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 a bit of targeted Facebook advertising followed by the hashtag #hebway with it’s Instagram 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.

The Monday was Leah’s birthday, but usual celebrations had to be abandoned in favour of preparing 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 the bikes packed and everything ready, we even had time to visit the pub with friends for a birthday drink.

All our kit laid out ready to be packed onto the bikes
All the kit ready for packing

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 one last time 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. Arriving at Liverpool Street, we walked to the exit to observe pouring rain causing 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 went directly to Euston station found a waiting room and settled in for the 6 hour wait for the Caledonian sleeper.

Leah and I on the bikes ready to leave
Ready to leave home

Day 1: 6.24 miles 263 ft climbed – Total: 6.24 miles 263 ft climbed.

The sleeper rolled out of Euston station around 9pm and after reading the brochure we tried to get some sleep. We both had restless nights, the carriage was similar to a first class carriage on other trains, but was not overly conducive to a good nights rest. We were bound for Bridge of Orchy on the Fort William line, the only downside to this is we had to disembark at Edinburgh at 4am as the train splits into three. We had to move our bikes to a different carriage and then get settled down in different, far less comfortable seats. As such I didn’t really sleep again after the move, but as the train started to pull through Loch Lomond and the Trossachs all thoughts of sleep deprivation were forgotten as gorgeous views over lochs and down glens were accompanied by porridge and a coffee.

Onto Wednesday and after disembarking at Bridge of Orchy, a tiny station not even big enough for the entire train, it’s only platform building converted to a hostel, we began the ride down through 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 and 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, but it didn’t seem too bad and, what with it being a “main” route, some sections had wonderfully smooth tarmac so we decided to stick with it all the way to Oban. My mood was spoilt when I hit a pothole and both my Alpkit Toliari 12 panniers leapt from my bike, hitting tarmac at 25 mph ripping the fabric. This happened twice on the trip, but was solved by using a bungee to make sure they were held down. It was the only equipment failure of the entire trip, the rest of the Alpkit luggage worked brilliantly and we didn’t have a single mechanical!

Looking down Glen Orchy from Bridge of Orchy station
Looking down Glen Orchy from Bridge of Orchy station

The last climb was tough for Leah, 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 ferry. Upon entering the car deck you lean your bikes up against the railings and a member of the crew comes and ties them up using rope, I don’t think I would want to do this with my nicest bike!

Here I finally felt we could relax, we had said we wanted to make the ferry on the first day (it sails around 1pm) to maximise our time on the islands, with that goal achieved we now had little planned itinerary left 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 and we were soon disembarking in Castlebay on Barra island. After a quick cycle around the village in an unsuccessful  search of a seat at the village restaurant, we headed for the island of Vatersay. Before even leaving the village we were confronted with the first real climb of the trip, a 12.5% slope that had Leah off and walking earlier than we would have liked.  I’m definitely glad I converted the gearing to a wider range as I managed to cycle the entire hill, Leah was joined in walking by a French lady as I chatted to her husband at the top. After this the road swept down and around a couple of bays and over a causeway to Vatersay and the start of the Hebridean Way, a thin stretch of land with dunes and beaches either side. Like many others already at the dunes, we made our first camp looking out over the white sand and turqouise waters.

Looking out of a tent doorway to the beach and sea
Standard camping by the sea photo
Panoramic of a white sandy beach and clear waters
The beach we camped at on Vatersay
Panoramic of a white sandy beach with sun setting over the sea
The opposite beach on the thin strip of land on Vatersay, sunnier but noisier due to the crashing waves
White sandy beach, clear turqoise waters and a green hill in the background
Amazing beach at Vatersay

Day 2: 43.47 miles 1,394 ft climbed – Total: 49.71 miles 1,657 ft climbed.

The next morning we headed off, starting the Hebway proper. This was now Thursday, it had taken us two whole days just to get to starting! Back up and over that first climb (once again inflicting it’s gradient 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 (terminal here means small room with a vending machine and toilets!) and the two mystery riders pulled up shortly after, we were amazed to see two ladies in their 70’s doing the same route as us. Admittedly on e-bikes and with luggage only for hotel stays, but inspiring none the less. We would bump into Patty and Jill repeatedly over the coming week and, unknown 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.

