Lead-in

This was an awesome adventure but what makes it particularly remarkable is that it very nearly didn't happen at all. Below is some dialogue in part that I had with a very affable gentleman at the local hospital, who actually turned out to be on my side.

"Mr Ingram your wrist is broken in two places one of which is a nasty break, therefore we recommend that you have the plaster on for at least six weeks"

"that's simply not possible"

"and why is that?"

"well we're going on a cycling trip in four weeks... and I AM GOING even if I have to take the plaster off myself"

"mmmm okay book an earlier appointment and if it's not quite ready we'll put a light splint on and go from there"

Yes, I thought that's more like it. Game on!






Stornaway to South East Lewis

... but it nearly wasn't 'game on' it was so close to being 'game off'!  I suppose that makes us appreciate something all the more, when you almost lose the opportunity to do something that you dearly want to do. But now my 'hors de combat' being over the world, or rather the Outer Hebrides was our oyster.

Our excitement was perceptible as soon as we alighted the ferry at Stornaway, with only a slight breeze to disturb the warm air we were togged up and pedalling. It was an easy pull through the delightful grounds of Lews Castle and in no time at all we were heading out of Stornaway as the din of human static paled away into insignificance. As we pedalled away under big skies and wide open sweeping moorland, all we could see instead of civilisation were lochs scattered around  the hills like silver shields. We were away, like birds set free from a cage. Riding the wheels of freedom.







Our first Hostel was Ravenspoint at Kershader in the South Lochs area which is part of the Pairc (Park) area, a very remote and deserted part of the island. The Hostel is immaculate and comfortable but it isn't just a Hostel the complex hosts a shop, cafe, petrol pump and even a museum!  It's commendable how a place like this keeps running, you have to scan the area to find another house! We settled in nicely and was enjoying our evening repast of Wayfarers and some items from the freebie section, it was all very quiet but then there seemed to be a hubbub of chatter from the cafe. I was sent to investigate and promptly reported back " Deb finish your tea quick, we're in the A.G.M!

That's right I got us roped in to their Annual General Meeting. Apparently there has to be a minimum of persons present to make up what is known as the quorum. Both of us were surprisingly quite vocal, Deb- who I call the 'Fixer' made some real constructive comments on certain points on the agenda, all I kept banging on about was having live music! However my concluding comment was my deciding moment...

"This is our fourth visit to Ravenspoint and Ravenspoint is legend. It's always going to be a struggle where there aren't many visitors and no population centre. Just keep struggling and keep believing in what you're doing. The land is a struggle, it's history has been a struggle. Believe in what you're doing and you will succeed. Never stop believing. Just BELIEVE!"

I would love to see the minutes of the meeting!






Kershader to Tarbert

The ride along Loch Seaforth ( where for no apparent reason the Isle of Lewis decides to become the Isle of Harris ) was quieter than solitude, the sun was handling the island gently, our cares and concerns fell away like autumn leaves. Every now and then we would stop pedalling just to take in the landscape, a jumble of lochans glittered like sequins under slanting sun and drifting clouds.

It was idyllic but reality soon manifested itself in the form of the Clisham Pass, this was a steep and winding road that looks like it has been imported straight from Switzerland! This was to be our first great mental challenge. The best way to tackle hills of this nature is to just accept it for what it is and keep on pedalling until there is no hill left, that is what we did and believe it or not you do actually enjoy it!





The descent into Tarbert was like coming home, Harris being our favourite island. The main street of Tarbert I'm sure will always remain timeless in it's rustic elegance, there is however something we found to be a little unsettling, the first thing that should welcome you into the village should be Harris Tweed and Knitwear, the cloth of the land and the fabric of our dreams! Now something else averts your gaze- the Harris distillery.






I'm in two minds about the distillery. The Township of Tarbert is a warm, vibrant crofting community, tucked away in homely concealment and completely stripped of worldly distractions . Will the cumbersome ethic of commercialism stretch out it's hand too far? I certainly hope not. Anyway back to Tarbert...

The Tarbert Hostel is a dying breed of classic Backpackers Hostel and it was a joy to stay there.  Sure it is a little 'tired' in certain aspects but if that is what you focus on then sadly you've missed the point. This Hostel exudes Island hospitality. The owners are approachable, warm and friendly and the place is laden with kind finishing touches- anything from shower gel for all, to eggs from the owners own hens in the morning!







