Eriskay Causeway to South Uist

Watercolour Painting of Eriskay Causeway

Our motorhome adventure up through the beguiling islands of the Outer Hebrides was made all the more interesting not only by the wonderful ferry crossings, but also the causeways that link some of the islands to one another.

Intrepid Explorers

The journey from Eriskay to South Uist is via one of these causeways and the excitement I felt as we drove onto one end of the causeway was real and for me heightened the sense of adventure that these islands were instilling.  If you look at these crossing points on a map they look like taught wires holding the tension between two independent land masses and as we drove across I could feel the anticipation of a new land to be discovered.  I imagine this was probably just what Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tensing felt like, except they weren’t in a motorhome and we didn’t climb any mountains.

Painting of the Eriskay causeway
The view inspired me to do this painting of the Eriskay causeway. Watch out for Otters crossing. Just wish I’d used watercolour paper instead of normal paper which has wrinkled up a bit!

As we began the drive along the road crossing the Sound of Eriskay, clear water lay on either side and up ahead a new island rising up from the shore, it really did feel like we were leaving one part of our journey behind and travelling on to another yet undiscovered (by us) place.  Look out to the left and it’s next stop Greenland.  Look out ahead for ‘Otters Crossing’ as the sign warns you as you approach the causeway.

Money Well Spent

The causeways that link some of the Outer Hebridean islands haven’t always been there and in the past 15 years there has been around £14million spent on improving the roads on the ‘Spinal Route.’  It has been money well spent and not only because the road surface is good and a whole lot better than many of the road surfaces at home.  A quick look at the map will show you that there are actually not that many roads on the islands and the investment in this main road which runs the length of the Western Isles and the causeways which link some of them, are essential veins for the lifeblood of  economic development which ensures sustainability of these outlying islands.

These 135 miles of improved roads, bridges and causeways from the top of Lewis all the way down to Vatersay aren’t just there for the driving pleasure of tourists like us.  They are an essential route for islanders, for trading of local products and access to services.  These roads are a lifeline for isolated communities, enabling people to live, work and socialise in different locations across the western isles, and help to curb the threat of rural isolation.

Looking Back

I wondered about life before the causeways, when one community would be isolated from their neighbours just across the water, linked only by a boat trip with their movement governed and so often restricted by the weather and the sea conditions.  Life here during the long dark winter months before these causeways were in existence, must have been very different to our own experience of an easy journey from Eriskay to South Uist on a well surfaced tarmac road bathed in early summer sunshine.

Abandoned croft in the Outer Hebrides
Not much left of this sad and lonely old house. I wondered about the lives of the people who once lived here.

I was surprised to find out that the Eriskay causeway was built only relatively recently in the year 2000 and at the time was the biggest civil engineering project happening in the UK.  Around the islands you’ll see many abandoned crofts and derelict houses as evidence of life in the past,  these sad, hollow ghosts of homes tell the story of the past.  They are the tired monuments to the consequence of people living in rural communities who were unable to travel easily outside of their own few square miles and as the traditional ways of self sustaining crofting declined, people increasingly needed to be more mobile.

Holding Back the Sea

While we were on Barra, we noticed abandoned half buried whole vehicles appearing out of the dunes behind the beach, they looked like skeletons of ancient dinosaurs. We asked a local why they were there and he told us that they had been put there years ago by the islanders to help prevent erosion and stabilise the dunes.  However, he said that when the new causeways had been built across stretches of once uninterrupted water, the tidal flow had changed and so the erosion on the beaches had returned and was now unearthing these abandoned jeeps and tractors.  The west coast of these islands are prone to flooding and what might at first sight seem an eyesore on the beach, turns out to be a homemade attempt to fight back against the mighty power of the ocean.  Difficult to imagine in the beautiful weather we experienced, but flooding threatens a staggering 94% of the homes on the west coast of Barra, South Uist and Benbecula.   I don’t know if his reasoning was factually correct, but who could blame these islanders for trying to protect their homes.

The Eriskay causeway we travelled along in our motorhome is not only a lifeline for residents of the Western Isles, but also a rite of passage for all the other visitors who come to travel the length of the Outer Hebrides.  They are also part of the reason that the islands have become so accessible and increasingly appealing as a tourist destination.

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How and Why I Chose My Electric Bike

A Haibike Bosch Intuvia Handlebar mounted controller

I’m taking a break today from reporting on our motorhome tour of the Outer Hebrides to respond to several requests from people asking me about my electric bike which I’ve mentioned in several earlier posts.  I’ve been asked advice on which electric bike to buy and how to choose between all the electric bicycles that are on the market.

I’m not being sponsored to write or recommend anything here, this is simply how and why I chose my own pedelec and some advice and observations which I hope might be useful for you.

