My odyssey from the Scottish capital to the northern reaches of its Western Isles
1. The Plan
My chosen route for my cycle touring trip from Edinburgh to the the top of the Outer Hebrides islands back in the summer of 2015.
2. The Means
This is my rig for my ride from Edinburgh to the Outer Hebrides islands. If you’re not one for nerdy bike talk I recommend moving on now. You’ve been warned. This is my Kona Honkytonk, I know, I know, why didn’t you get the Kona Sutra, I hear you cycle-touring pros out there say. Well, I really would have preferred the Sutra but I couldn’t find it anywhere for less than £1200 and so finding this, a bike I had ridden before and liked a lot for £500 brand-new was really a no-brainer. It has a steel frame, heavy but strong and easily repairable compared to aluminium frames, and it looks great. I went for the tried-and-tested Ortlieb panniers and Brook’s saddle and just looked away from the laptop screen as I pressed the ‘use all your savings to buy this’ button. They are fantastic though.
I changed a few items for this trip to Scotland such as the tyres, I went for Schwalbe Marathons. Sure, they’re heavy but I can’t tell you the peace of mind afforded to you knowing that your chances of a puncture are reduced to almost nothing. In fact I didn’t get a single puncture during my trip and even gave away most of my repair kit to a fellow cycle tourer who had endless flats. I also removed the clip-in pedals and replaced them with cheapo flat pedals with the reasoning that I could wear more comfortable shoes while riding and that speed didn’t really matter anyway. Jury’s still out on whether this was really a good idea! I could go on a lot more about the rig but I appreciate we all have lives to live!
3. Leaving Home
Stevenage train station, packed and ready for the 5 hour train ride to Edinburgh.
4. Welcome to Scotland
The superb Forth railway bridge. I could at this point provide some highly dubious trivia, regarding how it’s always in the process of being painted, but I’ll spare you. The bridge I’m stood on in this picture, however, appears to be slowly falling apart. They have installed acoustic listening devices on the suspension cables to listen for the pings of breaking strands of steel, just to keep an eye on things. Reassuring.
5. Unexpected Adventures
What’s great about Scotland is that you can camp anywhere, more or less. On my first night I found a quiet and secluded meadow that looked perfect. The sky was clear and the stars were out so I opted for the bivvy bag - wild camping at it’s best if you ask me! However, what I had failed to realise was that this meadow was part of an active construction site. The sound of reversing sirens are a lot louder than the alarm on my phone and went off quite a bit earlier too! An exchange of thumb’s-up was had and I was soon on my way.
6. New Aquaintances
I’m sure by this point you’re beginning to see that the main character of my trip was my trusty steed, Honky. What I don’t have, sadly, is many pictures of all the people I met on the way. Whilst heading through the Highlands towards Oban I met Colin from Wyoming who had been travelling across Europe and was on his final leg, cycling in Scotland. We were headed in the same direction for the next 50 miles or so, so we buddied up for the day. We stayed at a campsite that night and enjoyed a good night’s drinking down the local. The next day, a little sore-headed, we bid each other farewell and went on our separate ways.
7. Crossing the Minch
From Oban it was a 5 hour ferry ride to Lochboisdale, which I spent with a fellow cycle tourer; an Aberdeen girl who was headed for Barra. The boat ride had it’s up’s and down’s, every 15 seconds or so, in a relentless swaying motion. I have never seen so much vomit. My companion had assured me she’d inherited an iron stomach from a long line of seafarer’s, the look on her face as she slowly made her way through the ferry canteens mac’n’cheese told a different story.
I arrived on the Western Isles shortly after 11 to a pitch-black night. I put my lights on and cycled into the night. This was to be one of the best rides of my life, in complete darkness surrounded by the ethereal whirring of burrowing Puffins and the whistling wind. I cycled for a long way into the night until a car pulled up next to me. I was certain I had met my final bloody fate. The window of the car wound down and before appeared not an axe-wielding maniac looking for nocturnal cyclists but a friendly faced middle-aged woman. She asked me where I was headed, to which I replied ‘that way’, to which she said ‘there isn’t anything that way’. She recommended that I find a camp spot soon before heading into what was just squidgy swamps and pools for miles. She drove on and I set my bivvy up in the bus shelter a few yards up the road. This, unsurprisingly a poor place to camp, as I was the unwelcome visitor to what was already the home for every creepy crawly in the local vicinity. The morning light came as a relief. It also revealed my environment for the first time. A sparse, mostly treeless landscape with short rugged hills and endless tiny lochs.
