In May 2007, myself and Fiona stuffed our bicycle panniers with camping gear and set off for the Outer Hebrides. Fiona was a veteran of several visits to this long chain of Scotland’s Western Isles, though my only previous visit – to South Uist – many years before had been a New Year holiday and we had been largely confined to our quarters by 100-mile an hour gales. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but felt confident that this expedition would be an improvement.
After stowing our bikes on the car deck of the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry at Oban, we enjoyed a glorious crossing in shimmering early summer sunlight. After despatching the obligatory CalMac steak pie and chips, we went out on deck to watch as the isle of Barra took shape on the horizon. As the ferry slid in to Castlebay, we rejoined our bikes along with about a dozen other cyclists. The bow door was lowered and golden evening sunlight flooded in to the car deck. After the lorries and cars had chugged off, our small community of the two-wheeled pushed their bicycles on to the slip, emerging in to a serene and beautiful world bathed in the still-balmy glow of the sun as it dipped towards the vast Atlantic.
We pedalled the few kilometres over to the island’s west coast and pitched the tent amid the sand dunes at Bàgh Thalaman before trotting along to the nearby hotel for a sundowner. The sunset was sublime indeed and we soon got talking to a gaggle of elderly English ladies who were touring the Outer Hebrides and were in transports of delight over the ever more splendid sunset spectaculars they’d enjoyed every evening. Tiptoeing away from the enraptured octogenarians so as not to disrupt their reveries, we slunk off to our tent to get a good night’s kip.
In the morning we decided to have a pedal around Barra and Vatersay, the smaller, causeway-linked island to Barra’s south. When returning to Castlebay from Vatersay, Fiona’s small sprocket rings came loose from the cassette, presenting us with a bit of a technical disaster, given our limited collection of tools and mechanical know-how. Asking around, we discovered that there is a chap who hires out bikes from a shed in Castlebay and he might well have some tools, hooray! However, he was currently away at sea for some days, boo! Though his mate the ambulance driver would probably be opening up for him in the next half an hour, hooray! Sure enough, soon after arriving at the bike hire shed he did turn up and was very helpful, although the available tools were a fairly antediluvian collection. Far from sure what sort of tool I was looking for, I rootled around until I found something that looked like a short length of bike chain attached to a short rod. I wrapped the chain around the sprocket rings, gave them a twist and hey-presto! Never in all my life have I had such an unexpected and triumphant result from my cack-handed attempts at bicycle repairs.
The following morning dawned clear and bright again, so we packed-up and pedalled off around the island to the airport building by the huge sandy bay at Tràigh Mhòr, which is actually the island’s airstrip. After tea and cake at the terminal café, it was time to cycle down to the ferry terminal at Aird Mhòr. We planned to make a few ferry crossings during our Hebridean Bicycle Odyssey, so we’d bought ‘island hopscotch’ tickets, which are a good flexible and economic way of getting between the islands. Boarding the wee ferry, our bikes were seized and expertly secured with a series of cunning knots straight out of the Old Sea Dog’s Maritime Knots Manual by a great big bearded horny-handed son of the sea sporting an earring, pony tail, gold tooth and wind-blasted complexion.
‘Erm, those are rather impressive knots’, I ventured ,’I can see you’ve had some practice’.
‘Aye’, he responded in a gruff though not unfriendly tone, ‘ Ah wiz in tha’ broonies’.
Needless to say, the vision of this great grizzly bear of a man in pigtails and Brownie uniform was a bit much to take. Anyway, we crept off to the tiny passenger cabin where we watched the seascape roll by through a porthole. Forty minutes later, we came alongside the pier at Eriskay and we were soon back in the saddle and pedalling up the short, steep incline rising away from the landing slip. Eriskay is less than three miles in length and roughly half that in width so our stay on the island was short and sweet as it took us only ten minutes to pedal to the causeway stretching across the Caloas Eiriosgaigh or Sound of Eriskay. Still, time enough to reflect on famous events in this tiny island’s history.
