186 miles, 10 islands, 6 causeways, 2 ferries and 1 unforgettable solo cycling adventure. Here’s my story about cycling the Hebridean Way:
In August 2019 I left a part-time job I’d been juggling alongside performing and teaching to go fully freelance. As I was doing my last few weeks in the office, I found myself dreaming of going on a solo cycling adventure in the UK. I’d done a few days of cycling in the Lake District earlier that year, and I was really keen to do something similar on my own. Recently, I had read Mark Beaumont’s The Man Who Cycled the World and as I was reading about Mark’s other achievements I saw that he had cycled the Hebridean Way in just 12 hours in 2016. If he could manage it in 12 hours, surely I could do the same trip at a Marion-friendly pace in a week? And so the decision was made. I bought some maps (Cycling on the Edge which I highly recommend), and the official Hebridean Way cycling map (https://hebridean-way-shop.myshopify.com/products/hebridean-way-cycling-map), plus a few other essential items including a lightweight tent and a midge net (more on that later…) I booked my train tickets and frantically read everything I could about the Outer Hebrides and cycling the Hebridean Way.
On the evening of Sunday 11th August, after playing the organ for an evening service at my church in Highgate, I swapped the organ pedals for the pedals on my road bike, Deirdre. I cycled home and attached my carefully packed panniers to Deirdre, before riding to London Euston. I had spent a large part of the afternoon packing and repacking, and I was concerned with how heavy my bike felt now it was carrying a week’s worth of clothing, food, and camping equipment. I had packed what I thought was the bare minimum however, as I’ll explain later, warmer clothing would have been appreciated!
At Euston Station I made my way to the platform where a shiny new Caledonian Sleeper train – one of the new £150m fleet – was ready and waiting. It was my first time on a sleeper train and I was very excited. I’m the kind of person who enjoys excessive travel planning and I carried my highly detailed travel itinerary in my pocket with pride. I located the bicycle storage, which I was pretty impressed with (it was much better than many other train company operators – no need to talk to staff to unlock the door, plenty of space for lots of bikes suspended by their wheels etc.) and found my seat for the night.
We left Euston not long before midnight and, with a few stops along the way, we were in Scotland early the next morning. At a mere £30 I thought my seat was something of a bargain, however not much sleep was had on the so-called Sleeper and my train was delayed arriving into Glasgow Central. There were no announcements on the train, and no apology for the delay on arrival. Realising that I was likely to miss my connecting train from Glasgow to Oban, I checked the train times and discovered that no trains were running between Glasgow and Oban that day due to a landslide; instead there was a replacement bus service. After a frantic Google search and a tweet to @scotrail in an attempt to find out whether Scottish Rail replacement bus services transport bikes, but with no answer as yet, I legged it across Glasgow, unfortunately arriving at Queen Street station several minutes too late for my scheduled rail replacement bus. I asked whether my bike could go on the next bus and the staff were unsure. There was nothing to do but wait and see, and hope that I wouldn’t find myself stuck in Glasgow for the rest of the week.
The next few hours were spent with a book in a nearby Pret until the replacement bus arrived. I chatted to the driver, cheerfully explaining my travel problems, and he very kindly let me stow my bike on the coach (though I’ve since heard that this isn’t always allowed). I’m not sure what I would have done had my bike been refused as cycling from Glasgow to Oban wasn’t very appealing. The first crisis had been averted, but there were more minor travel disasters to follow…
The rail replacement bus takes longer than the train, and my missed connection that morning had cost me some time. I realised that I was now likely to miss the one ferry crossing a day from Oban to Barra, and indeed I missed it by about 15 minutes. Oban was bathed in sunshine, and I headed to the nearest campsite I could find as I knew there was no other way for me to get to the islands that day. I treated myself to fish and chips and a beer in Oban harbour before retiring to my tent with a book for the night.
The following morning I had the excitement of using my little primus stove for the first time and, less excitingly, my first experience of Scottish midges. After porridge, coffee, and a hot shower, I packed away my tent and cycled to the ferry terminal, determined not to miss the ferry for the second day in a row! Once on the ferry I found myself a window seat and enjoyed incredible views of Mull, Coll, Rum and, eventually, Barra.
Having lost a day due to missed travel connections meant that I could no longer stay in the campsite I had planned to stay in. I decided that I would have to stay on Barra that night, and to make up for lost time I wanted to get the first ferry of the day from Barra to Eriskay. I cycled to the ferry terminal as the sun was beginning to set, and found a sheltered place in the machair for me to wild camp. That makes it sounds a lot easier than it was. Finding a place where I couldn’t be seen from the road, where the ground was flat and where there weren’t any livestock was something of a challenge! I started to pitch my tent before realising that there were A LOT of midges in the vicinity. No problem, I thought, digging out my midge net. I’m prepared for this, I thought. Not long after donning the net I became aware of midges between my face and my net. Queue panic. It turns out that I’d bought a mosquito net, and not a midge net. And midges are somewhat smaller than mosquitoes… While my face was being eaten alive, I pitched the tent as quickly as possible, dived in and sealed the doors, hoping that I hadn’t been too badly bitten. For the next few days I wore repellent as well as my slightly ineffective mask which helped. By now it was dark, and I was safely in my tent hoping for a good night’s sleep. But no, it was not to be. It was my first time wild camping and when I wasn’t worrying that a mad Scot in a kilt was about to break into my tent and murder me in the middle of night, or that the rustling sounds around the tent were an animal trying to make its way into my sleeping bag, I spent a lot of the night shivering. Even though I was wearing all my layers at once and tucked up in my sleeping bag I was cold. Really cold. Note to self: buy a warmer sleeping bag and bring more warm clothing next time!
