Scotland in the summer time means cycle trips. Usually with a waterproof. Unusually, this year, a waterproof was not needed. Such luck.
Barry and I knew we wanted to do a week or so of cycling once I’d arrived in Scotland. Outdoor time during the easing of pandemic restrictions meant that I wanted to stay away from large indoor crowds. We landed on cycling in the Outer Hebrides, mostly due to the great weather and the lure of nice beaches to camp on. It was the least planning I have ever done for a trip. Having two weeks to complete a one week cycle meant that we were very relaxed about how much or how little cycling we did (or how many times we stopped for cake).
The weather and the beaches did not disappoint. Neither did the lack of planning.
Day Zero: Oban to Barra to Vatersay
I call the first day of the cycle trip Day Zero as there was so little cycling involved. After spending a night and morning in Oban, we got a ferry to the Isle of Barra. I hadn’t realised that the ferry was just under six hours long (that lack of planning again) so we arrived just before 6pm. Plenty of daylight left in a Scottish Summer where the sun doesn’t set until after 9pm but we still had to sleep somewhere.
So we cycled about 10km or so south to the edge of the world. Or rather, across a causeway to the southern end of the Isle of Vatersay. We cycled up small hill, paused for a view, hurriedly cycled off to escape the midges that immediately swarmed, past blue waters, sandy white beaches and between fields of flowering machair grass plain.
We paused to take in the end of the road then cycled for about two minutes before walking across the machair to set up camp on the western Vatersay beach. Watching the sun go down into the water and eating cheese on the beach was a lovely way to end the day.
Stats: Approx 13km
Day One: Vatersay to Barra to Eriskay to South Uist
Destination – North!
We started the morning retracing our steps North, back to Barra, in search of breakfast. Unfortunately, the Vatersay Café didn’t open until 11am and even we weren’t out of bed that late. We found a café in Castlebay on the water but they were only doing drinks and cake as their cook had broken an arm. We shared a dry scone, an average cup of tea and moved on. It was even a bit early for a visit to the Barra Gin Distillery. It was sunny and beautiful as we cycled the small roads across the island. It’s tiny and we cycled the 20 ish km in no time, with hours to spare before the next ferry to Eriskay. So we kept on cycling, passing the airport. The airstrip exits only when the tide is out.
We caught the afternoon ferry with loads of other cycle tourists but after the crossing, we quickly dispersed.
Most seemed to stop at the campground at Kildonan, while we cycled on, crossing the causeway onto South Uist. We did not see any Eriskay ponies, taking a few side roads and back again before crossing some farmland and finally finding a suitable wild camp site on yet another lovely beach, in the shadow of an old church. It was a little fishing cove so every now then we caught a whiff of something mildly unpleasant. The spot was along the Machar Way, a long distance walking track. Nobody was walking at that time of the evening and fishermen and farmers had gone home.
Another evening of a walk along a beach watching sunset, eating cheese on the sand and camping in the grass. Don’t think I’ll get tired of that.
Stats: 57.8km, 17km per hour, 525m elevation gain
Day Two: South Uist to Benbecula to Grimsay to North Uist
Four islands in one day…
Day two was a little bit harder. We had our usual slow start, with breakfast on the beach, setting off at a time on the clock some would consider to be late. We stopped to check out the ruins of the church we’d camped under, which has since been used as a Commonwealth War Cemetery. There was a mix of ancient and WWI headstones.
We had intended to stop in at a small town, Daliburgh, for brunch but completely missed it. It must have been to the right of the junction instead of further north, our ultimate destination. We were so energetic and so enjoying the quiet country scenery that we’d actually cycled half the island before we stopped, checked a map and realised we’d missed it. So onwards it was. We bought some eggs from a box on the side of the road, the only time we’ve needed cash all year, and continued the length of South Uist. We deserved a lunch and beer stop at the Dark Isle Hotel, considering that we’d missed second breakfast AND morning tea.
We cycled very slowly along the sunny, quiet country roads and over another causeway to Benbecula where, despite lunch, we were forced to stop at the local bakery. We ate some treats on Grimsay, mostly in order to spend time there as it’s about 6km long so only takes about 30 seconds to cross. Then another causeway and onto North Uist.
We were tempted by the pop up gin shop. Due to COVID, tastings were not on offer so we were forced to buy some Downpour Gin miniatures. The distillery is quite a new company, run by women, using local botanicals. Folk pick their heather, brambles, rosemary, etc and supply the distillery in exchange for a bottle.
They were delicious. Barry drank his share and he doesn’t even like gin.
