A New Cycling Rhythm

With all the cycle touring we have done to date, we have our daily routine down pat. Up early, cycle 20 miles or so, stop for breakfast, and finish about 50 miles by mid-afternoon. When weather permits, and the opportunity arises, an ice cream break is always welcome. Detours are kept to a minimum and touristy stops are limited. It works for us. At least in the US and Canada.

This trip is our first foray into cycling abroad, and Scotland has imposed new cultural norms that play havoc with our normal mode of operation.

For starters, forget getting on the road early. Every lodging except hostels includes breakfast as part of the package. Not just coffee and rolls, a full cooked breakfast. If we're lucky, they might start serving at 7:30. 8:00 or 8:30 is more the norm. We're too economical to skip out on something that we've paid for, so morning relaxation has been imposed. And the meal is hearty enough to prevent rushing. Funny, but every day it gets easier to linger our way into the start of the day.

Cyclists at the coffee shop

We do miss our morning breakfast break, though. Now that we have returned to more populated areas of Scotland, we are able to substitute a coffee shop stop instead. It turns out we are not the only cyclists who fancy a caffeine break. On Skye, we coasted up to a local coffee shop to find it overrun with cyclists – many of whom we had seen the day before on our ferry. The choice of venue was obvious. It was the perfect morning for sitting outside in the sun.

Setting off later means finishing later in the day as well. We found it put a time crunch in our evening, and robbed us of time for blogging and relaxing. But like everything there is a remedy. Just don't cycle as far. To be fair, there is a more significant factor at play here. Hills. Lots of them. There is a reason this is called the Highlands. All that climbing takes a lot of extra effort, not to mention taking its toll on our speed. So we figure each mile cycled equates to something more than a normal mile. The same math applies to headwinds as well. We have lots of ways we can rationalize adjusting our average to around 38 miles a day.

Molly celebrates completing a tough climb

While we are at it, we have loosened our standards on the tourist thing. After all, what's the point of being in Scotland if we don't take time to see some of the sights? Our last day on Skye had us staying right near the Clan Donald Skye Centre. Having reached our destination by early afternoon, we abandoned our bikes and took in the full extent of its offerings.

The museum covered the clan system in Scotland, as well as tracing the Donald Clan. But it was really the grounds that we enjoyed the most. The MacDonalds had been frequenting a manor house there since the 1650s. It was only in 1815 that it was extended to form Armadale Castle, and was used by the MacDonalds up until 1925. Left to the elements, it has fallen in disrepair, with trees and flowering bushes now inhabiting its exposed interior.

Armadale Castle

The extensive gardens include several woodland walks. Following the red trail, we discovered that spring had taken firm hold and the woods were carpeted with bluebells and white flowering garlic. It brought back memories of the blue bonnets in Texas on last year's cycling tour.

Bluebells on Skye

Throughout the formal gardens the rhododendron were in bloom. They came in all colors and sizes, including huge flowering trees.

Rhododendrons

Two hours passed quickly. Two hours that we could have been cycling. But with our new cycling rhythm, it was perfectly acceptable to while away those hours instead.

 

Our luck goes Skye high

Progress to date: 10 days, 384 miles

It wasn't how I had planned to spend the evening. Instead of lounging in the comfortable sitting rooms of the hotel we were holed up in our room frantically dialing phone numbers. What is usually a simple task, finding lodging for the next night, had turned into an impossible search. We had planned to stay Portree, the capital of Skye and an attractive town on the coast. But after literally dozens of tries, it was clear that the whole world was staying in Portree this weekend, and were were not going to be some of them. At last, a cancellation at a lodge about 14 miles further landed us a twin room. We took it.

Arriving on the Isle of Skye, I was immediately taken with the intense green landscape. After the barrenness of the Outer Hebrides, it felt like we had returned to spring. Gorse bushes once again flowered on the roadside and the hills were covered in a green carpet.

We climbed out of Uig then followed valleys that offered spectacular views and little in the way of steep hills. And for once, the wind was mild. We dodged the rain that fell mid-day and cycled under mostly sunny skies. And just as I expected of Scotland, it showered on us now and then but never enough to be a nuisance. Cycling was easy and life was good.

