Tour the Western Isles

I cycled lonely as a cloud, That struggles hard o’er vale and hill, Then all at once I cried out loud, My bottom hurts and it’s raining still

Someone famous


I am no long-distance cycling hero. I have never been convinced that wearing lycra and suicidally, strange clip-on shoes makes for a proper way to ‘do’ a holiday. I had a period in my teens when I cycled more for necessity 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 I and 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 ‘stickability’, 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? - Turn round and go nearly all the way back to central England again before heading north? The easier and gentler option 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 all without shaving my legs.

Edinburgh / Balerno / Carnwath / New Lanark YH Day 1
Kilmarnock / Ardrossan (ferry) Arran (Brodick) 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 / Calgary / Killiechronan / Salen / Craignure / Oban / Kilninver Day 14
Craobh Marina / Kilmartin / Crinan / Lochgilphead / Ardrishaig / Tarbert / Kennacraig / Claonig / Lochranza Day 15
Lochranza SS Waverley to Glasgow. Train to Edinburgh Day 16

Chris is the most pleasant and unassuming insurance man I know. His days are fully committed to his business and running a Sailabilty Club. 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.

Follow the red line for bike route and blue for ferry

One thing he kept quiet about but he assured me was all in order was 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. 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

On arrival in Edinburgh, Chris spent the evening packing his panniers and much to my horror, making 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 winding its way up the A1 to Edinburgh. Shortly after buying it he had taken it to his Sailing Club and while at a meeting, it was allegedly stolen from his kit bag. 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 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-like Chris and me! 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’ colours. Unfortunately, the camping section is three flights up, so there we were, gasping for breath at the top of the stairs. I am surprised we weren’t issued with oxygen cylinders; however, it betrayed to all the smug, muscle-bound shop assistants our complete lack of fitness. Chris got busy buying clothes, emergency packs and a frighteningly large bag of creams and lotions.

Edinburgh - our starting point


We only had to do 30 miles on the first day (to New Lanark Youth Hostel), so a late start had been anticipated, but time was getting on. Eventually, we started along the Union Canal and what a pleasure it was. This is part of a national cycle route to Glasgow and the narrowness of the towpath combined with the occasional dog walker made it a slow ride.

Union Canal towpath/cyclepath not a very good combination, really.

I had left my home town (Edinburgh) 40 years ago and like all waterside areas in large towns these days, it had been the subject of extensive development. I especially noticed that Balerno, which also 40 years ago, was out in the countryside was now well within the suburbs of the city.

We journeyed along the A720 which is aptly also called the ‘Lang Whang’. It was one of those roads, that lives up to its name and never seems to end. It is a surprisingly bleak road despite the good views across the Forth and to the Pentland Hills.The only small towns we passed through were Carnwrath and Carstairs. The exposed bare countryside confirms why the area is so sparsely populated.

Late in the evening New Lanark Youth hostel however, did eventually appear on the road signs. It was well hidden down some whopper of a steep hill, complete with S-bends and into the depths of a dark, tree covered gorge. This runs from the town of Lanark into New Lanark. As you will read later, this is a misnomer, as New Lanark is in fact the older of the two. I certainly enjoyed the ride but with grave thoughts about getting out of here in the morning. The next day’s ride of 53 miles to Ardrossan was going to be hard work to catch the 3pm ferry. Getting back uphill from the hostel was going to be a major obstacle to this objective.

It's bleak, it's long it's the 'Lang Whang'.

Anyway, I arrived at the hostel without Chris, who I am sure I last saw not far behind me at the top off the hill, just before I began my descent. Eventually, he made his appearance and on enquiring about his lateness I established that he had in fact walked his bike down the steepest bits as he “didn’t like riding down hills”. We intended to have a quick ride along the front of the houses to look for a shop as we needed something for tea. On starting off I heard an almighty crash and turned to see that Chris had fallen off his bike having completely failed to remember that his feet were in toe clips. A good place to do this sort of thing is at a busy tourist World Heritage site like New Lanark. I left him propped up against a wall supping his water (not before taking a picture of the injuries, of course). Tourist’s at the scene, began piecing together the information available - bottom of hill- bike lying on the road – injured cyclist nearby? The assumption then was made - Chris had suffered catastrophic brake failure coming down the steep hill and that he had heroically skidded to a halt by using his knees as a brake pad. The rush to his aid by a multitude of international visitors would have put UNICEF to shame; poor Chris was a bit shocked even if all is injuries amounted to was a skint knee. On my return he was gallantly telling a posse of women of a certain age about the proposed trip and his efforts to cycle all of 30 miles from Edinburgh that day. It became very noticeable that Chris and ladies of a certain age were mutually attracted and often over the next few weeks Chris would be seen posing next to his bike while regaling his exploits on touring the B6047 and the back lanes of Leicestershire. I eventually managed to pry him away and got him to the hostel.