We had hoped to camp at the RSBP Nature Reserve campground at Banranld but it was completely full. We saw approximately one million motor homes as we cycled by so were actually quite relieved. We weren’t relieved at having to cycle a fair bit further than we’d hoped to find a spot with enough of a breeze to keep the midges away. We rejected one spot because as soon as we stopped we were swarmed and bitten by the little pests.
The extra effort was worth it though. We finally made it to Malacleit and found the most beautiful spot high on the sand dunes. The day was so warm and the daylight seemingly everlasting that we went swimming in the North Atlantic at 7pm and I didn’t even run out immediately. As usual, the sun set over out beach camp spot around 9pm, this time with a gin toast.
Stats: 94.7km, 16.2km per hour, 455m elevation gain
Day 3: North Uist to Berneray to Harris
We gave ourselves an easy day three and spend the morning walking along ‘our’ beach for two hours before nipping down to the Wee Cottage Kitchen van for a local crab snack. And cake. We cycled for about an hour and 20 minutes to the ferry terminal at Berneray only to find the timetable had changed at the last minute that day. So we ended up eating lobster and smoked salmon at a nearby bistro. And cake.
We eventually got on the ferry, and cycled along to our campsite at Horgabost. It was on a nice beach but wasn’t as good as North Uist because there were other people there. And midges. But it had hot showers.
The day was a bit overcast and a bit cooler so I didn’t mind spending more time eating cake than in the saddle.
Stats: Approx 39km
Day 4: Harris to Lewis
The Isles of Lewis and Harris are much bigger than the first part of the island chain, and much hiller. After all the cake stops, I found some of it quite tough. So I needed more cake, obviously.
We had our usually leisurely start but, even so, were in Tarbet by 11am so we had an early lunch and made a plan for the day. The first part involving the Harris Distillery and a tweed shop was executed successfully. Then it was onwards and upwards. We hit some hills almost as soon as we were out of town.
We were rewarded by views and saw a number of golden eagles. According to some info from the North Harris Trust there were 13 breeding pairs of golden eagles in the early 2000s, so this is a pretty good place to spot them.
Then more hills. And onto the Isle of Lewis. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly where one ends and the other starts. There was not a handy stone causeway with water on either side to indicate the crossing.
As we were huffing and puffing our way up, and downward cyclist called out that the seafood hut at the top was good so we were forced to stop, of course. Freshly caught fish and chips under the blazing sun for second lunch was worth the stop.
About an hour later we arrived in Balallan. Barry had a couple of work things to do so we were forced to spend some time in the Community Tearooms and eat apple crumble (it’s not always cake). We picked up some advice for wild camping spots as well as all accommodation in all of Scotland seemed to be full, including camp grounds.
As was becoming a pattern, we were faced with a hill as soon as we left the tearoom, and a head wind, which had been in our faces all day, requiring more effort than usual. It all became a lot easier when we turned on the road towards Callanish. We were tempted by the pizza van we passed but it was a bit soon. We kept an eye out for camping spots and suddenly found ourselves in Callanish itself, with few secluded options. So, we pitched up on a little out cropping just past the standing stones of Callanish III. Even though we weren’t on a beach we had beautiful views across the lock and towards the main Callinish Standings Stones and the smaller Callinish II.
Early to bed with another dark orange ball of sunset.
Stats: Approx 79km
Day 5: Isle of Lewis, Callanish to Ardroil
Day 5 was a sort of rest day but turned out tougher than expected. With time on our hands and a great weather forecast, we decided to head off the Hebridean Way and explore Uig.
After a visit to the Callanish Standing Stones and a second breakfast at the Visitor Centre, we headed further west.
It seemed easy going at first until we hit the wind and more hills. Lots of ups and downs, which we hadn’t really planned for (because we hadn’t planned at all). We were aiming for Ardroil and didn’t see any morning tea stops along the way. Lots of rolling hills.
After cycling along a valley floor, which wasn’t exactly flat, and into a head wind, we stopped on the side of the road, debating whether the Museum and Tearooms signposted down a side road would be one mile or 10 miles. We took a punt (actually, I cycled on to check and whistled for Barry to follow). The tearooms served us up the most delicious smoked salmon pate and a massive slice of cake and homemade ice cream. Worth the extra detour.
I also learnt about the community that lived on the very remote island of St Kilda until the 1930s when the inhabitants agreed to be evacuated and resettled in other areas of Scotland. It was the briefest of info so more reading is on the cards. For some reason, Barry couldn’t answer my questions. the museum itself was a nice little insight intro island life of yesteryear.
We finally made it to Ardroil Sands Community campsite. Nice, quiet, with hot showers for our fiver.
