A Hebrides End-to-End
Day 0 – Just getting there
It’s a long way to Barra. That’s what often crosses your mind on the 5 hour ferry journey from Oban. Add in the train from Edinburgh and a wait at Glasgow Queen St for a second train and you’ve a 12 hour journey. Hmm, you think, I could be in the Rockies in about 9 hours…..
However, you’re in good company. Spurred on no doubt by a good weather forecast, plus a Bank Holiday weekend, both the train and the ferry turn out to be over-run by cyclists. Singles, pairs, all sort of family groups including tandems and trailers, and all heading for the Western Isles. The weather in Oban turns out to be nothing special – a slight drizzle – and we decide just to hang around the ferry terminal for a while, trying to avoid Mr Anti-establishment, who has already taken on the ScotRail stewardess and had a rant about having to complete a boarding pass for the ferry.
As we approach Barra, with only scant views of the other isles en route, the weather decides to clear up a bit and we get a nice view of Sheabhal, looking good value for its 383m spot height. A quick rounding-up of the boarding cards again and we’re almost last off the ferry, cyclists scattering before us as they dash to their various accommodations. For us, it’s a minimal couple of Km round to the Isle of Barra hotel, overlooking a lovely beach and a great view of the Atlantic.
The hotel turns out to be a great find (Castlebay was full), with some fantastic food (massive scallops included) and a wee stroll down to the beach to watch the sunset. Beer, food, a wee stroll and back for a whisky – this was to set the pattern for the week.
Day 1 – All the way South and on to Dalibrog.
After a hearty breakfast, we check out and collect the packed lunches. A wee bit of misunderstanding is cleared up (we’ll not be able to return the Tupperware, so opt to leave it) and it’s off South to Vatersay. This turns out to be a wee gem of a place, although the climb over the shoulder of Beinn Tangabhal comes as an early warning that these islands aren’t going to be all flat. However, it offers a great view of Castlebay. Following the tiny road, it eventually ends at a couple of houses (one featuring a shed as Post Office). Thoughts of a stroll over for a good view South are ended by the terrain and the various fences around, so we about turn and head back the way we came – now actually starting our journey North. The beaches are worth a stroll, and we stop at a little memorial to a crashed WWII Catalina and its crew. Bumping into a German couple here we exchange a few pleasantries and discuss plans for the week – they’re doing the island chain too, but by car.
Past the hotel again, and a wee while later, it’s a brief snack stop, also checking the bikes are performing and nothings falling off. The road onwards continues to rise and fall, with a pleasant wooded section just before we turn off North towards the Traigh Mhor. This wood probably contains 90% of all the trees on Barra! At our first view of the “airfield”, it’s out with the cameras for a few shots and then onwards, all the way North until we run out of road again. Now we get a great view of Eriskay and South Uist, enticing us towards our days destination.
We opt for lunch at the airport beach and are pleasantly surprised by the sound of a Twin Otter swooping in for an afternoon landing, watching it come to a rest in a spray of sea and sand before taxiing back to the terminal building. Perfect timing! After helping another couple of cyclists with a bit of spanner work, it’s back on the road to the ferry at Airdmhor and a chance encounter with a couple of West Coast guys on a cycle tour. More heavily laden than us (although they were surprised at Pauls load) they’re camping, taking a bit longer and heading back from Stornoway a couple of days after us.
The ferry over is pleasant, if a bit chilly, and a look forward before docking shows a stiff wee climb to be undertaken – now with cold muscles. KitKats consumed, we make it to the top of the hill for a couple of lovely shots of the ferry heading off again. Eriskay is no more than a couple of wee hills before we hit the loooong causeway to South Uist. By this time, the wind seems even stronger, and in our faces the whole way. Thankful of a brief respite heading West, we realise what’s coming as we approach the junction at Polachar, Celtic “championship” flags stiff as boards showing the headwind we’re turning into. The section from here to Dalabrog/Daliburgh is all exposed and it’s a very weary Paul that pulls up at the Borrodale Hotel.
Revived by a shower and a change of clothing, but missing out on the draught Celtic Ale, we’re nevertheless glad of a good meal, after meeting the two campers we’d bumped into earlier. Paul heads off for an early bed, leaving me to do the evening stroll on my own before a wee whisky nightcap and he’s out for the count on my return.
For a first day, it all turned out fairly well, great views, blue skies, but that headwind definitely making it hard work.
