Touring the Hebridean Way (A Tale Of Two Donalds!)

Our very own Don Smith recently took a touring trip up north a cycled the Hebridean Way! He's taken the time to write this article for us.  Thanks Don!!

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594a9c5ce590c 02Vatersay.jpg.3a57dd1d1bcf068fc529e7e026444c09
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594a9d12af693 05SouthUist.JPG.5fa42eff50fdb1d2170b7aca53f0b741
594a9d1eb472e 06Benbecula.JPG.c1aaabaafc4089f2e059dba5cffd5e41
594a9d328b236 07Berneray.JPG.eccb31d26090517e0b6131b48705d396
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594a9d6d77980 10callanish.JPG.85ba3c8533e8a40e2bd9e4f4b547a7a1
594a9da5bc605 13ButtofSmith.JPG.161987539c078c71db92721fc736edcc
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"When a mate at work asked if I fancied doing the Hebridean Way I jumped at the chance as I’d been looking into myself. He’s a member of the Ayr Burners and his name is Donald. That coincidence made it easy for us to introduce ourselves to everyone we met on the journey. Although it might have given the tourist we met the impression that all Scots were called Donald.

We decide to travel light using our road bikes and strap-on saddlepacks. Basically one set of cycling clothes and one set of casual gear. Worked well for us but can’t vouch for whether others found the smell overpowering! 

Throughout the journey the workload was shared. When Donald was tired then Donald could take over the pace setting at the front. When moral was low Donald could encourage Donald. Unfortunately when things didn’t go to plan it was always Donald’s fault, however at no point did Donald fall out with Donald which was a bonus. Donald had a great time, as did Donald.

Overall the trip was a bit harder than expected as it was a bit hillier and definitely windier than hoped.  There’s  a  lot of single track roads and generally the road conditions were good. We decided to do it over three days with a travelling day each side. This made for a total of about 273 miles for me over 5 days including the short rides to and from Glasgow Queen Street.

Day 1 (19 miles) started with a 3 hour train journey to Oban followed by a 5 hour ferry journey to Castlebay on Barra. The good news is that the scenery was great and we were constantly travelling away from the bad weather that was swinging in to the central belt.

We stayed at the Dunard Hostel, which was excellent, and ate at the Craigard hotel as our first choice the Kisimul Café was fully booked. This was followed by a couple of pints in the Castlebay hotel. Unfortunately the Vatersay Boys were not performing at the Castlebay that night. Or maybe that was a good thing considering we had to be up early the next day, and considering the state I got into the last time I saw them play there! 

The official route start of the Heb Way is on Vatersay so to save time in the morning we decided to cycle out to Vatersay and back before dinner. While it was only 12 miles in total out there and back it wasn’t without a challenge as the road out of Castlebay hits 12.5%. So doing this without our bags was a good call! Think it was just as hard on the way back.

 

Day 2 (89 miles)  dawned bright and just got better as the day went on. A short ride up the west coast of Barra and then over to Ardmhor to catch the ferry to Eriskay, the Whisky Galore island. After a quick visit to the Am Politician pub, which not surprisingly was shut at that hour, and it was time to cross the causeway to South Uist.

 

Throughout the day there was beach after beach as we travelled across numerous causeways from Eriskay through South Uist, Benbecula, Grimsay and North Uist towards our destination of Berneray. 

There was a great we café for 2nd breakfast shortly after Eriskay at West Kilbride. It was too good an opportunity to miss so with a herculean 15 miles on the clock we decided to stop.

After bacon rolls and tea we reluctantly got back on the road. The official Heb Way through South Uist, and in part in North Uist, doesn’t always take the most direct route. It meanders along wee single track roads, through scattered settlements, and skirting the machair next to the beaches. This part of the journey was a real joy and I’d recommend following the marked route rather than missing out by taking the more direct route.

