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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The west coast walk
There are three logical places to start the west coast walk, all on the east coast of the island. The first is Kinuachdrachd where the last vestiges of metalled track and the world of motorised transport are left behind. As described in ‘Getting to the Southern Hebrides’ in the Introduction, it is possible to arrive here by water taxi from the mainland. The alternative is to take the Jura Bus from Feolin or Craighouse to Ardlussa. From here it is 15km (9½ miles) along the track road to Kinuachdrachd and there are three options for getting there. The obvious choice is to walk. From Ardlussa, which comprises a handsome manor house and a collection of farm buildings and estate workers’ houses (NR649879) – just follow the road north. The walk to Kinuachdrachd is pleasant, has a few minor ups and downs and should take around 3hrs. Barnhill is passed 2km before Kinuachdrachd.
Another option is to arrange transport as far as the small parking area at Road End – which is as far north as unauthorised vehicles are permitted. Kinuachdrachd is less than two hours walk from Road End. Alternatively, Mike Richardson can drive you from Ardlussa to Kinuachdrachd in his Landrover (see ‘Getting around’ section). Either way, if you arrive at Ardlussa on the afternoon bus (around 1700), then staying at the bunkhouse at Kinuachdrachd (see above) or camping at one of the nearby bays makes sense.
The walk is described here in a number of day stages. These stages are intended as a structure around which to build your own walk. Therefore, various options and alternatives are included along the way. How long you take to walk the west coast of Jura is contingent on a number of factors: how much time you have; your level of fitness; how much weight you are carrying; whether you are exclusively bothying; weather conditions; and the time of year. The height of the bracken, the conditions underfoot and the available daylight are additional seasonal factors. Fit walkers should manage Kinuachdrachd to Feolin Ferry in five to six days.
However, very fit and determined walkers might manage the route in three and a half days, for example:
- Day 1: Kinuachdrachd to Glengarrisdale
- Day 2: Glengarrisdale to Ruantallain
- Day 3: Ruantallain to Glenbatrick Bay
- Day 4 (half day): Glenbatrick to Feolin Ferry
In this guide, all timings given are estimates for fit walkers carrying 15–20kg and exclude breaks and detours. Allow more time where possible and remember that poor weather conditions, very wet ground and high bracken will all slow progress. It is also worth allowing yourself extra time for exploring this remarkable stretch of coastline; a week would be a good amount of time.
A note of caution
I would strongly recommend that this walk should not be attempted by the very young or elderly or by anyone carrying an injury or who is otherwise unfit. Make sure someone knows of your planned route and your estimated time of completion. Check in by phone when you can. The high ground above Baigh Gleann Speireig, south-west of Glengarrisdale Bothy; the area around Shian Bay; the area just west of Ruantallain bothy and Glenbatrick Bay have mobile phone coverage.
Kinuachdrachd to Glengarrisdale
Distance 13km (8 miles)
Start Kinuachdrachd harbour
Grid ref: NR705982
Map OS Explorer 355
At 13km (8 miles) this first leg of the west coast walk is not a great distance, but you will encounter some varied and challenging terrain. The going underfoot is often difficult and more so with a heavy pack. Once the ‘path’ runs out above the Gulf of Corryvreckan you will need to exercise caution and judgement in ‘reading’ the terrain to find good routes down to and along the west coast.
Whether arriving by boat or walking in from Ardlussa/Road End, from Kinuachdrachd Harbour (NR705982) follow the track skirting the small bay north before ascending a little next to a tumbling burn and continuing on to Kinuachdrachd.
At Kinuachdrachd – which translates as ‘headland above the ebb tide’ – there is a lone farmhouse with a few outbuildings, including the bunkhouse. Just before arriving at the farmhouse on the track road, there is a footpath climbing to the left (NR704987). A small wooden sign announces the route to Corryvreckan, which is 3km to the north. The path, which can be boggy in places, climbs through heather and bracken before levelling out and passing through a deer fence by means of a stile and a kissing-gate. To the north, the isle of Scarba gradually detaches itself from the landmass of Jura as you approach Corryvreckan. It is worth watching out for sea eagles in this area.?They are easily identifiable by their size (they boast a wing-span of up to 3m) and characteristic white tail feathers.
After 2km, the path passes through another deer fence then drops a little crossing a small gully and stream (NM701007). Here the path splits, but either route leads to an obvious vantage point on the northern flank of An Cruachan, with superlative views of Scarba and the Gulf of Corryvreckan – the narrow strait between the two islands and the often turbulent confluence of the Firth of Lorn and the Sound of Jura. The tidal convergence of conflicting currents in the Gulf are catalysed by a submerged pyramidal rock, known as Caillich, The Hag, which generates an infamous whirlpool of considerable power.
Once you’ve arrived on the west coast you will find yourself in a landscape that is very different from the eastern side of Jura. There are few trees and the vegetation is largely comprised of bracken, heather, bog myrtle and tussocky purple moor grass: species able to withstand exposure and adapted to the acidic rock and soil. The countenance of the west coast is altogether craggier than the east; the exposed features of the formerly submarine landscape are subjected to regular scouring by wind, rain and sea. In winter weather this can seem a bleak region indeed. On calm and bright days, however, the essential ruggedness of the environment is intermittently softened by white sandy beaches fringing turquoise bays. In spring and summer, the verdant uncoiling bracken, the brief but spectacular outburst of bluebells and the scatterings of sea pinks and other seashore flowers also lend the area a more benign air.
