A Journey to the Western Isles


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I cycled lonely as a cloud, that struggles hard o’er vale and hill, then all at once I cried out loud. 'Begone bastard midges, my bottom hurts and it’s raining still'.

Why?

I am definitely not a cycling, long-distance, hero, sort of person. I have avoided the wearing of Lycra and dangerously suicidal clip-on shoes. A cycling adventure up until this project was definitely not on my 'to-do' list. I had a period in my teens when I cycled more for economy than sport but since then it’s been the sedate option on the transport front. Forty years have gone by and my cycling experiences have been limited to the annual acknowledgement of the Tour de France from a cosy armchair. So what is this all about? Male bravado and a late mid-life crisis perhaps, but also a need to complete something physically significant before it was to late for my weary, rapidly aging body.

Speaking of weary, rapidly aging bodies – brings me to mention my partner in this little adventure – Chris. It was important for my own ego that I was not to be shown up as wimp in all this, so the person I took along was to be of equal or lesser physical fitness than me. Chris met this criterion fully. I may have been the (very slightly) fitter of the two but as our journey progressed he certainly was the stronger mentally and his uncomplaining attitude was very noticeable. Chris’s gangly frame and determined smile as he pushed his bike up and down the hills (yes ‘down’, more of that later) in the far outback of bonnie Scotland was a complement to his ‘stick-ability’, even more so because the weather during the ride was simply awful.

Initially, our journey plan was the LEJOG, that’s how we touring cyclists describe the Lands’ End – John O’Groats cycle route. Of course, I only counted myself as a touring cyclist at this stage because I owned a touring bike, but as Robbie Burns once said “There’s a moose loose aboot the hoose”, or was it “best laid plans o’ mice and men”? Well it was something to do with mice, and the plan went slightly astray.

The LEJOG option was giving me logistical nightmares. Lands End is 430 miles from my home in Market Harborough and on arrival at the long pointy bit of Cornwall, what do we do? Yes - turn round and go nearly all the way back to central England again before heading north. The easier and gentler option (or so I thought) was that we do 500 miles through the Outer Hebrides and visit as many Scottish Islands as possible in the process.

In the end we did 17 islands – and both of us did survived the midges!

Places Day
Edinburgh / Balerno / New Lanark Day 1
Kilmarnock / Ardrossan (ferry) Arran Day 2
Lamlash/ Lochranza / Kennacraig Day 3
Islay (Port Ellen)/ Bowmore / Port Askaig Day 4
Colonsay / Oban Day 5
Coll/Tiree / Barra (Castlebay) Day 6
Vatersay / Eriskay / South Uist (Howmore) Day 7
Benbecula / Berneray Day 8
Leverburgh / North Uist (Tarbert) Day 9
Skye (Uig)/ Staffin / Portree Day 10
Armadale / Mallaig Day 11
Moidart / Salen / Reispole Day 12
Kilchoan / Mull (Tobermory) Day 13
Darvaig / Salen / Craignure / Oban / Kilninver Day 14
Craobh Marina /Crinan /Claonig / Lochranza Day 15
SS Waverley to Glasgow. Train to Edinburgh Day 16
Cycle 460 miles
Ferry (13) 355 miles
Train (1) 46 miles
Bus (1) 25 miles
Camp 7 nights
Hotels/ B&B 6 nights
Porridge consumption 1 gal per mile
Whisky consumption 40 miles to the dram

Chris is the most pleasant and unassuming insurance man I know. His days are fully committed to his business and helping run numerous community groups. Unfortunately, this leaves very little time for himself. Ten weeks before our epic journey was to begin he had not even got the minimum of required equipment - a bike! In the end this involved a bidding frenzy on E-bay where the pressure was on him to complete the purchase in total disregard for its actual true value. It also entailed a long journey to Cheltenham and back for the item which quickly ended up in the local bike shop for an expensive, complete overhaul.

After months of planning and preparation (by me) and testing of equipment (also me) I finally got packed and ready for the off with days to spare. Chris, on the other hand, had me running around Leicester for equipment. This 'stuff' included a few minor items - things like a lightweight sleeping bag and panniers for his bike - this on the day before we were due to leave. I managed to buy him a camping cutlery set for £1.99 which came in a very smart black canvas sleeve. However, it was not to last long, as over the next 17 days this cutlery had the knack of disappearing either totally for days on end or more often, just before a meal was to be eaten.

A major expedition on day one was a visit to the shops in Princess Street.

One thing he kept quiet about and assured me was all in order was the acquiring of a hiking tent that he had purchased earlier that week. I should have known to have asked more questions. What I did establish was the fact that it had not even been out of its bag since purchase. Not like 'Mr Know-it-all' me. I had the week previously done a dry run (no – come to think of it, wasn’t a dry run – it rained) to St Neot’s in Cambridge with my bike for a weekend try-out.

The drive up to Edinburgh was passed in no time, (I wish)! Chris spent the evening packing his panniers as when I had gone round to collect him from his house that morning he hadn't got round to doing that bit. So it was that he sat in the back seat with all his worldly possessions for the next three weeks spread- out next to him. At my Mum's house and much to my horror he started to make an extensive list of items he was missing and needed to purchase in the morning before we left.

One thing that he did not have was his new and expensive digital camera; bought the week we were due to leave, it was not with his luggage currently spread over my mother's living room. As he mentally tried to trace backs its short existence of ownership he apparently had taken it to his Sailing Club the day he got it and was sure it last seen in his kit bag from which it was now allegedly stolen. Chris - normally a law abiding, mild mannered citizen was not amused at its loss. Anyway, the call for retribution on all mankind and in particular the members of the Northampton Sailing Club, were worthy of a rampaging Muslim Cleric.

Saturday morning came and was spent running around the shops in Princes Street and in particular Tiso’s. I need to say a word about Tiso’s, this is a shop for the heroic adventurer - yes, like Chris and I! If you are a Munro bagger you do it in Tiso’s clothes. skiers, canoeists, climbers beat a path to their door for the latest outdoor gear and more importantly to parade in hills of Scotland in this seasons’ fashionable colours. Unfortunately, the camping section is three flights up, so there we were, gasping for breath at the top of the stairs. We really ought to have been issued with oxygen cylinders as the effort exhausted us both, unfortunately it betrayed to he smug, muscle-bound shop assistant, our complete lack of fitness. When we told him what we were doing I could hear him muttering under his breath. Anyway, Chris got busy buying clothes, emergency packs, midge nets and the compulsory Avon 'Soft and Gentle'. A frighteningly, large bag of creams and lotions from Boots next door completed the mornings expedition.

We were due to leave for the 'wild west nether regions' of Glasgow this afternoon.