The Hebridean Way 2021

Introduction

The Hebridean Way cycle route began life as Sustrans 780, but was renamed and relaunched in 2016 when pro cyclist Mark Beaumont rode it in a headline-grabbing 24 hours.  It is 186 miles or 300 km in length, covering the entirety of the ten inhabited Western Isles – most of which are now connected by causeway.

We completed the route in nine one-day sections – not fast by any means but this pace felt right to take the time to appreciate the landscape and history of the islands.  This isn’t to say that we completed the route in nine days as we took several rest days to appreciate our surroundings or sit out bad weather.  In total we spent 15 nights on the islands in June 2021.  Nine days was actually a pretty slow pace – we met people who walked the route faster than we cycled it!

Riding the Hebridean Way is an unforgettable, stunning, life-affirming experience. The surface is good and the terrain and distance aren’t too challenging, so it makes an ideal starter route if you haven’t tried cycle touring or bikepacking before.

We took camping gear and used it for all but three nights when we stayed in pod or bunkbed accommodation.  We met a number of people who had pre-booked BnB accommodation along the route and this also seems a popular choice, but obviously increases the cost and reduces spontaneity.  We didn’t book any of our accommodation in advance and just took a chance on turning up to see if there was any availability.  This was fine in early June, but might not be in July and August.

When we left home we weren’t planning on riding this route but switched plans when our first route wasn’t working out.  Consequently we didn’t really pack optimally for the Hebridean Way but we mostly got away with it. We rode our mountain bikes but it would probably have been better on road or gravel bikes as the route is all on a road surface.  The roads are mostly single-track with passing places so vehicles travel slowly enough that you shouldn’t feel unsafe.  I couldn’t get mobile reception on my Three network phone until we reached Harris, but locals say that EE is a much better bet (although still very limited).

The weather will obviously play a major factor in your enjoyment but the midges are unlikely to – they aren’t much of an issue on the islands due to the strength of the wind.

The route is traditionally ridden from south to north to make the most of the strong prevailing south-westerly winds and begins in the most southerly inhabited island of Vatersay.  The nearest ferry port is Castlebay on Barra, which can be reached via a daily 1pm Calmac Ferry from Oban.  We bought island-hopping ‘Hopscotch 8‘ tickets which at £32.80 each were incredibly good value. These cover all the four ferry trips you need to get from Oban to the Hebrides, across the islands and then from Stornoway back to the mainland at Ullapool.  Bikes go free, so you only need a foot passenger ticket which you can get online or from the Calmac office on Oban pier.  Vehicle spaces are at a premium in the summer so I wouldn’t recommend taking your car or camper to the islands – you will get around fine on bikes alone.

On arrival in Barra we went straight to the community shop and tourist information office where we bought the Hebridean Way guidebook and map.  I’m so glad we did.  The guidebook is a wonderful resource packed with useful and interesting information that really made our trip.

If you are a bit more organised than us and want to get these in advance you can order the map here and the guidebook here.  I would recommend getting both as it is nice to be able to open out a paper map and see how far you have travelled.  The walking route is different to the cycling one so obviously you need to be careful to get the right map and guide.

Getting to the start and practicalities in Oban.

You can take the train to Oban from Glasgow and hopefully make use of one of Scotrail’s new bike carriages.

Bikes must be pre-booked by phone as a separate transaction to the ticket, so make sure there is availability before you commit to buying tickets.  Transportation of bikes on Scotland’s train network is one of the biggest issues for planning trips such as these so it is best to be aware of this and tackle it as early as possible.   If you decide to take your car to Oban then you can park it anywhere on the street and it should be fine.  Obviously try to park in a way that means it won’t inconvenience anyone while you are away. You will then have the challenge of returning to pick up your car at the end of your trip but I will deal with that in the Ullapool section at the end.

You can stock up on food in Tesco in Oban and also at the time of writing this, get a free box of lateral flow Covid tests from the testing station next to the golf course.  I would really encourage you to do this and take a test before you travel – the islands are obviously in a vulnerable position and it seems only fair as a visitor from the mainland to make sure you aren’t going to take an infection with you.

Ferries leave from the port in the centre of the town, but make time to visit the excellent seafood shack next to the Calmac ticket office if you can – you won’t regret it – the catch is unloaded literally five metres away, making this some of the freshest and best seafood you will ever eat. With no transport costs, prices are extremely reasonable so this is a chance to really go to town and try a lot of the local produce.  It seems to be run by thoroughly nice people who seem to really enjoy what they do and it shows. Don’t miss it whatever you do.

The ferry takes around five hours and passes through some stunning scenery.  Try to get a seat in the top lounge at the front of the boat and if you are lucky you may even see a pod of dolphins as we did.

Arriving into Castlebay we paid a quick visit to the Tourist Information office and shop, then headed off towards the start of the route at Vatersay.

As we rolled southwards we found the landscape very different and the architecture was at times positively Scandinavian, an early reminder that we were somewhere very different to the rest of mainland Scotland.

