Plan A: Coll and Tiree by bike. Plan B: Coll by bike and Mull by van.
The Isle of Bute is, as the tourist board have long maintained, a beautiful island. But is not Hebridean. It lacks that Hebridean magic, the great luminosity which Murray attributed to light reflected from the surrounding sea. That Bute belongs to the B list of islands became clear to me as I walked in the hills of Jura a few years back, amazed at finding so much space out there in the west. Space that I had lived much of my life within a few miles of but which had been hidden completely from view and from consciousness by the smothering arm of the Mull of Kintyre. The islands of the Firth of Clyde are more mainland than ocean. This month brought an opportunity to experience this great contrast between the Hebridean and the non-Hebridean, following a visit to Bute with a much anticipated cycle tour of Coll and Tiree.
The decision to tour Coll and Tiree by bike rather than by campervan was made and unmade many times in the preceeding months. The potential gains of cycling are not to be sniffed at: complete flexibility in choice of campspot; a week without motor vehicles; aligning our schedule with the other members of the party. The most important advantage is the ability to drink at will. The potential drawback is having to spend all week outside in crap weather being damp and cold. The rewards are only available to those who commit. I thought of the cycle tours that I had come close to cancelling because of the forecast that had turned out fine: the traverse of the Hebrides from Barra to Stornoway; Islay and Jura. All the while I tried to suppress any recollection of last year's wet tour round the north coast.
In the end the memory of Islay, of beach camping by five miles of impeccable sand at Kintra in warm may sunshine, of the evening light as we supped Ardbeg at our campspot near the Feolin ferry, prevailed and the bikes won out over the van. This recollection caused me to choose my highly spacious Wild Country Levache 3 man tunnel tent over my 2 man Hilleberg Jannu, a decision which was to ultimately set the course of the trip.
On the way to Oban we were stopping over in Taynuilt which provided the opportunity for a bit of sport. My original plan, to run over the Munros in the Ben Lui group, did not look appealing on the day. The tops were in cloud and the rain was heavy, windblown and almost incessant. I chose a low level alternative, the 17 or so miles down the lochside from the head of Loch Etive to Taynuilt. As I was changing into my running gear I read a text from Paul announcing that storm force winds - gusting to 60 or 70 mph - were forecast for Monday. By that stage we were committed to the large tent. I came close to booking the van onto the ferry but held back. We would pick a sheltered pitch. The forecast was probably wrong. I had pole sleeves and some tape so could recover a pole failure. It would be all right.
On Monday morning the wind, which had been very strong, began to intensify. We had eschewed a beachside wildcamp in favour of pitching in the lee of Coll's highest wall, that surrounding the campsite at Garden House. As our companions prepared to bail out to the shelter of the pub in Arinagour (sheiling of the goat) we suffered our first pole breakage and as I repaired it it became clear that we would be lucky to have a tent to sleep in that night, even if we devoted all our attention to nursing it through the afternoon. If we went to the pub we would return to find our tent in tatters. Soon after, as if to confirm this gloomy prognosis, the pole sleeve split and I had to reinforce it with a short section of plastic piping that I had collected, presciently, from the beach the previous night.
By 1000 we were in our positions, sitting on Ortlieb bags in the porch of the tent, preventing it from collapsing completely and in doing so bending the poles past breaking point. It was like sitting in a wind tunnel while being whacked periodically over the head with a tin tray. The hours passed slowly and uncomfortably and the wind continued to intensify. Power cables nearby enhanced the wild wind, making it sound even stronger than it was. I was tempted to adopt a fatalistic attitude and just lie down in my sleeping bag to let the tent take its chance, but I knew that the poles would shatter if we dropped our guard, leaving us roofless in the middle of a storm. It all seemed pointless as the storm built further, for surely the tent would not last anyway. I started to drink beer to numb the pain. I read as best I could but Gaener, having no reading matter, was left to think dark thoughts. Erin slept.
By 1400, four hours in, it seemed as if the winds had stabilised at storm or violent storm force and that, having made it this far, we may make it through the day. Despite the beer the time was passing so slowly that I began to monitor the air pressure instead. It was, thankfully, rising steadily at about an mbar per hour. I realised that cycle camping on remote islands is an extremely committing pastime. There is no vehicle to retreat to. There is no possibility of purchasing a replacement tent. The hotel was full. If we lost our tent we would be in a bit of a pickle. The fragility of our situation was reinforced when another pole snapped, this time one of the critical central poles. Fortunately the owners of the campsite had a hint of the Steptoe about them and the place was littered with useful objects. I had made a mental note of the location of a pile of off-cut copper piping near the gateway and used a section to improvise a splint the on the pole. In the brief lull that followed I wheeled the child trailer into the porch. This held the front of the tent in position and allowed us to leave our stations. After 6 hours holding our tent together we were frazzled, but the tent was still up. By 1800 the pressure was nudging 1000 mbar. We had made it.
We later learned that gusts were recorded that day of 75 mph on Tiree and of over 100 mph on the mainland. With a windy forecast for the rest of the week and a crippled tent we decided to not to go on to Tiree. Instead we returned to Oban, picked up the van and headed to Mull. At Fidden campsite I met a man whose tent original tent had been destroyed on Sunday. He had purchased a replacement locally which had survived Monday's storm. We discussed tents and their common failure modes. When I mentioned that I had suffered breakages to three of my four poles he perked up noticeably, keen to share his wisdom.
"Aluminium poles?" he inquired in a leading tone, like a barrister setting a trap during a cross examination. When I replied in the affirmative he nodded sagely before continuing. "Carbon fibre poles are what you need, then the tent can flatten completely and spring back. The inside got a bit wet, but the tent survived. I spent the afternoon in my car moving it round as the wind direction changed to give the tent some shelter."
There was more. He was in his element now, holding forth on his area of expertise. "I had six extra-long pegs and I kept swapping them round as the wind changed." I suspect that the poles were plastic rather than carbon fibre, but was heartily impressed that his tent had survived the storm.
All in all the trip deepened my conviction that if you want to go camping for any extended period of time in Scotland, even during the summer months, it is best to have a sturdy 4 season mountain tent. For an overnight or weekend trip in settled conditions a more lightweight approach is viable, but if you make a habit of relying on less robust shelters such as 3 season tents or tarps you will eventually be caught out.