The Hebridean Way – Part 2 – Harris and Lewis
Our ferry took us to the port town of Leverburgh, Harris, which is named after Lord Leverholme who owned the island in the early part of the last century.
The Hebrides have suffered greatly over the centuries from a series of robber-baron absentee landlords who initiated clearances in order to maximise short-term gains or pursued vanity projects at the expense of the livelihood and wellbeing of the islanders. Lord Leverhulme would appear to have fallen into the latter category. I recommend a Google to read up about him and the folly and damage caused by his whimsical projects on Harris. With assistance from the Scottish government land ownership is slowly being put into community hands where it can benefit those who live on the islands and are best placed to make decisions on its future. To aid regeneration the islanders also appear to have received substantial funding from the EU, judging by the number of EU flags you can see on the many information boards.
There’s a fish and chip van at the port at Leverburgh but it was closed when we got there. It closes at 3pm – long before the last ferry arrives, which seems surprising. The cafe across the street was recommended to us by a local as ‘London quality’ but unfortunately had similarly aspirational prices. We got takeaway instead which was a bit cheaper. I suggested to Joe that perhaps his burger (with black pudding topping) was just a wee bit underdone, but he ate it anyway and didn’t suffer any ill effects. That’s my boy.
With a belly full of raw meat Joe wasn’t really up for riding the 13 miles or so (with uphill section) from Leverburgh to Horgabost campsite, but with a bit of encouragement and a few digestion stops he made it. I had seen a forecast saying that bad weather was on the way and we just got our tent set up before the rain started in earnest. Up until this point we had been very lucky with the weather. The forecast for the next day was also pretty dire so we planned on a two-night stay at the campsite to wait it out, but in the end spent a third night there till the front finished passing over. With no internet reception we played a lot of cards and took some more Covid tests, just to be sure.
One of the problems with campsites in the Hebrides is that you are restricted in where you can pitch your tent which then limits your options for finding a sheltered spot. We thought we had made a good choice with this hollow in the dunes but it acted more like a wind tunnel and really wasn’t ideal. When the storm came in the night we were hanging on to the tent as it was violently buffeted by 40mph winds. Not a lot of sleep was had, so we moved the tent next day to a spot next to the toilets – a bit noisy but thankfully sheltered from the worst of the wind.
In gaps between the rain we did get out to the beach at Horgabost, which is beautiful even on a dreich day. The dark smudge on the horizon is the island of Taransay, where Ben Fogle came to fame in the TV show Castaway 2000.
Joe found a teeny bit of string poking out of the sand and pulled on it – which revealed this huge anchor and chain buried under the sand.
We braved a few squalls to walk around the headland to Luskentyre beach – one of the most famous on the Hebrides. It is a shame that we didn’t really see it at its best, as it’s a stunning bay.
Horgabost campsite has an excellent food van parked near the entrance – the food was really good and a lot better than I was expecting – more like restaurant food than burger van food. It is inexplicably closed on a Wednesday though – you really do have to admire the Hebridean commitment to a work/life balance at times, however frustrating it might be.
At Horgabost we again bumped into Daniele from Ireland who was walking the route. We had first met her at the terminus for the Barra-Eriskay ferry, so it was a bit embarrassing that she had kept pace with us on foot. After a breakfast at the food van we parted ways once again and headed on up the road towards Tarbert. Obviously we wouldn’t see her again – not a chance!
Tarbert is the biggest town on Harris. It has a couple of very small independent supermarkets and a hardware shop for useful supplies. It is also a ferry port for Uig on Skye.
I would caution you against leaving your bikes unattended on Harris, lest the terrible fate befall them that happened to ours – we came back from shopping to find a young lass serenading them on the harp. She didn’t even seem to be busking or anything. Thankfully our loyal steeds were steadfastly unswayed and weren’t persuaded to follow her home.
The food van on the main street in Tarbert is also very good and they kept on serving even though it was well past time they should have closed, which was massively appreciated.
In Tarbert we came up with a plan to deviate from the official Hebridean Way route in order to visit the eagle observatory at Meavaig. We turned off at the old Norwegian whaling station, with the atmospheric chimney still standing. You can see the whaling station chimney and a few associated buildings in the background in this shot.
A long slog up a steep hill followed – until we reached this bizarre vision – a tennis court in the middle of an otherwise bleak landscape in one of the windiest places on earth. I’d love to see Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic attempt to play a game here, I really would. Apparently it is called Bunabhainneadar tennis court and is community owned and well-used. How unexpectedly wonderful.
At the head of Glen Meabhaig we stopped to read the info board before turning off to the eagle observatory. Where I had thought our visit would be a there-and-back detour from the main route, the board suggested that we could continue on into the hills and emerge at the head of Loch Seaforth to rejoin the route again (the red line to the right of the map). I liked this idea. The board also said this was passable on foot only, but naturally we completely ignored this. Although the Hebridean Way had offered ease of cycling on smooth roads so far, I am an off-road bunny at heart. The siren call of a slightly gnarly, more challenging route was irresistible.
