Located 40 miles off the Scottish mainland in the North Atlantic Ocean, reminders of how different life is in the Outer Hebrides are never far away. It’s often the place that feels the brunt of Atlantic storms, and experiences them first. And with its big skies, low lying land and exposure to fierce westerlies, the weather has a huge impact on daily life.
On the second day of my Hebridean Way cycle ride I felt the influence of one of those North Atlantic lows. While the whole of the rest of the UK was basking in the early stages of a July heatwave, here the clouds had arrived and were building throughout the day. In spite of the strengthening wind, I made good time cycling from South Uist, across Benbecula and Grimsay to North Uist and Berneray. Road surfaces were good and flat, and being Sunday the traffic was almost non-existent. In fact, there were no excuses to stop. Balivanich, the main settlement on Benbecula and home to the MOD base, was like a ghost town and not until I took an early lunch at the excellent cafe at Claddach Kirkibost did I find something actually open.
I took a slight detour after Claddach Kirkibost along a back road that cuts the northwest corner of North Uist. My interests in spotting birds at Balrananald RSPB reserve or catching a glimpse of St Kilda were much less than having the wind in my back for a good five mile stretch. A steady climb took me over moorland where recent piles of cut peat were waiting to be collected. At the bottom of a fast downhill I passed a restored Hebridean blackhouse at Sollas which would traditionally have used a peat fire. These are buildings specifically designed to withstand extreme weather, constructed using a double-thickness stone wall filled with peat to provide insulation. Nowadays, most restored blackhouses seem to be holiday houses, hostels or museums but there are remnants of unrestored blackhouses in many locations.
Nearing Berneray I passed an iron age broch (fort), Dun an Sticir, which was first inhabited between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago. The original circular stone building was constructed on an island in the middle of a loch. It was occupied by the local chieftain, with walls 3.5 metres thick and connected to the bank and another loch-island by causeways. At some point between the 9th and 13th Centuries a rectangular hall was built within the pre-existing, circular broch, indicating that it was once again the residence of an important local chief.
By 2pm, just as forecast, the strengthening winds were accompanied by steady rain. Luckily, I’d just arrived at the Gatliff Hostel on Berneray, with the main building and annex both occupying blackhouses. I’d originally planned to camp but with gale force winds due, it seemed a far more sensible idea to seek refuge in the hostel for a night. As the winds whipped up white horses in the Sound of Harris just outside it proved an excellent plan.
It’s a basic hostel but having been without a shower, kettle and drying rack for the last couple of days I enjoyed the comparative luxury. I also learned that for modern, 21st Century travellers, access to 240v electricity to power up various devices is a valuable commodity. At hostels and cafes the beds and seats next to power sockets are always the most popular!
While the weather outside was wild and stormy, the company inside was warm and friendly. I shared the hostel with an eclectic mix of travellers – cyclists, walkers, fishermen and sightseers – from various corners of the world. Soon, the conversation spilled over into an impromptu gig as ‘Davie fae Fife’ got out his accordian and guitar, and regaled us with some traditional songs. A couple of bottles of whisky were brought out to lubricate Davie, then shared around everyone to lubricate the conversation some more. Then Davie took a few more drams, played a few more songs, drank a few more … It turned out to be one of those memorable evenings!
While the gale force winds had subsided I cycled in the rain the next morning along to the ferry at Berneray, with the rain clouds passing by the time the ferry docked at Leverburgh. But the clouds hung heavy over Harris that day and I just had to remind myself of the gorgeous turquoise-green seas and white sand beaches I’d seen along its western coast in previous trips. Instead, the cloud base chopped of the top of Ceapabhal and the views were grey and muted.
