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Western Isles by bike 2018
Vatersay, Barra, Eriskay, South Uist & Benbecula
I’ve been in love with this part of Scotland since I first visited on my bike in 2009. The beaches have been my bedroom, my inspiration and the main draw for my visits over the years. Weather can be hit or miss in the Western Isles, but mostly they have involved sunshine and fair days. This year would be different. I struggled to find a slot to take leave from work and it would be a week with an unpredictable forecast. This was after an incredible few months of constant sunshine. It was still worth going though. Those empty beaches of the Hebrides are just too much of a draw. This is a long one, so stick with me…
Saturday 28th July
Leaving from Glasgow Queen Street for the Oban ferry. Always book your bike on the train. Especially during the summer holidays! On arriving at the front of the train it was clear there was an issue. After checking our booking references the guard had to go and find the couple who had loaded their bikes on. There are only six spots for bikes on each train. We had booked, they had not. We were left waiting on the platform. It was slightly stressful as departure time had passed. One of the guards had warned us not to hold up the train. Not that it was our fault.
Eventually the couple were offloaded with their bikes and those of us who had booked, could eventually get on board.
We were then made to feel guilty as the guard told us we had made one of the couple cry. Thanks for that! Sorry, but not sorry. I was just glad to be on holiday now and on my way to a rather wet Western Isles.
Two minutes into the train ride there was a magical sight of a young deer browsing along one of the railway sidings. It looked like a red deer hind and not a roe deer which would have been more usual near the city.
Arriving at Oban, in what has become a bit of a tradition, I clattered my shin with my bike pedal while disembarking the train. A trickle of blood made its way towards my sock as I loaded my bags onto my bike.
I grabbed a sandwich in the hour or so I had to kill in town before I had to return to the pier.
I had left my bike alone, the one and only in a queue of one beside the ‘Ferry for Barra’ sign. By the time I returned, that queue had grown to around twenty bikes.
I remembered back to the first time I undertook this trip in 2009. I had been one of just three or four cyclists on the boat and what seemed like the whole island chain at the time.
It was the ‘Isle of Lewis’ ferry we were traveling on this time, I think maybe a slightly faster voyage of just over four hours.
The passage was fairly uneventful, but I did spot several pods of dolphin before we left the sound of Mull. After grabbing Mac n’ cheese for dinner I made my way to the central vestibule. There are no windows, but it does have USB charging points, so I remained there until the ferry arrived in Castlebay. I had not looked outside for a while and as I made my way to the car deck, I was glad to note it was dry on the pier.
The cars took their time to offload and by the time I made it out of the ferry, it was raining.
I quickly made my way to Castlebay’s Co-op where I got some supplies and changed into my waterproofs. Then it was back on the bike and over the hill to Vatersay.
I had thought of going north initially as I assumed Vatersay would be busy. However, on my last session of wi-fi on the boat I checked ferry timetables and it looked like the Eriskay boat may be cancelled due to weather conditions.
I figured I’d just stay in Vatersay despite Castlebay remaining closed the following day as it was a Sunday.
That evening did brighten up, the last rays of sun poking through the clouds. Though the breeze did allow me to dry out as the light faded.
Vatersay was not too full, but someone had set up camp on my usual patch. I had to strike camp on a higher spot, less sheltered, but far enough away from the other campers and the collection of vans surrounding the recently revamped community hall.
I was heartbroken to discover while searching for a flat spot, that a large, partially collapsed, family sized tent had been left abandoned. Once I realised there were no occupants for the night, I investigated and noticed that inside there were items such as unopened soft drinks bottles, food wrappers and at least three sleeping bags with a large picnic blanket and other paraphernalia. The grass of the machair had become discoloured and flattened. The collapsed porch of the tent had collected rainwater as well as several cow pats, indicating it had been a while since the owners had fled.
