I felt somewhat embarrassed to have never visited Scotland. I have never been to Ireland either for that matter. It was something that really needed correcting. A Visit Scotland flyer dropped into my newsfeed recently and featured a photograph of cyclists hitting the trails across some inspiring island landscapes. I became seduced by the idea of cycling across the Outer Hebrides.
‘Crowned the Hebridean Trail, this 280km bike journey weaves its way through seven superb islands on a variety of ancient paths, historic by-ways, mountain tracks and impossibly quiet roads.’
Sustrans Route 780 runs the length of the Outer Hebrides from the island of Vatersay in the South to the Northern tip of the Island of Lewis.It seemed like just the tonic to help me overcome my post trip blues following my return from riding the Pamir Highway.
However, and possibly more to the point, my daughter Rosie loved the idea of visiting Scotland too. I busied myself and prepped a Dawes Watoga mountain bike for her. I attached a rear rack, upgraded the brakes, fixed a shorter stem and a more comfortable seat. It looked great with my old orange Karrimor rear panniers. My Surly Long Haul Trucker got a new middle chain ring; replacement bottom bracket; new Kool Stop pads (finally); Thorn stem and replacement XR tyres. The weather forecast for the Hebrides was a bit crap. However it appeared to be more promising for the following week. It was also an opportunity to test out the bikes and make further modifications.
Looking good. All set to go! But no…. A few days before we were due to leave Rosie got cold feet and cried off. C’est la vie. Undeterred I headed off up the A1 with the Surly LHT, usual touring and camping gear in the back of the car. Och aye. I was finally going to ‘bonnie’ Scotland. Probably the most interesting thing I saw on the journey up was a burnt out car in the car park of a service station on the M6.
The scenery changed quite drastically once past Glasgow and the River Clyde. Loch Lomond looked incredible! The A85 took me to the bustling harbour town of Oban in Argyll. It was easy to park a few streets up the hill from the harbour and slept in the car overnight.
From there I took the ferry to Barra courtesy of Caledonian Macbrane ferries. A flexible ‘Hopscotch’ ticket is valid for a month and provides for multiple journeys across the islands for £28. I wasn’t too sure how I would return to Oban. I considered the ferry from Stornaway in Lewis to Ullapool and then cycling back via Inverness on the East coast of mainland Scotland. But it didn’t seem ideal. An alternative option appeared to be cycling back through Skye. I popped into Oban Cycles to ask their advice. They hire out bikes (£125 week) and for an extra £25 will retrieve a hire bike from Ullapool. I mentioned the route via Skye and that option was, if anything, the best way to cycle back. It was, in their words, the ‘ultimate’ circular ride taking in the Outer Hebrides. They also mentioned and highly recommended to stay at a hostel on Berneray. This turned out to be excellent advice!
The ferry from Oban to Castlebay on Barra takes less than 5 hours. Bikes (carried free) are tied up on the car deck. The journey is relatively smooth and facilities are good. All of the ferry services were well done. On each island Caledonian Macbrane provide heated waiting rooms with WCs and free wifi. Some even have power sockets.
I like the island of Barra a lot. Beautiful bays, sandy beaches and relaxed lanes around picturesque hills make Barra a wonderful place to visit. When the sun shines and the jet stream drops South the Outer Hebrides enjoys the kind of hot dry weather that could, potentially, turn the islands into a popular holiday destination.
I cycled to the Southern island of Vatersay and to the beginning of the Sustains route 780.
With the evening drawing in I returned to Castlebay and rounded the island to the West before pitching my tent overlooking a sandy beach between Borve and Allasdale.
The next day and before taking the Ferry to the next island of Eriskay, I dropped into the cafe at Barra Airport for tea. With regular scheduled flights to Glasgow it is unique in so far as it is the only airport in the world to use a beach for its runways.
From Eriskay it is possible to cross over onto South Uist via a long causeway. The group of islands of South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist extend over about 100km of less remarkable scenery and are each connected to each other via causeways. Wild camping is easy enough, as with all the islands but there is a youth hostel at Howmore on South Uist.
For my third night’s camping I cycled inland off the recommended cycle route and up to one of the highest spots on North Uist off the single track Committee Road which cuts across the island. From there it was a relaxed ride over another causeway onto the island of Berneray. A little way beyond the ferry terminal and main village is the hostel recommended by Oban bike shop. It really is a great place and well frequented by visiting cyclists. I met one chap there (with his Thorn Nomad) who had been a designer in Birmingham for Dawes cycles during the late eighties. The standards of accommodation at the Berneray hostel are very high having been recently refurbished. There is no booking or reservation. The facilities provided on the islands by the Gatliff Hebridean Hostels Trust provide an excellent option for visitors; ‘Cyclists and walkers will never be turned away’.
£14 bags a bed in one of the dorms and full use of the well equipped facilities including hot showers. Aside from basic food supplies everything is provided. A local resident dropped by selling fresh dressed crab and couldn’t resist buying one to use for lunch the next day. With lots of happy cyclists filling the place the long table in the kitchen diner was covered with emptied bottles by the end of the evening. I retired early with a view to catching the 07.15 am ferry to South Harris.
Maybe I left a little late after breakfast and pedalled quickly over the few hills towards the ferry. It was cutting it fine and I waved now and then hoping that the ship’s captain on the bridge would see me cycling towards them. Finally, and just in time, I made it onto the ship. The bow doors closed in my wake. It was another clear lovely day and I was excited to be sailing towards Harris.