Portree turned out to be a pretty and bustling little town. All those tourists inhabiting the guesthouses were strolling the streets in the sunshine, popping in and out of attractive little shops that populated the town center. It was disppointing to know we could not stay to enjoy its offerings. But we did make a successful stop at a bike shop for a quick repair to my brakes and take time to photograph the town's iconic view.

The further we got from Portree, the more dramatic the landscape became. The verdant fields were replaced by striking mountains. The closer we got, the more unnerved I became. I knew the road made a sharp turn back to the water, but for the life of me I couldn't see how. It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere.

Rich in the middle of nowhere
Sconser Lodge

Suddenly we plunged downhill into a town, and the promised turn materialized in front of me. Soon we were sailing alongside an inlet. With the sun on our backs as well as the wind, it was sweet cycling. At the mouth of the inlet we rounded a curve that brought us to the channel between Skye and the island of Raasay. Amid calm water and placid views we found Sconser Lodge nestled right against the shore. A majestic old building with a warm and friendly hostess soon confirmed our initial impressions. Striking out on lodging in Portree was indeed our great luck.

As it was our 33rd wedding anniversary, it felt heavenly to be in such a beautiful spot for the evening. The place had the feel of an old hunting lodge, with dark wood, a cozy bar with a gentle fire burning, and a small lounge with an enormous window overlooking the water. I immediately proclaimed a “no internet” rule until after dinner. This was a place to be savored.
First requirement, drinks outside next to the water. The season's long days left plenty of sunlight, and the picnic tables were still in the warm sun. With our now customary glasses of cider, we lingered and watched the ferry shuttle back and forth to the island.
Rich by the water
For dinner we didn't have to go any further than the bar. It was a jovial place and we preferred the general hubbub of the patrons to the quiet formal dining room. From the apple crab salad starter to our main courses of steak and lamb, our dinners were prepared to perfection. Our good fortune continued.
Anniversary dinner

We settled ourselves in a comfortable leather couch in front of the large picture window for the remainder of the evening. The setting sun provided ever changing color in the sky, and the stillness of the water was extremely peaceful. Yes, luck was with us on the Isle of Skye.

Sconser Lodge sunset

 

Brighter days on Harris

Setting out for Tarbert the second time, we actually made it. Although we still faced stiff headwinds, the weather was greatly improved. It was highly unsettled, swirling between dark clouds, significant chunks of blue sky, rain showers, sunshine and mist throughout the day. We really only got wet once, and the sunshine did wonders for both the scenery and our dispositions.

Views on Lewis

Rolling hills surrounded by mountains and passing alongside numerous lochs or inlets from the sea made for beautiful views. The brown mountainsides and rocky terrain with a lack of trees proved how rugged that area is. It didn't seem to bother the sheep, though, which grazed lazily in the fields and peered at us from the roadside.

Never trusting the weather, we were intent on getting to Tarbert by early afternoon. But even if we had wanted to stop for a break, options for refreshments along the way were nil. Fortunately our hearty British breakfast served us well.

The islands of Lewis and Harris are actually a single land mass. We started on Lewis and crossed over into Harris en route. It was impossible to identify the boundary without the sign.

Molly Welcome to Harris
Molly on the mountain pass

We knew there was a significant climb just before Talbert, and it didn't disappoint. Approaching a wall of mountains, it was difficult to tell just where the pass cut through. Misty mountain tops hovered in the distance and all options looked intimidating. Suddenly we could see the road ahead, snaking up the mountainside in a series of angled switchbacks. It was a long slog, but the inclines were reasonable. And the best part? On some legs we actually had the wind at our backs, pushing us along. Hallelujah! The worst? Huge cross-winds that threatened to blow us over.

Reaching the summit required some celebratory pictures. Our relief was short-lived, however, when we discovered a second ascent beyond that.

Booking into the lovely Harris Hotel in Tarbert seemed just reward for our efforts. The gracious inn obviously sees its share of cyclists and hikers as it featured a bike shed and drying room for gear. The beautiful garden out front was especially appealing in the afternoon sun.

Harris Hotel

Doing some reconnoitering on our route, we decided to take the ferry to the Isle of Skye the next day. The only drawback was that I had my heart set on seeing the western coast of South Harris. But even that wrinkle was soon solved. Since the ferry did not leave until almost noon, I would do a morning bike ride along that route while Rich relaxed at the hotel.

