If you’re contemplating cycling the Hebridean Way from north to south, you’re either bonkers or caught between a rock and a hard place.
For us, it was the latter. We’d originally planned to cycle from Vatersay to the Butt of Lewis, and then drop down to Stornoway to catch the ferry to Ullapool. We’d then have cycled to Inverness, and picked up a direct train to Edinburgh. So far, so straightforward.
We opened up the National Rail website, thinking we’d book our tickets and be on our merry way, and immediately hit a blocker: a train strike on the day we planned to return home. We could travel home a day earlier or a day later, we told ourselves. We plugged in different dates. All the spaces for bikes (I use the word ‘all’ generously; often, there’s only room for a couple per train) were booked. We searched for trains at different times and on different routes to no avail.
Time to think of a Plan B.
We’d leave the car in Fort William and do a loop from there. The catch? After cycling the Hebridean Way from south to north, we’d have to cycle back on ourselves to Tarbert – and the headwinds on the Outer Hebrides are insane. We’re talking 69kmph gusts – but first, back to Shawbost.
We pedalled away from Eilean Fraoich Campsite just shy of 09.00. Near Brue, we spotted a sign to The Shieling. Intrigued, we turned off. What we discovered was a small stone dwelling (above), which had been carefully restored by the Barvas and Brue Historical Society to give visitors an insight into rural life. Crofting families – typically the women and younger children, with their cow in tow – would spend the summer months up at the shieling, tending crops and grazing their cattle on the open moorland. A small hearth, with crockery laid out around it, sat to the left of the door, while a makeshift bed filled the rest of the space. By the 1930s, shieling life had all but come to an end on Lewis.
We rolled our bikes back onto the road. Mile upon mile of farmland stretched out before us. When we reached Cross, our eyes lit up at the sight of an open café: an opportunity to refuel and escape the rain that had set in. With so many homemade treats on the menu – fruit scones and cakes, plus a selection of savoury options – we were spoilt for choice. I had a hot chocolate, a bacon bap and a slice of Victoria sponge, while Laurence opted for a cappuccino, a sausage bap and a slice of chocolate orange cake.
Besides the café, Ness Historical Society is also home to a treasure trove of memorabilia showcasing island life: striking black-and-white photographs of traditional gannet-smoking; all sorts of kit from the local fishing industry; fragments of Neolithic pottery; a weaving loom; the list goes on.
When we emerged forty-five or so minutes later, the rain had passed. Only a few miles stood between us and the Butt of Lewis: straight on for a wee bit, a left turn and a wiggly single-track road down to the unusual red-brick lighthouse. We’d made it.
We spent some time pottering along the cliffs at the Butt of Lewis. Although the signs promised the choppy waters held seals and basking sharks, we saw only shags and seagulls while we were there.
Stornoway beckoned. Cycling back down the A857, we spotted a lot of familiar faces from the ferry: eight or so women from the Oban-Castlebay ferry; the two guys who’d tipped us off about Uig. Just past Barvas, the A857 turns and climbs up over the moorland. Hills? Fine. Hills plus headwind? Ugh. The wind howled (as did my legs/knees/insert body part here), and the clouds opened. I inhaled a Mars bar, and ploughed on.
Fortunately, by the time we rolled up at Laxdale Holiday Park, on the outskirts of Stornoway, the rain had eased. A massive plus of this particular campsite was the campers’ kitchen, complete with kettle, hob, toaster, fridge and freezer. If you like camping but don’t fancy eating ‘just add water’ meals day in, day out, this is ideal (truth be told, I wish we’d cooked at the campsite rather than attempted to find a pub in town).
Raindrops thudded on the flysheet. After a breakfast of hot cross buns (not just an Easter treat, as far as I’m concerned) and nectarines, we packed the tent away and hit the road.
On the menu for today: more grey skies, rain and wind. So much wind. I flicked through my gears, but even my easiest gear wasn’t easy enough. When we hit the petrol station, we stopped for hot drinks. We’d only cycled twelve kilometres, but it felt like an awful lot more. If this leg of our trip taught me anything, it’s that ‘insane’ is probably an understatement when it comes to describing the wind on the Outer Hebrides. We washed our hot drinks down with some dark chocolate Hobnobs (the first of many that day), and resumed our journey.
We stopped for a short while in Balallan to escape the rain. Although the tearoom was closed, the small museum was open: another glimpse into life on the Western Isles. I enjoyed looking at the various knick-knacks, including a model croft house, bagpipes, china and village shop memorabilia, but the best part of our visit was the tip the woman running the museum gave us. Taste n’ Sea, she said, was worth stopping at.
She was right. For the next twenty kilometres, we alternated between pedalling and (when the wind was too strong to stay upright on two wheels) pushing our bikes. Near Ardvourlie, we spied a small car park with a silver catering van and a handful of cars in it. Had it not been for the tip from the woman at the museum, we’d probably have sailed straight past. We ordered a portion of fish goujons and fries, plus a steaming cup of tea each, and sat on the gravel, sheltering from the wind, to devour our food. Taste n’ Sea is up there as one of the best takeaways I’ve ever eaten, and I’d highly recommend swinging by.
One last hill before Tarbert, we told ourselves. Heavy cloud hung over the hill, the moisture saturating our clothes. Streams gushed with water. We struggled up the hill, battling to stay on the tarmac and ride in a straight line, swerving with every strong gust. Later, Laurence told me it was 40kmph winds with 69kmph gusts. No wonder if felt so hard!
When we arrived in Tarbert, we were cold and wet and hot drinks were high on our agenda. Bonus: Hotel Hebrides’ bar also served cakes, so we tucked into slices of their delicious gin-infused Victoria sponge. We weighed up our options: pitch the tent (not particularly appealing, as this would involve cycling a fair way out of Tarbert in the high winds, and we were catching an early ferry in the morning) or enquire about a room at Hotel Hebrides (having already established that the other hotel and the bunkhouse were full). A warm bed and hot shower won out, and we splurged on a twin room at Hotel Hebrides. Feeling clean and dry never felt so good.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Amenities | If you’re after sweet treats, look no further than Ness Historical Society in Cross. Further south, near Maraig, Taste n’ Sea serves up some of the tastiest fish goujons I’ve ever had and is well worth a stop-off (in June 2021 it was open 12.00-16.00 Weds and Thurs, and 12.00-19.00 Fri and Sat; and closed Sun-Tues). There’s a big Tesco in Stornoway, and a well-stocked village shop in Tarbert.
- 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 | 82.29km/51.4 miles from Shawbost to Stornoway, with 947m of elevation gain. 58.58km/36.6 miles from Stornoway to Tarbert, with 769m of elevation gain.
- Misc. | Laxdale Holiday Park has a large field for tents, with the flattest pitches located at the bottom of the field. We paid £19 for two adults for a night; check www.laxdaleholidaypark.com for the latest information. In June 2021, it cost £160 for a twin room at Hotel Hebrides; check www.hotel-hebrides.com for up-to-date prices and availability.