The Western Isles

A family tour

Our lives had changed (for the better) in September 2009, with the arrival of Elsa. The question over the course of the year naturally arose: how to incorperate a baby into a bicycle trip? There are of course many ways of doing this, for instance basing ourselves somewhere and going on day rides. This may become a necessity as she grows, but we decided that we could take her with us on a tour.

The Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles, lying to the north-west of Scotland are well known as a chain of islands which lend themselves to cycle touring. They have very little traffic and are fairly flat and are joined by a network of ferry routes allowing for a linear (or circular, if you have the time to cycle the return leg on the busier mainland) tour. The significant disadvantage is the inclement weather which has the habit of blowing in from the north Atlantic. We didn’t care too much for ourselves, but a cold, wet nine-month-old would not make a pleasant travelling companion.

This ruled out the use of a bicycle seat, and she was too small anyway so we decided to get a child-trailer. Our choice, based on price and the requirement for weather-proofing was a Burley Solo. We had to purchase the baby snuggler seat insert as well. Note that Burley, and indeed all other trailer manufacturers insist a child must be over 1 year, and that the baby insert must only be used whilst walking, not cycling. This is largely due to neck strength and the requirement to use a helmet. At this point Elsa could just about walk, and therefore we decided that she should be fine – as indeed she has turned out to be.

Ferry routes

At time of writing, the ferry routes to the Outer Hebrides are Oban to Castlebay and Lochboisdale, Uig to Tarbert and Lochmaddy, Ullapool to Stornaway. The ferries are run by Caledonian MacBrayne and all the info is on their website. It is possible to link Ullapool and Oban by train from Glasgow which would allow for a one-way trip down the whole island chain; we wanted to drive and to see Skye so elected for Uig.

Harris

Our original plan had been to ride from the ferry to the standing stones at Callanish on Lewis, before heading south, which would have seen us cover almost the complete length of the islands. With a small child in tow, however, we decided for a shorter route and simply rode south on the quiet Harris eastern coast road. The ride is gently undulating and takes in dramatic rocky inlets with beautiful views back over the mountains of North Harris (which, if you follow in our tyretracks, you will have deftly avoided cycling over!) By chance, we found the rather wonderful Lickisto Blackhouse campsite: free homemade bread and freshly laid eggs, hot showers and a wild camping feel.

The ferry from Leveburgh connects to the Island of Berneray, passing between the many islands in the Sound of Harris. These ferries really add to the experience of the tour – the routes are spectacular in their own right.

Berneray and North Uist

Whilst it may be tempting to continue south from the ferry terminus on Berneray, via the causeway to North Uist, it is worthwhile backtracking instead to take in the isolated beauty of the island. We camped at the Berneray Crofters Hostel, pitching with a couple of backpackers next to an unrestored stone building. The shelter of the wall was much appreciated, and the views from inside the tent, once again quite lovely. Having Elsa, the ability to wash wash in warm water was much appreciated, and camping outside a hostel was an ideal way of avoiding disturbing others, whilst at the same time having some amenities.

North Uist has a road running in a loop around it. We were planning on taking the ferry back from Lochmaddy to Skye and so opted for the western route whilst travelling south. If you are only doing one direction, this is the road to take since the beaches are quite breathtaking (there is also another road through the mountains, crossing the center of the island, which is likely to be very scenic as well). Another important consideration is provisions. There is a Co-op at Solas which is the only decent sized store until you get to the next one at Creagorry, Southern Benbecula. There is another at Dailburgh, South Uist and one in Castletown, Barra. Of course there are other small stores, though their opening hours are unpredictable, especially on a Sunday.

Having travelled up from London, it was even more striking than we’d expected just how remote and quiet everything is. We had almost no phone signal (T-mobile) at any point on the trip. On a Sunday, there are no newspapers, because the planes don’t fly. We never locked the bikes at any time, and in fact I left my expensive camera on my bike by the roadside whilst going shopping with no concerns that it would be there when we returned.

The beach near Balmartin, before the bird reserve was spectacular, even by Hebridean standards. We were lucky with the weather, but the green machair, the emerald sea and bright white sand, with views over to St Kilda were undoubtedly a highlight of the trip.

Benbecular, South Uist and Eriskay

If we are honest, the main road through Benbecula and South Uist (all of Benbecula in fact!) is something of a disappointment. It is not busy, but it is long and flat and straight. We were lucky to have a tail wind in both directions, but it was only when we got off the road that we really enjoyed our riding. The highlight was undoubtedly the road past Loch Druidibeag to Lochskipport where we camped. The royal yacht Britannia used to bring the Queen on holiday here, and it was easy to see why. An unforgettable camp, which we made on our return leg and completely changed our opinion of South Uist. It is worth looking at the map and noticing the road to the other side of the loch via Locharnan; this would surely be worth exploring too.

We also camped at Howmore Hostel, acceptable, but not amazing and cycled along parts of the beach and coast road, which was tricky to navigate and required a climbing over a few styles when the road came to abrupt end.

Things pick up again to the south. The views past Eriskay to Barra, are typical Hebrides and never failed to impress, despite the weather closing in. There are numerous opportunites for wild camping before and after the causway to Eriskay.

Barra and Vatersay

Barra is reckoned to contain elements of all the Outer Hebridean islands, in one small package. There is certainly an element of truth in this and it is well worth the ferry trip to get there. If you decide to come by plane, things are even more interesting since your runway will be the beach and you flight schedule decided by the tides. We camped wild up by the airport, though it was not as easy as we’d hoped to find a good spot. We were then keen to find a comfortable hotel in Castlebay for some luxury, but were thwarted by the Round Britain Yacht race which was having a stop-over. We stayed in a caravan in the Hostel. If we were to do things again we’d book the Isle of Barra Beach Hotel which has a fantastic location and would make a luxurious stop-over.

Vatersay is the end of the road. The causeway (as with many of the others) has only existed for a few years and this is a remote outpost with only a few houses. Of course, the beaches are whiter than white and the sea crystal clear. We climbed the hill, took in the view and had lunch on the beach before heading back to Castlebay and planning our route back north.

All in all, once you’ve managed to get there, it is hard to go wrong on a Hebridean tour. We got lucky with the weather – you may have rain for a week, but it is more likely to be a heavy shower that blows in and then out again. It would make a great first bike tour, or indeed a great first bike tour with children. The scenery is constantly changing but frequently spectacular and, bar a few exceptions it is pretty flat! Enjoy.

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