In the world of cycling the times they are certainly a changing, in fact only a couple of years ago if you mentioned electric bikes, some would turn up their noses and riders of ‘proper’ bicycles would often refer to the riding of an electric bike as cheating.  I could never quite understand the reluctance of the cycling community to embrace this step forward.  I can only wonder if the competitiveness that creeps in among many road cyclists would lead them to consider some smiling old giffer sailing past them up a hill an affront to their lycra.

I first came across electric bikes in serious numbers in Spain last winter where we spent 7 weeks in our motorhome, escaping those endless damp grey winter days at home.  We decided to forgo snuggling up by the fire for months and opted instead for days spent outdoors, walking and cycling in the sunshine under piercing blue skies.

Two mountain bikes by the sea in Spain
Life before the dawn of my electric bike

On the campsites we stayed on, the majority of bicycles owned by fellow campers were electric and I was certainly the odd one out on my ‘normal’ bike.  Pensioners a good 15 years older than me were whizzing about the place willy nilly on their electric bikes and describing how they ‘went for little ride yesterday, just 25 miles’ or  ‘up that mountain over there to that monastery this morning’, while waving a bronzed arm indicating a point in the very far distance, and let me tell you, they were doing all of this without so much as a by your leave and seemingly without even breaking into a sweat.

If riding an electric bike is ‘cheating’ then it would be reasonable to assume that riders of these swindling speed machines wouldn’t be very fit.  On the contrary, these enlightened pedal powered pensioners were indeed exceptionally sprightly and were highly motivated to be jumping on their bikes at every given opportunity, thus actually increasing their fitness, maintaining their mobility and no doubt releasing plenty of age related depression beating endorphins along the way.

I might even contact my MP and suggest that electric bicycles are prescribed on the NHS as a cost saving measure to keep our ageing population fit and healthy.  These bicycles aren’t mopeds, they are pedelecs, that means that the motor simply enhances the amount you pedal, but if you don’t pedal the motor won’t work.  See! it’s not cheating at all!

If I needed any excuse to make the swap, then my dicky spine resulting in a trip to A&E in a Spanish hospital as part of our winter motorhome adventure was reason enough. After having a little go on one of these bikes on a Spanish campsite, my mind was made up.  As I pushed on the pedals to set off, there was none of the anticipated usual strain through my back or legs, simply a smooth increase in speed, and inducing a massive grin too.  Could this be the holy grail of all the gain and none of the pain?

View from a hospital bed in Spain
What I did on my holidays in Spain. I wouldn’t recommend A&E as a place to stay, the view is rubbish for a start but thankfully I was spared the instruments of torture on the wall.

When we got home from Spain, with a slightly heavy heart I sold my lovely (little ridden as it was if I’m totally honest quite hard work) Liv carbon road bike and set about researching which electric bike was best for me.

These were my criteria for buying an electric bike:

Battery

I wanted at least a 500w battery so that I could go for miles without worrying how I was going to get home again.  Round where we live in the Yorkshire Dales it’s very hilly, so a battery that they tell you will take you 50 miles, might mean you’re ok for 50 miles on the flat.   However bear in mind your terrain, as that battery might only take you 20 miles on a very hilly ride.  I didn’t want to go for a ride and be constantly worrying whether I had sufficient power to get me back home again.   Usually the bikes will have several different modes of assistance , which means you can up the anti, depending on how much extra help you want from the motor.  So for example, I might choose to use more assistance, using more battery power, going up a hill, but no assistance and therefore no battery power coming down the hill.

Haibike 500w battery showing how it locks to the bike
Being able to lock the battery to the bike is a good security device, it also means you can easily unlock the battery and remove it.

The motor will assist you up to about 16mph as long as you are pedalling, above that speed you are on your own.  Obviously you can ride above that speed and you might find that some motors give a little resistance to pedalling when they are not running.  I wanted a motor that wouldn’t impede my progress if I was cycling along above 16mph under my own steam.  You’ll discover if this is an issue on the bike you are considering by having a test ride.

The 500w battery on the bike I bought can take a full charge in several hours or you can simply plug the battery in, on or off the bike and top it up a bit without any detrimental effect on the battery.  Check if you can charge the battery on the bike or if it needs to be taken off.  The battery, which weighs a couple of kilos just clicks off fairly easily, but I’d advise having a battery that locks on to the bike.  On my bike the built in lights also run off the battery.

Motor

I wanted a decent motor made by a reputable company and I wanted it to be mounted in the centre of the bike, so that the centre of gravity is well balanced.  I ideally wanted a Bosch motor as they are renowned as being reliable and as we enjoy going to Europe in the motorhome, it is important to me that if I have a problem while we’re abroad, I can get the motor fixed in one of the many electric bike shops that we saw in Spain.