As well as disgust, I felt pangs of guilt at popularising places like Vatersay and other pristine spots around Scotland through blog posts like this and social media. This is the cause for a movement like #RoamResponsibly and why its important to do something to highlight these issues. If only we can find a way to get the message out to those who don’t seem to feel guilt at leaving their personal trash around for others to clean up. Visit the Roam Responsibly website for more information.
While all of us have a responsibility and are indeed to blame for much of the rubbish that washes up on the shore, or is whipped up by the wind, it’s the gratuitous disregard for the landscape, property that is so sad, not to mention the sheer waste of leaving a tent this size which may have cost well over £100, probably much more. It was a huge tent.
I used my knife to cut apart the tangle of webbing, ropes and elastic. It was all I could do to drag it in a bundle, across the machair, closer to the road in a hope it could be collected later.
That night the wind picked up, along with a deluge of rain. I didn’t sleep much and wondered if my tent would survive till morning. I needn’t have worried, but I could have done with a few more hours sleep.
Sunday 29th July
I decided as the morning brightened that I would stay in Vatersay. Stay dry, stay warm. The wind was still gusting and I didn’t want to turn up at the next ferry, only for it to be cancelled. I lay in my sleeping bag till after 11:00, listening to audiobooks with a coffee. The rain abated eventually, but the wind remained.
I left my tent and bags to cycle into Castlebay, hoping to get something to eat and score some wi-fi to check ferries. On a Sunday, pickings are slim. I sat at the shore in Hebridean Toffee eating nachos for a late lunch then a warming cup of tea. Blue skies did do their best to replace the grey cloud. The wind however is ever-present.
After grabbing a coffee and wi-fi at the general store (one of the few places open) I took the bike along a small track around the east side of the bay.
My pessimism with the afternoon’s weather was unfounded, although the morning Eriskay ferry had been cancelled. The sky was clearing from the south, and the sun was really starting to shine, so I took some time to sit and appreciate the views back towards Vatersay.
The views under the surface of the water were equally engaging. I had stopped by a small channel that ran between the main island and a rocky outcrop. I watched the small fish go about their business. I even spotted a school of sand eels wriggling their way through the channel. Later I’d see them return the way they came.
I’d killed enough time for Cafe Kismul to be open, this would be 5:30pm. I thought, what better excuse for a full slap up meal could there be?
After picking prawns from the menu, the woman serving suggested I go for the monkfish and cod. It was served in a mild tuna curry with pilau rice. I washed this all down with a refreshing lager shandy. It was all very nice, if a bit expensive. £17.50 for the curry. I barely made it back over the hill to Vatersay I was so full.
The evening was still fair and I finished it off with a walk on the West beach. At one point watching a mystery object bobbing in the surf. I waited for it to wash up before collecting it. It was an old sports holdall. Its pockets all open with goose barnacles hanging from it. This meant it had spent a good few years at sea. I imagined what kind of voyage it had. There were no contents and the labels didn’t give much away. I dragged it back to the Village hall and dumped it in the bins before enjoying a coffee on the east beach as the sun went down.
I planned to head north in the morning.
Monday 30th July
At 6:00am I decided there would be no real breaks in the rain which had started during the night. I packed the tent from inside leaving the outer shell till last. I would leave this outside my dry bag for the journey.
Once everything was packed I left a grey and damp Vatersay behind. After the steep hill I took a left turn up the west coast of Barra. By the time I was a half way up the coast the persistent rain had soaked through my shoes. It always happens, this is the point of no return. From now on I’d have wet feet. I even considered cycling in my flip-flops!
The gusty wind crossed my face and I peddled onward. There was no let up. The occasional shower that was heavier than usual, the rain drops were so big. I turned down towards Ardmhor and jumped inside the empty ferry terminal. When I say terminal, this is a small building with some seats, a vending machine and toilets.
I was an hour early and I thought of making myself breakfast or at least a hot coffee. But as I procrastinated the terminal started to fill with passengers. Eventually we boarded the 9:25am ferry to Eriskay. I was starting to feel cold as I was wet through, but it was likely as much to do with the fact that I had not eaten or had a hot drink.
