Not insignificant on my list of reasons to ride a bike is because it means you can eat more crap than usual and get away with it. Since this was to be the biggest mileage day of the trip, I treated myself to a handful of bourbon creams dipped in peanut butter when I woke up this morning. I washed them down with a couple of ibuprofen for the saddle sores. A breakfast of champions.
Our route took us round the winding roads of the Uigean peninsula, past the cliffs of the aptly named village of Cliff – rocks encrusted with seabird nests set into the stone with guano – and back to the main road north. This region of Lewis is full of historical artefacts and first of our discovery stops was at the standing stones at Callanish. More specifically, Callanish standing stones I (there are also Callanish standing stones II to X). Not my particular cup of tea but clearly a noteworthy spot for many, and a popular destination at which to celebrate the summer solstice (the Callanish standing stones pre-date Stonehenge). Visitors hovered inquiringly in the manner of the bees amongst flowers of the surrounding meadow, perhaps pondering – the visitors, not the bees, that is – what this monument represents. Official theories range from a sacred site of ancient burial rituals to a circle of giants who denied Christianity and therefore got petrified by Our ruthless Lord.
Much more my area of scientific interest was the intemperate behaviour rarely seen in such quantity as when a tour bus has disembarked a group of tourists who are on a tight schedule in which to squeeze lunch, toilet, sightseeing selfie and purchase of corroboratory tat from the gift shop (I do include myself in the latter bracket). A group of older gentlemen who looked as though they had been rummaging through Thin Lizzy’s dressing up box grumbled at the length of wait for their cappuccino order. A wiry grandma in Lycra shorts and tie-dye entertained her granddaughter with a surely very wholesome indoor activity while grandpa tended to her Follow Me tandem bike outside (a vision of the future for me and Hubs?). We snatched the RSPB badge box and greedily rummaged through its’ contents hunting for collectables to ratify our new wildlife discoveries (dolphin – short-eared owl – hen harrier) while eating lunch #1.
Next stop on our history tour was the Black House village, a settlement of centuries-old stone cottages with pretty thatched rooves weighted down with uniformly placed stones to protect their integrity from the Hebridean elements. After that a trip to the Blue Pig studio gallery for an obligatory souvenir-snoop.
On our journey north we passed a sign for a ‘well stocked honesty shed’. This warranted further investigation, even though it was too early to really justify lunch #2. Up a short residential road with nothing to see but sky ahead, we arrived at a single storey building and a potting shed at the bottom of the drive with a beaded curtain in the doorway. We stepped inside … and holy moly it was like Aladdin’s cave. Home-made meringues, peanut brittle, jams, chutneys, cinder toffee… to our weary quad muscles, these carb-heavy trinkets were Class A euphoria. We squirreled away as much unadulterated sugar as we could fit in the pockets of our jerseys and were gazing longingly at the ready-meals in the shed’s freezer, wishing there was some way we could have bikepacked with a microwave, when the shed’s keepers came down the drive and stepped out fresh from the beach in wetsuits and towels.
Julie and Rachel had moved to Lewis from Gloucestershire where the former had worked in palliative care. They fell in love with the place and her ‘who knows what tomorrow might bring’ experiences led them to move to their cute place-in-the-middle-of-nowhere on sort of a whim, and they’ve never looked back. They heated us up a pasta lunch while we sat in their garden and Julie treated us to a preview of her experimental cashew nut salted caramel ice cream while the microwave was working. This was a truly special lunch #2.
I’m sad to report that the afterglow of delicious food and warm hospitality wore off about ten miles shy of the lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis. We pedalled through wind farms and quiet villages of pebbledash houses and barely enough commerce to sustain them, and that damn lighthouse never seemed to get close enough for my liking. I found myself in a deep, dark place in spite of bright weather (are you sure this saddle is designed for women? Are we near somewhere that sells chocolate yet? Will I ever be able to sit down comfortably again?). Even the sight of the village gala at Ness, with its multitude of bouncy castles (I liked the Disco Dome best) and PA-blasted Scissor Sisters theme song did little to lift my spirits. I found myself counting passing cars (surely after ten we’ll be at the lighthouse, OK how about twenty then), and then when that fell short, repairs to the road (hidden pothole finish me off, make me crash and lose consciousness, get me out of this private Hell).
But then we did arrive there. Hal – le – lu – jah. I nearly dismounted onto all fours and kissed the road, potholes and all.
