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The Hebridean Way

12 September 2023

Words: Finn McLachlan
Photos: Finn & Fraser McLachlan

In June 2023, my parents and I set out to explore Scotland. We were particularly drawn to the outer edges, where the threshold of the United Kingdom meets the wild Atlantic. We began with an eight-day stint following a cycle route that spans the distance of the Outer Hebrides: The Hebridean Way. This route is only 300 km long but according to reviews, the more days you take, the more enjoyable it is. Seeing that Scotland’s summer seemed to mimic our mid-winter temperatures back home, we arrived prepared with many waterproofs and fuzzy layers. As it turned out though, we struck Scotland in the middle of a heat wave. With soaring temperatures up to 25ºC and no rain for over a week, the sheep were sunburnt, the peat was bone-dry and the locals were panicking, “It’s never like this”.

We flew from Glasgow to Barra and landed on the tropical-looking beach, the only scheduled beach landing in the world. The glistening turquoise waters and crisp ocean air along with all the harakeke and tī kōuka made the place instantly feel strangely familiar. Interestingly, these displaced plants were only there because it was the UK that colonised Aotearoa and coveted our native flora for their home soils. We had booked B&Bs or other similar hostel situations for each night of the ride, and rented bikes via Barra Bike Hire. This meant we could carry minimal gear and leave us free of bulky baggage for the rest of our trip. In Barra’s main town Castlebay, we enjoyed the ‘hand-dived scallop pakora’ at Cafe Kismul, one of only three places that served food. These islands, although full of beauty, were barren in both population and shops. Knowing this, we bought supplies wherever we could.

We headed north the next day and caught the ferry to Eriskay along with many other cyclists, spotting dolphins and our only sea otter on the way. From there, several sprawling causeways led us over onto South Uist, the flattest of the isles, where we stayed quite comfortably in a newly converted rest home. It was here where we got our first glimpse of the these lands' extensive and complex history. We biked out onto the machair to find Cladh Hallan, a 4000-year-old prehistoric village jutting out of the dunes. Even at 10:30pm the sun was still up, and the view southwards back to Barra is one I can’t forget.


Our next day we continued up through Benbeculla then to North Uist, passing many crumbling stones of interest on the way. These included abandoned castles, a historic temple, Viking burial cairns and the head-turning site, 'Feith na Fala' or 'Ditch of Blood'. That night we stayed in a place called 'the Tractor Shed' which actually consisted of a few lovely little cabins and was mainly occupied by fellow traveling cyclists. Though much nicer than a simple shed, the owner was too nice to change the name.

The next day was overcast, which was a change for us, but comforting to the locals. We stopped at a bird-watching destination and had some scallop and black pudding rolls (excellent) and observed the English bird enthusiasts. With their heavy, expensive lenses and even heavier accents, they were better entertainment than the odd oystercatcher or obscure gull. North Uist had an amazing new distillery. We stopped in to sample their heather-infused gin, it was delectable. We then proceeded, commenting on how heavy the glass bottles were, to leave empty-handed: oldest trick in the book!

The youth hostel on Berneray consisted of a couple of ancient stone cottages right on the coast. We were unsure if there would be any space (as you can’t book this one) but luckily we arrived to many spare bunks and just before the first rain front of our visit blasted through. We shared the picturesque hostel with a very Italian man, who was a self-proclaimed 'world cyclist' and consumed only biscuits and coffee. By now we were very settled in this foreign environment and I loved watching the seals drift past with their huge inquisitive eyes.

After a noisy night of analysing the constructive interference between multiple snorers, we shared the second and final ferry of the route with both our Italian friend, herds of English caravaners, and a large group of unfriendly MAMILs. This ferry wound through the complex reefs and sandbars to the mountainous Isle of Harris, famous for its tweed. That day was a Sunday though, and on the extremities of Scotland, religion is still a very complex and practiced thing. Therefore, nothing is open on a Sunday. If you’re out of food, let’s hope you remembered your fishing gear. We did find a bougie rebellious cafe though at the English-sounding Northton which was host to every single other traveller in the vicinity.

As we cycled on over the isle, the hills were gradual and smooth, the lochs were blooming with water lilies and the tundra was dotted with harvested piles of peat. We drifted into Harris’s main town of Tarbert on a high, though rather hungry. Here we enjoyed the picturesque little marina, the busy little Harris tweed shop (fabric is lighter than gin) and the impressive distillery.

We had been warned by an experienced relative about an intimidatingly steep climb over a mountainous pass that would kick off our day heading up to the Isle of Lewis. With mum's rental bike electric, and dad and mine well suited to the terrain with many gears and fast big tyres, the hill didn’t put up much of a challenge. It was slightly drizzling when we set off, so we left expecting a long-anticipated day in the wet. But all that the threatening grey clouds did, was make the disappearing peaks seem even more mystical and blur the line between Harris and Lewis, which turned out to be one island with some historical line through the landscape somewhere. We found the standing stones of Callanish impressive however they didn’t quite stand up to the hype. Though it was crazy that remnants of some ancient culture still dominated the landscape, most of the ‘history’ described was of English explorers speculating their uses or purpose.


Here we struck our only complication of the trip. A little cabin we had booked next to the stones was far too small for us three, so we headed on unannounced to a previously cancelled booking at the ‘blackhouses’ of Gearannan. The historic stone village perched above a cute, west-facing cove and had recently been restored as a tourist attraction. People lived there all the way up until the 1970s. The house which was now a hostel was very flash and comfortable on the inside, and we made friends with two older cyclists, a Scotsman and an Aussie. We woke to find several coaches had unleashed a swarm of Americans through the old thatched village. They all wore identical bright blue jackets and we laughed at their cluelessness. This stay was one of the most memorable for me though.

To the north, Lewis got flatter and flatter. It was still dotted with many places of interest, such as Viking flour mills and some actual forests. Trees weren’t as popular further south. We stumbled upon a very friendly English couple who were both weaving away in their sheds. We learned all about the processes and the politics of Harris Tweed weaving. I loved the looms and their mechanical rhythms and simplicity. It seemed that the regulators were more concerned about what made something not Harris Tweed rather than what did.

We cycled northwards, planning to reach the Butt of Lewis that afternoon. We dropped our bags at our accommodation for the night: a glamping tent on a bare grassy section set up by a crafty local teenager. We had somehow manifested a tailwind for the entirety of our northwards journey, with the southerly winds being hot and dry. The northern cape or ‘butt’ of Lewis was a great little achievement, but it promised a day of headwind back down to Stornaway: the outer Hebrides biggest town. Though as soon as we turned away from the lighthouse and headed back to our roadside teepee, the wind swivelled around completely for a lovely tailwind both ways! Scotland was very kind to us unlike many other hopeful travellers, who often get drenched to the core or blown off their saddles.

To round off the trip, we connected the last patch of road into Stornaway and explored the strange town. The castle/museum displayed several of the famous Lewis Chessmen, carved by Norse Vikings many centuries ago. The Castle’s main room had an unguarded grand piano which I played for a good while, watching out over the port. The YHA there was full of young travellers but a nearby hotel which caught fire made good entertainment for both us visitors and every single fireman on the isle. Beers were being handed around the small crowd of excited yellow men almost before the fire was extinguished.

This concluded our Hebridean Way journey, and with our rental bikes handed back to the local bike shop, we were free to head back to the mainland and explore what else the rugged Caledonia had to offer.