Cycle Camping on Mull

Early this year I was invited by my friend Denise to help celebrate her 50th birthday by joining a group on the ascent of her last Corbett followed by dinner at the George Hotel in Inveraray. I accepted the invitation and booked two nights at Inveraray Hostel for May 26th and 27th. It was a long way to travel so I was keen to extend my stay and decided to head up early with my bike on the train for a bit of cycle touring. I had never been across to Mull and came up with a plan to spend three nights camping on the island. I booked a train ticket to Glasgow (with bike space) arriving on Thursday evening and a room at Euro Hostel Glasgow for that night. I also booked another night at Inveraray Hostel for Friday, giving me three unplanned nights before having to get back there on Tuesday.

Sculpture by Andy Maclachlan, Dunoon.

Sculpture by Andy Maclachlan, Dunoon.

That is how I found myself waking up in Glasgow and, after a hearty breakfast from the buffet, setting off on an adventure. Initially I had planned to cycle up the west side of Loch Lomond but had been advised against it because after Tarbet it puts you on the busy A83 with a long slow climb to the Rest and be Thankful Viewpoint. Instead I went back to nearby Glasgow Central and got a ticket to Dunoon for £11.15 including the passenger ferry from Gourock. That put me on much quieter roads along Holy Loch and up past Benmore Botanic Garden to Loch Eck. On the way I stopped at a place with a load of chainsaw carvings and spoke to a woman who does pyrography. Andy Maclachlan who does the carvings was not there but I got a business card and they have a Facebook page. The road quite closely followed the east side of Loch Eck for seven miles and there was very little traffic so it made for a pleasant first day’s riding. Of course I was heavily laden with camping gear and it wouldn’t all go in my panniers so I had my rucksack bungeed to the rack too. Eventually I came out on the south side of Loch Fyne and stopped for an espresso at The Creggans Inn. I could now see my destination on the other side of the loch but it was a fair few miles round and I was glad to reach Inveraray by early evening. I didn’t have any sort of GPS system or cycle computer so I didn’t really know how far I had ridden but when I got home I plotted my route on Ride With GPS which tells me I covered 65 km with 495 m of ascent.

View  of Inveraray war memorial and bridge.

View of Inveraray war memorial and bridge.

I got up at 7am on Saturday, had a quick breakfast and set off for Oban. The easiest route would have taken the A819 north out of Inveraray to the A85 but I had decided to head down Loch Fyne to Lochgilphead then up the A816 through Kilmartin. The only map I had was one I made by tearing pages out of an old four mile to the inch road atlas and taping them together, which showed neither contours nor cycle routes. So it was only after reaching Lochgilphead that I realised there was now the option of following NCN 78 to Oban, which I decided to take despite it being (for reasons as yet unknown to me) signed as an extra ten miles compared to staying on the A816. The first 7 km was a beautiful ride on the towpath of the Crinan Canal to Bellanoch. I stopped at Temple Wood stone circles before rejoining the A816 briefly at Kilmartin and then turning off as directed onto the B840 to Ford. I now realised that route 78 was taking me up the west side of Loch Awe for the next 25 km or so. It turned out to be a bit of a roller coaster so by the time I left the loch behind and made it to the A85 at Taynuilt I was starting to flag. Route 78 took me along the A85 for about a kilometre and then on unclassified roads through Glenlonan to Oban where I arrived in good time for the 6pm ferry to Mull. One really good thing was that I hadn’t seen or felt any evidence of midges – due I think to a recent unseasonably cold spell. Another good thing was that until now I had stayed dry, but as I waited for the ferry it started to rain. At this point I had done 121 km and climbed 1,652 m since leaving Inveraray and the 45 minute crossing was a welcome opportunity to rest.

Crinan Canal with Bluebells.

Crinan Canal with Bluebells.

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 allows camping on most unenclosed land provided you follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code but the Explore Mull website suggests two locations, Lochbuie and Calgary Bay. Not having wild camped for years I had decided to aim for Lochbuie rather than just picking a spot myself. When I disembarked at Craignure the rain had set in but was not particularly heavy so I donned waterproofs and set off. I was hoping the rain would pass but it just got heavier, penetrating my outer layers and filling my boots. The last few miles seemed to take forever but I got there eventually and quickly put my tent up in the rain before immediately collapsing into it. Total for the day was 144 km and 1,908 m of ascent, making it a contender for my hardest ever day of cycling.

Drying out at Lochbuie

Drying out at Lochbuie

I lay in my tent in the morning listening to the rain. Sometimes it would stop for a minute or so and then resume so I decided to wait for a break of at least twenty minutes before daring to emerge. When I did it was about nine and I was rewarded by a few minutes of sunshine which allowed me to start drying out some stuff on the gorse bushes. I filled the kettle from the stream for my morning coffee and started planning the day. I decided to head for Calgary Bay and the only road out was back the way I came to the A849. From there I could have gone west to Loch Beg but I didn’t have enough food and there were unlikely to be any shops out that way. Unfortunately I would have to return to Craignure for supplies and from there it made sense to carry on to Salen.

