Cycle Touring the Hebrides – Neil Mackenzie Adventure Grant 2016
For text only, see below
Slide show: Bike touring the Hebrides, August 2016. Mike Cancilla and Lizzy Duguay.
Cycle Touring the Hebrides – Neil Mackenzie Adventure Grant 2016 (text only)
With excitement, we landed in Glasgow and watched the baggage coming off the plane. We saw being unloaded two half destroyed bike boxes, our bike boxes, which we had last seen looking in much fresher in Vancouver. Layovers in Toronto and Halifax had not been kind to them.
Concerns aside we were able to have our first Scottish conversation with the customs lady, “What are you doing in Scotland?” , “We’re going cycle touring in the outer Hebrides.” , “Sounds miserable!”
To counter this ringing endorsement and the abused nature of our luggage we were picked up by our smiling friend Rachel and piled into her small car, and upon inspection at her flat our bikes turned out to be in fine shape despite the aesthetic indications of the packaging. Rachel filled out the day by graciously showing us around Glasgow and Edinburgh until we passed into a peaceful slumber on her pullout couch. Rachel’s just finished her Ph.D on mountain huts (bothies to the Scots), a good friend to have!
The following morning we packed our panniers and pedaled straight off of Rachel’s street and onto Britain’s National Cycle Network, and were out of the city 30 minutes later – in those 30 minutes we got lost twice and I almost hit a man by getting confused about which side of the path I should be on. Also, clipless shoes claimed their first tally of the trip as Lizzy was unceremoniously dumped into the mud while stopping, dragged over by the weight of the loaded bike and unable to unclip in time.
It was a beautiful day, we agreed that hanging laundry is really nice, and everything along the cycle network was very cute. We ended up doing 62km that first day, a casual pace we wouldn’t maintain throughout the trip, it seemed almost easy with fresh legs, good weather, and bike specific infrastructure. We wouldn’t need to enter a road with cars until the next morning, near Arrochar.
We awoke to a fine 2nd day on the road after camping on the shore of Loch Lomond and continued towards the port city of Oban. This morning we enjoyed our first black pudding. While stopping for breakfast Lizzy crashed into a hedge in another tally for the clipless pedals.
Near the top of the ‘Rest and be Thankful’ Pass
Relaxing with a tea and scone at the Castle of the Clan Campbell in Inveraray
Lizzy fixing her helmet after running into a hedge!
Breakfast at our second camp on the banks of Loch Awe
Leaving Arrochar we began to climb our first mountain pass – which felt like the first real test after riding mostly flat terrain for the past day and a half. Chug-a-lugging along wasn’t too bad but felt a bit uneasy since it was the first time we were on a major road with cars passing quite tightly. It turned out to be not too bad, and we were rewarded with a view of the valley at the top of the pass, named “Rest and Be Thankful”.
A quick stretch/snack/photo break and then we were on our way to the real fun part, right? Going downhill after gaining all that elevation! Well it would have been great except that I got scared shitless with the valley on the other side opening us to gusting wind, the lack of shoulder meant the cars were passing tightly on the winding road, and I started to get major speed wobble with a perhaps unevenly loaded bike and it being my first time riding with drop bars I was unconfident in the handling. I’ve had the pleasure of being in several high speed collisions leading to broken bones whilst skiing or biking, so I was sure these moments were leading up to a crash. There was no option to pull off or stop and I felt the panic rising and was scouting for a patch of gravel and grass that I could steer into that would leave me less damaged than underneath a car. I held my mantra and was talking to myself loudly over the wild wind “just breath, you’re okay, just breath, you’re okay”. I didn’t have the deploy my crash landing and when I got to the bottom of the hill I pulled off into a parking lot clearing to potentially have a solitary breakdown, since Mike “Downhill Mountain Biking” Cancilla was cruising nearly out of sight and definitely out of earshot down the road, probably grinning at the thrill of it all.
Not much time to be upset, since it seemed on this trip every moment you stopped some good natured friendly Scot would chat you up, and a hiker starting from the trailhead at the parking lot wasn’t phased by my crazy eyes and had a nice little chat.
My trauma subsided and I caught up to Mike and we cruised along making our way to Loch Fyne which I kept reminding him hosted both a brewery AND and oyster bar. Fyne Ales had some of the best beer we would encounter in Scotland (which isn’t saying too much, but this beer was actually really good!). I learned that lochs (which I knew to be gaelic for lakes) also includes sea inlets! This addressed my confusion about why there was an oyster shop on a lake, and why this lake had seaweed and tidelines.