Route 780 follows the Western coast of South Harris before climbing towards the centre of the island and dropping down towards the town of Tarbert. An alternative, and one that I would have loved to see, is the ‘Golden Road’ which tracks across and around the Eastern coastline. The name ‘Golden Road’ reflects the huge costs of creating a road across a long stretch of coastline and terrain consisting mostly of rock and water. I regret missing that one. However the Western road is quite spectacular. Beautiful beaches, high rocky roads, freshwater pools and awe inspiring views provided an unforgettable journey.
From the town and port of Tarbert the road runs along the West coast towards the castle at Amhuinnsuidhe. The cycle route however pushes up past the Clisham mountain which, at 799m, is the highest point in the outer Hebrides. The road is a challenge but once climbed affords wonderful views towards Loch Shiphoirt.
I stayed several nights at the GHHT hostel at Rhenigidale on Harris. It was a crofters cottage with a good kitchen and woodburning stove in the living room. Three upstairs rooms provided bunkbeds for up to 12 visitors. It was a fairly quiet out-of-the-way kind of place and for my second night had the cottage to myself.
A ‘rest day’ from cycling was spent tackling the ‘Postman’s Path’ from Tarbert to Rhenigidale. It has a reputation as ‘the most beautiful path in Britain’. It is wonderful and stretches up over boulder strewn hills past brooks and streams. It meanders past waterfalls and up and down past beautiful little sea coves. I stopped on one small beach and watched a seal in the water nearby. Some sections are popular with cyclists on mountain bikes. However it does become very difficult with very steep inclines and the path narrows to just a few inches around rocks and deep vegetation. To cycle that you would have to be a little mad. I had considered the possibility of getting my fully loaded touring bike back along the path to reach the ferry at Tarbert. However I quickly realised that it was nigh on impossible. It would have required physically carrying everything up and over long severely steep inclines with little easy footing. Walking the ‘path’ was difficult enough. I decided I would return to Tarbert using the road over the centre of Harris.
The postman, I was to find out later that evening, was Kenneth Mackay who had followed in the footsteps of his uncle. The village had no connecting road until the 90’s and Kenny delivered the post three times a week via the coastal and hill walk from Tarbert. By coincidence Kenny looked in on the hostel. He was keeping an eye on the place whilst the caretaker was away. We sat and had a chat and it wasn’t until the conversation turned to my earlier walk did I then find out that he had been the postman. To have walked that route in all weathers all year round must have been quite a herculean task. My legs ached for days after doing that walk.
Admittedly I did not complete Sustrans Route 780 and the ‘Hebridean Trail’. Lewis looked less interesting from a geographical point of view and preferred to spend longer on Harris before sailing to Skye. A friend later said that it wasn’t such a bad idea. He hadn’t enjoyed cycling to Stornaway that much. I do not feel that I have missed much. However Skye was yet another adventure. From Uig the road follows South past the pretty picture postcard port of Portree. Heading further South and cross country I was bowled over by the magnificent sight of the Cuillin mountain range. At Sligachan next to Loch Ainort there is a campsite and hotel which is perfectly positioned against the dramatic backdrop. It is a hub for climbers and sightseers exploring the surrounding munroes.
I stopped for a pint of the locally brewed Blackface bitter at the Sligachan Hotel Seumas’s bar and marvelled at their huge collection of whiskies. Initially I sat in their garden but the swarms of attacking highland midges made that impossible.
The weather had turned a bit horrible and made camp for the night under a road bridge to the west of Glaimaig hill. I had been lucky up to that point with mixed weather which had provided plenty of sunshine. Now it was constant rain and heavily overcast. The weather improved the next day and was impressed with the dedicated cycle route that cut across the centre of Skye towards Isleornsay on its Southern coast. However it began to rain heavily and I took refuge for a while in a bus shelter. But, and once again, it brightened up.
Once at Armadale I was able to catch a ferry to Mallaig. I grabbed some supplies in the Co-op supermarket close to the harbour. Almost opposite the store is Mallaig railway station. It occurred to me that it was a good idea to hop on a train to Fort William if possible… There was a fine looking train in the station but could find no ticket office. Pushing my bike along the platform I was directed to the conductors office on one of the carriages. He was pleased to sell me a ticket and we lifted the bike from the tracks up into the first carriage behind the locomotive.
I had, inadvertently, found myself on board a train pulled by the famous ‘Jacobite’ steam locomotive. The West Coast railway service between Mailliag to Fort William has been described as ‘the greatest railway in the World’ . I was to ride directly behind the Jacobite as it puffs and whistles and winds its way to Fort William. How cool is that!
It is a popular journey for fans of the Harry Potter movies having been featured in the first movie as the steam train taking Harry to Hogwarts. The journey is certainly very magical and I loved every minute. As the train passed through tunnels the steam poured into the carriage through the windows. I had a seat but spent much of the journey with my bike directly behind the locomotive and with excellent views on either side from open windows. It was the unexpected highlight of my cycling trip!
Arriving fairly late in Fort William meant that finding a camping spot was a priority. Lachlan, the train conductor, had suggested a spot around the base of Ben Nevis. But I took the road Westwards on the edge of Loch Linnhe towards Oban and the national cycle route 78. I quickly found a suitable lay-by and nearby woods on the banks of the loch to pitch my tent.
The following morning I found the national cycle route 78. It is an absolute joy to ride. Dedicated sealed paths follow along what once was the old railway line. It cuts through rocks; alongside lochs; through green fields and over hills often with inspiring views. Occasionally it joins the main road but soon returns to its own dedicated trail. All credit to Sustrans and all those that helped create this brilliant cycle route.
Once back in Oban I treated myself to a curry and a pint of heavy in a local pub and overnighted in the car. As an extra treat I drove home via Edinburgh and walked around the trendy new town for a bit before saying my farewell to Scotland.
Highly recommended… I loved Harris in particular. Although, and to be perfectly honest, good weather makes all the difference.