A Hebridean Adventure – June 2022

The omens weren’t looking good – I was keeping an eye on the weather forecast days prior to the sailing from Oban to Castle Bay on the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. I was joining the cycle trip organised by Andrew Hinde together with Kath Davis and her friend Linda. I’d been on this trip before, but it was calm on that crossing – this was going to be rough. So rough, in fact, that the previous day’s sailing had been cancelled, and our crossing today was in doubt. However, having driven up from Ingleton early on the Saturday morning, we arrived in Oban for the afternoon crossing we learned that the ferry would be sailing (I was secretly hoping that it would be delayed by another day, and we’d go on the Sunday). There were loads of bikes waiting to board all with various types of cycle luggage strapped to the frames which I was scrutinising and thinking it was all better than my rather wobbly set up. As the ferry was further delayed until 4pm, I decided to make an impromptu trip to B&Q in Oban to purchase some pipe lagging to help stabilise my bar bag.

Eventually, we boarded and were all rather apprehensive as to what we were letting ourselves in for. Our nerves were not helped when the captain announced that ‘I’ll be honest with ye, it’s nae gonna be comfortable’; we couldn’t jump ship now, oh well. Much to the amusement of my fellow cyclists, I’d been munching on crystallised ginger all morning and swigging ginger beer (having been told by various people that anything with ginger helps against sea sickness). So, I was uncertain if it was the combination of both sea sickness pills and the ginger that got me through the voyage without feeling seasick, but something worked. It was the roughest ferry journey I’d been on, and it was nearly six hours before we reached Barra at 10pm. We were all ok unlike one fellow cyclist who was trapped in the toilet for five hours – every time he stood up to go back to his seat, he had to sit down on the loo again! The mistake many folk made on a journey like this was to head straight for the restaurant and munch on fish and chips – we on the other hand ate next to nothing.

Our journey for the A Team (Tailwind Flyers) was a five-day journey from South to North, whilst the B team (Headwind Sloggers) consisting of Alex Pilkington, Mark Wildsmith and Martin Holroyd were going North to South, and we’d meet them somewhere on the road later into our respective journeys. There is definitely a good reason travelling the way we were going! We were booked into hostels on the way which consisted of 5 star accommodation and everything in between, but all were comfortable enough and clean. Definitely better than carrying camping gear. After leaving Barra we crossed South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist. Little has changed to the landscape in the years I’ve been visiting the Outer Hebrides, small crofts, quiet roads and well-stocked Co-op shops. One of the reasons I like going at this time of year apart from it barely gets dark is the amazing bird life. North Uist has the highest density of breeding waders in the UK, Redshanks everywhere, Snipe, Lapwing, Curlew and Dunlin. Other good birds spotted were Short-eared Owl, Hen Harrier a pair of lovely Arctic Skuas and the diminutive and very rare Red-necked Phalarope.

Arctic Skuas (below) are very special birds; they have a unique feeding method by harassing other seabirds – forcing them to regurgitate their food, this is called kleptoparasitism. Two were seen together near the Solas at the North end of North Uist. They are known as the pirates of the seas, they look so cool as they patrol the skies looking for victims to chase and are indeed a cross between a bird of prey and a seagull; closely related to the Great Skua.

North Uist and nearby islands are known for the machair (local name for the flower-rich coastal grasslands) which is found here. June and July are wonderful times to visit these areas with a huge variety of wildflowers and home to the rare Corncrake, with their rasping call commonly heard from the smallest areas of nettle and iris beds. A visit to the RSPB reserve of Balranald to walk the nature trails and see the wonderful machair and birdlife is well worth the slight detour, even to visit the great mobile café serving scallop and bacon sandwiches and great cakes!

We stopped the night in Solas awaiting the ferry the next morning that would take us to the Island of Harris. This is where our rendezvous with our compatriots coming the other way – the B team (Headwind Sloggers), was arranged, funny who you meet on a road junction in the middle of nowhere. Pleasantries were exchanged and various bikes and luggage configurations scrutinised again, then the sloggers continued their battle into the relentless headwind to stay the night on Benbecula, still 30 miles away.

Our third cycling day took us across the short crossing that separates the small island of Berneray and Harris, this is where the hilly cycling starts that I enjoy and the famous Golden Road that weaves in and out and up and down the rugged and wild east coast of Harris. Despite the relentless wind and persistent drizzle, I feel this was very much part of the Harris experience and quite befitting of the bleak and rocky landscape. We reached the small village of Tarbert where the ferry from Skye comes in. There’s not an awful lot to see for such an important ferry port and the local hostel we were staying in that night had certainly not seen any improvements in the last seven years since I’d been there – it was functional though.

The only really big climb was negotiated past the major hills of Harris, and this is where we’d planned to do a walk up the highest of them – Clisham at nearly 800 metres. Unfortunately, the weather was not favourable, so this walk will have to wait till next time. I was really looking forward to seeing both Golden and White-tailed Sea eagles in this area, but neither were flying in this weather.

One thing that is really noticeable the further North one travels and onto Lewis is the lack of decent shops. Co-ops on the Uists are really well stocked (better than Bentham I’d say), but there is a serious lack of any half-decent shop on Lewis so the earliest convenient shop to purchase our evening meal was visited.

The famous landmark of the Calllanish Stones was visited en-route to the Blackhouse village museum of Gearrannan (below). This is a typical village of Lewis and one of the little houses had been made into a hostel where we stayed for the night. I was rather taken aback upon walking inside to see how modern it all was, not quite what I was expecting! We kept bumping into the same cyclists heading North that we’d met on the ferry and an interesting selection of people in the hostels!

The final leg of our trip North, the next day, would take us to the Butt of Lewis. This was to prove the most desolate and bleak section of our ride – over the single road North. Although we did have a tailwind, we knew that we’d only have to turn around and cycle back and onto our resting place for the night, Stornoway. The bulk of Lewis is pretty much a featureless landscape of rolling peat land, interspersed with the odd pile of cut peat stacked neatly to be burned on fires. Villages were passed and I wondered what on earth folk do to scrape a living out here; not a place I would want to live, and winter must be hellish with only a few hours of daylight. Shops are few and far between, well outnumbered by churches, the sabbath is strictly obeyed on Sunday when locals are forbidden to hang washing out and children can’t play outside. There were not even many birds for me to make the ride more interesting. Kath opted out of this section and sensibly headed to Stornoway to stock up on seasick pills, amongst other things. The slog back to Stornoway lived up to our expectations, and finally I’d bonked on this section. The Heb Hostel was very accommodating and after a final meal we had an early night ready for the early ferry to Ullapool.

Apparently is quite a rough crossing back, but I didn’t notice it, I think I’ve got my sea legs but didn’t overdose on crystallised ginger this time!

John Osbourne.