Cycling the Outer Hebrides

When thinking of the Outer Hebrides dreich, windswept, bleak, rainy islands came to my mind. Somehow Morgan convinced me the Outer Hebrides would be a good to cycle on, and I’m glad she did.

It wasn’t a convincing start, as Morgan and I fought through the cloud and drizzle as we arrived at Castlebay, Barra: neither of us were adequately waterproof to keep the rain out. Luckily it stopped soon after we arrived at our beach campsite on the small isle of Vatersay and it was just about the only rain we saw on the trip. Our campsite was brilliant: on machair (think wild flower meadow) sandwiched between two white, Caribbean style beaches. Unfortunately it was here I had my first encounter with a poor stove/pan combination which plagued me for the whole trip, spilling a pan of water over Morgan's thermarest. I had to stand outside in my shorts in the cold wind pretending to be a washing line to dry it.

The following morning the clouds had moved on and the sun was out. It felt like we were round Barra and on the ferry to South Uist in no time. This led me to think we'd be finished in only a few days, which turned out to be very optimistic, and we averaged only 30 miles a day, giving plenty of time to take in the scenery and drink an occasional cup of tea, which we did at a hotel on South Uist before setting up camp near a beach. Camping next to the beach was brilliant; we walked along the perfect white sand and watched the sun set. We only discovered the downside the following morning: we were plagued by flies, presumably attracted by the sea weed.

South Uist doesn't seem to have any proper towns, instead houses are scattered as though they had been thrown down at random. The main road is only single track, which is of questional benefit: it means that there is only a little traffic, but almost every time a car passes we had to stop in a layby (bikes being at the bottom of the pecking order on the road), and when your bike is heavily laden it takes a lot of effort to get going again.

Pausing outside a house, we were surprised when someone appeared form the front door and came to chat to us. He had a very thick accent and showed us the nearby 'castle' (really just a random old house). He seemed quite shy (oddly) and was unemployed (I think a lot of people are). He seemed the same age as us but had a very different life.

Near the top of South Uist we went on a 3 mile (each way) detour to the Salar Smokehouse – arriving just after it has closed for the day. We found their salmon in the next shop we passed through, and it did taste very nice when we ate it for dinner on later on Benbecula. We had again camped next to an awesome beach, and enjoyed another great sunset.

The following day we headed across the chain of small islands between Benbecula and North Uist linked by causeways. On one of these islands we took another detour to Killin Shellfish. Outside of their small warehouse were millions (literally) of scallop shells which had been dumped into the sea. They had even built a car park on top of the scallops. We bought a lobster (pre-cooked) for only a fiver!

We continued winding our way across the small islands, the sun shining, until on one causeway Morgan "eagle eyes" spotted a baby hedgehog by the side of the road. Morgan was distressed as she told me that hedgehogs are nocturnal creatures and for a baby one to be out in the daylight was on ominous sign - not helped by the fact that hedgehogs are considered pests by the islanders. There was nothing we could do to help it though. Morgan poured it some of our milk and we left it to sniffle around the grass.

We camped in an RSPB reserve on North Uist that evening, giving Morgan a chance to put her new binoculars to good use attempting to spot a Golden Eagle. Morgan dissected the lobster for us - it transpires there is very little meat in it and, disappointingly,  it didn't even taste particularly good! (This may be because of the basic way in which it was served). 

I get the impression that North Uist is bleak at the best of times, and cycling across it on a Sunday when everything is closed only adds to this feeling. The bleakness finished when we crossed the causeway on the small isle of Berneray. We stayed in a quaint hostel consisting of two renovated blackhouses (painted white). It was a lovely spot and we went otter watching. It felt amazing to sleep on a proper bed! There was only one shower though between a lot of people and it went cold every time somebody flushed the toilet.

I was reluctant to get up the next morning but the ferry to Harris wasn’t going to wait. Calmac ferries are brilliant, and the ferry man on this ferry was particularly friendly.

