It was raining as we boarded the Calmac ferry ‘Loch Seaforth’ to take us form Ullapool to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. The announcements warned us to expect heavy seas as wind speeds were up to gale force. The stabilisers would be out. Visibility was low as we left Loch Broom and sailed through the Summer Isles. It didn’t look much like summer with the grey skies merging with the grey heaving seas. We settled down in the quiet area on the ferry and were pleasantly surprised at how smooth the crossing was.
Lewis came into view and we were soon ashore and went straight to our B & B in downtown Stornoway.
The plan was to ride out to Callanish Stones in the afternoon.
The promised gale force winds proved to be too much for us and we abandoned. The inland scenery on Lewis is endless heath and moor with thousands of lochans. Not a pretty sight especially with the grey skies with frequent squalls of horizontal rain. The island’s diverse habitats are home to an assortment of flora and fauna, such as golden eagles, red deer and seals. We saw eagles and seals on our journey.
On Lewis life is very different from elsewhere in Scotland, with Sabbath observance, the Gaelic language and peat cutting retaining more importance than elsewhere.
On Sunday 17th June we crept out of Stornoway carefully avoiding all the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, where almost everything but worship, Bible study and eating is banned on the Sabbath.
The up side of this is that the road was deserted so we had the wind, rain and moor to ourselves. In the absence of any other form of shelter being open on a Sunday we followed Audax tradition and used a lovely bus shelter to get some respite from the weather.
We continued to the Butt of Lewis (Scottish Gaelic: Rubha Robhanais) which is the most northerly point of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The headland, which lies in the North Atlantic, is frequently battered by fierce weather. There were quite a lot of people here, despite it being the Sabbath, but I think they were all tourists like us – though all in motorised vehicles.
We were now at the official start – or end- of the Hebridean Way.
The cycle route (NCN780) is 300 kilometres from the Butt of Lewis in the North down the length of the Outer Hebrides to Vatersay in the South. The route passes through 10 islands linked by a combination of causeways and ferries. The stunning landscape is varied and follows the dazzling Atlantic coastline on the western side of the archipelago and in places goes over rugged hills and along the moonscape of the eastern coast. The Outer Hebrides retain a culture that is different to mainland Scotland. Gaelic is often spoken as a first language and there remains a sense of culture and tradition on each of the inhabited islands that make up the archipelago.
Most people cycle South to North with the prevailing wind. We were cycling North to South and hoping for the best!
While we were exploring the Butt of Lewis the rain stopped and there was some brightness in the sky so we made a detour to the Port of Ness with its once busy harbour and fine beach. We stopped for a while watching the Gannets fishing. The gannet’s supposed capacity for eating large quantities of fish has led to “gannet” becoming a disapproving description of somebody who eats excessively – a glutton.
Our overnight billet was about 20km south so we were at the start of the 300km journey – into the wind as it turned out!
We had arrived in plenty of time to enjoy the now sunny afternoon and we walked to the nearby Atlantic coast. The scene was reminiscent of Cornwall. The Outer Hebrides reminded us of the Isles of Scilly in so many ways.
Monday 19th June 2017 the South of England was ‘suffering’ in temperatures over 30 degrees. The Isle of Lewis did not have that problem.
Next up – Harris!
Our route took us towards Stornoway, but we found an unofficial bypass by cutting across at Laxdale to the A859 which took us away from Lewis towards the more inviting landscape ahead. Harris promised to be more to our liking than Lewis.
The Isle of Harris is actually joined to the Isle of Lewis, and has a short border shown by a ‘dashed’ line on the Harris map. Harris has a wide range of landscapes, all of which have their own interest. On the West coast are the beaches with the large open machair areas like the other islands in the chain.
Machair is a Gaelic word and refers to a fertile low-lying grassy plain found on the western coasts of the Outer Hebrides. It is low lying arable or grazing land formed near the coast by the deposition of sand and shell fragments by the wind. Machair is the focus of most Hebridean crofting agriculture. In June when we were there it was covered in wild flowers.
We continued our journey along the increasingly remote A859, rounding the head of Loch Erisort and eventually Loch Seaforth came into view. The Loch forms the boundary between Lewis and Harris and was the boundary between the two traditional counties of Ross and Cromarty and Inverness-shire.
Loch Seaforth forms the boundary between Harris and Lewis. Our overnight stay was at a crofting cottage named Seaforth at the foot of The Clisham.
The Clisham is at 799m is the highest point on the Outer Hebrides. The highest point on the road climb is 201 metres. We were lucky that the weather was good for our journey over the Clisham and we had no problems at all. The scenery was varied and interesting and we are used to Dorset hills which are much steeper!
We enjoyed our ride through the pass and the long descent to Tarbert.
In Tarbert we met up with friends from Bridport who coincidentally were on Harris. We met them at the Harris distillery and they joined us for our ride along the East coast of Harris.
