Britain’s remotest cycle route puts you cheek-to-windswept-cheek with the wild Atlantic. Cycling the Outer Hebrides from heel to head, you’ll experience stark scenery like nowhere else in the country. With ferries shuttling you from island to island, the Hebridean Way is undoubtedly the best way to discover Scotland’s island frontier.
There are few roads in the Hebrides, and the cycle route is designed to choose the quietest and most picturesque of them. Even the biggest village en route has a population of just 500, leaving you space and time to be alone with the landscape.
Most of the route is flat. The exception is Harris (the northernmost island), which has a couple of significant climbs. They’re not exactly high mountains, but when you’re starting from sea level, a 200m hill with occasional 10% gradients is not to be sniffed at. But don’t let it put you off what’s generally an easy route. Wind and weather are more likely to be a challenge, so check the forecast before setting off and make sure you have appropriate clothing.
Ah yes. The gradients are (mostly) gentle, the surfaces are smooth, but the weather could be your greatest challenge.
Most of the time, the Hebridean weather is mild, and you can enjoy glorious sun in the summer months. Yet when the mood takes it, the weather can be Biblical. The saying “four seasons in one day” has never been more appropriate. In particular, the wind can, and does, blow from any direction, at speeds of up to 60mph if you’re unlucky. And then there’s the rain…
What does this mean when planning your trip? Aim for a season when the weather is more likely to be forgiving. From October to January the weather is at its wettest and windiest. May to September is the best time to visit; there’s a lot to be said for June, when the weather is forgiving but the accommodation isn’t fully booked up.
And consider a plan B if you suddenly find, five days before departure, that the weather will be intolerable. The Caledonian Way, from Campbeltown to Oban, Fort William and Inverness, is a Scottish alternative that is (usually!) spared the climate extremes of the Hebrides.
Most cyclists will spend between four and six days on the route. You could do it in less, but ferry times restrict your options.
It’s all on-road, so any bike will be fine.
Don’t fret that you’re heading into a remote land where there are no shops and nowhere to stay – these are the Outer Hebrides, not Outer Mongolia. But it does help to be aware of a few differences. Tourism dominates the economy in the summer months, and B&Bs can fill up unexpectedly, so you may choose to book ahead. Note that many B&Bs are not bookable through online portals.
The route bypasses the major ports of Lochmaddy and Stornoway, choosing the less travelled roads on the opposite shores. Plan a little in advance to ensure you have your evening meal!
The Western Isles still “keep Sunday special”. It’s not a complete shutdown: many tourist businesses, takeaways and so on will still be open. But you’ll find fewer shops open on a Sunday than other days. This is particularly the case on Lewis, so try to plan your trip so you arrive there on a different day.
Cash machines are few and far between, and some B&Bs/campsites may not take cards. Check when booking, and keep some spare cash in your wallet just in case.
Yes. The Hebridean Way is National Cycle Network route 780, so you’ll see the familiar blue cycle signs.
South to north makes best use of the prevailing winds, which can be fierce at times.
Any exploration of the Isles always involves getting to know Caledonian MacBrayne, the long-standing ferry operator. Castlebay on Barra, at the southern end of the route, is reached by ferry from Oban with one sailing on most days. At the northern end, you can backtrack to the port at Stornoway, for the regular ferry to Ullapool.
Oban has a railway station, but Ullapool doesn’t. You can either cycle on from Ullapool to Garve (30 miles) or Inverness (60 miles), or take one of the private bike bus services. Alternatively, Hebridean operators will take you and your bike back from Lewis to Castlebay.
Bikes are carried free on the ferries and don’t require booking except in groups of six or more.
(If you don’t mind missing out Barra, you can also take the ferry from Mallaig on the mainland to Lochboisdale, rather than Oban to Castlebay.)
The Western Isles are a chain of islands linked by regular CalMac ferries. You’ll need to take two on your route: Barra–Eriskay, and Berneray–Leverburgh (Harris). These run every few hours through the day so don’t impose too much of a route-planning burden. But it’s worth checking the last ferry times each day, particularly if you’ve pre-booked accommodation.