Away with the Fairies
Island hopping with the MacNasties

by 'Meg'



It's no use being a shrinking violet if you want to tour by recumbent, especially tandem recumbent. We quickly developed a five second technique for parking up and disappearing, then watching from the anonymous safety of the cafe' window as curious onlookers formed a circle round our twelve foot long Greenspeed. In ferry queues, however, we were helpless.

It had been our intention to tour Orkney and Shetland but you know how these things happen somehow we ended up, once again, in the Hebrides. Blame MacBraynes; they talked us into buying something called an 'Island Rover'. This is a magic ticket which, we found, you seldom need to show anyone. Just murmur "Rover" (or even "Woof, woof"!) and they wave you on like royalty. To get your money's worth you need to reach the Outer Isles as well as several of the Inners, and this we did, visiting thirteen different islands and using twenty ferries over a three week holiday in which we pedalled about 1300 miles on the Greenspeed.

Usually we rough it in tents, bothies and caves but Meg had recently become a pensioner and the recumbent doesn't really suit off road work so we were indulging in the luxury of hostels and occasional B&Bs. In April and early May many Scottish hostels are little used and we had several to ourselves. Tighnabruaich was a welcome sight after a sub aqua crossing of the 'Rest and Be Thankful' A cycle friendly warden put on the heating just for us so we stayed two nights and got dried out. This also enabled us to test ourselves over the 1:4 Bealach an Drain hill on the Cowal Peninsular.

We used two 'fairies' to reach our first island; Portavadie to Tarbert across Loch Fyne, then Kennacraig to Port Askaig on Islay. Portavadie is a strange non place. Built as an oil rig construction site but never used, it now lies mothballed behind rusting fences, a monument to ignorance and bad planning. Islay figures in tourist literature as being of interest chiefly for whisky and wild geese. We avoided both these, (the distilleries were closed and the geese had flown) but took greater interest in the wave power prototype power station at Claddach, a roaring monster akin to standing next to a spouting whale, and the Celtic cross at Kildalton, the only complete undamaged one of its kind. One thousand years apart in technology and each a marvel of its time.

Two nights in Charlottetown YoHo, a cleverly converted whisky bond with beautiful views of the sea from one window and an overview of the town's car dump from the other, then we were catching our third fairy from Port Ellen to Kennocraig and riding the easy scenic road north to Oban where we found this popular hostel quite busy but were still able to share a room. Coach tourists from the hotel next door stared (enviously?) at our fresh air mode of travel. By passing the one way traffic system and negotiating instead the awkward pedestrian access to the pier we were soon queuing among the juggernauts for our place on 'The Pioneer' to Craignure. Technical problems had caused a big swap round of MacBrayne's ferries and several of the boats we were using were not on their normal runs; this led to some interesting situations and a good deal of delay as the islands' supply vehicles jostled for position and many a frustrated motorist failed to find room. We admired the skill of the seamen and truckies as they manoevered in the close confines of the vehicle decks. the Greenspeed was always accorded a safe and sheltered berth usually alongside other cycles and a few motorbikes. Even on the rare occasions when we had to take up a car space we paid no charges once we had assured them we were under pedal power only.

A hasty dash north up Mull (an island we have visited many times before) and onto the ferry at Fishnish saw us across to the mainland again at Lochaline. Social contact over the Greenspeed has its pleasures too as George enjoyed the novel experience of being chatted up by a Porsche driving dolly bird. The Ardnamurchan road is scenic but undulating. a hard road for anything pedalled, for a recumbent it is strength sapping, the downs never quite compensating for the ups. The final miles were a joyous swoop down to reach the jetty at Kilchoan just as the ferry approached. Alas, with sinking hearts, we discovered that the purse containing all our tickets and valuables had been left at the roadside seven miles back!

The kind folk at Kilchoan Post Office came to our rescue; we enjoyed two night's luxurious Bed & Breakfast, a perfect day on the sandy beaches of Sanna Bay and retrieved the purse intact thanks to the honesty and effort of many people. That's the sort of place Ardnamurchan is.

This time we safely boarded the good ship "Raasay" and sailed back to Mull. The delay had cost us the chance to visit Coll and Tiree so we spent a night in Tobermory YoHo where the twelve foot length of the tandem was progressed gradually in through the front door and out of the back to get in everyone's way as it crouched under the washing lines.

Oban came and went again in a flash as we left one ferry and boarded another. An Aussie tourist disembarking, leapt shrieking from his car to greet us as fellow Greenspeed enthusiasts. It seems he was a pal of Ian Simms and we'd made his day! The crossing to Barra was sparkling but we watched for whales, gannets and porpoises in vain. Later we were to see a wonderful dolphin/porpoise (?) display off the Point of Sleat. On arrival at Castlebay we were soon under escort by the town's small boys as they conducted us to our lodging with cries of "Can you keep up with us?", "Have you got brakes?" and, finally, "Where's the money?"!