The day dawned much cloudier and with promise of rain, but intent on my mission I set off early, unencumbered by gear. It took seven miles of climbing and traveling through baren mountains, but when I reached the west coast I was rewarded with an entirely new landscape. That is the rich fertile region of the islands, and the lush green hillsides were proof. I had expected a dramatic coastline, and instead found great variety. Rocky promontories gave way to sandy beaches and tall dunes. The water was a surprising deep green and mostly calm. With the road hugging the coast, cycling was easy and there was little traffic to disturb my peaceful journey.

I managed to cover nearly the whole length of the coast I wanted to see, and doubled the pleasure viewing it from the opposite direction on my return. Not even the heavy mist in the mountain pass could dampen my spirits. Sometimes it's best to divide and conquer. We were both happy with our morning choices. And I will remember it as the brighter days we had on Harris.

Views of West Harris

 

Battling the elements

Scotland's weather threw everything she had at us today. We just didn't see it coming. We'd already figured out that the wind always blows in Scotland. Always. And from our limited experience, it was always a North wind. So we thought that cycling south through the Outer Hebrides was a good strategy.

Preparing to cycle in rain

With no internet at the hostel, we set out without a current forecast. The skies are their usual drab gray, and we assume the strong gusty wind is out of the North. By the time we reach the main road, reality sets in. Rain is falling and that wind is out of the SE – directly in our faces. Making a pit stop at the local bus shelter, we quickly prepare to do battle.

While planning for this cycling trip, I succombed to a bout of paranoia about the weather. A heavy cycling jacket, wind proof gloves and booties to go over my shoes all went on the credit card and arrived by UPS. I added my skull cap and winter tights to the mix as I packed. I haven't regretted a single ounce that they added, and have worn most of these every day. Today I wear them all. And then some.

There are no trees on most of the Outer Hebrides. So that wind comes straight off the sea with nothing to stop it or shelter us. As we push on into the wind my head is so low that the brim on my helmet blocks my view of everything but the road directly in front of me. My side mirror is specked with water drops – as are my glasses – and I can just barely make out Rich's hunched yellow form behind me. The wind blows away any words we utter, so we just press on.

There are some cool things to see on our route. A round fortress called a broch, with double walls and circular staircase between them to reach the arrow slits for defense. We pass it with barely a glance down the road in the direction of the sign. The island's most dramatic prehistoric ruins, the Callanish standing stones – nearly 50 of them up to 15 feet high. We see them on the hilltop as we head for the visitor center to seek shelter and hot drinks. That's as close as we get.

Our original destination is Tarbert, 45 hilly miles to our southeast. Over tea and hot chocolate, under pitying glances from other tourists, we recalculate our plans. Options are few, as the route is mostly unpopulated. And our progress is incredibly slow against the wind. Rich convinces me that the best course is to head to Stornoway, completing the circle we started yesterday. With nine miles under our belts already, that leaves a mere 17 miles to go. Wriggling back into our soggy clothes we set out once again, convincing ourselves that it has let up a little.

We're fooling ourselves of course. The rain pelts our faces and the severe wind blows. Fortunately, cycling generates plenty of heat, allowing us to stave off the discomforts of nature for some time. Relief comes within 10 miles, when the route swings north. The quartering tailwind now propels us forward and suddenly we are making rapid progress. Our spirits soar along with our speed. Rain has soaked our gloves and begins to make its way down the back of our necks. I find shifting difficult with my chilled fingers. But the end is in sight. It's not the end we envisioned when we set off this morning, but by now it's the one we are eager to reach.

Turning into the first B&B we see, it feels like we have been cycling all day. Yet it is only 1:30. Good thing – our clothes will need plenty of time to dry out. And there is tomorrow to plan. Tarbert still awaits. We hope not to be battling the elements again.

Emptying wet panniers

 

Hebrides Hospitality

We haven't had much luck getting Warm Showers host homes so far on this trip. We miss being able to meet locals and getting good cycling advice. So when Barbara invited us to tea, even though go she wasn't able to host us, we immediately took her up on the offer. She lives on the outskirts of Stornaway so it was a short jaunt to her house, which turned out to be a lovely white cottage with a rural view.