Harris is clearly a beautiful place - all of the Western Isles have hills but none have anything in comparison to Harris. We began by cycling up the West side which has lovely beaches and the famous machair. Crossing over to the East side the contrast is startling: lots of small coves and heathery-rockiness. During the clearances the crofters were evicted from the West and forced to move to the East - it is not hard to understand why they emigrated.

We camped by a small loch, the tent slightly hidden from the very quiet road. It was nice to be away from the flies! (and there was still no midges). We went for an evening stroll round the loch and I took a few portrait photos of Morgan.

The following day we passed through Tarbet and up a startlingly steep and high hill. We relaxed in the sun: eating and taking photos. The downhill was short in comparison to the uphill and led us onto the Lewis, a far flatter isle.

We spent a long time looking for somewhere to camp that evening, Lewis is slightly more populated which makes wild camping more difficult. Getting slightly desperate meant that our standards were lower than usual, and we spent the night in a heather bog and had our only encounter with midges that we had on the whole trip.

We headed to the West of Lewis to see the Callanish standing stones. I am not normally a great fan of standing stones, but even I was impressed by those at Callanish.

Next stop was Calloway Broch, an impressive fortified house, and then the Gearannan blackhouse village. This consisted of a museum split between two blackhouses, a few were self-catering blackhouses and one which was a hostel: sadly, it was permanently closed. We wanted to stop but had no food and had not passed a shop all day - almost. We had bought bread from the Blue Pig art gallery just 3 minutes up the road and they had a few packets of food in an outside cupboard. I left Mog to set up the tent whilst I pedalled back.

The gallery was empty but whilst I was picking through the food a young lad appeared from somewhere to help. I mentioned something about vegetables and without hesitation he ran off and an older man, the owner, appeared with a small bag of carrots & other veg. I'd more or less cleared out their shop/cupboard but he didn't mind. By the prices I don't think he was making any more than 10p/item. We chatted for quite a while before I returned to find the tent up in a lovely spot. Our evening stroll along the coast revealed a surprisingly cliffy, dramatic landscape and Morgan’s new Harris Tweed shawl seemed to match it well.

 

The following day we stopped at another blackhouse museum - life must have been dark inside the windowless structures. We then made a final 15 mile push across moorland to Stornoway. Cycling through the rain I overdid it at one point and jolted my shoulder. This made me very unhappy and really put me off cycling any further.

We arrived in Stornoway accidently on the weekend of the Heb-Celt fest, and at the same time as Christine and Eric who had also cycled there. Morgan and I resolved to go to the festival on the Friday night when the Peat Bog Fairies were headlining. This meant we could spend the rest of the day exploring Stornoway. The following day we looked round the visiting tall ships – the Russians had gone all out and their ship was gargantuan, dwarfing all other countries.

That evening we went to the festival. It is a fairly compact festival, the main stage is in a giant blue tent and there’s a smaller “islands stage” in a marquee. There were only 3 acts on each stage, staggered so that there was always somebody playing. I was uninspired by the first acts but loved the last two: Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag – a group of 11 fiddlers, and the Peatbog Fairies. Mental dancing essential.

The following day we waved goodbye to Christine and Eric and caught the ferry to Ullapool to begin our journey back to the car in Oban – actually a longer distance than we’d covered already. We were picked up in Ullapool by Flora, and she drove us to her house on Scorraig, a peninsula only accessible by boat.

We stayed in her house for several days- it was superb, her parents were very welcoming (scorraigweave.com). I got to ride the quadbike, we went shooting in the garden, unsuccessful fishing, very picking and did some weeding in the vegetable patch. Scorraig is covered in wind turbine as there is no mains electricity – this is mainly thanks to Hugh Piggott, the wind turbine guru.

We were sad to leave, but the adventure continued as Flora drove us to Mairead’s house on Skye where we stayed for a further two nights, mainly lazing around. From there we got on our bikes again for the 15 mile cycle to Armadale to catch the ferry to Mallaig, and from there the train journey to Oban.

All in all, a great trip, even though my dodgy shoulder did reduce the amount of actual cycle touring done.

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