The signage that marks the end of the Hebridean Way sits at the foot of the lighthouse. Just beyond and behind it, the land stops abruptly at sheer cliffs which are brimming with bird life and covered in guano; fulmars nest angelically with short grey beaks at the end of amiable faces nuzzled into virgin-white plumage and cormorants take daredevil dives from juts of rock into fathoms of clear blue. This isthmus of land feels as though it truly belongs to the birds and we’re just trespassing.
We stopped awhile for a morale-boosting cuddle and to eat cinder toffee but still with about thirty miles to go to our finish point, we needed to keep our powder dry. An almost passable coffee at a local pub nonetheless kept us going for our return journey south before we headed along unchartered moorland towards Stornoway, barely a car in sight and the low evening summer light bringing out an explosion of orange and purple in the heathers and mosses en route. Our limbs were on autopilot as we free-wheeled downhill into Stornoway. Elated. Our faces glowing with sun exposure and wind burn and joy. The restaurant we had aimed to eat at was fully booked. No worries! I’m walking on a cloud right now. No feeling in my saddle area. It feels like heat is escaping from my brain. Next stop, jackfruit pizza with vegan cheese and a generous gin and tonic. I make the mistake of drinking the gin before my food arrives. I feel even more Zen.
Once we’ve pitched our tent at the campsite and undergone our evening rituals, the enormity of my exhaustion sets in. I labour through some stretches, noting a background hum of chatter and traffic and messages pinging on mobile phones that I’ve not encountered since we left home.
The next morning we prowled the high street, foraging for breakfast. We had been warned about Sunday Rules on the islands – the Outer Hebrides are a deeply religious archipelago to the extent that, as rumour has it, when a boat ran aground on Eriskay carrying some 260,000 bottles of illegal whisky destined for Jamaica and New Orleans in 1941, the salvage operation that pilfered the washed-up contraband were forced to leave their loot untouched for 24 hours because it was retrieved just as the Sabbath Day approached – but we were not prepared for the degree of permeation into the relative metropolis of Stornoway. We cycled past two retirees at the bus stop in their Sunday twinsets with their chaperone, a chap with the trousers, shirt and flat-cap uniform of a man who takes pride in dressing respectably when the occasion demands it but nonetheless would feel much more comfortable in the graft-beaten overalls of his rural occupation. Another man stood on a street corner bellowing ‘God Hates Divorce’ from the front of his t-shirt. The only place that was serving breakfast – which was up another hill, might I add – was the Starbucks café at the castle, and I wondered whether it’s staff were perhaps snubbed by their community for it, or else banished to live like lepers in a separate colony. Stornoway seems like a lovely place, but there’s nothing much touristy to do there on a Sunday.
And so our island adventure came to an end amidst a brewing storm which lashed against the windows of the ferry we looked out of as we ate two lunches again and regained 4G connectivity.
We docked in Ullapool which is a difficult town to get home from with bicycles and no fixed agenda, and I wonder if this explains why much of the potential of the Outer Hebrides as a bikepacking destination seems as yet untapped. Since I’ve started writing about the trip I’ve reflected a lot on the nature of tourism – how it gives to a region, and how it takes away. The things that I’ve heard the inhabitants of the beautiful places we’ve visited say about tourism – our neighbour in Vatersay who pleaded that we donate to the community centre in return for camping on it’s lovely land and lamented that so many visitors neglected the island, choosing instead to spend their money in the better-known towns; the intergenerational dispute over coffee about the competing priorities of generating income to sustain communities that are dying out versus the heavy march of tourism trampling on the flowers of the very wilderness that inspires the people to visit in the first place; to the bed and breakfast owner in Ullapool, a robust outdoorsy septuagenarian who nonetheless gave up riding his bicycle in the lovely lanes around his home because of his encounters with tourists intent on experiencing the roads of the North Coast 500 at up to 120 miles per hour.
Inevitably our own footprint spoiled some views, was ignorant of some traditions, damaged some flowers and who knows what else in the name of leisure. The very act of sharing our travelogue might mean that I upset that delicate balance of creating a sustainable amount of interest in tourism without subjugating the very ethos of a place. Any attraction worth its salt once discovered will inevitably be shared, shared again, maybe printed in a book, distributed a hundred times over before being overwhelmed, urbanised, its’ original mystique rendered inaccessible. Is the trick to stay ahead of the curve? To wander off the beaten path? Or to keep a few things secret?
🥃 Tipple: Isle of Harris gin
🚲 Cycle mileage: 94
🚲🚲🚲🚲🚲🚲 Total mileage for the trip: 516
🚗 Miles by motor vehicle to get home: 235
30 June, 2019