Outer Hebrides Rolling along the islands’ cycle route, isolation never felt so good
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. 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 2016. Roundthe-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. Well, nine out of 10 islands still isn’t bad, I figure.
Even if I’m not pedalling at 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 of Barra, is a good one. Spinning along the west 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 to Eriskay gives me a chance to soak in my surroundings and find some reassurance from the ferryman. “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. 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 of South Uist through the machair, but it’s a little early in the year for the distinctive colours to be in full effect.
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 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
On the causeway from South Uist to Eriskay, where otters are an unlikely road hazard