30 November 2012

Western Scotland and Isles tour day 1: Kilmarnock to Kildonan (Arran)

I had always heard fantastic things about cycle touring in Scotland. Being Spanish, my Scottish friends had always warned me about the rain and the fact that "if it is not raining now, it will soon be". Despite that Western Scotland appears to be the wettest part of Europe, it was not put off but somehow curious about experiencing the promised "changeable" weather.

September 1st finally came. I was up until silly o'clock on Friday night doing last minute prepping. Do I take the front panniers? Do I take extra warm clothes? How about the battery charger? It was nearly 3 am when I got in bed, with a 6 am alarm set.

At 7 am I wheeled my heavy tourer out of the house. When I was about to take the very first picture of the trip, outside the house, I realised I had forgotten the memory card in my laptop. Somehow I still managed to snap a quick shot of the loaded bike and made my way down to Euston for my train.

7 am
My tour started in mainland Scotland, in Kilmarnock, a town some 20 km out of Ardrossan, where I would board on the ferry to Arran. Kilmarnock was a bit of a nightmare to get out of, as the GPS got a little confused with one way directions. For those interested, it took me about four and a half hours from central London to that town, via Carlisle, where I changed to a local train which carried an interesting mix of Northeners and Scots. Guessing and getting used to accents made my train journey very pleasant.

After nearly an hour of pleasant riding, in the sun, through some nice countryside, I made it to the windy town of Ardrossan. I happened to come across a cycle path which took me mostly off-road on route 73 to the seafront, where some strong winds and waves seemed to be the playground for some kids. The little ones enjoyed getting splashed with sea water...and despite my best efforts to avoid the spray (sea salt is the worst thing you can present your bike to!), I got splashed a couple of times.

Quiet country lanes to Ardrossan

Ardrossan sea front
I had been to Ardrossan when I first move to the UK. It was on a trip with University friends, and of course, it rained a lot. But this time, I got a completely different impression of the place, in the sun, and it even looked kind of nice. Without much delay, I was in line for the 14:30 crossing to Arran.

Scotland is a famous destination for cycle touring in the UK, and I could sense that, with a few other cyclists about to board the ferry with me. One of them had a nice Thorn bike, and I soon got into an interesting chat with him. 

Six of us boarded the ferry to Arran
Phil was using his trip of the Western Isles (and Outer Hebrides) as a test for longer adventures. He had food for 6 days in his front panniers, in preparation for the relatively less frequent services found in the Outer Hebrides. He had also been a keen racer for the last 20 years, but was now taking it easier and enjoying touring much more. His plans were to cycle anticlockwise from Brodick (in Arran) to Lochranza, where he would cross over to the mainland, then on to Oban for his ferry to Barra. From there, he would cycle North until eventually catching a ferry back to Ullapool, from where he was planning to pedal back to Fort William. He had a vast amount of knowledge of cycling in the UK, and I enjoyed chatting with him, and got lots of new ideas for the future. In addition, he recommended I did not miss out on Bealach Na Ba pass, apparently the highest pass in the whole of the UK. I was not sure if I had time to do it, as it was not on my initial plans, but the 2000 feet (600 m) climb in 5 miles (8 km) beckoned.

Finally, Arran is visible in the background

Still dry and relatively warm, yet  I had to force the smile due to the winds!

Excitement ahead
Once we landed in Brodick, the rain started. Phil and I parted opposite ways, as I was cycling clockwise, the long way, to Lochranza. After a quick stop at the local Co-op, I started my journey. Rain was falling hard, but I hesitated to put the rain gear on as it was still warm. It was also windy, but with the excitement of the start of the trip, I did not see to care that much. The road out of Brodick was nicely paved and rolling, with dense vegetation on either side, and when the rain allowed, nice views of the coast. 

After Lamlash, the road became super quiet. In Whitting Bay I stopped for my first picture, just as the rained eased down.

After a few more ups and downs I spotted a sign for Kildonan, involving a diversion to the left of the main road and down an steep hill back to sea level. The descent was fantastic, again in the rain, and the town seemed small but rather cute. It was 6:30 pm and light was fading, so I pulled into the campsite. Being my first night, I decided not to rough camp and after a nice conversation with the owner, I set up camp. 

The campsite was nice, yet as it later proved, quite pricey for Scottish standards (£7 per person per night). The next campsite was 20 km and there was no way I was going to make it before dark in the rain and wind.  Three other cyclists had already set their tents right by the seafront, so without much thinking on my side, I went on to pitch the tent near theirs. However, I had not fully realised how windy it was there! It also was the first time I was going to pitch my new tent, so certainly not the best of ideas and I obviously struggled quite a bit. 

Tent pitched in the wind/rain
While preparing dinner, I had the chance to enjoy the Scottish friendliness that everyone talks about. Sam and his wife were two Scots who often come to this part of Arran, on public transport, to enjoy a quiet weekend away from their city life. At first I thought they had an speaking disability, as I could barely understand a word, yet knew they were speaking in English. It then occurred to me they could be from Glasgow. My suspicions were confirmed. Although I initially had a lot of trouble understanding them (for those of you who do not know, Glasgow people's accent is an entire different language!), we managed to keep an interesting conversation. They both were impressed by my cycling plans, even more when I told them that Lucy was ok (if a little jealous!) for me to come by myself. For some people this is outrageous, yet I enjoy a bit of solo travelling every now and then, and truly recommend it to everyone.

View from my camping spot

Sunset at Kildonan
After a quick pasta meal I got in to my sleeping bag to find it was still too warm. It was minutes past 10:30 pm when I fell asleep while being battled by strong winds. I hoped the tent was capable enough of withstanding the night...It was a nice way of finishing a day: the sounds of sea waves, wind, rain and freshness as opposed to a regular night in London.

The stats for the day were as below:

- Odometer: 50 km
- Max speed: 47 km/h
- Moving average: 16.6 km/h
- Overall average: 12.9 km/h


  1. I, too, do a lot of solo cycling (eg NZ and Australia for 8 weeks, coming up), but I bank up a lot of 'Brownie points' with my wife beforehand!!
    Scotland is one of my favourite destinations, especially the west, inner and outer isles, Cape Wrath.....etc
    When I cycled the Outer Hebrides, I noticed a Spanish truck on the isle of Eriskay, a tiny island at the south end. I was astonished. When I made enquiries, I discovered that a lot of fish and shellfish caught off the shores were exported directly to Spain.....to feed the Spanish ravenous appetite for seafood.

  2. That must've been a random encounter! Not surprised, though. I once learnt that almost all the crab we consume in Spain is also imported from the UK!