I'd passed through Arran on the Lands End to John O'Groats in 1999 and thought it was great. Of course the whole of the end to end was good really, but riding round the coast of Arran, punctuated by ferry trips to get on and off the island really stuck in my mind. So I was keen for a return trip to the Scottish islands. Roz and I finally got a trip organized in summer 2001. Organized is probably a rather strong word for it, in practice we dug out a map, and booked the train journey. Then after a rushed night packing all the camping stuff we were on the first train up to Glascow.
A quick browse of the map had given us a rough idea of our route. We planned to start off on Skye, and head up to the North of the island, where we would cross over to Lewis and Harris. We would then work our way South, down Harris and the other islands of Uist and Barra before crossing back to the mainland.
After a particularly exciting connection at glascow, the rest of the train journey up to Mallaig set the mood, with spectacular scenery, particularly over the vast bleak expanse of Rannoch Moor. I was knackered after the late night packing, but the scenery was too exciting to go to sleep on the train. We reached the end of the line at Mallaig late in the afternoon, and took a short ride down the quiet road along the coast to a campsite overlooking the sea. It was a gorgeous sunny evening. As we wandered around the beach we spotted two sand martins darting in and out of a small hole in a vertical sandy cliff. In the morning we headed over to Skye on the first ferry.
The first thing that greeted us on rolling off the ferry at Armadale was a small espresso bar standing on the quayside. Roz's face lit up at the sight of it. Suitably fueled, we pushed on round the coast. The riding was good, it was warm and dry, and the road was quiet. Taking a food stop at the petrol station at Broadford, we met three Americans on lightweight roadbikes who regaled us with tales of horrendous headwinds. We sat by the river and watched a heron struggling with a long thin fish that it plucked out of the water, that then wrapped itself round its beak. We pushed on round Glamaig, and past the campsite at Sligachan, in view of the Cuillins, and then on through Glen Varragill to Portree. At Portree there was a campsite just on the edge of town and we pitched up the tent and wandered off to look for some food. With great excitement, we found a good curry house and ordered "cyclist portions". The next morning we pushed on, leaving the coast to cross over to Uig on the west coast of the island. The road was less interesting after leaving Portree, but there were good views of the narrow old road running alongside. Uig is on a natural bay, and there is a fantastic downhill that swoops round in a huge crescent to arrive at the ferry port. We sat in the sun on the ferry pier.
Landing in Tarbert we were torn between heading north through Lewis towards Stornoway, or going south through Harris. Eventually Harris won the vote, and after stocking up in the general store we headed out on the main A-road, although it wasn't exactly busy with traffic. After a short distance we turned off onto the Golden Road, which skirted the South East coast of Harris. Only a short way along the road another cyclist passed us heading in the opposite direction. Incredibly Roz recognised him from work (in Cumbria), and he turned round and came back for a chat. We pitched up at a small campsite just after Drinisiadar. The next day we continued along the Golden Road. The terrain was very rugged, rocky and windswept, and the road weaved around and up and down, passing a lot of small lakes. We passed through lots of small villages with Gaelic sounding names, like Plocropol, Scadabagh, Greosabhagh, Geocrab, and Fleoideabhagh. Around Fleoideabhagh there were three chubby seals lying on a rock in the bay. We only just spotted them, they looked like rocks until one of them moved. At Rogadhal we passed by the 11th century church, and headed up the gorgeous steep sided valley of Rogadhal Glen. In the sunshine it could easily have passed for a valley in the alps. Then on to Leverburgh for the next ferry trip across to Uist.
The ferry came in at Otternish on North Uist. We headed straight across the new causeway to the hostel at Berneray. It was a superb place to stay, an old thatched blackhouse, only a few metres away from the beach, with views back across the Sound of Harris. We pitched up in front of it. A succession of seals swam past as we were cooking.
The next day gave fantastic touring conditions, warm and sunny, constant views of the deep turqouise sea, and a tailwind. Perfect for photos too, but with great timing I ran out of film. We were getting a bit short on food too. We almost missed the co-op in Solas, with a lorry parked in front of the entrance it just looked like a huge barn, but we did an about-turn and went in, and it turned out to be well stocked. We saw a few other cyclists, but everyone we met was going in the other direction, struggling into a fierce headwind. Finally someone explained that the prevailing winds were normally in the other direction, so most people had carefully planned their trips to go south to north. We carried on feeling smugly satisfied that our complete lack of preparation or planning had worked out so well.
