Island hopping on two wheels
A new cycling trip covers the Outer Hebrides from end to end. Following its 131-mile route, 'casual cyclist' Ben Lerwill falls under the archipelago's spell
Wednesday 03 August 2011
They didn't give me a bike lock. I was about to embark on a five-day cycling tour from one end of the Outer Hebrides to the other: here was my map, here was my eight-speed hire bike, here were my snazzy panniers, here were my B&B bookings. But hang on – shouldn't there be some security as well? The bike, after all, was a handsome machine. "Out there?" Patrick smiled, looking in the general direction of the hills south, and then down at his company's bike. "No, I'd say you won't be needing one of those."
So I set off, free-wheeling into a world of cascading coastal scenery without so much as a key to my name. Scotland's Western Isles hang north to south in a 130-mile-long pendant of bays, highlands and lackadaisical bike thieves. A mere 26,000 people make their homes here, two-thirds of them clustered in the north. In terms of long-distance cycle rides in the UK, it's as enticing a route as you'll find.
Patrick, it transpired, knew his islands. Earlier this year, he and his colleagues at tour operator Hebridean Hopscotch noted the archipelago's growing appeal to two-wheeled travellers and introduced an all-in cyclists' package with bike hire, ferry tickets and end-to-end accommodation. I'm what might be termed a casual cyclist (I wobble into town two or three times a week at home, but wouldn't know a derailleur if I ran over one) so the simplicity of the adventure was attractive.
I'd arrived at the northern island of Lewis, which meant I was setting off from Stornoway, the region's administrative centre. In the local tongue – a form of Gaelic that shares much with the Irish language – the name becomes Steòrnabhaigh, lending the place a touch more exoticism than its pebble-dashed cottages probably warrant. It seemed a proud, pubby little town – perched in the Atlantic at close to the same latitude as John O'Groats – but as a precursor to what the island chain was to hold, it gave barely a hint. Barra, my journey's end, was nine islands, six causeways and two ferry crossings away.
Seventeen miles was all it took. By the end of the first day's cycling, the shortest leg of the week in terms of distance, I was smitten. Lewis is a fiercely beautiful island, softened by sea lochs and rounded by hills that layer and rise into the distance. Traffic had dissipated to a trickle within a few miles of leaving Stornoway, so soon it was just me, the afternoon and the winding road. I'd learnt that getting lost in the Outer Hebrides is almost impossible and, by evening, that fresh langoustines, cask ale and a view of Loch Erisort make for a worthy post-cycling combination.
"Time has its own pace here," said Bernie, the owner of Loch Erisort Inn the next morning, "which is how we like it." I'd been told that the 40 miles of water separating Scotland's Western Isles from the UK mainland were more than just a geographical divide, and so it appeared. Things operate differently out here. Daily papers arrive at no fixed o'clock. Nine out of 10 passing drivers wave at cyclists. Even the sheep, in coats destined to become Harris Tweed, chew through the day with a kind of ocean-sedated mellowness.
So as the days went by and the sun, shockingly, made itself a familiar sight, the various islands came upon me quietly. Viking invaders settled here centuries ago, and wouldn't have needed to go far to find landmasses to divvy up. Within 48 hours of setting off I'd become acquainted with Lewis, Harris, Berneray and North Uist.
Harris – part of the same island as Lewis, though geologically and culturally distinct – was astonishing. A tumbling panorama of moorland and mountains, followed by a breathtaking mile-wide beach scene, its colour scheme matching the typical tropical atoll.
The cycle route itself can be done either north to south or vice versa – I passed a total of 30 people pedalling the other way. But to my mind it felt right to be beginning in the relative bustle of Stornoway and flowing gradually down into the croftland, valleys and low-roofed villages of the south. They say the prevailing wind usually favours those heading north, in which case the breeze was kind to me.
As well as being spectacularly pretty, the islands are also deeply religious places.
"Presbyterian in the north, Catholic in the south," one local explained, adding with a wink: "You'll see people's propensity for fun increases the further down you go." It meant that on Sunday the roads were ludicrously quiet (and the shops, it should be noted, were closed for business). But no one told the wildlife. On Berneray, not long after the flick of a tail signified an otter that had noticed me first, I watched a group of five seals hefting themselves onto rocks; I later stopped to gawp at a pair of hen harriers in the skies above North Uist. The same island's famed golden eagles, apparently greater respecters of the Sabbath, sadly remained hidden.
The cycling itself was split into manageable chunks – 41 miles being the longest stage, a distance easily fuelled by the mound of eggs, potato scones and black pudding that constitutes a Hebridean breakfast.
The further south I reached, the clearer it was that each island had its own defined character. Grimsay was folded into coves and humpy headlands. Benbecula was a flat, peaty palette of greens and yellows. South Uist, a real heart-tugger, was a vision of beaches and wildflowers, where the hills seemed to lean out of the landscape to get a better view of the butterwort and orchids.
The long decline of crofting and the exodus to the mainland of university-age youngsters mean the Outer Hebrides are changing with the times, but the islands nonetheless remain an archipelago apart, out of step with the rest of the UK.
"I'd say we're less wary here, more trusting," a South Uist barmaid told me. As the single-track road spooled south, I found myself agreeing, lulled into a hard-to-define freedom that comes from being somewhere both welcoming and remote.
There were times when paying in sterling or spying a Royal Mail van momentarily took me aback: was this still the UK?
My legs were tired by day five. When Barra appeared, rumpled and olive on the horizon, I spent the ferry ride to its shore feeling a mixture of elation and relief. It seemed fitting, though, to have saved arguably the prettiest island for last. That evening, in golden light, I sat outside a hilltop pub looking onto a castle in the bay below. Two local drinkers unpacked accordions and played into the sunset. It was, like much of the week, almost laughably magical.
And the bike? Propped outside each night, and quite probably still where I left it.
Caledonian MacBrayne (0800 066 5000; www.calmac.co.uk) operates ferries to the islands from Ullapool and Oban on the mainland.
Flybe (0871 700 2000; www.flybe.com) flies from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness to Stornoway; the airline also flies from Glasgow to Benbecula and Barra, landing on the beach. Eastern Airways (08703 669100; www.easternairways.com) flies from Aberdeen to Stornoway.
Hebridean Hopscotch (01851 706611; www.hebrideanhopscotch.com) offers the "Freedom of the Isles" cycling holiday year-round, including bike hire, helmet, panniers, maps, B&B accommodation and ferry tickets from Ullapool or Oban. Prices start at £299 per person for five nights, based on two sharing. The route can be cycled in either direction, and distances covered each day can be tailored to request.
Visit Hebrides: 01851 703088; www.visithebrides.com
Visit Scotland: 0845 22 55 121; www.visitscotland.com
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