Having not read our guidebook at this stage we were really stunned to stumble across this roadside wreckage of a 1944 seaplane crash – it looks as if they just lifted the bodies and survivors out of the wreckage and left the rest.  It was an early lesson on the remoteness of the islands – I guess that even getting the aluminium wreckage to a recycling facility would be a major undertaking and so it was easier just to leave it where it fell.

In Vatersay we camped in a little hollow out of the wind right behind the Hebridean Way start marker.  The wind is frequently a factor in deciding where to pitch your tent in the Hebrides – shelter is often more important than finding a level surface.

Across the road was the community café with coin-operated showers (£1) and public toilets – so pretty much all the facilities you might find on a campsite but at a much lower cost.  Please consider putting a donation in the honesty box on the wall to help contribute to the upkeep of these facilities if you can.

The beaches on Vatersay and Barra are some of the most beautiful on the islands so I would urge you not to race off and be in a hurry to start the route.  It’s always tempting when you finally get to the start line of a route to go shooting off at a pace, but I think Vatersay and Barra are two of the best islands in the Hebrides so take your time to really appreciate them, perhaps even taking a rest day at Vatersay as we did.

We were fortunate enough to be there at a time when the machair (coastal grassland) was all in bloom. It’s stunningly beautiful – a carpet of millions of tiny flowers.

The bay in the photo below was the scene of an awful tragedy in 1853 when the emigrant ship the Annie Jane was wrecked there on her way from Liverpool to Quebec.  Around 350 of the 450 passengers perished and were buried in the sand dunes overlooking the bay.

We spent a while watching this bee, which is native to the islands and has a distinctive red pom-pom on its back. There are signs at the ferry port in Oban warning you not to bring non-native bees to the island in order to protect it, so please remember this and leave your pet bees at home, however much you might want to bring them with you (it’s hard, I know).

We were also fortunate enough to spot a sea eagle, but not to get a photo as it moved too quickly.

After a couple of nights on Vatersay we began our ride of the Hebridean Way with the traditional selfie at the marker post.

As we headed north through Barra we stocked up on food at the Co-op in Castlebay, then got help with some minor mechanical issues from a quality bike mechanic called Tony – ask for him in Castlebay if you need him – everybody knows who he is.

Upon reaching the north of the island we stopped for a while to watch a plane taking off from the airport – the only commercial airport in the world where the planes take off and land right on the beach. Obviously this can only take place at low tide so the timing is variable, but it’s an interesting thing to see if you can manage to time your visit right.  Unfortunately we found that the airport cafe has now permanently closed so we weren’t able to get some hot food as we had hoped.

The airport has all the latest state-of-the-art facilities housed in award-winning, architect-designed buildings.  Sorta.

By the time we left the airport it was getting late and we opted for a remote beach in the far north of Barra to spend the night.

Sitting on the beach eating our dinner that night we found actual proof of the curvature of the earth – Joe (who is a bit taller than me) could see lights in the distance on Rum, whereas I couldn’t see them at all until I stood up. Sorry to break it to you flat earthers – but it seems that you are wrong. I’m so glad we settled that argument.

It was a beautiful place to wake up in the morning – we had the beach to ourselves for several hours.

We rolled down to catch the ferry at Ardmhor only to find a sign warning us that we must phone to book before departure.  When I did this (after a long wait on the line) I was told that the ferry was full and we would have to wait until the next day for a space.  On the advice of others at the port we ignored this and simply joined the queue and put our bikes on board when the ferry was ready to depart.  The ferry staff were extremely relaxed and didn’t even check our hopscotch tickets so we were very glad we hadn’t taken the official advice.  There was plenty of room so I have no idea what the fuss was about.

Our bikes leaning against the entry ramp in a jumble with all the rest.  Plenty of room for more.

We arrived on Eriskay next to the beach where Bonnie Prince Charlie first landed in Scotland in 1745.  As you approach on the ferry it is not hard to imagine the excitement and apprehension he must have felt.

We hurtled off on the long slog uphill to try to reach the Am Politician pub before all the other cyclists so that we could get a hot meal.  They all beat us to it (naturally I blame our lack of skinny tyres, not lack of fitness) but the restaurant was fully booked anyway, even though there were plenty of empty tables. The staff were however kind enough to take down a couple of bottles of whisky from the shelf to allow us a better look. These came from the wreck of the ship the SS Politician, which ran aground near the island in 1941. It was the plunder of this cargo by the islanders that was the basis of the famous Whisky Galore story and film.  Bottles such as these have sold for thousands at auction so it felt amazing that the staff were so blasé about allowing us to see and touch them for ourselves. The angels certainly seem to have had a substantial share of the contents in the 80 years since the wreck.

Just up the road from the pub is a quirky church with a pulpit made from a boat’s prow. This isn’t the sort of attraction that would normally detain us, but I wanted to stop at as many of these odd little places of interest as we could.

