At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Scotland is an infinitely more varied and variable part of the world than its size and tourist-pleasing stereotypes would suggest. The mainland alone is a geological patchwork quilt of different massifs and ecosystems, of different accents and too many unhealthy foods to count. Macaroni pie, anyone? As well as the mainland, there are of course nearly 800 islands surrounding our shores. Most of them belonged to the king of Norway in medieval times (he let us have them back though) and the Norse place names that are still common there betray the fact that they don’t always feel like a part of the same country as Edinburgh.
In early July, Annie and me drove the long and winding road north through the western Highlands. We passed through Glencoe, underneath Ben Nevis and over the bridge to Skye, until it ran out and became the sea at Uig, the north-westerly tip of the island. It was sunny while we packed and organised kit at the harbour, which made me suspicious. It’s never sunny for long. When the time came to load the ferry bound for Lochmaddy on north Uist, we weren’t the only people boarding with bicycles, but we were the only people with boats and paddles strapped on to them too. We are lucky to have a lifestyle that allows us to down tools, pack up and go and explore parts of the world on our bikes for a couple of months at a time. This time though, we had hit upon the idea of a new line to explore that was obvious when you thought about it, and which didn’t require going abroad at all.
Once we arrived on the Outer Hebrides, the aim of the trip was to circumnavigate North Uist and Benbecula, using the fatbikes to ride down the empty sands of the west coast, and using the boats to cross tidal channels and navigate the rocky maze of the east coast. Because the single north-south road cuts largely through the middle of the islands, it would be a good chance to travel through the places that everyday modes of travel don’t allow you to see. We had already cycle toured along the island chain this year in April, but the road doesn’t do the topographical weirdness of the Uists any justice, showing only flashes of azure water and white sand to the west, and the thousands of lochains that riddle the interior are invisible from the angle of the road, lost to a landscape that appears deceptively featureless and bleak. I wanted to see the same landscape that I aw in my mind’s eye when I looked at the OS map, where water and land seemed hopelessly tangled together. It was, we thought, likely to be the closest we could get to true expedition biking in the UK, avoiding as it did the bulk of the sparse settlements and mostly avoiding any established trails.
The ferry arrived late in the evening, the light this close to the solstice allowing us some time to pick a spot for the tent beside Loch Maddy and to introduce ourselves to the obscene number of ticks that we had for neighbours. The deciding element of this route was likely to be the weather – it doesn’t matter who you are, a packraft on the sea in strong winds is not going to be fun, and the Hebrides are somewhat exposed to whatever currents of air the Atlantic fancies wafting at them. That first evening was like watching honey poured thicker and thicker over land and sea though, a perfect evening that can be watched for hours, until at last the sea extinguished the sun.
Unfortunately, the weather changes every time you look away on the islands, and the morning dawned wet, chilly and worst of all windy. We ate breakfast and packed up in relative silence, each of us knowing that we were unlikely to be going anywhere on the water that day, but each unwilling to acknowledge the futility of trying out loud and to therefore make our fears real. Annie was sceptical as we did eventually voice our thoughts, but as we couldn’t get blown anywhere unsafe I suggested that we put on anyway and at least have a go.
It was a short-lived and ungraceful attempt. Our borrowed boats from from Alpackaraft were inflated and loaded for their first sea trials, but when we left the shelter of the rocks the wind was blowing at force 4 or 5, and although ferry gliding across the wind was possible, paddling into it was not, and after half an hour or so both of our internal alarms were saying that this was unwise. It was a kick in the teeth to be abandoning plan A so quickly, and riding shamefaced on the road for a couple of miles with the hammer of the rain on our hoods a repeated questioning of the wisdom of this whole idea. Then again, since when was Plan A ever any fun?
We decided to use the time saved by hitting the road to go and explore the dunes of North Uist’s northern extremity, and on the way we acquired a dog, which we (well, I) called Jerry. We didn’t mean to steal him, but when we learned that he could jump gates we stopped telling him to go back. Besides, he was good company, running beside us in the sea as we hit the beach in the relentlessly heavy rain. He was a salty sea dog, and spent as much time swimming in the sea as he did sniffing about with us on land. He seemed convinced that he could take the seagulls bobbing on the water by surprise, and he swam happily among the very annoyed seabirds, disappearing from view every time a particularly big wave broke over him.
