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Three Ferries and Seven Burns - Walk to Proaig and McArthur's Head, Islay

By Becky Williamson

I hadn't dared hope for more than just a dry day when Jim (our pastor) suggested a walk at the weekend. After all we'd already had three glorious days of sunshine in a row - we couldn't ask for too much, now could we?

The day dawned not quite as bright as the previous three days, but definitely dry enough for our planned walk to the erstwhile village of Proaig on the Sound of Islay. The sun made much more of an appearance as the day went on, however, and it ended up yet another glorious day and I was so glad we'd made the most of the opportunity. It was the first proper walk I'd been on in what seems like ages (with decent weather that is - I did go to Glengarrisdale on Jura a few weeks ago)

We started at Ardtalla, which is where the road ends on Islay's south-east coast, and watched the 0945 ferry, now well into its passage to Kennacraig. There are several burns to cross on this walk. After the one at Ardtalla NR4654 : Ford near Ardtalla, Islay by Becky Williamson, the next one crosses Allt an t-Sidhein NR4655 : Ford across Allt an t-Sidhein, Islay by Becky Williamson. The track then leads into square NR4656 NR4656 : Track to Proaig, Islay by Becky Williamson, but you have to watch for it or you'll miss it before it descends into a wood and up again and across another burn, this time the Allt nam Bodach (Burn of the Old Man)NR4556 : Ford across Allt nam Bodach, Islay by Becky Williamson. The final one is across Allt nan Gad NR4556 : Ford across Allt nan Gad, Islay by Becky Williamson. 'Gad' translates from Gaelic as either 'twisted twig', 'switch', 'the number of fish as carried home on a string or withe' or 'bend on anything'. I suppose any of these could be appropriate in this case!

The ATV path thus far had been quite distinct, although at times there was a fork and it wasn't clear which you should take - we tended to choose the one closest to the coast. Whilst the path sometimes led through boggy ground, it was not as wet as I have seen it in the past (admittedly that's not saying a lot!) After crossing Allt nan Gad we were anxious to get down to the coast, so followed the next burn down. At least we thought it was a burn; it turned out to be the Abhainn Torr a' Mhuilinn (River of the Hill of the Mill) NR4556 : Abhainn Torr a' Mhuilinn, Islay by Becky Williamson which broadens at its mouth NR4556 : Abhainn Torr a' Mhuilinn, Islay by Becky Williamson. There is no longer any evidence (that we could see) of a mill here. The Rubha Biorach can be seen in the photo. This translates as either 'Dog-fish Point' (I think the most likely), 'Two-year old heifer Point', 'Year old horse Point' or other similar animal translations.

We walked as quietly as we could along this stony shore, but were disturbing Rock Pipits, Reed Bunting, Wheatear and, of course, Oystercatcher and Ringed Plover. Our hope of seeing otter was seriously diminished, despite the fact that the wind, blowing from the north would not be carrying our scent. I think you immediately lessen your chances of seeing this animal with a group of more than one person anyway! I've tended to see them when out walking on my own, not thinking about it!

The re-roofed shepherd's cottage had been visible for some distance and now as we approached it, if we hadn't got the map, we wouldn't have known there was still one more barrier between us and this haven - yet another river. The biggest yet. All that ford crossing was preparation for the Abhainn Phroaig, which was fine for those of us in wellies (or it would have been if one of us didn't discover a leak at that point!), but not so fine for Jim in his walking boots. There is a sort of bridge NR4557 : Abhainn Phroaig, Islay by Becky Williamson further upstream, but we opted to cross near its mouth where there are plenty of 'stepping stones'. From here the bothy looked enticing NR4557 : Abhainn Phroaig and Proaig, Islay by Becky Williamson. It had been re-roofed since my last visit NR4557 : Bothy at Proaig on the Sound of Islay by Becky Williamson. Proaig translates from Old Norse as 'Broad Bay'. Its history dates back to 1506 when 6 cowlands were granted to John MacIan in recognition that his father had held them from Alexander Earl of Ross. In 1722 it was recognised as 'a toun very beneficial for pasturage; good for fattening and nourishing cattle', but by 1878 all that remained (and that remains now) is a shepherd's house. (Information from Islay The Land of Lorship by David Caldwell)

We lingered at the bothy for some time, munching our lunch and discussing the pros and cons of staying the night here (for future reference!) I decided it would be very noisy on all but the quietest of nights, but there was a cosy fireplace, a little Ardbeg Whisky and some peat -who could ask for anything more!

We'd decided we would continue on to McArthur's Head and that we would do so along the shore. So we walked along one of Islay's most beautiful beaches NR4558 : Near Carraig an Ràtha, Islay by Becky Williamson and crossed yet another burn, The Allt a' Ghlinne Dhuibh (Burn of the Black Glen) NR4658 : Allt a' Ghlinne Dhuibh, Islay by Becky Williamson. It was difficult walking underfoot across stones of various sizes and states of slipperiness. Lorna was quite content searching in rockpools and was often lingering behind whilst Jim and I found a conveniently placed tree trunk or stone to sit on and wait.

There are several caves dotted along this coastline NR4658 : Cave on the Sound of Islay by Becky Williamson and NR4659 : Cave on the Sound of Islay by Becky Williamson and we watched Shags flying up to their nests high on the cliffs below the lighthouse. Round every bend we expected to see the lighthouse, but you actually don't see it until you're literally beneath it, straining your neck upwards. You still have to round Rubh' a' Phuill at this point (possibly 'Point of Turning') NR4659 : Rubh' a' Phuill, Islay by Becky Williamson and NR4659 : Natural Arch at Rubh' a' Phuill, Islay by Becky Williamson, a rather dramatic natural arch/cave just beneath the lighthouse. A very steep and scary set of steps leads up to this white-washed lighthouse, gleaming in the afternoon sun NR4659 : McArthur's Head Lighthouse, Islay by Becky Williamson. We waited for the 1530 hours ferry to sail past and took many photos. (Unfortunately in my excitement every single one was shot on ISO 1600 and therefore not much use!)

We opted for the 'high road' for our return route, which meant lots of bracken and heather, but glorious views NR4659 : The Sound of Islay from above McArthur's Head by Becky Williamson. The view of the beach north of Proaig was especially worth all the ticks! NR4658 : Beach north of Proaig, Islay by Becky Williamson We watched the 1800 ferry leave Port Ellen before we arrived back at the car - the only time I can recall having seen all three ferries in one walk!

Thu, 19 Jul 2012 at 06:09

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