Bosch driven pedelecs are popular in Europe, so a Bosch motor was high on my wanted list.  There are may different makes and types  of motor.  Some are better for hilly areas like where we live and have more torque to pull you up the hill.  They all weigh about 2 or 3 kg.

Photo of a Bosch Performance Line CX motor
My electric bike has a Bosch Performance Line CX motor. Apparently it’s good for climbing hills, although I’ve nothing to compare it with, I certainly have no complaints.

Mudguards and a Rack

I wanted a bike for all weathers and I wanted a bike that I could fit panniers to, so that I would be encouraged to use the bike for shopping at home and while we are away in the motorhome.  Panniers are great for carrying picnics, spare jumpers, puncture repair outfits, sunhats etc etc.  I didn’t want to buy a bike and start having to look at having an after market rack or mudguards fitted, I wanted a bike that was built with them already on.  A rear rack and mudguards do add weight to your bike, but as these bikes are never going to win any prizes at weight watchers, I didn’t think a pound or two extra would make any difference and anyway I’ve got a motor, although lifting it on and off our motorhome is a consideration, as I mentioned in an earlier post on ‘how to carry bikes on a motorhome.

Bosch Intuvia Display for Electric Bike
The Bosch Intuvia Display will give you loads of useful information including how many miles you have left in your battery. It’s also big enough to read without your reading glasses!

Display

The display is a great piece of kit.  There are various different types which are used across brands.  They give you information on which mode you are in, how many miles per hour you are whizzing along at, how far you’ve travelled etc etc  Two of the most important factors for me were, does the display clip off, so that I can easily remove it from my bike when I go into a cafe or shop and probably more importantly, can I read the display without my glasses on.

The controller for the motor is mounted on my handlebars and again is very simple, easy to read and just next to the handlebar.

A Haibike Bosch Intuvia Handlebar mounted controller
The handlebar mounted controller is simple to use. Press + to increase the power of the motor and – to decrease the power. The i button scrolls through the different modes of information.

Suspension

I wanted at least front suspension to take out some of the bumps in the road, again for my dicky back, and if I could get front suspension that locks out, all the better for when I am cycling on smooth tarmac roads, although I’m not too worried about losing pedal power through the suspension as of course I’ve got a cheats motor helping me along.

Quality

I looked at a few bikes which frankly were pretty shoddily made.  One bike looked like it had been built on a Friday, all the welds were wonky and things just weren’t symetrical.  Have a good look at the bike you are buying and make sure it’s well put together.

Saddle

I wanted a comfy saddle, although this is a very personal thing and what is comfy for one person might not be for another, so you need to try them out.  If you find your ideal bike, but the saddle isn’t right, you could always swap the saddle later, or do a deal with the shop when you buy the bike.  It’s important to mention that a great big padded sofa of a saddle won’t always be the most comfortable.  It depends on your riding position and your anatomy.

Frame

I wanted a women’s frame, but not a full step through.  I didn’t want a man’s frame in a small size, because often the geometry just isn’t right for a woman.  I wanted a dropped crossbar bike, sometimes called a low step, ideally designed for a woman or at least with a woman in mind.  The frame of a full step through arguably is slightly less robust than a frame with a cross bar.

Brakes

I’m a big fan of disc brakes and have had them on my previous 2 bikes.  I want to be able to stop quickly when I need to, regardless of the weather conditions and without needing  the grip strength of Big Daddy* to pull the brake levers.

Gears

I wanted gears, so that I could ride it like a ‘normal’ bike and if I ever do run out of battery, I’ll have a fighting chance of getting home again.  I didn’t mind hub gears or derailleur.  Mine has 9 speed derailleur, but modern hub gears are good too as they are enclosed and shielded from road muck and so less maintenance.

The Look

OK it’s not THE most important thing, but if you’re buying a new bike, you have to like how it looks.

Price

Of course your choice will depend largely on your budget.  The more you pay, the better the bike.  There are electric bikes available from around £1k and at the upper end the sky is the limit.  Set your budget and it will help you to pare down the many choices in your price range.

Where to Buy it From

As I mentioned at the start, there has been a massive change in awareness and attitudes to electric bikes.  In Europe the sale of electric cycles has now outstripped the sale of conventional bikes and judging by my experience while shopping for my bike, the same may be happening in the UK too.

I shortlisted several bikes, visited many shops across North and West Yorkshire, Teesside and County Durham, phoned shops up and down the country and test rode about 8 bikes.  The story was the same everywhere I enquired, the bike shops couldn’t get hold of bikes quickly enough to keep up with the current demand and some shops even used this as a pressure selling tactic, which for me never works.  I held my nerve despite threats of ‘If you don’t buy this last one, I don’t know when I can get any more of those in.’