As I set off from Lochbuie I passed The Old Post Office and noticed that the door was open so I stopped and went in. There was nobody about but there was some food for sale and an honesty box to leave money in. I got a couple of brownies and some black pudding from the chiller but there was no bread so I decided to stick to my plan and go via Craignure where I was able to get what I wanted. Once I reached Salen I took the B8035, cutting across the island at its narrowest point to the head of Loch na Keal and then the B8073 along its north side towards Ulva. There were a lot of bird watchers on Mull and I stopped at one point when I saw a group of them standing by the roadside with a telescope on a tripod. I asked if they had seen anything and someone invited me to look through the scope, through which I had a clear view of a White-tailed Eagle perched near the top of a pine tree on the skyline. A little later I noticed a heavy squall blowing across from Ulva and reached a school just in time to take shelter in the porch (it was a Sunday and nobody was around). The wind picked up and the rain lashed down but ten minutes later it was nice again and I pressed on. Eventually I arrived at Calgary Bay where, due to the availability of public toilets, there were about a dozen tents and a similar number of camper vans. I pitched my tent and put the kettle on but before I could decide what to have for dinner I struck up a conversation with a friendly guy from Sheffield who invited me to share in the pasta he was cooking for himself and his kids. I even got a glass of wine with it! I retired to my tent early but there was quite a lot of noise from kids and dogs so I didn’t fall asleep till much later. In retrospect I wish I had picked my own camping spot on an isolated bit of coast but wild camping takes a bit of getting used to.

Camping at Calgary Bay

Camping at Calgary Bay

On Monday morning I got up reasonably early and prepared a breakfast of baked beans and black pudding which I had with bread and a cup of strong filter coffee (I don’t use instant at home so why should I when camping). My original plan was to spend three nights on Mull but I thought I might then be pushing it to get back to Inverary at a reasonable hour on Tuesday so I decided to head for an evening ferry and find a place to stay in Oban. It was a nice ride to Dervaig but then things got a bit serious. The road climbed from just 2 m above sea level to 152 m in only 2.6 km at which point I naively assumed that it would be all downhill, but no. There was a steep descent to 63 m but then it was straight back up to 156 m before the final descent into Tobermory. I locked up my bike and went into a cafe for coffee and cake, wandered along the front for a bit and then bought a few snacks in the co-op before carrying on my way.

Tobermory

Tobermory

There was another 120 m climb out of town on the A848 but after that it was almost all downhill or flat to Craignure and with (for the first time) a brisk tailwind I was flying along in top gear almost the whole way. I boarded the next ferry to Oban and once there set about finding a place to stay. Someone had told me about a bed and breakfast place on Dunollie Road so I went to check that out but there were no vacancies. There were a lot of other B&Bs on the same road and when I saw a group of people standing outside one of them I asked if they had any recommendations. One of then said “not this one” and complained that the had to pay £90 a night – there was no way I was going to fork out that sort of money. I was prepared to cycle out of town and pitch my tent again but I was looking forward to a shower and a comfortable bed so when I spotted Backpackers Plus I locked up my bike and went in to see if they had any beds available. They did, and for only £16 including a light buffet breakfast. I have stayed in places before where the rooms have names and the beds have numbers but here it was the other way round. In my dorm all the beds were named after James Bond characters – mine was called Strawberry Fields (Agent Fields from Quantum of Solace). I got my shower, went out for something to eat and had an early night. If you are looking for a cheap place to stay in Oban I can highly recommend this hostel.

Backpackers Plus Hostel in Oban

Backpackers Plus Hostel in Oban

After breakfast I set off for Inverary, initially retracing my route to Taynuilt where I stopped for excellent coffee and cake at Robins Nest Tea Room. From there I carried on along the A85, ignoring the turnoff for route 78. I had a brief stop at Cruachan Power Station, one of only four pumped storage facilities in the UK, then another stop to look round St Conan’s Kirk before leaving the A85 and taking the A819 down the East side of Loch Awe. At Cladich the road started to head away from the loch and I began a long steep climb to a high point at 214 m where I stopped and walked up to a monument to Inveraray born writer Neil Monro. From there it looked like it would be all downhill to Inverary and since I was making good time I had a leisurely lunch and a lie down before setting off again. During the long descent I started to feel a bit cold so I stopped to put on a windproof and used the timer on my camera to take a photo of myself standing in front of a magnificent beech tree.

Me standing in front of a beech tree

Me standing in front of a beech tree

When I got back to Inveraray Hostel some of my friends were there and we used the kitchen to cook dinner for ourselves. In the morning we set off in various cars to the head of Loch Long where parked up and met the rest of our party. In the end there were 13 of us ready to accompany Denise on her birthday ascent of her last Corbett, The Cobbler, also known as Ben Arthur. It was a bit drizzly when we set off and by the time we reached the summit the heavier spells of rain gave way to snow flurries but we were in good spirits. The true summit can only be reached by crawling through a crack in a tower of rock to reach a narrow ledge and then scrambling up the last couple of metres. Someone set up a rope for those less confident in their climbing ability and most people made it to the top. We celebrated with cake and champagne and then headed back down the way we came.

Celebrating on the summit of The Cobbler

Celebrating on the summit of The Cobbler

That evening we enjoyed an excellent dinner at The George Hotel before some of us headed back to the hostel for what would be the last night of my trip. The following day I had to get back to Glasgow to catch my train. I would have had to set off very early and what with a poor weather forecast and being a bit worse for wear I accepted the offer of a lift with my bike. I could have been dropped off on the outskirts of Glasgow but about half way down Loch Lomond the rain stopped and I asked to be let out at Luss. From there I followed a signed cycle route but it was mainly adjacent to the busy main road and was not very nice despite the good views across Loch Lomond. Once I reached Balloch at the bottom end of the Loch I joined NCN 7 and followed it on a surprisingly pleasant route through Dumbarton and along the River Clyde into Glasgow. I got to Central Station with an hour to spare and that night I got to sleep in my own bed. In total I cycled about 450 km with 5,100 m of ascent – you can view the route on my Ride with GPS page.

View across Loch Lomond

View across Loch Lomond

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One response to “Cycle Camping on Mull

  1. We used to camp as a family at Calgary Bay, when I was an early teen. I’ve also stopped at Loch Buie, but in a motorhome. Next time you need to go west and see Iona.

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