Barra is almost at the foot of the string of islands known as the Outer Hebrides. It is, perhaps, even more remote than the others. There are (virtually) no trees and the land does not look too fertile. I say “almost” because there is a small string of islands to the south of Barra, and these make Barra look like a thriving metropolis. Vatersay is linked by a causeway to the south of Barra. Vatersay has a population of just 90 compared to 1200 for Barra. Life in Barra must be rough in the winter, but the boat sails every day to Oban and so it has a clear link with the rest of the country. There is a Co-Op which, once one get’s inside, looks remarkably like a Co-Op anywhere else. However our attempt to buy bread, nail clippers and lens cleaning spray produced a one in three result – but the bread was very good.
Anyway I woke early and had a magical hour reading Maya Angelou’s brilliant autobiography of her childhood, “I know why the caged bird sings”. The far west of a remote Scottish island and Arkansas in the 1940s probably have little in common, but one of the delights of travelling is that I have both the time and the energy to read wonderful writing. She paints pictures of life as a child growing up in the segregated south of the USA that show two communities living totally separate lives. It is as horrendous as it is totally absorbing. But this blog is about cycling, not reading so I will leave others to discover the delights of this book and comment on it more intelligently than me.
We breakfasted on muesli and coffee, and were on the road by 8.15. It was overcast and grey, and the hill out of Castlebay was sharp but not long. The Garmin was claiming not to be getting reception from satellites, which somehow seemed appropriate to our setting. However there is only one road so it was pretty irrelevant.
The barren scenery absorbed a surprising number of houses, placed to compromise between getting a sea view and not being too exposed to the elements. Lots of places did B & B and I suspect many others were second homes, like the family we met on the boat who had connections to Barra and now had a family holiday home there.
After 8.5 miles we got to the ferry port for the 40 minutes crossing across the Sound of Barra to Eriksey. Port is probably an overstatement. It was a slipway with a toilet. However we did our usual cyclists trick of passing all the cars and going to the front of the queue. Works in Croatia so why not in Scotland. By now it was more than overcast but was in that transition between mist and real rain, so the crossing was pretty cold. But there was a passenger lounge (actually little more than a corridor) for the about 20 vehicles and 10 cyclists on the crossing. I ventured up on deck and met a couple from Hereford – small world.
We did not book in advance (because you cannot as a cyclist) but were told to “queue up for a ticket on board”. We queued, paid our £2.90 each (many thanks Nicola for the subsidy) but got no ticket. No one checked we had bought a ticket and no one seemed to mind terribly. It is a system that works on trust and as far as we could see – it works fine.
The weather improved as we swopped stories and plans with the other cyclists (mostly young but a few old fogies like us), and then braced ourselves for the steep climb out of the harbour. We were overtaken by almost all the youngsters who clearly were riding on a flatter road. One of the great deceptions of youth. We all then had a glorious descent to the village and the one shop on the island (where they stopped and so we overtook them). We then played tortoise and the hare all day – I will leave you to decide who was who.
The ancient guide book I read indicated that Barra, Eriskey and South Uist were all “Catholic” islands and that it became “Protestant” from North Uist upwards. It is unclear how much of this remains true today, but there do seems to be lots of Catholic churches in this part of the world, as well as some roadside Marian shrines (always a give away for a Catholic part of the world).
There is a causeway between Eriksay and South Uist which we cycled over with the wind across us. Then we turned into the wet weather to struggle Eastwards before hearing north. We made it to Dalabrog (at the junction to Lochbosidale – the main port of South Uist) and decided that Pooh was right about elevenses. A convenient hotel out of the mist and rain produced some excellent coffee, as well as an internet that was good enough to download 2 days of photos.
Refreshed we pressed on through the beautiful but bleak landscape. We lunched about half way up South Uist and then followed the road as it passed over a series of inland lochs, each linked into the next. At one stage we thought we had crossed to the next island, Benbecula, but it was still the flooded marsh regions of South Uist. Eventully, just as the weather was improving, we hit the causeway between South Usit and Benbecula and left island no.3 of the day to start island no4.
Benbecula is tiny but much more intensively farmed and densely inhabited than the islands we had passed through earlier that day. We took a side road to go all around the island and saw cows, arable crops and an airfield. There is an RAF base there and lots of military activity.
Most businesses seem to be owned by someone called McCloud. There are several McCloud transport companies, a McCloud construction company and even a McCloud bakery. It may be that most people are called McCloud. The people we met on the ferry said there is a locally created phone book – wonderfully called “the phoney book” – and half the entries are people called McCloud! That may , of course, be an exaggeration but I love the idea of “the phoney book.
After Benbecula we both felt tired – lack of training was kicking in big time. But we ambled across the barren landscape of North Uist along a cut through across the centre of the island called “the committee road”. History does not recall which committee decided what, when or who paid for the road, but it cut 5 miles off the coastal route so we were grateful for their deliberations.
Pretty tired, we arrived at John and Peggy’s B & B at Malacleit, just outside Sollas. Their children gave us a warm welcome as we made ourselves a well deserved mug of tea.