The island on which we now reside is about 9 miles long and 4 across, just about the right size for an energetic day’s walk on decent footpaths but sadly with a hernia nagging at me this sort of walking is well out of bounds. Curiously, however, sitting astride a bicycle and pushing the pedals deploys muscles that are not affected by my condition and I am able to ride comfortably for many miles in complete comfort. So it was with this in mind that Kate and I set off on our foldies to try to reach the southern end of the island where Gylen Castle hangs precipitously over the bay to which it gives its name.
Kerrera is a fertile place but the steep hillsides speak of a violent volcanic past and a land sculpted by glaciers which retreated to leave ancient beaches raised many metres above the current sea level. Ancient sea cliffs jut out from the landscape and goats roam wild sharing the rough grazing with sheep, cattle, grouse, even a flock of pink-footed geese. The forty or so human residents are widely scattered around the island and in the past would have used boats to move about.
Today there are connecting roads, if this word can be used, which twist their way across the landscape, but motorised vehicles are few; the rocks and potholes they encounter probably ensure that cars have a short lifespan here and quad bikes seem to be the most popular things to get around on. The absence of proper roads means that Kerrera is one of the few places in the UK where vehicles can still be driven unlicensed and untaxed, always assuming you can get past the local regulations which prevent you bringing your vehicle here in the first place.
It was the current warm, dry spell, our long-awaited Indian Summer, that had tempted us out on our folding bicycles, Grace and Jet. Striking out along the rough track leading south from the marina we soon found this deteriorating from hard packed stone to, well whatever the highland cattle decided it ought to be. We found ourselves weaving from side to side dodging wheel-wrecking obstacles as well as the living obstructions who wandered casually out of our way as we came close. Despite their fierce looking horns these creatures have brains that seem to react slower than a retreating glacier giving the impression, at least, of a docile nature. They are, of course, very beautiful animals with shaggy coats the colour of sunlit teak and always the fringe which completely hides their large eyes.
Our route dips across to the west side of the island following the shore so as to circumvent the impassable heights of several steep-sided peaks and the track’s condition deteriorates sharply. We find ourselves fording streams flowing freely across the road as our wheels skid and jump over loose boulders. We have to divert on foot across soft ground on being confronted by a brown lake of uncertain depth into which the track dives innocently but soon we are moving inland steeply rising through fields full of sheep who stare and chew thoughtfully as we pass. Many years ago my first encounter with sheep whilst cycling (me that is, not the sheep) led me to the conclusion that a sheep may not be able to recognise the human form so long as it is astride a bike but the moment the rider steps to the ground, it becomes recognisable and they will run away. I was interested to test this hypothesis here in Scotland and can now reveal that on Kerrera at least, the sheep are of a much higher order of intelligence. They moved graciously to the side even whilst I was mounted on the bike, seemed to give a little nod and a wink then calmly went back to their lunch.
Of course by this time my leg muscles were burning from pumping the pedals up the steep slope so I may have imagined all this. The track improved as we crested a summit on the spine of the island and we began our descent towards the public ferry on the east side. Here the green clad hills rolled away from us as we picked up speed to bump and bounce our way towards the better roads that encircle the southern end of the island. There is a farm at Lower Gylen converted to a small café which sells soup with homemade bread and tempting carrot cake with a pot of tea of your choice, a refreshment treasure trove after our efforts and one of the few commercial enterprises on the entire island.
All day the sun shone powerfully giving us a memorable day out. Our legs and the foldie-bikes had held up well although now having sampled the roads here we are unlikely to repeat the adventure. This place is really a walker’s paradise with a landscape rich in history and natural beauty, views to die for on a clear day and a real sense of isolation despite its proximity to the mainland.