We found the observatory pretty easily. It is a beautiful wooden building with a turf roof that looks completely at home in its environment.
The rocky crags certainly look like the perfect place for an eagle’s eyrie.
The interior of the hut offered good protection from the wind and a fantastic view down the glen past the twin rock buttresses.
After an evening spent fruitlessly scanning the skies for eagles we camped nearby , then headed up the glen in the morning. The rock formations in this part of the world can make a person seem very small indeed – see if you can spot Joe’s hiviz jacket in this shot.
The northwards section of the track was flat and fairly easy to ride. We stopped for a breather by this wee stream and admired this bridge put in place by the North Harris Trust, which now owns the land. They seem to have done a fantastic job of estate management which is sympathetic to its environment and largely uses local materials.
After crossing the river we began the climb upwards on a grassy track. I love tracing these old drover’s tracks and passes across the landscape.
We pushed our bikes most of the way up to the first ridge pass, but it wasn’t too challenging.
We stopped for lunch on top of the first of the two ridge crossings. By this point I was really in my happy place – just me and my boy out in the wilds with our bikes – not another person or building to be seen in any direction. If you look at the ridgeline opposite in the photo below you will see the path we needed to climb after first dropping down into the valley bottom.
We did just that and in this shot you can see the valley floor just behind Joe and also the notch in the ridgeline above his head where we sat and ate lunch. It’s a truly stunning area – well worth the detour if you have the bike/tyres for it. I really loved this part of the trip.
Topping out on the second ridge we were able to ride again as the path made its way down towards the road. After a short and friendly negotiation with the owner of the track we were allowed to continue on our way.
Just before rejoining the Hebridean Way route we came across this hateful thing – I know it isn’t meant to be a cycling route, but I really hate these sort of gates. Joe managed to crush a finger on this one and got a black nail to show for it.
We turned north again on the road, with the signpost confirming that this had been a 17km detour.
Our initial excitement at spotting a roadside seafood van up ahead was crushed when it turned out to be closed. For the next few miles this sadly happened quite a lot to us. We followed signs promising ‘hot food all day’ on a two mile uphill detour, only to be told that there was no hot food as the landlady had gone to bed. At 3pm. Sigh.
The rusty ‘hot food’ sign lied – all they had were cold greasy pies which we ate in desperation, only to find the most fabulous pizza shack like an oasis in the desert a few minutes later. We stopped of course – to hell with the greasy pies – always room for a freshly cooked pizza on a chilly evening. It was life-alteringly good. Don’t fall for the greasy pies at the petrol station!
The pizza fuelled us up for a further push on to Callanish stones, where we were lucky enough to manage to score a camping pod for the night. The stones are really impressive – largely because of the 5ft of peat that was removed from around the base in the 1800’s which allowed them to be seen at something like their original height. Joe is indicating where the peat would have come up to before removal.
Here’s a couple of funky B&W shots of the stones – they are a really impressive thing to see.
We settled into our cosy little pod for the night as the rain came on. It was very cheap as pods go – perhaps because it only had camping beds and not proper mattresses. We were both so tired that we slept soundly on them anyway. It was really wonderful to have escaped the awful weather, so although it wasn’t long since our last rest days we stayed two nights there to wait for the rain to stop. I know this makes us sound like a pair of softies, but I am conscious of having to make sure it is fun and not an ordeal for Joe – otherwise he might stop wanting to come with me on these trips.
We played a lot of cards. The stakes were very high – the last two sweeties – winner takes all.
Unfortunately the Callanish visitor centre was closed when we visited, so we weren’t able to visit the exhibition or cafe.
When we did finally get going again we hit upon the stretch of the route with by far the most roadside attractions. First up it was the Flannan Isles lighthouse disaster museum…
(on our return we watched the movie so that you don’t have to – it was truly awful – don’t bother)
…then we called in at the Copper Kettle fudge stall for some Irn Bru fudge….
…followed by a quick visit to Carloway Broch – an impressive 9m tall Iron Age structure. It was this tall….
…and had cracking views.
Next up was one of my favourites – the Gearrannan Black House village. A wonderful collection of stone and thatch cottages that gave a glimpse back in time to how the islanders would once have lived.
It is possible to stay in the village in a bunkhouse in one of the Black houses, but unfortunately that wasn’t an option for us due to Covid restrictions. It would be an amazing experience though, so I am sad that we missed out on it.
Interior of a black house. The curator kindly stayed behind to let us look around as we arrived just before closing time.
A weaving shed in a black house. The village was occupied until 1974.
A little further on we saw signs for the Siabost Norse mill and kiln. By this time we were getting tired and probably felt that we had visited enough attractions for the day, but made the effort for a quick visit. I’m really glad we did. It was a lovely little place and all open and unattended so you could just wander in as you please. I did suggest to Joe that we sleep the night there but he wasn’t keen.
