Outer Hebrides - 2007
Skye, Mallaig, Oban (45 miles) - Thursday, 2 August
Awake at 7.30 am with the prospect of a very civilised start to the day, I showered and put on clean clothes. All the damp things on the radiator were dry and soon packed away. I then went for my full Scottish breakfast and ate everything apart from the black pudding, hadn't realised I was that hungry. I filled my water bottles, fitted the panniers, paid the bill, filled in the visitors' book and set off back down the hill to town, in the rain.
My bike chain was sounding a bit dry so I called at the bike rental shop I'd noticed during my tour around Portree, in search of bike oil. The shop also sold fishing tackle and the nice man interrupted serving a customer brandishing a large fishing rod to sell me a bottle of oil. After lubricating the chain, I rode to the tourist information office to buy the Southern Skye OS map, I realised I should at least know where I was going.
Finally I set off and left Portree southbound into a headwind and more showers. I made good progress cycling up Glen Varragill, again without realising how high until the descent to the Sligachan Hotel. Continuing on the A87 round the coast north eastwards there were gorgeous views down Loch Sligachan towards Raasay. I arrived at Sconser and saw the Calmac ferry terminal for the crossing to Raasay. The ferry Loch Striven was in so I quickly considered using my rover ticket to cross and maybe camp for the night on the island. I speeded up but could see the ramp going up and the ferry backing away from the slipway, I'd missed it by about 200 metres. I decided to carry on instead of waiting for the next crossing, it's not like I'd planned to go to Raasay but I would have done given the chance.
Just after the Sconser Lodge Hotel, I turned left off the main road taking the old road sign-posted 'alternative scenic route'. Having past through the quarry, the road clung to the coastline with impressive views of Raasay and Scalpay before turning back along Loch Ainort. I enjoyed this deviation, only one car passed me and the sun came out while I stopped for dinner at a scenic spot by a stone bridge over the river that empties into the head of the loch.
photograph - by the bridge
The sky grew grey so I set off again back to the main road and along the southern shore of Loch Ainort. I stopped briefly at a bridge where Scalpay seemed closest and the mountains formed an impressive back drop on the Skye side. The road passed through wooded areas before I coasted into Broadford. At the Co-op I stopped and spoke to another cyclist who was going the other way. He'd started at Glen Nevis that morning and had come across via the Mallaig ferry. He told me that the journey to Armadale was relatively easy with just a few climbs, although he had the wind in his favour.
I bought more water and a lemon drink before moving on and stopping at a jewellery shop to have a look round. They had some very nice pieces but a touch expensive. I was not at all sure what to do next, this being Thursday and everyone had told me it could take two days to cross Skye. If the cyclist was right, I could easily make Armadale and even cross to Mallaig that evening. I considered a B&B in Broadford or finding a camp site.
The sun was out so I decided to carry on and soon reached the turning to Armadale and followed the 'new' looking road up through some cuttings. I made good progress and coped with the modest climbs and gentle descents. I stopped for a snack in the sunshine, consisting of biscuits, cheese and sweets from the second US MRE meal.
I had planned to stop at Knock to find a camp site but I breezed past without noticing. On checking my new map I discovered that I was only a few miles from Armadale so whilst feeling tired, I carried on. The final ascent brought me round to the ferry terminal with gorgeous views across the Sound of Sleat to the Scottish mainland.
The ferry was coming across as I arrived at 4.20 pm. There were several coach parties on the dock and the scene was set by a bagpiper entertaining the crowds. The boat docked and the cyclists boarded the Coruisk first for the 5.05 pm departure for Mallaig. During the 30 minute crossing there were views of Rum and Eigg to the south silhouetted against a moody steel grey sky.
The ferry weaved its way into Mallaig harbour where the Calmac small islands ferry Loch Nevis was tied up. As I pushed my bike up the ramp, a man shouted down advertising a bus service to Oban that also catered for bikes, £16 plus £2 for the bike. I had planned to catch the train but had no idea about the timetable and thought I would end up staying the night in Mallaig. The offer of a bus to Oban that night was a very attractive proposition.
The man and his bus were parked up around to the right. The driver was clad in a Calmac fleece and I noticed that the bus was adorned with Calmac stickers. At first sight this looked for all the world like a Calmac bus service linking mainland ferry ports, but it soon became obvious that it was an independent enterprise. They put the bike carefully between the driver's seat and the front row of passenger seats, and secured it with elasticated straps. The driver's assistant helped me load the panniers and together with the driver's assistant's wife, we set off for Oban, via Fort William.
The mountain and coastal scenery was stunning in the evening sunshine. We passed through Morar where the beaches were used in the film Local Hero, my favourite film of all time. The driver clearly knew the route and drove swiftly but surely along the winding road. We arrived in Fort William and it was a slight surprise when we went into the bus station to stop for a while at a real bus stop. After about ten minutes, and according to some timetable, we set off for Oban and more stunning scenery.
At 8.20 pm we arrived in Oban and I was dropped off in the Central car park beside my car. I could not fault the service and would recommend the 'Mallaig and Oban West Highland Flyer' to anyone. The driver gave me details of their service:
Operates from 30th March to 20th October Monday to Saturday outward - depart Oban 9.45, depart Fort William 11.00, arrive Mallaig 12.15 return - depart Mallaig 18.00, depart Fort William 19.25, arrive Oban 20.30
For me this had been a god send, cheaper than the train, it saved an overnight stay in Mallaig and I'd ended up right next to my car. Brilliant. I packed up the car, fitted the rack and bike and the car even started!
I'd had a brilliant time during the week. Whilst I had some regret that I'd not cycled the whole way, I had in fact cycled over 200 miles on my first real bike tour and learned a great deal about myself.
Island tour: Vatersay, Barra, Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, Grimsay, North Uist, Berneray, Harris, Lewis, Skye and (by car) Arran.
All the people I met on the islands were extremely helpful, kind and friendly. I owe many thanks to the beach party for an excellent warm welcome and a great debt of gratitude to the joiners who saved me from misery.
The wind was a constant feature, mostly in the wrong direction and the rain certainly made life uncomfortable. The periods of sunshine and stunning sunsets made it all worthwhile.
I would like to return to explore Lewis and watch out for the northern lights. I'd also return to Luskentyre to camp in the sunshine.
View more photographs from the trip.