BIKIN’, CRUISIN’, BOOZIN’ AND SNOOZIN’ in The Outer Hebrides

14 – 20 May 2017

Organiser Geoff Curtis – Guinea Pigs, Neil Tipple & Laurie Evans

Write up – Laurie Evans

Facts and Figures - The Outer Hebrides, an Archipelago of Islands off the north west coastline of Scotland – 57.7600° N, 7.0200° W. Or put another way; up at the top and a bit left. There are 15 inhabited islands and over 100 uninhabited. According to the 2011 census the total population is 27,684 although Stornoway, the capital of the archipelago, accounts for 8100 (29%) of the total population. 

Clearly Geoff has done much travelling around Scotland and wanted, for some unknown reason, to visit these islands. Neil was immediately up for it but I wasn’t sure at first. Anyway I finally succumbed and agreed to join them and the rest is history, but I will tell you about it in case you find yourself at a loss for what to do on a cold rainy day and in your boredom you turn to this passage to pass some time away.

Originally we were aiming to turn up at the various ferry points and buy tickets at that time. However Geoff, when viewing ferry times and enquiring about ticket purchases, found it was highly recommended that we purchase them all in advance as the ferries can and do get fully booked. Geoff therefore advised us to all arrange our own bookings – Mallaig to Skye, Skye to Harris, Harris to North Uist, South Uist to Barra and South Uist to Skye. We discovered that the ferry to Barra was already fully booked for the day and times we were seeking.

Our plan then was we would turn up at the Barra ferry port and see if they could squeeze 3 bikes on. That really was our only option.

As I now live in Derbyshire it was agreed that I would meet up with Geoff and Neil on Sunday 14 May en route north to our first stopover in Moffat. Following some discussion we decided to gather together in the Sunday bikers haunt of Kirkby Lonsdale at 4pm. I have used this location for similar reasons whilst travelling to north of the boarder on previous occasions. Having arrived quite early in glorious sunshine I was sitting in the quaint old market square with an ice cream when Geoff and Neil arrived. Geoff was on his faithful Honda Blackbird and Neil on 17 plate Triumph Tiger 800 XRx. Neil had recently purchased this bike for the trip. I have a slightly earlier model and we spent a little time exchanging experiences over a cup of tea before heading north to Moffat.

We arrived in Moffat in blue skies in the knowledge that the following morning the weather was going to take a turn for the worse. We therefore decided to get out of our riding gear and head for one of the local hostelries and get some beers down our throats to drown these dismal thoughts. After a couple of beers to start with we browsed the food menu. Top of the list was a dish called Bobotie. It turns out it is a South African dish of curried mince covered in grilled cheese. Geoff and I thought we would give it a try while Neil selected the vegetable pie. The South African dish was quite curryfied and delicious.

The forecast for the following morning was dire and with over 300 miles to our next overnighter in Uig, north Skye, it was not a thought that we wanted to dwell on. To add to our woes we received a text message whilst we were in Moffat from Calmac Ferries stating that the ferry from Mallaig to Skye we had prebooked had been cancelled due to high winds. It reduced the mileage for that day by about 30 but I had wanted to ride that road to Mallaig. We therefore had no alternative but to head farther north and take the bridge to cross to the island from Kyle of Lochalsh.

With the bikes loaded and fuelled and the rain falling, we set off at 09.30. We elected to go around Glasgow and head north past Loch Lomand but what we hadn’t factored in, as we weren’t aware, was the miles of road works and resultant traffic jams on the motorway sections around Glasgow. With the bikes heavily laden with luggage we could have done with wide load stickers on them and sirens to announce our acrobatic weaving manoeuvres as we filtered our way through these jams. Apart from stops for fuel and refreshments the only other stop was to visit the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge on the A82 soon after Fort William.

Even with the blackened skies the rides through Glencoe were stunning.  By the time we reached the Skye Bridge we were all just about on auto pilot and the last 50 miles to our destination was a blur. Our arrival time at Uig was 18.30; 9 long hours on the road, notwithstanding a few short breaks.

We were unable to all get into the same B&B that night and my accommodation was set up on a hill overlooking the village and harbour and not too far from Geoff and Neil. Without any delay we all met up and headed for the local pub for booze and food.

The ferry crossing to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris was quite choppy as the wind was quite strong but thanks to Geoff, who provided us with a dosage of sea sickness pills which we took before boarding, there was no messiness.

We discussed our ride plans during the crossing and decided to head to the most northerly tip of Lewis, the Butt of Lewis and the harbour at the Point of Ness taking in some stops en route to view the visitor sites; namely the stunning Standing Stones of Callanish, the old crofters and weavers cottages of Blackhouse Village and the Dun Carloway Broch.

Standing stones of Callanish

Blackhouse Village

Dun Carloway Broch

Geoff the intrepid explorer taking a closer look at the Broch.

