I cycled the length of the Scottish Outer Hebridean chain over four days with the small-group tour operator Wilderness Scotland.
Only a ferry ride away from the mainland, this archipelago feels far removed in time and temperament, with few tourists to mar one’s Outlander fantasies. The Western Isles, as they’re called, lie on Europe’s edge, linked to North America geologically and to the Irish Gaels culturally. Dotting the coast are glistening beaches, imposing headlands, and Neolithic sites that include the Calanais standing stones, older than Stonehenge. I slept in quirky inns such as the Isle of Barra Beach Hotel, the supposed first refuge of the deposed shah of Iran in 1979, and visited shops where designers put mod spins on Harris tweed.
Aye, and I found enough clan castles, Iron Age brooch ruins, peat moors, and machair grasslands to fill a romance novel.
Read guidebooks, watched the BBC's 8-part documentary "History of Scotland," streamed the movies "Braveheart," "Rob Roy," and "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," and memorized a poem by Robert Burns. I think I'm ready for my trip tomorrow.
A Scottish welcome: Assistance from Euan and Isla in collecting my luggage at Edinburgh airport. Thanks, Paul!
A lovely, sunny day in Scotland: We're running up one of the seven hills of Edinburgh to make an appointment at the Castle.
In this room at Edinburgh Castle, Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to the future King James VI, in 1566. Another must-see: the Scottish Crown Jewels, used first by Robert the Bruce in 1306 and squirreled away for 100 years until rediscovered by Sir Walter Scott in the 19th century. Oh, and the Stone of Destiny is here, too. It's easy to geek out on history in this city.
Tasted as good as it looks. A small plate of asparagus, spring onion, cured hen's yolk, rye, foraged leaves, and cider vinegar from Timberyard on Lady Lawson Street, Edinburgh.
Wow, it's 10pm and the sun is just now setting! View from room 552 at the Balmoral, Edinburgh. It's the very room in which J.K. Rowling spent two months finishing the last Harry Potter book. There's a signed plaque to attest to it.
Castle on the hill. This piece of volcanic rock has been inhabited, marauded, besieged, defended, and otherwise occupied for the last two millennia, at least. It's now overrun with tourists, though deservedly so, and I was one of them. Edinburgh Castle, Scotland.
This local lad serving up fresh mussels on Oban, a coastal town in northwestern Scotland, isn't Scottish at all. He's from Cleveland, Ohio, working his way around the world. Great idea for a gap year!
Land ho. Approaching mist-covered Barra in the Outer Hebrides. The ferry crossing from Oban to Barra takes 5 hours. Today's crossing was calm, though they tell me it isn't always.
Monkfish and mussels on lemon risotto at Isle of Barra Beach Hotel. Outer Hebrides, Scotland. Did you know that this small hotel at the far western edge of Europe housed the deposed and exiled Shah of Iran and his family for months in 1979? It's a delightfully quirky family-owned place with a stunning--and typically empty--beach.
Did I mention I'm on a bike trip? These are three from our group of eight, plus two guides with the outfitter Wilderness Scotland. Today we went from the Isle of Vatersay, to Barra, to Eriskay, to South Uist--by bike and ferry.
White sands, cerulean waters. Could be the Caribbean, but it's not. It's a beach on Barra, in Scotland's Western Isles, or Outer Hebrides.
Accessible only by boat, the restored medieval castle of Kisimul was the seat of the Macneil clan of Barra. I was half-hoping to find a handsome Scottish laird, but alas, it was empty.
The Barra airport only appears when the tide goes out. Twin Otter planes fly in and land on the runway of sand. Check out the sign.
A couple of notes to keep in mind when biking in Scotland: the front- and rear-wheel brakes on British bikes are reversed, and cars and bikes drive on the left (i.e., wrong) side of the road. My brain was on serious overtime trying to keep that straight, plus get used to riding a bike with clip-on pedals and an unfamiliar gear-changing system on hilly terrain. It was like sudoku, Lumosity, and ginkgo biloba all rolled into one.
Ferry crossing to Eriskay. We land close to the beach where Bonnie Prince Charles landed in 1745 in an unsuccessful attempt to regain the throne. It's a long and complicated and fascinating story worth reading up on.