 

A large part of the day was a bit of a grind into the wind however the blue skies more than made up for it. We had lunch in a café at Benbecula (a bit of a Fawlty Towers experience!) and after 89 miles we arrived at the Gatliff hostel on Berneray which consists of a couple of lovely wee thatched building right on the beach. Unfortunately you can’t book the hostel in advance so we made sure to keep ahead of all the other cyclists we saw to try and ensure we got a bed! As there was a chance the shop in Berneray might be shut by the time we got there we bought provisions at a Coop at Sollas with about 11 miles to go. That night the hostel was nearly full, and there was good company and good craic to be had. Helped by the fact that we’d couriered in our carry out!  

 

Day 3 (63 miles) started with a 7:15am ferry to Harris. While it seemed wet on Berneray it was nothing compared to what we would experience on Harris. The beaches on Harris are stunning. I know this from previous visits, but today they were a shadow of themselves in the mist. The rain was relentless and the wind was 20+mph with numerous stronger gusts. The climb over to Tarbert was a real challenge especially given the conditions. It was so awful that we decided to spend over two hours in a great we café (First Fruits) in the centre of Tarbert waiting for the forecast change in wind direction to help us on our way. We were in the café so long we were on first name terms with the staff and were being given free coffees!                                        

Leaving Tarbert was like cycling along a river but at least the wind was trying to help us. Shortly after Tarbert we hit the climb over the shoulder of Clisham. The steepness and headwind at the start had us at our limit but as we climbed into the mist it got a bit easier. As we descended and reached Lewis the wind was now helping us and the weather continued to improve. As we headed over to our B&B (Creagan) at Callanish it turned into a lovely afternoon and the forecast strong tailwind materialised and meant that we arrived sooner than expected with another 63 miles in the bag.

That night we headed over to the Callanish Visitors Centre to visit the 5,000 year old standing stones, and to dine in the visitors centre restaurant which is open till 8pm in the summer. Basic but decent food on offer. I carb loaded on macaroni cheese and chips.

 

Day 4 (64 miles) The weather was OK. It was mainly dry but with a few showers. The main issue was the wind. It fair helped us as we headed up the final leg of the Way to the Butt of Lewis. One of the challenges of the day was that Lewis is shut on a Sunday as it’s the Sabbath. So it came as a surprise to find a café (The Decca Lionel) open about half a mile before you reach the Butt. It was a great we place and worth a visit. Especially as it seemed to be the only place opened that day!

 

We’d completed about 36 mile but the hard part of the day was just about to start. Leaving the Butt we had to tackle the 28 miles over to Stornoway. The landscape is bleak in this area and the winds are often relentless and brutally strong. Can’t remember the last time I was descending using climbing gears and managing about 5mph! One of the highlights of this part of the journey was 20 minutes spent sheltering from the wind in a bus shelter!

The moor road from Barvas seemed to climb on and on but eventually with 64 miles in the bag for the day we arrived happily in Stornoway where we stayed at the Heb Hostel. Another great wee hostel and centrally located. Eating and drinking options were limited as most places were closed. However the local Indian restaurant took care of us and we managed a couple of pints and a few whiskies at the only pub we found that was open.

Day 5 (32 miles) Another early ferry, 7am, and we were back on the mainland at Ullapool shortly after 9am. We faced a 32mile cycle to Garve to catch the train to Glasgow via Inverness. While the road and scenery are great, this was probably the least enjoyable leg of the journey for me. This was mainly due to the trucks and other traffic that use this arterial road. The fish trucks heading to the continent in particular are capable of some hair raising driving! We could have extended the cycle by another 24 miles or so to Inverness but due to the nature of the next section of road and the traffic we decided that lunch in the Garve Hotel was the preferable option.

It was a great trip and both of us fully expect to do the route again at some point in the future. I’d actually like to do it over more days to allow time to explore and experience more of the place. It could also be done in a day less but that would leave less time to relax and experience the place, might also turn it into a bit of an ordeal if the wind is in the wrong direction, and probably puts pressure on to catch the last ferry of the day to Harris at 17:20.

If the Hebridean Way is of interest to you I’d say you should definitely go for it. It’s a fantastic route, but don’t underestimate the impact the wind can have on your experience!"