Cycling the Hebridean Way
Neither of us can really remember the exact details of how we found out about the Hebridean Way, a 180 mile cycling route on Scotland’s Western isles. Or what sowed the seed of actually cycling it. Possibly some targeted Facebook advertising, followed by #hebway posts of white sandy beaches and winding roads hugging beautiful coastlines. Whatever the inspiration, the result did not disappoint. Ten islands, six causeways, four ferries, two bikes and one unforgettable trip.
We abandoned Leah’s usual birthday celebrations, replaced instead by a day of preparing the bikes and packing bags. A sunny morning spent on the driveway making sure we had everything. Comparing kit piles with each other and deciding what bits we could do without. A quick pedal along the road outside the house made us realise quite how much we had packed; ultralight bikepacking this was not. With everything ready, we even had time to visit the pub with friends for a birthday drink.
Tuesday morning, finally. After what seemed like months of mental preparation, we were at last ready to go. We boarded the bikes, confirmed details for feeding the cats with the neighbour and rolled out for the short ride to Norwich station; stopping on the way for some last minute supplies and a milkshake in the city.
As our train neared London the skies darkened and soon water began to stream across the carriage windows. At Liverpool Street, pouring rain caused pools to flood into the station entrance. Full waterproofs donned, we made our way out into the city traffic. Forked lightning lit up the skies above and the rain hammered down. We had planned to have a nice afternoon exploring London. Instead, dripping wet, we cycled directly to Euston station, found a waiting room and settled in for the 6 hour wait for the Caledonian sleeper.
Day 1: 6.24 miles 263 ft climbed – Total: 6.24 miles 263 ft climbed.
At around 9pm the sleeper rolled out of Euston station. A quick browse of the brochure and we tried to get some sleep. We both had restless nights. The carriage was similar to a first class carriage on inter-city trains, not overly conducive to a good nights rest. Our desitnation was Bridge of Orchy on the Fort William line. A downside to this is having to disembark at Edinburgh at 4am as the train splits into three. We moved the bikes to a different carriage before attempting to settle in far less comfotable seats, as such, I didn’t really sleep again after the move. I soon forgot any thoughts of sleep deprivation as the train weaved through Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. Porridge and coffee accompanied gorgeous views over lochs and down glens.
We arrive at Bridge of Orchy on Wednesday morning, a tiny station not even big enough for the entire train. The only platform building converted to a hostel. We start down Glen Orchy, a narrow strip of tarmac winding alongside the scenic River Orchy as far as the A85. We’d been warned that the A85 was busy. Warned that we wouldn’t enjoy riding it, with suggestions of the Glen Lonan road as a better route after Taynuilt. Maybe we’re just used to busier roads in the South? It didn’t seem as bad as had been suggested.
With it being a “main” road, some sections had wonderfully smooth tarmac. We decided to stick with it all the way to Oban. Even with the smooth road, some potholes remained. Upon hitting one such pothole, both of my Alpkit Toliari panniers leapt from my bike, hitting tarmac at 25mph, ripping the fabric and spoiling my mood. Strapping a bungee across the top, to ensure they were held down, solved the issue. Of our entire trip, it was the only equipment failure. The rest of the Alpkit luggage worked brilliantly and we didn’t have a single mechanical!
The last climb was our first real challenge. In hindsight there was a cycle path that avoided the main road here. But unsure of it’s route and keen to make the ferry, we pressed on. The descent into Oban soon greeted us with views down into the bay and the ferry terminal at it’s heart. A quick lunch and we were soon boarding the boat. Aboard the ferry the bikes stay on the car deck. You lean your bike up against the railings and a crew member secures them using rope. I would not want to do this with my nicest bike!
Here I finally felt I could relax. To maximise time on the islands, I wanted to make the ferry on the first day (it sails around 1pm); with that goal achieved we had little planned itinerary left for cycling the Hebridean Way, until the train home 8 days later. The 4 ½ hour ferry journey passed uneventfully. So uneventful that we didn’t even see any sea creatures such as dolphins or whales as we had hoped.
