ellen it may have been the distilleries that I was looking at, but there is so much more to come back for.