petemain.co.uk The meanderings of an outdoorsy sort of person
A high-pressure area is situated over Scotland and the weather will be fine, sunny and dry everywhere. It has been like this for a couple of weeks. What a pity I am preparing for a cycling trip to the Western Isles and not yet away. Will the weather hold for me?
I left home at 6pm cycling into a moderate wind that gradually eased, the forecast rain never materialised. Only one short stop in just over two hours cycling. The route is so quiet and peaceful I almost drifted into a Zen like state at one point, but biting midges quickly brought me back to reality. Arrived at Station Lodge, Tulloch at 8.30pm to friendly chat and a cuppa from the owners Alan and Belinda Renwick. A room to myself in the old waiting room and the strange experience of a train stopping within a few feet of my bed in the early hours of the morning. The train ground to a noisy halt at the station and then squealed off back the way it had come after a short stop. There must have been some sort of track maintenance taking place, as there are no passenger services at night. Maybe it was the driver's tea break.
A quick visit to the supermarket in Castlebay illustrated one of the problems of living in such a remote place, the shelves looked as if a food raid had taken place; they were very bare. The American family left on the 9am boat having spent barely 11 hours on the island and most of that either sleeping or complaining. Why some people who travel can't enjoy the fact that different cultures are by definition different and accept it I do not know.
The cycling started with a circuit of Barra and every motorist I come across with waved to me as if I was an old friend, a trait that continued until I reach Lewis two days later. I passed my first sandy beach and cycled up to the 'Cockle Strand Airport' just in time to watch a plane take off from the beach in a spectacular spray of seawater.
I then caught the small ferry to Eriskay. The island looked lovely in the spring sunshine and had a calm, isolated feel. All the wee houses dotted all about the hillside had their roofs painted bright colours. Children played in the school playground and mothers gossiped outside the village shop. The island presented, on the surface, a rural idyll which I suspect has its own pressures under the surface. For a start, how do you make a living in Eriskay? The island has recently become less isolated as it is now linked to the next island, South Uist, by a new causeway.
The road on South Uist winds northwards, narrow but carrying little traffic. Everyone I met waved and I came across a stationary driver sat in the middle of the narrow road chatting away on his mobile phone, oblivious to other traffic waiting to proceed. I particularly remember that day for stunning beaches, distant views, people waving, almost no cafés and Gaelic road signs that give no hint of distance. I did find one café about half way up the island and the excellent food was very welcome. I struggled on, not feeling so good but wanting to get as far north as possible on this dry, warm day with only a light head wind to hinder me. The causeways between South Uist, Benbecula, Grimasaigh and North Uist were impressive for their engineering and their narrowness. Watching the tidal water pouring underneath the causeways made me think that all that tidal energy should be harnessed. After a struggle across moorland to Lochmaddy (LOCH NAM MADADH), North Uist Outdoor Centre provided an excellent place to stay. A warm shower, somewhere to cook a meal, get clothes dry and a sleep in comfortable bed is all the simple traveller needs. The centre is in a superb situation overlooking a sea loch with lots of wildlife on view. The fact that the owners had gone home and left the door open for me summed up where I was. I pushed the money through the office letterbox and later that evening had a good talk with two young outdoor activity instructors who had come there for the surfing. They are just starting on a career path that I had recently finished. Feeling slightly nostalgic for that time in my life, I fell into bed and slept very well.