9. A Sign of Things to Come
Loved these signs, at a glance it looks like a dinosaur, Nessie even. Kept my eyes peeled for otters (and Nessie) but had no such luck.
These two french cyclists had spent the previous two days cycling together and went their separate ways not long after this picture was taken but not before sharing a wee dram of whisky and baileys too, plus a few tokes on our new friend’s jazz cigarette. Afterwards we all had a go at riding about recklessly on his recumbent bike, attempting to do skids in the middle of an A-road.
11. Crofting on Berneray Island
This is the Youth Hostel on the island of Berneray. On the way I passed by a village hall with a free wifi and by this point internet and phone signal had become a luxury, so I headed inside. I was met by an English couple. I politely asked if I could have the password, ‘Of course you can dear’ the lady said, ‘would you like to learn about the island’s history first?’, if only I had the courage to say no. I patiently leafed through binders of sepia photographs of stern faced school masters, fishermen, and priests, only to be told after a long history lesson that the internet was in fact down. Great! ‘But don’t worry,’ she said, ‘between you and me, the B-and-B down the road has a Wifi network with no password.’ I promised to keep my word and headed to the b-and-b, where sure enough I got some slow but usable free Wifi.
12. Psycho Killer
Every hosteller’s worst nightmare: the axe-murderer, seen here moments before dealing the fatal blow. Thankfully this was not a real axe murderer but a fellow friendly traveller. That night there were a few of us staying in the old white-washed croft. Later in the evening a crusty old pirate-looking fellow turned up asking us if we wanted to buy some crab meat. Two young, and mute (up to this point) Italian sisters, looking a bit bewildered by their situation, piped up and took some of the crab from the man’s hamper. They had, however, misunderstood that the man would be expecting some recompense for his efforts and wasn’t just driving around doling out crab for nothing and so they shyly returned the crab. The man got very angry and huffed loudly the words ‘fucking timewasters’ before slamming the door, leaving his Jack Russell staring out through the window as his master trundled off in his old Rav4. It was scary, and we suspected he may be our axe-murderer. In the end his dog wandered off and we all woke up with the standard number of limbs.
13. Harris, Home of Tweed
The next day I arrived on the Isle of Harris famous for it’s tweed. In fact, the Isle of Harris and the Isle of Lewis are indeed the same island, the only thing separating them being their geography, Lewis is largely flat and bleak, and Harris has some large, more Highland-like hills and mountains. You can see in the picture here a glimpse of the Hebrides’ famous white sands and aquamarine seas. If I could do this again I would allow myself more time to explore the beautiful beaches here.
It took me a long time to get back on the road after staying at the youth hostel in Rhenigidale, partly because it served such luxuries as this wood-burning stove and a DAB radio, but mostly because I knew would have to cycle up and over a mountain I had to cycle over to get here.
15. Facing the Inevitable
16. Back to the Mainland
The next day took me to Stornoway where I spent the night in an overpriced hotel, ate pub food, drank beer, and watched TV. The journey across Lewis had been bleak with really not much to speak of other than the brief glimpse of a White-tailed Eagle. The next day I took the ferry to Ullapool, the crossing taking us past the pointed peaks of Skye and I offering sightings of dolphins as they leaped from the water beside the boat. I loaded my bike on to the bike bus in Ullapool which took me to Inverness where I was to catch the sleeper train back home the following day.
17. Journey’s End.
Dusk in Inverness on the final night of my trip. When I arrived at the station I was informed that there was no room for my bike on the train by an officious train guard standing in front of the mile-long Caledonian Sleeper train and that a courier would be driving it in a van to London. My whole experience on the sleeper was pretty dismal to be honest and I glad when it was over. Back in London I waited on a back street near Euston for a white van to turn up with my bike. A different man arrived from the one I’d handed my bike to in Scotland, and an hour late at that. My annoyance was neutralised when I noticed he’d made his part of the journey through the night with his young child sleeping in the front of his van, I thanked him and cycled to Kings-Cross where I caught the train home.