Cycling in the Outer Hebrides
Where land meets the ocean at the fringe of Europe.
Cycling in the Outer Hebrides is unlike any other kind of riding you might do. The chain of islands are wild and remote with a healthy dash of windswept ruggedness thrown in for good measure, but the experience they give will stay with you forever.
My wife loves the islands – North Uist in particular, and as a family our visits to the far north-west are regular. The journey to get there is long. We always joke that it would be quicker to fly across the Atlantic than drive to its edge. It is an arduous trip, but a journey that lets you know you have reached the very fringes of Europe. Once there, the landscape always leaves an indelible impression on my soul – from the endless deserted and pristine beaches to the primordial monuments and settlements that scatter the barren hillsides. The whole archipelago evokes a sense that you have reached the edge of the world and emits an oppressive atmosphere that feels like the sodden peat and raw, rock landscape is in a constant battle with the ocean for survival.
The best way to see the Outer Hebrides is by bike
You could view this Wagnerian landscape from the comfort of your car, watching the quickly changing landscape pass you by as you drive over causeways battered by a never-ending barrage of salty waves – but where is the fun in that? Much better to breathe in that briny sea air and feel a part of the environment. Like the terroir affects a fine wine, the context of the terrain you are riding through lends a flavour to the ride you are cycling.
A wild and windy bike ride
The prevailing winds in these parts are predominantly from the west, meaning that a bike ride from Vatersaay in the south, heading north through Barra, towards the Uists and then Harris and Lewis is the preferred option of many riders. Occasionally that changes and on one occasion I received a gift of gale-force winds coming in from the Norwegian Sea. Fortunately that day I was heading south from Berneray to Eriskay and my wind-enhanced ride of 60 miles took me only two hours and six minutes. On the way, I battled to keep the bike upright at times against the winds. I had cycled across tidal causeways that were being battered with waves, covering me with ice-cold salt water. I continued down through South Uist, shadowed on my left by the ominous, dark presence of Hecla and Beinn Mhor. My destination was getting closer. My legs and body were starting to complain at the cold and effort I was asking of them, but my mind was elated with the experience. I reached the Parliament Bar on Eriskay (that of “Whisky Galore” fame) sodden and shivering, but with a grin that reached from ear to ear.
I arrived on Eriskay at 11:06 am and eased off on the short climb to the end of the road above Coilleag. From there I could look over the dark and stormy sound of Barra. My epic bike ride ended rather ingloriously as I stood in the “Gents” trying to warm myself up and dry some of my kit off under the electric hand-dryer until my wife arrived with dry clothes.
A cycle ride in the Outer Hebrides is not for the faint of heart, but for those who do venture into this untamed landscape, the rewards are glorious.