It’s a scene straight out of a remake of Whisky Galore. As the last notes of the ceilidh band fade away the high-spirited locals spill out into the street, a glass in one hand and the other arm around their partner. The hubbub gradually subsides as most people pile into a minibus to take them back to town, and as the impromptu car park is reclaimed by the machair. The remnants – the party crowd – wander down to the beach to continue the socialising beside a large bonfire. Only, in this 21st Century twist to the black-and-white film, instead of the ceilidh band striking up again on the beach while the whisky flows, a 300-watt amp blasts out Celt-pop tunes into the small hours. So began the first night of my Hebridean Way adventure.
The Hebridean Way is both a cycling and walking route the length of the Western Isles from Vatersay in the south to the Butt of Lewis in the north. Each of the two routes differs slightly although both savour the wildness and culture of these far-flung islands. The cycling route is 185 miles long, straddling ten islands, six causeways and two ferries.
But to get to Vatersay I first had to take the train from Glasgow to Oban to pick up the ferry to Castlebay on Barra, followed by a 30-minute ride south. As we neared Barra a pod of up to 30 dolphin played beside the boat, putting on a synchronised display. The setting sun cast a deep yellow wash that silhouetted the outlying islands of Sandray, Pabbay, Mingulay and Berneray.
In spite of the locals partying on the beach into the early hours I managed to sleep through it. The early morning sun now lit up the tent, a crystal clear light that brought out nature’s brilliant colours: the green of the machair, the deep blue sky and sea, and the coral white of the beach. The machair here is a carpet of wild flowers, kept fertile by cows and sheep grazing freely. It makes for a soft bed as well as a unique natural environment.
I retraced my steps, crossing Vatersay once again and passing the wreckage of a Calalina plane which came down on a training flight from Oban in May 1944. While three were killed, six managed to survive the crash, and a memorial commemorates the accident.
Superb weather and light winds made today one of the highlights of the trip, and good roads with almost no traffic provided for great cycling. There are some stunning views on the west coast of Barra over several deserted beaches near Borve.
I took a short detour along the beach at Traigh Mhor to visit Barra’s famous airport. Often named as one of the most stunning airport locations in the world, it’s the only commercial landing strip that’s actually located on a beach. The tide was still going out when I visited and the next plane wasn’t therefore due for another hour. There are few more idyllic spots to while away the time waiting for your plane.
The first of the two ferries on the Hebridean Way took me from Barra to Eriskay and I think on that sunny Saturday there were at least as many bikes as vehicles. A short climb leads to a great viewpoint looking back towards the harbour and over a turquoise sea to Barra beyond. Eriskay is a tiny island with a compact group of houses in its centre, and boasting a pub (rare in the Western Isles) and a well-stocked shop. It was my first time on the island; the last time I visited the causeway to Eriskay hadn’t been built and so was only accessible via ferry. I had a picnic lunch sitting in the sun on the beach at Kilbride, watching people swimming and messing about in kayaks.
Having lingered several times during the morning I picked up the pace now I was on South Uist. It was easy cycling along quiet roads although I had quick rest stops at Daliburgh and at the Kildonan Museum cafe. Here, the route is set back from the west coast and passes through grazing and farmland. South Uist’s few hills also come into view on its eastern side, with Beinn Mhor (620m) the highest of the bunch.
I’d planned to camp at the Gatliff Hostel at Howmore that night but given the forecast rain the next day I decided to press on some more. With 50 miles completed today, this left a shorter day to cycle the 44 miles to Berneray the following day. I pitched just beside the beach on the headland near Carnan with just one nearby campervan for company.