Bike-packing Scotland’s Western Isles

Departure day

Friday 12 of July. I’d been swithering wether to return to my favourite Islands this summer. 2019, the 10 year anniversary of my first visit to the Outer Hebrides was never a factor, and only something that came to me after plans were made. I’d been positing the idea over drinks, on one particular occasion, my friend Jonathan suggested he would be interested in joining me on this wild camping bike-packing trip.

Calmac Ferry
MV Isle of Mull

So that was decided. We just needed work and the weather to align, and after missing out on the month of June, we decided July the 12th regardless.
After days of torrential rain at home, the day was upon us. Glasgow was bathed in early morning sunshine as we loaded the car and left for Oban.
Fortune was favouring us, my friend Lucy would meet us for coffee and allowed us to leave the car with her at her house. In the past I would have taken the train, but on this occasion, Jonathan had offered to drive. This would allow us to avoid the booking procedure needed for bikes on the train from Glasgow to Oban.

black guillemot

Before meeting Lucy, we stopped by the ferry terminal at the pier. On our way to pick up the tickets and boarding cards, we made our way through crowds of festival goers, all bound for Tiree. It soon became clear there were issues with some of the ferries.
After hearing muttering amongst the people on their, I checked the Calmac app on my phone and read that the 1:30pm sailing to Barra had been cancelled.

I feared the worst as we approached the ticket desk. With technical issues plaguing the Isles of Lewis ferry (That’s the name, not the destination), Calmac were in the process of juggling services to find a solution for the Barra route.

We were told there was still a teleconference taking place and to come back later for the result of this conversation. At least there seemed to be a chance of a solution.

So we set off to meet Lucy for coffee and to catch up. I hadn’t seen Lucy since our trip to Iceland at the beginning of the year.
We wandered along the sea-front and settled for a small cafe back on the pier near the ferry terminal. The crowd were still waiting for the Tiree sailing, but started to embark as we finished our coffees.
On returning to the ticket desk we were relieved to be told that a solution had been found. We’d be sailing later in the day at 6:00pm on the Isle of Mull ferry (again in name only, not the destination). This later sailing would be interesting as it meant arriving on Barra at midnight and a dark cycle over to Vatersay.

I was hoping this would work in our favour as the forecast for Saturday was pretty good. I looked forward to spending a day on Vatersay in the sun.
Lucy had returned to work while Jonathan and myself grabbed a sandwich from one of the seafood stalls on the pier. You must try the food here, the salmon and prawn sandwiches are so good with generous portions. Just look out for the crafty gulls who will relieve you of your sandwich as soon as you drop your guard.

Since our new departure time was a while away, we took a wander along the seafront stopping in the pub for a quick pint before we returned to Lucy’s house to pick up our bikes and gear, while accepting Lucy’s hospitality once more with a final cup of tea before heading back to the ferry terminal on our bikes to pick up our tickets.

Oban Pier

There were not too many bikes in the queue, maybe around 10 and they chat about their plans, while keeping some accommodation/camping plans close to their chests. The Islands would be busy with people aiming for Stornaway and the Hebcelt Festival that would be taking place the following week.

on the ferry

Once onboard, we found a comfortable spot and settled in for the 5.5 hour journey.

Our corner of the lounge claimed, we were joined by fellow passengers Alistair and Jackie introduce themselves to us. It turned out after some chat that Alistair and I had a friend in common. Jackie his partner was the life and the soul of the ferry by the time we got going and would also make the most of the live music that was being played by a traveling wedding band on their way to Castlebay.

looking north
ferry

Rock n Reel would entertain our fellow passengers for the whole crossing. Even when their own tunes were exhausted, they plugged in their playlist to an amp, creating a makeshift dance floor on our deck. Needless to say, no sleep would be had. The drink flowed and folk danced the evening away. No-one complained.

rock n reel
Rock ‘n’ Reel

Midnight ride

Just after midnight we pulled in to Castlebay.
It was entertaining just how cagey the other cyclists would be regarding their intended destinations. I didn’t blame them. I was hoping my planned camping location would not be occupied when we got there.
We rolled off the ferry and into the Hebridean night.

