Cycle Touring Scotland

Day 7 – Tuesday 18th June
South Harris to North Lewis

Up until this point, with very few information centres and no internet access, I had been relying solely on my supposedly improving weather intuition to adjust my routes, and it hadn’t turned out too badly!

However, waking to grey overcast conditions I decided to rely solely on forecasts to finally decide on whether to catch the nearby Tarbert ferry from North Harris to the Isle of Skye and leave the Outer Hebrides behind, or head up through Lewis to the top of the Outer Hebrides and catch the Stornoway ferry to Ullapool the following day. Supposedly the forecast was good for Lewis that day, and as I had made it that far up the Outer Hebrides it seemed silly to not finish the Hebridean Way.

Following warnings from the English couple at Losgaintir about the steep hill over from to Tarbert ferry port I left early in order to arrive with plenty of time in case I changed my mind last minute to catch the Skye ferry, though also because the ferry port is a useful place to charge the camera and phone after 5 days of wild-camping! The rocky landscape on this climb reminded me of the vast rocks of Mt Owen & Mt Olympus in New Zealand (though on a much smaller scale), so despite the steep gradient it was an enjoyable cycle with a great descent into Tarbert that certainly woke me up.

Ascent over to Tarbert
Descending the other side

After finding out about the supposedly ‘good’ upcoming weather settling my decision to continue onto the isle of Lewis, I also met artist Tom Hickman outside the ferry port flyering for a new Bunkhouse in a converted barn at New Tolsta. It looked lovely and cosy with its wood burning stove and comfy looking furniture, but was at the top of one of these dead-end Lewis roads and 15 miles above Stornoway, probably a bit too far on top of the hilly 40 miles to Stornoway.

However, as I was about to stock up on a few supplies before heading up Lewis I met the owner of the local store, who was heading up to Stornoway on his weekly newspaper run in the Van, and offered me and the bike a lift up there – “It’s nay bother!”. I know, this is a ‘cycling tour’, not a beach holiday or convenient hitch-hiking trip. But, when impromptu opportunities like this arise – to follow the exact route you would be going, chat to a local, save your legs, and get a cream cheese scone on the way – I’m all for it!

I also had reservations about cycling the A859 purely because of the lack of obvious camping spots, and it also opened up the possibilities for the rest of the day. I had been advised that the Isle of Lewis should be a rare exception to the rule against cycling long dead-end roads, with plenty of exploring opportunities way over on the west side of the island (the A859 makes it’s way up the Eastern side), so the 30 mile lift meant I had bonus time to head out and explore. 

During the drive up John (my driver) convinced me that Uig was the place to visit, so he dropped me off five miles south of Stornoway at the turning towards (still 30 miles away!). Back on the bike and now heading across the island the scenery was unchanging in comparison to the previous day on South Harris but still vast and impressive in its own right, with expansive moors containing a labyrinth of lochans and bordered by the distant mountains of North Harris. The clouds from these mountains were bleak and foreboding, whilst the severe cross-wind from the south-west threatened at times to blow me over, but I carried on in the hope that on the other side was another of those picturesque sunset camping spots that had become habit on the Outer Hebrides. That was the plan anyway.

The vast desolate moors across central Lewis

It didn’t exactly go to plan; Scottish weather had other ideas. The ominous clouds from the mountain were a brewing storm and heading north at pace with the wind. As I turned south they began to engulf me – I was heading into the eye of the storm.

The oncoming storm…

Within moments the wind and rain were unbearable and I turned to race away from the storm, now backed by an epic tailwind. You might question why I would even go to Scotland if I wasn’t prepared to get rained on… But, I had been heading in the opposite direction to my ultimate destination (Stornoway) so why put myself through it! In retrospect it may have been worth it to experience Uig and the west coast of Lewis, which it turns out houses a stunning cliff face bothy at Mangersta, but at least now I have a good reason to go back!

After the swift U-turn I was then racing north east to beat the storm to the new bunkhouse at New Tolsta that I had learned of that morning. Fortunately, there is a shortcut north over the hills to Stornoway along a single-track road, and with that epic tailwind it was the most enjoyable pure cycling of the tour so far.

My speed led to such a sense of invincibility against the weather that I left my wet weather gear packed deep in my panniers, a prelude to disaster in Scotland. When the weather did finally hit (I soon learned it is a case of when, not if up there) I was barely a mile from the bunkhouse, but on a steep and very exposed hill. With nowhere to hide and my wet weather gear stowed deep amongst my panniers there I got soaked. Absolutely soaked.

The earlier feeling of invincibility had turned to being downright miserable. I arrived at the bunkhouse like a drowned rat finding no one but an eccentric Swede in charge who had no idea what was going on, not least where the key was. When we finally found the way in he offered to start the fire, but he had no idea how to do that either. To be fair, the main fuel available was a heap of peat (aka mud), a Scottish speciality, though it is absolutely useless based on that experience. After using up the much smaller pile of kindling and wood to finally get the fire started I asked the Swede if they had any more logs. Unfortunately not, but there was more peat!

In spite of all the mis-adventure, once I had settled down in the bunkhouse, and hung all my wet clothes above the simmering peaty fire it was the comfy and cosy setting I had imagined it would be. I put on my first hot meal of the trip; a Mediterranean couscous with tinned sardines, and engulfed it in front of the fire. Due to the good weather I had been happy with cold fish salads & sandwiches up until then, but the hot meal re-ignited my passion for “good” (or at least hot) food, and I never looked back. The rain ceased and I headed out to photograph the cliff encircled beaches to the north of north Tolsta. Cycling without heavy panniers for the first time in a week felt much stranger than except, the Dawes isn’t exactly a light bike but it felt like I might get blown over by a whiff of wind! Fortunately the wind had died down and the change in conditions was startling; it’s hard to imagine from the photos the conditions I had cycled through earlier. 

Cycling stats and route:
– Total Distance: 45 miles (+ 30 miles in the van)
– Route: 
part 1 – Losgaintir to Tarbert https://www.komoot.com/tour/109394314
cheat miles in the van https://www.komoot.com/tour/109403888
part 2 – storm racing to North Lewis https://www.komoot.com/tour/109394521
– Duration: ~4 hours
– Ascent/Descent: 1950ft/1950ft

Bunkhouse Info
Website: http://www.tomhickman.org.uk/pages_scotland/scotland.htm (not updated since 2012 so whether it still exists, who knows!)
Location: https://www.google.com/maps/place/58°21’23.8%22N+6°13’10.5%22W/@58.356597,-6.2239514,1273m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0x0!8m2!3d58.356597!4d-6.219574