Cycling the Highlands and Islands: Fort William to Vatersay

We arrived on the outskirts of Fort William late the previous evening, the last flickers of daylight fading as we pitched the tent by Loch Linnhe. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that water plus woodland means only one thing: being eaten alive by midges in the summer months. And so it was here: the ferocious little blighters were out in force. We slathered ourselves in Smidge, and retreated into the tent as quickly as possible. Time to catch a few hours’ shut eye ahead of our first day in the saddle.

We woke well before our 06.00 alarm, and tried to doze until it went off. Here in Scotland, and especially so in the Highlands, darkness is but a brief interlude in the long summer days. Daylight fades to dusk, then to twilight and for a brief time the sky is pitch black, flecked with stars. Hours before you want to wake up, the sun is rising, and daylight permeates the nylon above you.

Loch Linnhe

We left the car in Fort William, and rolled our bikes onto the road. I hadn’t got round to doing a short test ride with my fully-loaded paniers before leaving Edinburgh, but felt pretty happy with how well-balanced they were. And with that, we were off. We pedalled down the A82. For a stretch, it felt like a never-ending stream of guesthouses, but these soon gave way to trees and greenery. We passed through Corrychurrachan, Corran and Onich. Mountains fringed the far side of Loch Linnhe, the sun catching their slopes.

At South Ballachulish, we picked up the Caledonia Way (NCN 78) – a long-distance cycle route which runs from Campbeltown to Inverness. True to the sign, the chunk between South Ballachulish and Kentallen was very scenic. We’d swapped a main road for a disused railway; cars hurtling past for the occasional dog walker; and lochside views for leafy woodland, purple rhododendron and a carpet of bluebells.

A little further on, the Caledonia Way dropped below the road and took us through Lochaber Geopark along the edge of Loch Linnhe. Lochaber Geopark had an interesting little geology lesson in store for us: in 1896, Jethro Justinian Harris Teall, who later became Director of the British Geographical Survey, discovered a new type of igneous rock. Come 1900, it had been named kentallenite, after the nearby village of Kentallen. Loch Linnhe sits on the Great Glen Fault, a kilometre-wide fault line created by the collision of Avalonia and Laurentia many moons ago*, hence the presence of volcanic rock, such as kentallenite, in Lochaber and the area around Ben Nevis and Glencoe.

*520 million years ago, according to the Geological Society. That’s more years than my brain can fathom.

Our next stop was Castle Stalker, one of many sea castles – so-called because they were built on rocky outcrops to enable easier access, in a time when there were few roads – on the west coast of Scotland. Castle Stalker – or Caisteal-an-Stalcairc – in its present form dates from 1450, and James IV of Scotland (1473-1513) frequently stayed here whilst on hunting trips.

We pressed on, knowing we had to reach Oban by 13.00. (There’s nothing like a once a day ferry service, and the prospect of your entire trip going tits up if you miss it, to incentivise you to pedal faster.) We rode through woodland, where shafts of sunlight streamed through the conifers and colourful beehives, painted by local schoolchildren, were dotted alongside the path.

As we approached Tyree, we spotted something very creepy: a scarecrow-esque figure, propped against a lamppost and sporting a blonde wig, jeans and high-vis jacket. A spot of Googling has since revealed that scarecrows, dressed to look like your average adult or child, are commonly placed along verges in rural areas in an attempt to prompt speeding motorists to slow down. I’m not sure how effective they are though, since this one had me wanting to speed up to get away from it!

Just as I was beginning to think this leg of our journey had been fairly flat, gently undulating hills appeared. Up. Down. Up. Down. Past some lambs, gambolling in a field. Up. Down. Past some adorable Highland cows. And then up. And up. And – just as I felt the road surely had to level off soon – up some more. Sadly, by the time the road did start going downhill, it had started to drizzle and it was too steep to whizz down.

Until next time, Oban

Oban was the sort of place I’d love to potter round, and I hope that next time we’re in the area we have more time on our hands to do so. On this occasion, we only had half an hour until check-in closed, so we beetled over to the ferry terminal (with the help of some friendly locals on the directions front) to collect our tickets. I nipped into At The Pier, emerging into the drizzle with a hot chocolate (for me), a latte (for Laurence) and a millionaire’s shortbread to share.

