If you block out the cold it could almost be the Mediterranean, the beach an expanse of golden white sand gently lapped by a turquoise blue sea, fading gradually to deep blue moving out into the ocean. My nerves are however, telling me that whatever images my eyes may be sending to my brain they beg to differ with the conclusion that I’m swimming in a gentle bay somewhere in the Agean Sea; the water is numbingly cold and I can only stomach a few minutes immersion before I have to drag myself to the beach to warm up in the warmth of the sun.
The beach I’m swimming off, known as North Bay is, logically enough located on the northern tip of Coll one of the Inner Hebrides, small specks of land off the coast of Scotland between the mainland and the island chain of the Western Isles.
Coll is a small island only about 20km long by 5km wide and I had spent the morning exploring its roads, tracks, and beaches on my bike before stopping for lunch and a brief swim in the sea. Coll and its neighbour Tiree are an ideal pair of islands to explore by bikepacking, and I had chosen them for my first trip with my new off road BOB trailer. The ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne which serves the islands from Oban on the mainland don’t charge extra for bikes making tickets excellent value.
Coll and Tiree are very contrasting neighbours, Coll is much more rugged with an interior of peat bog and lochans, the coastline is jagged particularly the eastern coast where the sea breaks itself over rocky outcrops of Lewisian Gneiss which at 2.5-3 billion years old are some of the oldest rocks on Earth and a window into deep time.
Tiree in contrast is much lower lying than Coll and, with the exception of three small hills is very flat giving a big sky feel to the landscape which is covered in fertile grasslands covered in wild flowers. The beaches are huge and open with the sea rolling in over the white sands giving apparently world class surfing and kiteboarding conditions.
On most days I managed to wild camping amongst the dunes behind the beachs hiding the tent away amongst the peaks and troughs of sand and enjoying a feeling of remoteness at the sunset over the sea. One particular sunset on Tiree was astonishingly spectacular the clouds in the sky luminous pinks and golds as the sun faded from view.
In the morning dregs of sleep were expunged with a refreshing dip in the sea to get the blood running. On all the beaches I explored I found the sand to be generally well packed, even enough to pull the laden trailer on. The gradient shallow was also shallow giving quite a large tidal range between high and low water levels.
By backpacking I could easily strike the tent in the morning and tow all my kit with me as I explored the islands by bike, roads, tracks, and paths were gentle enough to cycle easily even pulling my kit with me. Although not as bad as the mainland the midges were still out if the wind dropped but normally there was enough of a sea breeze to keep them at bay.
Once a week (Wednesday) a ferry runs from Coll and Tiree out to Barra in the Western Isles; an makes an excellent extension to the tour as the Barra ferry returns to Oban giving a nice circular route, and having missed Barra on my previous visit to the Western Isles I made use of this to add a few days to the trip.
The ferry crossings especially to and from Barra were for me almost a romantic experience, a glimpse of time gone before air travel when it took a week to cross the Atlantic and five weeks to get to Australia and the journey itself was an adventure. The distance to Barra takes the ship out of sight of land and leaves you standing on deck surrounded by the expanse of the sea as the ship ploughs on under the giant dome of the sky making progress but never seaming to move.
Barra is much larger than Coll and Tiree and more heavily populated although the roads are still very quite. A good ride to explore the island is to cycle round the road which circles the hill of Heaval which dominated the centre of the island. Diversions from this can be made south to explore the island of Vatersay which is connected to Barra by a causeway and has yet more astonishingly beautiful beaches; or to the north to see the bay of Traigh Mohr and if you time it right a truly unique experience.
Barra has a problem in that there is not enough flat land for an airport, at low tide the sea retreats from Traigh Mohr to give a vast expanse of flat sand and the worlds only beach airport with scheduled flights. Watching an aircraft land in a mass of spray is a spectacular sight.
Wild camping is allowed in line with Scottish access laws, this means walkers and cyclists not camping from cars.
Coll – There is a campsite at Garden House towards the south of the island and a bunkhouse in the main village of Aringour. The village also has a small shop although opening hours are short. There are free toilets and paid showers available 24 hr at the community centre.
Tiree – To my knowledge there is one campsite on the island. Camper vans, motor homes , and car campers must use this or one of 11 designated crofting camping areas which must be booked and paid for on arrival. This is to protect the vulnerable grasslands which took a pounding before the system was introduced. There is a well stocked Coop just up from the Ferry Terminal
Barra – Campsite at Bove just north of Castlebay and also in the north of the island, Coop in Castlebay.