We were soon disembarking in Castlebay on Barra island. After a quick and unsuccessful search of a seat at the village restaurant, we headed for the island of Vatersay. The next climb of the trip confronted us before even leaving the village. A 12.5% slope that had Leah off and walking earlier than we would have liked. I managed to cycle the entire hill, the recent gearing conversion to a wider range paying dividends. At the top I chatted with a French gentleman, as Leah walked with his wife.
The road swept down, around a couple of bays, over a causeway and to the start of the Hebridean Way. The Hebridean way starts on a thin stretch of land on Vatersay, with dunes and beaches either side. Like many others already at the dunes, we made our camp. We spent the evening sat looking out over the white sand beach and turqouise waters. What a start to cycling the Hebridean Way!
Day 2: 43.47 miles 1,394 ft climbed – Total: 49.71 miles 1,657 ft climbed.
The next morning we headed off, cycling the Hebridean Way proper. This was now Thursday, two whole days just to get to the start point! Back up and over that first climb (once again the gradient inflicting itself upon Leah) we were soon following the rolling roads of Barra island. We both agreed that this was the most scenic 13 miles of the whole trip. Rounding corners to views of more idyllic beaches and winding in and out around little bays. As we neared the top of a climb we saw two cyclists gaining on us. At each flat or descent we pulled away, but each climb they clawed back the gap.
We reached the ferry terminal, by which I mean a small room with a vending machine and toilets! The mystery riders pulled up shortly after, two ladies in their 70’s doing the same route as us, truly inspiring. Admittedly on e-bikes and with luggage only for hotel stays, but inspiring none the less. We bumped into Patty and Jill repeatedly over the coming week. Unbeknownst to us as the time, their friendship would completely change the back end of the trip. We spoke to the French couple again and also a group of Dutch cyclists.
Straight off the Eriskay ferry a steep climb presents itself, however once dispatched a quick descent brought us to a cafe. We spent lunch chatting with the Dutch group, who were doing the first half of the Hebridean route. Already we had chatted to so many people and the friendlines we encountered at every stop amazed me. In the afternoon we continued on an almost constant Northward bearing; through the (relatively) flat agricultural islands of South Uist and Benbecula. Stopping at yet another big white sand beach, before pressing on to where the guidebook indicated a campsite. A campsite stay meant we had the chance to shower, wash clothes and even eat at the hotel next door. We finished the evening with a walk along a deserted beach; empty other than the armies of wading birds and the odd seal just off the shore.
Day 3: 47.52 miles 1,421 ft climbed – Total: 97.23 miles 3,078 ft climbed.
The previous night we had reviewed the book and found a hostel with camping on the island of Berneray. It was a few miles off route, but would put us in a good location for the next day’s ferry. The roads were once again fairly flat; around the wetlands near Grimsay island it was often difficult to tell if you were on land or a causeway. That afternoon we passed the Berneray ferry terminal (once again a small waiting room with toilets), checked times for the ferry and carried on to the hostel. We wanted to make the 07:15 ferry the next morning, so would stay in the hostel that night. Having no tent to pack away would make getting up and out quicker in the morning.
The hostel, run by the Gatliff trust, consists of two small huts; containing three bunk rooms, a kitchen/communal area and a shower/toilet. You arrive, choose any free bunk and pay the warden when she comes round in the evening. Over the years I’ve stayed in a few hostels, but none as well placed as this. Sitting right on the coastline, we watched the tide lazily drift in to shore. We watched attentively, desperate to see our first otter, though unfortunately none came out that evening. The friendliness that is so common with hostel stays was here in abundance; we chatted with the other residents and shared some whisky to round off the day.
Day 4: 45.12 miles 1,201 ft climbed – Total: 142.35 miles 4,279 ft climbed.