Whilst the weather was improving and there was some blue sky about, the dominant feature was the high winds. Neil in particular was finding them quite a struggle as his large top box and panniers were acting like a sail and heading into the wind he was riding at a permanent angle that one would be proud to claim if you achieved it whilst cornering.

After leaving the Butt of Lewis and lighthouse we headed south to pay a quick visit to the archipelago’s capital, Stornoway. It was to be a quick visit too as we were running out of time for that day and from Stornoway we still had a 55 mile ride to our next B&B in the south of Harris.

Again I couldn’t get in the same guest house as Geoff and Neil so had arranged another about 5 miles away. This meant riding in to the local pub that night so no beers for me.

Just to summarise the joint Islands of Lewis and Harris are very scenic and quite mountainous although there are little if no roads that run through them. The coastline is gorgeous as you might expect and the roads are well maintained but mainly single track, though with adequate passing places.

Laurie fiddling with his sad nav whilst Neil’s bike looks on glaringly! We think Geoff has taken to the sand and rocks on the beach for a ride on his Blackbird. Well it wouldn’t have surprised us!

As I have said above we had all prebooked our ferry crossings; well that’s not strictly true. I had completed omitted to book my crossing from Harris to North Uist. I put it down to an age thing. Anyway there was nothing I could do about it now but turn up and hope for the best. If I wanted a bed for the night I needed to get across to those islands as my accommodation, along with the others, was in South Uist.

Problem averted. I explained my predicament to the man arranging the ferry loadings and he said that he will get me on first and then to go and see him once on board to purchase a ticket.

The crossing was lovely, calm and clear, with all the spectacular views. The North Uist ferry port is on the small stunning Island of Berneray, followed by a short ride over the island to a causeway and then onto North Uist. Our plan here was to ride through the northern sector to the south and visit the ferry port to Barra and enquire if there were any cancellations for that afternoon. This Island is not quite so mountainous as Lewis and Harris and there are very small islets with shallow peat bogs all around, but still very picturesque. We weren’t in any hurry and we enjoyed the ride down through to the south of the Island and to Barra ferry port; about 50-60 miles only to find that they could get us on the next ferry  but they couldn’t guarantee any available spaces for our return that afternoon. What a bummer! We were all most keen to see this island in particular, being the smallest and supposedly the prettiest of all of the islands.

Having come to terms with this disappointment we headed for the next B&B and arrived mid-afternoon. Once settled in and changed into some more relaxing clothes we talked to the landlady about the pub that we had decided upon for a small beer and dinner. She explained that it was about 2-3 miles walk and the best route was along the beach. It was a good mile to the beach and once there we were stunned by the immense sight of pure white sand, crystal clear water and blue skies and we were sandwiched between it all. Gorgeous!

After strolling along this platform of white heaven for a good mile we could just about make out what was likely to be our destination and there was still at least another mile or so to go. Yes there is a pub on the horizon in this following photo.

Outer Hebrides

It was a hot afternoon so the good intentions to have just a half were soon quashed and the first of at least three was quickly downed. The pub also had a pool table and Geoff was quick to show off his cueing skills before sitting down to a very welcome dinner. Due to the incoming tide, we used a slightly different route to stagger back to the B&B and therefore lost site of the marker I had placed in the sand to indicate where we should turn off for the road. This resulted in some discussions as to where and when to head inland. I turned in where I reckoned it was resulting in me trying to avoid ripping my trousers on a barbed wire fence whilst Geoff and Neil continued on farther along and then retracing their steps back towards my path. Having left the B&B at around 4pm we arrived back in daylight at just after 10pm.

 

The following morning we rode north to the port of Lochmaddy arriving in good time to catch the ferry back to Skye. I suggested that we try the ticket office to see if we can get a crossing on the ferry to Mallaig the following day allowing us to ride the road from that port to Glasgow. To our delight we found there were spaces available.

After a smooth crossing we headed to our accommodation for the night in Uig; all in the same B&B this time.

We woke the next morning to sunshine and we had a great ride south through the beautiful Island of Skye to the ferry port at Ardvasar and had some relaxing time while waiting for the ferry to arrive.

The A830 road from Mallaig to Fort William was well worth the waiting with stunning scenery and fast flowing bends. Once past Loch Lomond and through the road works around Glasgow it was onto Moffat for our final night.

The forecast across the country for Saturday was heavy showers and that turned out to be the order of the day. I broke away from the others to head back to Derbyshire whilst Geoff and Neil still had a 200 mile ride to cover. I am sure they, at times, got as wet as I did on their ride home. That aside all in all it was a really great 6 days and a big thanks to Geoff for all the hard work and effort he put in to ensure it was the success it was and Geoff, I hope you enjoy Schlamaberg (however you spell it!) (not like this! Geoff).

My total mileage was 1381 miles and you can add at least another 400 to that for Geoff and Neil. According to my trip computer my time in the saddle was 32½ hours.

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