Miles and isles: our large Scottish bike experience | Biking holidays
It was a visit that required particular preparation. First, I checked the midge forecast. Some west coast areas on the Scottish mainland have been displaying most, however the Outer Hebrides regarded much less hostile. I ordered two top-quality head nets and questioned who to take alongside. Second, I bought maintain of the OS Explorer maps for my deliberate route and spent hours scouring them for potential wild camps. Lastly, I rang Ray Mears. He’s bought a brand new e-book out on wilderness cookery and was clearly the person to ask. “Take a frying pan, butter, flour and fisherman’s salt,” he suggested. “They’ll be good for any mackerel you catch. Forage juniper berries, bilberries, heather tea, chanterelle mushrooms and presumably birch boletes.”
I hoped Ray would volunteer to come back alongside and do the cooking, however once I talked about bicycles – my plan was every week’s bikepacking, biking and tenting en route – he made it clear he’s a canoe individual. I needed to persuade my son Conor, who likes biking however not midges. “Do you promise that there received’t be any?”
His perspective to foraging additionally appeared unenthusiastic. Once I urged he bone up on the identification of our important meals objects, he mimicked Graham Chapman’s Brian: “In fact they’ve introduced forth juniper berries! They’re juniper bushes!”
His informal strategy was confirmed after we arrived in Oban. Whereas I packed our bicycle panniers he went out to forage and got here again with none juniper berries in any respect, simply three sugar packets from Costa, one sachet of HP sauce, and a bottle of whisky whose label claimed it was blended for the 1907 British Antarctic Expedition. By the point we bought off in Barra, probably the most southerly of the Outer Hebrides, 5 hours later, a good portion of those provides was already gone.
We had left the automotive in Oban (a week costs £30) and our route would take us up the Outer Hebrides to Harris, throughout the ocean to Skye, then south down the mainland coast, together with the Ardnamurchan peninsula, earlier than a closing leg on the Isle of Mull. In complete it could be about 250 miles of biking, seven ferries, 9 islands and, I secretly suspected, someplace in extra of a trillion midges. We rode hybrid bikes provided by Oban Cycles, every with two 20-litre panniers and a big dry bag on high. Don’t be tempted to take bigger luggage: you’ll solely fill them after which remorse it. I personally would by no means add a rucksack, a pack raft, paddles, lilos, camp chairs or a canine in a trailer, however on our journey we overtook cyclists with all these items. My luxurious merchandise, really 9 luxurious objects, was these Explorer paper maps.
My recollections of Barra have been from the early Eighties, once I’d met a gnarled previous crofter who lived in a thatched cottage, spoke Gaelic and confirmed me methods to hand-clip a sheep. Now, as we disembarked in Castlebay, there gave the impression to be much more homes, none of them wherever close to as fairly as that thatched cottage. Outdoors the Co-op grocery store, younger lads have been larking round on bikes. One banged on the window of a swanky campervan that had rolled off our ferry. “Hey mister,” he mentioned to the aged driver, “I like yer pussy wagon.” Barra, it appeared, had moved with the instances.
Conor returned from foraging within the Co-op holding a pat of butter. “Similar to Ray mentioned!” I didn’t touch upon the massive lump of haggis, the kilo of spuds and all of the cans of beer. Our bikes have been now so heavy that we may barely transfer, however we compelled them right down to the beginning of the Hebridean Manner, near the causeway attaching Barra to the island of Vatersay, to the south. This 150-mile, signed cycle route goes all the best way up the Outer islands, ending on the northern tip of Lewis.
Wild tenting on Barra didn’t look simple: there have been loads of bungalows sprouting from naked concrete gardens, plus a bumper crop of barbed-wire fences. In the long run we spent our first evening at Croft Number Two campsite (pitch for 2 £16), a beautiful spot near a white sand seaside on the north finish of the island. After darkish we listened to the corncrakes and curlews, blended with the sound of our campervan neighbours watching tv – which solely elevated our willpower to flee the world of electrical hook-ups for wild tenting freedom.
Subsequent morning a brief ferry hop to Eriskay set us on our approach, and we have been quickly rolling throughout the causeway on to South Uist. Regardless of Covid restrictions we had no issues boarding any ferries, and booked forward just for the 2 major crossings. On a transparent, blustery day, we made good progress alongside single-track lanes lined with wildflowers, rapidly crossing South Uist and Benbecula. These two are often thought-about the least enticing of the islands, though I genuinely have a mushy spot for locations the place backyard ornaments embody rusting JCB diggers and the skeletal chassis of lifeless vehicles.