Once all the cars had boarded, cyclists were waved aboard. We fastened our bikes below deck, and headed upstairs to find a seat where we could unmask and tuck into our picnic lunch. Neither of us are particularly great on boats, so while I’m sure there were lovely views through the Sound of Mull, I was preoccupied with staying horizontal so I didn’t end up feeling sick.

The ferry from Oban to Castlebay takes the best part of five hours, and it was nearing six-thirty by the time we wheeled our bikes into Castlebay. You’d think it would be impossible to get lost on an island with one circular road and one junction leading to Vatersay – and it should be – but somehow I missed the sign, and before we knew it we’d cycled halfway round Barra. Whoops. You could call it getting lost. Or you could call it a preview of the next day’s route. We turned back on ourselves and, although we were now cycling into a slight headwind, it didn’t take too long to get back on track.

Finally heading in the right direction

A hideously steep* hill climbed up out of Castlebay, and my easiest gear and tired legs were no match for it. I made it about halfway up before admitting defeat and pushing my bike the rest of the way to the top. We were only a day into this trip and, whilst some claim ignorance is bliss, I was a wee bit worried about what sorts of hills might lie ahead.  

*11% or so.

We pitched the tent above the beach, and set about making tea: a couple of packets of wholegrain rice with adzuki beans, sweetcorn and chillies, and a slab of ginger cake (sorry McVitie’s, but in no universe is a portion 1/9 of a 225g cake). Vatersay Hall and Café was closed for the day, but had toilets, coin-operated showers and a sink where we could fill our water bottles and wash dishes; an honesty box was fixed to the wall outside. With the sun sinking into the horizon and the temperature falling, we called it a day and wriggled into our sleeping bags.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

  • Transport | Caledonian MacBrayne run one ferry a day from Oban to Castlebay (Barra) and, as of June 2021, a single ticket for a foot passenger cost £15.55. There’s no extra cost for bikes, nor a requirement to reserve a place for them in advance. Book tickets at www.calmac.co.uk; their Twitter feed (@CalMacFerries) provides regular service updates and fields customer queries.
  • Amenities | Few and far between on the Fort William to Oban leg, perhaps due to the fact this route is wedged between Loch Linnhe and mountains and the villages it passes through are fairly small. Oban is home to plenty of shops and cafés; on Barra, there are a handful of shops in Castlebay where the ferry docks.
  • Maps and guides | This is a straightforward and well-marked route: head south on the A82 to South Ballachulish, and then follow the Calendonia Way (NCN 78) towards Oban. If you’d prefer to be armed with a map, OS Landranger 41 (Ben Nevis) and OS Landranger 49 (Oban and East Mull) cover this day’s riding in the Highlands; and Visit Outer Hebrides sells a pocket-sized Hebridean Way Cycling Map (£3.99; postage free) which is all you need for exploring the Outer Hebrides on two wheels.
  • Distance | 73.09km/45.4 miles from Fort William to Oban; 629m of elevation gain. 20.51km/12.7 miles from Castlebay to Vatersay; 205m of elevation gain (though it would have been about half the mileage and elevation gain on that second leg, had I not missed the turning).
  • Misc. | Fort William has a couple of long-stay car parks: West End and An Aird 2. As of June 2021, a month-long parking permit cost £10.50 via RingGo.

4 thoughts on “Cycling the Highlands and Islands: Fort William to Vatersay

  1. Sounds like an adventurous time cycling (and camping)! I think it’s really bold to venture out there to see as much of Scotland’s savage beauty as possible; I don’t think I’d be bold enough to cycle and camp overnight! I look forward to more of your adventure from this trip!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cycling is a great way to see Scotland, as you’re never too far from the next village/town if you need to top up your supplies 🙂 We passed a fair number of B&Bs, and it’s definitely possible to tailor these sorts of trips to your preferences and have a comfy bed at night (we did that one night when a near-solid day of rain had worn us out!).

      Liked by 1 person

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