By Penny Johnson.
The Outer Hebrides are a set of windswept and beautiful islands off the north-west coast of Scotland. This was my first bicycle touring holiday, so we picked the Outer Hebrides as they were relatively flat and neither of us had been there before. We planned a fairly leisurely trip, with no days much longer than about 40 miles (and some considerably shorter!). We mostly stayed in bed and breakfast accommodation, with a few nights in hostels.
Most of the ferries in Scotland are operated by Caledonian MacBrayne – these are relatively cheap for foot passengers, with cycles costing an additional pound or two. We drove to Oban with the bikes on the back of the car (although we could have gone by train, given a little more time). We left the car in an airport-type car park in Oban, were the people at the car park will deliver you to the ferry terminal and collect you again when you get back.
Day 1 – Oban to South Uist
We set off from Oban on the last Saturday in August. Five hours later we were in Lochboisdale, almost at the southern end of South Uist. The weather was a bit breezy (to say the least), and also grey, but at least it wasn’t raining! As we were heading north the wind was behind us, so it wasn’t a problem.
We’d given ourselves a nice easy start to the trip, having only 15 miles to cycle to the B&B near the north end of the island. We got there in plenty of time, having stopped at a tea shop on the way, and also taken a diversion to look at a basic hostel we were planning on using later in the trip.
We decided to cycle part of the way along the road to Loch Sgioport. The scenery so far had been mainly flat, with the hills on the eastern side of the island hidden in cloud. Our little diversions had taken us through fields and other roughly cultivated land – pleasant scenery, rather than inspiring. However the road to Lock Sgioport was more impressive, running us alongside a loch. We stopped for a while to admire the scenery when the road started to go seriously downhill, on the grounds that I didn’t want to cycle back up it against the wind.
The B&B was run by an English incomer, doing his first full season of B&B. He mostly took in fishermen, and took them fishing, and provided us with a good dinner with wine as well as a very comfortable room.
Day 2 South Uist to Berneray
The day was very windy, and rain had been beating against the window all night. We were in no hurry to set off, which was a good move, as by the time we did leave the rain had eased to a very light drizzle, and soon stopped altogether. Luckily the wind was still behind us. Tonight’s destination was a basic hostel which didn’t do meals, so we had to get food on the way. Most of the Outer Hebrides shut down on a Sunday (although there are a few ferry services from the mainland or Skye). However the more Catholic Benbecula and South Uist are not so strict, so we had to pick up supplies in the town on Benbecula before crossing the causeways to North Uist.
On North Uist we took the eastern loop of road. This scenery could have been quite impressive, with rolling moorland and lots of small lochs, but the general greyness did nothing for it. Vague hopes of a café in Lochmaddy being open were dashed, and the hotel didn’t look particularly attractive either. However we found that there actually was a ferry due into Lochmaddy that afternoon, and the CalMac waiting room was open. Not only that, it had a machine that sold hot drinks! Luxury.
We soldiered on through the grey windiness – I found it becoming more of an endurance test than anything else by the time we reached Berneray. However several cups of tea revived me a little, and we decided the weather had improved enough for a wander along the beach before cooking up a bit pot of pasta for dinner.
Day 3 Berneray to Scalpay
The wind had howled around the hostel during the night, and it had rained a lot too, so if someone had suggested just going home in the morning, I might well have taken them up on it! However we got to the ferry terminal (another nice waiting room, but no hot drinks this time), the ferry turned up, and by the time we were part way across the Sound of Harris the weather was brightening up.
I had been wondering why the journey was to take an hour, when the crow-flies distance was not really very far. However the ferry set out towards the east (rather than the north), and wound its way in and out of the buoys, obviously dodging rocks and shallows just beneath the water.
The ferry port on Harris, Leverburgh, is a small village, but we found a shop to stock up on supplies for lunch. The main road from Leverburgh to Tarbert goes along the west coast for most of the way, but we had opted to go via the smaller, east coast road. We were much more impressed by the scenery here. Lots more lochans, and lovely rocky coves. We even found a tea shop for refreshments.
A last hill just before rejoining the main road reduced me to walking, but we made it to Tarbet. Tonight’s B&B was on Scalpay, a small island about 5 miles to the east, and did not do dinners, so we ate in Tarbet before forcing protesting legs to cycle the remaining few miles.