For all that, it was a popular place. The beachside campsite at Horgabost was much busier than the last time I stayed here over 20 years ago, when I think we were among just a few campers, and left a fiver in the honesty box the next morning. There are more buildings these days too; several glass-fronted, architect-designed holiday homes with views to die for, and the modern arts and entertainment centre (Talla na Mara), run by the West Harris Trust. The Trust has to be commended for the way it has managed over 7,000 hectares of land since 2010, helping to revitalise the community by attracting new residents and creating new housing and employment opportunities. There’s a real sense of energy and purpose to the place, and the stopover facilities they’ve created for motorhomes and campervans at Talla na Mara are a model of kinds of aires that should exist right across Scotland.
I stopped for lunch at Tarbert, taking a well-earned breather between a big hill south of the town and an even steeper one to the north. The steep pull north from Tarbert unfortunately just a case of just getting your head down and grinding up it. Clisham, the Outer Hebrides’ highest mountain, was in the clouds today and for that matter, so was the main road. This stretch of about 11 miles over higher ground soon led to a fast downhill, and I made good time across north Harris and on into Lewis.
Once I turned off the main road towards Callanish at 6pm the clouds darkened and started to close in once again. Soon I was cycling into the rain – as well as a headwind. By the time I arrived at Callanish I’d cycled 63 miles, the longest day of my trip. All trips have a low point and for me, it was this final hour and a half: wet, tired and just looking forward to a meal at the Callanish visitor centre which was due to close at 8pm. I figured it was far better to get a hot meal tonight and dry out a bit before hitting the sack.
I managed to quickly get my tent up, camping just near ‘Callanish 3’, one of the subsidiary stone circles. However, the visitor centre had stopped serving meals at 7pm (not 7.30pm as I’d assumed) and I had to return to cook up a purely functional meal in my tent, stripping off my wet clothes first. It was a stormy night with strong, gusty winds and showers.
I was the first customer in the visitor centre for a large coffee and bacon roll the next morning, then set off on my final 37 miles cycling to Ness with a fresh wind in my back. On multi-day cycles I find my body lets my brain know what foods, vitamins and minerals it craves. This morning I was desperate for a large glass of orange juice and the Carloway Hotel ticked that box perfectly.
I’ve personally never been a big fan of the flat, windswept moorland scenery of Lewis and wasn’t in the mood for stopping, so I made good time past Shawbost and Barvas, stopping for a drink and a chat with a couple on a tandem at the community centre just before Cross. My plan was to take the W1 bus from Ness to Stornoway and put my bike into the luggage area underneath (I’d called up Galston Motors previously, who run the bus service, and found out this was possible). However, I was faced with the choice of either taking an early bus from Ness around 2pm or cycling the short distance only to be able to say I’d got to the Butt of Lewis and having to wait around for the next bus. The lure of my B&B at Stornoway was too much and I opted to have a bit more time to relax before my final day’s cycling.
With my wet tent and clothes draped around my room I enjoyed a meal out and a drink in Stornoway that evening. I’d recommend Stornoway B&B: very welcoming, comfortable and bike-friendly. Since I needed to take the first ferry to Ullapool at 7am the next morning they left out coffee, juice and cereals and even made me a packed lunch as well. By 9.45am I was jostling in between other ferry traffic on the A835 on the way out of Ullapool. It was the first time I’d seen a large cruise ship moored out in Loch Broom as clouds hung low beneath the hills.
On this final day my plan was to ride to Garve, pick up the train to Inverness and then change to another train home. I’d pre-booked cycle reservations and was keen to get to Garve on time. Time flew by (in spite of the steep pull up past the Corrieshalloch Gorge) and I soon stopped at the Aultguish Inn for a cooling drink. The traffic was much faster along this road but most drivers were pretty courteous. The train from Garve turned out to be delayed which meant I narrowly missed my connecting train at Inverness. But in spite of not having a cycle reservation on the next train south I got a space and was able to finally relax.
With the sun beating down outside the train window I was able to take stock of my trip. It was a fabulous ride which flew by quickly. Although I’d focused on the cycling I’d still dipped into local history and culture, and shared conversation and whisky with numerous other cyclists and visitors. And all under those big, Hebridean skies where for locals as well as visiting cyclists, the weather is such a dominating force over daily life.