|From:||Lussagiven, Jura (NR635869)|
|To:||Ardbeg, Islay (NR415461)|
|Distance:||48 miles (77.2 km)|
|Meets:||A847, B8016, B8016|
|Route outline (key)|
The A846 is the main north-south route on the islands of Jura and Islay, the two connected by the Jura Ferry. Because of this, very few people will ever drive it's entire length in one go, especially as neither end is a ferry port. Aside from Port Askaig, where the Jura ferry crosses, the Islay ferry also berths at Port Ellen on Islay, a few miles west of Ardbeg. Whilst it may seem a little odd, we shall therefore start our exploration of this route at the 'wrong' end. After all, it is highly unlikely that anyone won't drive the road both ways, so lets enjoy the scenery on the way out and concentrate on the road on the return.
Jura: Lussagiven – Feolin Ferry
According to a couple of sources, at one time the road started at the bridge over the River Lussa in Ardlussa but it now stops a mile short, with the end of the classified road being in an apparently arbitrary spot near Lussagiven. This point is perhaps not so arbitrary, however, as it is the entrance to the Inverlussa estate, marked by a cattle grid in the drystone boundary wall. At first glance it is strange to note that each time the road on Jura passes from one estate to the next, the quality of the road changes. However, is this simply a reflection of how substantially each estate built the road foundations a century or more ago when it was still their responsibility to build the road? The volume of traffic and relative importance of the route almost certainly means that the various councils have never seen a need to do any more than resurface ever since.
Back to Lussagiven, and the road heads south, winding along through the hills of the east coast of Jura. It is not just the main road south but the only road, yet on Jura the road is S1 throughout and barely seems to reach the standards of an unclassified road, let alone a Class I road! There are very few signs of life here with the occasional isolated cottage and even more occasional road junction to help you feel you are not alone. After a couple of miles or so, the road drops towards the shore at Tarbert Bay. This is the narrowest point on Jura, just a mile or so's walk from the bay across to the head of Loch Tarbert, a deep, narrow inlet on the west coast. After dropping almost to sea level, the road climbs again away from Tarbert, but this time it is on the coastal side of the hills. The scenery is excellent, with the mountains on the right and the coast on the left, both clearly visible here and there when the road briefly escapes the trees.
The road drops back to near sea level at Lagg Bay, passing the farmhouse before a sharp right turn sees the road climb once more. At the bend, a rough grassy track turns left, running along to the shore. Amazingly, this is marked as a spur of the A846 on maps from around 1960, leading down to the pier at the end of the headland that offers some protection to the bay. This spur is not so surprising when looking at older maps, however. Back in 1923, before the A846 was extended across Jura, this pier is marked as the end of the road, a mere path continuing northwards. It is also one of the crossing points of old to the mainland, with Lagg to Keils at the end of the B8025 being one of the shortest crossings of the Sound of Jura. Today its historical importance is largely forgotten, however, and the track sees little use judging by its present condition.
As the road climbs, it is once more shielded from the coast by a line of low hills, but eventually it emerges onto the open hillside above the dramatically shaped Lowlandmans Bay. The road then drops a little to cross the Corran River on a three stone arch bridge. Just before the bridge is a car park, from where the path across to the Paps of Jura starts. These hills are a significant landmark on the west coast, and can be seen from the summits of many mountains to the north and east on a clear day. There is also a side turning - a rare thing on Jura - which leads down to Knockrome on the south side of the Bay, the north side accessed by a track from Knockrome. A shoreside field on this road is Juras airfield, although it has not been developed like those on other small Hebridean islands were.
Presently the road drops down to sea level and follows the shore of Loch na Mile, an inlet of the Sound of Jura. It is now just a few metres from the rocky beach, with the deep blue of the bay stretching out to the Small Isles which lie just offshore. About half way round the bay the veritable metropolis of Craighouse is reached, a long strung out village lining the road and rarely more than one building deep. There are no speed limit signs here, but there are at the far end of the village, begging the question of whether the whole of the north end of Jura is a 30 limit, although in reality reaching 40 anywhere on this island is a rare event! A couple of car parks lie on the shore side of the road, with the road turning away from the coast at the village shop. Just after, it forks between the hotel and the distillery, and the left hand spur is still the A846, leading down to a pier from where a passenger ferry sails to Tayvallich on Kintyre and the B8025. This is a comparatively modern pier, the old one lying behind the shop.
Back to the junction and the road quickly climbs out of the village, passing the NSL signs and heading for the ferry, still many miles away. The quality of the road is much better than north of Craighouse, undoubtedly because the road sees far more traffic. It is still slow going, however. The road runs along high on the hillside, and occasionally loses sight of the sea behind hills or woodland. Above Jura House, the road turns from South West to North West to avoid plunging off into the sea, and starts a long, undulating, descent towards the coast once more.
The coast of Jura facing Islay is one of raised beaches backed by shallow cliffs. The cliffs are cut by deeply incised stream gulleys, and it through one of these that the road drops to the shore, crossing a small bridge as it does. Heading roughly north now, the road runs along the raised beach to the next gulley, where a modern bridge carries it straight over the stream, with the old bridge still standing on a loop behind. It is now just under a mile to the ferry, and the road winds along under the cliffs to Feolin Ferry, from where the Sound of Jura vehicle ferry takes traffic across the Sound of Islay to Port Askaig on Islay, a port which also sees ferries to Kintyre and once or twice a week to Colonsay. Interestingly, at the northern end of the ferry car park, there is evidence that a road used to continue north along the beach. However, erosion seems to have been a problem, and this old road has been replaced by a track climbing from the ferry house a little to the south.