Day 4 Scalpay to Stornoway
We set off back along the road to Tarbert again (hills and all!), then along the A road to Stornoway. There was a large hill to start with, but then a long high level section with only minor ups and downs, with great views down to the east coast. It was still windy, but the wind was mostly behind us (although on the occasions when we were cycling across the wind there were some very un-nerving and wobble-inducing gusts).
We passed the dividing line between Harris and Lewis mid-morning. I would have loved to stop somewhere for a cup of tea (even without a sticky bun), but sadly tea shops are in very short supply in the islands. We found a couple of places to sit out of the wind to refuel and admire the views. The last stretch into Stornoway was not all that pleasant, with lorries and vans speeding along the road.
Day 5 A day off
We had originally planned to cycle out to Great Bernera and get the bus back to Stornoway, or we could even have cycled up to the Butt of Lewis if we had been made of sterner stuff! However the weather was grey and drizzly, and my legs needed a rest, so we found a very cheap hire car and drove to the Butt of Lewis – the northernmost part of Lewis. We were quite glad we hadn’t planned on cycling this bit, as even in good weather the scenery would have been a bit samey – lots of gently rolling moorland, with no hills or pretty bays to break it up. We spent some time on the cliffs near the lighthouse watching fulmars playing in the updraughts from the cliffs.
Heading back down the coast we stopped at a Black House – a preserved example of the old style of house-building in the Hebrides (so-called after a new style of house at the beginning of the last century, built with cement, was christened ‘white house’). The black houses have very thick stone walls, and roofs made of scarce timber, covered with turf and held down by netting weighed down with stones.
Further on we found a tea shop for lunch, then visited a stone circle. By this time the weather had cleared up a bit, so we drove on to Great Bernera for a short walk.
Day 6 Stornoway to Tarbert
Time to head south again. Rather than cycle the main Tarbet-Stornoway road again, we opted to get the bus (with bikes in the luggage compartment) so we arrived at the hotel at lunchtime. Our room was ready, so we dumped most of our stuff and set off westwards to Huisinis. The road wound up and down along the coast, and eventually reached a lovely little beach with white sands and sunshine. I even had a paddle and we sat and watched the waves for a while before heading back.
Day 7 Tarbert to Leverburgh
We took the west road this time. This road passes some lovely beaches, and we stopped for a while to do a bit of bird watching. We got rained on for about half an hour, but managed to find a small museum to have a look at while the worst of it passed (and they sold us cups of tea!). The B&B in Leverburgh had a lovely view across the Sound of Harris.
Day 8 Leverburgh to Grimsay
We took the early ferry to North Uist. The weather was very windy again, and grey. The trouble was that now we were cycling against the wind, and my legs did not like it at all. We went round the western part of the road this time, but by the time we reached the B&B on Grimsay I had definitely had enough! Today was more of an endurance test than anything else.
Day 9 Grimsay to South Uist and Beinn Mhor
A shorter cycling day again. We were heading for the hostel at Howmore, and got there by one o’clock. A friend had recommended Beinn Mhor as a nice walk, so after sorting ourselves out we cycled another couple of miles and left the bikes part way along a track. The people in the B&B last night had let us look at their SMC guide to the Hebrides, which had referred to the route up as ‘surprisingly dry’. We soon realised that this did not actually mean it was dry, just that it was not quite as wet as it might have been! However it was a sunny afternoon, and Beinn Mhor has a very nice summit ridge, so it was worth the effort. It was very hazy, so we didn’t get any distant views, but the nearby views were stunning enough.
Day 10 South Uist to Barra
This morning we found out why the wind is not such a bad thing. Clouds of midges appeared while we were loading the bikes. They didn’t bite while we were cycling, but we could feel clouds of them hitting our faces as we were moving.
We were heading south again, down to Eriskay and the ferry across to Barra – luckily there was a bit of a breeze by this time, so no more midge problems. We had to go and look at the airport on Barra (flights can only land and take off when the tide is out, as the runways are part of the beach!). Then we cycled round the west side of the island, stopping to just look at the scenery now and then, or to look at birds or seals. We reached Castlebay, but opted to go on to Vatersay as it wasn’t yet time for dinner.
The private hostel in Castlebay was very comfortable, and we had a nice last meal in the hotel while watching our ferry arriving – and dwarfing the castle that gives Castlebay its name!
Day 11 Back on the morning ferry, then the long drive home – the end of a really good bicycle touring holiday.