Sailing on the Balmoral from Glasgow to Gigha. Cycling round Gigha and Islay and sailing back from Campbelltown.
Great yawning sounds joined the rumble of the wheels as I cycled from my house at the foot of the Campsies to rendezvous with a most remarkable ship. She was anchored under the Kingston Bridge at Glasgow's Anderston Quay but was due to leave in a few hours for the Western Isles. I had decided on a few day's cycling round Islay and Arran during the April bank holiday but wasn't looking forward to getting out of Glasgow by bike. The roads are busy and noisy, plus I'd have to come back along them too, most probably at night. It was then that I'd noticed the advert in the local paper for a cruise on the MV Balmoral, sister ship of the famous Waverley and leaving Glasgow the same day, sailing to Oban. I dropped the paper, picked up the phone and the result was that I was now cycling down to the Clyde at 5am to take the Balmoral as far as Gigha.
Sitting on the quay at 6am, sheltering from a cold wind behind my bike's panniers, I thought about the boat's history and the far flung places of the British Isles that she'd been to.
It was into her forward lounge that I gazed longingly as she filled the polished brass and wood lined interior with a warm mellow glow. But the steadily growing shuffle of passengers had to wait while the crew carried out their various safety checks. A raw east wind sent grey ripples under the Kingston Bridge and I shivered next to the bike, ready to rush down to the cafe for a big mug of coffee as soon as the gangway was opened. Fortunately, I didn't have to wait long and we were all soon aboard with a huddle of hardy souls at the bows, mugs in hand as we sailed past Bell's Bridge, opened for us to pass, with the operator standing on the big plinth-like support in the middle of the river. Viewed side on, in the gloomy grey morning light, he looked like a tightrope walker balancing an oversize pole on a gigantic rope!
We sipped past silent shipyards and mysterious, still channels winding into great heaps of scrap metal, discarded gangways and bits of long dismantled ships. Before long though we were sailing under the Erskine Bridge and out past green field dotted with black and white cows. Out past Greenock we went and by the time we reached Largs the sun had broken through the mist and a few intrepid people were sun bathing on deck. Leaving Largs, we sailed through the "Tan", the passage between Great and Little Cumbrae and headed round the Cock of Arran and down the Kilbrannan Sound in glorious spring sunshine, barely a ripple on the sea and oystercatchers continually diving just as our bows seemed ready to crush them. These little birds are my favourite and were my constant companions throughout the trip. I watched them bobbing out at sea and three of them walking in a diagonal line, their feet all in step, wearing their waiters' outfit of black and white, scouring the shore for their dinner.
Although Balmoral can carry 800 passengers, there were only about 100 on board and consequently the boat seemed deserted and I continually nipped downstairs for a hot drink, to admire the engine room or just to sit and read in the heated lounge. All this between stances at the bow watching the Knapdale coastline slow drift by. We had a quick ten minute stop at Campbeltown and then headed through the Sound of Sanda and round the Mull of Kintyre, on a blue sea under a clear blue sky, with the strains of Paul McCartney's famous song sounding over the tannoy. Underneath the isolated lighthouse we passed, makng our way northwards for Gigha. There wasn't a breath of wind as we docked at the old mailboat pier at the south end of the island and I disembarked with the bike for a few days exploring. Everyone had the opportunity of stretching their legs and taking photos and film after film must certainly have been used up as the day was tropical indeed, with the Hebridean Princess, newly out of winter harbour near Waverley at Great Yarmouth, anchored in the calm bay.
I stayed to watch Balmoral sail off, sending up a shoal of Dolphins to play round the hull, much to the delight of the passengers. I then cycled up to the other end of the island to Mrs. MacSporran at the Post Office for a night in her excellent B&B. Sunburnt and sleepy I emerged from the shower, walked out the front door, which is never locked and down to the ferry pier in the cool of the evening. It was completely still, not a ripple disturbed the surface of the Sound of Gigha. A heron flew in from Tayinloan, over a crowd of noisy gulls getting ready for a night's raucous banter and landed on the rocks a stone's throw from where I was lying on the slipway. A lone Gannet, barely a speck over the middle of the sound, dived from a great height and plunged headfirst into the water, before struggling away with his evening's meal. The water was so clear. I looked down to the sandy bottom and up to the crimson sky and just revelled in the peace and beauty of this tiny island.
Over the next few days I cycled up the coast to Kennacraig and took the ferry to Port Askaig on Islay and explored the area around Loch Gorm and the RSPB centre at Aoraidh, staying in the quiet youth hostel at Port Charlotte. I then left the island from Port Ellen and cycled over the hill to Claonaig from Kennacraig. Skipness Castle, although closed proved an interesting diversion and after sheltering under a rocky overhang to escape the heat of the sun I took the ferry to Lochranza on Arran for a night in the youth hostel there. The final day was spent cycling down to Campbeltown on the Alpine-like climbs and descents of the minor road which goes past Carradale.
After lunch in Campbeltown I made my way to the pier just in time to see Balmoral coming in past the Dorlinn. I unloaded the bike and prepared to jump aboard as I knew that she would only stay long enough to disembark her Oban passengers, whose coach was waiting to take them home. Balmoral, and me, were Glasgow bound. The ropes thrown ashore, a crowd of smiling people came down the gangway and with the help of the crew, I loaded the bike and gear on board and we were off once again, passing walkers on the tidal flats linking the mainland to Davaar Island and known as the Dorlinn.
Just as we were about to turn left up Kilbrannan Sound, Captain Gellatly announced over the tannoy that as we were ahead of schedule and the weather was so good, he would take us round the south of Arran and up through Lamlash Bay. So, installed at the bow with my usual mug of something hot, I watched the Seacat from Troon disappear behind Ailsa Craig on it's way to Belfast, while a Campbeltown fishing boat struggle home, mobbed by screeching gulls. Past Pladda we sailed and turned up into Lamlash Bay. I tried in vain to see the hills of Arran behind the village but the glare from the sun was just to bright! A group of colourfully clad locals on Holy Island waved at us as we sailed past, close to their shore and we could make out the painted rocks marking the Buddhists' trail from the big house opposite Lamlash to the retreat high up on the hill to the south of the island.
Relaxing on deck as we headed over to Largs I watched a seagull keep time with us, his yellow legs tucked up beneath him and his keen eye watching for titbits being thrown his way. Rounding Great Cumbrae I could just make out two thin black lines barely visible in the glare on the surface. Two kayakers heading back to Millport. Most of the passengers disembarked at Largs as the sun dipped behind the hills of Cowal and the few of us who were left were treated to a night-time view of the fairground lights at Greenock.
As we sailed up the final few miles of the Clyde most of us came out on deck to watch the flashing lights of welders hard at work on a colossus of a ship, which hadn't been there when we left, but was now in three gigantic parts, each one festooned in scaffolding and a network of flashing welders' torches. Before we knew it, the Pleiades star cluster had risen high to port and we were cruising past the man on his pillar at Bell's Bridge. Our journey had come to and end. I loaded the bike at Anderston Quay and cycled home under a star filled night sky.