Riding on further we made a stop at the Campbell clan’s castle in Inverrary, which was quite posh and included a cafe where we had tea with scones, clotted cream and jam. This snack would profoundly impact my trip as I would continue a quest to replicate it at every opportunity and yet never would it quite reach the decadent status of that initial taste. Note: Didn’t find any pictures of the club’s own Ross Campbell.
We camped on the shores of Loch Awe after realizing this Loch was a freshwater lake and not an ocean inlet and had a restful sleep through the rain. This next section of road would prove a little tense since it was still a relatively major roadway that wound around corners and the passing traffic made us feel a bit tense. We discovered a delightful cycle route from Connel that would take us to Oban. It took us through the most idyllic settings with quaint pastures and sheep, that route was a real treat to find! We rolled down the final hill into Oban feeling a little worn, but happy.
Cycling route from Glasgow to Mallaig. Bell’s Bothy at Camasunary is highlighted with the red star.
Drying gear at a B&B in Oban
From Oban we were able to hop a ferry to the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. We were wowed by the Scottish ferries, they are comfy, friendly, serve whiskey, and sleeping is encouraged. Lovely! We settled into the tartan upholstered couches and watched the mainland recede into the horizon behind us. It was serene and refreshing. We had forgotten how nice it was to sit indoors for a long period of time, away from the wind.
Upon unloading there was a dark proclamation by the ferry employee, “Did you bring bug nets, there’s midges, there’s midges everywhere.” Now, I thought we already knew how to handle midges from our time along Loch Lomond, but I was mistaken. These midges were the worst yet. They swarmed bare skin and were especially drawn to faces, I think this is because they sense the CO2 you exhale. We left the ferry with a few other cyclists and then scattered, making good time to Vatersay, the southernmost point of the Outer Hebrides and home to a beautiful hour-glass peninsula with white sand beaches looking both west, and east.
This part of the western Isles was incredible, and we had the best weather of the trip to complement the views. We cycled the small roads moving north, often with the prevailing wind at our backs pushing us along.
The roads of Barra and the Outer Hebrides were a highlight of the trip
Clan MacNeil’s castle in Barra. Mike is MacNeil on his mother’s side.
On the way to attend a new friends 70th birthday party in South Uist, a fun night!
In South Uist, the weather began to deteriorate as we watched from a coffee shop and craft store. But, we’re used to cycling in a rainy climate, we thought. We got back on the road, but Scotland hadn’t yet shown us what she was capable of. Soon we weren’t needing to pedal downhill or uphill, as long as we were traveling North, and the rain was coming sideways with gale force. We were watching the weather reports closely, and they weren’t looking good: wind to 45mph and 20mm of rain overnight. After 20km and in declining comfort, we rolled into Howmore to the first of two Gatliff Trust Hostels we would stay at. We were incredibly thankful for the roaring fire and hospitality, and soon our morale returned.
Gatliff Trust Hostel near Howmore granted us a welcome shelter from the storm.
Exploring the chambered cairn of an unknown warrior in North Uist
After a restful night we returned to the road, and the storming skies at first light were so overwhelmingly beautiful that while gawking at the vistas I forgot how to ride a bike and fell into the middle of the road. Mike and I both found this hilarious and thought it was a great start to the day! It was a long day of cycling with poor weather, but we saw standing stones, a chambered cairn, and locals cutting peat near the roadside. In the highlands locals burn dried peat in their stoves, rather than wood. As we neared the 2nd Gatliff Trust Hostel in Bernerarry the weather became increasingly violent leading us to hide out in a bus shelter to get our bearings. This would be the first of several bus shelter reprieves on our trip! Our friends at the last hostel made sure to show us their stunning blue sky/white sand photos of Bernerarry in case the weather wasn’t so kind to us during our stay (which it wasn’t) – but good company, copious amounts of hot tea, and a bevvy of bike tourers made our stay in Bernerarry pleasant and cozy!
Even the sheep were hiding from the weather in the bus stops!
Onto Harris we went! This section of the ride was outstanding. It was a tough decision to choose between riding the wild white sand beaches of the west coast, or the moonscape rocks of the east coast, but we went for the east and were not disappointed! It was a rhythmic route and we wove in and out of countless bays climbing the rolling hills and descending past tiny seaside lochs. It’s called the “Golden Road” due to the high cost of building it in 1897, and the rocks here are dated at three thousand million years old! I think this was my favourite riding section of the whole trip, although it’s hard to choose! We also checked out the Macleod’s church and tombs with 15th century engravings, and an artist’s studio converted from an old Protestant Church where the artist’s parting words to Mike were “Life is just a fart on the wind. That’s all it is”. Something to think about…
Cruising the ‘Golden Road’ on the East coast of Harris was another highlight of the trip for us
After spending the night in a campground with another neat old blackhouse, we took the ferry over to Skye. Mike approached a nice ferry worker who offered us the tickets for free, what a nice gesture of hospitality.
