in the few years subsequent to my moving to islay, the dawning that it was all but impossible to purchase anyhting like a decent bicycle for reasonable money brought me to stock one or two at a time and lay myself at the mercy of islay's bicycle buying public. christmas was always a good time, predominantly for smallish bikes for the little people of the isle, though on occasion someone would take fitness as their principal priority and buy a wholly inappropriate cycle (the customer is always wrong) to leave lying in the shed or porch until they could no longer remember why they'd bought it in the first place.
though i would hesitate to pronouce myself an organised sort of chap (and there are many who would broker no argument with that statement), on the run-up to christmas i endeavour to make sure that i have the necessary presents for the correct people already (badly) wrapped and hidden under the bed. yet on one of those early years, on a very wet christmas eve around 9:30pm in the evening, i heard a knock at the back door, opening to find a couple wondering if i might just conceivably have a bicycle that would fit their child as a christmas present, due to the order from the catalogue having failed to arrive in timeous fashion. by a strange and never repeated quirk of fate, not only did i have a bicycle in stock that fitted, but it was even the correct colour.
all has changed now, and the carriage rate to the isles increased to the point where it no longer became economic to stock bicycles in small quantities, particularly when compared to the two for fifty quid offers that occupied a full page advert in the weekend colour supplements. however, around a year before this state of affairs spelt doom for my cottage industry, i was purchasing my stock from a fairly well-known manufacturer in middle england, from whom i one day received a telephone call. they were in the process of re-structuring their sales team and wondered if i could tell them whether i was nearer to orkney or shetland. those with a rudimentary grasp of scottish geography will realise the ineptitude of such a question, but the result of my carefully worded and more than tactful answer brought the knowledge that, for the three previous years, i had been served by their east coast sales department.
that was good for a chuckle.
the topographical make up of scotland dictates that the splinters known as the hebrides are sprayed up and down the country's west coast, commencing with islay as the most southerly of the inner hebrides and stretching as far north as lewis which, rather obviously, is the most northerly of the outer hebrides. if you really must know where one set stops and the other starts, i might point you in the direction of skye, a far bigger isle than islay and with its very own bridge. everywhere else relies on the services of caledonian macbrayne ferries to get to and from the mainland, though in common with one or two others in both the inner and outer hebrides, you can get here by plane from glasgow. the latter, however, is less pragmatic for the touring cyclist, so calmac it is.
i am surprised to find that there has not been a comprehensive guide to riding in the hebrides, such as this one from richard barret, prior to now. the introduction of both a quality youth hostel and campsite in port charlotte has led to a substantial number of cyclists starting or finishing their glorious trek across scotland's isles. for this reason alone, cicerone are to be soundly congratulated on this recent publication. it may also be something of a surprise to learn that the furthest any of thewashingmachinepost bicycles have reached on this atom of delight is to that of colonsay, an isle only a few miles north of islay on the way to oban and perhaps onto mull and iona. i tell you this not in order that you might snigger at me behind my back, but to qualify my reviewing of said volume. i can, in truth, only vouchsafe for the islay, jura and colonsay pages. i have visited mull, but it shames me to mention that it was not by means of a bicycle.
cicerone guides, many of which have been previously reviewed on the post, are likely amongst the most comrehensive of the species. before making it even as far as the first part of this guide (which incorporates both arran and bits of the clyde in order to maximise calmac island-hopping proclivities), there are copious notes regarding the weather, the terrain, what to wear and how to prepare your bicycle. for some this will be casually overlooked, but purely on the strength of the repairs i have had to carry out, if you're not used to this sort of thing, i would read thoroughly and make mental note of your perceived failings.
while getting from island to island is more than adequately covered, particularly when the destination is not the be all and end all, each island is intelligently appraised for its cycling opportunities, where possible in circular fashion should you wish to leave luggage at a practical point, then to cycle unfettered. i once owned a copy of a jazz magazine that intimated just inside the cover to wit: please note that all errors contained within are deliberate and on purpose. some people are always looking for mistakes and we aim to please. unfortunately, the fact that some people (me?) are always looking for mistakes is an undeniable truism, so it gives me little true pleasure to point out one in the islay section that will reduce mr barrett's chances of gaining a free dram from one of the isle's principal distilleries. though correctly spelt on the included ordnance survey map illustration as laphroaig, the author has erroneously listed it more than once in the text as laphraoig. a simple transposition, but easily checked not only from the label, but from the map just below the mis-spelling.
pedantry at its best.
such a criticism is, however, merely superficial, making not one iota of difference to this logical and well-crafted approach to cycling the hebrides from south to north. even its diminutive size works well in its favour, making it easy to fit in a jersey rear pocket or under the clear plastic cover featured on most bar bags. i has a substantial number of pages devoted to distances, times, tourist offices and further reading at the back, helping to place the whole tome in more detailed context. if you plan to undertake all, or even a small portion of this rite of passage, i'd strongly advise purchasing this book. though we all ostensibly speak the same language out here in the atlantic, each isle has its own little foibles and varying exposure to the elements. the wrong time to find that out is on a sunday morning when everywhere is closed and the ferry has already sailed.
thursday 28th june 2012..........................................................................................................................................................................................................