Between the northern end of the island and as far south-west as Shian Bay, the terrain generally rises quite steeply a short distance from the shore, except where the glens open out onto bays and beaches. It is usually possible to skirt around the promontories between bays on the raised wave-cut platform, which intermittently forms a rather wild undercliff walkway – though this often involves negotiating a way through broken, rocky terrain and bracken. This is not as difficult as it sounds as there are often established goat and deer tracks wending through the terrain.
From the foot of An Cruachan, steer round to the south on relatively level though often boggy ground until you arrive at the first of the two coves forming Bàgh Gleann nam Muc (‘bay of the glen of the pigs’). Pick your way around the fringe of the cove and descend to the first of many beautiful sandy beaches that you will encounter. Cross the beach and work your way through rocky terrain and bracken around the foot of the rocky outcrop which bisects the bay, before arriving on a second sandy beach. At the western end of this beach, you will arrive at the neck of a promontory; here, you can cut across the neck by way of a gentle – though often boggy – climb, due west through the obvious gap, before descending into Glentrosdale Bay. The alternative is to pick your way around the promontory above the shoreline.?This is worthwhile as there are a number of caves and rock arches along this stretch of the coastline including Uamh Bhreacain or Breacan’s Cave, where the eponymous hero is purported to have been buried.
Martin Martin, author of A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (1703), visited Jura in 1695 and reported that the cave contained an altar and Breacan’s tomb, but there are no traces of either remaining today. The cave has three stone walls protecting the entrance, which is some 13m wide.
From Glentrosdale Bay, work your way around the next promontory through rocky, bracken-covered terrain for 1km and then, arriving at a spur blocking passage along the rock platform, follow an obvious deer path up a gully, along and down the other side to arrive at Bàgh Uamh Mhór (‘bay of the big cave’). The bay is dominated by the craggy triumvirate of Beinn nan Capull, Cruach na Seilcheig and Sgorr Mhór (respectively: ‘peak of the horses’, ‘hip-shaped hill of the snails’ and ‘big rock’), which are separated by twin steep-sided gullies running precipitously down to the shore.
Continue around the next, smaller promontory into Bàgh Uamh nan Giall (‘bay of the cave of the hostages’) where you will need to pick your way carefully over some large and often slippery boulders before crossing a beach of large cobbles. Once across, carry on round to a small and very beautiful sandy beach, which is perfect for a sheltered swim and makes for an idyllic bivouacking spot (NR664986).
If making for Glengarrisdale, however, cut across the neck of the low-lying Garbh Aird (‘rough promontory’) and continue on your way. The terrain is difficult to read at points during the next 2km, but the shoreline route is mostly navigable and animal tracks are again useful. Just beyond Garbh Aird, however, it is best to take to the higher ground along Druim nan Cliabh (‘ridge of the chests’) to avoid a tricky stretch of slippery rocks, awkward slopes and boggy ground. After a few hundred metres, find your way down off the ridge alongside the burn (NR658977) feeding into the aptly named Feith a’ Chaorainn (‘bog of the rowan’). Once you’re clear of the boggy terrain, stay as close to the shore as you can because there are some fine geological features on the way to Glengarrisdale including several splendid quartz-veined rock faces.
After a further 1km, you should catch sight of the white walls and red roof of Glengarrisdale bothy, on the far side of the bay, although it takes longer than you might anticipate to actually reach Glengarrisdale Bay. On arrival, cross the beach to the outflow of the Glengarrisdale River, which fans out where it meets the beach, and ford it here, at its shallowest point. Alternatively you can batter your way through the bracken and follow the riverbank around to two trees standing 100m south-east of the bothy; here there are some stepping stones across a ford (NR644968), though it is difficult to cross here when the river is in spate.
The bothy is an old crofting cottage that was inhabited until after the Second World War. The bothy is on the Ardlussa estate, though it is now maintained by the excellent Mountain Bothies Association (MBA). Glengarrisdale bothy has two rooms and a tool store downstairs with the attic space given over for sleeping. Some sleeping platforms have recently been installed in the downstairs rooms. One of the downstairs rooms has a hearth, the other a small pot-bellied stove. There tends not to be much driftwood in Glengarrisdale Bay, so you may have to retrace your steps a bit to gather some. If you arrive well before nightfall, or if you’re staying for a while, then a driftwood gathering expedition to Baigh Gleann Speireig (which is around 20mins from the bothy by the direct route – see below), may be in order. The water from Glengarrisdale River is safe to drink.
Glengarrisdale Bay is a wonderful spot, whatever the time of year or weather conditions; when it is fair there are fine views out over the bay towards Iona, Mull, the Garvellachs and Scarba and on a clear night the canopy of stars is beguiling. In wind and rain the rocky coastline is magnificent, especially when admired from within the bothy with a driftwood fire ablaze in the hearth. If you hang around Glengarrisdale with your binoculars you’ve a good chance of seeing some interesting birds, such as merlins, short-eared owls and hen harriers. Common and Atlantic grey seals frequently bob around in the bay and otters patrol close to the shore. Deer and goats come down to the shore in the evening to graze on the kelp and some say that the seaweed in their diet gives Jura venison a distinctive flavour. During the rutting season of late September and October your dreams may be infiltrated by the throaty barking of hormonal stags.
Although there are no traces remaining today, Glengarrisdale was once home to Aros Castle, a stronghold of the Macleans for several centuries. The Macleans once held the entire northern half of Jura, but in 1745 the land was forfeit because of their loyalty to the Stuart cause. In 1647 Glengarrisdale was the scene of a battle between the Macleans and the Campbells and many of the Macleans were killed. A human skull believed to be a relic of the battle sat for many years under a shelf of rock in a cave known as Maclean’s Skull. Local belief held that if the skull was moved it would always return to the same spot. It disappeared in 1976.