Although it was getting late we still managed to bag a couple more attractions before bedtime. This was a whalebone arch made from the remains of a whale that washed ashore nearby with a harpoon stuck in its side. Joe was only vaguely interested at first, till he read the leaflet that told him this was the jawbone and not two ribs as he had thought. Then he was suddenly seriously impressed by the size of it.
Next up was a new contender for my favourite attraction on the islands – the Brue Shieling. We came across this by chance as it wasn’t mentioned in any of our guide books or maps. Its a small stone and thatch building – an àirigh, that would have been used as a sort of summer house where cattle were taken to gorge on the rich grass and families had a chance to escape the winter confines of their black houses. It sounds completely idyllic.
It had been a long day and I really wanted to unroll our sleeping bags onto the bed and go to sleep, but Joe was worried we would wake up to find a coach-load of tourists peering in at us in the morning, so we sadly left the sheiling and headed on up the road.
This is the sort of sign you really, really want to see when you are a tired, hungry cyclist.
Although not a cyclist herself, Alice seemed to completely understand the needs of those travelling by bicycle. There is an enclosed barn with a cooker and seating area plus a washing machine.
We camped in the field overlooking the sea and had the most wonderful shower – nicer than ours at home! (Bothag Bhuirrgh’s website is here.)
The next day Alice let us leave our luggage in the barn while we went to finish the Hebridean Way route at the Butt of Lewis – we would be returning past her campsite in order to go down to Stornoway afterwards so it made sense not to drag all our luggage with us, especially as we knew there would be a strong headwind on the return journey.
I love these corrugated iron post offices. This is the one at Ness, the last town before the Butt of Lewis.
Even Scottish Bob had a bit of Viking about him.
A strong tail-wind pushed us towards the finishing line and the road end ….
Until we made it to the final marker post, 186 miles or 300km from where we started in Vattersay.
It’s a beautiful spot, if a bit wild.
After fighting against the headwind back to Ness we went into the Wobbly Dog cafe for a celebration slice of cake and one of their excellent cheese scones. The cafe is run by Mark, who clearly has a passion for baking and is very generous with his ingredients. The place is a wee gem and it wouldn’t be right to finish the Hebridean Way without calling in afterwards, so try not to arrive on a Sunday or Monday when they are closed.
All that remained was for us to retrace our steps back to Bothag Bhuirgh, collect our luggage and battle the headwind down to Stornoway. That really wasn’t easy at all! I have noticed that during testing times Joe and I tend to pass the leadership baton between us now. At first Joe struggled, so it was me leading the way with him tucked in behind, but after reaching the turning for Stornoway I found myself completely empty of energy or motivation and it was Joe who took over and encouraged me on.
The ‘antique’ shops we passed en-route had a bit of a maritime theme….none of it looked very old!
Arriving into Stornoway after a long, hard day we booked into Laxdale campsite and put the tent up. No sooner had we finished than our Irish friend, Daniele (whom we last saw at Horgabost campsite) appeared with a bottle of wine in each hand. It was all very unexpected and lovely to see her again – although we were really embarrassed at having been beaten to the finish by someone on foot. Still, I think it should be a rule that everyone should be greeted by an Irish friend bearing alcohol at the end of a major cycling route…
We spent a couple of days in Stornoway visiting the town and the museum, where I was keen to see the Lewis chess pieces. They didn’t disappoint – they were incredibly detailed and exquisitely carved – they must have been quite a thing to behold when they were first carved from walrus ivory all those years ago.
A view of Stornoway from the museum.
The absolutely, definitely, final marker post on the Hebridean Way.
We caught the ferry over to Ullapool on the mainland, arriving on a sunny afternoon.
Ullapool is one of my favourite places in Scotland.
We spent a couple of days in Ullapool, stuffing our faces with seafood from the chippie and Seafood Shack and visiting the bookshops.
Having been unable to secure a bike space booking from any of the train stations near Ullapool we opted instead to take the coach. I was a bit anxious about this as I hadn’t taken a bike on a coach before. The website said that bikes would be carried as long as you just ‘left them in the box’. We didn’t have boxes so wrapped our bikes in plastic sheets from the hardware shop and hoped for the best. Our luggage went into two ‘bag for life’ carriers from the supermarket.
I needn’t have worried as it all went very smoothly. We took a coach to Inverness, followed by another to Edinburgh, where we switched to our local bus to get us home. A couple of weeks later a friend did a similar thing but got away with wrapping her bike in bubble wrap. She took the coach to Inverness, then local buses to Fort William and on back to Oban to collect her car. I have since heard that you can use one of those stretchy bike socks to cover your bike and the coach driver will also be fine with that.
Here are our bikes on the X95 Edinburgh to Carlisle bus, which fortunately has a bike rack and takes us almost to our door.
We hope you have enjoyed this account of our Hebridean Way cycle. I would recommend it to anyone – novice or seasoned pro alike as it is just such a beautiful route through stunning scenery and a chance to spend time at the very remotest edge of Scotland. I’m already planning when to go back again….
If you have enjoyed this write-up then please take a look at Joe’s little shop that he runs on here. He has lots of really useful bits at great prices.