Shetland Isles and plan B …

Mainland Orkney was a complete surprise after days in the Scottish Highlands. The landscape is gently undulating, fertile farm land with wide open vistas. There are no trees and the fields, with very many beef suckler herds, flocks of sheep and acres of oats and barley, hurriedly being harvested, are separated by barbed wire fences. There are no hedges or stone walls to provide shelter. These islands have been inhabited since stone age times, with the many relics, remnants of villages, burial cairns and standing stones, having been dated back to c. 3,000 BC, some 5,000 years ago.

Stoneage house in a stoneage village at Skara Brae Orkney, discovered c.1850

Strong winds kept us off the bikes on Wednesday morning, providing an opportunity to look around Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkneys. A magnificent Cathedral is dedicated to St. Magnus a 12th century Danish ruler and is very much in use today, unlike the equally splendid, but now ruined remnants of the Bishop’s and Earl’s palaces.

Part of St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall (couldn’t fit it all in)

Lighter afternoon winds encouraged Gavin and me to cycle 10 miles or so to the east coast to see the Churchill Barriers, constructed with the assistance of Italian prisoners of war, to protect the Navy base in the natural harbour at Scapa Flow after a German U boat snuck in sinking HMS Royal Oak, with over 800 lives lost. The barrier now forms a causeway to the tiny island of Lamb Holm, which connects via a further causeway to South Ronaldsay. The Catholic chapel constructed by the POW’s out of two nissan huts is a major tourist attraction and well worth a visit. The three dimensional effect of the painted interior is incredible, as is the wrought-iron screen leading to the alter and intricate biblical scenes painted on the ceiling and back wall. Ironically, just as it was finished, the POW’s were moved to Yorkshire.

Churchill Barrier between Mainland and Lamb Holm protecting Scapa Flow

Our 120 mile, overnight, ferry journey from Kirkwall to Lerwick on mainland Shetland was over very stormy seas. Only Keith and Phil managed to sleep through the pitching and rolling of the vessel. Sadly this stormy start is forecast to last through our final few days, with heavy rain and winds of around 50 miles an hour. In the interests of safety, not to mention dry feet, we have thrown in the towel, and are having a holiday, opting to hire a car to venture north to explore mainland, Yell and Unst, the most northerly inhabited island in the UK.

Sailing and a new friend …

There have been two milestones since the last post: Gavin, Keith and I have just topped 1,000 miles since leaving Portland Bill (Maree and Phil are just shy of 500 since they joined us in Dumfries) and we have run out of mainland.

Island in Loch Eriboll between Durness & Tongue

We are boarded and ready to cross the Pentland Firth from Scrabster on the Scottish mainland to Stromness on the Orkney Isles. It’s looking a bit choppy so could be interesting. The forecast for today is strong wind but dry, with rain and more wind coming in overnight, so our plans for the next few days are necessarily fluid.

Yesterday’s 45 mile ride from Tongue to Scrabster was a battle against the wind, strength sapping and soul destroying, we even had to pedal some of the downhills! The scenery along the North coast changed gradually from wild, heather covered moorland to sheep and cattle filled pastures and the last vestiges of this year’s cereal harvest as we got into Caithness. The now disused Dounreay nuclear power station stands out, and will apparently take to 2025 to be fully decommissioned.

North Coast between Tongue and Bettyhill

Live reporting; now underway, we have just passed Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of mainland G.B. Plain sailing so far, but the open sea awaits. The heavy goods vehicles were being secured to the vehicle deck with industrial grade chains as we wheeled the bikes on, something none of us have witnessed before.

Making friends with a local.

Goodbye Western Isles and Highland ups and downs … 

A 5am alarm was a necessary evil to ensure we we up and ready to catch a 7am ferry from Stornoway back to the mainland at the quaint little port town of Ullapool. All five of us were reluctant to leave the beautiful Western Isles, where the previous day (Friday) was a rest day which Keith took rather literally,  whilst Maree and Phil explored the town, the castle and museum and Gavin and I visted two of Lewis’s unique sites. With the weather forecast promising heavy rain and strong winds, we took the local bus service rather than cycle the 40-ish miles to the west coast to see the standing stones at Callanish and a small village of restored, traditional ‘black houses’ a few miles further north.