It was while waiting on the ferry that a warning was given by locals about the weather for Tuesday. “If you’re making a crossing, do it today!”. Checking the weather on my phone, it looked like we were in for a stormy day on Tuesday.
Once I’d crossed to the Island of Eriskay, I boiled up some water to finally make my coffee and have a bite to eat. While having my breakfast at the Eriskay terminal I started making plans. I no longer fancied spending the worst of the weather in Berneray, my intended destination.
Instead of staying at the Shellbay Campsite in Benbecula as I had on previous visits, I would book into a hotel.
After breakfast I set off up the steep hill and across the Eriskay causeway.
The sun had started to show itself, but no sooner would I have my jacket off, than it would start raining again.
Cycling through South Uist to Daliburgh I would take my jacket off and put it back on again several times. I did however manage to remove my waterproof trousers for the rest of the day.
The weather improved and the sun was really shining as I pulled into Liniclate, Benbecula. The weather warnings were still ringing in my ears as I cycled past Shellbay Campsite. I saw the owner walking around his near empty campsite. It looked idyllic in the late afternoon sunshine. This made me feel pangs of guilt. They are an old couple who ran Shellbay, and I enjoyed chatting to them when I had visited. I turned the bike around and went into the Dark Isle Hotel next-door to ask if they had a room for 2 nights. Maybe it was karma, but they informed me they had a coach load in and there were no spaces. They did point me in the direction of the Isle of Benbecula Hotel, so I called them and they did have space thankfully.
I walked over to the dunes for a quick look at the beach before back-tracking to the hotel to book in. The now blazing sunshine made me question my decision.
At the hotel, I was shown my room, it was small, and an alarm was making a high pitch whine just outside my room. I cleaned up and had a quick shower in my very basic but expensive single room.
I returned to the dunes to walk the shore and watch the seals, eventually walking back up through the venue of a music festival they had been held in the days before. They hurriedly broke down the large tents, to avoid being blown away in the imminent storm.
Returning to the Dark Isles Hotel, I ordered a burger for dinner while catching up on my IG game, people watching and thinking about what I could do tomorrow using the hotel as a base.
On returning to my hotel I drifted off with the window open, it was a beautiful evening. I listened to my audio books (the T.V. was not working).
Tuesday 31st July
When I awoke it was cloudy, but not stormy. I went downstairs for breakfast, a hearty full Scottish one, with black pudding and haggis, bacon, sausage etc. I returned to my room to await the foul weather. Where was it?
I could have easily survived that night at Shelby Campsite. Had I wasted my money, I still felt guilty. Not just for passing up the old couple’s campsite, but for giving in to comfort and an easy night. When I started these trips, I’d be completely self-sufficient, wild camping and carrying all my food and water. It was after a talk with the owner of the campsite that I had changed my outlook and started spending my money locally, buying local produce and eating locally.
I took a while to relax in my room full of drying clothes before deciding to grab my unladen bike and head east, across the island.
Once on the road, I was glad I wasn’t pushing north with heavy bags. It was blowy with a bit of rain. The undulating road took me roughly east, through crofts and around inlets of the sea.
A short eared owl flitted across fields and the rain became more persistent. I was in full waterproofs (in name only). I was soon waterlogged once again.
The landscape continued into the drizzle and I followed the road blindly, until I spotted a dilapidated old croft house in a field. It faced out into its own little inlet. Half of its roof was missing but the half that remained was covered in turf. It must be a popular spot as I could make out a path through the patch of bracken in the foreground.
Despite the miserable weather, this little dead-end road would be host to a number of weird and wonderful sights.
The location of the croft was full of fantastic smelling bog myrtle and I was accompanied by noisy little stonechats. Further down the road I would see a brave gull harassing a white-tailed eagle, recognisable by its floppy, ungainly wingbeats. I’ve now seen white tails more than I’ve seen the little stonechats or the brambling that shout from the fence posts. It’s only one’s own experience or perception that makes one species more exotic than the next.
