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.
Spot the riders amongst the Shielings. Reinigeadal, Harris.
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…”
Arriving at the ancient Callanish Stones, Isle of Lewis.
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.