There was a huge expanse of white sand with the tide out. Ardroil Sands is mostly known as the place where the Lewis Chessmen were found in the 1800s. Made from whale ivory, probably in the 12th century by Norse men and/or women, nobody is really sure how they got to Lewis, or even the details of how they were found, (‘in the dunes at Ardoil’).
We didn’t find any chessmen.
We did find a distillery but it was closed.
Stats: Approx 42km
Day 6: Isle of Lewis, Ardoil to Shawbost
The day started slowly, at first with sunshine, and a walk along the beach, watching some of the sand disappear as the tide came in.
We eventually set off around 11am, bypassing the Tearooms but heading down to Kneep Beach campsite. The views along the high road were pretty awesome. Barry’s puncture less so. We were quite efficient with changing the tube, largely because of the midges that descended on us when we pulled off the road.
It soon turned cloudy and with the damp mist that characterises a lot of Scotland’s weather.
The sun returned by the time we’d pushed back up the rolling hills to Callanish. I’d forgotten how much more effort is required to cycle when you’re carrying all your gear.
The honesty box cake fridge on the side of the road outside of Carloway, selling Copper Kettle Fudge and other treats was a bit of a highlight. We over indulged. Unfortunately, the promised restaurants marked on the map were either closed or non existent.
The road moved on from flat coastal to higher inland bits, then back along the coast. Generally, pretty easy going and it wasn’t long before we arrived at the campsite in Shawbost. Unfortunately, the midges also arrived as the breeze died down as soon as we arrived. We quickly threw the tent up, ditched our stuff and went off in search of Mollans Rainbow Foodshed, in the hopes that the little wooden hut still had some bread to go with our emergency can of spaghetti. We got lucky and Julie and Rachel served us up a complete dinner of curry, rice and homemade naan in their backyard. No midges either.
Stats: Approx 66km
Day 7: Isle of Lewis, Shawbost to the Butt of Lewis
With not many kilometres to go and lots of time to do it in, we planned a chilled out morning. The midges were out in force at the campsite so we grabbed the ‘kitchen’ bag and headed back South a couple of kilometres to have breakfast at the Norse Mill and Kiln, where there was enough of a breeze to keep the bugs away. The reconstruction was quite interesting and if water were running down the race it would definitely turn the stone that grinds the grain that makes the bread.
We were lucky enough to see a large flock of large geese flying just overhead then landing on the loch. An incredible sight.
With so much time on our hands, and nothing open on a Sunday, I made Barry be a tourist, stopping at loads of stuff like the Whale Bone Arch, which is the jaw bone of a whale that had been harpooned and the carcus eventually washed up on a nearby beach. Also, the Arnol Blackhouse, an historical house. I liked it, even without it being open with a working peat fire and reenactment (which to be fair, might have pushed Barry over the edge of touristy stuff).
It’s definitely true that Sunday is observed as a day of rest in the isles. I hadn’t really noted on our first day as we’d arrived so late from the ferry. There weren’t many businesses along the way to Port of Ness but every single one of them was closed. We were looking ahead to a grim day ahead with only some oatcakes, that emergency can of spaghetti and no emergency cakes.
Luckily, just outside Lower Barvas was an honesty box selling the usual eggs but also bakery goods. Result!
I made a grumpy Barry turn off the road to see the Truiseil Stone (I was just following all brown tourist signs), which I think is the tallest single standing stone in Scotland.
Barry did not join me for the detour to Steinacleit Stone Circle. it’s a small an ancient stone circle (aren’t they all) on a very small hill with views to an approximately 2000 year old Dun (Castle) in the middle of a loch. Apparently, nobody else thinks it’s interesting either and the stone circle has not been fully excavated, or dated, but is probably an example of an old settlement with a stable enclosure. Who knows how old?
Although not far in distance, the final stretch to the Butt of Lewis and Lighthouse seemed to go on forever. We had stop and eat honesty box scones.
We finally made it and the grey clouds that had marred the day parted to give us blue skies and sunshine. We ate a late lunch on the cliff edge, watching the seagulls fly around below and the shags on the rocks drying their wings.
It was too nice to leave so we camped under the watchful eye of the Lighthouse.
Stats: 51.5km, 17.6km per hr, 485m elevation gain
Day 7: Isle of Lewis, Butt of Lewis to Stornoway
Our final morning dawned breezy and cloudy. It was a quick run down to Stornoway and the Ferry terminal. We stopped at the honesty box bakery again for scones, cruised into Stornoway ready for more cake and cruised around town, mostly eating, until we eventually caught the afternoon ferry to Ullapool, back on the mainland.
Stats: 46.5km, 21.5km per hour
Another cycle tour success.