There’s something uniquely adventurous about wheeling your bike down a ramp into the bowels of a car ferry before embarking on a 5-hour crossing to a chain of islands lying in the North Atlantic Ocean. With nothing out west until you hit Canada, The Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland, have a remote and romantic feeling.
Our week-long cycling trip in the Outer Hebrides and Highlands of Scotland included 7 ferries, 631km of cycling and 10,000 metres of climbing. The starting point for our intrepid adventure was the bustling town of Oban on the Scottish mainland which, incidentally, has great rail links so it’s easy to go car free.
Days 1 and 2: Oban to Harris
Distance: 112 km
Spotting porpoises from the ferry
The ferry to Barra left around 1.30pm, giving us plenty of time to visit the incredible seafood kiosk on the quay and grab a cuppa from what is arguably one of the best ferry terminal cafés around!
The crossing to Barra in the south of the island chain is one which I always find very calming. Maybe it’s just decompressing as the ferry leaves mainland life behind? Or perhaps it’s the fantastic scenery and the porpoises playing around the ferry? Those in the know board with a pair of binoculars in hand.
The ferry arrives at Barra in the early evening, so it made sense to stay overnight here before heading north. Morning dawned with rain and a fresh wind (to be fair, it’s a regular occurrence here thanks to the expanse of open sea to the Americas) so we saddled up and stoically cycled up the coast to our ferry crossing onto Eriskay.
Fans of old films may remember the 1949 film ‘Whiskey Galore’ (remade in 2016). Eriskay was the setting for this true story which came about when a ship, the SS Politician, foundered off the coast in 1941. The local community salvaged her precious cargo of whiskey, hiding it in some very random places to keep ahead of the revenue and customs officials.
Once on Eriskay, we were soon crossing the causeways which link the chain of islands and flying through the Uist’s with a roaring tailwind. North and South Uist have a remote feel to them – I remember a friend being given a map showing the location of shops and cafés before their visit. They thought the map showed recommendations of the best places, when in fact they were the only places, often a good 30 miles apart and closed on Sundays!
After a couple of restorative brew stops and a picnic lunch, we made the afternoon ferry over to the island of Harris. Arriving to glorious afternoon sunshine and a warming breeze, we made use of the hostel washing line before relaxing for the evening. We soaked up the views until late, musing on the magical light quality which blesses the Outer Hebrides.
Days 3 and 4: Harris to Kinlochewe
Distance: 212 km
The golden sandy beaches of Harris
The next morning brought more wet weather. But, even in the rain, Harris is a stunning and picturesque place. The beaches are golden and the seas clear, treating us to view after view as we cycled along. The terrain here is much hillier than the Uists, but with our helpful tailwind still blowing, even the massive climb out of Tarbert to Loch na Ciste was a wind assisted breeze!
This climb guards the entrance to the Island of Lewis and the top has a beautifully wild feel to it, like being in the Highlands. As we dropped out of the hills towards Stornoway, the scenery became softer and less forbidding. Arriving in Stornoway for lunch, we took the ferry back to the Scottish mainland and the port of Ullapool.
Live music and good food
Ullapool is, hands down, one of my favourite places. I’ve visited a few times now and this old fishing port never fails. It has a really good vibe, with live music in at least one of the many pubs every night, and some great places to eat.
Our journey back to Oban would loosely follow the coast south and we had a big day ahead of us. So, with food in our bellies, we retired for the evening.
Now back on the mainland, the increase in traffic was noticeable but as we turned onto a quieter road towards Dundonnell, we relaxed and rode towards our lunch stop at Loch Ewe. Here we found a surprising history. Loch Ewe was the gathering point for Arctic convoys to Russia during the Second World War and there’s still lots of evidence of that conflict in the landscape.
Suitably humbled, we continued our up and down progress towards our overnight stop at Kinlochewe. The views were incredible, the roads quiet and the sun shining. Perfection was achieved when a pine martin ambled across the road in front of me without a care in the world.
Day 5: Kinlochewe to Plocton
Distance: 124 km
The notorious Bealach na Ba
Our next day was the biggest of the trip, cycling through the impressive mountains of Torridon before taking the road to Applecross. There’s a handy café here which provides sustenance before tackling the notorious Bealach na Ba. Translated as ‘Pass of the cattle’, this is one of the most dramatic roads on mainland UK, rivalling many Alpine passes and giving terrific views across the Inner and Outer Hebrides.
