A Cycling Tour Around The Hebrides

by Angus Macleod

The sport of cycling is enjoyed by many and increasingly folk are choosing to take cycling tours rather than a more conventional vacation. Obviously the your chosen destination will much depend upon your level of fitness and your abilities with the less able choosing flatter areas while the fitter choosing the more challenging locations. One area of the United Kingdom which offers superb cycling vacations is the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides/Western Isles of Scotland.

The Western Isles (or Outer Hebrides) is a collection of over 200 islands situated off the west coast of Scotland in the U.K. Although, in the past, many of the islands were populated today only a small number sustain a population. The main islands are the Isle of Lewis in the north, which is joined to the Isle of Harris, and North & South Uist further south and a few other small islands such as Scalpay, Barra and Benbecula. It is possible to tour the main islands along a mix of single and double track roads crossing a number of bridges and causeways and at least one ferry.

One of the best ways to tour the Western Isles/Outer Hebrides is by starting in the south traveling north until you reach Stornoway. Stornoway is the main town of the region and where you will most likely depart by ferry or air however it is well worth exploring even further north if you have the time. The southern parts of the islands appear much flatter with South Uist having long stretches of flat road until you reach North Uist. North Uist is very much like the Isle of Harris which you reach by ferry and by the time you reach Tarbert you are greeted by an ominous climb up the hills of Harris and over to Lewis (which is once again rather flat).

When cycling in the Western Isles/Outer Hebrides it is important to keep a number of things in mind with relation to safety. It is incredibly important that you understand that you do not have to be blinded by the sun to end up being badly burnt by the UV rays. Great care must be taken on the roads as the scenery is often so astounding that you find yourself distracted and unaware of others on the road. The best idea, at all times, is to stop to admire some of the views, moving well away from the road while doing so.

It is especially important to take care on the single track roads and when on these roads you should not ride two abreast. Locals, and many visitors, can drive at some speed and, as the road often twists and turns, riding alongside each other can be dangerous. Always keep an eye out for oncoming traffic but also be aware of traffic suddenly appearing from behind. Simply ride close to the edge, or better still pull into one of the many passing places (or over to the left if it is on the right), to allow traffic to pass. Do not be alarmed if a vehicle chooses to remain close behind you until you reach a passing place as the locals care greatly about your safety and are acutely aware of the dangers of rushing past. If faced by a large lorry it may be best to pull off the road to let it pass!

The Outer Hebrides are a religious place with the southern parts (mainly South Uist) being mainly Catholic and the northern islands being Protestant. This leads to a number of differences with the most obvious being that in some parts of North Uist and nearly all of the Isle of Harris and Isle of Lewis, nearly everywhere is closed on Sundays. It is therefore incredibly important that you ensure that you will have everything you need over the weekend before Saturday evening.

Although there are now a few places that open on Sundays in Stornoway you should ensure that you arrive before then, especially if you are needing to visit the local bicycle shop for spares or repair (they also rent out bikes). Stornoway is only a small town and should be explored on foot, and, if you have time, make the effort to take a stroll in the Lews Castle grounds if the weather is nice.

If you are unable to face the challenge of a full cycling tour of the Outer Hebrides you may find that staying on the Isle of Harris provides numerous opportunities to enjoy cycling at a more leisurely pace. Many cyclist choose to stay in hostels or camp but if you can afford it bed and breakfast in a guest house or hotel is greatly appreciated after a day’s cycling and even self catering accommodation is far more inviting.

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