On North Uist we scouted just a few diversionary lanes for wild camps, however flat, dry, unenclosed spots have been laborious to search out. We ended up on the well-organised campsite at Balranald Hebridean Holidays campsite (pitch for 2 £12): it’s proper on a good looking seaside, with very welcome sizzling showers.
Subsequent day, on Harris, we battled up the west coast in robust winds and showers, having fun with the epic sweep of mountains, white sand seashores and a sea that defied the bunched gray clouds to stay a pointy emerald inexperienced. This time we have been decided to wild camp. You probably have by no means finished it earlier than, make certain the seek for a pitch is a pleasure, not a nerve-shredding race towards time. We debated each candidate with care, as a result of the forecast was not good: would the tent get flooded or blown away?
The principles in Scotland are easy: camp on unenclosed land, away from dwellings and roads, and spend not more than three nights in a single place. Most of all, go away no hint. We settled on a sheltered hole within the dunes at Luskentyre, the place we ate potatoes boiled in seawater, with fried haggis and lumps of cheese. I made a feeble protest that we ought to be out foraging. Conor met this with a derisive, “Get off my juniper berries!”
To keep away from midges we sat on the breezy seaside and watched the exquisitely gradual drama of a stormy sundown over the island of Taransay. Harris, we agreed, deserved a far longer keep than our single evening.
We woke to the noise of tent ropes thrumming within the wind, packed rapidly and tackled the 15-mile climb over the broad shoulder of Ceann Reamhar (467 metres) in the direction of Tarbert. Now the climate was severely unhealthy, however we dozed by the tough ferry crossing to Uig on Skye. With a forecast of torrential rain and 45mph winds, I’d booked us right into a B&B at Broadford, however as we emerged from Uig’s port we started to surprise if the remaining 35 miles would even be potential on a motorcycle. It took three hours to cowl the 17 miles to Portree, the place we stood, soaked and shivering, underneath the shelter of a petroleum station roof. The rain was coming down in nice wind-tattered sheets. An area identified the folly of our plan: “The highway from right here will get narrower and busier. Get a taxi.”
It’s a marvel of Scottish climate that 24 hours later we have been sitting in sunshine on a pleasant and abandoned pebble seaside beside Loch Ailort and our fortunes have been nearly solely reversed. I had even glad a lifelong ambition: to discover a deer cranium with antlers hooked up. Our bellies have been pleasantly filled with haggis and potato. We had swum within the sea. We had seen a sea eagle fly low over us. We had a campfire and whisky in our mugs. We have been sipping it by our head nets. One trillion midges had come to have fun our change in fortunes.
“You mentioned there wouldn’t be any.”
Now that the hearth was going effectively, I threw on some damp driftwood and bought a very good fug of smoke going. The midges turned socially distanced, most likely postpone by our coughing.
They are saying midges value the Scottish economic system tens of millions yearly in misplaced work hours and tourism income, however I’d take a look at it in a different way: they assure you a abandoned seaside with beautiful panoramas of the Internal Hebrides. I additionally suppose that they’re like rain: not welcome on a vacation, however not unbearable with the appropriate tools and strategic planning. The precise tools is lengthy sleeves, gloves, lengthy trousers and a head web over a hat with a brim. Suppose Chernobyl inspection crew. No kilts. I personally suppose there isn’t a repellent made that deters them, though an M9 flamethrower would most likely work. The October-Could interval is usually much less midge-heavy, and wind and brilliant sunshine preserve them down.
Our subsequent day was the very best: an extended, rolling experience south to the shores of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. I even managed to assuage my guilt about complete forage-failure by choosing handfuls of untamed bilberries and raspberries. These stored us going till we discovered a very good cafe in Acharacle (Cafe Tioram), then pressed on to Ardnamurchan Level. This wild, rocky headland is the furthest west you may go on the British mainland and we have been decided to camp. Stashing the bikes in a clump of heather, we yomped a mile to an unbelievable sandy seaside locked inside nice clean ribs of granite. Patches of grass have been dotted with white seashells. With the wind coming at a gentle clip, we pitched within the lee of a giant boulder and battened down with rocks on man ropes.
Our campfire burned effectively within the wind, sufficient to boil a kettle and make sizzling toddies with the final of the whisky. “I like wild tenting,” sighed Conor, ending off the final of the bilberries we’d collected.
As darkness got here, we noticed the lighthouse start to beat. Then, as the hearth burned low, the celebrities got here out and all of the seashells on the grass started to gleam like tiny fallen constellations.
• Bikes have been offered by Oban Cycles, which hires touring bikes and ebikes from £180 every week. Lodging in Oban and on Skye was offered by Airbnb: Glenroy Guesthouse, Oban from £35 an evening and Shiloh B&B, Broadford, £39. OS Explorer maps for the route are numbers 390, 398, 408, 410, 411 and 452-455