Callanish Standing Stones c. 3000BC

The purpose of the 60 odd standing stones is a mystery, with a religious/ritual angle favourite among experts. Whatever,  one can only stand in awe and wonder how ancient men toiled to drag the massive rocks to the site, let alone erect them to proudly stand for 5000 years – only one was prone when the site was discovered under a blanket of peat in the 1800s.

The Black House village near Carloway is a collection of traditional Hebridean Croft houses, restored as a museum, hostel and holiday lets in 2002, the last elderly residents having left in 1978. It was a fascinating insight into a hard way of life and the sense of community. The crofts are built of thick dry stone walls,  thatched with dried grass, straw, heather and whatever else was available,  all held down by,  pebble weighted, ropes.  These long houses were divided with animal shelter at one end and living accommodation at the other. The houses are very low, probably due to the extent of human arms when erecting the dry stone walls,  and to better withstand the harsh climate. The name black houses was coined by early visitors to the islands, due to the residues on the inside walls from the peat fuelled fires used for heating and cooking.

Black houses – Lewis

From Ullapool our journey continued north through the wild west coast Highlands, magnificent scenery where huge, ice-age, glaciers carved their various paths,  eroding softer rock and soil to leave a rocky landscape of lakes and moorland, grazed by sheep with birds of prey circling in the skies above.  There a visually no trees here. Thanks to EU funding,  a well surfaced, two-way,  A road runs from Ullapool to within 15 miles of the North coast making the slog up the long hills easier and the descents pure joy.  Only a flock of the white faced cheviot sheep, expertly shepherded to new pastures, by three dogs and two farmers on quad bikes held up proceedings.

Leaving Rhiconich for Durness – Scottish Highlands

We were thwarted by the weather in our attempt to cycle the last 12 miles to Cape Wrath,  the most north-westerly point on the Great British mainland. In the interests of safety,  the ferry required to cross a sea Loch had stopped running. As said ferry was just a small boat with an outboard motor, and the waves were already crashing over its moorings there was more than a degree of relief to temper our disappointment. Having reached the village if Durness on the north coast of Scotland, the resultant free time provided the opportunity to walk along the coast path discovering some pristine, white, sandy beaches along the way. 

Crofts and Tweed… 

860 miles since leaving Portland Bill has brought us to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis and Harris and our last day on the Outer Hebrides. Three relatively short cycling days, from Benbecula, through North Uist, Berneray, a ferry to Harris, then on to Lewis, has allowed us to absorp the beauty and tranquility of these different, but all beautiful Islands.

Forming an orderly queue waiting for the 1 hour ferry transfer from Berneray to Harris

Again the weather has been kind, with a sustained rain storm with high winds passing through the night we spent in the Gatcliff  Hostel on Berneray.  We were very cosy in our bunks in this traditional Croft house, just feet from the sea, with its three foot thick stone walls. The evening in the communal kitchen and dining area was most convivial swapping experiences with an eclectic bunch of fellow travellers, Drew and Emma, young cyclists we have been crossing paths with since Oban, some middle-aged motorbikers, walkers and bird watchers.

Gatcliff Hostel, Berneray, home for Tuesday night

For me Harris has the most stunning scenery,  with its wild moorland and the most perfect golden-sand beaches. The road winds up and down through low, boulder strewn mountains dotted with ancient lakes which shimmer in the sun. Thanks to EU funding, the roads are excellent,  no potholes and a good surface which reduces rolling resistance.

Of the other islands, Barra has a special sense of tranquility and peace, the Northern end of South Uist is like a waterworld with the road snaking between land locked and sea lochs, the roads in North Uist and Berneray are surprisingly flat and make for easy going. The landscape is dotted with abandoned stone croft houses in varying stages of collapse, stark illustration of harsh living going back to the time of the land clearances.

One of the many beautiful sandy beaches on Harris

Wednesday night was spent in the large (for these parts) village of Tarbert which sits on an isthmus joining Harris to Lewis. Round the world cycle record holder Mark Beaumont cycled the Hebridean Way recently,  his YouTube videos are well worth a look to see the magic of these islands. 

