Instead of taking the west coast route, I decided we‘d go along the eastern side of the island. The west coast has some great beaches but the landscape of the east looks like the moon. If the moon had brown heather.
The other reason for choosing this route is that Santa lives on the east side. He stays in a bus shelter near one of the small towns. Although I am worried about him. I think he might have lost his head
Thankfully he was still there when I biked past.
Unusually for the western isles the weather was amazing. The sun was out and there was absolutely no wind.
I managed a couple of hill reps of the highest hill in Harris – clisham. The north side was pretty straightforward but the west side was a 300m climb from sea level up a 12% slope!
As the weather was so good my wife decided to cycle for as long as possible. She managed 100K. She stopped near an an alpaca farm at the Callanish Stones.
They claim they sell Fish and Chips but I bet its actually Alpaca and Chips.
Guess what day 3 started with….yup – torrential rain!
At least the days were consistent. Thankfully that was the last we saw of rain until we finished the Hebridean Way.
We started at the Lady of the Isles statue. My wife and her sister headed off following the Hebridean Way but I decided to take a different route. I’d spotted a road heading up a local hill to a radar station. It looked like a fun climb so I parked up and took my bike for a spin.
The view from the top was superb. I could see all across South Uist, Benbecula and onto North Uist.
After the ride I drove through Benbecula. It was very flat and surprisingly ugly. Sorry Benbecula but you are the elephant man of Hebridean islands. The only redeeming feature was the Co-op. They had amazing cinnamon donuts. They were so good I ate two even though it wasn’t yet 10am.
I sped through quickly and caught up with my wife in North Uist. The sun had come out and it was a very pleasant day. I would have offered her a cinnamon donut if I had any. I offered her an oat cake instead.
North Uist was very nice. Quite roads and nice scenery. We could even see St Kilda in the distance. The people of Uist thought folk in St Kilda were a bit dim. They say one St Kilda man came to the island and spotted a lighthouse. He ran towards it, flung open then door, ran up the stairs and looked at the big bright light and said “is that you God?”
I don’t know how true that is but it makes for a good story.
We finished cycling in Berneray and were treated to a glorious sunset –
– Which was nearly as good as the sunrise the next day.
Eriskay is famous for three things – whisky, horses and football. Which sounds like the ingredients for a great night out.
Whisky – In 1941 the SS Politician ran aground off the Isle of Eriskay whilst carrying a significant cargo of Scotch whisky. The incident inspired the film Whiskey Galore. One Christmas I bought my dad a £250 bottle of whisky. I thought he would save it for special occasions so he could savour the taste. Instead, he tanked the bottle in three days. At least he enjoyed it.
Horses – I have only ridden a horse once. It was in India. I sat on the horse. The horse bolted. I tried shouting “woaaaaah” to slow it down. It didn’t stop as it only understood Hindi. Since then I have never trusted horses. Eriskay is home to the Eriskay pony, an endangered breed of horse unique to the island. They roam free but they seemed to enjoy hanging out at the pub.
Football – Fifa recognised Eriskay football pitches as one of “eight remarkable places to play football in the world”. I used to play football in Lewis. It was remarkable any of our pitches could be used for football. One pitch was so slanted I needed climbing equipment to make it out of my own half.
The journey from Barra to Eriskay takes 40 minutes. Luckily some dolphins appeared and swam alongside the ferry
Eriskay is very small. It only took the cyclists 15 minutes
to cycle through. They missed all three of the things Eriskay is famous for because
they followed the official Hebridean way route exactly.
One of my complaints about the route is that it does not point out interesting diversions. For example in South Uist the route passed a side road that lead up a small hill to a magnificent view of the whole island. It only takes a couple of minutes to cycle up but there is no indication on the road that it is a diversion worth taking.
We stopped for lunch at the Borrodale hotel. A recent Tripadvisor review described it as “tired looking…like the rest of South Uist” That must have been written by a man from North Uist.
I thought the place was nice and the food was tasty. In fact, It was so good we went back in the evening.
The riding in South Uist was very easy. The only problem occurred when a funeral cortege approached us on a single-track road. We stopped to let them through but it took 15 minutes for everyone to get past.
We finished the day at a statue called “the lady of the isle.” It was commissioned when the Ministry of Defence was planning to build a missle testing range on the island. The statue is a reminder of the power of church and community. I’m sure its intentional that it looks a little bit like a rocket.
I was in a bike shop in Oban. In ten minutes time, I was due to leave on a ferry to the Isle of Barra.
