A LONG weekend in Islay but at times it was easy to forget we were on a Scottish island.
The advance weather forecasts had been promising. The day before we left, they changed for the worse. Ah well, summer in Scotland – what can you expect?
The sting in this tale was that for once it went in our favour. Brilliant sunshine on the way down on Thursday evening, and on the way home Monday. Apart from a lone deluge on the Friday night when we were safely ensconced in the pub, that was the norm.
Sometimes it's better to arrive with no great expectations. The last time I had tackled the Paps of Jura, I had to settle on just climbing Beinn an Oir in a blanket of grey. This time out, I was determined to do the full round.
It didn't look promising as we boarded the little Feolin Ferry or on the 12-mile drive round to the starting point. The sky was threatening and the midges were out in force.
The initial bog trot involved a lot of squelching, but as we tried to find the driest line, a strange thing happened – the sun came out early. By the time we reached the huge stepping stones over the outflow of Loch an t-Siob, we were feeling the heat.
The push up to Beinn Shiantaidh is steep, a case of finding the right lines through heather and scree patches, before we found a path which gave some much-needed relief until the final labour over constantly rolling rock.
Coming up fast behind was another group, younger and fitter. They passed us, then they sat down for a rest and we passed them. This was to be the pattern for the whole day. It was classic tortoise and hare stuff. They would walk in fast bursts then take long rests, while we were slower but stopped less. After the first few hours, we stayed out in front for the rest of the circuit.
The mists that were swirling around the high points denied us a view from the huge cairn on Beinn Shiantaidh, and we missed the entrance to the rocky gully needed for the safest descent at the first attempt.
Beinn an Oir, the highest peak of the three, remained wrapped in cloud as we ascended, but as we reached the summit the first views of the day emerged. The mists played with us for a while, giving glimpses of where we had been and then where we were heading.
The drop off Beinn an Oir was on good solid blocks, and then down a steep, scree chute to an adjoining ridge. In poor visibility this could be confusing – another ridge looks a possibility, but it soon becomes apparent that it's far too steep for comfort. Once on safer ground, a superb path weaves its way down through the crags and scree to the lochan-studded Na Garbh-lochanan.
Beinn a' Chaolais, despite being the smallest of the group, looks massive from the descent line. There are two options for the last climb, but with our eyes on the ferry times, we opted for the most direct, a crooked scree scar heading straight up. Foreshortening had made it appear more formidable, and we made good time then and on the long, muddy trudge back past the loch.
The following day the predicted showers failed to materialise, and we were treated to another heatwave en route to the remote bothy of An Cladach. The inward track is pastoral, and the shoreline path alternates between grassy and rocky, with one section that would prove difficult, if not impossible, at high tide.
This was a nature walk at its finest; we passed adders coiled in the grass, watched seals lazily watching us from their rock perches, and were treated to the sight of oystercatchers performing aerial acrobatics, wheeling and peeping furiously. The abundance of crab and shellfish remains also suggested otters were around somewhere.
The adders multiplied as we made our way along the great divide of the Sound of Islay, but they enhanced, rather than subtracted, from our experience. We continued past rock gardens of sea pinks and other assorted flowers, past dark caves and finely poised arches, until the bothy came in sight. This small building is a thing of beauty, well-maintained and in a perfect spot.
It was restored in 1999 after lying empty since the 1850s, the last occupant rumoured to worked an illicit still there. The rebuilding was carried out by the MBA with the support of the estate and helped by donations from the Chadwick family in honour of their son Mike who died in a climbing accident in Glen Coe.
The history lessons were rounded out with a visit to The Oa (pronounced Oh) and the American Monument, a tower perched on the edge of the cliffs to commemorate two shipwrecks more than 100 years ago with massive loss of life. They weren't the first casualties of this notoriously wild coastline – or the last.
The Paps of Jura lay clear and glistening on a perfect horizon sandwiched between the blues of the water and the sky on the crossing back to the mainland. Our 'continental' sojourn was coming to an end. By the time we reached Crianlarich, the rain had reminded of us of what we had missed.