Maybe I linger a little too long over my full Scottish breakfast in the isle of Barra’s Castlebay Hotel. But when you have to cycle more than 80 miles before reaching your bed for the night, you’re predisposed to pack away as many calories as possible, given the opportunity.
That’s my excuse – and I’m sticking to it – for skipping the official starting point for the Hebridean Way, from across the causeway on the tiny island outpost of Vatersay.
The journey through the Outer Hebrides has long been a favourite for cycle tourists, but was launched as an official route by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, in partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), in March 2016. Round-the-world adventurer Mark Beaumont turned up to lead the way, covering the full 185-mile route across 10 islands in less than 24 hours – a gentle spin by his standards. I’m planning on taking slightly longer. And I’ve already missed out Vatersay altogether. Well, nine out of 10 islands still isn’t bad, I figure.
Even if I’m not pedalling at Mark Beaumont’s pace, I’ve decided to take a leaf out of his book and Travel as lightly as possible. That means using my carbon-framed road bike with only a seatpost bikepacking bag, and another for my handlebars.
My decision to head straight from Castlebay to the ferry terminal at Ardmhor, on the north side of Barra, is a good one. Spinning along the west side of this gorgeous wee island, past the golden sands of Tangasdale beach and the crashing waves, I’m delighted to be experiencing it on two wheels. With a slight tailwind, I make good progress, but I’m still the last to roll down the gangplank.
“Just as well we could see you coming over the hill,” says the ferryman as I click clack precariously down the gangway in my cleated cycling shoes. “We might have left without you.”
The 40 minute trip before we arrive at Eriskay gives me a chance to soak in my surroundings and find some reassurance from the same ferryman who waited for my arrival.
“It’s a little lumpy getting across Eriskay,” he tells me. “After that it’s flat and easy all the way to North Uist.”
Sounds good to me. And it’s well seen why most people generally choose to cycle south to north; you have a much greater chance of having a southerly at your back to help propel you across the islands. That’s certainly the case this morning as I zip across Eriskay and over the causeway linking the island with South Uist – watching out for the unlikely road hazard of otters as I go, obviously.
True to the ferryman’s word, the cycling is flat and fast. I take a little diversion over to the west side of South Uist through the low-lying grasses known as machair, but it’s a little early in the year for the distinctive colours to be in full effect. I’ll just need to come back another time.
With the wind at my back, I rejoin the main road and make great progress heading north towards the next islands of Benbecula, Grimsay and North Uist. I travel across so many causeways – and am surrounded by so much water – that it becomes a challenge to know where one island ends and another one begins.
On North Uist, I’m faced with the choice of taking the road heading east to Lochmaddy, or the longer route around the west coast, before reaching my bed for the night in Berneray. A friend has recommended the Westford Inn on the west coast, and I’ve got plenty of time on my side, so I take the left hand fork in the road.
My timing is perfect when I arrive at the Inn, standing in the scattering of homes known as Claddach. It’s 1pm on the nose. I’ve 55 miles in my legs, I’m chilled to the bone and I’m famished, but I’ve been careful to observe the golden rule of travelling in rural Scotland – make sure you turn up at lunchtime if you expect to be find sustenance. Thankfully, the Westford is able to help me refuel with a hearty bowl of lentil soup and a sandwich.
Next stop is the township at Solas, where I buy my supplies for the evening before setting off to my accommodation for the night, the Gatliff Trust hostel on Berneray.
The Trust is named after Herbert Gatliff, an English eccentric and enthusiast for the outdoor movement and youth hostels in the 1930s. The Trust has three independent hostels in the Western Isles, run in partnership with the islanders and well maintained by volunteers.
The Berneray hostel is contained in two traditional Highland blackhouses, complete with pristine whitewashed walls and thatched roofs. They sit across a field at the end of the road, right next to a glorious beach on the northern tip of the island.
After a shower and a change out of my damp lycra, I settle down next to the stove, thinking there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. As darkness falls, the only signs of life in the night sky are in the numerous lighthouses blinking rhythmically across the hazardous Sound of Harris. Isolation never felt so good.
No more rushing for ferries. I’m up in plenty time for the early boat from Berneray to Leverburgh, where I meet my first fellow cycle tourists, ransacking the vending machine for chocolate.
“We missed any chance of a meal in Berneray last night, and then set off too early this morning to get our breakfast at the B&B,” one of them tells me. I wonder how they’re going to make it to Tarbert with only a couple of Mars bars to keep them going. A little bit of forward planning is essential in this part of the world, it seems.
When we pull into Harris, they turn left for the slightly easier western route to Tarbert. I read in my guidebook that the east side – the so-called Golden Road – is for more ‘committed cyclists’. That’s all I need to hear.
After the flat, barren expanses of the Uists, the Golden Road is a roller-coasting joy to cycle. It winds up, down and around the little inlets dotted along the coastline, a harder cycle but exhilarating and rewarding and with great views across the Minch to Skye.
When I reach Tarbert at about 11am, I manage to cajole the girls setting up for lunch at the Hotel Hebrides into fixing me a bacon roll and a cup of tea. It’s just as well I’m able to refuel. The hardest part of the route so far is around the corner, with the long slog over the shoulder of Clisham, the highest hill on Harris. But it’s a gradual climb, and once I’m in my ‘granny’ gear and spinning away it doesn’t feel too bad. The swooping descent on the other side towards Lewis is also reward enough.
The cycle to Stornoway is pleasant but lacks the drama of Harris, and I’m reaching the end of my island road. The official route carries on past the standing stones at Callanish to the end of the Western Isles archipelago at the Butt of Ness, but that’s another stage I’m going to save for the next time. For now, there’s a seat in the Indian restaurant with my name on it, and a comfy bed in the Heb Hostel.
Pushing the bike off the boat at Ullapool the next morning feels a little like re-entering some form of recognisable society, after the complete ‘otherness’ of the Western Isles. The main street is full of life, tourists are preparing for their boat trips, and there’s an atmosphere of bustling activity I haven’t felt since setting off from Oban.
The road to Inverness also feels frenetic compared with the solitude of the past two days. It’s amazing how quickly island life can get under your skin and make you conform to its own gentle pace. Riding your bike is the perfect way to slow down enough to appreciate it.
Richard Goslan travelled with his bike by train from Glasgow to Oban to take the ferry to Castlebay on Barra, and returned by train from Inverness to Glasgow.
An island Hopscotch 8 ticket from CalMac covers all the ferry journeys and costs £30.90.
Castlebay Hotel, www.castlebay-hotel.co.uk
There is also a hostel in Castlebay, www.dunardhostel.co.uk
For more information about the Gatliff Trust hostels, visit www.gatliff.org.uk
Heb Hostel, Stornoway, www.hebhostel.com
Cycling in the Hebrides by Richard Barrett (Cicerone, £14.95) is an excellent resource.
For detailed route information, maps and suggestions for accommodation and food and drink, visit hebrideanway.co.uk
Source : HeraldScotland