My wife and her family were going to cycle the Hebridean way – a 185 mike ride from the Isle of Barra to the Isle of Lewis via the Isles of Eriskay, South Uist,Benbecula, Berneray, Harris.
My role for the trip was to drive a support car. It was a nice change not to have to be the one doing an event. My only responsibilities were to ensure they didn’t get lost, that I had carried their supplies and luggage in the car, and that I could fix their bikes if their was an issue.
There was only one problem. I forgot to bring any spare bike tubes. If any of them got a puncture they be walking rather than biking the route.
“What size do you need?” The bike shop worked asked.
“700×25 or 700×28” I replied. I was confident he’d have some. They are the most commonly used bike tube sizes.
“Sorry. I don’t stock those sizes!”
I was shocked but I didn’t wait around to debate the merit of a bike shop not stocking the one tube most cyclists need. I ran to the other side of Oban to see if the only other bike shop in town stocked them.
Thankfully they had some. I made it back to the car just in time to board the ferry.
I spotted a number of cyclists waiting to board. They were all female. The weather forecast for Barra was wet and wild. Does this mean male cyclists are wise or does it mean they are big girls blouses scared of a little rain?
Despite all the cyclists boarding the ferry, we didn’t see a single cyclists whilst doing the Heb way route.
The ferry was the one that used to do the Stornaway to Ullapool route. I’d taken it many times. It was looking a bit tatty compared to when I was last on it.
There wasn’t many passengers on board. I had the dinning room area entirely to myself. Mainly due to it being a rough crossing. Nobody wanted food, they were all lying down seasick.
What folk don’t realize is that the dining room is actually the best place to be. They were all in the observation lounge which is at the top and front of the ferry. The place which experiences the most ship movement.
If you want a smooth journey sit in the middle of the ferry on the lowest floor. Where the dining room was.
We arrived in Castlebay in time for dinner. My wife and her sister are both vegan. I looked at the menu. It was very meaty and fishy. There was only one vegetarian option and that had cheese in it.
I asked the waitress if they did any vegan options. “Yes – we do chips”
After dinner we checked into the bed and breakfast. I asked the owners what the vegan breakfast options were available? She replied “toast”
It’s fair to say the Hebrides has not yet embraced veganism.
Other vegan options we were offered on the trip were
Blue cheese and broccoli soup. Cheese isn’t vegan Lentil and bacon soup. Yes – really. Bacon! Smoked salmon. What do you mean fish isn’t vegan?
Andrew and I grew up on the Isle of Lewis. It’s the furthest north and west you can go in the UK before you get to Iceland. We moved away from Lewis to go to university but our parents still live there.
The Isle of Lewis is renowned for three things – Harris Tweed, Gaelic and having the oldest group of rocks in the UK. The rock is called Lewisian gneiss. The second oldest rock group in the UK is The Rolling Stones.
In Summer 2016 I met a cyclist at Stornoway ferry terminal. I asked him where he’d been cycling on the island. He said: “I did the Hebridean way. A 185 miles route from Barra to Lewis.” I asked if he’d enjoyed it. He said: “I’ve cycled in the arctic circle in Norway. I’ve biked the far north of Canada but I’ve never been as cold and miserable as cycling here!”
I gave gave him some words of encouragement “If you think this is cold you should try it in winter!”
The Hebrides is the best place in the world on a nice day but on a bad day….
After speaking to him I looked at the route of the Hebridean way. I was disappointed. It missed out lots of great places and bike routes. So here is my improved version of the parts I know well (Barra & Lewis/Harris).
The ferry from Oban arrives early evening into Castlebay. The official route recommends starting your trip the next day in Vatersay before heading north to catch a ferry to Uist.
DON’T DO THAT! Stay in Barra for two nights so you have a full day to explore the island before leaving.
Day 1: Head to Vatersay to see the official start. Make sure you have walking shoes with you as there’s a nice beach to explore here. From the start head clockwise around the island aiming to get to the airport for lunch time. They have a great onsite cafe. Check the plane timetable so you can watch the plane take off and land from the beach.
On the way to the airport stop at Barra golf club so you can see how a sheep field has been converted into a sports venue.
There’s only one hill of note which is towards the end of the route. Anyone of moderate fitness can bike up it. Park your bike at the top of the hill so you can walk up the hill to the statue overlooking Castlebay. Finish off the day with a fast downhill ride into Castlebay.