On August 2nd 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Seven Men of Moidart were landed from the frigate Du Teillay en route to stage the ill-starred Forty-Five Jacobite Rebellion. The beach where Prince Charles Edward Stuart reputedly set foot on Scottish soil for the first time is known as Coilleag a’ Phrionnsa or the Prince’s Beach. Since 2001, when the new Eriskay – South Uist causeway was built, the Sound of Barra ferry arrives at the new harbour built at the southern end of this beach. Eriskay is also infamous as the site of the shipwreck that inspired Compton Mackenzie’s novel Whisky Galore! In 1941, the S.S. Politician ran aground off the island when bound for New York and a group of islanders raided the wreck for its consignment of 24,000 cases of whisky. Mackenzie’s 1947 novel recasts the doomed vessel as the S.S. Cabinet Minister and switches the action to the imagined islands of Great Todday and Little Todday (hohoho!) and has the islanders hiding their liquid salvage from an English Home Guard officer dispatched to retrieve it. Whisky Galore! was made in to a hugely successful and much loved Ealing comedy film in 1949. The island’s only pub – the Am Politician – is to be found in the village of Am Baile.
We arrived at the causeway, which is just over a mile long, and pedalled across to South Uist as a fine rain began to fall. All was still and quiet as we pedalled west along the south coast for a few miles before turning north along the road that cleaves to the low-lying terrain on the island’s western side. This road makes for pleasant, easy cycling in clement conditions, but as we continued north, past the turning for Lochboisdale, the island’s main settlement and mainland ferry port, the gentle rain had slipped up a gear to gentle, but rather insistent with added breeze. We were starting to feel a little exposed in the flat treeless landscape A short-eared owl regarded us with big-eyed indifference from its fence post perch as we processed past him/her. The gentle rain had had a sudden mood swing, having been provoked by the irksome breeze and we were now being pummelled. The rain was streaming off our waterproofs as we passed a sign announcing the ruin that was Flora Macdonald’s Birthplace, but by this point all we could think about was getting to the hostel at Howmore some eight miles distant, where we planned to stay the night.
Thankfully, the rain began to ease off and as we arrived at the turning for Howmore we were delighted to discover Rothan Cycles, a rustic cycle hire and repair business based in an ordinary house under siege from stacks of bicycles and bike bits arrayed around the premises. A pair of wheels rotating atop a pole serves as Rothan’s mission statement. We were greeted at the door by Mr Rothan himself, who agreed to have a look over Fiona’s bike later that evening. My attempt to tighten her sprockets (Matron!) was beginning to seem temporary at best. Rothan Cycles is an idiosyncratic example in the great British tradition of independent and agreeably eccentric small businesses – a triumph of content over style. Sure enough, Rothan sorted out the sprockets and gave Fiona’s bike a general once over, tweaking here and tightening there until she was positively purring. The bike seemed quite happy too. All this was achieved for a fiver. If you’re going to have mechanical problems while cycling in the Outer Hebrides, try and do it in the vicinity of Rothan. His website: www.rothan.com informs us that Rothan – the ‘t’ is silent – is Gaelic for wheels.
We pedalled the half-mile along the single track road to our destination – the Gatliff Trust’s Howmore Hostel. The hostel has a splendid location a short walk from the sandy shore of the Atlantic coast, which is backed by low-lying machair dunes that explode into a floral riot each springtime. The hostel itself is an old ‘black house’, that is a type of thatched roofed crofters’ cottage characteristic of the Outer Hebrides and so-called because of the often sooty interiors caused by a lack of chimney; smoke would escape through the thatched roof. In common with the Gatliff Trust’s three other hostels in the Outer Hebrides, Howmore has simple, but perfectly adequate facilities and a very welcoming atmosphere. There are 13 beds available and plenty of space for pitching a tent in the grounds. When we arrived, the communal cooking and eating area was fairly busy and the combination of industrious catering and rain-damp clothing generated a warm steamy fug. We pitched the tent before returning to cook and chat with our fellow hostellers – the usual eclectic crowd of agreeable folk on a variety of different journeys, united by an enthusiasm for the warmth and conviviality of our simple shelter.
