The Western Isles

In 2003 Kathryn and I had a business to run, two teenage sons to look after and two buildings to maintain, so what did I do? I went cycle touring.  I am eternally grateful to her for encouraging me to go.

It was a trip that didn’t disappoint despite the northerly wind which resulted in a head wind most of the way. I am grateful for Justin’s hospitality at Tolsta and  I am still in touch with him, 18 years after this journey and almost 40 years since, as a teenager he was part of a school expedition I led to the French Alps.

Could I do it now at the age of 75, probably, but I would now prefer to stay in one place and explore on a lighter bicycle. I returned with fantastic memories, wanting more, and there was more the following year when I visited the Orkneys.

May 2021

Cycling the Scottish Islands (Innse Gall)

 A high-pressure area is situated over Scotland and the weather will be fine, sunny and dry everywhere.  It has been like this for a couple of weeks.  What a pity I am preparing for a cycling trip to the Western Isles and not yet away.  Will the weather hold for me?

Day 1 – Newtonmore to Tulloch Station Bunkhouse – 28 miles

I left home at 6 pm cycling into a moderate wind that gradually eased, the forecast rain never materialized.  Only one short stop in just over two hours cycling.  The route is so quiet and peaceful I almost drifted into a Zen like state at one point, but biting midges quickly brought me back to reality.  Arrived at Station Lodge, Tulloch at 8.30pm to friendly chat and a cuppa from the owners Alan and Belinda Renwick.  A room to myself in the old waiting room and the strange experience of a train stopping within a few feet of my bed in the early hours of the morning.  The train ground to a noisy halt at the station and then squealed off back the way it had come after a short stop.  There must have been some sort of track maintenance taking place, as there are no passenger services at night.  Maybe it was the driver’s tea break.

Day 2 – Tulloch Station Bunkhouse to Barra (BARRAIGH) – 39 miles

Alan did me a nice breakfast and I took the 8.05 train to Tyndrum Upper Station.  Mr Boring (not his real name) was also on the platform.  On the train he looked, for a moment, as if he was going to sit with me but I stared fixedly out of the window and he sat somewhere else.  You meet all sorts at independent hostels.  This was the first time I had crossed Rannoch Moor by train and I spent a pleasant hour glued to the window, watching the wilderness go by.  I pondered on the vision and imagination of the people who built this railway in such a wild place.  I feel it is undervalued as a tourist attraction.  Tyndrum Upper saw me briefly on the bike as I freewheeled downhill to visit Jim and Jean who are busy developing a new hostel on the West Highland Way, imaginatively called Tyndrum-by-the-Way.  I got a great welcome, tea and choccy biccies.  We talked hostels and I was given a guided tour of the progress so far.

Then it was back on the bike to Oban under a lowering sky but the rains held off until I was almost there.  The main road was scenic, smooth and gently graded so, with a slight tail wind, I did 38 miles in 2½ hours.  The busy traffic spoiled it a bit; lots of lorries and at one point along Loch Etive I felt safer on the pavement (I met no pedestrians).  I would find it hard to recommend this road to cyclists but I had a boat to catch so I stuck with it.  Oban was busy and touristy; I checked out the ferry terminal and then found a nice warm coffee shop in the town centre for lunch.  The warm bit was important, as I was a bit wet and soggy after the rain.

My ship came in; the MV Clansman and it was huge.  Actually, it is 99m long and can carry 678 passengers and 90 cars.  It was dry, quiet, warm and comfortable and I settled down to the peaceful 5½-hour journey to Barra.  The restaurant served good food at a reasonable price.  Caledonian MacBrayne have come a long way since the days of Para Handy, the crew all seemed sober as well (‘jus so, jus so, jus as the captain will tell you’).

I felt refreshed and replete as the humply islands of the Western Isles came into view.  It seemed a long way from anywhere.  My fellow passengers were a mixed bunch; several wild looking individuals who must surely live out in the islands and some middle aged ladies who had been shopping (I sat behind one lady who said ‘Aye’, 30 times in ten minutes after I started counting).  A couple of guys with very large binoculars (bird watchers I guess) and an American family (more of them later).