By the time we'd finished our introductions, we felt at ease and knew we were in for a good visit. Seated at a wooden table smoothed by the years and one side jagged with the natural grain of the wood, we were surrounded by white walls hosting open shelves and all manner of kitchenware. Opposite was a cozy sitting area, with a small fireplace and knitting in progress by the settee. Over the promised tea and some chocolate biscuits our education began.

Molly and Barbara

A simple question about “Crofters” prompted a passionate explanation of the landholding traditions that still exist in the Outer Hebrides and other parts of Scotland. Tenants hold rights to lands held by large trusts in return for working the land, and may pass down their rights or sell them based on more recent law.

Spreading out her detailed maps, we moved on to cycling. Pouring over the roads and sights we learned which parts of Lewis and Harris, the upper most islands, we might best see. Taking her advice on a hostel and some historical sights of interest we departed with a plan for the day.

Molly and peat bogs

During our visit, the wind had picked up and as we made our way across the island we were buffeted by the strong North gusts. The land was barren, as Barbara had warned, primarily comprised of peat bogs. We were interested to see one couple out cutting peat. Turning south along the western coast was a pleasure, as we then had the wind at our backs boosting our progress. It was chilly and there was a bit of mist in the air, rendering the landscape gray and indistinct.

We nearly skipped the Norse kiln and mill that required a 1/4 mile walk. But a gentleman stopped us in the parking lot to assure us it was well worth it. Guilted into turning around, we made the windy trek and indeed were rewarded with two thatched buildings housing ancient equipment.

Norse kiln and mill

Our final destination was Gearrannan, recommended by Barbara for the Blackhouse Village and the hostel. Little did we know that one site would supply both. The hostel was in fact one of the restored blackhouses! Excited by this good fortune, we held our breaths until they confirmed that beds were still available.

Weaving Harris Tweed

Our shorter ride for the day left us most of the afternoon free to explore. Blackhouses, we learned, have thick double stone walls, thatched roofs and until more recently did not have a chimney – smoke just went up into the thatch. In addition, they housed animals as well as the family. Peat was a main heat source, and we saw a film on how it is cut and dried for use. In the museum house, a man was weaving Harris Tweed, which is still produced on the island under strict control over the materials and methods used to produce the wool fabric.

Film crew

Wandering around the buildings, we happened on a film crew. They happened to be shooting an TV episode for “Homes by the Sea,” and we stood by and watched with interest as the animated show host expounded on the construction techniques and use of these blackhouses.

The best part was having free reign in the village, including after hours. There were walking trails up onto the hilltops overlooking the sea. Hiking up there I could see a fishing boat bobbing and crashing through the waves. In the distance were high mounds and eerie land formations. Sheep grazed on the squishy soft green grass, and the ever present wind whipped around me.

Noting that we were on bicycles, the hostel caretaker arranged an evening meal for us as well as porridge in the morning. From Barbara's tea morning to living a bit of history in a blackhouse hostel we are indeed enjoying true hospitality in the Outer Hebrides.

Blackhouse hostel

 

Go West Old Man

Progress to date: 6 days, 266 miles

The whole beauty of this trip is that we have no itinerary. For three weeks we can do as we please, planning a day so in advance. Should the weather turn bad, we can stay put and let it rage. Should an opportunity present itself, we can seize the moment. Should we simply change our minds, so be it. And that's just what we have done.

All along we figured we would leave Aberdeen and head North. And so we did. However, once we reach Cromarty and had trouble getting lodgings, Rich became concerned about availability in the less populated far north. He advised that we switch course and head West instead. And just like that, the Outer Hebrides became our new next destination.

This revised route meant that we had to leave our beloved Cycling Network, as there are virtually no cycling routes in the western highlands. It was inevitable, though, and we fearlessly faced the real road traffic on A and B roads to get to Ullapool. Before doing so, however, we attempted a simple short cut to get to the main highway. It seemed a sweet way to avoid cars as long as possible, until we discovered the barbed wire fence that continuously separated us from the road. When a hiking gate presented itself, we took advantage of it.