A retired senior civil servant, Herbert Gatliff established the trust in 1961 to promote the hostelling and outdoor movements. Since then, the Gatliff Trust has continued to maintain its hostels as well as promoting and supporting understanding of the cultural life and legacy of the people of the Outer Hebrides. More information about the trust and the hostels is available at: www.gatliff.org.uk.That the hostels themselves are very much of their place is readily apparent. The Gatliff Trust hostels are of great benefit to independent travellers journeying through the islands by whichever means; for those on a two-wheeled odyssey they can really make all the difference to the quality of the experience – especially during wet and windy weather, which isn’t entirely unknown in these parts.
In fact, that was exactly what we were greeted with when we poked our heads out of the tent next morning. It was really quite grim. We found ourselves dangling from the horns of a dilemma – should we just hunker down a the hostel for another day and hope that the day after would be better or should we don the waterproofs and grit our collective teeth? As is always the case, decisions are better made after three mugs of tea, so we repaired to the hostel to cogitate. Eventually, buoyed by the characteristic optimism that comes of extensive tea-drinking, we saddled-up and pedalled off in to the driech and blustery late-morning gloom. Our plan was to continue north across the causeways to Benbecula, North Uist and finally Berneray where we would seek shelter for the night at the Gatliff hostel there. Forty miles of rain-lashed and wind-scoured tarmac lay between us and it.
Well it wasn’t that bad at all really; once you’d got used to the weather it gave the place a certain brooding, melancholy atmosphere. A few miles up the Road from Howmore we passed the bone-white statue of Our Lady of the Isles who stands above the road, the infant Jesus hoist up high in her arms. In having predominantly Catholic populations, South Uist and Barra are the exceptions among the Western Isles of Scotland. The Presbyterian Free Church of Scotland holds sway in much of the Outer Hebrides. It is a notable characteristic of the islands that religious observance is still commonplace. The Sabbath is observed by many and as recently as 2009 the establishment of a Sunday ferry service between Stornoway on Lewis and the mainland was the cause of great controversy and contention.
Within the hour, we were crossing the half-mile causeway to Benbecula, the island lying between the Uists. We stopped at the Co-op and stocked up on some supplies for the evening including a quarter bottle of whisky for use as a muscle relaxant. As we were packing our comestibles in to the bike panniers, we were approached by an elderly man in a tweed cap who wished to be reassured that we were enjoying our visit to the islands in spite of the weather. We responded in the affirmative to his great satisfaction and then pedalled off on our way ever north. Half an hour later, we were making our way across the causeway that swings from Benbecula to North Uist in an arc that takes in the small island of Grimsay. We’d had a couple of breaks in the cloud, but now the rain had set in again and the only option was to keep pedalling to stay warm. We were both fairly damp to say the least.
A few miles on we came to the road junction at Clachan na Luib where there are a few houses a shop and Post Office. Here we would strike out north-east in the direction of Lochmaddy, though not before we’d re-fuelled with soup and sandwiches from the shop. Somewhat revived by our brief pit stop, we set off along the lonely A867 before we became too cold. We soon passed the neolithic chambered cairn of Barpa Langass on the flank of Beinn Langais – a small dome-shaped hill standing out amid a vast, low-lying landscape of bog, fragmented by innumerable lochs and lochans. We pedalled across the bog for half an hour or so, until we reached the junction with the A865 at Sruth Morn, here we turned north-west – away from Lochmaddy. The terrain soon changed and the road became a bit more up and down, which made for much more interesting cycling. The rain had gone off for a while, but it was soon back on in a determined fashion as we left the A-road and pedalled north-east again, along the last few kilometres to the Berneray causeway. Pedalling along the foot of Beinn Mhor, we passed a number of sheep so damp they resembled cotton wool balls on a wet bathroom floor.