I got up as the sun was rising (so beautiful!) and got my first ferry from Barra to Eriskay shortly after 7am.
Arriving on Eriskay, I decided I needed some breakfast. I’d been too scared to cook anything that morning on my little stove for fear of being attacked by midges again. My map showed a town not too far away (in Daliburgh on South Uist), over my first causeway, and when I got there I bought a few supplies – plenty of bananas, some breakfast and a packet of jelly babies which would later turn out to be essential. I chatted to a couple of cyclists travelling in the opposite direction (against the south to north prevailing wind – bold!) who told me I was brave to be doing it alone. Freshly fuelled, I got back on my bicycle. With my first ferry and causeway out of the way I was ready to start the Hebridean Way proper! And my first day of cycling was perfect – cycling alone, hardly seeing another soul, through the most beautiful landscape. Before my trip I’d been worried that my non-existent map-reading skills would prove problematic. Fortunately, there is really only one road and it goes north, so I followed my compass which – and I must stress that this is pretty miraculous for me – meant that I didn’t have any navigational problems at all.
I stopped for lunch in a small café where I enjoyed some soup, a cheese scone, free wifi, and locals speaking Gaelic. Continuing with my journey, all was going well until it started to rain in the early afternoon. And when I say rain, I mean really rain. Torrential. It was chucking it down. The wet weather did not dampen my spirits and at one point, cycling up a hill, a driver of a car the coming the other way wound down his window to tell me he’d never seen a wet cyclist looking so happy! I had planned to wild camp, however by this point I was worried about another cold night in a tent where I wouldn’t be able to dry out. Instead I veered off the cycle route and headed to Berneray Youth Hostel. I hadn’t booked in advance and I didn’t know if they would have space but anything was preferable to a night in the tent in weather like this. Soaked to the skin, I opened the door to the Youth Hostel and when they saw quite how drenched I was, they said I could sleep on the floor; the hostel was fully booked but they could make room for one wet cyclist!
What I hadn’t anticipated before staying at the youth hostel was how much joy spending an evening making new friends with other travellers, sharing stories and cooking food together, would bring me. I met people from around the world, from all walks of life, all enjoying a special corner of the Hebrides. And despite the fact that I was sleeping on a stone floor, I was so tired after a day of cycling that I didn’t notice. To top if off, the next morning I saw seals in the water in front of the hostel!
I said that I hadn’t had any navigational mishaps, but that’s not quite true. I’d left the Hebridean Way to get to Berneray Hostel, and I had some trouble finding my way to the ferry terminal in the morning. Luckily I’d left lots of time, and spent the ferry journey chatting to a friend from the youth hostel who had spent the whole summer visiting every Hebridean island – he only had a few left to do!
Arriving in Leverburgh, I had no idea what awaited me on Harris. I was expecting beautiful beaches, but what I really wasn’t prepared for was the hills. My diary entry for this day simply reads ‘Omg the hills’. I foolishly hadn’t looked up the gradient of the cycle beforehand, but I was here now and on I went. This is where the jelly babies came in handy. The bribe of a jelly baby on a steep Harris hill, and the sugar rush that comes with it, helped me power through!
I stopped in Tarbert for a coffee. Seeing gin distilleries, I was tempted to buy some, but I couldn’t bear the thought of having to carry a bottle of gin up the remaining hills. Travel disasters earlier in the week meant I no longer had time to cycle to the marvellously named Butt of Lewis (via the Callanish stones that I was desperate to see) and instead I had to press on to Stornaway. I left the Hebridean Way near Leurbost and took the A road to Stornoway (grim, but doable). I stayed in a campsite just outside Stornoway and had time that evening explore a little.
The next morning, waiting for the ferry back to the mainland, I found myself in a queue with a man I’d spend most of the previous day leap-frogging. We had a chat, and discovered that he used to live very near me in London, and that he now lives very near where I used to live in Lancashire. Small world!
Once in Ullapool, I geared myself up for my final leg of cycling to Garve. Once again, I had no idea how hilly this would be. My diary reads ‘SO MUCH HILL’.. There was also so much traffic. But the beautiful countryside along the roads made it worth it, even in the rain. I arrived early in Garve, where I ate the best bacon butty of my life – food tastes so much better when you’re starving! I also met a couple who play in a ukulele orchestra in the Shetlands, which they recommended as my next solo cycling destination. I’ll need to recover from two days of mega hills before I can even contemplate that, I think…
I took the train to Inverness and had time there to explore (so many lovely bookshops and churches!) Back at the station, I was sad to see that the train home was an old-style Caledonian train. I don’t think any sleep was had. It was smelly, noisy, and uncomfortable. But I was happy with memories of a few days spent cycling solo while exploring a beautiful part of the world, and I was already making plans to return.