So there was a boat full of liquor that went down off the island of Eriskay in the 1940s. What happens next was the subject of a popular British book and movie called Whiskey Galore." Here is a barkeep at the pub called Politician (named after said ship) who is holding an original bottle with original liquid still sloshing in it. I'm going to try to find that book and movie first thing when I get back home.
The sky, the sea, the sun (!), the machair (look it up), and the bike group (all Brits save me). Today's ride: 42 miles through four islands, from South Uist to Benbecula to Grimsay, to North Uist.
An early 18th-century castle, now a ruin, on South Uist, once the seat of the Clanranald chiefs.
You can stay here for cheap. This erstwhile crofter's house (two-foot-thick walls and a thatched roof) is a hostel, and it is right next to 13th-century ruins of Christian chapels and buildings. On the island of South Uist.
No hostels for me, however. I'm staying at the Langass Lodge on North Uist, a former hunting lodge turned inn. Lots of wall space devoted to the majestic red deer, a royal favorite and Scotland's largest terrestrial mammal.
The ferry crossing through Harris Sound to South Harris. There are many skerries (small, rocky outcroppings) around which the ships must navigate.
The water might be a bit cold, but otherwise, the beaches on South Harris rival the best in the world. And they're often empty. I'm halfway through a bike trip through the Outer Hebrides with the outfitter Wilderness Scotland. It's fun wheeling through causeways and onto ferries and seeing one stunning sight after another.
That's a big lobster! It's so big that the chef at the nonprofit Scalpay Community Cafe, where we had a delicious dinner, was unsure what to do with it. Isle of Scalpay, Western Islands, Scotland.
A traditional Scottish breakfast might include eggs, bacon (ham), sausage, black pudding (you don't want to know what's in it, but it's delicious). This was my breakfast today at the Harris Hotel, (opened in 1865 under a different name). Guests have included J.M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame, who etched his initials on a window pane in 1912.
Tweed. And you thought it was just for deerstalkers and academics. This enlightening exhibit at the Harris Tweed museum and shop shows you otherwise. Fun fact: Harris tweed can be made on any of the Western Isles, but must be made in the traditional way, using a hand loom, to get the official stamp.
On today's 40-mile ride through hill and dale, we encountered a little of everything: clouds, rain, hail (!), sun, wind. Anxiety turned to exhilaration after I knew I'd made it through unscathed. Our guides from Wilderness Scotland, two Tims, were encouraging and calming presences who pushed beyond comfort levels, but not beyond capabilities.
A monument at Baile Ailein, on Harris, commemorating the land struggle by crofters during the 1880s. It's dedicated to the "heroes of the lochs."
These prehistoric standing stones of Callanish, at some 4000 years old, are older than Stonehenge. It's unclear why they were placed there. But the stones were carried from a great distance and placed in a circle and lines, so they were clearly of great significance. Unlike at Stonehenge, people--and dogs--can walk among the stones and ponder their meaning at leisure. On the island of Lewis and Harris.
Should Scotland be independent of the United Kingdom? On September. 18. 2014, there will be a referendum in Scotland. It's a constant topic of local conversation around here, though this is the only billboard I ever saw. Clearly someone here on Lewis thinks it should be independent.
Port Nis post office, on the Isle of Lewis. We're nearing the end of our south-to-north bike ride through the Outer Hebrides chain of Scotland.
The Butt of Lewis, northern point of the Western Isles and endpoint of our journey by bike and ferry (and supporting van). We biked over nine islands, some 175 miles over four days--the length of the Outer Hebrides chain. The ending does not disappoint.
The women in our group of 10: Knackered (I have a new British vocabulary) but happy, having cycled the length of the Outer Hebrides from south to north. Thanks to friends old and new, Scottish and English: Paul, Stevie, Fiona, Tim F, Tim W, Diana, Caroline, Penny, Steve, Charlie, Jonathan, and Martin.
Parting shot: Through a train window from Inverness to Edinburgh, around 9:30pm.
Traveling's fun, but even better to be met at the airport and driven home by these two guys.
This post first appeared in the Intelligent Travel blog on October 6, 2014. Photos © Norie Quintos