Soon we were on the causeway, our objective almost in sight. The last couple of miles of road before the hostel followed the coast through the village of Borve (or Borgh in Gaelic) and around two natural harbours. We turned down the last stretch of road and soon arrived at the hostel. It was very busy indeed and the communal kitchen and dining area was full of the same damp fug familiar from our previous night at Howmore. Wet waterproofs, boots and other clothing hung from every available hook and puddles spread along the stone floor. Many people were sat around the large table occupying the dining area, still more were busying themselves around the kitchen facilities. Though very busy, there was a friendly atmosphere about the place with everyone politely accommodating each other at cookers, sinks and worktops.
We looked for a suitable pitch for our tent with shelter from the strengthening wind being our priority. A spot was secured in the lee of a ruined croft and so we set off in search of a shower with a dry change of clothes. Clean and dry, we reconvened in the kitchen and added our wet clothes to the already extensive collection. We found an almost free cooker and Fiona set about making our dinner of sausage tomato and basil pasta. Our large and aromatic bunch of fresh basil – which had survived the ride from Benbecula in one of my panniers – attracted envious and covetous glances from our fellow hostellers. Two lads from Alloa on a motorbiking tour of the islands sidled up to me and, nodding in Fiona’s direction as she prepared our feast, informed me that I had it made. I could only agree. After our heroically-proportioned meal, we broke out the muscle relaxant and engaged in a spot of banter with the assembled company. There were a fair few other cyclists staying at the hostel, including a couple of component-and-kit bores and a posse of charming young medical students from Edinburgh. These students comprised one slightly awkward looking lad and a handful of very bonny lasses – none of whom he was attached to, so to speak. The poor boy wore a look of some indefinable physical and existential discomfort. Even as he laughed along he looked as if he might burst in to tears at any moment.
Next morning brought a welcome surprise – blue skies and sunshine; bit blowy still, but the main thing was the absence of rain. After packing up we set off in a little convoy with the medical students, bound for the Berneray – Leverburgh ferry. The crossing of the Sound of Harris was grand. It was very cold, but bright sunshine lit up the sea and landscapes, sharply defining every detail. Most of the ferry passengers stood out on deck enjoying the marvellous spectacle. We were stood on the balcony deck beneath the bridge next to a tall, gaunt German man with a melancholy demeanour, sporting a waxed moustache, leather flying hat and goggles. The vehicle he had piloted on to the ferry, however, was a very vertically challenged sports car rather than the Fokker Dr I triplane one might have expected.
An hour after leaving Berneray we arrived at Leverburgh. The small ferry port near the southern extremity of Harris is named for the soap manufacturing tycoon Lord Leverhulme who bought the South Harris estate in 1920. Leverhulme established a fish processing operation at Leverburgh Pier, which provided greatly needed employment for the local populace. Unfortunately the project came to an end shortly after Leverhulme’s own death in 1925. The scattering of buildings around the village itself put me in mind of the kind of settlement you might expect to find along the Norwegian coast, as it doesn’t have the terraces of 19th century cottages characteristic of Hebridean villages. We pedalled off the ferry as part of a convoy of a dozen or so cyclists. On the slipway, a battalion of diminutive army cadets looked as if they were preparing to embark on a sulky teenage invasion of the mainland. Fiona and I made for the local shop/café/visitor centre where we gathered some supplies and had a great lunch of soup and cake. Other members of our two-wheeled fraternity had had the same idea.