The islands around Barra look rough and mountainous; not at all what I had imagined Barra would be like.  Castlebay was a pleasant surprise.  A semicircle of houses with steep mountains behind.  Dunard Hostel can be seen from the jetty and it was lovely.  Just like walking into someone’s house.  The two tier bunks were a bit wobbly and I hoped I could change rooms to get a single bed.  This I duly managed then spent the evening sitting by the fire, talking hostels, to Bjorn, from Sweden (not his real name but he sounded so like Bjorn Borg) and a Canadian who writes about and drinks whisky.  Sometimes it is dangerous to admit you actually own a hostel as people think that all you want to talk about is hostels.  I suppose it is a bit like people pouring out their ailments to a doctor who is on holiday.  The evening was lubricated with a wee dram of quality whisky from our expert who was practicing what he preaches.  The American family from the boat arrived noisily and a bit later demanded to know why there were no towels provided.  I almost expected them to ask for room service.  As the hostel management had only appeared briefly to collect cash, the Americans were wasting their breath complaining to us, especially as we were on our second whisky by that time.  The view from the lounge was superb with the semicircle of streetlights reflected off the water but the village did have the air of a place somewhat in the doldrums and I guess only about one house in three was occupied.  No mobile phone reception either so I went in search of a real phone in a box.  I slept well but occasionally woke to hear the rain battering on the windows.  Morning came and the rain had stopped, there was even some blue sky to be seen, the day held great promise.

Oban-across the sea to Barra and Dunard Hostel

Day 3 – Barra (BARRAIGH) to North Uist (UIBHIST A TUATH) – 63 miles

The day was a kaleidoscope of islands passing in regular and interesting succession:Barra (BARRAIGH) – Eriskay (EIRIOSGAIGH) – South Uist (UIBHIST A DEAS) -Benbecula (BEINN NA FAOGHLA) – Grimasaigh (GRIOMSAIGH) – North Uist (UIBHIST A TUATH

A quick visit to the supermarket in Castlebay illustrated one of the problems of living in such a remote place, the shelves looked as if a food raid had taken place; they were very bare.  The American family left on the 9am boat having spent barely 11 hours on the island and most of that either sleeping or complaining.  Why some people who travel can’t enjoy the fact that different cultures are by definition different and accept it I do not know.

The cycling started with a circuit of Barra and every motorist I come across with waved to me as if I was an old friend, a trait that continued until I reach Lewis two days later.  I passed my first sandy beach and cycled up to the ‘Cockle Strand Airport’ just in time to watch a plane take off from the beach in a spectacular spray of seawater.

I then caught the small ferry to Eriskay.  The island looked lovely in the spring sunshine and had a calm, isolated feel.  All the wee houses dotted all about the hillside had their roofs painted bright colours.  Children played in the school playground and mothers gossiped outside the village shop.  The island presented, on the surface, a rural idyll which I suspect has its own pressures under the surface.  For a start, how do you make a living in Eriskay?  The island has recently become less isolated as it is now linked to the next island, South Uist, by a new causeway.

The road on South Uist winds northwards, narrow but carrying little traffic.  Everyone I met waved and I came across a stationary driver sat in the middle of the narrow road chatting away on his mobile phone, oblivious to other traffic waiting to proceed.  I particularly remember that day for stunning beaches, distant views, people waving, almost no cafés and Gaelic road signs that give no hint of distance.  I did find one café about half way up the island and the excellent food was very welcome.  I struggled on, not feeling so good but wanting to get as far north as possible on this dry, warm day with only a light head wind to hinder me.  The causeways between South Uist, Benbecula, Grimasaigh and North Uist were impressive for their engineering and their narrowness.  Watching the tidal water pouring underneath the causeways made me think that all that tidal energy should be harnessed.  After a struggle across moorland to Lochmaddy (LOCH NAM MADADH), North Uist Outdoor Centre provided an excellent place to stay.  A warm shower, somewhere to cook a meal, get clothes dry and a sleep in comfortable bed is all the simple traveller needs.  The centre is in a superb situation overlooking a sea loch with lots of wildlife on view.  The fact that the owners had gone home and left the door open for me summed up where I was.  I pushed the money through the office letterbox and later that evening had a good talk with two young outdoor activity instructors who had come there for the surfing. They are just starting on a career path that I had recently finished.  Feeling slightly nostalgic for that time in my life, I fell into bed and slept very well.