This was more like it, paying little attention to the time or to big plans, and spending some time travelling slowly in a very beautiful place. In June and July the unique ecosystem of dune meadows called the Machair comes into flower, and we slept on a carpet of buttercups, gentian, eyebright and thyme, with just bumblebees and Jerry for company, at least until he slunk off home at some point in the night.
The second day saw some respite from the rain, with only occasional heavy showers darkening the skies for a time, and the wind had eased a little. We set off across the sands from our camp spot, traversing the large tidal inlet that connects to the island of Vallay when the tide is out. Later in the morning, we entered the long chain of tidal islands and channels that forms the west coast of North Uist, and once again we were distancing ourselves from the road and the settlements. The boats began to come into their own, as staying on the empty coast meant crossing narrow, but deep, tidal drainages. We decided that the uninhabited island of Kirkibost, a small spread of low-lying machair populated by a few highland cows, would make a good spot to camp for the night, but the tide was in and the wind was still up. We decided to wait for the tide and get some food in North Uist’s only pub, the Westford Inn.
Inside, we spread the map out on the table to check out the crossing to kirkibost, in case there were any hazards to think about. I am fully aware of my ignorance when it comes to tidal currents and sea states, and I didn’t want over-confidence in the face of a short crossing to be our undoing. A tiny man in his late forties who had been slumped over the bar walked over and introduced himself, and asked us if those were our bikes outside. He was…grey. His hair, his eyes, his clothes. A weathered grey, whether by storms or by drink I’m not sure. We said yes, and told him of our plans. He looked at us through thinning grey hair and glasses like the bottoms of milk bottles, before warning us that we were to beware of the sinking sands between here and the island:
“Once ye’re in, ye’re no getting out again.”
So far, so foreboding. He went on, pointing at the map.
“If ye go away back up here, to Ceann a Bhaigh, there is a man who lives… here.” Jab. “Angus MacNeil. He knows these waters very well, a verrae good man. He will tell you what you need to know and can take you across to Kirkibost in his boat. A very, very good man”.
We thanked him, and he thanked us, shaking my hand tightly with both of his own, and holding on several seconds longer than was comfortable, before he wandered slowly back to the bar to resume his position, staring into nothing much and talking to no-one.
We didn’t go to Ceann a Bhaigh to see Angus MacNeil, as sincere as our friend in the pub had been. The tide was out when we rolled down to the water from the pub, full of fish and chips. The crossing had narrowed to perhaps fifty metres instead of a kilometre, though the narrow band of black water in the middle betrayed the fact that a lot of water ran through here with every tide, and where it ran swiftly it had scoured a deep channel in the sands. We put on and began the crossing, every change of mode becoming a little more practised as the number of crossings increased. As I paddled over second, I looked back to notice that a figure in grey clothes stood motionless beside a large rock just above the water. It stayed there until I had set foot on the sand on the far side, and then it turned and walked back up the track.
Kirkibost was a delight, even if our stay was only brief. The gable end of a ruined croft poked just above the skyline of machair meadow, the tallest thing on the island beyond a small massif of dunes in alpine form on the southern end. We camped at their foot, wildflowers for a mattress again, and hoped the cows didn’t try to chew the tent in the night.
The next morning repeated the last, dawning drier and brighter. After a quick march through the dunes, the day started with another short but deep crossing in the boats to Baile Sear, where a beach miles long stretched perspective as it followed the gentlest of curves towards distant Benbecula. The sun showed the island at its best: white sand giving way to an impossibly colourful, almost warm-looking cobalt sea. We were riding along the coast of an insignificant island towards another, even smaller one, but this was the greatest feeling of freedom that I could ever recall finding in Scotland. It reminded me of the interior of Iceland, all blank space and possibility. It was one of those short periods of time – they’re always too short – when you try to cram in as much awareness and sensory information as you can, because you know that moments like this don’t last, and soon it will be gone.
