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Miles and isles: our big Scottish bike ride | Cycling holidays

Miles and isles: our big Scottish bike ride | Cycling holidays 2020-09-26Leave a comment

electrical bike Miles and isles: our large Scottish bike trip | 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 appeared 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.”

highlands and islands cycling

I hoped Ray would volunteer to come back alongside and do the cooking, however after I talked about bicycles – my plan was per 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 steered he bone up on the identification of our important meals gadgets, he mimicked Graham Chapman’s Brian: “In fact they’ve introduced forth juniper berries! They’re juniper bushes!”

His informal method 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, some of the southerly of the Outer Hebrides, 5 hours later, a good portion of those provides was already gone.

Traffic problems on South Uist
Site visitors issues on South Uist

We had left the automobile 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 remaining leg on the Isle of Mull. In whole it will 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 equipped by Oban Cycles, every with two 20-litre panniers and a big dry bag on high. Don’t be tempted to take bigger baggage: 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, truly 9 luxurious gadgets, was these Explorer paper maps.

My reminiscences of Barra have been from the early Nineteen Eighties, after I’d met a gnarled previous crofter who lived in a thatched cottage, spoke Gaelic and confirmed me find out how 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.

Anti-midge beach fire at Loch Ailort Wild Camp.
Anti-midge seashore hearth at Loch Ailort Wild Camp

Conor returned from foraging within the Co-op holding a pat of butter. “Similar to Ray mentioned!” I didn’t touch upon the large 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 pressured them right down to the beginning of the Hebridean Approach, near the causeway attaching Barra to the island of Vatersay, to the south. This 150-mile, signed cycle route goes all the way in which up the Outer islands, ending on the northern tip of Lewis.

Wild tenting on Barra didn’t look simple: there have been a whole lot of bungalows sprouting from naked concrete gardens, plus a bumper crop of barbed-wire fences. Ultimately we spent our first evening at Croft Number Two campsite (pitch for 2 £16), a beautiful spot near a white sand seashore 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 dedication to flee the world of electrical hook-ups for wild tenting freedom.

Kevin disembarking on Mull
Kevin disembarking on Mull

Subsequent morning a brief ferry hop to Eriskay set us on our manner, 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 important crossings. On a transparent, blustery day, we made good progress alongside single-track lanes lined with wildflowers, shortly crossing South Uist and Benbecula. These two are normally thought of the least enticing of the islands, though I genuinely have a comfortable spot for locations the place backyard ornaments embody rusting JCB diggers and the skeletal chassis of useless vehicles.

On North Uist we scouted a number of diversionary lanes for wild camps, however flat, dry, unenclosed spots have been arduous 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 stupendous seashore, with very welcome sizzling showers.

Wild camp at Ardnamurchan Point
Wild camp at Ardnamurchan Level

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. When you have by no means accomplished it earlier than, ensure 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 must be out foraging. Conor met this with a derisive, “Get off my juniper berries!”

antlers in the stream
Stays of a stag

To keep away from midges we sat on the breezy seashore and watched the exquisitely sluggish 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 shortly and tackled the 15-mile climb over the broad shoulder of Ceann Reamhar (467 metres) in direction of Tarbert. Now the climate was critically unhealthy, however we dozed via 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 doable on a motorcycle. It took three hours to cowl the 17 miles to Portree, the place we stood, soaked and shivering, beneath the shelter of a petroleum station roof. The rain was coming down in nice wind-tattered sheets. A neighborhood identified the folly of our plan: “The street from right here will get narrower and busier. Get a taxi.”

We did.

It’s a marvel of Scottish climate that 24 hours later we have been sitting in sunshine on a pleasant and abandoned pebble seashore beside Loch Ailort and our fortunes have been nearly totally reversed. I had even happy 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 via our head nets. One trillion midges had come to rejoice our change in fortunes.

summer clothing in Scotland
Prepared for the assault … Conor (left) and Kevin of their head nets

“You mentioned there wouldn’t be any.”

“I lied.”

Now that the fireplace was going nicely, I threw on some damp driftwood and bought fug of smoke going. The midges turned socially distanced, in all probability postpone by our coughing.

They are saying midges price the Scottish financial system thousands and thousands yearly in misplaced work hours and tourism income, however I’d have a look at it in a different way: they assure you a abandoned seashore with beautiful panoramas of the Interior Hebrides. I additionally assume that they’re like rain: not welcome on a vacation, however not unbearable with the appropriate tools and strategic planning. The appropriate tools is lengthy sleeves, gloves, lengthy trousers and a head internet over a hat with a brim. Suppose Chernobyl inspection staff. No kilts. I personally assume there isn’t a repellent made that deters them, though an M9 flamethrower would in all probability work. The October-Could interval is usually much less midge-heavy, and wind and shiny sunshine preserve them down.

Our subsequent day was the very best: an extended, rolling trip south to the shores of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. I even managed to assuage my guilt about whole forage-failure by choosing handfuls of untamed bilberries and raspberries. These saved us going till we discovered cafe in Acharacle (Cafe Tioram), then pressed on to Ardnamurchan Level. This wild, rocky headland is the furthest west you’ll be able to 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 unimaginable sandy seashore locked inside nice easy ribs of granite. Patches of grass have been dotted with white seashells. With the wind coming at a gradual clip, we pitched within the lee of a big boulder and battened down with rocks on man ropes.

Sheileboist on Harris.
Sheileboist on Harris

Our campfire burned nicely within the wind, sufficient to boil a kettle and make sizzling toddies with the final of the whisky. “I really 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 fireplace burned low, the celebs got here out and all of the seashells on the grass started to gleam like tiny fallen constellations.

Bikes have been supplied by Oban Cycles, which hires touring bikes and ebikes from £180 per week. Lodging in Oban and on Skye was supplied 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

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