Outer He­brides Rolling along the is­lands’ cy­cle route, iso­la­tion never felt so good

The Herald Magazine - - etc TRAVEL - RICHARD GOSLAN

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

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