Monday 7 September 2015

A Day on the Isle of Coll

Beautiful sandy beach in Isle of Coll Scotland
Sandy beache in Coll 

Beaches, Dunes, Machairs and Quirky castles

On Thursdays in summer, the ferry timings from Oban allow eight hours, almost a full day, on the isle of Coll. With a bike that is ample time to see this 13 miles long and 3 miles wide island. And that was my plan as I set off on the ferry from Oban. I would rent a bike from the village post office and see the island at my own pace. It is possible to take mini coach tours of the island as well, if that is an option. (Details available at the tourist office in Oban).

The day was beautiful as the ferry set off from Oban. Going past Mull, the Duart castle was glowing in the early morning golden light.

Oban morning
Oban morning
Duart castle Isle of Mull Scotland
Duart castle
However, this being Scotland, the rain is never far away. Within an hour of the journey, dark clouds loomed ahead as the sea became choppy in the high wind. Looking back, the sky had changed from azure to brooding.

Misty sea from Calmac ferry
Misty Scotland from Calmac ferry
The ferry docked at the pier in Arinagour, the main village on Coll at about 11am. It takes just over two and half hours for the journey. The ferry then heads over to Tiree and Barra (You can read about my visit to Barra - The Wild West - A trip to the outer Hebrides). The wind was now blustery as I walked the half mile to the village. Met Ron who came in by the ferry as well. He had moved to the island 20 years ago and has been happily living here since then. He asked me where I was from. When I mentioned Kolkata he responded 'By the river Hooghly?' Well, not many people I have met in Scotland know that. He said he had been there many years ago when he worked on the ship. He directed me to the post office as we went on his way - a five miles walk to take him home.

The lady at the post office was very helpful. I was already apprehensive about cycling in the blustery wind. Walking was difficult already. She suggested I better not if I was not a strong cyclist, which I was not.
'Are you a keen walker?'
'Yes, I do like my walking'
'Then you can do the circular route of the west end of the island. It's 13 miles.' She said as she handed me a map.

Did my calculations - 13 miles, 21 kms, should take me around five hours I gathered if I don't stop, but I knew I would and also take detours but then I had eight hours to play with. The ferry left at 7:20pm. She also mentioned that I could just stick out my thumb in case I wanted a lift and the locals would help.

So I set off, looking for the sign to the Airport.

Village church in Coll Scotland
Village church
Coll has its own airport which serves a daily flight to Oban. On Fridays in summer the 9-seater plane brings the high school students home from Oban and takes them back on Mondays. Since the flight can operate only in daylight, during the winter months the school service runs on Saturday morning instead as by the time the school ends it gets too dark to fly out. This was part of the crash course I got from one of the locals who had stopped to offer me a lift as I was walking towards the airport. She saved me a couple of miles of legwork. The south coast of the island isn't too dramatic and it is worth preserving your energy for the north coast. She dropped me off at the airport on my request. She had actually offered to drive me around the island for which I thanked her but had to decline. The friendly locals can get no better than this. She continued - the island currently had a population of just over 200 but at one point it had reached 1300. The RSPB manages the land here and hands out plots to the farmers, about 4 or 5 of them, mainly for rearing sheep and cattle, and some for producing tatties. The island is the home of the Hebridean centre, the headquarters of the Project Trust which brings in the young volunteers to the island. There are also full time jobs at the ferry and the utility services - enough reason for people to stay on the island and be busy. As we talked, a flock of snow geese flew by. She counted twenty and said that for some reason these geese had decide to become resident on the island. I decided to walk down to Breachacha bay, the castles looking inviting. 'Just knock on the door if you need anything when you pass' - she shouted from the window as she drove on to Totronald at the end of the road.

Airport Isle of Coll Scotland
Coll Airport building
Snow geese Isle of Coll Scotland
Spotted the flock of snow geese on my way
The old and the new castles of Breachacha stood a short distance apart by the sea loch. Built in the 15th century and the 18th century as a stronghold of the Macleans of Coll, they have a commanding view out to the white sand and blue sea. I tried to take some decent photographs as the cloud cover was still thick. Without proper light, could only work on compositions.