I eventually bought my bike from the Electric Transport Shop in York, the staff were knowledgeable, I felt unpressured and they offered me and my husband a lengthy test ride and ordered in several extra bikes in my size and price range for me to try out.

What Did I Buy?

I bought a Haibike SDuro Trecking 5 Low Step,  I chose it because it ticked every single one of my boxes and it’s the most comfortable bike I’ve every ridden.

Photo of cycling round Barra on an electric bike
Still smiling while cycling round the Isle of Barra in a headwind on my electric bike.

Am I Pleased With My Purchase?

I can honestly say I’ve never looked back and I absolutely love my new bike, I ride it at every excuse, I can go for long hilly rides without any pain and enjoy the view without the need for oxygen at the tops of the hills, I now look for reasons to go out on my bike.  Headwinds and hills are no longer a reason not to ride.

I hope this information is helpful and I’d be interested to hear from you in the comments section below if you’ve found this useful and if you’re considering or have already bought an electric bike.

*Big Daddy for those of you who are too young to remember this, provided hours of entertainment on a Saturday afternoon with pantomime like wrestling on television along with Giant Haystacks and Kendo Nagasaki.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eriskay Love Lilt

Approaching Eriskay from the Sound of Barra

Eric’s Island

The little CalMac ferry boat manoeuvred up to the deserted slipway on the end of a huge rocky landmass at the southern gateway to Eriskay, named from the Norse for Eric’s island.  It was about 7:30 in the morning and we hadn’t yet unmade the bed or had our breakfast,

Pete drove the motorhome down the ramp and up onto dry land once more, thankful that we’d yet again avoided the dreaded tail end scraping that we had been warned about.  If you keep your speed very low as you come on and off the ferries, it’s not usually a problem.  We parked up just near the slipway in a tarmacced area, put the kettle on and to have a look at the map. This little area of tarmac would probably make a reasonable wild camp spot if you had an early ferry going the other way, it’s certainly well away from any houses.

Approaching the slipway on Eriskay
Approaching the slipway on Eriskay, with the ‘terminal building’ in sight.

There weren’t that many fellow passengers, obviously everyone else sensibly had a warm bed to be in at that time of the morning.  There were a couple of vans who looked in a hurry to get to work and a lone foot passenger, an elderly man, looking rather dapper in a straw boater and jacket with a cane.  I wondered if he was either a member of a local Barbershop quartet, or maybe he owned the island.  His lift turned up, he briskly hopped in and off he went.

We paused for a photo looking back down at the little ferry terminal which is at one end of the main road on Eriskay.

CalMac ferry at Eriskay
A ship of dreams.

Whisky Galore

Maybe the handsomely (albeit a little bizzarely) dressed foot passenger gentleman had come over for a gig at the world famous pub on Eriskay.  The AM Politician pub is named after the doomed Steam Ship Politician, which in 1941 ran into trouble in a storm and grounded on the sandbanks off the coast of Eriskay.  The life boat was launched, but in the wrong direction and so the locals, who were watching the disaster unfold, set sail and thankfully all the crew were eventually rescued. 

However this is not where the story ends.  It just so happens that the cargo of this ship was 260,000 bottles of whisky, bound for Kingston, Jamaica and New Orleans. 

That’s a fair few snifters and a heck of a lot of hangover juice. 

This was 1941, wartime and rationing was in place, so a boatful of whisky bobbing about offshore within staggering distance was like manner from heaven for the islanders. 

It must have been like winning the lottery!  The locals set about offloading, secreting and drinking 24,000 bottles of whisky, much to the annoyance of the customs men, who considered it an illegal activity.  In the ensuing struggle villages and crofts were raided in an attempt to recover the scotch and deter the by now probably very happy islanders.  In the end the customs men blew up the wreck of the ship to prevent further salvage.  Spoilsports!

The story was immortalised in Compton Mackenzies book Whisky Galore and you can see relics from the ship in the Politician pub.

Having missed out on breakfast due to our middle of the night alarm call, we pulled in at the first possible parking area which just happened to be next to a white sand beach with  turquiose waters gently lapping at the shore.  Not a bad view to eat your Alpen to.

Motorhome parked next to a white sand beach on Eriskay with turquoise water
Could you wish for a better view at breakfast?

We drove along the island where the main settlement on Eriskay opened up in the landscape before us..

Perfect tarmac road paving the way to Eriskay shop in the pretty white washed village ahead.
Perfect tarmac road paving the way to Eriskay shop in the pretty white washed village ahead.

Community Spirit

We popped into the excellent Eriskay community shop at Rubha Ban, where they sell just about everything you could need including many coop branded food items.  You’ll probably find the shop populated with lots of friendly Gaelic speaking locals, as it serves importantly as the hub of their community, tackling rural isolation which must be a problem particularly for the elderly and during the long dark winter months.