Later at a bend in the road I heard the bleating of a lamb in distress. It was clear that the little sheep was trying to graze beyond the enclosure of the fence and had its head stuck. Luckily it had no horns on its little head to prevent it moving backwards. So no sooner had I stepped towards it to help, when it pushed its feet firmly in the ground and reversed, freeing its head from the metal mesh under its own steam.
The road took a turn to the right and a deep dip down to another inlet. Crossing a little hand-built bridge it rose up again around the water. I was never sure where the road was leading. I only knew it went as far to the East as any other.
So I was a bit let down when I found the road stopping at a house with nothing but farmland dropping down towards the distant coast.
There was nothing for it but to turn around. It had been a couple of hours and it had been a couple of hours and I was getting wetter by the second.
As I passed one of the crofts on my return, I saw a little kitten cozying into a sheep. The two were obviously friends and were happily nuzzling each other in the shelter of the croft house.
Crossing back over the hand-built stone bridge I slowed to let some of the sheep cross the road in front of my bike. As I did, a pair of oyster catchers were causing a din. I could hear the chirp of their chicks coming from the tussock by the roadside. I was obviously unwelcome.
As I moved off I spotted another bird. At first I thought it was a kestrel. It had an all russet back with slight barring, but it seemed to lack a falcons head and beak. I couldn’t make it out clearly as it sat on the wire fence. It had pointed similar shaped wings and a long tail. Was it a female cuckoo, or maybe even a nightingale?
As if this wasn’t enough, a small falcon did fly across the road in front of me. Maybe it was a merlin or a hobby? I’m never sure of how they differ.
The strange thing about the inland landscape is that you think you have gained altitude and you turn a corner, only to be met by an inlet of the sea, meaning of course you are at sea level.
On the final stretch before reaching the main road, I did in fact spot a kestrel hovering into the brisk westerly wind, watching for a meal in the irises below.
By 7:00pm I was back at the hotel and had dinner. As I ate in the conservatory, I was glad after all that weather, that I wasn’t spending the night in a tent. The wind whipped and the rain lashed against the glass. It was a bonus I had a soft bed.
Wednesday 1st August
After a hot shower and a cooked breakfast, I left the hotel and turned left, south into a strong wind. At least I was dry for now. High cloud meant it was a grey day, but I made good time reaching the Kildonan Museum in 2 hours.
I decided to wait here with a cup of tea until they started the lunch menu. Then tuck into a warming bowl of warming lentil soup with buttered bread. The rain made itself known on the window. I finished my soup then stepped out into the wind . The rain wasn’t heavy, but the wind was still strong.
Eventually I turned right off the main road south towards Clahd Hallan at Daliburgh beach. Before I reached the sandy path, I noticed my ride was feeling very comfortable. I then realised my rear tyre was soft. I had a puncture. That was all I needed. Still, I was glad to replace the inner tube here in the dunes at the beach, and not up on the exposed moorland.
I removed the old tube and found the hole. Checked inside the tyre for any remaining sharp objects, finally refitting the wheel. I boiled up some water and had a coffee to celebrate while walking along the shore. This beach at Daliburgh is one of my favourites. But in the wet, grey and windy weather my excitement was dulled.
Back on the road, heading south, next stop was the Polachar Inn. I planned to stop for dinner here. The Eriskay scallops are one of the reasons I first came to these islands.
However, when shown the menu, this year’s Scallops were £6.50 each! I decided to go for the monkfish scampi instead. The batter was light and the fish was plump and juicy. It was still raining outside and my jacket and bag had created a puddle on the floor. I really didn’t want to go back outside, but planned to camp on the beach near the Eriskay ferry terminal. I reluctantly pulled on my waterproofs and carried on south. It wasn’t far from Polachar to the causeway and once I had crossed the drizzly Atlantic, I turned right and down to the main village on Eriskay.
