Explore Jura, Islay and Colonsay with a Cicerone guidebook
Walking on Jura, Islay and Colonsay
This handy guidebook contains route descriptions for 11 challenging day walks plus a 5-day coastal walk on Jura, Islay and Colonsay in the Southern Hebrides. The routes range from 5 to 30km with the multi-day route at 77km and cover a multitude of rough terrain that is suitable for fit, competent walkers as even the coastal walks offer challenges. More...
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Tucked away off the Kintyre peninsula 80km (50 miles) or so west of Glasgow, the Southern Hebrides are often overlooked by walkers and other visitors magnetically attracted by the grandeur of the Highlands and the Isle of Skye further north. But Jura, Islay and Colonsay are no less beautiful than those illustrious regions, although their charms are perhaps more understated.
The wild and beautiful Southern Hebrides provide a magnificent setting for some of the finest and most challenging walking to be found in Scotland, or indeed anywhere in the British Isles. The islands’ sublime coastal landscapes of rugged quartzite rock, white sandy bays and sparkling turquoise waters teem with wildlife and a profusion of breathtaking geological phenomena.
A real sense of remoteness is found among the hills and along the shores of these wonderful islands, not least because you are more likely to share the landscape with eagles, otters, seals, wild goats and red deer than with other people. For those who like to get away from the madding crowd and enjoy the peace and serenity of walking amid landscapes untrammelled by the depredations of mass tourism, these islands are a natural sanctuary. Furthermore, the tourism infrastructure on the islands, which is refreshingly low-key on Jura and Colonsay in particular, is characterised by quality and value for money.
The west coast of Jura is as pristine an area of natural wilderness as can be found anywhere in western Europe. It is uninhabited by humans, there is no livestock grazing, very little land management and the only buildings along the 80km (50 miles) shoreline between Kinuachdrachd in the north and Feolin Ferry in the south are the bothies at Glengarrisdale, Ruantallain and Cruib Lodge and the summer house at Glenbatrick Bay. The great natural beauty of the west coast, with its quartzite rock, emerald and whisky-hued hills, white sands and turquoise waters, is enhanced by its profusion of remarkable geological phenomena and abundant wildlife. Furthermore, few places in the British Isles combine such multifaceted splendour with the possibility of complete solitude. In the autumn, spring and winter months it is possible to walk on the west coast for days without encountering anyone else at all.
One reason for the dearth of visitors to this wonderful place lies in its remoteness. It takes a certain amount of planning and a degree of application to arrive at the start of the west coast walk – wherever you decide that the start is. George Orwell, that best-known temporary Diurach (inhabitant of Jura), famously described his retreat at Barnhill – 1.5km south of Kinuachdrachd – as ‘ungetatable’.
Another reason is that walking the route is a challenging enterprise. When walking the west coast of Jura was first proposed to me some years ago, I set about finding a guidebook. The search turned up any number of books guiding the theoretical walker over the famous Paps of Jura and on other less challenging routes. When it came to the island’s west coast, however, I encountered an empty void into which a handful of adjectives – ‘remote’, ‘wild’, ‘untamed’, ‘forbidding’ – had been scattered. This absence made the prospect all the more compelling and my first visit to north-western Jura left me feeling that I’d been let in on a fantastic secret. You might ask why I want to advertise this secret when it was the silence on the subject that so appealed in the first place. I believe the west coast of Jura is one of the truly great walks in the British Isles and deserves its place in the canon. Its remoteness and the challenging nature of the walk mean it is never likely to become oversubscribed.
Among the other walks on Jura described in this book is a round of the island’s trio of distinctive quartzite peaks. The Paps may not be Munros – at 785m Beinn an Oir is a Corbett – but they rise from sea level and a round of all three mountains involves some 1500m of ascent and is a hill-walking classic. A detailed route description helps walkers make the best of a tough day on testing terrain. Several other day walks on the island provide challenging routes, though on a slightly less epic scale.
Islay is lower lying, more populous and more developed than its rugged neighbour; however, it has many kilometres of varied and beautiful coastline and, unlike Jura, walks along some of the island’s deserted shores and remote clifftops are accessible by road. The walks described here are as grand in scale as those on Jura. They include the rugged coastline and magnificent bays of the Atlantic coast, the dramatic cliffs of the Oa peninsula and the spectacular route from Bunnahabhain on the Sound of Islay to Kilinallan on Loch Gruinart.
Islay has an abundance of wildlife and is particularly famous for its spectacular birdlife, including the huge numbers of migratory geese that arrive each October. The landscape is awash with history; the coastline is ringed with Iron Age hill forts and garlanded with infamous shipwrecks, while the hinterland is dotted with the remains of settlements, both ancient and more recent – including the mediaeval seat of the Lords of the Isles at Finlaggan.
Islay also offers the tired walker all the comforts of civilisation in a beautiful setting. There are many good places to eat, including some excellent pubs, a range of great places to stay, including two beautifully situated campsites and an excellent youth hostel, and eight whisky distilleries.
Colonsay is a small but perfectly formed gem of an island, which distils much of the natural splendour of its neighbours into a relatively compact area. However, Colonsay is much more than a facsimile of Jura and Islay in miniature – it is an island with a very distinct character of its own, epitomised by its innate tranquillity. The walks described here take in some remarkably varied terrain, from high cliffs to vast white sandy bays, amid some of the most sublime coastal landscapes found anywhere in the British Isles.
From any point on Colonsay, wild and beautiful landscapes are only a short walk away. A kilometre from the settlement of Lower Kilchattan, vast colonies of seabirds nest on the vertiginous cliffs of the west coast. A walk around the south coast, including Colonsay’s tide-separated sister island of Oronsay, takes in some wonderful beach and dune-fringed shoreline, with fine views of Jura and Islay across the Firth of Lorn. A walk around the rugged north of the island is more of a challenge, but takes in a beautiful landscape full of interest, including the superlative sandy bays of Kiloran and Balnahard. Somewhat surprisingly, given Colonsay’s size, few other people are encountered once the island’s few kilometres of road are left behind. The island’s compact nature also means walks can be adapted to almost any length.