Holding a Titanium mug with spork up in front of the beach
Breakfast at the beach
Statue of two otters chasing a fish
Otter statue at the ferry terminal

Onto Eriskay Island and straight off the ferry you are immediately presented with a steep climb, however once dispatched a quick descent brought us to a cafe and lunch spent chatting with the Dutch group who were doing the first half of the route. Already we had chatted to so many people and I was amazed by the friendliness we encountered at every stop. We carried on for the afternoon on an almost constant Northward bearing through the (relatively) flat agricultural islands of South Uist and Benbecula. Stopping once at yet another big white sand beach before pressing on to where the guidebook indicated a campsite for the evening. Staying at a proper campsite meant we had the chance to shower, wash some clothes and even have dinner at the hotel next door. We finished the evening with a walk along a beach deserted other than the armies of wading birds and the odd seal just off the shore.

Me on my bike with the sea and harbour below
At the top of the climb from the ferry
Leah on her bike with the sea and harbour below
Leah at the top of the climb from the ferry

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 couple of miles off route, but it would put us in a good location for the ferry the next day so we pressed on. The roads were once again fairly flat and 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 the times for the next days ferry and carried on to the hostel. We decided we would try and make the 07.15 ferry the next morning, so would stay in the hostel that night so as to make getting up and out quicker in the morning with no tent to pack away.

Me and Leah in front of a small bay
We’re both smiling, so still having a good time
Me on my bike with a long straight road stretching into the distance
Long straight roads of North Uist

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. I’ve stayed in a few hostels over the years, but none were as well placed as this, sitting right on the coastline we watched the tide come in, watching the water 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 and we chatted with the other residents and shared some whisky to round off the day.

Sun setting behind a stone building painted white
Sunset at the Gatliff Trust hostel

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. We cycled round to the ferry (only 2 miles) and setup the stove to make breakfast, slightly worried that due to fog 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 and 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 and we started to worry that if we lost an entire day to this we may struggle to make Inverness in time.

Hebridean Way sign and harbour hidden in fog in the background
Fog at the ferry terminal

Once again the incredible friendliness of everyone we met shone through. Mike, who lived in Ullapool, said he was driving from Ullapool to Inverness on Wednesday morning and could give us a lift in his van if we needed it and left me his number. Jill and Patty, the ladies we had met a few days earlier said they had a bike-taxi booked from Ullapool to Inverness on Tuesday evening and offered to share the cost with us if needed. We also spoke to the French couple again and a Scottish couple who were seasoned Outer Hebrides riders who gave us tips on a pie shop and camping spots. We also got chatting to Allie, who we had seen on the first ferry from Oban, but not talked to other than to say Hello. 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. 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 on Harris, we saw the coastguard ready to be dispatched to our aid had we needed it. Harris immediately made it’s presence known with a long constant climb straight out of the harbour town. On the descent we peeled off for the pie shop, which was actually a shed in someone’s front garden with an honesty box. This description does not do it any justice, the pasties were tasty and there was a wide selection of pies, quiches and fresh bread, so we also stocked up on a couple of rolls for later.

Leah in the doorway of the pie shop, a white painted shed with menus on chalkboards
Leah at the Croft 36 pie shop

The roads weaved up and down along the Harris coastline, past some amazing looking holiday homes and some truly stunning beaches. Seilebost in particular practically glowed in the sunlight now peeking through the slowly thinning fog. We rounded a long bend and saw Allie again, I caught up to her and found out she’d missed the turning for the pie shop. By now the fog had completely cleared and the sun baked down on us as we started the first major climb of the trip. Allie rode with us for the next 15 miles or so, chatting with Leah on the long climb, which gave me an excuse to go for it a bit. We parted ways at Tarbert as we fancied a drink and needed to get some supplies, but exchanged details with her and said she was welcome to stay at ours when her tour brought her round to Norfolk.

Leah cycling ahead around a bend on the coastline
Leah on the amazing roads on the South Harris Coastline, a beach glowing in the fog ahead
Thompson R9300 gravel bike with luggage in front of a blue sky
The Thompson R9300 Gravel bike with full luggage at the top of the climb
Allie, Leah and myself with our bikes
At the top of the climb with Allie

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. We stopped to cook some food opposite a quarry and with the increased energy and the words of the book “at the first quarry turn you’re past the hardest” decided 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 that the weather the next morning was grey and foggy, we were glad we got to experience the mountain in such good weather, rather than camping and doing it in the fog the next day. We eventually gave up our search for good camp spots and settled for the only patch of grass we could get that wasn’t directly next to the road.