64.6 Km / 809 M of ascent (including trip from ferry)
Day 2 – North again – and some detours
Sunday dawns bright and a peek out of the window confirms no clouds. Sitting in the conservatory for breakfast though and the action of the wind on the bushes outside confirms no let-up in the NE wind. A browse of the map to discuss route options and we’re trying to decide between the beach track (with potentially better views) and the main road (with potentially more shelter). We opt for the former – and this turns up trumps, a lovely sandy track across the machair, with a couple of small sandy sections requiring a push. As we approach the golf course, it’s obvious that the track is going to be hard to locate without a 1:50k OS map. We ride up to see the length of the beach, with Barra still showing proudly in the South, and then onto the road North. A wee detour to Flora MacDonalds birthplace, and then a brief stop near a large statue of the Madonna breaks up the otherwise constant pedalling before we hit another causeway and Benbecula. Finally, my lunchtime target met, it’s time to chill out for a while, overlooking the bay and back to Hecla, now seen as a terrific little mountain.
Opting to ride around the West Coast, we get an easy start, the wind at our backs for a change. The sight of a huge, washed-up container – looking like a stage from a space rocket, but actually used in brewing Coors beer - gives us a photo break, and then another at the old temple site at Baile na Caillaich. Balivanich comes as a bit of a shock though – too new, built up and, well, smelly really. This is followed by a long section into the wind, more causeways and, finally, North Uist. We’re briefly disorientated trying to find the hotel at Cairinis, but it turns out to be a lovely wee place.
Usual evening routine follows, but the target for our stroll is the ruined temple and, despite the cold wind, we opt to stay out for another fine sunset.
64.5 Km / 476 M of ascent
Day 3 – More big beaches
Day 3 was always gonna be a bit special. From experience, it’s often this day that makes or breaks a big trip. Get this one out of the way, and the rest just follow. This leg was also the hardest to plan. Convenient accommodation is sparse and the ferry breaks the day up into two chunks. I’d known I’d be passing through lots of locations recognisable from Runrig songs, and didn’t want to rush these. But miss the lunchtime ferry, and it would be a long evening ride into Tarbert, possibly missing dinner too.
We partially resolved this by making a very early start. Up and ready to go before breakfast and hitting out once we’d collected our packed lunches. Even this didn’t go quite according to plan as the owners had forgotten we’d asked.
This was another road that would appear relatively flat on the map, yet was full of constant ups and downs – but with a kind wind, we made it out to the most Westerly point of our journey with no trauma and turned North once again. The morning was beautiful, and a view to the still rather distant mountains of Harris lifted the spirits even higher. The beaches turned out to be a beautiful as envisaged and other landmarks flowed past rather easily. The wee Co-op at Sollas provided a welcome break while I awaited Paul, now more obviously suffering from energy issues related to his chesty cough.
Time was, however, generally on our side, so after a rendezvous at the last road junction we decided to apply our energies accordingly and I took off at speed for Bernera, Paul opting to follow up a little slower. Arriving at the ferry terminal in plenty of time, I took off for a wee look at the island, managing to catch some seals snoozing on the rocks and another fantastic wee beach. Looking out to sea, I spotted the ferry heading towards us and sprinted back to the terminal, with Paul arriving a couple of minutes later – having also spotted the ferry from the causeway.
A rather interesting ferry trip ensued – that’s one skipper that earns his keep – as the boat charts a narrow and winding path around various obstacles in the Sound of Harris. We also met a girl we’d shared the last hotel with – she was doing some animal inspection work and driving around the Islands and Highlands. Arriving at Leverburgh, we headed off westwards, thankful of the tailwind for a while, and enjoying the first signs of the West coast beaches. More followed. And more. You know, after a while, stunning beaches could become a bit monotonous! At one point, I overtook two lady cyclists and then stopped for a breather and to let Paul catch up. A brief chat ensued and it turned out they were also heading for Tarbert.
Paul duly arrived and we spent more time with the cameras, before heading over to Luskentyre and then the climb over to Tarbert which I’d somehow forgotten about. This turned out to be a testy little number – I overtook the ladies again – but was actually rather enjoyable and ended with a view over to the mainland and to Trotternish. The descent into Tarbert turned out to have rather more ascents than seemed proper given the previous hard work, but it all turned out fine as the Harris hotel hove into view.
We met the Irish ladies again for a brief run through our plans – with them opting for a bus North to eat up some of the miles. What a day – seemed like two!!
88.5 Km / 873 M of ascent
Day 4 – The big climb and a great escape
This day was always going to be dominated by the Clisham. The only Corbett in the Outer Hebrides, this small mountain is visible for miles and the only road North needs to climb a significant portion of it. A 3 mile warm up barely seemed enough, and it was almost straight into the very lowest gear for a very slow, hard climb up to the quarry, at which point life became a little easier and I was soon able to make better headway. 3 days of practice had prepared me rather better than I’d hoped and before too long, I was at the little viewpoint overlooking the recently built road to Rhenigidale. What’s more, the wind had died down and it was rather warmer than it had been. Waiting for Paul turned out to be rather pleasant as I stretched out on the bench in the sun.
