The night was 'an experience', to say the least; the wind reached its peak just before dawn but not before there were some almighty gusts. I could hear the seas crashing on the shore but both our tents stood up to it. Despite the near sleepless night we were both smiling with relief when our heads popped out of the tent doors. We had the usual gallon of watery porridge before setting off. We had gone about a mile when with incredible suddeness there was a horrendous rain storm, luckily a bus shelter was nearby – it was a bit draughty but at least we were dry. The rain beat against the shelter, followed by a finale blast of wind in a last ditch attempt to show who was boss around here. However, this delay meant we were in trouble - we had a 9.30 ferry to catch and five miles to do - it was going to be a near thing. It did stop raining as quickly as it started so off we went in the most miserable conditions you could imagine. It was not the time to shoot-off on the wrong road but I managed it, with Chris puffing away a mile behind me. I got to the top of a quite steep hill and on seeing the other side that the road disappeared for miles into the distance – not a ferry terminal in sight; we had a quick look at the map then a quick scoot back down the hill to get on the right road. By this time I am peddling furiously into the headwind, as I was crossing a causeway I saw the ferry in the distance, exhaust smoke was streaming out – it was about to leave! So head-down off I went at breakneck speed hoping to delay the ferry long enough for Chris to catch up. After crossing the causeway I glanced behind there was not a sign of him. The ferry was just leaving the jetty. I was flummoxed – it had left early, not very early, but certainly five minutes before it should have. Bastards!
They thought no was coming hadn’t they – so they were off. As it passed me a man on the ferry pointed back down the road. In my rush to the ferry I had cycled straight passed the concrete slipway. The ferry had only been parked up for the night and was now steaming back the way I had just come. By now I was knackered, so it was that I pedalled furiously, alongside the ferry, back across the causeway and to be met by a bemused Chris.
For the ferry buffs, this ferry was significant – we were going from Berneray to Leverburgh, as the crows flies (or the seagull would be more appropriate) it was only about three miles. Because of shallows, rocks and other minor obstacles like ship wrecks, the ferry actually takes a convoluted route lasting 45 minutes and initially heads off in the wrong direction for a number of miles. There were six of us on the ferry and we could see very little of what was going on outside but we both braved the elements and had long discussions about Cardinal Points, of which there were many. We were now on the Isle of Harris. In the drizzle, Leverburgh looked a miserable sort of place, we did not hang about, so it was for the ‘Golden Road’ to Tarbert. There were significant geological changes – more mountains and a rocky barren landscape. The main road on the island takes you from Leverburgh in the south west, up and round the north coast and over the Harris hills to drop you at Tarbert. We had chosen to take the east route to Tarbert, this road is awe-inspiring, majestic, and breathtaking and whatever other superlative you can think off.
This area is remote and desolate and one of the best cycling roads I’ve ever been on - quite superb. We did have a false start in that we followed the coast road east out of town and it wasn’t quite sitting right with what was on the map. Despite studying it several times I still plodded on as the road got narrower and narrower. It was certainly not my fault; no way in a million years was I to get the wrong road twice in the same day. Chris asked two teenagers playing with a football in a garden which way was it to Tarbert – they pointed back the way we had just come!
I convinced myself they were taking the piss – I was sure we on the right road, until it finally petered out to a gravel track. I could not understand what was wrong, there weren’t that many roads on these islands -how come by sense of direction had totally failed me. It wasn’t until a lot later that we both concluded I was depleted of sleep and food and therefore my judgment of these things was going a bit haywire. It was good that Chris was there as I don’t know what would have happened.
Although the weather was not great when we were on the Outer Hebrides, I still thoroughly enjoyed it and if the weather had been better this may well have been my second favourite island. The final part of the road was the best where you climb 500 ft or so in the Harris hills and then a free run all the way down the other side to Tarbert. During the depression of the 20s, the only road on Harris was the road along the west coast with its dunes and relatively flat landscape, while the rocky east coast, interspersed with thousands of water lily-covered lochans, remained as good as inaccessible. Still, many crofts were situated there (originally, because the inhabitants left the eastern grassy slopes to their sheep and went to live on the rocks themselves), so it was decided to construct a single-track road connecting all the little hamlets, bearing the utmost unpronounceable names of Miabhaig, Drinisiadar, Plocrapol, Scadabhagh, Greosabhag, Aird Mhighe (two of them!), Manais, Fleoideabhagh, Cuidthinis, Fionnsabhagh, Boirseam, Ceann a Bhaigh and finally Lingreabhagh. Scottish Gaelic is like Dutch, Danish and Norwegian passed through a blender and then served up as a kind of breakfast cereal that you know you ought to enjoy but never will. If you can’t pronounce McConnochie, Ecclefechan, Milngavie, Sauchiehall St, St Enoch, Auchtermuchty and Aufurchristsake then you have no chance of ever asking the way on a South Uist Island.
The road planners at the time looked as if all they did was drape a black ribbon over and between the hillocks and the turf, curving around every sea- or inland loch, twisting and turning, going up and down like a rollercoaster track. It cost a fortune, however - the tale is that when Parliament received the bill for this road an MP said “What did they make it from – gold”? Hence, it’s called the Golden Road, though this might equally apply to the views.
Our arrival in Tarbert coincided with more rain. Now, let’s get something right about the description of what we had cycled to, this was a wet Sunday night in the second biggest town in the Western Isles. We cycled around for ages and the streets of Tarbert would have made the 'Mary Celeste' look busy. There wasn’t even a man with a dog, as for anything being open - forget it.
We knew of a bunkhouse on the waterfront and after an initial worry about what we had let ourselves in for, found it to be admirably suitable. The place had squeezed in as many bunk beds as possible – no live-in warden, she turned up later, took our £10 and was off. It had everything we needed though, including a lockable bike shed. Earlier in the evening we sauntered down to the Harris Hotel. This place was at the directly opposite end of the hotel/hostel spectrum. It was very, very, up-market, we however had no hesitation in splashing out on a superb meal (I had Hebridean Black Mackerel) brought in by a nice girl from Norwich who had been serving in Scottish hotels long enough to acquire an Australian accent. We even polished it off with a wee malt before staggering out into the cold wet and miserable Tarbert for the short walk back to the hostel. For all its large comfy sofas and luxurious atmosphere I bet the Harris Hotel didn’t have a lockable bike shed. It was a 7.00 am ferry in the morning to Uig on Skye, so it was going to be an early start again.
An elderly Uist man lay dying in his bed. While suffering the agonies of impending death, he suddenly smelled the aroma of his favourite biscuits wafting up the stairs. He gathered his remaining strength, and lifted himself from the bed. Leaning on the wall, he slowly made his way out of the bedroom, and with even greater effort, gripping the railing with both hands, he crawled downstairs. With laboured breath, he leaned against the door-frame, gazing into the kitchen. Were it not for death’s agony, he would have thought himself already in heaven, for there, spread out upon waxed paper on the kitchen table were literally hundreds of his favourite biscuits, freshly baked. Was it heaven? Or was it one final act of love from his devoted Scottish wife of sixty years, seeing to it that he left this world a happy man? Mustering one great final effort, he threw himself towards the table, landing on his knees in crumpled posture. His aged and withered hand trembled towards a biscuit at the edge of the table, when it was suddenly smacked by his wife with a spatula............. “Piss Off” she said, “they’re for the funeral”.