Shopping bill from Eriskay shop
Helping the local economy enormously by spending over £46 on community spirit! Looks like it’s curry for tea tonight and corned beef hash tomorrow.

The prices weren’t far off what you’d pay on the mainland and they had a rather good selection of whisky.  It’s good for the local economy if you stock up here as all the profits are invested back into the community.  Bearing this in mind we helped community funds by succumbing to a bottle of 15 year old Dalwhinne, not chosen from experience, more because the box looked nice.  It proved to be a smooth choice.  Bang goes £40 of our budget, but at least we didn’t need to plunder an offshore wreck to get it and we wouldn’t need to worry about customs men turning our van over in the night either.

As well as whisky galore, the island is also famous for Eriskay jerseys which apparently are knitted without seams.  I imagine if the crafty knitters suddenly discovered they’d inadvertently put in a seam by accident, they could call on their neighbours at Buth Barragh, as mentioned in my previous post, to solve their knitting problems.

Ode to Eriskay

I’ve discovered there’s also a song called the Eriskay Love Lilt, which is credited with being written by Marjory Kennedy Fraser, although Marj apparently adapted it from a traditional song that she had collected during a project to preserve Gaelic music of the islands and then she changed the tune a bit, so I’m not sure how much of it she actually wrote.

This is yet another lovely Hebridean island, full of character and choc full of lovely landscapes.   In tribute to this special patch of land, here’s a rather nice rendition of the Eriskay Love Lilt by Paul Robeson for your listening pleasure, although it was also covered by Nana Mouskourie and Judith Durham of the Seekers.

 

Travelling from Barra To Eriskay

A Caledonian MacBrayne passenger Boarding Card

Up with the Corncrake

We’re not generally ones to be up with the lark, or in the case of the Outer Hebrides the Corncrake, indeed, our bird names would more likely be night owls, so we optimistically hoped that our next ferry crossing would be at a reasonable hour, to allow for our normal gentle easement into a new day.

However, we discovered quite quickly on our island hopping adventure that the increasing popularity of the Outer Hebrides now means that if you’re travelling with a vehicle and particularly a motorhome, you need to book ahead.

The reality of this first hit when we went into the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry office in Castlebay to book our Barra to Eriskay ticket.   After using their (novelty for us) flushing toilet and downloading all our emails using their free CalMac wifi, I innocently asked the  man on the desk if it was a good idea to book for the next days’ ferry rather than just turning up and hopping on.   He scanned his computer, looked up at the tide times on the wall beside him and with a sharp intake of breath across his teeth, told us that “the only boat with any space is in 3 days time at 7am, with a 6.45 AM check in.”

I’m not sure if the CalMac man behind the counter saw the undisguised look of horror on our faces at the suggestion that we might have to mobilise in (what we consider to be) the middle of the night.  I thanked him for his suggestion and said we would be happy to travel a day later.  “OK, lets just check that for you” he paused while he rattled the keyboard and scanned the screen for a moment, then looking pleased he looked up and said “7am, it’s the only one with any space.  Would you like me to book that in?”

Phone alarm set at 05:46
05:46! It’s nearly the middle of the night! Notice I’ve given myself an extra minute after 5:45.

Although being stuck on Barra would be no bad thing, we realised that the only way off of Barradise, was going to have to start with a rude awakening by alarm clock, which in my opinion in surely the worst way to start any day.   Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely loved it on Barra and could have easily settled in chez Angus and just finished our exploration of the Outer Hebrides right there.  However, the lure was strong of yet undiscovered places further up the line, so we bought our tickets and contemplated our unlikely future as early risers.

Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry tickets and a map showing the Outer Hebrides
£16.65! A bargain ferry ticket for 2 adults and a 6m motorhome, from the Isle of Barra to the tiny island of Eriskay.

Low Cost CalMac Ferries

The good news is that these ferries are heavily subsidised by the Scottish Government with RTE – Road Tarif Equivalent fares.  This means that it should not cost more to take a ferry than to drive by car between ports, not that you could actually drive over the water obviously, but that’s the logic behind it and it works fine for me.  For our 6m motorhome and 2 adults, this fare was only £16.65.  If anyone else knows where else you can take your motorhome for a cruise and still get change from a twenty pound note, please let me know.

It’s all in the Timing

Back at Scurrival campsite that evening we asked Angus, the lovely campsite owner, how long it would take to get to the little unmanned ferry slipway at Ardmhor.  “Well now” he said in that lovely Hebridean (sounds to me like Irish) accent, “It should only take you half an hour to get there,” he scratched his head up under his well worn Harris tweed cloth cap, tilted his head, thought for moment more and added, “So, let me see now, if you leave here in the morning at 6:30, you should be there by 6:45!”   We were non the wiser really, but had learnt that clearly Barra is in its very own time warp.