On our second night Deb entered into a unique business contract with the management! The Proprietor James had only an hour or so to perform a sacred service that he had badly procrastinated on- to go and buy some cat food and feed the cats! Only problem was customers would be coming in from the ferry. What was he to do? Enter the 'Fixer'! James was granted conditional release. Deb showed people round and gave instructions like it was her own house. How did she know where everything was? I marvelled. Hostel of a bygone age giving many people many happy memories. Long may it continue.






Toe Head and Ceapabhal

I made the most of our rest day (I don't come up to the Motherland to rest) by having a womble around Toe Head and a short pull up the local hill, Ceapabhal (366m). By virtue of it's strategic location, a tiny peninsular jutting out of South Harris's western seaboard, it has a commanding viewpoint with iconic seascapes. Well it would of had if the mist didn't drop down like a stage curtain and reduce my visibility to about ten feet! Well at least Deb didn't miss much.

Deb at this point, much to her own annoyance was feeling the effects of exhaustion so she took the unusual step of locating some abandoned farmyard machinery ( of which there was plenty to choose from) away from the midges and grabbed a couple of hours sleep. There is nothing like midges to determine your frustration level, I couldn't stop to draw breath on this wee hill if I did I just got midge bombed! Not to worry this is all a part of your Motherland training!








As I dropped down through the mist my eyes were drawn hungrily to no less than three stunning beaches, opulent swerves of mint white sand dovetailing into this delicate isthmus of land with such unbroken prestige! Like a child I just had to walk on the sand and see the white hand of the waves break on the shore. The land was bereft of people you could sing to yourself at the top of your voice, nobody could hear you! I scanned the area for Otters- there weren't any, maybe they didn't like my singing!







As I continued my stravaig a little further I saw something that I was just not expecting to see, a well preserved ruin of what looked like a Chapel. Endowed with insatiable curiosity I had to investigate. This was in fact a well preserved 12th Century Chapel built on the site of a much earlier temple using the same stones! The base of a Broch and the remains of an early medieval graveyard are also visible. Legend has it that the Monks buried all their treasure in the nearby hill for fear of Viking raids! Whether you choose to believe that or not the land is certainly a treasure.






 Working the bus timetable on the islands can sometimes be as tricky as harmonising ferry times. To cut a long story short we had to thumb a lift into Leverburgh, something we wouldn't dream of doing at home, it was great fun though and we were given a lift by a super couple who turned out to be Blogfans! Now all the pieces were beginning to fit together, the planets were in perfect alignment- thumbing a lift, Deb being a Hostel Owner, being daft as bats at the AGM. We were on Hebridean Air and we hadn't even realised it!

For newer Blogfans I will give a scientific explanation of what Hebridean Air is. On any of the Hebridean Islands*  the pure air and the high quality oxygen from all the plankton combine to react with the synaptic connections within the brains of people who are not used to being exposed to such. The upshot being serotonin is raised to abnormally high levels causing the recipients to be very happy but at the same time incredibly daft!
*Hebridean Air can sometimes waft across and has been detected on the mainland e.g at ferry points.


The Golden Road, Rodel and Am Botham

It is called the Golden Road because of the huge financial resources it incurred in building it. It was constructed in 1897, before then the East coast of Harris was like Greenland- all the townships could only be accesssed by boat! Now they are all connected by this legendary road that connects Tarbert to Rodel on the South East corner of the island.









The Golden Road was a joy to cycle, a roller coaster of a road but you weren't out of the saddle long before you were heading down again as the coastline continued it's crazy roving. The landscape is truly remarkable, the two dominant colours are the blue of the sea and the grey of the rock, I felt like we were cycling along the Beinn Eighe ridge! The coast is deeply indented by sea lochs where seals gather and wave at passers by, I think they're on Hebridean Air as well!






Rodel is famous for the splendid late medieval architecture of St Clements church, up until 1873 it was used as a byre for cows until the Countess of Dunmore had it rebuilt! By the time we reached Leverburgh we were in a world of bleak monochrome, it was drizzly and the cloud cover wasn't much higher than the few houses that make up the village. I was reminded of the words of the Poet who said "there is beauty in bleakness, there is beauty in bland"* Rather than berating the deep shuttered gloom of the weather we seized it for a dander round the village for some black and white photography. It seemed to accentuate the loneliness of the land. There wasn't a soul around even the Sheep seemed surprised to see us!
*that was actually me.

The Hostel at Leverburgh, Am Botham is truly unique. You walk into the open plan common room/ kitchenette and the first thing to greet you is a suspended Salmon fishing boat! You think how on earth did he get that in here? Well he didn't he built the Hostel round it! Clearly a Sea-Faring man, nautical artifacts are clearly the stand out feature of this exceptional Hostel.