The climb starts straight out of the café, at sea level, and tops out 8.6km and 645m of “up” later. It allegedly averages 7% but, don’t be fooled, some sections are very steep. The road can also be quite busy and narrow in places. That said, vehicle occupants were generally happy to give way and most gave encouragement in respect of my upwards efforts. This climb honestly is a monster and took me just under an hour to reach the top.
The reward was an amazing descent to Loch Carron, followed by home-made apple pie in the café before continuing to Plockton, the setting for the much-loved TV series Hamish Macbeth. Good food was an ever-present theme on this trip and our overnight hotel here was no exception. Our arrival was met with home-made biscuits, tea and a log fire – a proper warm welcome!
Day 6: Plockton to Arisaig
Distance: 77 km
Over the sea to Skye
After our efforts the previous day, we awoke to the promise of an easier day in the saddle. A short ride from Plockton took us to the Skye Bridge, which links the island with mainland Scotland. Once over the bridge, we turned left towards the village of Armadale. The village has grown over the years and now boasts a farm shop, post office, petrol station, café and gift shops. Our visit was brief as we caught the ferry to Mallaig back onto the Scottish mainland.
The onward route to Arisaig was a gentle pedal which took us past the famous silver sands of Morar and close to ‘Ben’s Beach’, which aficionados of the quirky 1980’s film ‘Local Hero’ will know well.
Day 7: Arisaig to Oban
Distance: 106 km
The return to Oban
Leaving Arisaig the following day, the sun was out and cheering us along for our last day in the saddle. We rode on a cycleway next to the main road, passing the Princes Cairn which marks the spot where Bonny Prince Charlie embarked for France in September 1746 following months on the run after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden. Our route then took us on the scenic and undulating road to Moidart, treating us to beautiful views everywhere.
One final big climb on our trip ended with an impressive descent to Lochaline and the ferry to Mull. Feeling smug that we weren’t going the other way, it truly was a magnificent finale. With a sunny sail over to Fishnish, we pedalled the last few kilometres before catching the ferry back to Oban and the finish of a wonderful trip.
Top tips for road cycling around the Outer Hebrides and Highlands of Scotland
Expect the unexpected! This is Scotland and even in high summer, you can get 4 seasons in one day. The Outer Hebrides are often windy, with the prevailing winds being south west or westerly – so if you go from south to north, you’ll usually have a tail/cross wind. Good weather can often be found in late May and early June, but we make no promises!
Book in advance as many places fill up fast and there are some areas (especially on the islands) where there’s very little choice. Parts of the mainland route share accommodation with the popular North Coast 500 and bookings can be up to 18 months in advance. Check out Visit Scotland for more info.
The humble mudguard! It may not be exciting or pretty, but it’s essential for your comfort when riding in the rain. A good quality rain jacket is also useful, and midge repellent (especially if you camp).
The best bit of cycling advice I ever heard was about riding into a headwind and was from Chris Boardman. He simply said, “slow down”. Trying to ride fast into a headwind will just wear you out, so allow more time for your journey, treat it like a long climb and pedal in an easier gear.
Scottish tablet (don’t call it fudge) is pure energy! A close second is dark chocolate Tunnocks wafers…or maybe that should be the other way around!
It’s a tough trip, so ensure you get plenty of riding in before you go. If you’re planning an unsupported adventure, practice riding with all your kit on your bike so that you know how it handles when fully laden. Go on an overnight/weekend trip so that you know how your body will react to riding several days in a row. Pacing is key on a multi-day trip: too slow and you’ll be on the bike for too long, too fast and you’ll get tired. Our longer guided multi-day trips deliberately plan a short day to allow our bodies to recover.
What a trip! Riding for a week through some of the finest scenery Scotland has to offer. Want to experience it too? In summer 2021, PeakCycling UK will be offering this trip as an 8-day fully guided road cycling adventure, giving an extra day to take the pressure off ferry timings.
To find out more about the tours offered by PeakCycling UK (including their Hebridean and Highland Adventure) check out www.peakcyclinguk.com.