Cycle Touring Scotland

Day 3 – Friday 14th June
From Oban to Barra

On leaving the nature reserve in the morning I was confronted by some rather confused looking cows in the field out. After a few snaps and some weaving through them I was off back up the hill towards the A828.

The ascent back to the main road wasn’t nearly as bad as expected, but once I was back on the main road the short ride to Oban then felt considerably longer than I had expected. The problem was that the opening day of cycling from Fort William hadn’t prepared me whatsoever for the average Scottish road, as it had been so flat I had barely changed gear all day. As I came across what looked like a short hill towards Oban I was finally onto the middle chainring, but the hill just kept on going and going, so much so that my perception of time was lost and nerves crept in about not actually making the ferry to Barra. Especially as there was only one a day! In reality I had nothing to worry about, at the end of the hill was a steep descent into Oban and I was 2 hours early for the 1340 departure, although the 45 minute ride from Eriska had felt like 2 hours itself.

At the sign for cyclists for the Barra ferry I was surprised to find absolutely no one there, having previously read a description of the queue of cyclists on the Oban – Barra ferry being something akin to a Tour de France start. There were still some bike enthusiasts about; an old lady passing by surveyed my bike for a good while before finally remarking “O’ it’s a Dawes, I’ve got one of those, very good”. She was at least well into her 70s so I was full of admiration. Before boarding finally some cyclists joined me in the shape of a couple from Glasgow. They were off on their first cycling tour – a week long ride through the Hebrides before looking for the first bus back from Ullapool.

After leaving the port, I headed inside to treated myself to an Oban Blonde Ale, which at only 4% it shouldn’t have had much effect, but along with the gentle swaying of the ferry sent me right off to sleep. Unfortunately, once out past Ardamurchan and Mull and into the open sea, the gentle swaying began revolving into something more serious and a feeling of seasickness roused me from the slumber. Horizon watching ala Bear Grylls helped slightly, but when they started serving expensive hot meals it was time to head up on deck before I tortured my stomach with the smell of tantalising food again.

Slightly choppier out to sea…

Up on deck the cold winds meant wrapping up warm, but the clear(ish) skies meant it was the perfect time for contemplating the trip, which was really now at it’s true beginning, as the journey so far had been to get to the starting point of the Hebridean Way on the island of Barra.

Already I was having second thoughts about my ferry choices. From Barra, I would be heading north up through the Uist’s to Harris, but from there was the deliberation of whether to catch the ferry to Skye then and head north through Wester Ross to Assynt, or to continue into the northernmost of the Outer Hebrides Islands in Lewis, and from there catch the ferry to Ullapool much closer to Assynt and then head south through Wester Ross. The latter route now made more sense, as I would do the whole Hebridean Way and then the overall route would be more of a loop down to my final destination of Fort William. Yet for some reason I had already bought a hopscotch ferry which left the Outer Hebrides at Harris with an extra ticket from Armadale to Mallaig at the bottom of Skye.

So: 
– I was on the ferry from Oban to Barra (southernmost island of the Outer Hebrides)
– My main deliberation was whether to take the ferry from Tarbert on Harris to Uig on Skye in order to cycle back through Skye, or to whether continue up the Outer Hebrides to the northernmost island Stornoway and then catch the ferry to Ullapool.

However, it was hardly the end of the world. I knew when booking that if I did change my mind I would still use 4 of the 5 ferries on the ticket and so only have one extra fare on top. 

The Start of the Hebridean Way

My mind was brought back into focus as we approached Barra. Despite it being one of the smaller islands of the Outer Hebrides it’s an impressive sight on approach, with the long and flatter South Uist stretching off into the distance on the right. The arrival is at the southern port town of Castlebay, which looks just as the name suggests. 

Castlebay

Two more cyclists must have joined late on the ferry, and they were then too eager to leave early as they were shouted at angrily for attempting to cycle off before they were allowed. After waving goodbye to the Glaswegian cyclists who were spending the night around Castlebay, I set off on the Hebridean Way. The weather was now beyond expectations, because my expectations were for pouring rain, and it was actually moderately okay. I set out to make the most of it while it lasted and aimed to find a camping spot near the famous airport beach at the north of Barra.

The main road of Barra essentially does a loop of the Island, on which I was going clockwise around the west coast route on the recommendation of other cyclists, and because I would have the sun setting beside me. The hill out of Castlebay was a nice challenge after spending 7 hours of waiting, sitting and standing on a ferry. After this was a smooth and gently rolling section that follows along the West Coast, which was very picturesque in the evening sun.

However, hiding behind the hills of central Barra, waiting for me to turn east at the top of the loop was a fierce headwind and dark rain clouds. I had planned to reach the famous airport beach at the northern tip of the island but that looked to be right under the rain clouds, so instead I took the next left towards Cleat bay to look for a camp spot. Initially I had a sense of de ja vu from the previous night, as I was descending another dead-end road towards the coast with a wild camping spot looking unlikely, as the road was very much inhabited near the bay, including by some horses…

The bay itself had clear turquoise water and white sand, and I’m sure on clearer day it wouldn’t have looked out of place in a holiday magazine. Unfortunately, this wasn’t quite such a day anymore, the darker clouds were now moving over with the wind so I set out to find a camping spot before the rain hit.

Cleat Bay

On the far side of the bay I spotted a grassy looking cove that looked like it would be sheltered from the wind, if not the rain, so undertook the challenge of pushing the laden bike across the sand. For the most part this was fine, as the tide was only just on its way out leaving a route of firm enough sand across the beach. But the final push up through soft sand to the grassy cove was excruciatingly uncomfortable with a fully laden bike, leaving me with sand everywhere. Oh well, it hadn’t taken me long to ensure I would have a lovely sand filled tent! Still, it was an idyllic and silent spot, and with a vast headland that I explored once the rain had passed, before settling in to sleep to the (not actually very) soothing sound of the waves. 

Cycling Stats and Routes
– Distance: 17.5 miles (11 miles to Oban ferry on mainland + 6.5 miles to camp spot on Barra)
– Route:
Part 1 to Oban ferry – https://www.komoot.com/tour/109258938
– Distance: 11 miles
– Duration: ~45 minutes
– Ascent/Descent 475ft/500ft

Part 2 to camp spot on Barra – https://www.komoot.com/tour/109259728
– Distance: 6.5 miles
– Duration: ~45 minutes
– Ascent/Descent: 325ft/325ft

Camping spot:
https://www.google.com/maps/place/57°00’51.2%22N+7°29’00.5%22W/@57.0142222,-7.4841962,330m/data=!3m2!1e3!4b1!4m6!3m5!1s0x0:0x0!7e2!8m2!3d57.0142073!4d-7.4834704

The road bending down to the bay is bottom left, then the headland from the pictures above is top right