Islay: Port Askaig – Ardbeg
We cross the little 7, or 8 at a push, car ferry to Port Askaig, and the road changes a lot. Now actually worthy of the "A" prefix for the first time, the road is no longer single track with passing places, but then Islay is home to 3,500 people whilst Jura has less than 200! The ferry terminal area underwent major improvements in 2009, with a new road and much enlarged queueing and parking areas. This seems to have involved the blasting of a huge volume of rock, and so any previous line that the road took has been lost. This also means that there is a one way system around the terminal - the only one on the island.
The road climbs immediately from the pier, past the iconic little filling station with an outline of Islay cut into the end wall, and around the back of the queueing lanes. The climb steepens as the two lanes join, and rises up behind the car park to a wide hairpin. All of the climb has cycle lanes on either side, but just before the top, the original line of the road is found, and it narrows back to a standard S2 width. As the road emerges from the trees, the terrain seems far more hospitable to human life than it was on Jura and indeed the first village, of Keills, is soon reached, just after two right turns, both of which terminate at distilleries - Caol Ila and Bunnahabhainn. Another right turn at the village leads to Islays number one historical site - Finlaggan, one time home to the Lord of the Isles who rivalled the Scottish King for supremacy for generations in the Medieval period.
Beyond the village, houses are common along the roadside and the village of Ballygrant is also passed through, where the Glen Road turns off to cross the island to the B8016. After a couple of long straights, the road becomes twistier and passes through some woods which surround Islay House. Here we reach the River Sorn and follow it down to the west coast and the village of Bridgend, where we meet the first classified road on our route so far, the A847. A couple of bends before the junction, the road crosses a tarred driveway. Until comparatively recently, this estate road crossed over the road on a bridge, but this has now been removed.
The turning at Bridgend is signed in typical Islay fashion, by a faded sign with peeling letters that is all but hidden by trees. Nevertheless, it is a busy junction with lots of turning traffic, so difficult to miss. It sits next to the shop, filling station and Hotel, which is almost all that there is to the village. A short distance further on a minor road turns off to the left, leading across to the Glen Road at Cluanach. The A846 then emerges from the trees and finds itself on the shore at the sandy head of Loch Indaal. A left fork at the next bend is the start of the B8016, taking a more direct route to Port Ellen on the south coast.
We keep right and follow the west coast to Bowmore, the island capital. The road stays close to the shore, with the occasional building on the shore side, until the town is reached. Along the way it passes a community centre and small industrial area, before narrowing down as Shore Street, winding through the pretty coloured terraces. A crossroads is then reached, where the road bends sharply left in the centre of town. Many maps show that the road to the right, down to the pier and small harbour, is a spur of the A846 but no vehicle ferry service has ever come into Bowmore. We head south, climbing the wide main street which is dominated by Bowmore's round church at the top. A tight wiggle past the church takes us out of town, and we are now cutting off a corner of our coastal journey.
After a mile or so of twists and turns across a low hilly area, the road swings left across the River Laggan - an old bridge still stands hidden in the trees to the left - and starts one of the most astonishing sections of road anywhere in Scotland. For the next 6½ miles the road is effectively dead straight. There are some very slight wiggles here and there, but nothing that can amount to a bend, and most of the wiggles are more likely to be a result of verge encroachment and poor white-lining than anything else. Along this straight, the road is running about a mile inland from Laggan Bay an equally impressive stretch of beach. We also pass Islay Airport which is wedged in between the coast and the A846 and the junction to the Machrie Hotel and Golf Course lying at the back of the dunes. A left turn crosses opposite the airport to the B8016.
Six and a half miles is not, however, the end of the story. When a corner is finally reached, it is a sharp left-hand bend, but the straight road continues ahead. No longer S2, it is undoubtedly much closer to the condition of the A846 when first classified in 1922, being single track with passing places. This continues for another mile before it stops just short of crashing into the sea at a junction with the Mull of Oa road. Back to the A846, the sharp bend takes us to the other end of the B8016, where the A846 turns sharp right, effectively picking up the line of the B road, but it is clear that it has always made this double bend. It is then just a short run into Port Ellen.
Another filling station is passed, next to a substantial community hall as we enter Port Ellen, and after a short run down between the terraces of Charlotte Street, the road turns left to run along the harbour. This village's pier does see scheduled vehicle ferry services to the mainland - but unlike in Bowmore the A846 doesn't serve the pier! Heading eastwards around the bay, the road then turns left up Lennox Street to follow the south coast. Along the way it passes Laphroaig, Lagavullin and finally Ardbeg distilleries. Indeed, the last is at the terminus of the route. The exact end of the road is debatable - the spot is unmarked on the groung and different maps show the road ending in different places. However, the line of the road bears right to run towards the distillery and the (unused) pier, suggesting that the A846 ends by allowing tourists access to their whisky, although historically it was the pier that the road served!.
In 1922, the road only existed on Islay. It was extended across the Sound of Islay to Jura in the late 1920s.
Much of the route on Islay from Port Askaig to Bridgend shows evidence of realignment at some point in the past, almost certainly when the road was improved to be S2. There are many section of abandoned road running alongside, particularly around Ballygrant, and some of these have been reused to form a cycle / pedestrian route from Port Askaig (nearly) to Ballygrant. Unfortunately this path is overgrown in places, although the same can't be said for the new path between Ardbeg and Port Ellen, which was well used during early August, despite workmen still finishing it!