Cycling Tour of 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.

Found off the west coast of Scotland in the United Kingdom the Western Isles/Outer Hebrides are a group of over 200 islands (although only a few are inhabited). It is possible to tour most of the main islands from Barra and South Uist in the very south, up to North Uist and across to the Isle of Harris which is joined to the Isle of Lewis in the North. During the tour you will find that there are a number of single track roads to negotiate, several causeways and bridges as well as one (and maybe more) ferries.

You will find that South and North Uist are much flatter that the Isle of Harris. After visiting the beaches and other tourist attractions on Uist the Isle of Harris comes as something of a surprise. The beaches are just as, if not more, spectacular but the hills start off gentle but as you move further north they become far more challenging until you reach the mountains of North Harris. There is really only one steep assent and a steep descent in the range but it can be exhausting. Once you reach the Isle of Lewis the terrain flattens to open moorland and onto Stornoway, the main (and only) town of the Outer Hebrides. Further north the terrain once again becomes slightly more challenging.

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.

You may not have experienced single track roads before so remember that you should always pay special attention to safety while using them. Do not ride alongside each other and keep an eye both forwards and backwards for any traffic. To allow traffic to pass simply use the next passing place, you should pull into those on your left but if it is on the right you must pull over to the left and the traffic will drive around. Even on double track great care should be taken as many locals (and some visitors) can drive at rather fast speeds and, with the roads being so full of bends, there can be danger if you are not diligent.

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.

In more recent years it would appear that a few places in Stornoway choose to open on Sundays but you can not afford to rely on this. It is far better to be safe than sorry. Stornoway has most shops that you would expect to see in a modern town but importantly there is a small bike shop who do repairs and hire out bicycles. Crime is extremely low so you can safely leave your bike parked in the town center to explore the town by foot.

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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