Summer on Colonsay: A Father and Son Bikepacking Adventure
Everyone has fond memories growing up with summer days spent building sandcastles, improving on a hobby or skill and discovering new places. This summer, Andy McCandlish took his son to the Isle of Colonsay for a boys bikepacking adventure. Read about their adventures and how they survived camping on the Inner Hebridean isle...
There is something gloriously adventurous about stepping on to a ferry with nothing but the kit you carry and a bike to propel you to new horizons. It is truly liberating, especially in this day and age where we are more and more reliant on comfortable surroundings and predictable itineraries, to just throw yourself out there with no certain plan and no easy retreat. And there truly is no better place to do this than Scotland's Hebridean islands. I realised this long ago, and have a lifetime of bike and foot escapes under my belt as a result.
This time, as the CalMac ferry cruised out of Oban heading towards the island of Colonsay, it was to be slightly different. Leaning against the rail with me, watching the town drop behind in our sparkling wake, was my 8-year old son Jim. This was to be our first bikepacking trip together. After a tasty meal in Mariners, we sat out on the upper deck watching the land slip away as we ventured out to the island that would be our home for a few days.
Of course he has always enjoyed camping, but with his bike abilities increasing on a seemingly daily basis it was time to stretch his wings a little and go for the full immersion. No car, no roof over our heads, just a tarp and bivvy bag each to keep the weather off, and the sky as our bedroom ceiling.
Getting a whiff of a few nights under the stars, a great friend Andy McKenna of Go-Where Scotland joined us with only a few days' notice too. Never one to miss out on a bivvy trip, what he doesn't know about bikepacking isn't worth knowing. I figured he could act as Jim's bivvy Yoda - no one listens to their dad after all. And he has a beard, which is invaluable at times like this as I advised Jim over some much-anticipated fresh CalMac fish and chips. Andy winked and tossed a chip into it to prove my point.
With Oban under 2 hours away from our Stirlingshire home it had been the perfect jumping off point for the adventure, especially when a long drive could easily dent young enthusiasm for a trip. With that decided, I had scoured the latest CalMac 'Adventure Made Here' destination quiz on the website for inspiration and Colonsay instantly leapt off the page at me. It had everything we wanted: quiet roads, paths, beaches and a compact size we could easily pedal around to explore. And it had a brewery. Andy's text back to this news was more than positive, so the tickets were quickly booked.
And so we rolled off the ferry, replete with our fish and chips and Colonsay beer, to be treated to a gorgeous Hebridean summer evening. All around us happy locals were greeting people off the boat, slapping backs and hugging in the low evening light - it turned out there was a Rugby festival on so it looked like plenty of friends and family were arriving with us.
It is always hard to convey the feeling that freedom gives, so it was truly magical to see the look in Jim's eye when we surveyed the open road in front of us in Scalasaig. The small number of scattered houses and single hotel belied its status as island capital, and I instantly loved it.
'Where are we going dad?' he squinted up at me. I shrugged as Andy tightened the straps of his seatpack beside us.
'I dunno Jim, where do you fancy?'
Freedom. Right there. No itinerary and no expectations. Just magic.
We all conferred on an equal standing as to where we wanted to head and Jim grinned as I suggested Kiloran beach on the west coast as our first stop. The grin widened as we chatted to a man on the pier who revealed there was a twenty metre dead fin whale on the beach too. Why do kids love smelly things so much?
Half an hour later Jim was dropping his bike on the edge of the machair, kicking shoes off and running full pelt onto a picture perfect Kiloran beach. We had pedalled to the north end in search of a level campspot overlooking the sand and there was no stopping him once we called a halt to the ride. Even the smell of a 6 month dead whale at the far end of the beach couldn't dampen his enthusiasm, and it was a happy dad that watched his son paddling in the turquoise sea while Andy and I brewed up some tea on the meths stoves for a late supper of biscuits and cheese.
Jim took to the bivvy bag style of camping like a fish to water - only waking up near 8am when the sun had been up for some time. Through the night I had woken to rain rattling off the tarp above our heads like someone machine gunning it with dried peas, with the wind gusting and pulling at our bags all through the dark hours. Jim hadn't so much as turned over, never mind woken, and was even surprised to see the ground wet when we got up.
A pot of porridge in his sleeping bag, looking out over the beach, a mug of tea and some more paddling later and we were away to a decidedly lazy start, packing the gear up and taking off round the island once more. An intermittent sun traced patches of bright colour across the surrounding hills as we crackled along shoreside tracks, then back onto the narrow singletrack island roads.
Back in Scalasaig at the superb Colonsay Pantry Jim wrote a postcard to his mum and sister back home, chewing the cafe pen as he wrote of seeing the stars from his bed the night before and the stellar miles he was putting in on the bike. We sat back with a coffee and cake while a shower moved through, then checked bags and headed for the southwest of the island because 'it looked nice on the map.'
We didn't look for a better reason than that.
There followed another magical day of cycling along idyllic beachside trails, collecting driftwood, setting up camp on the glorious Ardskenish peninsula and eating noodles and smoked sausage for dinner. All three of us were happily exhausted that evening and more than ready to kick back in front of a Hebridean sunset, driftwood fire between us and the sea.
Jim kept asking us for old trip stories where it maybe hadn't always gone to plan. As Andy and I supped our single Colonsay Brewery 'Pig's Paradise' beer each that we had carried over for the occasion, we laughed our way through happy reminiscences. A particular favourite was when Andy told him of our running out of water and using seawater to cook our rice in desperation. Not a culinary method I would recommend, no matter how much salt you usually add to your rice when cooking.
Jim just lay back on the sand and giggled in the firelight as a broken sky turned deep red along the horizon.
It was a sad moment when we sailed away from our new favourite island of Colonsay, but you will never find a prouder dad than the one that delivered his son home smelling like a smoked fox, hair sticking up in helmet vent style and grinning through charcoal smeared cheeks. I overheard him speaking to a friend a few days ago asking him how his summer went. After the usual 'good' and 'nice' were coaxed out of him, he was asked what his favourite part had been.
'Bikepacking on Colonsay,' was the reply...
Me too, actually.
Sail direct from Oban or from Kennacraig via Islay. Find out more about our Island Hopping and ticket options to Colonsay.
Why not discover more about Andy's work and adventures at https://andymccandlish.com/