This is a place far removed from the lives of many of us on the mainland.   The consumerism and busy rush that has become the norm in our media reliant lives is absent here.  We were beginning to discover that the charm of this place is that the daily lives of the inhabitants of these islands are determined not by the clock, but by the tide times, the weather, the seasons and the hours of daylight.

Photo of Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry coming in to Ardmhor on Barra
Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry Barra to Eriskay

We caught the early morning ferry and sailed across the calm waters of the Sound of Barra.  It’s only a 40 minute journey, during which you can either stay in your vehicle or climb up the steel steps onto the upper deck in a bracing wind, we chose the latter. Once up on top we abandoned our hats in fear of losing them in the Sound of Barra, pulled up our hoods to shield our ears from the rush of the wind and looked back over to the steadily disappearing lovely Isle of Barra and then back ahead as we approached Eriskay, wondering what this next tiny island had in store for us.

 

Cycling Round Barra Part 2: Castlebay – Bagh a Chaisteil

Cycling on Barra, Outer Hebrides

At the southern tip of the island and the furthest out point of our cycle ride, there lies Castlebay (Bagh a Chaisteil), the village capital of the island.  It’s where the Calmac ferries come and go to Oban and Lock Boisdale on South Uist.  We popped in to the Calmac office, to book our tickets for the next leg of the journey north.  Our crossing from Barra would depart from the little unattended slipway at Ardmhor on the north side of the island, crossing the Sound of Barra to Eriskay.

Map of the Outer Hebrides
Barra, the start of our Outer Hebrides motorhome adventure.

Calmac Ferry terminals are great for motorhomes, as here not only can you buy your ferry tickets, but you can also take advantage of their free wifi.  Every seasoned motorhomer will know that lingering in cafes with free wifi is an occupational hazard, especially on the Outer Hebrides, where 3G and mobile coverage is patchy at best.  Calmac ferry terminals all have customer toilets too and usually a hot drinks machine  (this may seem a strange point to note, however, the seasoned travellers among you will appreciate this information!), even the unmanned terminals have a little wooden waiting area.  The waiting room is  generally populated by a mix of foot passengers and cyclists resting their legs and motorists stretching theirs, all chatting convivially and sharing in an anticipation of what the next stage of their journey will bring.

As you arrive at Castlebay on the ferry, you’ll be greeted by the sight of the medieval Kisimul Castle, rising majestically from the water, hence Castle Bay.  The castle has a chequered history and in previous times has been quite unloved, they even used stone from the once dilapidated castle for fishing boat ballast and paving in Glasgow.

Kisimul was the original seat of the clan MacNeil who first came to Barra in the 11th century.  It seems from archeological investigation the the castle has existed in various forms since around that time, although the little rock in the bay on which the castle was built, may have been inhabited much earlier than that, as archeologists discovered  prehistoric artefacts during their excavations.  Which leads me to wonder which ferry they caught to get there?  Surely not CalMac?

The current laird has restored and leased the castle back to Historic Scotland, for the princely sum of a bottle of whisky and £1 per year.  For about £5 during the better weather, you can visit the ‘castle in the sea’ via a 5 minute boat ride.  I expect my friend from our home village, who’s surname is also McNeil, will be visiting her family seat when she travels up to Barra next month.

Dalwhinnie whisky and a £1 coin
Rent a Scottish Castle. Yours for a bottle of whisky and a £1!

Barra Bunting

We made use of the hole in the wall at the bank in Castlebay and popped into a couple of the shops to stock up with provisions.  If you want shops, petrol, a bank or hotel on Barra, then Castlebay is pretty much it.  Don’t miss Buth Bharraigh, the community shop and cafe, where you can buy anything from craft supplies and vegetarian food to fishing rods.  Here’s where you’ll also find laundry, bike hire and free wifi and help if you’re stuck with your knitting or crochet, sounds a bit like RAC for knitters!   They’re also open on a Sunday, which is fairly unusual for the Outer Hebrides.

This community social enterprise centre is also home to Barra Bunting, a wonderful initiative which started as a community project in 2012.  First inspired by Kirstie’s Handmade Britain television programme, this little line of flags has now grown into a challenge to beat the world record of 4km of continuous bunting.  Anyone can submit a flag, as long as they have set foot on either Barra or Vatersay.  It’s now on my list of things to do and there’s a wonderful online gallery where you can see flags from all corners of the world made by past visitors to the island.

We passed on the opportunity to use the Barra golf course with its honesty box system of collecting green fees and instead headed north again, passing yet more absolutely breathtaking beaches.

