I’d had four excellent days on Tiree, but after four nights on my own in my tent, I was looking forward to meeting up with The Lovely Fiona, Dougal the Dog and our friends, Andy and Giulia on the isle of Coll. Coll is just a 50 minute ferry journey from Tiree, so I had time to enjoy a cup of tea and a bowl of Calmac chips and a chat with some very excellent folk from ScotWays, an organisation that protects and develops access to the Scottish countryside for all. Their’s is a noble – and sometimes onerous – task indeed.
We were soon alongside the pier at Arinagour where I was the sole departing foot passenger. The gang would have arrived a couple of hours before me on the inward bound ferry, but sadly there was no reception commitee to welcome me. I shouldered my pack and started the walk across the island, to where I wasn’t entirely sure. I didn’t have the address of the cottage we were staying in and I had no phone signal; furthermore, the horsefly bite or whatever it was that had been affecting my ankle had started giving me a fair bit of pain. Still, nothing to do but get on with it.
I’d onlywalked a few hundred yards when our little green Corsa, rammed to the gunnels with people, dogs and luggage came bowling over the brow of the hill. Hurrah! somehow we managed to squeeze me and my pack in there too, a bit like the old how-many-students-can-you-fit-in-a-phone-box/Mini etc. Turns out the gang were lost, having driven around half the island looking for our billet. So we set off to drive around the other half before we finally worked out where we were meant to be going. Luckily, Coll is only about 13 miles long by 3 miles wide.
Anyway, we eventually arrived at the cottage which has a fine location at Clabhach on the island’s north-west coast. The cottage itself was a good, honest Western Isles crofter’s house, but the owner was charging top dollar for a pretty dog-eared place really. This would have been less of an issue if we’d been out the whole time, but the weather did keep us in a bit. To the owner’s credit, however, he was Dougal-friendly.
Anyway, grumble over. Once we’d got over the 1970s (and not in a good way) decor, we headed out to the nearby beach. A small but lovely sandy bay strewn with kelp fronds, which Dougal discovered were excellent for chasing and chewing.
A little later on our first evening, we walked a kilometre down to Hough Bay, an astoundingly beautiful broad sweep of dune-backed white sand beach, and marvelled at the fantastic gloomy light.
The next morning was overcast, but dry and after a relaxed start we headed down to the south-western end of the island and parked up at the Coll Nature Reserve car park. Ours was the only vehicle. Heading north, we arrived beneath Ben Feall after a kilometre. Coll’s answer to Kanchanjunga is all of 66 metres high, but with a little effort you do get a view from the top.
We skipped up then down the hill and then walked along to the eastern end of Feall Bay and began the long and sublime walk along its mile-long white sand fringe.
A dog otter (I’d say, by its size) broke cover from the dunes rising behind the beach and loped down to the sparkling, amethyst green sea lapping along the shore. He was in the water, then gone. Only his tracks confirmed that he wasn’t in fact a mirage.
We continued along the lovely bay through a gate, where a sign warned to ‘Beware of Bulls’, and parked ourselves for a sarnie above its western end. A signpost – a rarity in Scotland – pointed us in the direction of Calgary Point, making a generous allowance of four and a half kilometres to said destination. I feel sure that we’d have found the point without a signpost, compass, map or even daylight, but coming from Sussex, I don’t find signposts offensive unless there’s loads of the blighters.
We continued on our way and unfortunately Dougal saw some sheep (still a novelty) before we did and he was off to make friends like a shot. My very sternest admonitory tone was deployed and Dougal saw the error of his ways, returning without any harm done. On the leash henceforth young dog. Strangely, there was no ‘livestock grazing, keep dogs on a leash’ sign accompanying the ‘Beware of the (non-existent) Bulls’ sign, but we’d learned our lesson.
As we ambled along, the cloud cover gradually lifted and we were met with a fairly stiff breeze as we came out of the lee of the dunes. We crossed a couple of fences and were soon descending a short way to a crescent-shaped sandy bay that I found to be indescribably beautiful on this fine May afternoon.
We perused this lovely bay at length before continuing on our way around the low-lying peninsula coastline and in short order we arrived at the famous Calgary Point.
The views across Caolas Ban to the sandy shores of Gunna and beyond Gunna Sound to Tiree were perfect. What could top that? Oh, look, yet more incredibly beautiful white sand Hebridean beaches fringing jade-green waters…
Tiring of all this relentless natural beauty, we thought we’d better head across country and negotiate a few stock fences and some boggy ground before we subjected ourselves to yet another vast expanse of fantastically beautiful beach.
The lovely beach fringing Crossapol Bay is about a mile and a half long, but seems longer – in a good way. When we eventually got to the end of it, we followed a track up through the low-lying dunes and back to the car park. A very fine afternoon’s walk indeed.
That evening, after dinner, the evening sky looked as if it was shaping up for one of those incredible Hebridean sunsets. Armed with Dougal, I headed up Ben Hogh (104m), Coll’s highest point, which happened to be directly behind our cottage, the better to admire the light show over the Atlantic. We waited an age and nothing happened. Dougal was very patient, but you can see the look of disappointment:
The weather was ‘changeable’ over the next few days, so we mostly made shorter excursions by automobile, usually to promenade up and down a preposterously beautiful Hebridean beach or three. I was a bit hampered by my painful shin also, though I needed to get some routes walked for the impending guidebook.
A few days in, after a morning of wind-driven rain, the weather lifted somewhat and we scampered out of the cottage and up Ben Hogh. Near the summit of the hill, a large boulder perches on three small rocks – where it was deposited by the retreating ice sheet at the end of the last glacial period. Tradition has it that the Clach na Ban-righ (the queen’s stone) came to rest here during a game played between a giant and his mistress. Folklore, eh?
It was another blowy and bracing sort of day, but it was definitely good to get out.
Descending from the summit of Ben Hogh, we walked through the inland sea of sand dunes behind Hough Bay to Totronald RSPB visitor centre. All around us corncrakes crex-crexed their unmistakable call. They’re great ventriloquists as every time you try to locate the source of their call it appears to be coming from a Canada goose or a cow or somesuch. I did actually see one of these shy, retiring little fellers on Tiree though.
We continued across the island on the rustic road to the Fantastically ugly Breacacha castles at the head of Loch Breacacha, the one vying with the other to see who could be least appealing.
Dougal knew exactly what to do… …run away!
We retraced our route to Totronald…
Totronald RSPB visitor centre, with the dunes beyond
Past Totronald, we ran into a herd of cows with calves, so we had to make a big detour as Dougal is given to barking at cows, which is a very bad idea when they have calves. The detour was worth not being trampled, I feel. We returned via the ever-lovely Hough Bay, which was looking especially fetching in the brooding evening light.