The Same but Different

Having reached Inverness, the most sensible return route to Aberdeen was back the way we came. While I would have preferred to find new ground to cover, things do look different coming the other way and we found plenty of ways to mix it up a bit.

For starters, this time we stopped overnight in Inverness. Arriving late, we hurried out to find a place for dinner and stumbled onto Hootananny, which is a Ceilidh bar with live music. Since a large round table was the only one available, we were soon joined by three young people from London. We hadn't expected to be there long enough for the music to start, but between a delay in getting our food and great conversation with our table mates we did in fact hear some of the music. By that time, the place was packed. We certainly found local color.


On our first trip across the northern coast, the weather was cool with a mix of sun and clouds, and windy. This time it was uncharacteristically warm and sunny with light winds. Our tights and heavy jackets were stashed deep in our panniers, and I even nixed the wool socks. While the daffodils and tulips were finished, the gorse bushes were still brilliant yellow, and lilacs were now blooming as well.

Molly and lilacs

Retracing our route gave us a chance for some re-dos. Findhorn was recommended to us en route, and I almost suggested a spontaneous detour. But I didn't, and rather regretted it. We fixed that this time with a stopover in the little town on a bay. The warm weekend day brought everyone out to the water where there were sailboats racing, folks rowing a wide skiff, and even a water skier. Quality time spent on a park bench was a must.
Repeating means getting to do favorite bits again. The path on top of the cliffs was a standout for me, particularly the last 6 miles approaching Cullen. And crossing atop the old via duct to reach the town was a classic. This time it was the perfect day to avail ourselves of the fabled Cullen Ice Cream Shop. We knew we had the right place. There was a long line out the door.
Rich was eager to have another pub meal at the King's Arms. I was concerned it would not live up to our first warm and jovial experience there, but I need not have worried. The sequel was every bit as good.
Approaching Cullen 1
Approaching Cullen 2
Cullen 1
Cullen 2

Nearly three weeks have passed since we first covered this ground. It seems inconceivable that we saw some of this on only our second day of touring Scotland. We have so much more behind us by this point. No wonder it's the same but looks so different to us now.


I get my exercise

Progress to date: 16 days, 648 miles

It's a time honored battle. Rich wants to take it easy. I want to press on for more miles. I've made peace with our reduced mileage this trip, so it surprised me when Rich planned to cycle through the Great Glen in two days. The total distance looked to be about 110 miles. By car. It's always more on the cycle route.

We've learned on previous trips that the best way through the mountains is to follow water. Stay in the valley to avoid hills. Since the Great Glen route follows a series of lochs and canals from Oban to Inverness, we figured it would be reasonably flat cycling. It was. For the most part. But as we'd been warned, there was one major climb.

When you factor in three ferries, additional cycling miles, a big climb and some strong headwinds, we got more than we bargained for. They were the two longest days of cycling on our whole trip. And yet, there were plenty of compensating benefits.

We always enjoy riding along water. This was unique in that we followed a series of inland waterways for 123 miles. The initial portion along Loch Lonnhe still felt like sea coast. And it had sights to go with it.

Molly just north of Oban

We almost missed Castle Stalker, a sea castle just offshore from our cycle path. Good thIng Rich looked left and noticed it! There has been a castle on this site since 1320, and this structure dates back to 1450.

Rich and Castle Stalker

A series of canals connect the lochs in the Great Glen. And with canals come another kind of locks. The first we came to was on the Caledonian Canal just north of Fort William. Called Neptune's Staircase, it is a series of eight locks and is the longest staircase lock in Britain. It lifts or lowers boats 64 feet. It was well past dinner time when we cycled by, so there was no lingering to take pictures. But I did snap a quick one of the boats just above the first lock.

Caledonian Canal

Other locks were simpler affairs, but no less interesting. We never got to see a boat going through, but one lock operator did ask if we'd like a cup of tea! I still regret that we didn't take him up on the offer. I'm certain he had some great stories to tell.

Molly and one of the locks

For Rich, the main attraction was getting to see Loch Ness. It was the final loch in this stretch and at 23 miles long there was plenty of time to look for Nessie. We traveled up the eastern side of the loch, avoiding the busy highway on the opposite side. We knew that initially the road veered inland, which meant navigating the steep hillsides. It was as long and challenging as promised, and by the time we reached the high point we discovered that we were several mountain ridges away from the Great Glen. It seemed odd that the lochs we could see from there did not include Loch Ness.

Climbing above Loch Ness
Near Loch Ness
Molly and Rich near Loch Ness

The journey back down eventually returned to Loch Ness and took us to the water's edge. We appreciated the flatter terrain and could see the famous Urquart Castle on the opposite shore. By that time, after two long days we were even more glad to reach Inverness.

In hindsight, it would have been wiser to take three days. But I have to say that I enjoyed the challenge. I relished each climb I completed, each mile I put behind me. I certainly got my exercise in the Great Glen. And even I got tired.

Molly after Loch Ness climb


That was the last ferry…

We had plenty of good advice. That is the greatest benefit of staying with Warm Showers hosts. They know the area and can provide us with tips for our route. In this case, Mally had covered the same ground just last year, and we poured over her maps together and covered the logistics.

The day started with a ferry that returned us to the mainland at Oban. We had thought it would be our last ferry, but with Mally's insights we learned that the cycle route north entailed two short ferries across Loch Linnhe just below Fort William to cycle a 12 mile stretch on the other side, avoiding a treacherous stretch of highway. That was worth knowing.

Rich on Corran ferry

The first was a small car ferry at Corran. The boat was loading as we approached and we cycled right on board, congratulating ourselves on the perfect timing. There was a bit of a delay as we waited for it to fill, then it was a short hop over to the other side. Soon we were off cycling again, right along the shore of the loch.