The Cockle Strand ‘airport’ – its a beach

Day 4 – Lochmaddy to Kershader (CEARSAIDAR) – 60 miles

I woke to a strong northeast wind.  North East!  That really was is not fair.  I had planned the journey from south to north because statistically I should have had a tail wind.  I headed north towards the ferry to Harris (NA HEARADH).  The landscape is amazing, with isolated houses scattered amongst a complicated area of big and small lochs as if a giant had just flung both the houses and the lochs at random.  Many of the houses looked empty and I wondered why they had been built and how anyone could have survived living there.  The wind must be fearsome in winter.  As North Uist ended the landscape become gentler with fine views, short grassland and sandy beaches.  The ferry once left from North Uist but now runs from Berneray (BERNARAIGH) at the end of another new causeway.  The Lobster Pot Tea Room filled a convenient half hour while I awaited its arrival.  The sea was rough, the boat smooth and the crossing interesting.  It was good to hear announcements on the boat made in Gaelic as well as English.  I spent most of the crossing talking to a doctor who was travelling the entire length of the islands (including two ferry crossings) just to attend a meeting in Stornoway; life is certainly different out here.  He offered me a lift but I declined.  Was this a wise decision?  Once on Harris the hard work started.  The mountains there are steep and bare and the beaches stunning.  I stopped near Horgabost and walked the length of the beach in bare feet.  My feet turned blue with the cold and were sandblasted by windblown sand.  However, I did have the whole beach to myself and there was no litter anywhere.  I became aware that I had left the Catholic islands when I spotted several notices forbidding most Sunday activities apart from breathing.

The road to Tarbert (TAIRBERT) was steep and the wind strong and still from the north.  These mountains (and they are mountains) may not be high by Scottish standards but they do start from sea level.  At least it was not raining and I pressed on, arriving at Tarbert feeling really tired at 3pm.  The Harris Hotel hit the spot with a baked potato & salad, cake and tea.  I decided to carry on despite my fatigue and the next possible stop being several hours away.  The forecast of heavy rain next morning was the main incentive.  The road north is known locally as ‘The Clisham’ and it is one huge hill.  I got up it without walking (just).  After an hour I needed a short rest and I spent miles looking for somewhere, anywhere, to find shelter from the wind.  In the end I found a grotty quarry.  At last, the Kershader sign appeared but the six miles to Kershader on the side of Loch Erisort seemed never ending.  I was very tired and crawled along at 6 mph into the wind.  At last, nearly 12 hours after leaving Lochmaddy I staggered into a superb wee hostel run by a local crofter (it is vaguely connected to SYHA but I saw no evidence of it).  It had taken me 7 hours cycling time to do 60 miles.  My feet, legs, knees and back all ached like hell.  The hostel had everything needed to be warm and comfortable, but despite SYHA saying it belongs to the Cyclists Welcome scheme I had to leave my bike outside round the back and it rained most of the night.  The boss himself called in very briefly to collect money and told us to pull the door shut when leaving.  I passed a pleasant hour with two lads who had been hill walking and then fell into a deep sleep.