We awoke early, one of the few days we set an alarm. Keen to get the early ferry and make progress onto the hillier sections around the island of Harris. In the dense morning fog we cycled round to the ferry (only 2 miles) and setup the stove to make breakfast. Slightly worried that we couldn’t see the end of the pier. 7am, 15 minutes before the ferry, but no sight of the boat as of yet. 7.15am and a man in a CalMac Ferries High-Vis comes round and announces that due to fog they cannot sail. They will review the situation at 8am. 8am, same again, will review at 9am. 9am, ferries suspended until further notice. By now people were starting to arrive for the 10am ferry! We started to worry that if we lost an entire day to this we may struggle to make Inverness in time.
Once again the incredible friendliness of everyone we met shone through. Mike, driving his van from Ullapool to Inverness on Wednesday, offered us a lift and left me his number; Jill and Patty (the ladies we had met a few days earlier) had a bike-taxi booked from Ullapool to Inverness on Tuesday, offering to share the cost with us if needed; We spoke to the French couple again; a Scottish couple, seasoned Outer Hebrides riders, who gave us tips on a good pie shop and some camping spots.
We also got chatting to Allie, we had said “Hello” on the ferry from Oban, but not talked to otherwise. She recently handed in her notice at work and is now cycling the entire coastline of Britain. Completely self supported, on a bike she bought a week before setting off. Once again, truly inpsiring. We told her of the pie shop and agreed to meet her there.
The ferry eventually set sail at 11.30am, the 50 minute crossing taking almost 1 ½ hours due to the thick fog giving the crew a navigational nightmare. On arrival at Leverburgh, we saw the coastguard, kitted and ready to be dispatched to our aid. Immediately Harris made it’s presence known, a long constant climb straight out of the harbour town. On the descent we peeled off for the pie shop, actually a shed and honesty box in someone’s front garden. This description does not do it any justice, the pasties were tasty and there was a wide selection of pies, quiches and fresh bread. We even stocked up on a couple of rolls for later.
The roads weaved up and down along the Harris coastline, past some amazing looking holiday homes and truly stunning beaches. Seilebost in particular practically glowed in the sunlight now peeking through the slowly thinning fog. Rounding a long bend we saw Allie again in the distance. I caught up and found out she’d missed the turning for the pie shop.
By now the fog had completely cleared, the sun baked down as we started the next climb of the trip. Allie rode with us for 15 miles, chatting with Leah on the long climb, giving me a chance to go for it a bit. At Tarbert we parted ways, needing some supplies and fancying a drink. We said she was welcome to stay with us when she eventually made it to Norfolk, so exchanged details.
A few miles after Tarbert the road pitched steeply uphill to the Clisham pass as we tried to find a suitable spot to camp for the evening. Stopping opposite a quary, we cooked some food. With increased energy and the words of the book “at the first quarry turn you’re past the hardest”; we made the decision to push on up the climb. The clear evening gave us amazing view from the road and a thrilling descent down the other side. Given the poor weather the next morning, we were glad we got to experience the mountain in the sunshine, rather than camping and doing it in the fog the following day. Eventually we gave up our search for good camp spots, settling for the only patch of grass we could get that wasn’t directly next to the road.
This was our worst camp of the trip. The still air meaning, as soon as we started pitching the tent, the famed Scottish midges came out in force. Diving into the tent as soon as it was up, we dragged a small cloud of midges in with us. We discussed our plan, heading straight to Stornoway and the ferry, to give us time to cycle across to Inverness. We sat feeling slightly dejected, so decided to accept the ladies offer of a shared taxi to Inverness. It would allow us time to do the entire Hebridean Way rather than the shorter plan. I quickly texted Jill to confirm and we felt much happier. In reading other adventure travel blogs one of the tips i’ve gained is to plan lightly, but never be afraid of changing your plans.
Day 5: 37.14 miles 2,261 ft climbed – Total: 179.49 miles 6,540 ft climbed.
We planned to get up the follwoing morning, cook some breakfast and then set off. But the midges were back as soon as we left the tent. We quickly got the tent down and bikes loaded. Praying for a reduction in the midges, we agreed to stop further on. We stopped regularly, but had covered 15 miles before we finally found a midge free spot. Handily next to some public toilets, so we could refill water and have a wash, improving our moods immeasurably. The mood only soured when Leah managed to spill her pot of boiling porridge onto her foot. Handily she could get it under a tap straight away!
