Nine years after first riding it, Pete Coombs and his family return to the Outer Hebrides with their bikes to once again ride the 185 miles that make up the Hebridean Way
I never knew that there could be that much snot up my son’s nose! It’s pouring out, as are the tears – mine would be too, but I’ve got to show some sort of stoic capability in the face of the storm.
“You need to get your head in the right place! We will get there in an hour or so, and it will be warm and dry, but it will it seem a lot quicker if you just grit your teeth and get on with it”
“I never knew that there could be that much snot up my son’s nose”
I though these were the wise words of an encouraging father, but they are greeted instead with more snot stained howls, and at this point my daughter starts to join in too: God, I wish I had some ear plugs to hand!
We’d ridden the Hebridean Way nine years before, when the kids were one and three, safely strapped into child-seats and wrapped in as much wind and rain proof gear as they could breathe through; it had been a fantastic ride, and one I wanted to relive with my now 10 and 12 year old kids. I thought it would be easier this time around, with them doing their own pedalling, but whilst it was easier on our legs, it was much harder on our ears.
Things have changed little on the Outer Hebrides since our last visit, and what has is an improvement: there is now the odd artisan bakery, alternative café or beach view restaurant, but the big difference is the addition of clear signposting of the cycle route (Sustrans Route 780, the Hebridean way).
These wild islands, that get battered by Atlantic weather systems, sit a very long ferry ride from some of Scotland’s more remote towns; it’s five hours from Oban to Barra, two and half hours from Ullapool to Lewis, and one hour and 40 minutes from Skye to Harris. Whilst remote, the geography of the islands lends itself to a perfect south to north linear cycle route, as the prevailing winds are normally south westerlies.
“After months of lockdown we longed for the open space of the Outer Hebrides”
Eight islands, a mere 185 miles, two weeks over the summer, what could go wrong? Well COVID-19 could put a spoiler on it, that and the fact we live in Kent and lots of our hard-found reserved accommodation cancelled on us, not to mention that all the restaurants in Scotland are still closed in late July. Yet after months of lockdown we longed for the open space of the Outer Hebrides and weren’t about to be put off by a few logistical problems.
We set off from sunny Kent on our bikes, navigated our local train station, crossed London and made it through a night on the sleeper train’s narrow bunkbeds, only to be offloaded onto the soaking midge filled platform at Crianlarich, the sleeper no longer goes direct to Oban, where the guard on the only train to connect to our once a day ferry won’t let us on the local train with our bikes. After much pleading we’re saved by the lads who have filled the train’s bike spaces, by saying “We’re off at the next stop.” Our best laid plans almost failed at their first Scottish step.
When cycle touring with children it’s imperative that you set yourself achievable goals, so rather than rush and carry heavy panniers we aimed for journeys between accommodation of 20 or so miles, and to book all our accommodation in advance so as to not to carry camping equipment.
Great in practice but what with limited accommodation choice we ended up on our first night with a long slog over the biggest hill in Barra, to our B+B, a hill which was much repeated as the only eateries and shops are back on the Castle Bay side.
“We have the place to ourselves, as you do with most beaches in the Hebrides”
The route proper starts on Vatersay, a small island accessed by a short causeway from Barra. Vatersay has my favourite set of beaches anywhere in the world, crisp clear pale blue water and bone white sand is backdropped by sand dunes and flower filled machair – a low-lying grassy wild flower plain.
Traigh Shiar beach faces west and has a wilder windswept feel than Traigh a Bhaigh which facing east is sheltered by dunes. Boasting a great little community café, it’s a perfect wild camping spot, as it has a toilet block and shower too.
We hike across the machair on our first full day towards Bagh A’Deas beach, startling a golden eagle en route, marvelling at its skill as it opens its barndoor-esque wingspan to the wind leaving a small rock band far behind in seconds. Scrambling across ash-black rocks we reach Bagh A’Deas, clearing the beach of free range cows and Oyster catchers we have the place to ourselves, as you do with most beaches in the Hebrides.
Following a second day circumnavigational ride of Barra we head north on day three for a mid-morning ferry to Eriskay, a tiny island just off South Uist, which is the site of the sinking of the SS Politician whose 264,000 bottles of Scotch whisky were salvaged by locals and led to the classic Ealing comedy ‘Whisky Galore’.
“264,000 bottles of Scotch whisky were salvaged by locals”
The Uists along with Benbecula are mostly flat, well the cycle route is at least, and with bright weather and light winds we rode the three islands with ease, chilling on vast deserted beaches with just sea birds and the odd seal for company. Life on the Uists is so laid back that one guy stops his van, while we’re taking a wall top lunch break, to chat for half an hour through the window of his cab.
We spend one night in a lovely little cabin at a yoga retreat, called the Wee Haven and three more at the rustic Tractor Shed, close to the RSPB Balranald reserve, which shouldn’t be missed as if you’re lucky you’ll hear corncrake, an endangered species once common across all the UK before the excessive use of herbicides and the creation of supersized farms during the 70s.
After a 15 miles morning ride, from the Tractor Shed, a lunchtime ferry takes us the 45 minutes across the Sound of Harris, a beautiful sailing past a seemingly endless quantity of tiny islands, many with basking seals taking in the midday sun.
