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Island hopping: Scotland's wild Outer Hebrides by bike

Philip Norris's picture
Cycling across the causeway at the Sound of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland.

Under threatening skies, I stow my bike, somewhat precariously, on the car deck of the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry in Oban, on the Scottish west coast. It's taken nearly forty hours to get to this seaside town from Australia and it will be longer still before I reach the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.

I'm headed out to cycle, south to north, along this string of about 100 rocky islands lying nearly 80km off the northwestern coast of Great Britain. From its western coastlines, only the small islands of St Kilda and Rockall separate the Outer Hebrides from the vast Atlantic Ocean, which laps the broad bands of silver white-sand beaches.

In stark contrast, the eastern side of this chain of islands is characterised by mountains and jagged coastline. Small fishing hamlets crouch at the head of narrow lochs.

It's five hours before the Hebrides rises out of the ocean in the glow of the setting sun. The ferry slides into Castlebays and I head to the car deck where about a dozen other cyclists are eagerly waiting for the bow door to lower.

Castle in the bay at Isle of Barra, Scotland. Philip Norris, Cycle TravellerThe Isle of Barra

The next morning the weather takes a turn for the worse, but I set out regardless. Cycling anticlockwise out of Castlebay there is a long steep climb with great views back to Castlebay and the fifteenth century castle that guards the bay, then it's a fast descent towards the rocky eastern shores and its isolated fishing villages.

I follow the coast around to the sandy beaches of the west before returning to Castlebay to seek accommodation rather than brave a wet and windy night in my tent.

Vatersay

The following morning, despite the weather, I press on, climbing another brute hill outside Castlebay over to a causeway that links the island of Barra with the small southerly island of Vatersay. Here, a narrow road follows the coast around the island to the turquoise waters of Vatersay Bay.

Cyclist waiting for the ferry in the Outer Hebridies, Scotland. Philip Norris, Cycle Traveller

For such a beautiful island, Vatersay has been marked more than once by tragedy, and the signs are still visible.

A memorial and a cairn of rocks above West Bay marks the burial site of 350 men women and children whose bodies were washed ashore here in 1853 when the three-masted sailing ship Annie Jane was wrecked in a storm.

As the road skirts the north side of the bay, the very obvious wreckage of an aircraft lays scattered amongst the heather. This is all that remains of an RAF Catalina flying boat, which crashed higher up the hillside in 1944 during a training flight from Oban.

Cold and more than a little wet, I retrace my route back to my accommodation before dining at the famous Cafe Kismul, which has possibly the best curry I have ever tasted.

Eriskay

In the morning, I ride around to Aird Mhòr to catch the first ferry to Eriskay – meaning Eric's Island – which is connected by a causeway to the northerly island of South Uist. Eriskay is less than three miles long and roughly half that in width, so my stay on the island will be short and sweet.

Cycling to South Uist, Scotland. Cycle Traveller

Back in the saddle, I pedal up a steep incline that rises away from the landing slip and in no time at all I reach the much photographed causeway that stretches across the Sound of Eriskay. Still, time enough to reflect on famous events in this tiny island’s history.

Among the many stories is the one that inspired Compton Mackenzie’s novel Whisky Galore. In 1941, the S.S. Politician ran aground off the island while en route to New York. The wreck was soon raided by a few islanders who put its consignment of 24,000 cases of whisky to good use.

South Uist

Without a drop of whiskey in sight, I pedal across to South Uist as the wind and rain became more forceful. It's a lonely ride along the south coast for a few miles, then it's north along a narrow road that forms the spine through South Uist. In good conditions this road would make for easy cycling, but as I continue north, past the turning for Lochboisdale (the island’s main settlement and mainland ferry port) the wind and rain slip it up a notch.

Crossing the causeway at the Sound of Eriskay. Cycle Traveller

Once again, I forgo the confines of my tent for the much more comfortable Borrodale Hotel. The Hotel is just a short ride from the sandy shore and its low-lying machair dunes.

Hidden among these dunes are the remains of the Prehistoric Village of Cladh Hallan dating back to 1000 BC. It's the only place in Great Britain where prehistoric mummies have been found.

Close by, the modern cemetery of Cladh Hallan perches atop a rise overlooking the wild Atlantic and to the east, a vast bog, fragmented by innumerable lochs. The bleak scene is testament to the harsh environment that cut short many a young life in times long gone.

Leaving Clachan na Luib for my final destination on the Uists, I strike out in a north-easterly direction toward Lochmaddy. I soon pass the Neolithic chambered cairn of Barpa Langass. Headwinds almost bring me to a standstill, but I eventually arrive at Lochmaddy; its picturesque ferry port surrounded by mountains contrasts with its history of piracy and murder in much earlier times.

Wild and windy weather greet me the next day as I cycle towards the tiny island of Berneray, my destination for the evening. The terrain changes and the road becomes undulating, which make for more interesting cycling. However, the wind increases and despite my best efforts, momentum becomes almost impossible. Low, dark clouds come rolling in from the west bringing rain that sandblasts my face. Then comes the hail.

The sky clears to blue, but the wind continues unabated as the road descends to the stunning Port nan Long peninsula – white-sand beaches and deep blue waters set to a backdrop of the Beinn Mhor and Beinn Bhreac mountains.

Berneray Hostel, Scotland. Cycle Traveller

Berneray

I cross the causeway and near the Berneray Hostel, brilliantly white-washed and protected by a thatched roof. It sits above the beach overlooking the Sound of Harris, bordered by meadow and pleasantly accompanied by grazing sheep.

After a brief encounter with a less than friendly sheep dog and a one sided conversation with an itinerant highland cow, I set up in the Hostel's bunkhouse, which is somewhat sparsely furnished but greatly enhanced by a window that frames a most perfect view over the Sound.

Isle of Harris

The morning's ferry trip from Berneray to the Isle of Harris is arduous in the driving wind and rain, which has still not let up. It's only a short distance across the Sound, but it is shallow and treacherous and involves some spectacular course changes during the voyage to avoid sandbanks and rocky reefs. Battling fierce winds, the ferry reaches Leverburgh on the Isle a little over an hour later.

I ride straight to my accommodation overlooking the Sound and hole up there for the rest of the day, keeping warm, attending to some minor bike maintenance and only venturing out that afternoon for a short ride during an all-too-brief break in the weather.

Isle of Harris, Scotland. Cycle Traveller

Tomorrow is Sunday and, in accordance with long held religious customs, the shops will be closed, so I stock up before retiring to my room.

The Isle of Harris is a dramatic island of mountains and beaches which has me spellbound as I ride to the town of Tarbert. The west coast road is undulating with only one significant climb on its serpentine course through rugged hill country fringed with vast stretches of golden beaches and turquoise waters.

Offshore a sprinkling of islands dot the horizon and I stop pedalling on more than one occasion, transfixed by the beauty of the landscape, bewildered and pleased that somewhere so beautiful remains so relatively unspoiled.

The wind reaches gale force, sending me careering across the road. I take shelter in a bus stop for nearly an hour but the wind does not abate, so I layer up and push through the few remaining kilometres to Tarbert and its natural harbour... + continue reading

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