Lewis is the largest island in the Outer Hebrides; the liminal chain of islands that edge the North Atlantic to the northwest of Scotland.
It is an unforgiving place of storm force winds, expansive peat bogs, lunar hillsides and short winter days. As such, you are probably thinking that it might not be a great place to visit, especially by bike. However, the counterpoints of huge skies, disconcertingly long and bright summer days, quiet single-track roads, deserted white sandy beaches, visceral coastline and consistent tailwinds all more than make up for any drawbacks.
Formed 3000 million years ago, the Lewisian gneiss bedrock of the Outer Hebrides is the oldest rock type in Britain. Evidence of woodland burning found in peat bogs suggests that humans have been living there for at least 8000 years. For our purposes though, a basic appreciation of the cultural geography of the last 200 years will really help visitors interested in exploring the wilder areas of the islands, particularly by bike.
The first thing that strikes you considering mountain biking in the Outer Hebrides is the near absolute absence of paths. Huge swathes of the islands, and Lewis in particular, are seemingly empty, formed of either sandy coastal machair, rolling moorland or steep rocky outcrops with little or no vegetation.
The Mointeach Barabhais (Barvas Moor) is some 27km across at its widest point, and to the casual observer, feeling seasick and insignificant whilst driving on the main road across to the Westside, appears absolutely empty and uninhabitable, devoid of life.
However, upon closer examination of the map, you can see not paths, but literally hundreds of small black squares, marking airighean or shielings. These basic stone and sod buildings were used when the young folk of the village would take the cattle out to the summer pasture, an aspect of transhumance agriculture, which was in use right into the early twentieth century on Lewis.
The cows were milked out on the moor, and the women and children would walk back to the croft near the coast carrying milk, butter and cream in pails and creels (baskets) in order to do the daily work at home before returning to watch the cattle overnight.
With an understanding of just this one aspect of relatively recent land use, our perception of the moor and the way we access it changes. Up until the advent of recreation in the Hebrides, there was no reason to expect paths out on the moor or on the hill – one account of spending summers at the Airigh from the early twentieth century details how “You always went barefooted as footwear was of not much use on the moor”, which shows the challenging nature of the terrain and the pragmatism of its inhabitants.
We also need to appreciate that our perception of the land is completely different from our forebears – we visualise maps, see the big picture, travel widely and position ourselves using GPS, whereas they knew their family’s small bit of land intimately, and had a whole language perfectly suited and evolved to the landscape which is rapidly being lost. A quote from Finlay MacLeod’s foreword to Gus Wylie’s book of photographs, The Hebrideans, reflects this in a conversation that he had with his great grandfather:
“‘Do you know which part of the moor is favoured by our family’s sheep?’ he asks me as we stand in the fank.
‘Of course I do.’
‘So you would be able to find them in a snowstorm? You know that the place is called Filiscleitir. You would soon be lost on the moor if we didn’t have a name for each hillock and stream’, he ponders. I’m sure that I name only a small fraction of the huge matrix of names that he has for the pattern of the moor.“
Many of these names are lost already, and those which we see on the map are much corrupted, but if we, as visitors, or cyclists, or writers, or artists, seek out the people who still know the names of the places, perhaps we can pass on some of the old knowledge of the land just a little bit further
A diary entry of my own remembers another equally humbling conversation with a local from the other end of the spectrum, which still has value:
Iain-Murdo the postie said, “What would you want a track for when you’ve got the whole of the moor to run about in?”, although I don’t think Iain-Murdo has much time for runners, or artists…”
So, what does this mean to us as mountain bikers looking to visit the Outer Hebrides? Below are some key points to consider which might help you to get the most out of a trip to the Western Isles, as well as a couple of great rides for you to find out about.
You’re not going to find graded trail centres in the Outer Hebrides (although there are now some man-made skills trails around Lewis Castle Grounds in Stornoway), so if you prepare yourself to ride on roads, on land rover tracks, on deer tracks and on beaches, then you will be ready to enjoy the place that the trail takes you as much as the trail itself. This includes pushing (affectionately known as hike-a-bike), which is a great mental and physical exercise in itself!
Look at linking up short bits of great singletrack with nice stretches of quiet road (see Pentland Road and Golden Road below), or go even further and plan a packraft or canoe trip linking up lochs across North Uist or through North Harris. Also, the sandy beaches of the Uists at low-tide and the boggy moors of Lewis make for perfect fat-biking territory if you can get hold of one.
Here at Wilderness Scotland, on our Hebridean Trail trip, we use a Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) to transfer you and your bikes up the west coast of North Harris to Lewis, allowing you to see some of the most remote and breath-taking scenery in the Outer Hebrides, which isn’t accessible by land, whilst also avoiding a long road climb!
Prevailing winds are from the Southwest, so most people cycling the length of the Western Isles start in Barra or Uist and finish up on Lewis. This is also worth bearing in mind for shorter rides, but there is nearly always some wind, so check the forecast and plan accordingly.
The people around here are some of the friendliest that you’ll meet in Scotland – any initial reticence is quickly forgotten once you get chatting, and there’s often a lot of local knowledge to tap into, from paths that aren’t marked on the map to ceilidhs happening in the village hall. Within five minutes of walking into a tiny post office on our first visit, the post-mistress was on the phone arranging for us to view a house in which we would live for 10 months!
From Urgha, just north of Tarbert, there is a demanding and at points exposed coastal path, which takes you over to Rhenigidale at the mouth of Loch Seaforth. This can be made into a loop by returning to Urgha via Gleann Lacasdail, which offers slightly more sedate terrain.
A good estate road leaves Miabhiag heading north for around 7km, from where challenging singletrack can take you west to join A859 at Ardvoullie. Following the Road back to Miabhaig makes this a good long loop, but it is worth noting that the off-road section travels through a very remote area, and you should be experienced in this kind of mountain biking before tackling it.
This is a singletrack tarmac road which runs across the south of the Barvas Moor, from Stornoway to the Carloway on the west side, which gives you a real appreciation for the scale of the moor, passing several shielings along the way. From Carloway you can visit the Iron age broch, the Norse Mill at Shawbost or the standing stones of Calanish as well as many of the great west coast beaches.
One of the most beautiful singletrack roads in the west of Scotland, this makes a lovely bike ride from Leverburgh up the east coast of Harris with the Little Minch below. There are several small villages in the bays of Harris and a few good campsites as well should you fancy taking it slow.
Follow the coastal machair (sandy pasture areas bordering white sand beaches) for 35km through Uist. This makes for a nice off-road option if you are touring your way north and would be particularly beautiful in summer when the machair flowers are out in all their glory.
Get a taste for Biking in the Outer Hebrides with this short film from our Hebridean Trail bike holiday.
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