The weather was still not very inspiring but with our next destination too far away, we when we arrived in Skye we had half a day on our hands. Mike suggested a “pleasure ride” with no panniers. “It will be nice”, he said. “Only 20km”, he said. I wasn’t sold on it, but threw caution to the wind and we climbed
the hill out of Uig to do a loop of the Trotternish Peninsula. I was feeling pretty light and fast without a loaded bike, and it was only drizzling, an improvement. We cruised over to the cliffs of the Quaraig, which seemed quite impressive looming engulfed in fog and mist. It was all fun and games descending off the high inland plateau and back down to the beaches, but as we came around the bend to travel South back to Uig we were struck with a full gale right into our faces. This was the kind of weather where your nose is emptying onto the rest of your face but you are too wet to care.
I’ve never been stopped dead in my tracks on a bike like that before. We were skidding around and peddling as hard as we could in our easiest gear, not covering any ground. Shocking!
We had completed about ⅔ of the loop, so we were left with a decision: Take the long road back, with still uncertain weather, or continue the last ⅓ south, straight into the sideways rain. We chose the latter and walked/biked/dragged our sorry selves homeward, taking pit stop number two in a bus shelter to refuel with beer and crisps. After all was said and done, we sat in a pub looking out over the raging waves in the bay, feeling shocked. Mike’s 20km loop turned out to be 50km, but all was forgiven after our pub food and a warm shower. We felt that Neil would have been proud of us.
Lizzy is trying her best to hide the fact that we are miserable as we try to complete a loop of the Trotternish Peninsula in Skye.
The next day we dragged our behinds out of our tent and shared tea with a nice motorbiker from England. We must have looked appalling because an Israeli family at the campsite offered to make us soup. Alas, we had to decline because we had just ate.
We packed our bikes up with half dry clothes and hit the road toward Portree. We stayed a night and went on towards Sligachan the next day with the goal of leaving the bikes and walking into Bell’s Bothy in Camasunary Bay.
Sligachan was a funny experience for us. It felt quite posh, and we arrived and promptly exploded our gear all over their lobby while transferring from bike mode into hike mode. Regardless they were nice enough to house our bikes in a shed out back, and act as an emergency contact if we didn’t return for them. We were thankful because we were walking out into a storm on a route we hadn’t traveled before.
The walking route to the bothy went well, the storm actually broke and soon the Cuillin’s were bathed in sun. We arrived after 4 hrs and shared a few drams in memory of Neil. Shockingly my waterproof socks and sandals combination survived the 9mile trek through peat bog and my feet stayed dry.
We got back on the road moving South through Skye and took a morning ferry to from Armadale to Mallaig. Armadale had a lovely little artist scene to check out.
In Lochailort we left our bikes in a bush and trekked into the Peanmeanach Bothy, recommended from our friend Rachel. It was lovely, we drank whiskey with some of the other guests and ate mussels which we harvested from the beach.
The next day we met the Mackenzie’s for lunch, it was wonderful to meet some smiling faces. Their warmth and enthusiasm for our trip was inspiring, and as we were pedalling away we both had a cry thinking about the circumstance that had brought us together.
Soon we were back on our way to Mallaig where we grabbed our train towards Glasgow, and the end of our time in Scotland. As we packed our bikes onto the train I think we both were a little sad that our adventure was at an end. Traveling by bike offered us an opportunity to see Scotland and come to know a little about it through its people, its landscapes, and its history. We value traveling by bike to experience places at their own pace, not by moving through them but by being in them. Scotland is a fantastic cycling destination with rolling hills, quiet roads, and good cycling infrastructure even if the weather is unpredictable. We hope that our adventures here inspire others to dream up their own goals, and experience Scotland on their own terms.
Some books we read before or on this trip:
Calum’s Road – Roger Hutchinson
Lonely Planet – Scotland
A History of Scotland – Neil Oliver
A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides – James Boswell
Island: The Collected Stories of Alistair Macleod
A book we should have read to prepare for this trip:
Cycling in the Hebrides – Richard Barrett
Exploring the fairy glen’s near Uig on Skye
Filling some water in the Cuillin’s on the way to Bell’s Bothy
Sharing dinner in the Peanmeanach Bothy
On the train back to Glasgow