Adventure

Summer 2021: The Outer Hebrides?

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I had been sent a copy of The Great British Adventure Map. It’s now on my wall in such a position where, every morning, I spend a few minutes staring at it as I shave. Such is the level of detail that it’s the kind of map that will see me shave my chin many hundreds of times before I have exhausted its facts and figures. In recent days, however, my eyes have been drawn north. North west to be precise to a corner of the map that has had me examining the details of the Outer Hebrides…

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I’m not alone in casting my eyes north… Tim Sanders – a friend from the Cycle Touring Festival – was telling me earlier in the spring about his own plans to head out to the Outer Hebrides in late summer or early autumn. And only a few days ago, in communicating with James Briggs about his recent post on CyclingEurope.org…

…the Outer Hebrides were also mentioned and he explained that he also has plans to cycle the Hebridean Way later in the year. I’m getting the impression that, with foreign travel off the agenda for most of us for a second year running, the remoter nooks and crannies of Scotland are more appealing than ever.

Mark Beaumont cycled the 186-mile, 10-island route in 24 hours a few years ago:

In fairness to the rest of us he was doing it supported, or at least with no luggage. 186 miles (297 km) in 24 hours is not to be sniffed at however. Most of us would take a little more time…

There’s a dedicated website and this is what it has to say about the route:

The spectacular islands of the Outer Hebrides have always been a magnet for cyclists seeking quiet roads and a different pace of life.  As you wind your way past stunning white shell beaches, constantly stopping to visit a historical site or watch eagles soar overhead, you will lose all track of time. 

Using 2 ferries and 6 causeways to hop between islands, this popular on-road route begins on the Island of Vatersay at the southern tip of the archipelago and ends 185 miles (297km) later at the Butt of Lewis lighthouse in the far north. There is no danger of getting lost as the route is way-marked throughout its length and has been adopted as National Cycle Network Route (NCR) 780. However you might need a map to help you plan detours to visit an historic site or reward yourself with a cake stop.

You will get lungs full of fresh air and the scenery that subtly changes along the way is awe-inspiring.  In the morning you can be riding beside turquoise seas and passing flower-strewn machair, before heading inland through rugged hills made from Lewisian gneiss which is some of the oldest rocks in the world.  But there is absolutely no hurry. This is a journey to savour so slow down to Hebridean time and take it steady.

Cycling south to north following the direction of the prevailing winds seems to be the way things are done…

…and I like how those days appear to get more and more challenging the further north you cycle. Getting to and from the Outer Hebrides looks relatively straightforward courtesy of the Caledonian MacBrayne ferries:

My only concern would be the weather. When I cycled along the north and west coasts of Scotland in the summer of 2014 (in preparation for cycling along the coast of Norway the following year), the conditions were, at times, gruesome. But that’s cycling in Scotland I suppose… You just need to wrap up warm!

Merino wool might be a good idea. The kind people at Vulpine recently sent me a merino wool long-sleeved shirt. I wore a merino wool shirt a few years ago until it met its maker but didn’t replace it and wearing the Vulpine shirt in the last couple of weeks has reminded me not just how comfortable they are but how warm they can be. Vulpine currently have a sale on so it might be a good moment to visit their website. Recommended!

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20 replies »

  1. When Ultravox released their video for One Small Day back in 1984, my gang decided that during the summer hols we’d ride to the location of the shoot, the Callanish standing stones. It didn’t quite work out like that. My mates got there in 1988, me in March 1991. Weirdly when I later read Iain Banks’s The Crow Road, a key event in the story happens at the Butt of Lewis at the time I was actually there. There’s a bleak beauty to the place. Ullapool on the mainland is a gem of a town and I keep meaning to go back. And the run downhill to Durness is a joy. My one enduring memory of the north coast of Scotland was that all the guesthouses were run by English emigrés!

    • Yes, I agree about Ullapool – stayed at the youth hostel there back in 2014 – and than ‘run downhill’ to Durness for you was a gruelling uphill slog for me fighting horizontal rain as I headed south…

  2. I’ve been thinking about this too Andrew. However being in Winchester I couldn’t be much further away in the UK. Still very attractive as my usual French or Spanish tours seem unlikely this year. I do like the sound of the possible ferry to Porto!!

      • Apparently it has been put on hold for the time being. Brittany Ferries were seriously considering it.

        • Yes, I did a bit of digging. It’s a shame. I enjoyed my mini-cruise from Plymouth to Santander a couple of years ago. To Porto would open up all kind of possibilities with a bike… Perhaps one day!

      • My youngest lives in Edinburgh so I have done it with a bike but as we know bikes on trains are not always easy.

        • I went on the old sleepers back in 2014. Plenty of room in the large storage area in the engine car. The new trains? Not sure…

              • “Took my bike on the new LNER Azumas on Monday. Utterly laughable. Not a chance in hell of getting 2 bikes in to that cupboard space. I ride a medium bike with narrow handlebars and I couldn’t get the bars through the door. The tyre only just fitted over the hook and it’s only a 32.” A quote from the CTC forum yesterday. It is as I feared and obviously requires the removal of all panniers.

                • Yep. Had exactly the same problem on the GWR Azumas a couple of years ago on a train down to Plymouth. They were never designed by anyone who had been anywhere near a bicycle…

  3. I cycled from Barra to the top of Lewis a few years back. Beautiful scenery and lovely people, and the best beaches I’ve ever seen anywhere. A word of warning though – if you’re heading North there is a steep hill about 5km out of Tarbert where the winds can be problematic. I know because I was blown off the road. I was pushing up the slope and a gust ripped the bike out of my hands, lifted it clean into the air, and hurled it down the slope. It flew 5m across the road without touching the tarmac, and that’s with a tent and 4 full panniers. I was prone on the tarmac and the wind dragged me across the road and to the edge. I wouldn’t have believed it possible if it hadn’t happened to me. Apparently that stretch of road is notorious.

  4. I cycled this route in September 2019, possibly the best tour I’ve ever done. Stunning and ever changing scenery at every turn. I met some wonderful friendly people who were genuinely interested in me and what I was doing. The weather can change suddenly during the day, I had one nasty day of torrential rain and 50mph winds but it was a southerly so blew me along! I’d thoroughly recommend it. Do it.

What do you think?