New Lanark YHA now 'run' by local hotel.

My search for a food shop had ended in complete failure as I found that the nearest shop was – guess where? Back up that bloody hill - I would rather starve than do it as the prospect of doing that hill tomorrow was bad enough. Planning the day’s rations are a logistical nightmare for the cyclist with minimum carrying space. I did carry emergency food supplies but, even in my current starved state, to break into these supplies on the first night was not going to be a good sign. So it was a hungry stare by us at the very dodgy looking selection of pot noodles and tinned foods for sale in the hostel. We choose the dried spicy couscous which, accordingly to the label was packaged in East Grinstead. It was news to me that East Grinstead was the centre of couscous excellence, after eating it I can confirm it isn’t. We also both totally disbelieved the blurb on the front that this was a meal for two, so we bought two packets. It turned out that, in fact, two packets would have been enough to feed the population of New Lanark.

Now the hostel itself was excellent, in that it was modern and the rooms were all en-suite and had no more than four beds in each. After slaving over a hot kettle and cooking our hard-earned tea. I went for a walk up to the Falls of the Clyde which I might add, despite it being mid-summer, was in full flow. If I had the time I would have written a song about it. Chris, however, missed most of this as he spent the evening repacking his panniers having discovered the first law of touring cycling; that anything you need will be in the other pannier but you will not discover this until the pannier you first went to is emptied and spread all over the road. I have already mentioned this particularly applied to his AWOL cutlery. Chris was henceforth often to be seen eating yogurt with a large plastic ladle.

The Falls of the Clyde - a superb riverside walk.

On return from my evening stroll I went straight to bed, worrying my head off about the climb out of here and then the 53 miles to do tomorrow by 3pm. Chris had spread everything he now possessed around the room and as it was getting late, it looked as if there were 2 of us in the room and not four. As I was lying in my bed I made the comment to him that it looked as if we were going to have the room to ourselves when…… you have guessed it, there was a rattle at the door in came two rather large leather clad bikers (by bikers, I don’t mean the Lycra wearing, peace-loving, car-hating bikers. I mean the other type). Being a well organised soul I had packed my kit ready for the early start, this meant I was fairly safe in that my worldly possessions were clearly established in my clearly defined personal space.

This was not the case with poor Chris, whose idea of writing everything down and recording which one of his three bags it was in, had now clearly gone down the pan in a big way. Chris, who had never been in a hostel before, was rudely brought down to earth when confronted by our two new guests. Gathering up this jumble into several black plastic bags actually made it worse for him. Now, Chris’s panniers were not waterproof. Yes, cycle panniers not waterproof – what was the point in making them? So he needed to keep everything in plastic bags, the rustling noise was deafening as he hoovered everything up and continually and profusely apologised to the bigger of the two guests. I however, kept my eyes firmly shut, I thought it best to pretend to be asleep and occasionally letting out a pretend snort hoping it would sound like I was about to come awake – so keep the noise down! It turned out that our two Hells Angels were in fact father and son from Holland and were on the last day of a two-week bike tour of the Highlands.

Like most Dutch people they spoke very good English, if with a soft, Dutch lilt. Chris being Chris is slightly deaf and I suppose nerves had something to do with it as well, but the end result was the Dutchmen would ask a question and get a reply from Chris that bore no relation to the question asked. Couscous and East Grinstead were mentioned at some point and it all got too confusing in the end. Eventually things settled down but a sleepless night ensued as my mind continually replayed the enormity of the hill before us to get of this place. My main worry was the prospect of water-only porridge for breakfast urgggh! Porridge at the best of times is bland and after our first day’s exploits I was not given a chance to settle at all.


Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye! – What’s meant to happen will happen.