Out of the Saddle on the Outer Hebrides

“Help! My tent is going to burn down!” came a distressed voice running towards us. Andy and I leapt out of our midge-free tent (we were very proud of that status), grabbed water bottles and ran barefoot over the crest of the hill towards the beach, where I imagined a raging inferno consuming everything in its path. Anti-climactically, the tent in question was not burning down – beside it a small flame was burning calmly at the seal between a gas canister and stove. After extinguishing the flame, we offered to lend the owner of the perfectly intact tent our stove, but she told us she didn’t want to see a stove for a while. By this point Andy and I were highly irritated by the swarms of midges. She wasn’t particularly fazed, saying “these midges don’t really bite, they’re not like the midges in the Great Glen – those are much worse”. Andy and I continued to swat hysterically at our faces as we grunted our disagreement. Retreating back to our tent, we performed the whole de-midging ceremony for the second time that evening – walking away from the tent to draw the midges with us, before circling back at a run, unzipping the tent and diving in before the little critters could catch up with us. The highland coos grazing nearby must have been bemused by the sight of us soft English tourists.

After an eventful first night, we were looking forward to a week of leisurely cycling – riding tail winds in the sunshine, reading on white sand beaches and bathing in the tropical waters caressing the shores of the Outer Hebrides. Surprisingly, some of it went to plan and we finished the week with some strong tan lines. As for tailwinds, they don’t seem to exist on the Western Isles where the laws of physics are tenuous at best. But this blog post isn’t really about cycling, it’s about everything that’s not cycling. 

Cycle touring has the remarkable ability to make even mundane activities enjoyable - food shopping, waiting for a ferry in the rain, even filling bottles and emptying bladders take on a sense of purpose. If the mundane can seem exciting, imagine how much fun ferry crossings were! We took six CalMac ferries in total and they were definitely a highlight. Rich seascapes dotted with islands, gannets diving into the waters, even dolphin and harbour porpoise swimming alongside. More importantly though a chance to catch up on sleep and chat to other cycle tourists. And by chat I mean awkwardly sit in silence for a while before comparing routes and staring at their bikes. 

The second highlight of the trip was the scenic places we pitched our tent. We always made sure to pitch by a loch to wash off the day’s sweat. Climbing into a sleeping bag with a mix of dried sweat and suncream on your limbs is to be avoided at all costs. The Uists are lined with white sand beaches and blue waters that wouldn’t look out of place in the tropics. Since we only wanted to carry the essentials (the bottle of Harris gin definitely counts as essential), neither of us had packed swimming shorts. Most of the time this wasn’t an issue as we were in secluded spots. One evening we were camping at a community campsite (a beach and a water tap) on North Uist, with a few other tents and campervans. We walked down the beach a few hundred metres away from anyone for our evening swim. Later, around a campfire with 2 other campers, we were asked if we were a couple. We laughed and said no (whilst gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes). This surprised them, apparently because of how comfortable we were standing naked in each other’s presence, drying in the wind without a care in the world. 

Both Andy and I place eating at the most enjoyable and important end of the spectrum of life anyway, but cycling elevates the most basic of meals and foods to something even more enjoyable. Our staple of couscous cooked in cup-a-soup with courgette and grated cheddar never fails to delight us. Fortunately that wasn’t all we ate. The menu also included cheddar and hobnobs, cheddar and maltloaf, cheddar and oatcakes, cheddar and sourdough (another essential I had packed, along with a serrated Victorinox (if you know you know)). Unlike a lot of cheese, Cheddar does not actually have a Protected Designation of Origin, which explains why it is so prevalent and with such varying quality. Fortunately cycle touring’s powers of elevation came to the rescue once more.

We did however take the opportunity to sample some quality local seafood, which is the third highlight. Cycling past a smokehouse without buying some smoked salmon would be rude. Paired with ludicrously expensive oatcakes and tartare sauce made for a delightful post-swim amuse-bouche on the beach which we shared with the aforementioned campers (a detour was made to Co-op for a lemon). Sam’s Seafood Shack on Harris was also exceptionally well enjoyed. A victim of its own success, Sam ran out of most things by midday despite a fisherman arriving with a fish crate whilst we queued. The seaweed roast potatoes and a lobster mayo sandwich he rustled up went down a treat.
As well as great seafood, the Isle of Harris delivered on the mountains. One afternoon we ventured off road up a gravel track, into a valley rumoured for its nesting eagles. After hiding the bikes and panniers in the lee of a peat hag (from people not eagles), we scrambled up an imposing mountain that stood sentinel over the valley. At the summit we found bird pellets (regurgitated pellets of indigestible fur and bones of small mammals) as big as my palm. Sure enough we soon saw the vast wings glinting golden in the sunlight, soaring on the thermals below us. Although slightly smaller than white-tailed eagles, golden eagles are still a formidable size and took our breath away. That evening we camped by a freshwater loch in the shadow of the mountain, before re-scaling its heights the following morning. As we linked up some neighbouring summits we came across herds of red deer, with four eagles circling above no doubt waiting for Andy to succumb to heat exhaustion and collapse*. To their disappointment we kept the heat at bay with a dip in a river before wading on through the mass of heather and dwarf shrubs lining the corrie back down to the loch. 

*In the interest of accuracy I should point out Golden eagles are not scavengers but instead tend to predate on small mammals. 

The fourth and final highlight is the Eriskay causeway. Yes I could talk about the short-eared owl we saw hunting, or the local with a hook for a hand who told us about the marooned whiskey. I could describe our expert storm-dodging, or even the tick-riddled ponies who nibbled our feet whilst we dozed (“TACKS!” shouted the passing Scotsman). But this causeway had a special hold on me from the moment we set across it northwards on day one, past the ‘Otter Crossing’ sign with spines drawn on the otter’s back (Lutra spinosa is a rare Hebridean species I presume). It is a surreal feeling to glide a few feet above the clear water on a strip of tarmac. Time stops still as you cross between worlds. If the laws of physics are dubious on the islands, they seem suspended altogether on the causeways. Weather systems change dream-like from one end to the other. One day I will publish a photo essay on the Eriskay causeway but for now here is an abridged version (pun very much intended). 

Oh and we also did some cycling which was fun. 

The Outer Hebrides provided a wonderful and much needed escape for our adventure in a turbulent year. As always the photos were taken with my Nikon FE and 50mm lens on Portra 160 film. Do get in touch if you would like to know specific locations!