I had entertained the thought of a beer or two in Am Politician, the pub made famous by the real life vessel of the Whisky Galore story. As I passed the pub it looked busy. I continued on instead to find my campsite. It was pushing eight o’clock and I heaved my bike through the sand on the very beach Bonnie Prince Charlie landed on.
Walking along this beach, cut out the steep road over to the ferry slipway and as I crossed I realised camp spots were limited near the terminal, but this meant I didn’t have to go far in the morning.
The drizzle continued, but thankfully I was now sheltered from the incessant wind. I decided it was best to get my head down, as soon as I’d had a coffee. As I tried to drift off I could hear voices. Some folk walking about, was to be expected this close to the path I camped next to.
Thursday 2nd August
I got out of my tent just after 6:00am. The voices I’d heard had camped not far away. A tent had been pitched about 10 meters closer to the water.
I packed up my tent quietly and peddled in my sandals down to the terminal. My shoes were soaked through and I couldn’t see them drying out before my return to Glasgow.
I boiled up a coffee while waiting for the ferry. I had around an hour to wait. The mist hung low over the islands, but it was dry and a sliver of sun was trying to break through in the east.
Once I’d crossed over to Barra again, the sun had decided it wasn’t going to bother making an appearance after all. Never mind, a full breakfast at Barra Airport would sort everything out.
I arrived at 9:00am but it was closed. Not open till 10:00 the sign said. So I went for a walk over the dunes and onto the large beach behind the airport.
The mist blended into the horizon, the water a pale blue topaz colour and the sand, it was pale white shell sand. It was beautiful.
When the airport cafe opens I was told “no full breakfasts”, there were only rolls. I was so disappointed. Especially when I saw the couple at the next table tucking into their full breakfasts. It’s obviously who you know that counts. It’s not like I needed it anyway. My earlier hotel stay had included breakfast each day. I went for a roll with sausage and the last egg in the building.
I returned to the road. It was still damp but quite warm and the wind was a bit lighter.
I circled round the West coast of Barra all the way back to Castlebay. I thought about staying another night in Vatersay but the thought of crossing that steep hill two more times did not sit well with me. I wanted to stay longer in Castlebay and have less of a rush the next morning to catch the ferry. I was going to relax on my last day. I had found myself a camp spot on the eastern side of the bay, just beyond the castle itself.
For lunch, it had to be Cafe Kismul and a plate of scallop pakora with a beer. These are a real delicacy. The batter and the sauce both equally as delicious as the succulent scallops themselves. In order to keep up the gluttony of the day, I followed this meal next door in the Post Office with a cup of tea and an extremely moist lemon drizzle cake. The scones had been finished for the day.
The sun popped out as I had my tea and cake, and I listened in to the general chit-chat of passers-by. I got the feeling there was something going on with the ferry. Unusually, there was a ferry sitting at the pier. It should have been well on its way to Oban by now. I asked the Post Office manager and he informed me that the link-span at Oban had broken down. This meant cars could not be off-loaded from the boat, so they were going to Mull and swapping for another boat that could berth elsewhere in Oban. Those folk would not get to their destination till midnight at least. I found some wi—fi and checked the timetables. My ferry was not due to leave till 9:15am the next morning, 45 minutes later than scheduled. Would I catch my pre-booked train?
Since it was sunny for now, I set up my tent to dry things out. I couldn’t help jumping in for a wee lie down.
Having laid in my tent for a good chunk of the afternoon I decided to go into the mist laden town of Castlebay for the evening. I settled on the Craigend Hotel for a bar meal and a couple of pints.
It was nice and quiet with some locals taking part in after work chat.
I had a chicken burger and relaxed, staring out at the mist covered bay with the castle looming mysteriously. It disappeared into the drizzle.
The quiet was suddenly shattered with the arrival of a bunch of labourers from Glasgow, or Lochwinnoch as one plasterer pointed out proudly. They were insisting that the big screen should be showing the Rangers football game (which was pay per view). They thought they were charming the young bar staff but I don’t think they were impressing anyone. The girls behind the bar had no doubt seen it all before and knew how to handle them. They didn’t get to watch the game.
