Sheffield – Oban – Drimsdale
Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books for children and adults describe a magical archipelago inhabited by wizards, dragons, pirates, princes and sturdy seafarers. In the far west of Earthsea lie the West Reaches, a remote string of Islands where the rules of magic change and people’s lives are untouched by the business of city life.
Other parts of LeGuin’s fantasy may be modelled on the islands of the Adriatic or coasts of Scandinavia but, for me, the West Reaches can only be the Outer Hebrides. Barra, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, Harris and Lewis and a host of smaller isles stretch for nearly 200 miles, south to north, out in the Atlantic off the west coast of Scotland. For years I had pored over the maps, imagining myself and my bike hopping from island to island, and this trip to the outer isles became a promise to myself, finally kept in August 2003.
I left my home in the north of England around 6am and cycled to the station, heavily loaded with camping gear, to take a train north. First up the east coast past Durham Cathedral and the lonely coast of Northumberland to Edinburgh. Then a busy local service through the populous belt between Edinburgh and Glasgow and finally a long sultry afternoon chugging along the single-track line into the West Highlands, past spectacular views of Loch Long (always stirring), Loch Lomond (over-rated?), and on to Oban.
Next morning the ferry left Oban for the 6 hour trip out to Barra, the journey made even longer by fog in the Sound of Mull and its tedium punctuated only by a sudden rush on to the deck to see a large group of dolphins pass by in the empty seas between Coll and Barra. We arrived late with barely enough time to cycle across the Island for the last ferry to South Uist. After two days in trains and boats, the last thing you need is a 40 minute dash that starts with a very big hill but the choice was to make the ferry and cover some ground that day, or mark time on Barra until the following morning. My two day sit had left me with a need to get moving so I decided to try for the ferry. A couple from Glasgow, Tom and Elizabeth, immaculate in shocking pink lycra, had the same aim, had phoned ahead to see if the ferry might wait for us, and it would.
They were going the long way round the west coast not fancying the hill. They were formidably fit but their racing bike gears were not designed for hauling luggage up big hills. I decided that I would not be able to match their speed on the flat so elected to go the hard way. The road was a good one once the hill was past, snaking along the coast with glimpses of bays and tiny harbours and I arrived at the ferry a minute or two behind the Glaswegians and in good time for the departure.
Once on South Uist I settled down for a long evening ride, aiming to camp on the beach about half-way up the island. After a few miles I was hailed by Tom, standing in the front garden of the bed and breakfast that they had booked ahead and he filled my water bottle for me. We chatted for a while then the dreaded highland midgies started to gather and I was on my way. He and Elizabeth were following the same circular route as me but with greater confidence (they were seasoned racing cyclists to whom 70 miles was an easy day’s ride) and the intention of looping up round Lewis as well.
The road was a good one, single track but good tarmac and the local drivers were considerate and friendly, everybody waves hello to everybody in the outer isles. The Uists and Benbecula are low lying, with beautiful silver sand beaches on their west coasts and the ride was an easy one, if lacking in spectacle. As evening drew in I took a side road which seemed from my map to lead to the beach that I was heading for but, in fact, turned back south with the coast on my right. I passed a large gloomy ruined farm and was about to turn down a track that might take me in the right direction when I saw an old man by the road and stopped to ask for advice.
He was pleased to see me and confirmed my fears that I was well out of my way and would need to head back to the main road. We discussed the midgie, for a while, then it became apparent that the wee beastie was with us and I set off.
The landscape in the misty evening was low key, even depressing. Marshy land to each side was punctuated by pools of water, too small to be called lochs, the occasional corrugated iron shed and fences of rusty barbed wire. The mist was thickening and began to cover my glasses with tiny droplets that made it very difficult to see. To make it worse there was still a fair amount of light in the sky so my reactolite lenses were quite dark. My clothes became damp and I felt chilled.
My map, a tourist map of the Hebrides which had seemed to be both a good scale and well detailed, turned out to be much less helpful than I expected. For the rest of the trip I had 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey maps which are formidably accurate and complete but the long narrow outer Isles were spread over a great number of OS sheets so I had opted for the more sensibly laid out tourist map. I was heading for a section of road which both passed close to the beach and, in case I chickened out, passed a hostel. However I never saw the hostel and the road wound its way across a wide expanse of flat country, with no sign of the sea and no landmarks or road junctions that related to my map. Eventually I worked my way back to the main road, beaten for the second time and getting a little worried.
I put my rear light on as I didn’t want to be rear-ended by a drunk, and struck out once more, wiping my glasses and peering into the gloom at my map and the road ahead. I came eventually to a section where the roads seemed to go where the map said and found myself on a grass track which crossed a wide tract of meadows, eventually delivering me onto the sand dunes overlooking a beach that would grace any tropical holiday brochure.
A quick hunt for some rocks to anchor my tent, a meal of pasta and some shortbread biscuits, a short read in my sleeping bag and my first day was over. No midgies to speak of.