As we left Castlebay, we overtook a bunch of cyclists who were stopped in the middle of the road. Jon and myself suspected they were waiting to see where others were heading.

As we peeled off the main road and towards the hill leading to Vatersay, one of the cyclists was following us. He muttered something to us about an early morning cycle. The hill was already taking its toll so I failed to respond through my puffing and panting.

We stayed ahead of the other cyclist, Jon doing well since he couldn’t select his lowest gear. We crested the hill in complete darkness and started the fast descent to the causeway. Suddenly, I realised my shoelace had become entangled in my pedal. I gently applied the brakes as we had lots of momentum with the heavy bags on the bikes. As I stopped to unwind the lace from the pedal, my water bottle slid out of my back pack, denting as it crashed to the ground. The mystery cyclist soon whizzed past us as I sorted out my shoe.

Continuing on we crossed the causeway on to Vatersay. Further on I noticed the red flashing light of the other cyclist ahead. We made our way up the incline of the road. The cyclist was stationary, as if waiting for us and just as we got close, my chain started grinding and eventually the pedals started spinning. I thought my chain had broken. Not sure what the other cyclist though, but he set off again just as we broke down. I lent over again, only for my water bottle to fall out once again. It was a comedy of errors.
Thankfully my chain had not broken, I managed to get it back on and at last back on the road. The road itself had a few sketch spots. Loose gravel on some of the corners had to be negotiated carefully on the heavy bikes. This was also Jon’s first time riding his bike with panniers.
There was no further sign of the cyclist, I assumed he’d be well ahead by now.

We finally passed the community hall at Vatersay, and my favourite spot for camping was free thankfully. Pushing our bikes across the grass, we put the tents up around one o’clock in the morning. This was also the first time Jon had put up his tent.

As we were putting finishing touches to the tents, the red flashing light of the other cyclist rode in to town. Was it the same guy? Had we passed him without seeing him? Was he hiding from us? We’ll never know. By 2 o’clock Jon finally got his tent up.

A new dawn on Vatersay

Saturday 13th June. We woke to grey skies, and a collie. I heard Jon shout from his tent that we had a visitor. The dog was lying between out two tents, looking for company I think.
With the dog making friends with folk on the beach, we set off towards the township before following the shoreline and onto the headland. I was going to show Jon the abandoned town of Eorisdale, but first we would climb the very small, hill in the south of the island.

border collie between tents
Photo: Jonathan Lewis
sea kayaks on vatersay
vatersay beach

The weather was improving and provided us touch with spectacular cobalt coloured beaches to spy from the top along with a touch of sunburn on my calves, cultivating a classic sock line in the process. Cloud still hung above Castlebay to the north. We would cycle over there for lunch later on, but first we would explore those bright blue waters on the walk back to our tents.

castlebay

Without all our gear, the cycle into Castlebay is pretty easy. Daylight helps too and it wasn’t long before we wee in the small town, looking for lunch. I just had to introduce Jon to the delights of scallop pakora at Cafe Kisimul. And along with a cold pint, it was truly appreciated.

scallop pakora
Scallop Pakora at Cafe Kismul

The post office next door would usually be my next port of call, for a slice of cake, however it was already closed, so we went up to the bike hire shop which does have a cafe. As we arrive at the shop we meet none other than Alistair and Jackie. They had stayed in a hostel in Castlebay and had already been out for a cycle. They were getting some adjustments made at the shop while regaling us of their morning adventures. Jackie seemed to know everyone on the island already.

After checking the cake options in the shop, we decided there would be a better selection elsewhere. We decided to go a bit further along town and try Hebridean Toffee, an outdoor eatery down in the bay. There we did find some lemon drizzle cake to enjoy with a pot of tea.

As we tucked into our dessert, I spotted the familiar flapping shape of a white tailed eagle over the water. I had my binoculars with me and watched as the giant bird was harried by a couple of gulls, driving it further out over the sea.

