This weekend I decided to tackle the first stage of the West Island Way from Kilchattan Bay to Rubh'an Eun lighthouse. This was quite an undertaking for me, not physically but psychologically, only because I am normally not one for walking along organised routes or signposted pathways. I am usually the lonely figure wandering off to the left while those in the 'know' give me strange glances as they head in regimented lines to the right.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for official walking trails, I understand that with limited time they can offer the best opportunity to sample the varied beauty of a particular area or to follow in historic footsteps on a route hardly touched by time. They also offer the chance to meet fellow walkers and strike up friendships with a common purpose. When you walk to the left you are far less likely to meet like minded individuals who have happened along the same pathways as you (although this is perhaps the point).
My failure when it comes to walking a set route marked out by pre-defined stopping points is that I am easily distracted and this can add hour upon wandering hour to any schedule. Set routes usually have timescales, usually for a good reason, however with my meandering tendencies I'm not so good at being limited by time. This can become a real problem if you have to reach a certain place before you are stranded in looming darkness or your feet are past compeed repair.
I like to head off the beaten track and make my own adventures, to have a closer look at objects washed along the shore, watch birds hopping about bushes, inspect old ruins of buildings or just sit and daydream on hillsides, benches, jetties, even damp patches of grass.
I often head out with a vague purpose before I start diverting along new found paths that lead off of other paths, that draw me off in new criss-crossing directions. Along these new trails I can find all manner of things to distract and fascinate me, and of course so many things to photograph!
So with a promise to mostly keep to the marked signposts I set off to discover the merits of this island walking route. Not wanting to spoil any surprises I deliberately didn't research my journey beforehand, knowing only that my destination was a lighthouse.
I made my way to the start of the trail at Kilchattan Bay and headed south past the rusty coloured boulders, lumpy pebble beaches and frothy white waves. Three shy roe deer watched me timidly from the long grass as hungry buzzards circled overhead.
I did well to only deviate once on this stretch of the route as a little red plastic ball caught my eye sitting out of place amongst the pebbles. I wondered where it's journey had begun and spent a while throwing it into the sea and watching it bobbily make it's way back ashore. I guess wherever it had started, Bute was the place it now wanted to stay.
On returning to the path I was rather disturbed to find a rustic sign announcing 'very rough track ahead'. The use of the word 'very' alluded to some sort of danger but this only fuelled my adventurous spirit to meet and conquer this forewarned challenge head on. As it turned out 'very rough' meant an uphill gauntlet of slippery rocks, bogs and some dinner plate sized cowpats! Thankfully I only managed one tumble and crashing of an elbow onto a rock, but thankfully my boots and elbow remained cowpat free.
As I headed upwards and through a little wooden kissing gate I was delighted to find a small cave. It may have been shallow and not very spectacular but the fact I had stumbled upon it meant I felt like a real explorer. I wasn't so delighted to find the cave floor strewn with rubbish and broken glass, obviously used as a cave den by some thoughtless neanderthals, this was no doubt the most disappointing part of my walk.
Looking behind me I was greeted with a great view of the sweeping coast, and got a little distracted again enjoying the views across to my island neighbours, Little and Great Cumbrae.
As I turned the corner from the cave, the path opened up with browning ferns and autumn berries guarding and screening the way ahead. The whole atmosphere seemed to change with one side flanked by a high rocky hill face, making it seem almost claustrophobic despite the open water on the opposite side. By this point I had passed several more buzzards hanging and gliding in the air with anticipation of their next meal.
My next surprise was a large sculpted outcrop that popped up out of nowhere, standing like a lonely, towering sentinel, guarding against seafaring invaders.
Up until now I hadn't passed anyone else on the route or off the beaten track so it was quite nice to meet some company at the next marker. A herd of curious sheep munching and contemplating my presence stood between me and my destination.
As I slowly moved forward the woolpack kindly stood aside but continued to warily watch my solitary wanderings.
Pressing ahead I finally spotted my destination perched in the distance, Rubh'an Eun (bird headland) lighthouse. This little rusted beacon built in 1911 sits on the SW tip of Bute and the west entrance to the Clyde estuary.
This is a beautiful, peaceful spot with the surrounding scenery opening up to glimpses of Arran peaks beyond the hills. Having reached my destination I permitted myself some time to sit and be distracted. In the desolate silence it was hard to believe that Glencallum Bay beyond was once thriving with drovers ferrying their livestock to the mainland.
This is where my West Island Way walk came to an end for the day. With dusk creeping in it was time to head home, passing the still grazing sheep, below the circling buzzards and again into view of the skittery deer. Along the return path I stopped briefly to examine an animal skull peeking out the undergrowth, some fairy fungus and an empty eggshell, nestled amongst the grass, contents long gone (I told you I can be distracted by all manner of things!).
The complete route of the West Island Way is approx 40km (25miles), however you can easily choose to walk shorter well signposted sections if you prefer. If you have better time-management skills than me, the entire walk across the island can be done in roughly 12.5 to 16 hours, split into stages each day depending on your fitness and ability. If like me, however, you have a tendency to wander rather than walk you may need a good while longer.