Afternoon saw us on Benbecula, another crossing taking us across the Kyle and riding at the foot of high dunes behind which, bizarrely, the island’s airport betrayed itself with the sound of a turboprop plane landing. The tyres thrummed like an engine themselves as we rolled unceremoniously into the town of Baile a Mhanaich, a cluster of mostly recent buildings built more like the normal, nuclear form of village that we would recognise from the mainland. There was a shop. I really, really wanted a pear.
The majority of the settlements on the Outer Hebrides are a clue to the crofting lifestyle that sustained the majority of people there until the rise of tourism in the late 20th century. The map shows, long, linear villages where houses might stand just within shouting distance of one another. Each house has its small plot of land for sheep, cows or crops, and access to a small section of seafront to allow fishing. It might not be the livelihood chosen by everyone anymore, but the past is there in the very shape of the villages, and it projected a sense of aloofness to the houses, as if pride stopped them from huddling next to each other in the winter storms. The gardens also reminded me of Iceland, where ‘home’ seems to stop on the front doorstep, and often the only thing distinguishing what was garden and what was open moorland was a fence. I can see how, living here, the outside might be something to be endured when necessary rather than tamed and nurtured in a rockery. One of those houses also happened to be a bakery, where we found some of the previously mentioned macaroni pies, and as we sat in the sun on the grass outside I started to wonder if this might all end up being quite fun.
The village gave us a chance to check the weather forecast, which needed to be accommodating if we were going to be able to paddle the east coast, where a maze of skerries and lack of sandy shores meant that bikes were going to be out of the question. It was obliging, but only for a few days, which meant that our best chance was to cut east across the only track that joins the two coasts of Benbecula, and start our return trip from there. Stocked up on peanuts and pears, that’s just what we did, leaving the tropical beaches behind us and riding into warm, marshy grassland on the east. We camped on a knoll beside a sheltered inlet, surrounded by the ruins of several abandoned crofts. A large proportion of the Uist’s inhabitants emigrated to Cape Breton in Nova Scotia in the mid-1800s, some forced out by landlords looking to make more money from sheep, while others couldn’t afford their rent when the island’s kelp harvest failed. We battled the clegs which were intent on slurping some blood, and looking north to Eabhal, North Uist’s norse-named highest point at just over 400m, and hoping that the weather the next night might allow us a chance to see the view from its summit.
The next day would be a full day on the water, so we packed the overnight kit inside the chamber of the boats using the cargo fly to keep things neater. The narrow inlet from which we set off in the morning was also home to a large group of seals, who popped up and down like a whack-a-mole as we passed them, the others wailing and watching from the rocks. The gaelic name for a seal is ‘ron’, and so that is the name that we gave each of them. Whenever we passed a group of them at least one would follow close behind for a while, until we had been safely escorted off the premises. I was reminded of the stories of selkies, seals who shed their skins to come ashore in human form and might even marry a human, but who cannot bear to be away from the sea.
The wind, although light, was a little stiffer than forecast, more like a force 3, so the larger channels across to the islands of Grimsay and Ronay were more interesting. Once we were in the shelter of Ronay’s lumpy bulk, the going was fairly easy, with odd views through the clear water down to the forests of seaweed below. We ate lunch on a skerry, watched by a few more seals, with Eabhal looming larger and larger in our view.
As we approached its base we began the first of what would end up being three short portages between lochs to end up on Loch Obasaraigh, the long arc of freshwater that would carry us further north back to the sea at Loch Euphort, avoiding the exposed and committing coastline that we decided would be a bad move in the rafts with the easterly wind blowing in a swell from the Minch. Except, it turned out that Loch Obasaraigh wasn’t fresh! As we stooped down to wash our sandy feet and fill up water bottles, a tiny jellyfish bobbed past Annie’s ankle, and we tasted the water to find out it was brackish. The sea obviously pured into the loch somehow, and we had to scrabble about looking for the dried remnants of a stream in order to drink.