We were biding our time in town as we had booked dinner back at Cafe Kisimul for six o’clock. As evening arrived we sat in for the Monk Fish and Cod in Tuna Masala with Garlic Nan and rice. This went down extremely well with a beer. So far this trip was proving extremely arduous . . . NOT!
We did however have the return to Vatersay to deal with. We stopped first at the Co-op for some supplies, then it was back over the steep hill, this time carrying full bellies.

That evening we wound down, boiling up some water for coffee and taking in the sublime, quiet views across the perfect beach.

Travelling North to South Uist

Sunday 14th July. The plan was to get tents packed up early to make our way North. It was a slow getaway, I was finishing my coffee as Jon finished packing around 8:30am. We set off, leaving the beaches of Vatersay behind.
It was a struggle up the return hill. Jon’s lack of gears meant her had to push his fully laden bike to the top. In all fairness, I wasn’t really any quicker peddling in the lowest gear.

northbay Barra

Once we rounded onto the West coast of Barra, we were cruising, making good time up to the north of the island, mostly down to the draw of breakfast at Barra airport.

road to Barra airport

We arrived just before opening time, so took the opportunity to walk over to the dunes. The gorgeous sands of the beach however were already occupied as a large herd of cows sauntered along the sand, making the most of the sun.

barra cows
beach coos
The Beach Coos

The airport cafe was open at 10:00am so we ordered up bacon rolls while we watched a small private plane being loaded up for a flight. Destination unknown. The sea beyond sparkled in the bright sunlight.
After half an hour, we had finished breakfast and cycling back to Ardmhor for the 11:10am ferry to Eriskay.

barra airport
barra airport

Making the crossing over the sound of Barra, the sun continued to shine. It was going to be a beautiful day. We chatted to a couple of girls, Emily and Jenny. They had been at the bike shop when we were chatting to Alistair and Jackie. The girls told us they were making their way up the Hebridean Way to Stornaway and planning to visit the Hebcelt music festival once they had completed the bike ride. As with a few other cyclists we had met, they were surprised when we told them we would not be crossing to Harris, but instead returning back the way we had come. I suppose everyone expects you to stick to a long distance route. We shared our Instagram accounts and would follow each others progress through stories as the trip went on.

sound of Barra seals
eriskay ferry

The ferry pulled into the bright blue waters of Eriskay, where after disembarking, we pushed up the steep hill and over the island to the causeway that crosses to South Uist.

I did ask Jonathan to cycle ahead so I could get some shots, reminding him to stop and wait for me so I could catch up after getting the shots.
As I was snapping away, another cyclist passed at peed catching up and overtaking Jonathan, It was an older lady on an electric bike and she wasn’t hanging around. Her cycling partner pulled up beside me. I think she recognised I was looking for a clear photo and was kind enough not to get in my way. Jon seemed to have forgotten to stop, so I had to set off after him, he had almost crossed by the time I reached him. I did drag him back across the way we had come in order to get a few more shots closer up.

eriskay football pitch
Eriskay football pitch
crossing the atlantic
eriskay causeway

The weather remained beautiful as we made our way up South Uist. As we reached Daliburgh, we stopped fir ice creams to enjoy down at the beach. It was pretty warm, so they had almost melted by the time we reached the shore amongst the dunes.

After the stop at Clahd Hallan we visited the Killdonan Museum. It had been refurbished since my last visit. It was looking good, but did seem to be missing some old exhibits that I did like, such as the African art that had washed up and some other memorabilia sailors had brought back from their travels.

After the museum, it was straight in to the neighbouring cafe for some tea and a slice of cake.

We stepped out into the sunny weather again and readied the bikes. It was pretty hot and we were making full use of our solar chargers while the weather was clear.

We pushed north for as few more hours crossing into Benbecula around 6:00pm. It was still hot, I could feel sunburn around my ankles, so we stopped in to the cool co-op for refreshments before we reached Shell Bay Campsite. My regular stop at this point in the journey. I was sad to see it was up for sale. Chatting with the owners who live on the site, they were looking to retire and move within the island.