By now we were on the island of Lewis, our least favourite for the entire trip. The road, no longer a narrow single track slither of tarmac with passing places, was a full two lane road. It no longer hugged dramatic coastlines but instead made a straight line across desolate peat moorland. Not aided by the weather of grey clouds and a hint of possible rain. Visiting the Callanish Stones was a highlight of the trip. A collection of standing stones thought to be around 4,500 years old, think a smaller Stonehenge but you can actually walk up and touch them. Unfortunately, being Sunday the visitor centre (and every other shop and cafe along the way) was closed. So we had lunch of peanut butter and tortilla wraps and continued to a campsite at Shawbost.
Once the tent was up the sun finally came out. We got chatting to a couple at the pitch next to us, also with their bikes outside the tent. They had previously done the Hebridean Way, but missed out the Butt of Lewis and many of the other points around but not directly on the route. As such they were back but, rather than pressing on each day, were exploring around the route more. Something I’d like to do if (when) I go back. They planned to cycle to the Butt of Lewis (the end of the Hebridean Way) and back the following day, leaving most kit at the campsite. A brief discussion and we agreed we would do the same. We could travel light for a day and not have to worry about finding somewhere to camp.
Day 6: 39.72 miles 1,844 ft climbed – Total: 219.21 miles 8,384 ft climbed.
The ride to the Butt of Lewis was the hardest so far, even harder than the big climbing day (this day actually ended up being more climbing!). The entire 24 miles to the lighthouse saw us battling a strong headwind and, even without luggage, averaging only 8mph. The battle pushed our moods lower than any point on the entire trip. That was until we rounded the final corner and saw the lighthouse in front of us. We had done it, ridden the entire Hebridean Way. Almost immediately all thoughts of the horrible headwind dissolved as the elation of completing the route took over us.
The end of the way is nothing more than a lighthouse and it’s huts. An impressive view over the coastal rocks, but nothing more to mark the end of the route. Enthusiasm did not greet my suggestion of a ride over to Port Ness, the nearby village. But going on a suggestion from someone at the campsite and a roadside sign, I knew there was a cafe. What a decision, the nicest little cafe right on the harbour, lovely coffee and Leah’s fresh fish goujons were amazing. If you venture up there, check out Cafe Sonas.
We turned back for the campsite, the wind now on our tails we absolutely flew; reaching speeds in excess of 45mph down some hills. We passed points we’d seen earlier and Leah couldn’t believe we were back there so soon. We were back at the campsite before we knew it, feeling strangely refreshed and revitalised from the fast run back. I even managed to peel off and explore some gravel tracks, the Thompson R9300 is a gravel bike after all!
Day 7: 49.38 miles 2,618 ft climbed – Total: 268.59 miles 11,002 ft climbed.
Knowing a headwind awaited again and not wanting to be late for the ferry, we set off early for our last day on the islands. We also wanted to spend a bit of time in the town of Stornoway. The ride was bleak, once again a straight road across a peat moorland. Fast cars flying by to the Outer Hebrides only town in the Hebridean equivalent of rush hour. Upon reaching Stornoway we saw a strange sight, traffic lights! The first we had seen since leaving Oban.
The morning in Stornoway brought a change to the feeling of the trip, but a welcome one. We found a nice coffee shop, Leah bought some presents and we had to get fish and chips from Cameron’s (Leah’s surname is Cameron). The early start allowed us to sit relaxing in the sun waiting for the arrival of Jill and Patty and the ferry to Ullapool. On board, we were treated to a display from the coastguard helicopter. Practising winch procedures at the stern of the ship.
As we walked off the ferry I saw Allie waiting for us at the top of the ramp. She had taken a rest day in Ullapool and knew we were going to be getting that ferry. It was good to catch up, trading tales of our respective adventures over the previous few days. We hadn’t seen her since parting ways in Tarbert. Unfortunately we only got to chat for 10 minutes before our taxi arrived. Enjoy your trip Allie, we will see you in July!