From here, it’s a little extra climb, and then the fast swoopy descent down to sea level, weighing up the delight in some speed with the necessity of a safe cornering speed. Paul and I were each one big grin as we coasted to a halt. The whole section from here to Baile Ailein was a great spin and we got a few photos near the little stone memorial tower, the Clisham already receding into the distance. From here, it’s also possible to make out the difference in terrain between the rugged hills of Harris and the moors of Lewis.
A planned shop-stop at Baile Ailein was cancelled as the only shop was closed. Actually feeling rather hungry now, we stumbled upon a little craft/snack shop at the North end of the village and decided to take our chances. Suffice to say that the proprietress turned out to be rather scatty – and exceptionally talkative. Opting to duck out of the full life story, we rode off as she was still talking. “Cabin Fever” we reckoned!
The run up to Leurbost, with more ups and downs, ends with a long hill up to the crossroads. Reckoning that Pauls condition was keeping him back, I stashed the bike in full sight and dashed to the Mother-in-laws on foot for a quick chat. Making it back to the bike just as Paul arrived, we then opted to top up at the little shop by the filling station – Paul finally getting his hands on “medical” supplies in the form of Lem-sips. Turning West now, and with the wind at our backs on a fast, flowing road, life suddenly seemed so much easier. At last, the big ring could be put to serious use and we fairly flew across Lewis to Callanish.
I opted for a brief look at the stones (again) and left Paul to some serious photo action. The carrot cake was lovely. Another wee spell and we arrived at the Doune Braes Hotel. Tonights stroll, almost accidentally, ended up at the Carloway Broch, neatly cutting it out of tomorrow’s itinerary.
72.1 Km / 912 M of ascent
Day 5 – North – and South at last
This was another of the logistically challenging days. Running all the way North to the Butt of Lewis, before partially retracing the route and then heading for Stornoway, it was also, for me, one of the potentially least scenic. Having decided the previous night that he wasn’t gonna make the 60 miles, Paul opted for a later start and the Pentland Road. In the mean time, I was trying to force the pace a little on the run to Barvas which turned out to be rather hillier than remembered and windier than was pleasant – having become more of an Easterly and now running at over 20mph. However, a quick check-in with Paul at Barvas and I was on the last leg North. Colder than it had been, and riding into a cold breeze, I found it hard to get a good balance of clothing. The wind jacket was chilly, anything else too warm. The focus now was on the GPS, watching the miles tick down. One feature I had recalled was the hill at Dell Mill. Seeing it approach I just clicked down through the gears, ground my teeth and was soon up it – helped by a little break in the constant, strong headwind. Past that little hurdle, my spirits lifted and I seemed to find renewed energy for the final sprint to the Butt.
Cold, wet, windy. It seemed somehow unfair after the weather we’d had. However, the sight of the spray being thrown up at the rocks confirmed I’d reached my goal. Pity I was on my own though. The little teashop at Eoropie stuck out a welcoming sign and I pulled up for some sustenance. Soup, coffee and caramel shortbread were consumed by a shivering me, unable to get any warmth into my muscles despite the peat fire. Knowing that half my days riding still lay ahead, it was back to Barvas – this time aided by the wind and done in double-quick time, all the hard bits of the route now flew past.
Shock, horror! At Barvas, it actually started raining. Drizzly at first, then drifting in on the wind, I knew that a rather unpleasant spell was about to test me. For once, the GPS also seemed to be running slow. Every time I checked to see how far I’d to go, it seemed I’d made no impression. On, and interminably on, the road climbed over the moors, every crest hopefully gained presenting another disappointing view ahead. Almost exactly one hour later, I eventually reached Stornoway and splashed my way down to the Royal Hotel, where Paul was already in residence.
94.8 Km / 1,135 M of ascent
Day 6 – A change of scenery
No breakfast as we had to get the 7:15 ferry. On board, a light snack, a nap and then a filled roll were all fitted in before the off in Ullapool. By this point, Paul had already opted to cut short the cycling, aiming for a train at Garve. This remained an option for me too, depending on how fit I was feeling. Another long climb was now ahead of us – the Dirrie Mor. A decent warm-up along Loch Broom, then the junction to Letters and I knew it was upon me. Again, I just accepted the grind, choosing a gear I could spin in and always looking to see if the road was going to flatten out. After a couple of false hopes had been dashed, the Braemore Junction was spotted and it was time for a short breather. Of course, the ascent doesn’t end here, but at least it’s then possible to get up a bit of speed before seeing Loch Glascarnoch and knowing the watershed had been crossed. From here, the road just whizzed by, the wind having died down, the day warmed up and I hit Garve at 12:30 feeling full of energy. On to Contin and time for an ice cream before heading off the main road and onto the “Scenic Route” through Muir of Ord and Beauly.