The next ferry was a passenger-only boat that also takes bicycles. I'd gotten a few of the ferry times from Mally, and knew that they were infrequent. There was one at 4:35 and instinctively I sensed we needed to make that one. Taking the lead I pressed on, pushing the pace, pulling Rich along with me. The going was easy and we were making good time. I began to breath more easily as we came within a few miles of the ferry landing.

Rich changing my tire

Then it happened. I saw the rock, tried to dodge it and failed. As soon as I ran over it I heard the back tire blow and it went flat instantly. In the local lingo, I had a puncture. So much for making that ferry. Rich made quick work of changing it, but by the time we reached the dock we could see the ferry approaching the opposite shore already.

For this small operation, there was nothing more than a dock, a bus shelter and a sign post. Searching out the schedule, I was stunned to see that the 4:35 was the last ferry. This was worse than I thought. However, Mally had told me that cyclists could call for the ferry and had even supplied me with the operator's phone number. With a bit of skepticism, I dialed the number. My heart began racing when I reached voicemail twice. But on the third try I got through. Indeed, he said they would come in about an hour.

Molly waiting for passenger ferry
We thanked our lucky stars that the weather was good and the days long. Even after the 10-minute crossing to Fort William, we still had 12 miles to go. It was well past 8:00pm by the time we got to our B&B that night. But it could have been a whole lot worse. If it really had been the last ferry.
The last ferry


Mulling things over

Forty years ago I visited Scotland with my older sister, Betsy, and a friend. We hired a car, but only Betsy was old enough to drive it. That little red car took us all over the countryside. We had a very detailed map which was excellent. However, it was so large we had to exit the car in order to unfold and refold it to the section we needed. What I remember most are the ubiquitous single-track roads. Narrow lanes with passing places. Harrowing encounters when other cars approached. And sheep encroaching on the road.

That map has since been replaced by Google Maps and a cell phone. But the single-track roads remain. Little did I know I would return many years later to cycled down those very roads.

When the roads are quiet, they make idyllic cycling paths. It's when cars invade that the going gets dicey. Many drivers are courteous and wait for us to pass. Others are in too much of a hurry and insist on squeezing by. That's when my whole body tenses up, I cringe and stare straight forward as they pass in close proximity. I find myself taking to the drivers in my head. “Thanks a lot.” (Insert sarcasm here.) “You just couldn't wait, could you?” And sometimes, “Oh, that was nice of you.”

The Isle of Mull has only two short stretches of two lane roads. All the rest are single-track. The narrow bit leading into Tobermory is particularly steep, with switchbacks to take the traffic up and over the headland. It was in that section that the single-track roads ceased to be quaint. We made halting progress as we were continually sidelined in the passing places, waiting for large vehicles to pass.

But Tobermory was worth it. We arrived late in the afternoon, with the sun at the perfect angle to light up the vividly colored buildings surrounding the harbor. Sailboats and fishing craft bobbed in the calm water and visitors strolled among the shops and restaurants. We had booked into the Scottish Youth Hostel, which unlike some of the more posh lodgings was located right on the harbor. In fact, it's the salmon colored building in the picture. With dinner just a few paces away overlooking the waterfront it was prime accommodation in our books.

Coffee Pot

A leisurely morning took us back along the northern side of Mull. The day before, I had eyed the Coffee Pot as we passed and stopped to inquire what time it opened. When the shop owner learned we would be returning before her opening hour, she invited us to knock on the door and offered to serve us early while she was baking. True to her word, we were able to enjoy her fresh baked scones and a latte, and even a Diet Coke for Rich, in the warm morning sun. Her gracious customer service was not without consequences. Our presence flagged the coffee shop as “open” and other customers soon flooded in. Fortunately she was good natured about it, knowing that would happen.

A trio of old boats resting on the shore begged a photo. They've been there over 40 years we later learned, one of them a “puffer” which transported goods and services to the islands.

Old boats on Mull

Our final stretch of single-track road took us on a quiet lane outside Craignure, right to the door of our Warm Showers hosts for the night. We laughed over the introductions, with Mally and Richard hosting Molly and Rich. We didn't have to Mull that over. We knew we'd like these people.

Progress to date: 14 days, 524 miles


Can you believe we’re doing this?

Not every day on a cycling tour is great. Some are downright tough. But every so often you get one that is just amazing. Today was that day. I can picture the exact moment when I knew.

We had cycled through woods and and along lochs at the start of the day. The lush countryside was enhanced by the flowering bushes adorning the roadsides. Mildly rolling terrains made the going easy. And everything showed to perfection in the brilliant sunshine. But in fact, that was only the prelude.

Views near Loch Sunart

A long two mile climb took us inland and into a different world. There we cycled along a road carved into the mountainside, then through the shallow valley between the mountain ridges. There were no towns, no houses, no services. We barely saw a car on the narrow road. Sheep were the only other creatures in sight. For miles and miles we pedaled under deep blue skies surrounded by the majesty of God's creation. I felt no need to hurry. I just wanted to drink it all in.

That's when I said it. “Can you believe we are doing this?” That's when I felt it. The awe. The good fortune. The privilege to be cycling through this vast scene of quiet splendor.

The feeling was enhanced by the fact that we were they by complete happenstance. It was pure whim that prompted us to head from Skye to the Isle of Mull. This route, on a single-track road through the Morvern area looked to be the best way to get there. It wasn't a bike route. It wasn't in any tourist guides. It wasn't even the most impressive scenery I've seen. It was just extensive natural beauty. And we were lucky enough to happen upon it.

It was only 15 miles out of 50. But that defined the day. None of my photos do justice to the landscape. But I don't know how they could. It was a feeling more than a view. An experience not a destination. I could hardly believe I was there. On my bicycle.


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.


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