After setting up the tent (and Annie managing to step on a hairy caterpillar that injected hundreds of tiny spines into her big toe) we made the short climb of Eabhal to watch the sun setting behind the shadows of St Kilda in the west. On the way, we passed the hairy, lichen-covered remains of a couple of small buildings, nestled into a small flattening on the otherwise uniform hillside. They all stood apart, in the middle of their own patch of land, and all sat directly above the Neolithic Dun, or island fort, that lay crumbling in the shallow waters of the loch, connected to land via a rock causeway. One still had a gable partly intact, and a tiny window hole formed a void halfway up it. We were in one of the remotest corners of the island, but people had evidently once called this place home as well, and on an evening like this nowhere could have been better to live. The reassuring bulk of the dun would have been a safe place to bolt to in times of trouble, and the deer that traversed the hillside above us would have been cattle or sheep. Not for the first time, the Hebrides seemed like a solid canvas of rock with several timelines visible on them, from the phone masts and modern ferry terminals to the duns and the homesteads that still shared the space with them thousands of years after they were built.
From the top, I finally got my view of the islands as the map showed them, from the perspective of an eagle. To the north were the totemic monoliths of Assynt, and the most isolated points of the British Isles, Sula Sgeir and North Rona. Closer to there was the bulk of An Cliseam on Harris, the jagged teeth of the Cuillins on Skye and the misty peaks of Rhum to the south-east, the closer Hebridean summits of Beinn Mhor and Hecla to the south. To the west, the light caught the white beaches that we had ridden just a couple of days before, and beyond them the hazy outline of the Monach Islands, where Europe’s largest seal colony lives. Beyond that, just muted grey-blue stretching all the way to Nova Scotia, the direction that many of the islanders had travelled to find a new life, taking their music, language and traditions with them.
From the Eabhal camp, it was an easy morning paddle to the portage to Loch Euphort, where we discovered the source of the brackish water in Obasaraigh. Although the map didn’t show it, a small tidal channel links1 the loch to the sea only at high water, and a pair of fishermen were lazily flicking flies into the water at the far end in hope of sea trout. We paused in the middle of the next crossing to watch two young seals playing, jumping out of the water and slapping each other with their tails. A golden eagle whirred slowly overhead. I knew that we would reach Lochmaddy again that evening, but I wasn’t ready for this to end.
A final portage over burnt heather moorland, and into a final freshwater stretch on Loch Sgadabhagh. The ease with which we could choose our way of travelling, whether land, sea or loch, was satisfying. No one piece of our kit felt like it was a burden, everything felt like it was essential to enabling the simple pleasure of travelling the full circuit of an island and satisfy the simple curiosity of wondering what is there. The wind even picked up enough on that final paddle to get our small sails out, and I can honestly say that cruising the final section to the get-out with the aid of the wind, rather than fighting it, felt like a fitting way to bring the journey to an end.
Lochmaddy, island hub that it might be, is quiet as the grave of an evening, though luckily the tiny village shop was still open that evening. The salt crackled in our hair and our clothes, we stank, and our faces and hands were cracked by the sun and wind. There was only one thing to do in the hazy light of the dying day, so we sat on a wall and ate an ice cream and pears, fielding the occasional question about what on earth those big tyres are for, and feeling the familiar bittersweet pang that we all feel when a journey is over – the contentment of memory, and already the mind turning to new possibilities and ideas.
A circumnavigation is the perfect example of a journey whose aim is nothing but the journey itself, and I had been surprised to find such a journey at home in Scotland, hiding right on my doorstep. Touring through on a road bike, the islands had felt very small, just a short day spent blasting north on the wind, and few striking memories. At the speed of big tyres and a blow-up boat, the islands had ballooned in size – every nook and cranny worth exploring and investigating. It could not have felt like a more different place. Perhaps all that I had been lacking is a bit of creativity! Well, that and a boat.
As grateful as we are to the Atlantic weather for giving us our window of opportunity, we also owe thanks to AlpackaRaft for loaning us two boats to make this journey – they were invaluable. Thank you. Thanks also to Salsa Cycles for the bikes, and Andy at Backcountry.Scot for inspiration, wise words and unfailing generosity. Thanks to all of you.