I hope the sale goes well for them. It will be sad to see them go. They have always been so hospitable. Offering use of their kettle for tea or advising of bad weather approaching.

Once we had the tents set up, it was off to the Dark Isle Hotel for some pints and burgers for tea.

It was still light as we went back to the campsite, so I popped over to the dunes and the beach to get some shot of the beautiful pink skies and large full moon. Walking back to the tents there was also a spooky mist that hung over the grass which I tried to capture.

benbecula

It was 10:30pm by the time I jumped in the shower, after which it was into the tent where I’d write up my notes for the day, as well as tucking into the snacks I’d bought earlier.

North Uist bound

It was another gorgeous morning in Benbecula. The campsite owner offered us both a cup of tea, I politely declined as we prepared our own coffee to wash down our breakfast granola bars.

I pitched the question to Jon, “Which way should we head North? Take the left road or right?”. After suggesting we could always see the West coast on the way back, Jon reminded me that I’d been saying that about most things, so we may as well take the West coast route now. So we stopped in at another favourite spot of mine, Culla bay.

culla bay
Culla Bay in Benbecula
rocky shore

It was a brief stop to wander the shore before continuing northwards.
As we traveled through Balevanich, passed the airport, we overtook a couple we had spotted the night before in the hotel, they were also from our ferry here. I always feel It can be awkward as groups swap positions overtaking and re-overtaking, so it was head down and push past them. It was inevitable they would catch up with us.

culla bay

In North Uist it was the girls from the Barra to Eriskay crossing that we caught up with. We said hello as we passed them and got a brief summary of where they had been.

Shortly after this, would you believe it? We passed Alistair and Jackie, cycling towards us, they returned smiles and waves as they passed.

north Uist

By 12:30pm we had reached Hosta Beach. The weather was still good as we went down to the water and spent a while thrashing about in the surf. The water was tropical looking and the temperature not too bad at all! I had warned I’d only go in for a minute, and found myself quite happily sitting in the surf for a good half hour or so. By the time we waded out of the sea to grab something to eat, I was sneezing out copious amounts of saltwater from my nose.

Hosta beach
Hosta Handstands – Photo: Jonathan Lewis

As we were drying off, the couple we had overtaken earlier turned up and we discussed bikes and the fabulous weather we were still enjoying. They did also warn us they heard a change was on the cards.

We returned to the road and set off for the long journey North. The large golf balls that are the military tracking stations on the hills above passed us to the right. The weather was still with us and the large white domes shone like beacons, until we rounded the top part of the island and they disappeared behind us.

I’d never noticed it before, but the top part of North Uist has a lot more trees. Forestry plantations that I can’t remember seeing before.

It was a long cycle, much longer than google maps had predicted. As we turned north towards Berneray we stopped at the Iron Age broth of Dùn an Sticir. As I took photos, a flock of sheep descended the road ahead, being shepherded by a young woman and two children. A few cars sat patiently behind the fleecy roadblock as it continued along the road. As they came closer to us some halfwitted, Eton sounding fopp, who was cycling with family came from behind us and bounded around the sheep, scaring them across the road. I sternly vocalised, “Do NOT RUN AT THE SHEEP”, “Oh shouldn’t I he replied”. The shepherdess also added ”Please stay away from the sheep”. The idiot youth replied “Can I help?”. No was the answer. The sheep streamed off the road and across the sandy bay of the shore. I hope they got to where they should be going. Jon and I joked, the young posh idiot probably owned the island.

sheep on the road

We crossed the causeway, leaving the island of North Uist for Berneray. I’d hoped to grab a cup of tea in the Lobster Pot, a nice little cafe. I’d stopped at before. However on arrival, it was closed and in fact was now a bistro. Seemed strange to be closed so near to dinner time, but that’s the Western Isles for you!

I’d received a message from a Berneray local I’d met at a previous Instagram meet. Casey had invited us to drop by a cèilidh that would be held that night and to drop by his house, which also doubled as an open gallery run by his parents, both artists.

