Updated: Oct 25, 2021
After almost 18 months of having the inability to plan a great adventure, I was itching to get away during summer 2021. A change in jobs led to some time off and a plan was hatched.
After dabbling in the art of bike packing over a few short weekend trips locally, my close friend Matt and I decided we would tackle an island-hopping adventure. 200 miles of rugged Atlantic coastline spanning across 10 islands, with an abundance of spectacular scenery, heritage and wildlife. We would set out to cycle self-supported from the most southern point of the Hebrides at Vatersay to the most northerly point at the Butt of Lewis.
Grab a beer and strap in for The Hebridean Way.
The route is notoriously tricky to plan logistically starting with a ferry from Oban to Barra. Options here would be the train with newly added ‘bike carriages’ or alternative transport to the ferry terminal. We were fortunate to have a friend who was able to drop us off.
We stocked up at the Lidl in Oban and headed to board the ferry to Castle Bay, Barra. This route is popular with cyclists so it is worthwhile arriving slightly early to secure a space as you can’t currently book to guarantee a bike space, however, we easily fitted on with 20 or so other intrepid riders.
And so, the adventure began, upon arriving in Castle Bay it became apparent that other adventures were well versed in exploring the islands with the two local pubs and the curry house FULLY BOOKED for dinner! Co-op tea it was… But not before our first challenge would strike. A tubeless disaster! Matts normally reliable tubeless setup began leaking extensively and plugging the tire proved to be worthless, fortunately, nothing a spare tyre we’d luckily been carrying couldn’t fix. So in with the old school tube and we were on our way.
A short 10km spin to the free wild camping site in Vatersay brought us to our first stop, for a well-deserved beer and a dip in the Atlantic before settling down for the night.
Coffee, porridge, pack and away we go. The morning routine that would become the norm over the trip. Day two involved 100km to North Uist. As we set off the heavens opened and would continue to pour for most of the trip. First stop was the Barra to Eriskay ferry where a warm Flat White awaited us to lift the spirts. Much needed! After drying off on the 40min crossing we arrived on our third island Eriskay, after tackling the short and sharp climb out of the ferry port we headed to a well known local establishment Am Politician. Named after the SS Politician which was part of the Harrison Line Shipping Company. She sank in February 1941 en-route to Jamaica in the waters between Eriskay and South Uist. All crew were rescued and the islanders helped themselves to some of the 40,000 cases of Scotch whisky. We could use some of that whisky after a bitter morning of riding in the rain! After the best fish supper in the Hebrides and some vitamin T to wash it down we were on our way again with a chunky 80km still to cover.
One of the highlights of the Hebridean Way is the extensive network of causeways that the route covers, acting as a lifeline to locals transporting goods and getting to work and school. From Eriskay to North Uist we crossed three such causeways helping us to hop between South Uist, Benbecula, Grimsay and North Uist. Before we arrived at our destination for the night; Moorcroft Holidays Campsite. With great hot showers (No timer always a bonus!) and a hot meal, we were off to sleep ready for the next day.
By day three we had learned a dash of scotch in the porridge helped the morning go more smoothly. This was the first morning we were forced to take the tent down in the rain, not a pleasant experience. Yet character-building nonetheless. Day three involved a short causeway to Berneray before a ferry to our 9th island of Harris.
It must be noted that the Hebridean way has an excellent signage infrastructure guiding you at almost every turn and for the most part day 1 and 2 (Vatersay, Barra, Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, Grimsay and North Uist) are fairly flat and very straight forward navigationally. So we were excited to get to Harris where the roads pitch upwards and the scenery transforms into some of the most spectacular that Scotland has to offer, rain or shine!
Unfortunately for us, it was rain, yet the meander through the tight coastal road still put a smile on both Matt and I’s faces as we worked through our second 100km+ day. From Leverburgh to Tarbert you’ll pass several stunning beaches and can detour to visit the notable Luskentyre Bay before the steep climb up the A859 and fast descent into Tarbert.