I had a chance meeting with the owner, Ruaridh, on arrival. I was hanging up some gear in the drying room and I asked the chap next to me if he too had just arrived, he replied " err actually, I own the place!". Later that evening as a sign of respect the Fixer made him a "destitution" cake out of all the leftovers whilst her Husband joined a folk rock trio singing Beatles songs with a semi-operatic edge!





North Uist

As we sat holed up in our 'wind in the willows' existence gazing out of the  Hostel window, our faces were furrowed with concern, spindly trees were bending over backwards like ballet dancers and people were staggering around like they were drunk! This was the 40mph gale that was forecasted. It was touch and go whether the ferry was going to even run, as it turns out it did but with a 40mph headwind we knew that today was going to be a hard day.

North Uist is simply a gorgeous island as we cycled West I just remember ribs of rock moated by pools of Peacock blue astride miles of white sand. It was so beautiful it had a softening effect on our workload. We took the Committee road that dissects the island, at first it was just converging monotony, trembling trees to the right and expansive moorland to the left. It was like our pedals were a treadmill beneath us and the scenery refused to change but change it did, around the half way mark we reached the high point and the view positively exploded in scale- an expansive flotilla of Sapphire lochans edged out towards a bludgeoned coastline, the tweed of the land was stained russet gold, all exquisitely framed by a sparkling sea. Some things you never forget.





Beautiful as it was, my fitness level was beginning to deflate like a slow puncture. The headwind was taking it's toll. You know what you're up against when you're blown to a standing start going down a hill! I also made the  mistake of attacking the wind by getting out the saddle and pedalling for all I was worth but I'm afraid these antics only exaggerated my decline. It's guille not brute strength that counts.






When we reached the Tractor Shed Hostel I felt like I was at death's door. The Fixer did mention a certain type of Male Flu and to be honest some of the symptoms were undeniable: aching all over, repeating phrases like  " I feel like I'm going to die" and not drinking any alcohol. I couldn't help but think "what am I going to be like tomorrow? What if we have to bale out? ". However after showering lengthily, eating mightily, strolling along the beach and twelve hours sleep things weren't so bad. Sometimes it's best to suspend your pessimism.






Next morning I felt like a Snake does when it abandons it's old skin, I jumped out of bed feeling like a new man. Tractor Sheds are excellent not only are they sympathetic with the landscape they even enhance it. We met the  Owner, Duncan. What appealed to me about Duncan was his positive attitude. We had been plagued with negativity regarding the weather since day one, here are a few quotes of how the weather would be today...


" there is only one way to describe how the weather will be today, EVIL!"

" there is definitely a hurricane coming in tomorrow" (said the night before)

" you're doing the Islands the wrong way. You'll never do it because of the prevailing wind "

By way of  contrast, Duncan observed the coastline from our vantage point at Paible and gave us just the reassurance we needed-

"you will be fine, half the time you'll have the wind behind you, it's eased off anyway and it only rains in the morning at this time of year- that's why I always do the washing in the afternoon"

He even mentioned the locations of several coffee shops between here and Nunton, our destination. Deb especially has a craving for coffee when we're on the road. We did find a Cafe... but it was shut, however we did experience coffee but in rather an unusual way.

For some reason I was mindlessly watching Salmon being vacuum packed in a seafood shop near the hamlet of Carnach. I was rudely awoken from my revere by Deb expressing thanks for something and giving a Motorcyclist lady a big hug. They had been chatting and it turned out her Husband was going to give us some coffee! In the grip of Hebridean air we all went over to his Motorcycle expecting a few little sachets that you get in Hotel rooms . Now bearing in mind our panniers have been strategically packed and fine tuned to perfection, he opens his panniers to proudly present to us a catering jar of Gold Blend of such a size I never knew even existed! There is more joy in giving than there is in receiving!






As it turns out in reality, Duncan didn't get his washing done that afternoon! But that is not the lesson to be learned here. We went out with a positive attitude in spite of the vagaries of the weather, we were pedalling with self belief and a cheerful inner strength. Half the battle in these instances is a mental one. It's your head that keeps pushing the pedals round. Thanks Duncan.






