The Wild Isles
Bikepacking the islands of Mull and Iona
Our bikes rest outside the drizzle-stained windows, and my Lycra-clad legs are visibly steaming as the log fire roars. The row of whiskies behind the bar is certainly not the tourist selection.
I zip my sleeping bag up to my neck as the glowing warmth of the bothy fire fades; my legs are tired after the day’s cycling but I can’t sleep. Two shafts of silvery light from a full moon briefly stream in through the back windows before the cloud and rain return. The wind is whistling, searching for any gap in the walls or roof, but without much success. It was in even stormier conditions in 1944 when an RAF Dakota plane crashed into Ben Talaidh, the mountain only a few hundred metres away. The survivors raised the alarm with shepherds perhaps sleeping in this very bothy. Five of the injured were rescued by a team of locals battling the snow and winds. These islands are cruel places when the weather wants them to be.
This is a story of bikepacking the islands of Mull and Iona, a bite-size weekend adventure but with a lot of history and exploring thrown in. The great thing about bikepacking a small island is that you can cycle all around it and feel like you’ve achieved a lot over just two or three days. The Isle of Mull is often overlooked and certainly underrated among the Scottish islands. It’s not as accessible as the Isle of Arran and less renowned than the perennial Instagram favourite – the Isle of Skye. Mull has recently been on my mind to bikepack, mostly because a friend who grew up here raves about the towering basalt columns in the cliffs, the thundering waterfalls, and the palm trees that survive with the Gulf Stream’s warming breeze. I had begun to think this island was a mythical place.
Here we are waiting for the ferry outside in the rain with loaded bikes, dressed in full waterproofs all set to face off a biblically wet weather forecast. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt since I moved to Scotland, it’s that a bad forecast is normally not that bad – it blows through and the sun briefly comes out soon enough – but today isn’t looking hopeful as we walk down the ramp into the belly of the boat. From the ‘sun’ deck we see porpoises playing in the water as we pass Duart Castle and approach the dock on Mull. The trademark grey-sky backdrop is certainly adding drama to the hills.
Later that afternoon after 60km on the bikes we’re sitting in a pub in Tobermory in the far north of the island, where it looks like the weather-beaten locals have a good few stories to tell. Our bikes rest outside the drizzle-stained windows, and my Lycra-clad legs are visibly steaming as the log fire roars. The row of whiskies behind the bar is certainly not the tourist selection. Fishermen, sailors and a Yorkshireman make up the number leaning over the bar. I keep my head down because white bike shoes, an English accent and Lycra aren’t the norm here – a warm cup of tea was too tempting and completes the Southerner image nicely.
When my legs stop steaming, we venture back outside to cover the ground to our bothy for the night. We ride past the famous quayside lined with bright coloured houses, as featured in the kids’ TV show Balamory, then on to the whisky distillery only to be disappointed by a closed sign. Mull in late winter is a quiet place and the cafes shut early here so we keep riding.
Highland cows are docile things. This is fortunate because the closer you get to them the more you realise they have the potential to skewer you very easily. I’m pondering this thought in a crowd of 10 Highland cows, all stationary but staring at us and making me nervous. A calf appears and runs away. I’m now between a cow and calf – this is not looking good. Any second now it’ll charge us. But no – they’re unmoving, eyes covered by a messy gingery fringe like they’re chilling in a cafe in Amsterdam. Nothing fazes them.
Past the cows and deeper into this wild valley we see two large birds, one bombing the other. These are clearly eagles but the markings are hard to define; they lack the regal feathers of the golden eagle but neither do they have the white tail of the magnificent sea eagle. They must be juveniles. A full-on fight has started with the two barrelling and clawing at each other in mid-air. A third appears over the horizon; like a scene straight from a dodgy nightclub, they’re quarrelling over a female. I’m too slow with the camera but we feel privileged to have seen them in this beautiful wild valley. This morning’s riding has been fantastically serene, along a combination of gravel tracks and narrow lanes.
