Western Isles and Coast 2 Coast
OS map: lots of 'em...
The sweeping line of the Western Isles has long been an attractive prospect for a cycle trip and the summer of 2005 started to see the plans fall into place. The difficulty was always how to make a loop of it, given the restriction imposed by available ferry routes and also the prevailing winds which make a south-north trip the preferred option...
The crux of the problem is that you're likely to end up in Ullapool, having taken the ferry from Stornoway on Lewis. Unfortunately, Ullapool has no train service so public transport options are limited. We decided to get round this problem by cycling a coast to coast route from Ullapool across Scotland to catch the east coast rail route near Tain.
Another factor in the planning stage was that you really don't want to be on Lewis or Harris on a Sunday... more of which later. And so it was that a sunny Monday found four of us waiting for the afternoon Calmac ferry to Castlebay, on the Isle of Barra at (almost) the southern end of the Western Isles.
The trip to Barra takes about five hours and I've always been fascinated by the ambience and character of these ferries that ply the remoter islands off Scotland's coast. Looking around at the other passengers on the boat, you can't help but try to imagine the untold stories behind the faces. Some, like us, are clearly visitors, or tourists, or even voyeurs, depending on your perspective. Others will live and work somewhere on these isolated islands, or perhaps they're visiting family, or boyfriend, or girlfriend. Who knows, but everyone surely has a rich tale to tell.
We arrive that evening in Castlebay Harbour, dominated by Kisimul Castle built on a small island outcrop. We're booked in at a hostel just a few yards from the ferry terminal and so have time to go for a wander.
The downside of a trip like this is that you find yourself locked in to ferry timetables and so any flexibility is reduced. We'd liked to have had longer on Barra but the boat to Eriskay and South Uist leaves reasonably early next day and we have to cycle round to the other side of the island to catch it. In the event, what started as a steady drizzle turned to a more serious downpour so heads were down as we ploughed through it.
We make it to the ferry in good time and get a welcome break from the rain and wind. The boat goes to the island of Eriskay which is linked to South Uist by a causeway. The breeze is favourable, the rain eases and eventually the sun makes an appearance. Spirits lift and we can start to appreciate the special nature of the islands as we make our way north.
The main road - if that's the right term - isn't busy but of course we prefer to take minor roads and tracks which parallel the Atlantic coast wherever we can. We have to balance this against the need to get to our next hostel on North Uist which is still a good way off.
Crossing the causeway to Benbecula, we can't help but notice residual damage from last January's violent storms. It's a sobering reminder that five people - three generations of one family - were swept away in their car as they tried to escape the storms by leaving their own home and driving to seek shelter on Benbecula on that fateful night.
Only two choices on Benbecula: stay on the main road, or take the (longer) coastal road to the west. We take the coast road. The sun is still out, the breeze is behind us and we make good time to arrive at the series of causeways crossing to North Uist. The hostel is still a few miles away and tonight we've decided to treat ourselves to a meal at the local pub, even though it's a 10km round trip. Ah, such dedication...
Next morning and once again, we've a ferry to catch from Berneray at the north end of North Uist to Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris. This is a brand new ro-ro and contrasts with the small boat that was used last time I came when you had to clamber down a ladder onto the deck and then have the bikes lowered down to you...
A touch of luxury, then, and a chance to relax as the boat weaves a delicate passage through the numerous islets and outcrops between the two main islands. Arriving in Leverburgh, there's a choice of east or west coast routes, but no real off-road options. We're aiming for a B&B in Tarbert and choose the west coast, hoping to have a look at some of the fine sweeping beaches along the way. We were not disappointed.
So far, there hasn't been much in the way of off-road cycling although there may be more options given a little more time for exploration. From Tarbert there's a minor road to the east which gives access to a track leading north up Gleann Lacasdail in what is quite a mountainous part of the island. While this was going to be one of our objectives, events conspired against us as the weather turned for the worse and we reluctantly opted for the road.
Wind is always a feature of life in the islands and simply can't be avoided. When you're dead into a headwind on a narrow road and you can't hear approaching traffic then sometimes the safest option is to cycle in the middle of the road so that anything coming up behind you has to stop, rather than run the risk of being blown in front of it as it tries to overtake.
It was that sort of a day when we left Tarbert and there's a brute of a hill just a few miles out of town just for good measure. Add a touch of rain and it really doesn't get much better! And on a day like this the area takes on a particularly bleak character. Somewhere along the road Harris becomes Lewis though it's not entirely clear just where - or indeed, why - this is.
For a while we've had some respite from the wind but eventually we have to turn west towards Callanish and back into the teeth of it. So it was a relief to arrive at the Callanish Standing Stones and seek refuge, and a coffee, in the visitor centre there. The standing stones themselves are nothing if not impressive and, like many of these sites, seem to raise more questions than answers.
From the impressive to the depressing. As we pass the settlement at Breascleit there's a children's play park with a sign reading 'Open Monday - Saturday'. A stark reminder that we're in the land of the 'Wee Frees' , that particularly intolerant strain of religious fervour endemic in these parts. The unwary must wonder what's hit them if they unwittingly arrive on a Sunday...
We're staying near Carloway tonight because we wanted to take a look at the Blackhouse Village at Gearrannan tomorrow morning before heading across country to catch the ferry from Stornoway over to Ullapool.
The following day brings the familiar mix of sunshine and showers and the return of the westerly wind that we battled into for much of yesterday. This is good news as we're heading due east to Stornoway. First, though, we visit the Blackhouse Village, a collection of restored and thatched cottages facing out into the Atlantic. There's a youth hostel here as well.
Our route leaves the tarmac at Ullapool and follows the River Ullapool eastwards to Loch Achall on a jeep track. The track continues easily along Glen Achall to a point just past East Rhidorroch Lodge where it climbs relentlessly uphill before dropping down alongside Loch an Daimh. Knockdamph bothy sits in splendid isolation at the end of the loch and provides a welcome place to pause and take in the magnificent surroundings.
It's another 10km or so down Strathcarron to reach the Dornoch Firth - and the coast - at Ardgay. So there it was: loads of islands, four ferries, six days and 375 kilometres and a highly recommended trip... but just don't go to Lewis on a Sunday!
john b, galashiels