Backpacking, bothying and bongoing on Islay

by backpackingbongos

For a map of the backpacking route click here.

This trip very nearly didn’t happen as I came within minutes of missing the ferry.  Being a fairly organised sort of person I gave myself plenty of time to drive from Nottingham to the West coast of Scotland for 5.30pm.  So much time in fact that I left the night before and got three hours of driving out of the way before parking up on the high moors near the Tan Hill Inn.  However the next day I managed to get stuck for over three hours on the M8 in Glasgow, sweating thinking of the expensive ferry I had paid for sailing without me.  I was finally spat out of the traffic Jam with two hours to cover just under 100 miles of Highland roads.  With a sigh of relief I got there with twelve minutes to spare.  Pheew!

I was shattered as I drove onto the ferry, so found a reclining seat out of the way where I could read and close my eyes for a couple of hours.  It was a pretty rough crossing, which meant that I ended up with my eyes closed for most of the journey trying to pretend that I wasn’t swaying from side to side.  I just about managed not to be sick!  The bad weather diverted the ferry to the north of Islay at Port Askaig rather than Port Ellen.  This meant more driving for me when the ferry docked as I had to drive right across the Island.

The road from Port Ellen passed a couple of distilleries with familiar names, Laphroaig and Ardbeg before becoming single tracked as it wound its way through low wooded hills.  In the darkness with heavy rain and gale force winds I felt pretty disoriented, this was heightened when rounding a corner there were two large stags standing in the middle of the road!  At the end of the road I found a parking spot and went to sleep with the wind rocking the van pretty violently, my last thought being whether it was possible for the van to be blown over!

I awoke to more wet and windy weather and that uninspiring grey half light.  I opened the door to see that I was in a cracking spot only metres from the sea overlooking Claggain bay.  I knew that the weather was going to be bad all day before brightening up tomorrow so decided to reverse my planned backpacking route.  Today I would walk along the coast and then return to the van tomorrow over the hills.

My prepacked rucksack was soon on my back and as I got to the gate that marked the end of the public road I spotted this sign.

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With a smile on my face I continued along the track before making a bit of a cock up!  My track ended at a farm before my map shows it turning into a path.  Not sure if it was a right of way and not wanting to walk through the farmyard I took a narrow path on my left with the assumption that it would join up with it further up the hillside.  Well it did not and I spent a good half hour cursing as my boots filled with water as I crossed waterlogged ground and waist high vegetation before finally wading an overflowing stream to get to the original path!  The firm piece of ground that I had been seeking too turned into a right muddy mess as I slithered a couple of miles down into Proaig bay.  I was soon on easy ground and I could spot Proaig bothy through the gloom ahead, already I was in need of a bit of shelter as I was soaked.

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Alas this bothy has seen much better days and the door nearly fell off its hinges as I pushed it open.  A rock had been thrown through one of its windows and this hole gave easy passage to pigeons who had covered every surface with their droppings.  I had my lunch whilst the wind tried to remove the corrugated iron roof which was also being pounded by the rain.  The bothy itself was pretty uninviting but there was plenty of cropped grass outside that would make a great campsite.  Not today however as I was headed to spend the night in An Cladach bothy a few miles up the coast.  Standing in the way is the cliffs and hills surrounding McArthurs head which were really not appealing in todays weather.  As I started the climb the rain stopped for a few minutes and I managed to get a photo of Proaig bay.

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I climbed to the small summit of Beinn na Caillich Beag above the lighthouse before contouring into a sheltered corrie above the cliffs.  My map showed that I needed to ascend to above the 200m contour to avoid a steep looking gully that cuts into the hillside.  I suddenly found myself exposed to the full force of a gale.  I was now on a well defined ridge but the strength of the wind made it almost impossible to move.  During the stronger gusts I had to crouch and brace myself.  I was terrified of being lifted off my feet and I was aware of sea cliffs to my right, if I was blown over there was nothing to hold onto.  With this wind was driving rain that managed to seep through the side zip of my paramo leading to a stream of water down my left side.  It was with relief that I reached the relative shelter of the beach and further along An Cladach bothy.

Not only did An Cladach provide me with shelter to remove my dripping clothes it was also one of the loveliest bothies that I have ever visited.  A tiny one roomed building only 20 feet from the sea with views along the bay towards the headland I had just descended.

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Outside hung brightly coloured buoys whilst the bright interior is exceptionally homely with a fire place, bunk beds and shelves of books and magazines, kites and fishing rods.  I was grateful for a pair of old sandals as I could get my wet boots off, all my clothing was soaked and I was glad for the spare set I had brought with me.  A local guy had left bags of coal and logs that he had brought on his boat, so I soon had a fire going to dry everything off.  A splendid afternoon and evening was spent shuffling around the bothy and popping outside to soak up the view now that it had stopped raining.  At one point as dusk was falling I surprised three deer that were standing less than ten feet from the door, I stood watching them as they watched me before they bounded off along the beach.

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My bladder interrupted a long cosy sleep just before dawn and as I opened the bothy door I was greeted with this magical view.

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A couple more hours sleep were called for so I curled back up in my sleeping bag, I drifted off again with the sound of a stag roaring on the hillside.  The sun was shining when I finally got up and it was like a summers day outside, amazing that the weather can change so much in a few hours.  The sea was as flat as glass and I spent a good hour or so drinking coffee, eating breakfast and just enjoying my morning environment.

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It suddenly dawned on me that I needed to get a move on if I was to get back to the van before it got dark so I reluctantly packed up, swept up the bothy and started a bracken bashing exercise as I climbed the ridge of Beinn Breac.  I was glad that the bracken was dead because in summer it would be over my head here, however I still got tangled up in the stuff.  I had a long sit down on Beinn Bhreac and took in the views west across Islay.