Day 4 - Lochmaddy to Kershader (CEARSAIDAR) - 60 miles
I woke to a strong northeast wind. North East! That really was is not fair. I had planned the journey from south to north because statistically I should have had a tail wind. I headed north towards the ferry to Harris (NA HEARADH). The landscape is amazing, with isolated houses scattered amongst a complicated area of big and small lochs as if a giant had just flung both the houses and the lochs at random. Many of the houses looked empty and I wondered why they had been built and how anyone could have survived living there. The wind must be fearsome in winter. As North Uist ended the landscape become gentler with fine views, short grassland and sandy beaches. The ferry once left from North Uist but now runs from Berneray (BERNARAIGH) at the end of another new causeway. The Lobster Pot Tea Room filled a convenient half hour while I awaited its arrival. The sea was rough, the boat smooth and the crossing interesting. It was good to hear announcements on the boat made in Gaelic as well as English. I spent most of the crossing talking to a doctor who was travelling the entire length of the islands (including two ferry crossings) just to attend a meeting in Stornoway; life is certainly different out here. He offered me a lift but I declined. Was this a wise decision? Once on Harris the hard work started. The mountains there are steep and bare and the beaches stunning. I stopped near Horgabost and walked the length of the beach in bare feet. My feet turned blue with the cold and were sandblasted by windblown sand. However, I did have the whole beach to myself and there was no litter anywhere. I became aware that I had left the Catholic islands when I spotted several notices forbidding most Sunday activities apart from breathing.
The road to Tarbert (TAIRBERT) was steep and the wind strong and still from the north. These mountains (and they are mountains) may not be high by Scottish standards but they do start from sea level. At least it was not raining and I pressed on, arriving at Tarbert feeling really tired at 3pm. The Harris Hotel hit the spot with a baked potato & salad, cake and tea. I decided to carry on despite my fatigue and the next possible stop being several hours away. The forecast of heavy rain next morning was the main incentive. The road north is known locally as 'The Clisham' and it is one huge hill. I got up it without walking (just). After an hour I needed a short rest and I spent miles looking for somewhere, anywhere, to find shelter from the wind. In the end I found a grotty quarry. At last, the Kershader sign appeared but the six miles to Kershader on the side of Loch Erisort seemed never ending. I was very tired and crawled along at 6 mph into the wind. At last, nearly 12 hours after leaving Lochmaddy I staggered into a superb wee hostel run by a local crofter (it is vaguely connected to SYHA but I saw no evidence of it). It had taken me 7 hours cycling time to do 60 miles. My feet, legs, knees and back all ached like hell. The hostel had everything needed to be warm and comfortable, but despite SYHA saying it belongs to the Cyclists Welcome scheme I had to leave my bike outside round the back and it rained most of the night. The boss himself called in very briefly to collect money and told us to pull the door shut when leaving. I passed a pleasant hour with two lads who had been hill walking and then fell into a deep sleep.
Day 5 - Kershader to Tostahalais (TOLASTADH A CHAOLAIS) - 40 miles
Day 6 - Tostahalais to Newtonmore - 46 miles
An alpine start up at 5.30 am. Justin had very kindly offered to take me to the ferry terminal at Stornoway and I accepted. The boat left at 7am, the MV Isle of Lewis and although much busier than on my outward journey it was still very comfortable and I had a nice breakfast of porridge, bacon sandwich and tea. Just over two and a bit hours later I disembarked at Ullapool and had coffee and cake while the ferry folk blasted off towards Inverness in their cars and lorries. The day was dry and I plodded onwards across the spine of the Highlands into a niggling head wind, feeling tired and sore. Later that afternoon it started raining heavily and the rain was cold, time to get home. At Garve, the road meets the Kyle railway line so I looked for a train. I found one at Muir of Ord an hour and twelve miles later. Despite the train already having its full compliment of bikes I was allowed on by the friendly guard. I changed trains at Inverness and again I only got on courtesy of the guard. It was crowded and filthy but it got me home by 6pm to a hot bath and a nice meal.
As I lay in the bath contemplating an excellent but demanding trip I realised that I had underestimated just how big the islands were, how difficult the terrain would be and the trouble I would be given by a headwind throughout a large part of the trip. I have been left wanting more and plan to revisit. Next time I will stay in one place and explore using my lightweight bike. The landscape and culture are so very different from most of Scotland and I can see why the Islands were virtually an independent nation for many hundreds of years. The journey left me very tired for several weeks but with many good memories of a special trip. If you do it, remember to go from south to north, you are sure to get a tail wind!
© Peter Main - 2003