Me in front of a mountain view across lochs at the Clisham pass
Beautiful views from the Clisham pass

This was our worst camp of the trip, the still air meant that as soon as we started pitching the tent the famed Scottish midges came out in force. As soon as it was up we dived into the tent, dragging a small cloud of midges in with us. Our original plan was to head straight to Stornoway and the ferry to give us time to cycle across to Inverness. We sat feeling slightly dejected but, after a quick discussion, decided to accept the ladies offer of a shared taxi to Inverness as it would allow us time to do the entire Hebridean Way rather than the original 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.

The following morning we planned to get up and cook some breakfast, but as soon as we left the tent the midges were back. We rushed to get the tent down and bikes loaded, agreeing to stop further on where the midges might not be so bad. 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, though handily she could get it under a tap straight away!

Matt scratching the head of a goat
Making friends with the locals at breakfast

By now we were on the island of Lewis, our least favourite for the entire trip. The road was no longer a narrow single track slither of tarmac with passing places, but 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. The only uplifting part of the day was visiting the Callanish Stones, 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.

Matt standing next to the standing stones
Exploring the standing stones at Callanish

Once the tent was up the sun finally came out and 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 trying to explore more rather than pressing on each day, something i’d like to do if (when) we go back. They planned to leave their tent and kit at the campsite the following day and cycle to the Butt of Lewis (the end of the Hebridean Way) and back to 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 route to the Butt of Lewis was the hardest ride we’d done so far, harder even than the big climbing day (of which this day 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 the entire trip had, until we rounded the final corner and saw the lighthouse in front of us, we had done it, we’d ridden the entire Hebridean Way and almost immediately all thoughts of the horrible headwind dissolved as the elation of completing the route took over us.

Leah in front of the Butt of Lewis lighthouse
Leah relieved to have completed the route
Matt lifting his bike above his head in celebration
I celebrate completing the route

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. So I suggested a ride over to Port Ness, the nearby village, which was not met by much enthusiasm, especially after the steep climb on the way there. 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.

Panoramic of the Port Ness harbour
The intricate harbour of Port Ness

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. Before we knew it we were back at the campsite, feeling strangely refreshed and revitalised from the fast run back to site. 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.

We set off early for our final day out on the islands, knowing we had a headwind again, wanting to be definitely on time for the ferry and also to spend a bit of time in the town of Stornoway. The ride was bleak, once again a straight road across a peat moorland, with 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.

Leah in front of a long straight road through peat moorland
Leah smiling as we finally reached the top of the climb to Stornoway

The morning in Stornoway brought a change to the feeling of the trip, but a welcome one. We were able to find a nice coffee shop, Leah bought some presents and we had to get fish and chips from Cameron’s (Leah’s surname is Cameron). We sat relaxing in the sun waiting for the arrival of Jill and Patty and the ferry to Ullapool. Aboard the ferry we were treated to a display from the coastguard helicopter, who practised winch procedures at the stern of the ship.

Coastguard helicopter hovering just behind the ferry
Coastguard practicing 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’d 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 as we hadn’t seen her since parting ways in Tarbert, but only got to chat for 10 minutes before our taxi arrived. Enjoy your trip Allie, we will see you in July! In the end it was a good job we had agreed to share the taxi, as the driver and ladies struggled to load the bikes so needed my assistance. Shortly into the drive, the tiredness hit us like a wave as the base of adrenaline that had kept us going for the last few days dissipated. Thankfully Leah had arranged for us to stop the night in the Scottish YHA hostel in Inverness, which is possibly the biggest hostel we’ve ever stayed at. Dinner cooked and a pint in the nearby pub and we 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, so 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 and dinner in a pub helped recharge the batteries and brought a pleasant close to our trip.

A heron on the waters edge of the river with a bridge in the backgorun
Exploring the River Ness in Inverness
Matt on a boat looking out over the water
Watching for Dolphins on the Dolphin Spirit at Inverness

We made our way to the station in the evening, had a drink in the station pub, chatted to two guys who had just completed LEJOG and boarded the train for 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 only woke 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 comfort of a bed is worth the extra cost as it leads to a far better nights sleep and 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 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, but along the route I spotted “look mum no hands”, a cycling cafe i’d seen reviewed online, so stopped for a coffee or two. 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 got speaking to a retired couple in the seats behind us about where we had been and their holiday to experience the steam trains of Norfolk, which was their first ever trip to our home county. Chatting to the people around you now seeming like the perfectly normal thing to do after a week in such a friendly place 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 and 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 random strangers, but out there everyone was so friendly that it really made the trip, I just wish I’d got 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 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.

A map showing our route for the Hebridean Way
The route of the Hebridean Way

We used the book “Cycling on the Edge” by the Offcomers, available from Amazon. It’s a very handy guide, 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.