Rich on our alternate path
.Rich hoisting bikes

While cycling a main 2-lane highway is not ideal, we had a few advantages. Traffic was relatively light, thanks to being well in advance of the main tourist season. I felt remarkably safe despite the complete lack of shoulders as every car pulled over to go around us. And despite threading our way through the highlands and constantly climbing, the pitches were gradual and manageable.

Rich on the A835

Rich found us a nice Inn where we stayed in the barren countryside 20 miles outside of Ullapool. The Aultguish Inn was founded in 1800 and still serves travelers in comfortable modern rooms as well as outdoor types in a bunkhouse. We found the food to be excellent, both at dinner and breakfast – a cyclist's delight.

Aultguish Inn

Our route took us close to two sets of beautiful waterfalls, each with easy access from the road and suspension bridges to view the rivers. I think we probably set record, stopping to sightsee twice in two days. The first was called Rogie Falls, and reminded us of Jay Cooke Park.

Molly and Rich Rogie Falls

The second was Corrieshalloch Gorge, which means Ugly Hollow in Gaelic. It is considered a “slit gorge” for the long narrow cavern formed back in the ice age. Far from ugly, it was an impressive sight.

Corrieshalloch Gorge

The first lasting rain of our trip came while we were in Ullapool awaiting our ferry. With our cycling done for the day, we made good use of the Gallery Cafe to stay dry and use the wifi while we had a snack. I would like to have seen more of Ullapool which is a pretty port and fishing town, but preferred to stay out of the rain.

Ullapool

Soon we will board the ferry, bound for Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides. These rugged islands are the most westerly in Scotland. When Rich decides to go West, he goes all the way!

 

Follow that Sign!

Molly and CNC sign

We have learned to love that sign. The blue arrow with a bicycle and red #1 has been our guide since arriving in Scotland. We'd be lost without it. Literally.

The National Cycle Network covers the length and breadth of the UK with over 14,000 miles of cycle routes. These are a combination of traffic-free paths and quiet on-road routes that connect to every major town and city. Looking at the map, Scotland has a much lower density of cycling routes – in all likelihood due to its rugged terrain and lower population. But they are serving us well.

Before leaving on our trip, Rich ordered two sets of maps from Sustrans, the non-profit that supports the cycle network. This was a drastic departure from his usual reliance on Google Maps for planning and navigating our routes. But something told him that the highly detailed maps would be useful. That turned out to be an understatement.

Rich on a cycle path

The best part is that these routes are so well marked. At nearly every turn we find our little blue sign. As we travel a road, there it is every so often assuring us we are still going the right way. Since they follow myriad little back roads, which are often small and obscure, it saves us from constantly having to check our maps. And we could never have figured out such a route in the first place. We're so grateful that someone has done it all for us.

Cullen and the via duct

We learned early on that dirt paths were allowable. Thankful for our touring bikes and more durable wheels, those sections have often been the best of all, taking us places not even cars can access. My absolute favorite so far was the morning we left the hostel in Cullen. The route took us away from the harbor, where we reached a cycle path high above the water. We followed the shoreline across the cliff tops, crossing a high via duct and overlooking the sea from a vantage point available only to cyclists and walkers. I wanted it to go on forever.

Already I have many vivid visual images of traveling down this network of cycling routes:

  • Cruising along narrow single track roads with passing places
  • Dry stonewall defining the neat farm fields across the landscape
  • A patchwork of fresh brown furrows, verdant green fields and the sunshine yellow of rapeseed
  • Winds buffeting us along the coast, fresh off the sea
  • Craggy cliffs and angry waves
  • Following a river, crossing over and back multiple times
  • Wild flowers blooming in the moist shade along the path – yellow, white and purple
  • Gorse bushes lining the roads and paths with their brilliant gold blossoms
  • Entering towns on quiet on streets, making our way through neighborhoods and parks
  • Climbing a long hill and rounding a corner to see the ruins of a random fortress
  • Traveling the coast to look down and see a town nestled in the next valley, bathed in morning sunlight

Thank you, Sustrans, for this great cycling tour of Scotland. We will most certainly continue to follow that sign!

Scenic bridge along the road
Beautiful coastline
A random fortress
Morning sunlight on Scottish coast