We called in at a little jetty, following the signs for “Bouys and Gulls” and “Fish and Ships”  I naively thought for a minute that we were about to chance upon a cleverly named chippy with public conveniences.  However, I soon realised that this was just another witty Hebridean sign, directing us quite correctly to the sea shore where we could feast our eyes on the view.

A beach on Barra, Outer Hebrides
Yet another beautiful beach on Barra

Barratlantic

This time we had a welcome tail wind, but no less hilly route back to the campsite.  We’d heard about the place you can buy fresh fish on the east coast at Ardveenish and followed the signs off the ‘main’ road to Barratlantic

We cycled up to the huge factory shed where they process the fresh fish and followed instructions on the notice outside the open door to ring the bell.  No one appeared for quite some time so we went inside the little sales area where we found there were fridges full of fresh Dover Sole, Monkfish, and Turbot, all caught from the waters around the Western Isles, along with their speciality Langoustines and diver caught Scallops.

Eventually we were served by a friendly Barratlantic person and we popped a fish filled, well wrapped parcel into my cycle pannier and looked forward to an evening banquet of barbecued salmon and salad back at at our favourite restaurant – our motorhome!

Campsite on Barra, Outer Hebrides
Our fellow diners at the best fish restaurant in the world!

Cycling Round Barra. Part 1: Barra Airport

Barra Airport, landing on the beach in the Outer Hebrides

Having extracted the bicycles from the back of the motorhome, (not without difficulty as described in my previous post ) we set off on a mission to cycle round Barra.

The island is only about 8 miles long and 5 miles wide and it’s about 25 miles all the way round by road.  It’s all good single track tarmac road with a reasonable surface and plenty of passing places.  Bicycles and motorhomes shouldn’t have any problems on these roads.  Of course, it’s always good manners as a visitor to give way and give priority to anyone who looks like they might be local, or going about their daily business.

What type of bike is best on Barra?

The road surface here is fine for either a road bike, hybrid or mountain bike.  However, be warned… there are hills!  And I mean long dragging hills.  The kind of hills where you just need to look down at the floor and keep peddling, rather than looking ahead at the endless rise to what you hope is the summit… and inevitably turns out to be just another hump, before yet another long demoralising hill. (Unless of course you are that special kind of twisted type who enjoys the ‘challenge’ of riding your bike up a hill.) So whatever your steed, you’re going to need gears.

Of course, what goes up must eventually come down, so cycling round Barra, you will get your fair share of both.  Did I mention that one of us has an electric bike?! You’ll be able to spot me, I’m the one who’s smiling at the tops of the hills!

Cycling on Barra, Outer Hebrides
Still smiling at the top of the hill, courtesy of my electric bike!

We hadn’t accounted for the headwind either, which made cycling north to south even more interesting.  We consoled ourselves with the thought that we might get blown home on the way back.

Just a couple of miles from Scurrival campsite where we started from is Traigh Mhor Bay, home to Barra Airport.  Parking is free here and theres even a couple of spots nearby where motorhomes were wild camping, (far right in the photo below,) although it’s not allowed in the airport carpark itself.

Barra Airport
Barra Airport, Outer Hebrides

When I say airport, banish thoughts of Heathrow, or even Leeds Bradford.  The ‘terminal building’ is best described as modest, not much bigger than a very small village hall and the baggage reclaim is a bus shelter on the side.  The runway, well it’s not really a runway, it’s actually the beach, with a wind sock to alert holiday makers when best not to take your bucket and spade onto the sand, for fear of being run over by a passing plane.

Despite its diminutive size, Barra Airport was voted the world’s most scenic in a global poll of pilots and travellers.

Plane Spotting at Barra Airport

Watching those little twin otter aeroplanes taking off and landing just feet from you on the beach is a must do activity for any visitor to Barra.  While you wait, the airport cafe inside offers great food and a wonderful view of the beach / landing strip, giving you the perfect excuse for coffee and cake and to while away the time on this unhurried island.  The bustling cafe, which also has free wifi, is run by Mick and Sharon, a friendly couple who came from Birmingham on holiday, caught the Barra bug and just never went home.

As with the rest of the Outer Hebrides, Barra hasn’t really caught on to cafe culture yet, (some might say that’s a good thing!)  So this is a relatively rare place to pop in for a coffee and cake and literally watch the world come and go.  Outside you can pick up a hire car or taxi too, but only if you book ahead.

It’s fun to watch tourists landing on the beach and as they step out of the little plane, they stand there for a moment, as if they’ve just landed on the moon,  squinting and shielding their eyes from the sun and gazing around at this most bizarre and beautiful airport.

Plane landing on the beach at Barra Airport
Passenger Arrivals on the beach at Barra airport.

Can you go to Barra for the Day?