It was a good job we agreed to share the taxi in the end; the driver and ladies struggled to load the bikes so needed my assistance. Shortly into the drive, tiredness hit us like a wave, the adrenaline that had kept us going for the last few days dissipating rapidly. Thankfully Leah had arranged for us to stop the night in the Scottish YHA hostel in Inverness. This hostel is possibly the biggest hostel I’ve ever stayed at! We showered, cooked dinner, had a pint in the nearby pub and were done.
Day 8: 20.32 miles 965 ft climbed – Total: 288.91 miles 11,967 ft climbed.
Our final day in Scotland and the previous weeks cycling had caught up with Leah. We’d planned on riding over to Loch Ness for the day, but she’d had enough saddle time recently. Instead we took a well deserved rest day and spent the time around Inverness. A delicious breakfast at the Rendezvous cafe; a dolphin spotting tour boat that was frustratingly lacking in any dolphins; a relaxing walk along the River Ness; an early dinner in a pub. A day that helped recharge the batteries and brought a pleasant close to our trip.
We made our way to the station in the evening. There we had a drink in the bar, chatted with two guys who had just completed LEJOG and boarded the train. Ready to sleep the journey back to London. This time we had a cabin, with proper (bunk) beds. Within an hour Leah was asleep and I wasn’t far behind. We both woke briefly at Edinburgh; as the train formed into one from the three separate trains from Inverness, Fort William and Aberdeen. Having done both a seat ticket and a cabin ticket, I will now only do the cabin for future trips. The extra cost is worth it for the comfort of a bed, it leads to a far better nights sleep. You actually get to your destination feeling refreshed.
Day 9: 0.7 miles 23 ft climbed – Total: 289.61 miles 11,990 ft climbed.
We awoke again around Stoke and before long were back on the bikes departing Euston station. What a difference to last time we passed through London. The weather was good, but the roads were far busier as it was rush hour. We set our sights on Rapha at Spitalfields, along the route I spotted “look mum no hands”, a cycling cafe i’d seen reviewed online. So we stopped here for coffee and breakfast. We eventually made it to Rapha as well, but the welcome was definitely more friendly at the first stop.
On our train back to Norwich we spoke to a retired couple in the seats behind us about our adventure. Discussing their holiday to experience the steam trains of Norfolk, which was their first ever trip to our home county. Chatting to those around you now seeming perfectly normal after a week in a place as friendly as the Outer Hebrides.
Day 10: 6.34 miles 374 ft climbed – Total: 295.95 miles 12,364 ft climbed.
So now we are back home, the bikes are unpacked and the (relatively small amount of) washing is done. What a trip, beautiful scenery, gorgeous beaches, brilliant roads and so many friendly people. We planned little, which allowed us to make decisions as they took us each day. Adapting to the situation and not putting any undue stress upon ourselves. For me, it was definitely the people that I will remember. I’ve never been one for chatting to strangers. But everyone was so friendly that it really made the trip. I wish I had taken a photo with each group that we chatted to as a memento.
The lady from Stornoway on the first ferry; the French couple who I tried (and failed) to speak French to; the Dutch group who made Leah want a e-bike; the guy at the Berneray hostel who used to live in Norwich; Mike and his van from Ullapool; Jill and Patty still out there adventuring in their 70’s; Allie on her massive 4000 mile trip; the seasoned Outer Hebridean riding Scottish couple; the couple at the Shawbost campsite exploring off the main trail; the Belgian guy touring Scotland refusing to sleep in anything but his tent; the group from Lincolnshire on the ferry back; and so many more people at cafes, shops and other stops along the way. Thank you all for a brilliant holiday.
We used the book “Cycling on the Edge” by the Offcomers, available from Amazon. It’s a very handy guide to cycling the Hebridean Way, splitting the route into short sections. With shops, cafes, campsites, hotels and points of interest along the way marked. Thanks guys!
Total: 295.95 miles, 12,364 ft climbed, 10 islands, 6 causeways, 5 trains, 4 ferries, 3 campsite nights, 2 wild camps, 2 hostels.