A cycling trip up the Hebridean Way

Join Laurie, a seasoned long-distance cyclist, and his girlfriend Becky as they recount their Hebridean Way adventure. They stay at 5 Independent Hotels, spend a couple of regrettable nights in a soggy tent, contemplate the effects of tourism on communities and wildlife in the Hebrides and, ultimately, fall in love with the uniqueness and charm of of these beautiful, windswept islands.

“We’ve exceeded all our expectations,” Tina tells us as she guides us around Grinneabhat hostel. The hostel opened just as covid restrictions hit Scotland. Despite the obvious setbacks the tourism and hospitality sector faced due to covid, Grinneabhat Hostel is thriving. Providing jobs, a café, a gallery and a community hub for local people, the hostel epitomizes the benefits of hostelling when it comes to Eco tourism.

Grinneabhat Hostel is a community hub with a cafe, gallery and community garden.

The Hebridean Way runs through the Outer Hebrides a chain of 10 islands off the West coast of Scotland.  There is both a walking and cycling route that runs 200 miles from Vatersay to the Butt of Lewis in the North. The Hebridean Way is an excellent place to try cycle touring. While I’ve been on many cycling trips this was Becky’s first. While the route is mainly on roads, due to the remote nature of the Outer Hebrides, the roads were mainly single track and there was very little traffic. Cycle touring is also beneficial as a more sustainable form of travel. In an age of climate emergency, we try to make sure our travel options are more sustainable, cycle touring therefore also offers obvious benefits.

Other vehicles are few and far between on small isolated roads such as this

Becky and I had arrived in North Dragar after a long day of cycling. We were on day 6 of cycling The Hebridean Way and it had been a tough one. After multiple days of wild camping and a day of wind and rain, pulling up alongside Grinneahbhat Hostel, I could feel my legs begin to stiffen and my eyes starting to droop. The wonderful kind of tiredness you experience after a long day of physical activity. Tina’s offer of lighting the wood burner in the large community space which serves as the café in the day and was once the former school hall, was too good to resist.

“There were once 100 kids taught here,” she tells us as she lights the fire. She shows us the black and white school photos of generations of children in front of the large whale bone that stands in the village. Whaling was once a major source of employment in the Outer Hebrides and we’d seen multiple remains of this historic trade as we’d cycled through the islands.

We’d spent 4 nights wild camping prior to arriving at Grinneabhat. We were starting to smell and were longing for a comfy bed. We were not to be disappointed with the modern and newly built bunk beds. We were sad that we hadn’t managed to arrive earlier to enjoy the café. Instead, we stared longingly at the menus and heard tales of the ceilidh which had been held the night before. Exploring the grounds of the hostel we got a brief glimpse into all the benefits the hostel was bringing to the community. The community garden to the front and back of the hostel where veg was beginning to poke through after being brought to life by the sunny days of the previous week.

The camping was beautiful but we were beginning to smell much less appealing

The centre is also keen to promote the Gaelic language. With signs in both English and Gaelic and also essential phrases in the lovingly produced guide to the hostel we were given on our arrival. Celtic languages such as Gaelic which is related to Irish and Manx and more distantly to Welsh, Cornish and Breton were once spoken across Britain before French and English took over. Having spent the day cycling past and visiting Calanais standing stones we were becoming fascinated with the island’s ancient history.

Did you know the Calanais Standing Stones pre-date Stonehenge?

The whole of the Hebridean Way was full of history. We visited burial chambers, standing stones, fascinating museums about crofting and past life on the island, blackhouses and even Flora Mcdonald’s birthplace. Flora helped smuggle Bonnie Prince Charlie over the seas to Skye. If you’ve not heard of Flora herself you may have heard of this feminist icon in the well-known Skye boat song.

We’d crossed over the sea from Oban. Before Grineabheat,  Corran House Hostel was the last bed we’d had the pleasure of sleeping in. Corran House Hostel is a large spacious hostel and we felt as though we were staying in a hotel! With fresh towels and biscuits on our bed when we arrived and a magnificent sea view. Oban itself seemed a charming town and we were sad that we couldn’t spend more time there. The hostel is situated above a bar which has live music at the weekends. Furthermore, guests receive a 10% discount on food for those who do not wish to cook for themselves. However, we made use of the very big and newly renovated kitchen. We especially liked the honesty box for breakfast and essential food items such as bread, milk and eggs; especially useful when cycle touring where carrying items like this can be bulky. It also allowed us to reduce food waste as previously I have found transporting milk and other items difficult while cycling.

Corran House Hostel was so charming and thoughtfully provided everything a weary hosteller may need.

From Oban, we caught the early morning ferry to Castlebay. It was my first time on the islands of the Outer Hebrides, and I was immediately struck by their beauty. The crystal-clear blue of the water was something reminiscent of the Mediterranean Sea. We couldn’t help but attempt to swim in it as the surprisingly warm March sun made the waves glitter as they gently lapped the coral sands. Unfortunately, the water wasn’t as warm as the Mediterranean and while Becky managed to swim, I made it up to my hips before the shivering became too much and I ran back out to lie in the sun. I decided that appreciating the coastal vistas from the land was much more my cup of tea.