Being more accessible from the mainland Harris brings with it slightly more traffic so you do need to keep your wits about you after 150km on nearly deserted roads. Yet in addition, more tourists mean more facilities and infrastructure so where you will be stopping for food is no longer as difficult as it can be on the first 7 islands of the route.
A highlight for both of us and a must-do attraction on the trip is the Harris Distillery, set at the water’s edge in Tarbert. We weren’t sure what the reaction to two sodden unwashed cyclists would be but the friendly local staff at the Distillery couldn’t have been more welcoming, giving some great insight into the Distillery and some local knowledge before sending us on our way with a small tipple to sample.
It was at this point that our Hebridean Hopscotch reached a decision-making point. Do we continue to batter into the relentless Northerly wind and rain? (The prevailing wind usually blows from the South, one of the key reasons we chose to travel South-North) Or do we bail and make an exit towards the high mountains of Skye and a Northerly tailwind back south.
Matt and I both being reasonably stubborn individuals did not want to give up on the Hebridean Adventure too easily so decided we would carry on north, getting food first in Tarbert at the local hotel.
Well, it wasn’t to be, the hotel wasn’t serving food and those CalMac chips and a tin of beer began to call our names. We hastily spun down towards the ferry to see that the bikes had already loaded and the last of the cars were going on. ‘No chance’ we remarked, before being flagged over by a CalMac employee. We explained we had no tickets but were due to be taking the Ferry from Stornoway the following day. ‘No bother’ the CalMac employee responded, ‘We’ll happy take that ticket!’ and proceeded to board us.
We were elated, although Skye wouldn’t bring sunshine it would bring a tail wind which after three days of pushing big Watts to move very slowly was music to our ears. This spontaneous change of plans at first felt like a cop out though quickly shifted into being the peak of the adventure. We hadn’t planned this. We didn’t have a campsite and we didn’t know the route. Over the two-hour ferry crossing from Tarbert to Uig we planned our next move, deciding we would loop round the west coast of Skye to spend the night at Dunvegan (home to cycling legend Danny MacAskill).
After arriving in the dark, we were met with stunning views across Loch Dunvegan in the morning. We packed away of wet camping kit for the last time before heading to Skye’s oldest bakery for a Coffee, Bacon Roll and Cinnamon Bun. We then began our Skye traverse from west to east via the high mountain pass of the A863, followed by a stunning descent in view of the Cullins to lunch at the Sligachan Inn.
To wrap the trip up we had planned to cross the Skye Bridge back to the mainland before meeting our good friend Sam, who had kindly offered to collect us. This proved to be the toughest section of the trip with some particularly bad passes and a lot of HGV traffic. If planning to cover this road on a route you’re planning I would potentially reconsider as very little is gained in terms of scenery and ride enjoyment. However, in saying that the Bridge acted as a spectacular finish to our Hebridean Hopscotch taking us back to the mainland.
Over the four days, we covered 10 Islands, six causeways, four ferries and one bridge. Travelling a total of 300km by bike and 65km by ferry.
A Hebridean Hopscotch.
Specialized Crux Gravel Bike
Restrap Frame Bag
Altura Saddle Bag
Thermarest Air Matt
Wahoo Element Bolt
Giant Revolt Gravel Bike
Ortlieb Bikepacking bags (Saddle, Frame and Bar)
Rab Sleeping Bag
MSR Access 2 Tent
MSR Pocket Rocket
Alpkit 600ml Titanium Mug
Essential Remote Spares:
Local Ride Spares (Tubes, Chainlink, etc)
Great Resource: https://www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk/hebrideanway
This recount gives and insight into our journey around the Hebridean Way. If you are looking for any more logistical information give me a shout and I’ll be happy to cover any sections in more detail! (Ferry booking, accommodation, food, etc.)
Thanks for reading, I hope it inspires you to plan your next adventure!