Beaches, boats and no golf on a Sunday

Day 5 – Kershader to Tostahalais (TOLASTADH A CHAOLAIS) – 40 miles

It had to happen; I woke up after a comfortable night to heavy rain carried by a strong north wind.  I set off from the hostel warm, dry and well fed.  At least the first 6 miles were with a side/tail wind.  A couple of yahoo downhills saw me doing 40mph. Hard right then into the teeth of the wind and rain towards Stornoway (STEORNABHAGH).  The rain was cold and I lost all feeling in my hands, my gloves proving inadequate.  A quick emergency stop at a small shop where the locals spoke a mixture of Gaelic and English.  Customer,’ha, good morning’.  Shopkeeper,’Glayva, thank you’.  I got to Stornoway, wet, cold and needing food and warmth so I sought out a café.  I ended up in The Coffee Pot which was a bit of a dive but where the real people were.  Formica tables, egg, chips, strong tea, and not a word of English spoken.  I was itching to try my ‘kimera ha shiv’ but lacked confidence.  Stornoway came over as a seedy sort of place; I guess you have to buy your chicken feed somewhere.  It is the Inverness of the Western Isles.  A hasty retreat saw me turning west and crossing the island on the Pentland Road (Rathad Phentland).  It should be called the Peatland Road because it seems to have been built solely for access to peat cuttings and many of the peat banks are still worked.  I am told that many islanders still have a peat fire but that these now supplement the oil-fired central heating.  ‘Aye, you can tell it’s going to be hard winter when the heating oil lorry makes two journeys over The Clisham before November’.  Now the wind was behind me and the rain had stopped.  The centre of Lewis was impressive for its nothingness, miles and miles of it.  No trees, no hills, no house, nothing man made.  I made good time to Callanish which disappointed a bit.  The stones were big enough but the circle was quite small.  It was a strange feeling to touch something man made that is 5000 years old.  The soup and homemade bread at the visitor centre were excellent and the staff friendly.  While sitting in the café I watched a starling dragging pieces of grass into a hole in a wall; there are few trees for birds to build nests in here.  The sun came out and as this was a history afternoon I visited Carloway Broch.  Impressive, but not a lot for me to get excited about, just slightly interesting and some good views.  Then on to friend Justin’s beautiful home close by.  It is set high above the sea with panoramic views of mountains and sea lochs to the south and west.  An evening of good food, good wine and much talk of the past, the future and the meaning of life passed all too quickly before I collapsed exhausted into bed.

Callanish, Rathad Phentland and Tostahalais

Day 6 – Tostahalais to Newtonmore – 46 miles

An alpine start up at 5.30 am.  Justin had very kindly offered to take me to the ferry terminal at Stornoway and I accepted.  The boat left at 7am, the MV Isle of Lewis and although much busier than on my outward journey it was still very comfortable and I had a nice breakfast of porridge, bacon sandwich and tea.  Just over two and a bit hours later I disembarked at Ullapool and had coffee and cake while the ferry folk blasted off towards Inverness in their cars and lorries.  The day was dry and I plodded onward across the spine of the Highlands into a niggling head wind, feeling tired and sore.  Later that afternoon it started raining heavily and the rain was cold, time to get home.  At Garve, the road meets the Kyle railway line so I looked for a train.  I found one at Muir of Ord an hour and twelve miles later.  Despite the train already having its full compliment of bikes I was allowed on by the friendly guard. I changed trains at Inverness and again I only got on courtesy of the guard.  It was crowded and filthy but it got me home by 6pm to a hot bath and a nice meal.

As I lay in the bath contemplating an excellent but demanding trip I realised that I had underestimated just how big the islands were, how difficult the terrain would be and the trouble I would be given by a headwind throughout a large part of the trip.  I have been left wanting more and plan to revisit.  Next time I will stay in one place and explore using my lightweight bike.  The landscape and culture are so very different from most of Scotland and I can see why the Islands were virtually an independent nation for many hundreds of years.  The journey left me very tired for several weeks but with many good memories of a special trip.  If you do it, remember to go from south to north, you are sure to get a tail

Home at Last

  • 277 miles in 27 hours cycling over 6 days.
  • Average speed 10.3 mph.
  • Specialized Mountain Bike with slick tyres and fitted rear carrier.
  • Old fashioned canvas saddlebag for carrying my stuff.
  • Absolute minimum of kit, weight 12 lbs.
  • Food mostly bought on route.
  • No punctures or mechanical problems.
  • Cost less £140 including £55 for four ferry crossings and two train journeys.

©Peter Main – 2003 & re-published 2021

You are welcome to use extracts from this text but please give me a credit as author

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