If this has inspired you to visit Barra and you only have one day in which to do it, there are regular flights from Glasgow, subject to tide! as it says on the Logan Air Website and it only takes an hour and a quarter.  If you’re feeling flush, or rash or just fancy a special treat, I’ve just checked the prices and for about £150 you could get a return flight from Glasgow to Barra, have a coffee and cake and stand on this unique airstrip, before walking out onto the beach, climbing back onto the plane and heading back to Glasgow.

However, I can highly recommend taking the long route and making this part of your itinerary for your motorhome tour of the Outer Hebrides.  You might even bag one of those motorhome wild camp spots, you can see in the photo above on the far left, then you can watch the action from the comfort of your own van.

And yes, the sky really is that blue and the sand really is that white!  If you haven’t been there, put it on your list of places to visit now!

 

 

 

How to Carry Bikes on a Motorhome

Thule cycle cover

 

Rear Mounted Cycle Carriers

We awoke to yet another glorious sunny day on Barra, although the wind was blowing a bit of a hooley.  We’d heard that the circular route around the whole island was a cycle ride worth doing and today seemed a good day to break out our bicycles, which had until now been securely fixed to the rear bike carrier on the motorhome.

We have a Thule 3 cycle rack fitted to the back of our motorhome.  We chose a 3 bike carrier, deciding to err on the side of caution and allowing for an extra bike if needed and also to give the option of more room between the bikes on the back.  But be warned, these racks are often mounted quite high up and so can be tricky to load and unload.  A tow bar mounted rack could be an alternative if the height is a problem for you.

Motorhome rear mounted cycle carrier
Gaffer tape and pipe lagging are your friends

Which brings me to the point at which I’d like to offer a word or two of warning and a couple of tips to prevent you wasting your money:

Motorhome Bike Rack Covers

If you’re thinking of buying a bicycle cover for the back of your motorhome, here’s few observations which might help:

  1. If it’s for 2 bikes, buy a cover for 3 bikes, to give you any hope at all of covering 2.
  2. The covers are made of cheese. (Well OK, not exactly cheese, but they certainly aren’t as durable as you might expect.)  So, pad all the sticky out bits on your bike before you even think about wrestling with the cover, think peddles, brake levers, handle bars etc.  Pete made some bespoke and reusable padding from bits of pipe lagging and fashioned some very handsome hand crafted handle bar end covers with pipe lagging and gaffer tape.  This will prevent you from rubbing holes in your new bike cover the first time you go out…. We learned the hard way and if you read reviews of rear mounted bike covers, you’ll find many others who’ve managed to rip holes in their covers on their first outing!

    Rear mounted cycle cover
    Padded bike handlebars ready for the cycle cover.
  3. Getting the bike cover evenly placed over your bicycles, once they are elevated way above head height on the back of the motorhome is a mysterious art and apparently Confucius he say – “Man trying to put bike cover on single handedly has two hopes and one of them is Bob.”  However, this activity will provide hours of spectator sport for your fellow campers on site.  So dear readers, spare your blushes and practice at home first and use Pete’s patented pipe lagging and gaffer tape bar end covers and things will go much more smoothly.
  4. Take a role of gaffer tape with you in the van on your travels, for when you’ve forgotten points 2 and 3 and chafed a chuffing hole in your new cover.
  5. Ignore points 1 to 4 above and just don’t bother covering your bikes.  Save yourself the money and hassle.
Bosch Performance Line CX Motor
The Weighty Bosch Performance Line CX Motor
Thule rear mounted cycle carrier
Thule rear mounted bike carrier with locks

The Dismount

Getting the bikes down off the rear mounted cycle carrier isn’t without it’s challenges either.

Pete’s steel framed road bike is pretty light and relatively straightforward to extract from the rack, however I’ve recently succumbed to the lure of an electric bike.  (More of this in a later post.)  While this new Pedelec machine is the source of much joy to me, it does cause Pete some further problems.  Not least nearly giving him a double hernia when he attempts to lift down over 20kg of electric bike from the chest height Thule cycle carrier.

At the point at which he is attempting his clean and jerk round the back of the van, we are both starting to wonder why on earth we didn’t get a motorhome with a garage and thinking that, what with him fast approaching winter fuel payment age and me with a right dicky back, we may have probably purchased the wrong van.

We’re both thinking it, but at that moment, it just doesn’t seem the time to discuss this currently insurmountable problem, as Pete’s just got a face full of handlebar as the weight of the bike suddenly shifts unexpectedly towards him.

A motorhome with a garage would make life so much easier, although I’m certain that it would also pose its own trials, I’m thinking repeatedly nutting your head on the top of the garage door opening might be one of the downsides.  Any observations on this point from owners of motorhome garages would be most welcome.

Maybe we should have just gone for a walk instead?!