With the worst of the winter seemingly behind us, thoughts are turning to travel plans for the summer – and if you’re looking for an epic journey to undertake, the magnificent Hebridean Way could be just what you're after. James Birch explains.
Our cycle ride through the Outer Hebrides in September was the best adventure of any sort we’ve had in the UK – it was like visiting another country, but one with no need for a passport. We found friendly Gaelic-speaking islanders, few tourists, ferry trips that were both cheap and scenic – the crossing between Berneray and Harris is rightly cited as one of the most beautiful in the world – lots of sea birds and the odd otter.
This is a sensational journey that requires detailed planning (there are great places to eat and stay, but they’re few and far between) and good luck with the weather, but the result is a visit to a landscape and society that seems very distant from anywhere else in the world, let alone the UK, and is perfect for bicycles.
Set aside at least a week to get there and back and complete the journey at an enjoyable pace. My wife, Claire, and I are fit and experienced cyclists in our fifties – we’ve done several week-long trips, carrying our kit in panniers – and would normally be comfortable averaging 60 miles a day. Here, however, 40 seems better, as there are so many reasons to stop and marvel, plenty of hills… and wind that changes everything it starts blowing the ‘wrong’ way. The prevailing Outer Hebrides wind is a south-easterly, so the convention is to ride south to north; keep your fingers cross that it doesn’t switch around during your visit.
There are 10 main islands linked by six causeways and two ferries; each seems quite different in character from the other. The ferry from mainland Oban to the southerly island of Barra is a scenic five hours and arriving there after the jolly bustle of Oban is a shock: the boat, looming over Kismul Castle, seems much too big for the tiny port of Castlebay.
Once on land, an initial ride south across a causeway to the isle of Vatersay is necessary to ensure you reach the most southerly point accessible by road. This is worth it to be able to stop and swim on the first of many perfect beaches that look like the Caribbean – the claim that all of the UK’s 10 best beaches are in the Hebrides is easy to believe. The catch? They all have near-Arctic water temperatures.
From here, the route is straightforward, but with constant changes of scenery and weather and plenty of diversions. The tiny Barra airport has a sand airstrip and feels more like an island in the South Atlantic than Northern Europe, while the Barra Beach Hotel is straight from a 1970s Bond film. A short ferry ride takes us to Eriskay, famous for Compton Mackenzie’s book (and the film) Whisky Galore!, about the aftermath of the wreck of SS Politician in 1941.
In the fading light, North and South Uist can seem scruffy, with derelict houses and abandoned cars dumped haphazardly by the roadside, which reflects a falling population and the fact that the traditional thatched cottages have now been abandoned for modern homes (although a few have been restored as holiday lets).
The charming Kildonan Museum reminds us that many villages here only received electricity in the 1970s. However, the landscape is dazzling, with miles of sandy beaches beyond the machair on the west coast and deep sea lochs on the east.
The religious history of the islands is long and complex and there are churches everywhere. Much the most impressive, with its spectacular carved tombs of the MacLeod chiefs, is St Clements at Rodel on Harris, above the 18th-century harbour. As with almost everywhere, we were able to wander around the graveyard and climb the tower with only seagulls for company.
If we had a consensus favourite day, it was the last on Lewis, seeing the Celtic stones at Callanish, which are older than Stonehenge, having lunch at the Scallop Shack at Uig, followed by a ride to the cliffs at Brenais. From time to time, we would catch sight of sinister-looking St Kilda, 40 miles out at sea.
As the ferry left Stornoway on our final morning, we felt that, somehow, especially on our bikes, we had made a remarkable discovery, open to almost everyone to try, but attempted by very few.
James Birch is president of Historic Houses and owner of Doddington Hall, Lincolnshire – www.doddingtonhall.co.uk
Seven things not to miss in the Hebrides
- The beaches at Luskentyre, Traigh Iar, Berneray; and Uig sands
- The chambered cairn with intact interior and nearby stone circle of Poball Fhinn, both at Langass, North Uist, where there’s a good hotel, Langass Lodge
- Doune Carloway, Lewis, one of the best preserved brochs
- Garenin, Lewis, a traditional Hebridean crofting/fishing village
- The Hebridean Smokehouse and shop at Clachan, North Uist
- The Isle of Harris Distillery and the Harris tweed emporium at Tarbert, Harris
- The Loch Druidibeg Nature Reserve, South Uist
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