Hello folks, writesofway is happy to report that Fiona completed the Barra to the Butt Bike Ride on Wednesday. Well done Fifi! Furthermore, she cycled 214 miles (344.5km) and climbed 16,450 feet (5,014m) in the process. Fiona had claimed that the route would be 150 miles long, so that represents excellent value for those who sponsored her by the mile – more than 25% free!
Anyway, the ride went mostly to plan (despite a few attempts at sabotage by the ‘support’ team), and there were no mechanical or physical breakdowns – not even a single puncture between us.
Approaching Castlebay – the start of the ride on the Isle of Barra – on the ferry from Oban, dense cloud hovered over the Outer Hebrides and wind-driven showers lashed down. We weren’t worried, however, as we had received assurances from Alex and Bob at blueskyscotland that the weather would improve and the wind would be mostly at our backs.
Next morning I failed to deliver the promised cups of tea to Fiona’s sleeping bag as I’d forgotten to pack matches or a lighter with the trangia stove. Fiona without tea in the morning was a heretofore untried phenomenon, but in the event she heroically managed to exit the tent without the aid of hot beverages. By the time we set off from our wild camping site, the weather had indeed improved, though we would be riding into a stiff breeze for this first day. We rode the nine or so miles to the Sound of Barra ferry at Ardmore without incident and enjoyed pedalling along the very quiet Sunday morning road in beautiful surroundings.
We boarded the small ferry for the 40-minute crossing to Eriskay and were soon dozing in the passenger cabin. I awoke to discover that I’d left my small rucksack back at the waiting room at the Ardmore jetty. Doh! I’d have to go straight back and the ferry wouldn’t return to Eriskay until 4.30pm. I explained the situation to the young man who collected tickets and he said that I wouldn’t need to go back as he’d pick my rucksack up for me. Good lad! This meant that myself and Fiona could have some lunch at the Am Politician pub on Eriskay – no great hardship – while waiting for the ferry to return. The pub is named for the famous S.S. Politician, which sank off Eriskay with it’s cargo of whisky in 1941 and inspired the book and film Whisky Galore!
After Haddock and chips at the pub, Fiona decided to continue across the causeway to South Uist and the remaining 20 miles on to Howmore – our destination for the day – while I went to retrieve my rucksack. However, the ferry returned at 4.30 without my rucksack as the young chap had obviously forgotten, so I went back to Barra again and retrieved it myself. It was after 6pm by the time I got under way again, pedalling into a relentless head wind. South Uist is very low-lying along its western side, so there’s no escape from the elements when you’re cycling along the exposed south-north road. I was feeling fairly battered by the time I rolled up at the wonderful Gatliff Trust hostel at Howmore, but Fiona was on hand to restore me with litres of tea – even though I was supposed to be the support team. A pleasant evening followed in the company of the other folks staying at the hostel, before we retired, exhausted, to our tent.
The wind died away in the night and as a result there was a huge cloud of midges waiting for us when we exited the tent in the morning. Rather generously, two of our fellow hostellers – Astrid and Ottavio – donated one of their containers of Avon Skin So Soft – the most efficacious of all midge repellents – to our cause.
Setting off again, cycling was literally a breeze without the fierce wind of the previous day. As we set about attempting to cycle the 40 miles to the Sound of Harris ferry in time to catch the 1.30pm ferry, we marvelled at the undestated beauty of the Uists and Benbecula in the sparkly morning light. South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist are connected by causeways and our route was mostly low-lying with just a few small climbs. For most of the way the roads are single track with passing places to allow overtaking. We were careful to give way to oncoming cars and most motorists were very considerate to us; however, there were a few people who were happy to risk knocking us off our bikes by overtaking us or felt unable to wait to let us pass.
Nonetheless, we made good progress and got to the ferry with 45 minutes to spare. The crossing to Harris was truly lovely in such fine conditions, but we both felt a bit zonked by the morning’s 40-mile sprint. Disembarking at Leverburgh, we refuelled with coffee and cake at the An Clachan shop and cafe before setting off on the last 10 miles to the campsite at Horgabost.
