Created in 2016, the Hebridean Way traverses the length of the Outer Hebrides, all the way from Vatersay, in the south, to the Butt of Lewis, at the northern tip. In a nutshell, it’s:
10 ISLANDS. 6 CAUSEWAYS. 2 FERRIES. 1 EPIC ADVENTURE.
It’s 297km/185 miles of pristine beaches, rugged mountains and open moorland. In many ways, it’s the perfect introduction to bikepacking: a relatively modest distance; stunning scenery; and not too remote if things go pear-shaped.
We woke to waves crashing on the beach below, and sunshine and blue skies above us. After a breakfast of golden syrup-flavoured porridge, we packed the tent away, loaded our bikes and wheeled them towards the road. But first: a detour to the beach.
Vatersay Bay is stunning; there’s no two ways about that. A crescent of white sand, hemmed in by turquoise waters: a spot that wouldn’t look out of place in a tropical holidays brochure. While we were admiring the view, an adorable border collie placed a stick at Laurence’s feet and roped him into a game of fetch. If time had allowed, I reckon Laurence would happily have spent all day playing with it.
We hit the road, though we’d barely gone a kilometre before something else piqued our curiosity and we stopped to explore. Strewn across the grass beneath the road were the broken fragments of a plane, marked by a small memorial stone. On 12th May 1944, an RAF night training exercise departed Oban. Sadly, the pilots lost their bearings, and by the time the navigator realised their error and instructed them to gain altitude, it was too late: the Catalina plane hit the hillside, killing three of the nine crew members on board.
Pedalling towards Castlebay, we saw a few familiar faces from yesterday’s ferry. We crossed the beastly hill between Nask and Castlebay (I managed 2/3 of it – an improvement on the previous evening), and spent the rest of the morning rolling along Barra’s empty roads.
We made good time, and managed to catch an earlier ferry. When we’d looked online, there was no availability for the 11.10 crossing, so we booked the next one (which wasn’t until 15.25). When we rolled up just shy of 11.00, the staff were more than happy for us to transfer our tickets to the earlier crossing. We spotted seals – some lounging on rocky outcrops, others taking a dip – from the ferry.
Grey skies greeted us on Eriskay. The road hugged the hillside for a stretch, and then began to climb up it. Laurence went on ahead; I pedalled up the hill at a snail’s pace. A flash of orange passed me. For a moment, I wondered how this cyclist was zipping up the hill with such ease. A glance downwards explained: they were riding an electric bike. I could see why they were popular in this part of the world!
We passed a clutch of houses and a small shop, and before we knew it we were pedalling across the causeway to South Uist (though not before we’d stopped to chuckle at the ‘Otters Crossing’ sign which someone had decorated to look like a dinosaur). Rounding the bend into West Kilbride, I spied a café. We stopped for a hot chocolate apiece, and a bacon bap for Laurence. South Uist held mile upon mile of farmland, interspersed with tiny lochs.
We stopped by the dunes at Bornish for lunch: sesame bagels; slices of chorizo; and a few handfuls of dried fruit. We’d covered more ground than planned, but still felt fresh. Since it was early afternoon and Howmore (the place we’d thought we’d finish for the day) was only another ten or so kilometres up the road, we decided we’d make the most of the tailwind and go a bit further.
We pedalled past more lochs, fields and farmhouses, a ribbon of pothole-free tarmac unfurling in front of us. South Uist soon gave way to Benbecula.
Creagorry, just across the causeway, had a Coop. You’re probably thinking that’s not especially exciting, but when you’ve cycled eighty-odd kilometres, and are craving a sugar hit, it is. I bought bananas, a punnet of cherries, two cans of Coke and some discounted Dairy Milk doughnuts, and we sat on the pavement devouring our snacks.
We scoured the landscape for a suitable spot to camp for what felt like miles. We had a pretty short wish list – somewhere reasonably sheltered, not boggy, and away from the road – but it proved difficult to find something that fit the bill. We cycled through Linaclate, Griminish and Baile nan Cailleach, and stopped just past Balivanich to watch a plane take off.
We ended up leaving Benbecula behind, crossing Grimsay, and pedalling into North Uist. Several detours later, we found a gravel track leading towards the shore. With the tent pitched, it was, at last, time for tea.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Transport | Caledonian MacBrayne run up to five ferries a day between Ardmhòr (Barra) and Eriskay and, as of June 2021, a single ticket for a foot passenger cost £3.25. 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 | Variable, depending on the day and time you set off. Vatersay Hall and Café opens at 11.00 (12.00 on Sundays). There’s also Ardmhòr Coffee on Barra (conveniently located if you have time to fill before a ferry), and Kilbride Café in West Kilbride, South Uist.
- Maps and guides | Buy yourself a pocket-sized Hebridean Way Cycling Map (£3.99; postage free) from Visit Outer Hebrides before you go: it shows you the route, plus various amenities along the way.
- Distance | 107.16km/66.9 miles; 665m of elevation gain.
- Misc. | If you spot a café and vaguely fancy a hot chocolate/coffee/tea/slab of cake, stop – for the simple reason that it may be many miles before you come across another. (We cycled the Hebridean Way in four days and came across only three open cafés.)