Benbecula and Baleshare

I sit reading o/s maps like broadsheet newspapers and in so doing find many grid squares that are stacked with significance. My eye in this case was drawn hungrily to a very low lying island even by Uist standards, Baleshare is it's name. The o/s map doesn't even show a single contour line on the island! As we pedalled over  the causeway, hidden sunlight contoured the edges of towering clouds, it was a delight when the clouds parted  and the sun illuminated the vast stretch of perfect sand that links the island to Benbecula. During these brief moments it was as if nothing could happen. To be honest I'd never seen anything quite so beautiful.






Apparently a Spanish galleon is submerged at low tide on the south coast of the island. I think I'm going to have to go back up and do some 'follow up' work and find some of these amazing artifacts! Anyway back in the real world I'm getting blasted by rain being hurled on me at Herculean force! Thankfully these meteological tantrums don't last for long and the sun is back giving everything a freshly painted look. Goretex was a great invention but sunshine is better!

We're back on the coastal road to Nunton only for a couple of miles when I notice another well preserved ruin. This is in the scattered hamlet of Cairinis. The Teampull na Trionaid was originally constructed as a Monastery in the 1100's. It was here  where the renowned scholar Duns Scotus studied. Scotus became a leading Philosopher of the day and had many followers but as time went by more modern thinkers deemed his teachings as ridiculous. As a derogatory term people who clung to his ideas were known as 'dunces'!






Baille nan Cailleach (Nunton)

I know what you're thinking Blogfans, Baille nan Cailleach doesn't sound anything like Nunton but wait a minute the Gaelic translation for Baille nan Cailleach is Township of the Nuns or Nuns Town, anglicised down to Nunton. The next village down, Baille a Mhanaich means Township of the Monks but it is not called Monkton.

Nunton did have a little bit of an urban feel to it by island standards but I thought the council estate resembled something Scandinavian rather than Scottish. Our Hostel, Nunton House was a mile or so out of the village giving it that feeling of isolation and what a fine Hostel Nunton House is, it feels like your down playing it by just giving it five stars! Whats more, we had the place to ourselves!






We felt a bit above our station in this luxury. It made you feel like walking round with dressing gown and slippers on whilst sipping Cognac just to show respect!. It's 'piece de resistance' is the original Inglebrook fireplace from 1643! Bonny Prince Charlie would have stood in front of this when he dressed up as Betty Burke, Flora Mcdonald's house maid, when he escaped to Skye then on to France! Honestly DBF's it's all there in the history books, it all happened at Nunton House!






We spun out the last moments of a Hebridean evening by a delightful stroll along the local beach but as the waves lapped the shore and the pale pink of the sky sank to mauve, my mind went back to when we met the often copied never equalled John.D. Burns at the Rum Hostel. He referred to his blogging etc as work, something that immediately engaged my or our sense of humour. In other words we were taking the 'Mick'! Putting that in real terms, as our footprints punctured the mint golden bowl of sand as the salmon pink sky sank to seal grey, I was called to 'work'...

Ambrosia

plaiting your hair as you sing all alone
basking in evenings gradations of tone
a fuzz of russet gold surrounds your wings
for you are the colour of living things
sing to infatuated painted clouds
consuming sunsets away from the crowds
adorning petals in your patch of peace
our senses soften like your dreamy fleece
I'll go fetch my flute and play you my song
please wait Ambrosia I wont be too long.
(poemblog11.blogspot.co.uk Poems for different senses)





It's strange sometimes how the seemingly insignificant things can be your most pertinent memories. The following day the morning seemed only half awake. I detached the weighty panniers jumped on my bike and sped along to buy some eggs from the outskirts of the village. I felt as free as the breeze that caressed my face. The sheep were nibbling. The cows were static. The sky was biscuit tin blue. A late summer sun gave the land a dusting of gold. Life was good.




South Uist and Eriskay

It was a smooth promenade down to Pollachar on the South West corner of South Uist but after turning off the main road at Dalabrog it felt as if we had entered the torquiose silence of a poem! We just left the world behind. A few scattered crofts lay huddled together in cosy seclusion. The exquisite Pollachar Inn, a real period piece, has pride of place jutting out on a little headland like the gateway to paradise. The Shangri-la of the Outer Hebrides.






The key to getting the most out of the Uists is to simply get off the main road. If you stay on the main road you just get a glimpse of the islands but depart from it and you get a real taste of what island life is all about- piles of peat turfs lay in rows like school children at an assembly. Father and Son metronomically scythe the hay the same way it has been done for generations. A true Crofting community at heart.

Beachcombing can be really interesting on the west coast of these islands because there is nothing between here and the East coast of Canada, only two thousand miles of Atlantic ocean! So you never know what you might find. Seeds of expansion have definitely been sown on the Uists but we have to move on.