We passed the community hall where sheep dog trials were being held and where the cèilidh would later be going down.

It was now 5:30pm and we found the path to the dunes and of course the massive beach along the north of the island. Once we found a suitable spot, away from the cows and flies, we boiled up for food and coffee at camp.

Berneray dunes
giant dunes
berneray sunset
sunset colours

We spent the rest of the evening exploring the huge beach. The impressive mountains of Harris could be seen across the water, the pristine sand, untouched apart from our own footprints. Jon decided he wasn’t keen on the cèilidh and wanted to get some rest after the day’s ride, so after waiting for a sunset that didn’t really materialise, it was back to our tents for some shut-eye It wasn’t long after 10pm. I did spot on Instagram stories however, the girls we met earlier had themselves enjoyed the dance that night.

Artwork and hard work

Tuesday 16th July. We woke on Berneray to high cloud and frequent enough sunny spells. There was a bit of a breeze now as we watched a bonxy or Skua, a large robust dark feathers gull, soar above the high dunes we stood upon. We surveyed the lengthy beach before packing up camp and cycling back along the path, passing the remnants of the previous night’s cèilidh at the community hall.

berneray dunes

We hung a left at the coast and travelled north from Borve up the east coast’s rocky coastline until it gave way to another sandy bay. I could make out Casey’s home sitting atop an outcrop above the east beach. We cycled up the path to the large house. We were welcomed first by a friendly collie and then by Sheenagh, who opens her home to those wishing to peruse the artwork created by her and her husband.

Telford Studios

As well as the beautiful artworks inspired by the landscape and sea off the west coast, the house itself is a work of art. Converted from an old Telford Kirk, as architects, the restored and redesigned the interior into a wonderfully airy space to create and soak in their surroundings.
I took a few photos and enjoyed a chat with a cup of tea, then we were back on the bikes, heading south. This was the apex of our trip. All downhill from here, or so we thought.

First stop was the ferry terminal for the Harris Ferry. Not to cross over to the island, but to top up on fresh water and use the toilets.
We crossed the causeway where we put our heads down into the strengthening breeze. Pushing south and eventually onto the eastern side of North Uist.

The wind remained on my face as I lead the way, occasionally having to tuck, just to make better time against the wind.
This eastern route is a far straighter road, a more direct route than the west coast route we took on the way up.

We passed Lochmaddy. I did ask if we should stop, but my fellow traveler was happy to push on. It’s a long straight road that seems to rise and rise into the moors with subtle but increasing resistance met with the wind. The looming mass of Eabhal North Uist’s highest point passed on our left. It would have been around this point that Jonathan, who informed me later would have his front wheel rubbing against my rear wheel as I slowed in uphill sections. He asked, “Did you not feel it?”, thankfully the shear weight in my bags probably prevented him from knocking me off balance.

stretching out
Photo: Jonathan Lewis

We eventually did stop at the Langass Burial Mound, the Iron Age site that unfortunately looks as if it’s inner chamber is suffering collapse. Some recent supporting structures have been added and people are no longer allowed to enter.

langass burial mound
Langass Burial Mound

You can see for miles up there, and this included Benbecula Airport, relatively near our destination for the day. Although the visibility was great, we expected the wind to get worse. 40 mph was on the cards for tomorrow morning.

We decided to go straight, rather than down the west coast side. I couldn’t remember having been on this road, at least not traveling south. It seemed to involve a lot more uphill than I thought existed in Benbecula. It had been a long cycle and I was feeling tired. By around 5:30pm we were in Creagorry where we stopped at the Co-op supermarket fir refreshments. I stood outside and slurped on the most delicious orange I had eaten in a long time (ever).

