Islay Jura Blog
(Written by Connor McCullough)
A number of years ago, myself and my friend Steve took a trip to the island of Islay, in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. That trip was before either of us were really into camping or cycling that much so it was very new to us. Ever since that trip we said they we would come back and explore the island some more. Fast forward about 6 years to May 2023, and we finally have organised that trip again. 6 years on we are also now both much more experience cyclists and campers and hopefully a bit more prepared for this trip. While I’m not (yet) a Fustle bike owner, the guys at Fustle very kindly let me borrow one of their demo bikes for the trip.
We didn’t really have any specific plans for the trip other than to get the boat from Ballycastle to Islay, cycle across Islay, get the boat to Jura, explore some of Jura, cycle to Craighouse, then get the ferry back to Islay and explore some of Islay.
Ballymena - Ballycastle - Islay - Jura
This was by far the biggest/longest day on the trip.
I had planned to drive to Ballycastle, to meet Steve, and get the Kintyre Express across to Islay, but I decided at the last minute the evening before to set off from my house by bike and cycle the 30 miles to Ballycastle.
I cycled to Ballycastle, grabbed a coffee and pastry from Ursa Minor, and then met Steve at the harbour, before getting onto the Kintyre Express ferry to Port Ellen, on Islay. The boat takes around about 60-90 minutes depending on weather conditions.
We arrived in Port Ellen, Islay and got some more food before hitting the road across the centre of the island across to Port Askaig. There wasn’t loads of gravel on the trip, but the roads were mostly small, narrow, rural roads. In Ireland they would be called, Boreens, I’m sure there is a Scottish name for them to. We crossed Islay, and through the Dunlossit estate, along the side of Loch Ballygrant, and arrived in Port Askaig in time for a big feed of lunch at the Port Askaig Bar and Hotel.
We took the small ferry across the 700m wide Sound of Islay, and landed on Jura. The first point of order on Jura was to find a spot to camp for the night. I had already checked out a few possible spots ‘digitally’ with the help of google maps and street view, so we had 4 or 5 options to choose from. Once concern we had, was that we hadn’t realised that the Jura Fell Race was taking place that weekend, so there were about 200 extra people on the Island, who were also mostly camping (for context the entire population of Jura is around 196). Thankfully most of these people seemed to be camping in and around Craighouse, and we were albe to find a suitable spot for ourselves, only a mile or two from where we got off the ferry. Scotland has legally enshrined right to roam legislation, so we were legally allow to camp nearly anywhere. Before setting up camp we went and explored a gravel trail we had spotted, that lead to the Paps of Jura. We had planned to do a full loop of the trail, but the gravel trail ended up being pretty tough going and time consuming, so we only went for a few miles, before tuning and coming back to the spot we had picked to camp for the night.
We set up camp, and spent the rest of the evening just enjoying the solitude, peacefulness and remoteness of our camp. The only down side was the relentless Scottish midges and Ticks. There were literally hundreds of tiny insects determined to eat us alive.
You can see the full day in the video below
Jura - Port Askaig - Bunnahabhain - Port Charlotte - Machir Bay
After a pretty peaceful and great nights sleep, we headed back to the ferry and back across to Islay. We had planned to go and visit the Jura Distillery in Craighouse, but with the fell race on, and the fact the distillery was closed, we chose to give that a miss (we will try to go back in the future). After the ferry back to Islay there was a steep climb out of Port Askaig which got the heart rate up, and the legs warmed up. So far the weather on the trip has been amazing, warm, sunny and next to no wind, but on the ride out to Bunnahabhain, the weather closed in, and it became wet and windy. Bunnahabhain Distillery is one of 10 whisky distilleries on Islay. I have previously visited Lagavullin, Laphroaig, and the gift shop at Ardbeg, so was looking forward to visiting a couple more distilleries on this trip. We arrived at Bunnahabhain, and although there were no tours happening that day, one of the members of staff in the gift shop/visitor centre was happy to give us a tour. I love the sights, smells, sounds (and taste) of Whisky Distilleries, so I always enjoy the tours. They are all much the same yes, but each has something unique in their process or story.
After our tour, it was back on the bikes. The weather was still grim, so rather than the planned gravel track through a forest, we just stuck to the main road and headed for Ballygrant with a plan to stop at the Ballygrant Inn for some lunch. Turns out the Ballygrant in was closed, so another change of plans and we headed to a little cafe for some lunch. At the cafe we met another cyclist, who was cycling around and camping on Islay. He joined us on our ride, battling a fierce headwind, from Ballygrant to Port Charlotte, where we stopped for a quick pint of the local beer, and to get some advice on the next part of our planned route. Thankfully we were told that our route was doable, so after saying bye to our new cycling friend, we headed out of Port Charlotte and up to Kilchiaran, where we cycled up a gravel access road to a radio mast, and then around the side of the hill and down a farm track that took us into the sand dunes and beach at Machir Bay.
We pitched our tents in a nice sheltered flat part of the dunes, just behind the beach, and settled in for the evening. This camping spot wasn’t quite as remote and isolated as the night before and there were a number of people who came to the beach that evening, but it was still generally pretty quiet.
You can see the full day in the video below
Machir Bay - Kilchoman - Port Ellen - Ballycastle
Our final day of this trip! Another great nights sleep, and a slow morning, but after packing up camp we went and explored Kilchoman Military Cemetery - which is a memorial to and final resting place of some British and American soldiers who were shipwerecked off the coast of Islay during the First World War.
From here it was onto distillery number 2 of the trip. Kilchoman Farm Distillery. It is a distillery that does the whole process on Islay, from growing their own barley, right through the process to bottling and shipping. It was a really fascinating tour, and one of their Whisky’s is called Machir Bay - named after the beach that we had camped at the night before, so I had to buy a bottle of that to being home (although it was challenging to find the space in my bikepacking bags for a full bottle of Whisky in a box!)
A straight run from here back across Islay to Port Ellen, for a spot of lunch, before a very very quick visit to he gift shop at Laphroaig, and back to the ferry. We had a very rough crossing back to Ballycastle so I was glad to be back on solid ground!
You can see the full video of day 3 in the video below
Overall it was a great trip. Mostly great weather, good cycling, good fun, great company, and generally just great craic exploring more of the Inner Hebrides that we haven’t explored before. I can’t wait to go back, and explore more of Jura, or even further afield to some of the other Islands. The Fustle Causeway GR1 was the perfect bike for this trip, it was fast and fun on the roads, and stable and reliable off road. It held up well with my full backpacking setup on it and was just a joy to ride.
Thanks again to the team at Fustle for the lend of the bike.
You can see more details about my full bikepacking setup and gear in the video below.