Located in a giant sea loch and with mountains beyond, the Isle of Lismore makes for an outstanding family bike ride packed with interest.
My 10-year-old son Bertie and I arrive at the ferry from Port Appin to Lismore in good time for the 11am departure but I’m panicking. The vessel is small – more of a fishing boat really – but already is laden with bikes. No matter: the ferryman does an extra run and the incident turns out to be the only blemish (and a very minor one at that) on one of those rare days when the glory of the weather matches the splendour of the landscape.
Translated from Gaelic as ‘great garden’, Lismore is 10 miles long by about a mile wide and situated in the middle of Loch Linnhe north of Oban. The principal road begins beside the coast but soon diverts inland and stays there for most of its way south. Despite the initial lack of coastal views the road is a continual delight partly because the weather is so fine and partly because it’s so peaceful.
The island has a population of around 180 and exudes a strong sense of community. We first pause at the cathedral church of St Moluag, having come over with the vicar who was on his way to lead the weekly service. At the Lismore public hall the tables and chairs are out for a produce sale in aid of hall funds and we also pass the post office – proud winner of the post office of the year competition in 2006 – and a fire station. Curiously, all the facilities are separated from one another as if mindful of invading each other’s personal space. We gain some height as the road proceeds south and affords fine views towards Oban and the approaching and departing Hebridian ferries.
Reeds herald Kilcheran Loch and, by this point, grass grows in the middle of the road. Just pass the loch the Tarmac disappears all together and we cycle on a broad and well defined, winding and undulating grass track. The route was once stoned, though, so the surface is firm and our progress little hindered.
The ride now really changes gear and becomes an adventure. Earlier, when I’d lent my bike against a wall beside the church I’d startled the sheep and, rounding a sharp corner near Loch Fiart, I send the cattle scattering. The track follows a ledge with the waters of the loch down below and crags above then enters a valley so flat bottomed it’s as if the terrain has been adapted for sports pitches. Bertie is getting a little anxious, conscious of the distance we still have to travel on our return and in an area with no sign of habitation. It’s been this way since the 1840s when 400 people were evicted from seven townships in the southern half of the island under the Highland clearances. I’m loving the isolation, though, and egg him on all the way to the end of the road at a derelict farmhouse. Peering through the window we see the iron hearth, shelves and pegs where coats once hung.
You can proceed past the farmhouse along a narrow footpath to the southern tip of Lismore. We opt instead to clamber up a grassy knowl and have sandwiches overlooking the island of Mull and, in front of it, a lighthouse on an islet. It’s first keeper in 1833 was a descendent of Alexander Selkirk, the original Robinson Crusoe. Like father, like great grandson, I guess.
An exchange of texts with my wife and daughter who are walking elsewhere on the island reveals that the café at the heritage museum closes earlier than we thought at 4pm so we can’t dilly-dally and sadly have to forego diversions to Bernera Island, the ruins of Castle Coeffin and abandoned harbour at Sailean, all on the west coast and accessible by cyclable tracks. (There’s so much to see on Lismore I’d recommend an overnight or early start). I do, however, divert to Achnacroish where ferries connect to Oban but there is little there. I’m glad I left Bertie resting at the spine road especially as it’s hard work returning back uphill. I have, at least, earnt my reward of a cuppa and cake at the café followed by a quick look around the adjoining museum.
We next branch off to the eastern coast and leave the bikes to climb up to the broch of Tirfuir, a well preserved example of the circular forts built in the Iron Age by the Pictish inhabitants of Scotland. Our final diversion is my favourite: the former limestone quarrying village of Port Ramsay. It’s very close to the ferry terminal so we’re able to explore it without worrying about how much time to leave for the final leg of the journey.
We feel like we’d gone behind the scenes of Lismore, off the well trodden tourist – and cyclist – trail. The original settlement is a row of limestone quarriers’ cottages, the thickness of their walls giving an indication of harsh winter conditions. Each property has a small – and mostly immaculately kept – garden on the other side of the track. The coast curves at this point in a coastal feature that is part bay and part mudflats where fields merge with the shore. Port Ramsay residents live free range, alternative lifestyles and I’m not just talking about the livestock! On our way round the bay we pass a caravan named Atlas Supreme that is partly supported by the old hull of a boat. The sound of folk music issues from the door and I can make out a figure through the Venetian blinds. All rather Bohemian – as is a restored croft with grass roof and two sunlights just around the corner. Bet the owner has a compost loo too.
While we wait for our return ferry the girls spot us as they quaff cappuccinos at the restaurant across the water in Port Appin. It’s been a day to remember for all of us and we have plenty to talk about that evening in our holiday cottage, appropriately the Old Ferry House.
Distance: 25 miles.
Time: Allow all day – and a long one, ideally.
Very simple orientation. From the jetty near to Port Ramsay at the northern tip of Lismore follow the only road south. Eventually, where the road appears to end and there’s a farm to the right, fork left and up a track to pass through a gate and continue ahead on a grassy track as far as a derelict farm where the track ends. Return the way you came. Take the first right to visit Achnacroish. The left turn for Castle Coeffin is discreetly signed at a farmhouse 750 metres north of the heritage centre, just south of the church. The right turn for Tirefour broch and final left turn for Port Ramsay are also signed. Take your pick!
Isle of Lismore café. Shares a modern, eco-friendly building with the heritage museum (see below). Tables and chairs outside. Open 11am-4pm. Last orders for hot food at 3pm. isleoflismorecafe.com and 01631 760020.
The Pierhead seafood restaurant, Port Appin. pierhousehotel.co.uk and 01631 730302.
The Port Appin ferry runs between 8am and 8pm. Crossing to Lismore takes five mins. No extra charge for bikes. 01631 730686. Alternatively take the ferry from Oban to Achnacroish which runs four times a day and takes 50 mins.
Port Appin bikes. Run by Margaret Davidson from her house at 9 Shuna View which is on the left just as you approach Port Appin and just a few minutes ride from the ferry terminal. Adult bikes £15 and children’s bikes £10 per day. 01631 730391.
The Old Ferry House, Port Appin (self catering).
Places to visit:
Lismore Gaelic Heritage Museum. Includes reconstructed late 19th century cottar’s house and displays on the island’s landscape, industry, agriculture and population. Open from April to Oct, 10am-4pm. lismoregaelicheritagecentre.org.
Cathedral church of St Moluag. 14th century church that was the seat of the Bishops of Argyll for nearly 400 years. Includes some notable modern stained glass windows. Open during daylight hours.
Recommended website: isleoflismore.com.