The Isle of Harris is hilly, even the flat bits are hilly and we’d chosen to ride the Golden Road, which follows the glorious rocky bays of the isles east. The official route takes in the beaches of the west, so we spent a couple of days exploring the west before moving north.
“The Golden Road is one of the cycling highlights of the Hebrides, well worth a detour, but not in the pissing rain”
The Golden Road is one of the cycling highlights of the Hebrides, well worth a detour, but not in the pissing rain. We’d booked all our accommodation in advance, thus losing the freedom of a tent, so we had a compulsory 17 mile ride (before our longest day of the trip , a 40 mile slog over the mountains of Harris).
Without any option, we set off in high winds and with the rain was falling in ice cold sheets. It was like riding into a wind tunnel with a shower head on full cold strapped to our foreheads. To put it bluntly it was purgatory, which only got worse when all the tear filled snot inducing moaning started, Scotland at its worst.
Yet the pain did end, and after an hour around a hostel fireside and big bowl of pasta all was sort of forgotten, and on an overcast morning, thankfully dry, spirits were surprisingly high as we rode towards Lewis over the highest pass of the whole route.
Gone are the single track roads of the southern islands, this part of the route between Harris and Lewis is mainly a wide two lane road, with more traffic – including the odd pack of motorcycle tourists – who take the ferry from Skye and just head north to Lewis for the ferry to Ullapool.
Again, free forming the route, we choose to forego heading all the way north to the Butt of Lewis – the official end of the route. Instead, we headed south west from the standing stones of Callanish, erected a mere 5000 years ago, to the stunning beaches and sea cliffs of Uig.
“The sea cliffs of Mangersta, just outside Uig, are not only beautiful but the rock is near bullet proof”
By chance I’d investigated the islands climbing options and discovered that Uig is the climbing capital of the Outer Hebrides (I use the term capital in its mildest form here as I didn’t see anyone else climbing). I’d arranged a climbing guide, through a contact on Skye, posted my son and my shoes and harnesses in advance, for a two day bonus boys climbing fest. The first of which was a little wet and challenging, the second of which couldn’t have been better.
The sea cliffs of Mangersta, just outside Uig, are not only beautiful but the rock is near bullet proof. Lewisian Gneiss is some of the oldest rock on the planet, ranging from 3 to 1.7 billion years old, and has wonderful grip with big juggy holds.
We spent all day at the crag, climbing above the sea with only gannets for company, topping out on a series of 20 metre climbs. Mangersta crag is world class, and has possibly the best climbing bothy in the world at its top. There are many options here for multi-pitch routes and some serious overhanging exposed traverses too.
Our final evening in Uig was spent at the unmissable Uig Sands restaurant, with views and food unbeaten on our trip.
Before the start of our long journey back south. I asked the kids their thoughts on it all and got:
“Wet, but wicked!”
Do It Yourself
Some things to think about if you’d like to do something similar.
Don’t bite off long days, as kids will moan and what should be fun turns into a nightmare. The Hebridean Way is 185 miles, so take at least a week.
You really don’t need much! Good waterproofs, down jacket, woolly hat and a couple of changes of clothes. Put all the light stuff in the kids panniers and leave room for food as shops are few and far between and often shut early and all day on Sunday. If at all worried about your panniers put everything into a light weight waterproof liner bag.
Book ahead, as restaurants are often full and double check any accommodation is near a pub/restaurant. It kills the kids to ask them to ride more than half an hour for dinner, especially after a long day.
The kids and my wife used Islabikes, which are excellent. Lightweight, easy to use gears, durable and super comfortable.
“I dig the paddle gears as they’re easy to use. I like the drop handle bars so I can change my grip while climbing hills. The extra brake levers on the horizontal part of the handle bars make stopping easy if you have small hands. I like the way I can go really fast!”
Jacob, aged 12, rode a Luath – Isla’s cyclocross bike for kids (RRP from £699).
“It’s a great colour and super easy to change gear. The saddles is ultra-comfy and I found climbing hills easy, I even overtook Dad. It’s a great bike, I love it!”
Alice, aged 10, rode the multi-purpose Beinn (RRP from £399).
“The Janis is super light weight so great for touring, especially when loading onto trains. I had a front bag which helped distribute the weight, as I imagine it could become twitchy if all the weight was on the back. The gears have a fixed cog on the front, which is small, great for riding along with the kids and climbing hills but not so good if trying to maintain high speed over longer flat distances – which I never really had to do on this ride. A quality bike for all but the roughest of trails.”
My wife rode the Janis (don’t ask her age, it’s rude) / (RRP £999).
Some More Useful Information
Here’s some handy websites worth looking at.
Hebridean Way Info (www.visitscotland.com)
Outer Hebrides Info (www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk)
Uig Sands, Lewis (www.uiglodge.co.uk)
Westford Inn, North Uist (www.westfordinn.com)
Kisimul Cafe, Barra (www.cafekisimul.co.uk)
The Temple Bakery, Isle of Harris (www.facebook.com/TheTempleCafe)
For more on the ferry (www.calmac.co.uk).
For more on the sleeper train (www.sleeper.scot).
For more on bike-friendly mainland taxis (www.tickettoridehighlands.co.uk).
For more on bike-friendly island taxis (www.hebholidays.com).