Out on a Limb: Cycling Scotland's Western Isles

Wake to the first slanting shards of dawn, peel yourself out of your balmy tent, tiptoe across untouched, bone-white sands, and plunge into translucent water warmed by the azure currents of the spiraling Gulf Stream. A vision of the Caribbean-anchored St. Kitts? Actually, think Scotland's South Uist, a locale not commonly associated with such tropical invocations. However, while Scotland's westerly Hebridean isles serve up Scotland true to form—lashings of rain, brooding, mist-encrusted peaks—there also await some surprising anomalies, such as drooping palm trees, Buddhist monasteries, and sunsets that fill the horizon with colors more often associated with tranquil Indian Ocean archipelagos.
The best transport for this odyssey of revelation is by bicycle (although first take a train from Glasgow to Mallaig). Take your own wheels, hire them in Edinburgh or Glasgow, or pick up transport locally. Go in spring or early summer to hit the best possible weather and to avoid the full onslaught of Scotland's notorious camping scourge, the "midge," a breed of ferocious, irritating gnat seemingly indigenous to the country.
Head first to the 50-mile-long Isle of Skye, accessible via the new Skye toll bridge or one of the many Caledonian MacBrayne ferries that hopscotch the waters between disparate Hebridean isles and the mainland fishing port of Mallaig. A four- to five-day loop should take you comfortably around a good part of Skye's perimeter, fringed by deserted beaches and anchored by the majestic centerpiece of the Cuillin Hills (offering some of Britain's finest hillwalking, should you want to get out of the saddle and stretch your legs). B&Bs can be found in the small communities along the route—such as Armadale, Broadford, and Portree—while backcountry camping is a permissible, and more expansive, possibility. (While Scotland has favorable public access laws, it's always best to first ask landowners for permission when it comes to "wild" camping.) Cyclists should note that some of the stretches between the larger towns are distinctly remote so pack accordingly. Also, Skye's few major thoroughfares can get crowded with vehicles in peak season between Broadford and Portree, so it's a good idea to seek out quieter backroads (known as "B" roads) where possible.
If time permits, hop a ferry at either Mallaig or Skye's northernmost settlement, Uig, to access the even more remote islands of Lewis, Harris, and North and South Uist. With less traffic on these islands than on neighboring Skye, cyclists can roam barren landscapes infused with the enchantment of Neolithic standing stones, remnants of Viking settlements, and the reviving imprint of Scotland's original Gaelic culture. The rugged up-and-down landscape, combined with often dispiriting, windy weather, can make cycling here anything but plain sailing. Therefore, expect to take the rough with the smooth—relish the downhill sprints through some of Britain's wildest land and seek out those unspoiled, sun-kissed beaches, Northern Europe's most surprising oases.

Published: 17 Dec 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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