With the second large herd of Highland cows negotiated we see our bothy on the hill. It’s a simple stone building, but filled with history. The path splits beside a stone monument, which is crowned by a large aeroplane propeller: a strange sight without context. Its story is tragic, remembering the heroism of those who saved the survivors of the crash.
The path splits beside a stone monument, which is crowned by a large aeroplane propeller: a strange sight without context. Its story is tragic, remembering the heroism of those who saved the survivors of the crash.
Cliffs tower into the mist above us, and fall to our right straight down to the sea with just our road cutting a line across them. I didn’t expect this – the vivid green and volcanic geology has echoes of Iceland, while the red wooden building by the waves could be a scene from a Norwegian fjord.
Tonight isn’t quite so tempestuous but it’s fair to say the swimming hole in the adjacent river is not calling out for a dip. I lean across the pool to fill a pan of water for our coffee before stepping in a bog and quashing any hopes of dry feet tonight. The bothy is a comfortable place to shelter; a recent roof repair has cut out the drafts, and others have left a pile of firewood ready to burn. A fellow bothy-goer is already here when we arrive. He’s peacefully reading a book by candlelight, red wine in hand and feet by the open fire.
Cliffs tower into the mist above us, and fall to our right straight down to the sea with just our road cutting a line across them. I didn’t expect this – the vivid green and volcanic geology has echoes of Iceland, while the red wooden building by the waves could be a scene from a Norwegian fjord. The narrow singletrack road we’re following veers left and uphill, away from the coast in a sharp change of direction and gradient. The bikes are loaded but we are travelling light, covering about 100km each day – this isn’t some epic challenge, more a friendly exploration.
Iona is a small island off the south-west of Mull. No more than a mile across, it’s renowned for white sandy beaches and deep blue Atlantic waters; a tropical cocktail served with ice. We catch the tiny ferry over on Saturday afternoon. On arrival we learn there’s no ferry back on Sunday unless we book it with the office before they close in 30 minutes – but there’s no mobile phone signal. We spot a rare phone box. The receiver rings dead. A detour to the small village store and the kind shop keeper lends us a phone just in time to charter our own ferry back tomorrow.
To our right is the substantial Iona abbey complex and a nunnery. St Columba first set sail from Ireland in 563 and landed at Iona. You can see why he didn’t leave in a hurry. He was busy establishing Christianity throughout Scotland but kept a monastery on this beautiful island. Iona is made all the better for the bright late-winter sunshine we bask in. Just think, if we’d believed the forecast, we would be at home cowering from the rain.
Wild camping is restricted on Iona and in summer the island is said to drop a few inches under the weight of tourists, but being winter the official campsite is still firmly closed, limiting our options. We set up camp on a grassy outcrop along the far south-west corner, away from the crofts and civilisation – we won’t leave a trace here.
I choose this spot because I know the sunset will be fantastic. We cook dinner and watch the sun go down. Then the stars begin to appear. A giant blowhole between the cliffs blasts jets of water sky-high like a whale releasing tension after a stressful day’s plankton-chasing.
It can be hard to unzip the tent and venture into the cold darkness even if you know the stars will be special, but a passion for night photography drags me out to embrace the cold wherever we travel. On a clear night far from civilisation it’s never a decision regretted. Looking across the sea under the silvery full moon, the brightest stars are still clear tonight. My long exposures produce images with a surreal starry daylight. I can sit for hours but sleep is calling.
In the morning the clear night sky is a long-lost dream. The wind is blowing and the sea spitting out at us. We push loaded bikes across the sand in search of our small chartered ferry, only to find it pretty full; the change in weather has forced others to head for home.
Long weekends are perfect for adventures: not so long that you get sick of wet feet, sleep deprivation and being unwashed, but long enough to get somewhere wild and learn about a place that feels a long way from home.
Ed Shoote is a part time photographer, speaker and writer focusing on bikepacking adventures to remote places. Now based in the Scottish borders after a decade on the road he is still exploring new places close and far away from home.