A short distance along the road, we booked into Shellbay Campsite once again.We were asked if we knew of the encroaching storm and were we sure we wanted to camp the night. What choice did we have? With all the pub visits and meals I’d already spent more on this trip than last years when I had to book myself into a hotel for 2 nights! “Yes” we’d take the pitch for the night. We were advised to camp in the lee of the shower blocks. I also tucked in behind a picnic table and our bikes, for what it was worth.

shellbay campsite
small tear in tent
tent repair

After a shower, I repaired a small tear I discovered in my tent. Luckily the 10 year old repair kit that came with the tent did the job. Once that was done, we paid a cursory visit to the beach before heading to the Dark Isles Hotel for some food and a few drinks.We sat discussing the trip and our plans for the remaining days. It would all hinge on the weather, particularly the wind.

dark isle hotel

By the time we left the hotel it was raining lightly, no more wind than previously though.

I turned in for the night and tried to drown out the noise of the other campers rather than the rain. I didn’t sleep well that night, the early ours especially as the wind levels slowly increased.

A soggy non-start to the day

Wednesday 17th July. Daylight came around 5am. I hadn’t really slept. The wind was building. I could hear others in the campsite chatting and tents flapping. I soon realised my own tent door was violently waving with the wind, It had slowly opened without me noticing. I secured it shut and nuzzled into my sleeping bag to try to get some shut-eye. There was no point in getting up to make a start. I checked the Dark Sky app radar and it looked like there would be know let up till the afternoon.

dark sky app
Radar showing the passing storm.

Around 10am I had to visit the toilet, making a quick dash for the block. The wind was raging by now. I was still waiting for the wind to drop as I wrote these notes at 11am. It didn’t sound like it was easing as the tents continued to rattle in the wind.

We kept to our tents, trying to sleep and listening to podcasts until things started to die down after 2pm. It started to brighten up and by the time we were packing up camp, our tents had dried and we said farewell to Shellbay just after 3pm in bright sunshine. It had been a late start, but the weather was now glorious with the sun splitting the sky. We headed south against the wind. Luckily it had subsided to use average Hebridean strengths (still not easy).

little pony

Crossing the causeways in good time and good weather we were soon back in Daliburgh by 6pm, stopping once again at the local co-op for supplies. We then popped just across the road to the Borrodale Hotel where we decided to eat. I went for the venison burger while Jonathan went for the Barra Scampi. We ate, drank and listened to the bagpipe players from the days highland games.

daliburgh

Around 8:30pm we left to head for our camp spot. Jonathan fell off his bike before getting out of the car park! We passed Clahd Hallan and stopped just short of the beach and put up the tents. It had been a short day, but completely dictated by the weather.

clad hallan
Daliburgh beach

Soggy start II

Thursday 18th July. As the forecast had predicted, I was awoken the next morning by persistent showers hammering my tent. They came in have pulses. Checking the radar, the last one to hit us was torrential, almost tropical in nature. I even spotted some small water droplets making their way in through the fly sheet of my tent. My repair from the day before was holding up. As the showers dissipated and clouds started to part, I spotted the sun through a tiny hole in my outer sheet. I pinhole sized dot projecting itself onto the inner of my tent.

We packed our tents in the sunshine, but as we did, we could feel a few spots of rain started to fall again. The tents had just successfully dried as it really started to fall. We decided to forego a morning coffee. As we set off in the rain, I had to don a jacket for the fist time on the trip.

As we neared St. Peter’s Church we stopped for a gap in the weather to boil up and grab a coffee and granola bar for breakfast. Looking back towards shore, we could see the weather rolling in. Big dark rain clouds were pilling in on top of us as our water came to the boil. I had to grab my waterproof trousers as the clouds brought on an even heavier deluge.

We left Daliburgh and continued south and very gradually it dried up. It was still cloudy but looked promising as we passed the Pollacher Inn, a usual stop on my visit, we were giving it a miss this time around, unfortunately.

passing storm

We crossed the causeway leaving South Uist for Eriskay once more. It was brightening up nicely. The road rose up slightly from the sea as we arrived in Eriskay. We turned right and back down to sea level, stopping at Am Politician, the pub that takes its name from the ship which ran aground, inspiring Compton McKenzie’s story, Whisky Galore. A destination that has evaded me on prior visits, but definitely another tick on my list. It was just before lunchtime, there was a ferry at 1:30pm and the question was should we stay for lunch and get the next ferry? The answer was ‘Yes!”.

am politician

We found a seat in the conservatory, in the sunshine. I stripped off my waterproof trousers and laid my jacket out to dry, while plugging in power-banks and phones to charge up.