Barra and its causeway joined island of Vatersay are a cyclist's paradise. Compact and pleasing, the road circles the main island with opportunities for diversions to numerous small bays and points of interest. Two occasions rule the islanders' day: the arrival of the ferry in the south and the arrival of the plane in the north. They tend to hare from one to the other, usually in cars probably innocent of MoT certificates. The plane landing famously on sandy beaches cleared beforehand of sheep and cockle gatherers, has become one of the island's main tourist attractions. In evening sunlight we climbed to the Trig. Point from where 'Star of the Morning' faces east to reflect the rising sun from the Christ child's face. Barra is a Catholic island and the local priest was one of many people who stopped to speak with us.

The evening 'fairy, was soon winging up the Minch to land us at Lochboisdale where imminent darkness had us booking hastily into a B&B. Our host's son instantly recognised George, turning out to be a cyclist from one of our home clubs. There are not many miles of road on Eriskay but it was another ferry and a delightful island so we spent a few hours enjoying the lawn like machair and white sandy beaches before recrossing to Ludag and riding north up the spine of South Uist. It was forty years since Meg had been there and it was interesting to visit old haunts though sad in some ways to see the demise of full time crofting. Modern standards of living mean that crofting as now practised is but part time or at best a hobby for the retired. However it was heartening to find the hostels at Howmore and Berneray instigated by Herbert Gatliffe, a philanthropist of the '50s, still going strong and appreciated by many visitors. We stayed nights at each of them and enjoyed meeting the warden of Howmore who doubles as the proprietor of the island's cycle 'shop' and hire specialist. His corrugated iron shop was a classic of the island idiom. Crossing one of the inter-island causeways which now connect South Uist with Benbecula and North Uist, we nearly met our fate as a dozing bus driver somehow failed to register our presence and drove straight at us on the single lane, boulder walled causeway. Waking up in the nick of time he jammed his bus into a screeching sideways skid which had us literally climbing up the wall as pictures of a watery grave flashed across the retina. This is the only example of "you can't be seen on a recumbent" we have experienced in over 6000 miles of recumbent riding. But it was alarming.

Leaving Berneray we misunderstood an ambiguous notice and nearly missed the direct ferry to An t Ob (Leverburgh). It was typical of islanders' kindness that the skippers of the ferries radioed each other and arranged for the inconvenient transfer of two daft cycle tourists who couldn't read a timetable. The passage across the Sound of Harris is one of the most hazardous in the islands and has only become possible with modern shallow draught ships. We pursued a picturesque zig-zag course around the many skerries seeing seals and a variety of bird life. Harris we know well having visited several times and, although it has replaced a ferry, it was good to see the new bridge to Scalpay which has made such a difference to life on this well populated island. We stayed in the SYHA hostel at Stockinish and just missed cheering on the competitors in the 'Islands Challenge' quodathlon. This has become a major endurance event in which teams run, swim, canoe and cycle a tough route from end to end of the Outer Hebrides. The local Tourist Board, disappointingly, seemed to know little about it and gave us wrong information.

The Outer Isles, though windy, often enjoy better weather than the more mountainous Inner Isles and mainland. Thus it was that we landed on Skye in a downpour and had a real fight against the gale to Sconsor and the 'fairy' for Raasay. By this time we were running out of 'Rover Ticket' which lasts for two weeks, but the kind ferryman allowed us the return trip free of charge. Staying at the small, cosy Youth Hostel we spent a day riding the one island road including its northern extension known as 'Callum's Road' in memory of the crofter who wore out countless barrows and shovels building it with his own hands. It says much for the quality of our Greenspeed's hydraulic disc brakes that we were able to ride all its tortuously steep hills and bends. Raasay is a soft island and despite having only one road, much to be recommended to cyclists.

We fell in with two club tourists from England and kept intermittent company on the next stages of our journey south through Skye to Armadale and eventually on to Mallaig and Arisaig where we left them enjoying the cafe.

Armadale YoHo is a converted boathouse with a view of the harbour. We stayed two nights to enable a ride round the west coast to Tarskavaig and some walking out to Acairsaid where the ruins have become holiday homes and a notice says "Visitors should leave by 5p.m.! There was quite a crowd of cyclists on the MV 'Loch Dunvegan' and we were proud to fly our 'Lion Rampant' among the flags of Holland, France and Germany. Mallaig came and went as rapidly as possible and soon we were on the familiar roads of the mainland. We hadn't seen our last fairy though. Foregoing the delights of the Camusnagaul pedestrian/cycle crossing to Fort William we were soon aboard number nineteen at Corran and beginning the long haul across Scotland via Kinlochleven, Aberfeldy and Dunkeld to Dundee. Two days and 150 miles later we crossed the Tay. This, our final 'fairy', was not a boat but the bike bus which at that time conveyed cyclists over the forbidden hazards of the Tay Road Bridge.

There was just a week to get unpacked and repacked before we were to be off on our next holiday cycling in Scotland, of course!