After a quick look at the church we sat and ate a Co-op cheese sandwich on the back step.  There are days when you will eat like kings on the finest produce from the land and sea and then there are the other days, the two-day-old squashed cheese sandwich days.

We were finding already that getting a hot meal was going to be difficult. Mostly this was blamed on Covid measures but I am aware that staffing issues due to Brexit were also a factor. Some venues hadn’t survived lockdown and others didn’t seem terribly concerned about the grubby business of making money.  It’s hard when people who have never cycled more than a couple of miles in their lives tell you to just go to the next place ten miles down the road – sometimes you are just completely out of energy and really need to eat. We carry food with us of course, but eating out is one of the true pleasures of cycle touring for me – plus it’s a chance to try local produce and meet local people. A limp ‘cheesey piece’ by the side of the road just isn’t the same as a hot meal that someone else has cooked for you. Nobody is obliged to keep us fed of course, but it seemed ironic to have struggled to spend money in a place that really needs its visitors to do just that.

Functionally refuelled once more we headed over the causeway to South Uist.

The causeways are fun to ride, but without quite the romance of a ferry journey.  Obviously they are much more practical for the locals though.

We wild-camped overnight on the rocky peninsula west of Bornish, where we were hoping to see some seals.  We didn’t but did see a broch and a fantastic sunset. We had the place to ourselves till the twitchers turned up bright and early next morning.

This was the view from our tent at 11pm – it doesn’t really ever get properly dark in the Hebrides in June.  There is enough light even at midnight that with care you could probably see well enough to ride your bike safely off-road without lights.

We did our best to pitch the tent in a little dip out of the wind and our makeshift windbreak of lobster pots and bikes made a surprising difference too.

This camp spot aside, South Uist didn’t really grab me I must admit.  It was all a bit flat and not terribly interesting. Sorry South Uist. Perhaps you need to get off the road and official trail to really find the nice bits.  One difficulty of spending time in a featureless landscape without even a bush for cover is that it can be hard to find somewhere to go to the toilet in privacy.  Much as with the NC500, this seems to be a bit of an omission where the route could do with better infrastructure in place to support those who use it. I did ask at a couple of the shops we bought food in, but they all said their toilets were for staff only. I can’t say that I was thrilled with that response.

South Uist was a bit like Holland, but without the cheese, weed and clogs. A flat path and a strong tail-wind did mean that we made excellent progress though, so there was that.

One of the many things I love about travelling by bike is the encounters with wildlife we have along the way.  In this case it wasn’t a great experience for the starling, but we did get to help it and perhaps save its life (although I am admittedly not very confident about its survival).  The poor thing had caught a toe in the twisted strand of a barbed wire fence and wasn’t able to go into reverse in order to free itself.  Instead it just kept flying forwards and looping-the-loop over the wire till its poor leg was wrapped several times around it.  The leg was stretched to about three times its original length and was very red and raw.  I had to put the phone down to help Joe so this is the only photo I have of the rescue.  The bird flew away afterwards but I would think that its leg would be very prone to infection so doubt it survived, but still hopefully a better outcome than dying hanging upside down on a fence.

A little further on we came across a ewe with her head stuck in a gate. She was in some distress but Joe kept her calm while another passing cyclist fetched someone to help. The man who came and freed her says she does it several times a week.  Sheep really are some of the stupidest creatures on the planet.

This was the causeway from South Uist to Benbecula. I think so anyway – the next few islands sort of blended into one another a bit and we weren’t always aware that we had crossed into another one.

After a 60k day we found ourselves close to the Tractor Shed bunkhouse in North Uist and called in on the off-chance that they had space.  All the pods were full, but we got a room for the night in the bunkhouse. It was nice to sleep on a proper mattress after a while on the road, but it was a bit noisy at night as the toilets were housed in the same building as we were sleeping in.  A lot of the door handles didn’t work properly so there was a lot of door-slamming going on through the night.

It was good to use the washing machine and dryer though and we felt much more human as we rolled away next day.  The bunkhouse would be a good choice if you were travelling solo and felt the need for some company – the communal cooking and eating area is a great place to hang out with other travellers and share stories.

Now here is a strange thing – several times on the Hebrides we came across public phones with an odd assortment of random wires and batteries in them, which made me wonder – can you hotwire a phonebox? (no photo of the actual wires as I don’t want to get anyone into trouble). It wasn’t just in the type shown below – we also saw this at the indoor type too.  Very odd – let me know if you have any ideas.

One of the things I love when riding my bicycle is a good information board and the Western Isles are an info board nerd’s idea of heaven.  Here is an excellent one at Dun an Sticir….

….which meant that the real thing made a lot more sense (even when viewed from a distance).

After a fruitless search for hot food we took the ferry from Berneray to Leverburgh on Harris.  So from number eight to number nine of ten islands.  We weren’t as far through the route as that makes it sound though – we were actually just under halfway through our journey from Vattersay to the Butt of Lewis.

Please click here for part 2 of this journey – Harris and Lewis.

 

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