Leaving the shop/café/visitor centre we noticed a poster for a local band – Kroftwerk would be playing that very evening! We quickly decided that we’d be as well to get on our way, though many refrains of ‘She’s a crofter and she’s looking good…’ would be sung during the remainder of the trip. And so the great cycle convoy snaked out of Leverburgh along the A859, heading north-west. The introduction of a few inclines soon split the field, however, and we were soon out on our own pedalling around the coast road as it turned north then north-east on an undulating, serpentine course. The dramatic change in the weather complemented a dramatic change in the scenery. Having left the low-lying landscapes of the Uists behind, we now found ourselves in a landscape of rugged hill-country fringed with gleaming white sands and sparkling turquoise waters. I couldn’t believe that there was somewhere so beautiful as this in the British Isles and I’d never been here before! The Red Baron was obviously thinking along the same lines as he’d pulled his sports car off the road and was staring through his flying goggles transfixed by the landscape before him while the ear flaps of his flying cap rustled gently in the breeze.
Around nine miles out of Leverburgh, the road began to bend to the west as we cycled alongside the magnificent sandy expanse of Tràigh Losgaintir in the Luskentyre estuary. At the head of the estuary we turned north-west on to the track road to Losgaintir settlement and the dunes around the north-west tip of the estuary where we planned to camp for the night. After a few pleasantly winding miles we pedalled through Losgaintir and descended the track to the rear of the dunes. Pushing our bikes over the dunes we arrived in a landscape of transcendent beauty. In the golden afternoon sunshine, Luskentyre was actually rather than metaphorically breathtaking. Fine white sand dunes tufted with marram grass, a pristine expanse of beach that would shame the Caribbean, crystal clear waters and grand views of the hills to the north-west and the isle of Taransay just a mile across the sound to the west. In 2000, Taransay was the location for the BBC-tv un-reality series, Castaway.
A few miles out of Tarbert on the A859 we turned on to the B887 road that follows the south coast of North Harris above the north shore of Loch a Siar. This stretch of the road provided some of the toughest, but most enjoyable road cycling I’ve ever experienced. The road winds its way down and up, in and out of a series of glens before roller-coasting along the undulating terrain and arriving at Huisnis 16 miles later. It was a truly lovely ride through magnificent landscape with constantly changing views, but arrival at Huisnis capped it all. Fiona was right, Huisnis is even more beautiful than Luskentyre, though of course it isn’t a competition. After spending a while gazing dumbfounded at the view over Bàgh Huisnis, we made our way across the neck of the Huisnis promontory to pitch our tent on level grassy area overlooking the isle of Scarp 500 yards away across the eponymous sound. There were a few other tents around and these proved to belong to a work party of volunteers who were repairing footpaths nearby for the John Muir Trust.
From a peak of 213 in 1881 the population of the isle of Scarp declined until the last permanent inhabitants quit the island in 1971. In July 1934, Scarp was the site of an experiment by German inventor Gerhard Zucker in which he made two unsuccessful attempts to deliver the island’s post by means of rocket mail between Scarp and Harris. Although a successful launch was achieved, the rocket exploded destroying or damaging most of its cargo. In 2007, The Rocket Post, a heavily fictionalised, romanticised, but nonetheless very enjoyable film based on these events was actually filmed on Taransay.
We cooked our dinner on the trangia stove and watched the sun go down behind Scarp, before turning in and enjoying another sublime night’s sleep. The morning dawned bright and clear yet again and we decided to walk a couple of miles further north along the Sound of Scarp to a more remote spot where we could camp and have a driftwood fire. After a steep climb up and over the shoulder of Huisebhal Beag, we passed by the western end of Loch na Cleabhaig before making our way out to the beautiful beaches fringing the sound. Here, we were directly opposite the old settlement on Scarp with its abandoned and roofless stone cottages. There are now also a couple of holiday homes dotted around the old settlement as well and more splendid isolation for a retreat is hard to imagine. We soon found a great place for our pitch and set about gathering some driftwood.