Riding down through the North of Uist we passed through fields of Machair, sandy grassland full of wild flowers. They were absolutely alive with birds. It was an incredible sight. Particularly abundant were oystercatchers with their trademark call (think of the noise made by Sweep from the Sooty and Sweep show), lapwings with the little tuft on the top of their heads, and sand pipers with their bright orange legs. That just about exhausted my bird knowledge, but there were plenty of others too that Roz excitedly pointed out as we rode along in the sun. We reached Clachan in the afternoon, and camped up outside the hostel.
Benbecula was not so good, more traffic, and less bird life, but we pushed on over the causeways to South Uist, and Howmoor, and camped up outside the blackhouse, near to a ruined church surrounded by irises, and in view of Beinn Mhor. The blackhouse was quite busy with hostellers cooking so there was a good atmosphere. After eating we followed the trail down to the beach for a look around. There were patches of potatoes in the sandy grass, and on the beach itself we found a dead puffin. On the way back up we met a farmer driving his cows down to the field for the night.
There was great excitement during the night, as we lay in our sleeping bags and listened to the distinctive 'creaky gate' sound of a Corncrake. The Corncrake is now practically extinct in the rest of the UK due to increased farming of the grass meadows where it nests, so we felt very lucky to have heard it. We also heard another birdcall, a strange resonant 'other-worldy' noise that we guessed was a Nightjar.
The next morning we pushed on towards the south end of the island, still with an excellent tail wind. We reached the small ferry waiting room at Ludag as it was starting to rain, for the first time in the trip, and it got a lot colder too. There were three hours until the ferry, and we were already cold. There was only one thing to do, out with the MSR, and multiple cups of tea warmed us up nicely as we sat in the waiting room watching the rain on the window. Eventually the small boat turned up at about 5pm and we passed our bikes and panniers down to it and climbed aboard. We watched the echo sounder as the boat picked its way across to Barra, the depth varied between 5m and 0.3m, so clearly this trip required some local knowledge to avoid getting grounded.
It was still drizzling when we reached Barra. We camped on a big strip of flat grass by the airport at Traigh Mor. It was a pleasant spot, and we shared it with a few camper vans. From the tent we had a good view of the beach, which was full of white shells. It also doubled up as the airport runway, and had two belisha beacons on it. It was a wet and windy night, and drips started coming through the seams of my ageing Phoenix Phreeranger tent. We decamped in the morning, wearing gloves and overtrousers for the first time during the trip, and headed off towards Castlebay for breakfast. The wet weather had made our spirits sink - it looked so gloomy that it was hard to imagine that it wasn't going to stick around for a few days. There was one cafe in the village, and we had breakfast and a few rounds of hot chocolate to warm us up. Incredibly, by the time we came out of the cafe, the sun had come out again and it had dried up. Fantastic!
With refreshed enthusiasm we headed out of the village and over a small pass, in view of the small castle in the middle of the bay, and then over the causeway to Vatersay. At the far end of Vatersay there was a narrow isthmus with dunes on both sides. We pitched up on the edge of the dunes in a perfect tent sized hollow. It was a gorgeous sunny evening and we walked up to the top of Theiseabhal Mor on the headland and were rewarded with fantastic views of the small islands of Sandray, Pablay, and Mingulay, and also over Vatersay itself and back over to Barra. Then after tea we wandered along the beach, there were lots of big jelly fish that had been washed up, and the rock pools were full of small transparent fishes.
The next day was sadly the end of the trip. So it was back to Castlebay to pick up the ferry back to Oban. It was a 5 hour trip back to Oban on the ferry, with great scenery, followed by a couple of hours lounging in cafes in Oban, and back on the train to Glascow.
Highly recommended! The Hebrides offer some great touring possibilities. First of all, the ferry trips on and off all the islands add a lot of interest. And despite being quite close together, each island feels like it has its own distinct personality. From the more mountainous scenery of Skye, to the windswept and rugged coast of Harris's Golden Road, and the Machair fields of Uist, rich in birdlife. The islands have a good feel to them too, the people are friendly and sociable, and they are not over-developed like a lot of other places. Especially Harris and North Uist, which give the impression of looking like you would imagine other parts of Scotland to be like 30 years ago. Furthermore, because the islands are reasonably compact, you can get to see a lot of things without having to do huge amounts of mileage. Great if you don't have time for, or just don't fancy, a high mileage trip. If you can stomach the challenges of travelling by train with a bike, then Mallaig and Oban make great start or end points, within easy reach of Glascow.