Breachacha castle Isle of Coll Scotland
The old castle
Breachacha castle Isle of Coll
The new castle
However, just about when I started to walk back, a glint of sunshine hit the castle and the sea in front of it.
Breachacha castle Isle of Coll Scotland
Breachacha castle
I would have liked to walk down to the long beach of Crossapol further west, but had been warned it could be difficult if I wanted to do the whole circuit before the ferry. So instead started to walk up towards Totronald. The road ends at this point as it hits the boundary of the RSPB reserve, the Corncrake territory.

Isle of Coll Scotland
Heading over to Totronald
The machairs were covered in wild flowers and their fragrance filled the air as I headed towards the dunes of the Hogh Bay. (Machairs are low lying and fertile grassland found on the west coast of Scotland and the Hebrides).

Wild flowers on Machair RSPB reserve Coll Scotland
Wild flowers on the Machairs 
Wild flowers on Machair RSPB reserve Coll Scotland
Wild flowers
The spectacular beach soon came into view. The sun on my back, dark clouds ahead of me and the blue-green water flirting with the golden sands. There wasn't a single soul around. I rested on the dunes and had my lunch.

Golden sand beach Coll Scotland
Golden sand beach of Coll
Golden sand beach Coll Scotland
Golden sand beach
Golden sand beach Coll Scotland
Blue green sea across golden sands

The RSPB reserve ends just after the beach and I was back on the minor road again. Walked past the Hebridean centre and then Ben Hogh, the highest hill on Coll. Speculated for a while if I should go up the hill, it was only 340 feet, but then decided against the 1mile detour. I still had to walk back the 6 miles and this time against the strong wind. It was too cloudy for views anyway I justified to myself. Wanted to see the odd stone balancing near the top, deposited by the glacier centuries ago - maybe on another visit. I was already thinking what I had missed and needed to come back for.

Isle of Coll Scotland
Walking around Coll
Isle of Coll Scotland
Isle of Coll Scotland
Walking around Coll
My next stop was the tiny beach of Clabbach, with its patterned rocks. I couldn't believe I was seeing Lhamas in Scotland as I walked past three of them. They are reared for their hair I was told later.

Clabbach beach Coll Scotland
Clabbach beach
Lhamas in Coll Scotland
The last beach I would visit was the Cliad bay. There are very handy signs etched on wood throughout Coll on the gates which access the points of interest and also show the distance for a return trip. The vast beach was empty just like all the other beaches on Coll, a place of tranquility.

Cliad bay beach Coll Scotland
Cliad bay beach
Wild flowers by roadside Coll Scotland
Wild flowers by the roadside
Wild flowers by roadside Coll Scotland
I was now on the last stretch of my route cutting down south on the minor road to Arinagour. The walk went pretty much uneventfully apart from a point where I decided to walk up the hills on my right through the heather to see what lay beyond. There were more hills and no views, so walked down, no more cleverer. With only a few miles from Arinagour another local lady stopped and asked me if I would like to take a lift back. I thanked her and declined as I wanted to enjoy the last stretch of this walk. The purple heather was covering the hills and the sea was blue in the distance. It was about 6pm when I walked back to Arinagour.

Back to the village church
Though my first thought was to head off to the cafe, I soon changed my mind and walked back to the pier. CalMac ferries serve brilliant fish and chips and that's what I was craving for. There were people in the waiting room, sheltered from the cold wind. Almost all of them had at some point spotted me on various parts of the island and asked me how my day was. It had been a brilliant day. I wanted to come back here again and at least stay overnight, if not for a few days.

Arinagour Coll Scotland
Approaching Arinagour
Arinagour houses Coll
Arinagour houses
Arinagour houses Coll
Arinagour houses
Arinagour Coll

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