As well as plenty of wood, I found a rather splendid sun-bleached ram’s skull with magnificent curling horns. The next day Fiona walked back to Huisnis to catch the morning post bus to Tarbert to gather some more supplies. She wrapped the the ram’s skull in a bin liner to take to the post office and send it home. The post bus doubles as the school bus during term time and the children sharing the bus with Fiona and the skull wrinkled their noses in her direction with suspicion and distaste. Fiona also learned on her journey that while we had been enjoying glorious weather, the rest of the British Isles were being swamped by an unrelenting deluge. Such news shouldn’t have given us any pleasure, but I’m afraid it did. Another fine day was passed at Huisnis, though that night a fierce wind picked up and we actually had to get out of our tent and carry it to a more sheltered spot.
The following day, yes, lovely again, we went for a fine walk up Glen Cravadale along the shore of Loch a’ Ghlinne and over in to Gleann Leòsaid and on to Abhainn Suidhe Castle. From the saddle between the two glens it was just possible to make out the The Flannan Isles on the far horizon to the north-west. From Abhainn Suidhe we picked up the post bus on its afternoon run out to Huisnis. The driver was a very friendly and talkative chap and we retrospectively found it in our hearts to forgive him when he very nearly mowed us down the following day as we were cycling from Huisnis back to Tarbert on our way to Drinisiadar.
After a few nights at Huisnis, we felt that we’d better go and stay somewhere else and Fiona had talked fondly of a wonderful independent hostel at Drinisiadar, which is situated on the coast five or six miles south by road from Tarbert. A couple of pleasant days were spent enjoying the cosy luxury of the hostel and pedalling out along the Golden Road – the winding single track road that wriggles around the convoluted coastal terrain of south-east Harris.
After a sublime week on Harris, we took the ferry from Tarbert to Uig on the Trotternish peninsula of the isle of Skye. Yet another fine day gave us splendid views to the jagged ridges of the Cuillin Hills as the ferry approached Uig. Once disembarked, we pedalled along the A87 to join the A855 at the junction, then set off up a long switchback at the top of which we turned on to a single track road that climbs gradually along the valley of the River Rha before crossing the mountainous spine of the peninsula near the spectacular rock formations of the Quiraing and swooping down to join the A855 again at Brogaig on its way south down the east coast of Trotternish. We continued south, with the rocky backbone of Trotternish looming above us. Some ten miles beyond Brogaig, we passed the Old Man of Storr rock stack standing sentinel-like beneath the eponymous mountain. Six or seven miles further and we arrived at Portree, where we installed ourselves at the lovely Torvaig campsite. We were completely knackered, but hot showers and food washed down with a teaspoon too much vin rouge did much to revive us. It was a lovely evening, the only problem being that every midge in Scotland seemed to be holidaying at the campsite too. We doused ourselves with repellent, but this only seemed to encourage the blighters. Noticing our plight (much gesticulating, flapping and cursing) a friendly Czech family despatched their son to assist us with his can of Czech-produced TERMINATOR insect repellent. This was instantly efficacious – we were suddenly a midge-free zone, though I did notice that the skin on my face and hands started peeling the following day.
The final leg of our Odyssey was a 45-mile epic from Portree to Armadale near the south-eastern tip of the island. We cycled through some wonderful scenery on some top quality tarmac, but Skye was a world away from the tranquillity and solitude we’d found on Harris in particular. With good reason Skye attracts many visitors and of course it’s much more accessible than Harris, being adjacent to the mainland and having the the road bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh. Our last day’s ride made for very enjoyable cycling, but we also knew that we were heading home and in truth it was easier to leave Skye than Harris.
We stayed at a nice B&B in Armadale and had a good meal in the pub staffed my charming young Polish people and managed by an obnoxious posh English git, whose very existence filled me with cultural shame. How different from all the very many friendly and hospitable people we had met during our Hebridean Bicycle Odyssey, local people and visitors alike. Anyway, not even he could tarnish what had been a sublime couple of weeks, in fact he only served to emphasise by contrast what an excellent experience it had been. Thanks.