Day 2: Catch the ferry to Uist
My girlfriend’s sister is married to a man from the Western Isles (he’s from Uist.) Her other sister is married to a twin. I’m a twin from the Western Isles. I’m not sure if she was inspired by her sisters or whether she’s so competitive she’s just one up’ing them.
I’ve never been to Uist but her brother in law has a house there so hopefully I’ll visit one day. I therefore can’t comment on the route until it gets to…
Day 3: This is a controversial choice but I’d argue not to go the official way up the west coast but instead take the east coast. Heading south first means you can visit Rodel church. This is ancient church has one of earliest known representation of a man in kilt. Now a day there’s lots of men in kilts here. Its a very popular place to get married.
Next to the church is small pier which is the southernmost point you can cycle to on the Harris.
The west coast has some great beaches but the landscape of the east coast is unique to the island. A barren landscape of ancient rock and heather. The windy undulating single track road is great fun to ride.
Once you get off the east coast head for Luskentyre beach. The official route passes a bit of it but the best view can only be seen by heading along to it. If you want a challenge try running up the sand dunes. It’s hard work!
The island across from the beach is where the BBC filmed Castaway.
Finish the day by heading to Tarbert. There’s a long climb from the beach towards tarbert but once you get to the top its all downhill into the town.
Unfortunately Tarbert is at sea level and at the base of a hill, so today is going to be hilly no matter which way you go. I’ve added in some diversions off the official way.
Start by heading to Amhuinnsuidhe castle. At one point Madonna was going to purchase it, until she discovered the public are allowed to walk right by the windows. Robert Plant from Led Zepplin was also interested. He went for a pint in the local pub but the beer must have been bad as he never came back with a bid.
The road out to the castle packs in allot of interesting sights. There’s the ruins of an old whaling station, there’s stunning views of the harris hills and there’s the world’s most useless tennis court! It’s exposed to the wind and wild weather of the Atlantic.
From the castle you can walk up to one of the UK’s biggest cliff faces. The 600-foot cliff face of Sron Ulladale,
Head to Rèinigeadal next. Rèinigeadal had no road access until 1990; the only route in was along a hill path, or by boat. There’s a postman’s marked path from the village back to Tarbert. Imagine doing it carrying a load of Amazon parcels. It’s worth walking a bit of it as it has some spectacular views.
The main difference is I suggest not going to the official end of the route. The road to Ness is one of the most boring drives on the island. Vast empty moor as far as the eye can see. Instead head to Stornoway as there’s much better routes that you can do from there.
If you do want to know what the end of the route looks like then check this out. I was there on a very stormy day.
Give yourself at least a couple of days in Stornoway. From here you can do some great routes.
A flat out and back route to a lighthouse. From here you can watch whales pass by. On the way back a small detour will take you to a 15% hill climb! It’s short but hard. I needed a quick rest at the top!
If you tire of road biking then a recently completed mountain bike trial has been constructed in the Castle Grounds. An area of forestry next to Stornoway. I hadn’t tried it before and was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. There’s no major hills but lots of undulating tracks. It was a great way to pass a few hours.
Tour De Tolsta: If you only do one route from Stornoway then do this one! The beaches along here are some of the best on the island. One of them even has its own waterfall
Originally the road to Tolsta was supposed to go all the way to Ness but it was never completed. Supposedly a local sightseer had predicted that if the road was complete then the “The day will come when the Isle of Lewis will sink beneath the waves.”
Which seems unlikely as how can a whole island sink? But, in 1995, the ferry to Ullapool was named the “Isle of Lewis”… There was no calls to complete the road whilst that ferry was operational!
There’s some great swimming spots along the route. Coll beach is very popular with the Hebrides open water swimmers.
There comes a time in your life when you have to confess something to your partner. You’ll have struggled with the confession for weeks in advance. You’ll spend ages trying to get the correct phrasing. In the weeks leading up to ityou’ll use bribery and flattery to get your partner in the right frame of mind to hear it.
But… eventually… you’ll have to confess – “I’m going on a biking holiday!”
You’ll then try to explain to your partner how your week long “training” trip to Mallorca or the Canary islands wont be fun. You’ll claim – nobody will be drinking! You’ll say – we’re not going anywhere near Shagaluf…sorry Magaluf. You’ll state – it’s all about the hills and the weather
So, to avoid all that worry, book a trip to the Western Isles. There’s amazing hills, amazing weather (on a good day) and if your partner asks about the pubs then you can says that the island’s have the highest rate of abstinence in the UK – just don’t mention that its also got the highest rate of drinking too!