It was the East coast that we were excited about. I knew from our planning that the isolated East coast of Harris was going to be a highlight of our tour. It has some of the oldest rocks in the world dated some three thousand million years old. The exposed rocks are a result of scouring by the glaciers in the Ice Ages. The area is known as ‘The Bays’ because of the many small inlets. The inlets are populated by small villages – or townships – each with their own unique character.
The Golden Road winds and twists through the East Coast of Harris. The single track road runs from Tarbert to Rodel through the coastal townships which have Viking or Gaelic names. The name was given to this lovely winding road in part by the ‘locals’ who really did have to fight to get a grudging authority to spend the money to build the road.
The spectacular scenery encompasses what is sometimes described as a ‘lunar ‘landscape.
The sun came out to make our day perfect.
We had a sneak preview of the beaches on the West Coast of Harris but our journey was moving South onto Berneray. The West Coast of Harris will have to wait for another day.
We had time to pose for a photo with the well travelled Dorset flag at Leverburgh whilst waiting for the evening ferry across the Sound of Harris to Berneray.
Berneray is one of fifteen inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides. It is small with an area of 10 square miles. There is strong evidence that Berneray has been occupied since the Bronze Age. The island is scattered with ancient sacred sites, stone circles and historic buildings. We made a detour to the island’s West Beach which was pretty spectacular.
We continued our journey south crossing from Berneray on the 900m causeway to North Uist officially opened by Prince Charles in 2000.
Our route down through North Uist took us along the Atlantic coast with the beaches and Machair to our right and the bog with heather and lochans to our left. The East coast of North Uist is more rugged.
The wind from the south west increased through the day. There isn’t any shelter and at times it became quite hard work!
The landscape changed as we continued our journey across another causeway to the island of Benbecula. This island is essentially flat and we stayed there overnight before crossing yet another causeway onto South Uist.
South Uist is the second largest island on the Outer Hebrides and has a population of about 1700.The population is 90% Roman Catholic. We were riding along the West Coast which has a sandy beach broken occasionally by small estuaries.
The machair along this coast was extensive and featured enough level ground for a footie pitch.
South UIst is connected to the next island on the archipelago, Eriskay, by a causeway which opened in 2000.
It was off the shores of Eriskay that the ship the S.S Politician foundered in 1941 – and from here that the local seafaring community set sail to salvage her precious cargo of whisky, which was in short supply on the islands during the war years. Island fishermen used their boats to reach the wreck, reportedly bringing thousands of the bottles ashore. This event gives the story-line to one of Scotland’s most famous stories – Whisky Galore.
There was an improvement in road width and surface as we entered Eriskay.
The coastal scenery across to Barra opened up as we approached Eriskay Harbour.
Once again Calmac provided an excellent ferry service across to Barra.
Barra is the second southernmost inhabited island in the outer Hebrides, after the adjacent island of Vatersay to which it is connected by a short causeway. The population is just over 1,000.
The area of Barra is about 60 square miles. The only centre of population is Castlebay.
The west of the island has white sandy beaches backed by shell sand, machair and the east has numerous rocky inlets. The predominant faith on the island is Roman Catholicism.
Barra’s tiny airport, near Northbay, uses the beach called An Tràigh Mhòr (“The Great Beach”) as a runway. Planes can land and take off only at low tide, so the timetable varies. Voted the world’s most stunning landing spot, Barra’s airport is claimed to be the only airport in the world to have scheduled flights landing on a beach. The aircraft currently in operation on Barra is the de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter, flown by Loganair to and from Glasgow. There are usually flights every day of the week in the summer. The beach is also a source of cockles.
We circumnavigated Barra and then continued South across the causeway to Vatersay.
Vatersay is the most southerly inhabited island on the Outer Hebrides. If you want to ride the Hebridean Way I strongly recommend that you start here and ride south to north with the prevailing wind!
The west coast of Vatersay like the other islands has wonderful windswept sands bordered by the rich Machair grasses which were awash with wild flowers.
We returned to the tiny undulating lanes on the rocky east coast of Barra.
The next day we were on our last ferry taking us back to Oban.
What a great adventure – the Outer Hebrides are best explored at the speed of a push bike!
Top tips! Book accommodation as early as possible and at least six months in advance. Barra is particularly difficult. Cycle South to North with the prevailing wind. The ferries are regular but infrequent. Check ferry times when planning your days. There are very few places where you can get any help with mechanical problems with your bike. Service your machines before you go and take tools and spares in quantity!
Day 9: Stornoway to Butt of Lewis
Day 10: Lewis to Loch Seaforth
Day 11: Loch Seaforth to Leverburgh
Day 12: Berneray to Benbecula
Day 13: Benbecula to Lochboisdale
Day 15: Another tour of Barra