They went on to argue among themselves, make vulgar and arrogant requests of the staff and the atmosphere quickly became uncomfortable.
People started leaving and I decided to split too.
I got back to my tent which was saturated outside, but thankfully completely dry inside.
Friday 3rd August
I knew there were issues with the ferry first thing in the morning. I had awoken early light around 5:00am and peering out of my tent door I could see the eerie sight of the Calmac ferry suspended offshore in the mist, its lights glowing dimly.
I re-awoke later in the morning and started to pack up at 6:30am. I was only 10 minutes from the terminal. By 7:30am I was manhandling my bike and bags over a gate and could see a commotion had already started.
A woman stopped me as I hurried towards the ferry, which seemed to be fully loaded already. She went on to explain that the ferry was now going to Uig in Skye. “What?” The pier at Oban still had technical issues and there was nowhere for this boat to dock. So instead Calmac would ship us all to Skye!
Once onboard there was a lot of confusion. Many people would only find out their new destination once the ferry was underway.
We took turns with the Calmac duty officer who was doing his best to help.
He would try to arrange onward travel for us, especially those with bikes.
The journey itself was quiet and I eventually got myself a full breakfast for what was going to be a long day. As I sat down to eat, the contractors from the evening before were sheepishly skulking in the restaurant dealing with their hangovers earned the previous night.
The mist was still hanging over the sea, so there was little point in making my way to the viewing deck.
Checking in again with the duty officer, he told me he had everything sorted and a taxi would be picking myself and two other passengers up. They would make themselves known to us at the pier, so I relaxed for the rest of the trip, until we pulled in to the dramatic looking bay of Uig. The mist still clinging to the headlands, capping the steep sea cliffs.
Once disembarked we all walked along the pier to the main Calmac office. It wasn’t immediately obvious what was going on, or what we should be doing.
I met the two women with whom I was to share a taxi with, but our stories differed slightly and it turned out all passengers with bikes and a few foot passengers would be taking two minibus taxis to Oban with 2 white vans following carrying the bikes.
One of the two women was due to catch a flight from Glasgow so we would swap taxis at Fort William.
There was a fair bit of confusion among all of us passengers and the staff in the terminal. No taxis were there to collect us and when they did turn up within about an hour, the drivers hadn’t been given much info either.
Eventually it became clear we would be split between two mini vans and head from Skye to Fort William with the bikes following. I had rearranged my bike booking on the Oban train on the ferry, but it looked like I’d miss that anyway.
As we drove down the west coast and made conversation, it became clear that we were running late. The traffic in to Fort William was moving at a snail’s pace. The bike vans were even further behind us. It was then decided that I wouldn’t hold up the girls running for the Glasgow flight. Instead I would continue with the rest of the passengers to Oban and just hope I could get my bike on the train.
I called the guys in the van and told them to hang on to my bike till Oban.
We stopped briefly in Fort William, saying goodbye to the girls and to grab a toilet break before the onward journey to Oban.
I was hoping I could catch the 18:30 train to Glasgow, but it wasn’t to be. I missed it by minutes. The bikes hadn’t arrived anyway so that didn’t really matter. Eventually around 20, minutes later, the vans with the bikes turned up. I thanked the drivers, bade farewell to my fellow travellers and went into Oban town to grab some fish and chips for my dinner. I sat in the busy town looking across the harbour eating my chips and thinking about the past week.
I turned up at the train station for the 8:30 train which would get me in to Glasgow around midnight. It was with some relief that the railway staff informed me that there were no bookings on this last train to Glasgow and I would be able to get my bike on. Now all I had to do was enjoy the journey back home and make my way through a rowdy Friday night Glasgow on my bike!
Want to read an account of my first visit to these islands? I’ve reposted my Western Isles 2009 visit here.