Revitallised, we were both in good form for the hugely enjoyable rolling ride around the south-west coast of Harris. It has to be said that Harris is outrageously beautiful and has some of the finest beaches anywhere. Don’t go to Spain next summer, come to Harris – but bring some woolies and some Avon Skin so Soft!
We had a great evening’s relaxation at the campsite – showers, salmon steaks cooked on the trangia and even a wee dram before bedtime!
Next morning we were both feeling mightily refreshed, which was just as well as we had 60 miles to cycle with a couple of monster hills to tackle as well. Up and over the first climb, we dropped down to Tarbert and gathered some supplies – cake of various forms was top of the list.
Soon after leaving Tarbert, we had to tackle the really big hill that passes through the mountains of north Harris. Considering that Fiona had had almost no training for this ride, it has to be said that she tackled the thigh-wobbling climbs with great aplomb!
Up and over the mountains and we were soon freewheeling downhill for a while, before passing along Loch Seaforth and onto the Isle of Lewis. It is a matter of confusion for the uninitiated that the isles of Harris and Lewis are actually the same landmass. It seems that the dual identity of these ‘isles’ is predicated on their contrasting terrain – Harris is largely mountainous, while Lewis is relatively low-lying.
Onwards we continued through the vast open expanses of Lewis, before making a small detour to engage in a little light cultural tourism at the late-Neolithic standing stones of Callanish. The stones are certainly impressive and are a magnet for visitors including plenty of New Age and pagan enthusiasts many of whom impute mystical powers in these blameless lumps of rock.
More coffee and cake was consumed at the visitor centre before tackling the last 10 miles to Garenin and our billet for the night. By this stage, with 50 miles and several big climbs in her legs, Fiona was becoming a little tired. The last few miles were a real effort of will. Finally, we turned off the A858 onto the singletrack road to Garenin blackhouse village and the Gatliff Trust Hostel there.
We camped nearby and returned to the hostel to cooked our venison steaks, which we’d hauled all the way from the butchers at Tarbert. There were a few other people staying and we had a chat with some of them before heading to the clifftops to watch the sunset.
The next morning was a bit overcast, but we had scant cause for complaint given the excelllent weather we’d enjoyed so far. We had 30 miles to cycle to the Butt of Lewis and our objective however, we decided that we would be as well to leave our panniers and most of our stuff at Garenin, so we could cycle back from the Butt and spend a second night at Garenin. It was areal liberation to cycle without however-many-kilos of camping gear and we fair whizzed along to the Butt. In truth, the north-west coast of Lewis seemed not as lovely as most other parts of the Outer Hebrides, and the dull weather wasn’t helping. The villages we passed through had an air of unadorned tenacity about them; the struggle to forge an existence in an often unforgiving landscape seemed etched into their countenances.
Along the way, at the village of Bragar, we encountered an ornamental archway made from the jaw bones of an enormous blue whale, which was washed ashore here in 1920.
Soon enough, the 37-metre high tower of the Butt of Lewis lighthouse came into view and our goal was in sight.
After much back-slapping all round, we repaired to the Cross Inn at nearby Cross for a much-needed lunch of haddock and chips. While we were there, a couple whom we’d seen several times on our journey came into the pub. We got chatting and it turned out that the slightly eccentric gentleman has spent many years and many pounds travelling around Britain attempting to use his credit card in every village, town and city in England, Scotland and Wales – latterly accompanied by his indulgent partner. The chap produced a road map of Great Britain with the places he’d visited marked in pink highlighter – the enormity of his endeavour stood revealed. He was engagingly enthusiastic and I warmed to his commitment to an utterly pointless enterprise. There’s a metaphor there.
We cycled back to Garenin as a light rain settled in, though not enough to warrant waterproofs. We were quite knackered by the time we got back and looking forward to tucking into the steak and red wine we had acquired en route. The hostel was fairly busy with a mixture of other cyclists a few New Agers and a couple of doe-eyed German girls. A sociable evening ensued and by the time we’d reached the bottom of the bottle of wine our eyes were crossing and it was time for bed.
The morning dawned one of the most glorious days of the year. We had a mere 20 miles to cycle back to Stornoway along the old Pentland Road to catch the ferry to Ullapool and onward to home. What a lovely journey it was too.