We only passed through Eriskay to get the ferry to Barra but this cute little island is by no means a weak link in a chain, far from it. I never tire of seeing those green cottage dotted slopes angle down towards her West beach, it makes your spirit lift like a kite. My spirits aren't lifting at the moment though neither can I look at any cottage speckled slopes, I can only focus on the small piece of tarmac in front of me, this hill is unrelentingly steep and winding. I depart from conventional wisdom and hoof it out the saddle early on. If it wasn't for my 32 tooth sprocket on the back I don't think I would have made it to the top.



Barra and Vatersay

My little addage about getting off the main road to explore the Islands also applies to the Barra 'ring road'. We took a little tootle down towards a township called Bruarnais and found tucked away in a unit a very unpretentious Seafood shop. We had the tastiest Salmon and Langustines we'd ever had. The Shop was very well stocked yet had no sign, neither was it signposted. Tourism hasn't got a firm grip here yet, still very much an Islanders Island.

What appealed to me on Barra was the magnificent indifference of nature. You could sit on the edge of a sea loch and after a short period of time it was as if you had entered natures world. At first a cacophony but then you could pick out the various sounds like instruments in a symphony, the whoop of the Heron assuring it's mate that we are not a danger, the cackle of the Oystercatchers, delicate offerings of Pippits and Warblers all oblivious to the tangled passions of humans, yet we are only a stones throw from Castlebay! As we continue to cycle round the Island I notice oscitant sea faring paraphernalia strewn all over the place yet this doesn't make the land look unkempt, this is an Island that belongs to the sea!





Dunard Hostel on Barra is not dissimilar from the one on Harris a true Hostelers Hostel. It occurred to me when we were staying here that all the incumbents, whether they are cycling, hill walking, touring or whatever are all doing their own adventure. It was as if we were all chapters in the same book, all the excitement was trying to leap off the page at once. Great atmosphere.

We had a chance meeting with the Hostel Owner's Mother. An endearing lady, she informed us that this was actually the house she grew up in, it was her childhood home! How nostalgic must that be? This reminded me of the ancestral cohesion that binds families together that is so deep rooted in these islands.  Later when she was in her forties she ran it as a kind of a half way house for reformed criminals!

The Island of Vatersay is separated from Barra by just 170 metres, since 1991 it has been joined by a causeway to the parent island. We owe a huge debt of gratitude for this to none other than... 'Bernie the Bull'! Who is Bernie the Bull I hear you ask. Well before 1991, to get cattle to market, they had to swim the 'short' distance to Barra but in 1986 Bernie, a prize Bull, didn't quite make it! This bovine tragedy put the required pressure on the authorities to build the aforementioned causeway.

Vatersay to us was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Where merlot clouds rained Chardonay! Where painted strawberries dripped honey in a Sweet Pea breeze! We'd done it. From Stornoway the capital of the Western Isles to lowly Vatersay. If you imagine the capital letter 'H' on it's back then you've got the rough geography of Vatersay, two long chunks of land linked by a strand of beach flanked machair. I celebrated by galloping up the nearest peak which took me to a giddy 92 metres! There wasn't much about just a couple of Eagles circling overhead mirroring the birds that had been set free on the ground.




Closure

I find it an incredible feeling just to press your feet downward on pedals and gain forward movement. It's simple but it works. Lewis to Vatersay was like a long song, 250 glorious miles but we knew the lyrics and could sing along to it's gorgeous melody and slot into it's beautiful continuity. It was a joy to get up in the morning with the glowing excitement of knowing where you're going next, spinning life's thread on timeless wheels. But it was all over now. I don't know why it is that we hate endings. Lovely as it was, it was a wonderful feeling to be free, like birds set free from a cage...

riding the wheels of freedom,

ktda, Markles x.


please feel free to inundate me with your words of appreciation.

Comments

  1. Great blog and photos Mark. It's clear you had a great time. Nice to know Deb 'the Fixer' made herself useful too! 😀

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  2. Brilliant blog and photos as always, Mark! Deb just jumps into any role required!

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  3. An excellent raconteur of an amazing flight !
    DTF x

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  4. Wow fantastic trip! Thanks for sharing. Never been to the Western Isles....yet.....

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  5. I actually live on the Isle of Lewis and it was a joy to see all your beautiful photos and your account of your trip.

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  6. What a tonic for a dreary day!! Thanks so much :)

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  7. What an adventure! Lovely words and beautiful photos.

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