Looks Mediterreanean, feels Arctic!

It’s these coastal vistas which are leading to the Outer Hebrides becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination having appeared in recent TV series such as Outlander and the 2019 Call the Midwife Christmas special. In one of the museums, we stopped in at, the museum guide told us of life growing up on the islands but also the impact tourism is having today. It’s a complicated issue. While for many years the population of the islands has been rapidly reducing due to islanders searching for opportunities on the mainland. It’s clear that tourism is providing many jobs as we discovered at Grinneabhat. The guide also told us of problems tourists were having at finding places to stay and arriving on the island with no accommodation and nowhere to stay. With this has come the development of some parts of the islands. Some islanders are worried about the impacts the tourism industry is having particularly on the natural environment the very thing which is bringing tourists in the first place.

The charm of the island relies on its wildlife and sparse landscapes

As we cycled along the road to Huishnish, there were multiple new holiday cottages along the road. With this obviously comes the issue of locals being priced out of housing. The hostels, therefore, offer a more sustainable way to visit the islands. Not only is the money in many cases going back into the local economy, but the communal nature of the hostels also means that both space and energy are saved as less heating is necessary for the number of people.

It was a shock to the system arriving at Stornoway. While it’s only a small town after days of cycling across the island, suddenly being faced with traffic lights and roundabouts felt like arriving in the big metropolis. Heb Hostel equally embodied this feeling. The hostel felt alive with people arriving from all over the world and lots of friendly volunteers helping to make your stay there the best it could be. The hostel had a very homely feel with a nicely decorated common room. The common room was perfect for planning the rest of your adventure on the Outer Hebrides, containing a wide array of maps and guidebooks for guests to borrow. The hostel has cleverly maintained many of its period features with Victorian staircases, balustrades and skirting boards all while at the same time feeling very modern. Again, it featured good bike storage that was very well used and had 16 bikes in when we arrived showing how popular this hostel is with cyclists on The Hebridean Way. The hostel also hosts a number of different accommodation options with dorm rooms, private rooms and even a shepherd’s hut and bell tents in the garden!

The Heb Hostel felt alive with people arriving from all over the world and lots of friendly volunteers helping to make your stay there the best it could be.

Stornoway itself featured a lovely arts centre that hosts a wide array of cultural events throughout the year. It also had a wonderful café and art gallery showcasing work from both the Outer Hebrides and beyond. Fueled up on coffee, cakes and culture we left the hubbub and hustle and bustle of Stornoway back out into the wilds of the islands. Heading over the moors to Ravenspoint Hostel.

For those really looking to get away from a hectic life and embrace the wildness of the Outer Hebrides Ravenspoint Hostel would be perfect. Spectacularly placed beside a loch with excellent walking routes and cycling opportunities, lucky visitors may be able to spot eagles, otters and deer among many others. Ravenspoint  Hostel much like Grinneabhat is community owned. Brought by the community in 2015, the profits go back into the local community and help to keep the shop, café and museum open all year round. The museum provided a good insight into what life was like on the Isle of Lewis. It also had interesting facts about the flora and fauna of the area. There were binoculars within the hostel itself and the café doubled up as a wildlife observatory with large windows overlooking the loch. The hostel has a private double room, a twin room and a 5-bed dorm room offering several different options depending on your plans. Situated just off The Hebridean Way, it was the perfect place for us to stop on our journey. Equipped with a secure bike shed perfect for those arriving by bike.

Ravenspoint Hostel is the perfect place to spot eagles, otters and deer. Binoculars are provided.

We’d arrived at Ravenspoint after a downpour but the hostel was well suited for outdoor lovers arriving with muddy boots and had a good porch which was perfect for drying clothes and waterproofs.

The sun came out was glittering on the lake as we cycled back along it feeling sad that the holiday was coming to an end, and we were leaving these beautiful islands behind.

These islands are truly special, and the views are unmatched.

We reached Tarbert where we were due to catch the early morning boat back to the mainland. Staying in the Backpackers Stop hostel which was just a stone’s throw from where the ferry left meant that we didn’t have to worry about getting up too long before the boat. The hostel was clearly very well established and again was clearly used to walkers and cyclists. Again, it was well stocked with guides and useful things for backpackers getting off the ferry into Tarbert. I was particularly impressed with the bike repair toolkit. When you first start cycle touring is when lots of problems often arise, as I discovered as my chain snapped when we arrived in Lancaster on our journey up to the islands. It’s little thoughtful things like this around a hostel which I often think makes them feel especially welcoming. The building was deceptively large and had many different dorm rooms. With a large amount of showers, there was also no having to wait around for a shower here.

The bike kit is a special touch which really sets apart hostels from other forms of accommodation.

With its wildlife, stunning scenery, and friendly locals, we had an amazing time cycling The Hebridean Way. The hostels we stayed in, each with their own unique characteristics and charm, weren’t simply places to rest our heads, but an integral and memorable element of the journey. We left the Hebrides tired but full of stories to tell and full of excitement for whatever our next adventure may be.

We love The Hebridean Way!

By Laurie Butler and Becky Cleave