Lewis locals off for a walk; single file please

Basking in Hebridean sunshine and no midges …(so far)

Oban was a joy to explore on a sunny Sunday morning. The small town built on steep  slopes sits in horseshoe bay which serves as a pivotal hub for ferries to islands of both the inner and outer Hebrides. A Coloseumesque 19th century folly sits above the town like a giant crown.

A glorious afternoon proved ideal for our four and three quarter hour ferry trip to Barra in the south of the Outer Hebrides, with dolphin spotting well rewarded. After a night in a delightful hostel, in the village of Castlebay, with views of said castle and the sea, we were well rested for the next stage of our journey.

Arriving at Castlebay, Barra, Outer Hebrides

Much of our route follows the Sustrans Hebridean Way, route 780, which starts in Vatersay, joined by causeway to Barra and ends some 150 miles later at the top of the Isle of Lewis. A few miles looking around Barra took in the airport, which uses a beach at low tide as the runway, before taking a 40 minute ferry ride to the tiny island of Eriskay.

Keith and Maree enjoying the sunshine

The roads that service the mainly coastal populations are mostly single track with frequently passing places and are surprisingly well surfaced, with far fewer hills than anticipated. The terrain is a mix of rough grazing farmland and boulder strewn moors dotted with hundreds of small lochs shimmering sapphire blue in the autumn sun. Whilst there are a some beef cattle out grazing, including a herd of Highlands with their long horns and Boris Johnson haircuts, the majority of the four legged natives are either Scots Blackface or Cheviot sheep.

Ferry at anchor, Castlebay Barra

Island hopping continued up through South Uist, birth place of Flora MacDonald, to Benbecula, joined to each other and Eriskay by causeways over the sea. Comparing notes with a father and son and a young couple from Suffolk, also riding the route, who we criss-cross along the way add a certain shared camaraderie.

Bringing in the silage bales hebridean style

Our host for the night, on a south Benbecula sheep farm, tells us we are very fortunate to have good weather, the forecast is good for Tuesday too, as it has been a particularly wet summer this year. Even the rain coming in from the west looks like it will pass over these Western Isles overnight so we are keeping our fingers crossed.

Into the wild and over the sea to – Arran … 

With just under 700 miles pedalled since leaving Portland Bill, we have arrived at Oban about 100 miles north west of Glasgow. The last three days, since leaving Dumfries,  have been notable for the increasingly wild,  mountainous terrain. Overnighting in the Ayrshire town of Tarbolton and the youth hostel at Lochranza on the Isle of Arran there have been two ferry crossings and a number of long, long hills to climb,  but with the reward of exhilarating freewheeling down the other sides.

Moors of Dumfries & Galloway

Wildlife abounds, with birds of prey circling the open moorland,  Maree and Gavin spotted a red squirrel and red deer roam freely around on Arran. It was lovely,  not to mention fitting,  to see a couple of fields full of beautiful Belted Galloway cattle whilst we were in Dumfries and Galloway and of course the sheep on Arran,  those jumpers have to come from somewhere. On the downside Ayrshire disappointed with the only dairy cows on view being of the  black and white varieties.  Unfortunately Phil caught the sharp end of all this nature when a bee stung him just behind an ear.

Red deer on the Isle of Arran

The scenery has been a mix of farmland,  with plenty of grain crops still unharvested, wild moorland and as we made our way up the Kintyre Peninsula, sea lochs and relics of ancient times including standing stones and burial mounds. Arran is very special particularly in the soft evening light.

It is noticeably colder here, made worse by the strong northwesterly headwinds which made the going harder than it should have been all the way from Dumfries to Arran, not all bad though – two days without rain.  Thankfully the wind had dropped for Saturday’s 62 mile ride up the Kintyre coast,  but we did catch a couple of fairly heavy showers. Arriving in Oban to clear skies we were fortunate to witness a glorious sunset over the western Isles.

Looking back at Lochranza, Arran from the ferry to Claonaig on the Kintyre peninsula

We have a free morning to chill and explore Oban before boarding the ferry 4 & 3/4 hour trip to the tiny island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.