The friendly staff informed us that we’d have to wait a short while before ordering lunch, but in the meantime we could have a drink. So pints were ordered. It was early, but we’re on holiday!

It was a pleasant atmosphere in the pub. This only intensified as more people filled the place having disembarked from the recently berthed ferry. We made sure to order our lunch before it got any busier. We went for fish and chips of course.

Since we were getting the later ferry, so we could enjoy a bit more of Eriskay. We explored the small beach behind the pub after we had eaten. It was brisk, but bright and it was nice to spend a bit more time on this little Island that I usually pass by. There is still more to see I might add.

We got back on our bikes and cut across the beach rather than crossing the high road to the ferry terminal. We had plenty of time, so after pushing our bikes over the sand, we lounged for a while in waiting room, enjoying the sun streaming in the window. We had a sneaky coffee too before the arrival of the Loch Alainn ferry.

People started to arrive for the ferry and by the time we left the waiting room to join our bikes at the head of the queue, a group of cyclists had jumped the line and were already waiting halfway down the slipway. The cars leaving the ferry had to work their way around the impatient would-be passengers. The crew stopped them to have a word, the cyclists replied in French, I assume they didn’t understand what they had been told as they seemed to ignore the crewmen and continued to push on to the ferry.

The wind was still brisk and the small ferry pushed it way through salt-spray. It wasn’t really weather for the upper deck, so after trying to get a few photos outside, I came back down to the cabin for the rest of the crossing.

The ferry arrived at Barra, and after the ferries loading ramp lowered, the 3 French guys peddled off the ferry, immediately the crew told them off and requested they push the bikes off the ferry.

Once we were on the road, we cringed as they then cycled 3 abreast, across the road, with a pile of cars slowly following, waiting patiently to overtake. The cyclist took no notice what so ever and continued to block the traffic. Jonathan and myself held back, not wanting to be associated with the embarrassing trio.

Thankfully once we reached the junction at Northbay, they went left, we took the right turn, down the west coast of Barra.
Still bright and blustery, the surf was up and we washed waves crash all the way back down through the coast. We stopped briefly near Borve to watch the waves. The dark storm clouds seemed to be intensifying. I did think about visiting the beautiful beach at Halaman Bay, however we decided to push on over the hill to Castlebay and set up camp.

As we pedalled in to town only to see the French guys from the ferry looking for. Amp spot down by the shore. They must have arrived in town just before us.

We stopped to watch the ferry arriving at its normal time, around 6:00pm. The throb of its engines echoed across the water.

Kismul Castle

Circling the bay, we set up our tents on its east side, looking across to the castle with the town behind. After setting up camp we went into town, making our way along the track we passed the French guys again, they had moved camp, maybe having seen our premier location. I don’t know, just saying.

We went or something to eat at the Craigard Hotel. Jon wasn’t eating, but I ordered a mushroom pasta dish. We sought out charging points for our phones while waiting. Dinner arrived and to my surprise it was a tomato pasta dish that arrived. I wasn’t too bothered but asked the bar staff why this was the case. The answer came and I was told it was from tomorrow’s menu. So I was getting a sneak preview, thank you very much.

The hotel got busier, many folk having their last meal on the island before early departure tomorrow morning. Locals chatted at the bar with the staff. Who should walk in, but the French guys. They were looking for something to eat and were ushered into the lounge doing area for their food.

Listening to the general chat it soon became apparent there was yet again and issue with the ferry which was now sitting at the pier below the hotel. “Cam-shaft”, “prop-shaft” and a variety of other ailments were diagnosed by the local, who all looked like they may have worked on the boats at some point.

I grabbed my phone to check the CalMac App, and sure enough they announced there were issues and once again the ferry would be replaced, times would be confirmed later.
We resigned ourselves to an evening of speculation, what time would we be leaving tomorrow, if at all.