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The dominant view however was across to Jura, I had to admit that it was whetting my appetite for the visit in a couple of days time.  I could not believe that I could sit in the sun in a t-shirt at the end of October (the weather on the rest of the trip made me pay for that!)

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I spent the next few hours climbing the Marilyns of Sgorr nam Faoileann 429 metres, Glas Bheinn 472 metres and Beinn Bheigier 491 metres.  A superbly satisfying day in the hills which displayed the characteristics of much higher mountains.  The going was tough with large descents and reascents between each peak.  These hills would be difficult to navigate across in thick mist as some of their spurs and ridges were pretty complex.  I did not meet a single person all day.

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As I reached the final summit the light was quickly fading and I had to get a move on as I did not want to still be on the hills in the dark.  The summits although rough had short cropped vegetation, once I dropped below 200 metres I started to encounter tussocks from hell.  By the time I reached the van I was all tussocked out!

Unfortunately the following day the rain and gales returned and I could not face walking in such horrible weather.  I spent hours sitting and reading before getting bored and going for a drive.  I drove to the visitor centre at Loch Gruinart had a quick look around before finally deciding to catch the ferry across to Jura.

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18 Responses to “Backpacking, bothying and bongoing on Islay”

  1. It looks fantastic and that dawn photo is amazing. Great write up.

  2. Thanks Martin. It was a special moment waking up and seeing that dawn and hearing and smelling the sea.

  3. that An Cladach bothy looks awesome. I would love to be able to stay there and awake to sea views. I probably wouldnt move most of the day!

  4. Sounds a great (albeit wet) trip. Bad weather just make to high points even better. I look forward to reading about Jura. I’m tempted to fly/drive to Jura next May. Did you see anywhere to buy (coleman) gas or maybe meths?

  5. Dave it is now one of my favourite spots! I managed to linger until gone 11am and had to get a shift on for the rest of the day (forgot that it was getting dark really early).

    Steve, give Jura a go as it is a stunning place. There is just one shop on Jura, a small spar shop but I did not go in. There are a few reasonably sized villages on Islay with shops but only popped in to buy a newspaper. I would imagine you could get meths somewhere. I suppose you could give the shop on jura a ring to see if they stock any?

  6. Amazing landscapes and nice report. The dawn shot is incredible and I’d be tempted to crop it slightly and then blow that bad boy up for a canvass print! Awesome!

    I got the feeling of remoteness from the photos and narrative – how did you find that being on your own?

    Can’t wait for Jura!

  7. Marcus, the place did give a real feeling of remoteness which I have to admit that I lapped up! I love the feeling that there is no other person around for miles and miles. You just have to make sure you don’t break a leg!

    In terms of remoteness Jura was something else…………………

  8. Awesome stuff there, James. Bloody excellent writing and photographs, really could feel your sweat and horror if missing that ferry. Lovely bothy, I, like Dave, prolly wouldn’t have done much walking if staying in it.

  9. Thanks Hendrik, I would have been a bit pissed off if I had missed that ferry. I wish now that I had spent an extra night at the bothy soaking up the scenery.

  10. And I thought the 45 minutes it took me to get through Glasgow a week before were bad…

    Sorry to hear that you had such problems, the drive is really nice if you’ve got a bit of time to enjoy the views. Some nice gardens (if you’re into that) on the way, Ardkinglas and Crarae.

    At least you seem to have enjoyed your walk despite the bad weather on the first day. You certainly had good views the second day, I’ve walked in that area many times and the views didn’t often match yours. Proaig bothy isn’t the most inviting, but An Claddach seems to have more than made up for it.

    You’re right about the bracken, I’ve been out in the area in July once and almost disappeared in it. I’m 6’3…

    Steve, I would think Jimmy’s in Bridgend might be able to help you, alternatively I’m sure somewhere in Bowmore you should be able to get what you need.

  11. Armin it was the worst traffic jam I have ever been in, mental note now to avoid the M8 through Glasgow! The second day of the walk certainly made up for the horrendous weather on the first day. I wish that I was at An Cladach bothy now……

  12. I have had the same “is this Bongo going to blow over” thought. So much so that I phoned Ian at the club to find out if any ever had. I am happy to say that none have – still keeps me awake though. We stayed with Jez Hastings who runs a bushcraft company on the island. Look him up it was the most fantastic trip

  13. I am glad to hear that no Bongos have been blown over by the wind, I have to admit to taking the roof down if the wind picks up, always afraid that I won’t be able to put it down again! Islay is a great place to visit, did you get across to Jura?

    • I took photos on all the islands of the inner hebredies for the tourist board some years ago. On Jura I took portraits of a fell runner who had won the Paps race several times. There is a Rib type fast ferry that now comes from the mainland to Jura and takes bikes and it is part of my plan to do a day ride across Islay onto the mainland and up passed Killberry to close the loop. 100 miles is my guess – a great day ride or short two day tour.

  14. I read ‘100 miles a great day ride’ and nearly fell off my chair. I think 10 miles on a bike and I would be saddle sore, would need to employ new muscles as have not been on a bike for years!

  15. Hey James,

    Thought I’d look back at your Islay backpack and bongo before commiting my recent trip to the blog also. Seems we did pretty much the same, albeit obvious walk from An Cladach. Up over Sgorr nam Faoileann, Glas Bheinn and Beinn Bheigier, returning to An Cladach via Proaig. Great walk – it’s in the guide! I’ve always walked in along the coast from Dunlossit, though it seems most peeps come from Storakaig.

    Anyway, you’ve some grand pictures there, James and I do think you have a gift with the retelling.

    Cheers

    Pete

    • Dunlossit looks like the best way to walk in if you dont have your own transport. Ahh to be at An Cladach now!

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