Outside the sun was setting, I grabbed a few failed photographs of the town and the bay from just outside the hotel.

View from Craigard

A few more drinks later, and the ferry update seemed to be advising that instead of the 8:00am departure on the Isle of Lewis, instead there would be a 10:30pm departure on the Clansman, which would not be getting in till 5:00am in the morning!

While this was not ideal, we had no reason we had to be back, and this would give us almost a full day on Barra.

We settled for another drink in the bar and then rode our bikes the short distance to the shore where our tents were. It was a nice evening and tomorrow looked set to be a nice enough day.

I had a bit of an unsettled nights sleep, finding myself getting up around 2:00am to go for a bathroom break. The original ferry had positioned itself out in the middle of the bay away from the pier. Its glowing windows gave it an eerie appearance, reflecting across the water. Back in my tent I heard the engines firing up as I tried to get back to sleep. I stuck my head out the door to see the boat slipping out into the Minch. I presume catching the tide to find its way to a dry dock somewhere.

A spare day

Friday 19th July. I awoke to fair weather on our extra day. Sunny spells with white puffy clouds were the order of the day. I did propose visiting Vatersay for the day, but it wasn’t met with much enthusiasm, it would be a lazy day hanging around the tents. But first we sought out a cafe to find a full Scottish breakfast since we were missing one of the best features of the ferry trip home. We stopped first at the Castlebay Hotel, we wandered through, but there was no-one around. Eventually a member of staff did appear, but she informed us there was no breakfast to be had at the hotel. We were advised there may be something further on. The Hebridean Toffee cafe wasn’t doing breakfast either, it was getting late for breakfast too, almost noon. Eventually we stumbled across Blasda Cafe, and anxiously asked the young guy behind the counter if a full Scottish was on the cards, “Yes” was the answer. This was perfect, it had greasy spoon vibe, but in a good way! We scoffed breakfast when it arrived with a pot of tea. I was satisfied.

We returned to the tents to spend the rest of the afternoon in the sun. Jon read a book in his tent while I wandered the shore, trying to find a subject for my camera. I ended up sitting on the rocky shore for a good few hours.

castlebay

Several other campers were waiting for the ferry, and one of them came over to chat, her name was Stephanie and she’d been walking around the Islands with her friend. We got chatting about photography and the work she had been doing in app development. I spent the rest of the afternoon topping up my sunburn taking in the views of the bay and the backdrop of hills behind the town. We could have climbed the hill with our spare day, but we didn’t. It was a day for winding down.

vatersay

For dinner we tucked into our last boil in the bag meals then gradually started breaking down our camp site. By 8:00pm we were pushing our bikes along the path, towards the ferry terminal, lifting our bags separately over the gate then lifting our bikes over.

The French guys camp was here, and their gear remained strewn around their tents. We continued on our bikes to the ferry terminal building where people were queuing well ahead of time. Lots of accents from Canada to New Zealand wafted around the pier, chatting about their visit to these beguiling isles.

ferry terminal

I watched a rat appear from the shore looking for some treats left by the crowd. A local roared and chased the poor rat back from where it had come. I don’t think anyone else noticed.

Photo: Jonathan Lewis

Eventually we loaded on the ferry around 10:00 and rushed to find our seats for the night. It was going to be a long haul through the night and the arms of the sears we had would not let us stretch out.

I won’t go in to too many details about the journey of 6+ hours, but let me say a big thank you to the mum who along with the lager swilling grandparents, who left her kids to play at our feet with shouting, music, pops and pings from their mobile games. While they went off to a quieter corner to get sleep, we had the company of those Lucozade fuelled brats to keep us awake for the complete journey.

Needless to say this made the car journey back to Glasgow interesting at 5:00am.

While the journey to get there and back was fraught with delays and cancellations, The Western Isles of Vatersay, Barra, Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist and Berneray were as beautiful as ever. Gorgeous weather and jaw dropping views once again made this 10 year anniversary visit as memorable as ever.
Tapadh Leibh.

Goodbye Barra
Goodbye Barra