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Big Ride: Isle of Harris

Harris cycling
Pete Muir
13 Nov 2015

Solitude, scenery and perfect cycling all lie just off the coast of Scotland

I’m lying in bed, half awake, when Carol Kirkwood tells me it’s going to be a beautiful day. Reaching for the remote, I turn up the volume on the TV that’s bolted to my hotel room wall. ‘There’ll be lots of sunshine right across the country, with highs of 29°C in the south-east,’ Carol chirps.

She gestures to the map of Britain behind her, which is swathed in warm, red hues and dotted with symbols of glowing suns – all except for one bit. I sit up in bed to get a closer look.

Sure enough, up in the top left-hand corner of the country is a tiny disc of watery blue, the only blemish on the otherwise sun-drenched map.

It’s hovering directly over the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, which coincidentally is where I am right now, still (mostly) tucked up in bed at 7am in the Hotel Hebrides in the small harbour town of Tarbert.

I climb out of bed and pull back the curtains. Outside is a scene from a biblical epic movie – rain strikes the windows in violent whiplashes, swirling and clawing at the double-glazing.

The wind is so fierce that the droplets seem to be travelling horizontally, occasionally even slightly upwards, and the sky is so dark it feels like morning has simply refused to break, despite it being mid-summer. ‘So, don’t forget your sunscreen,’ Carol trills before handing back to the Breakfast presenters.

Harris beach

‘Thanks a bunch, Carol,’ I mutter, and pick up my mobile to text Marion MacDonald. Marion runs a local taxi firm, and her husband, Lewis, has kindly agreed to drive our photographer around with us on our ride today.

I suggest we put our start time back an hour on account of the deluge. Marion texts back saying, ‘This is only light Harris rain. You should see the real stuff.’

Water world

By 9am the rain has relented enough for us to brave the outside world. Rob, Cyclist’s art director and my companion on today’s ride, emerges from the hotel clad in armwarmers, kneewarmers and rain jacket. ‘Hottest day of the year in London,’ I tell him. ‘Would you rather be there now?’ he replies.

‘Not for a moment,’ I say, and we saddle up and head south out of Tarbert, following Lewis’s car as it disappears up the road. It takes us less than a minute to slip past the few buildings and leave the town behind.

It’s certainly not the biggest of places – a scattering of shops, guest houses and a whisky distillery in the making (look out for the first bottles of The Hearach in about eight years’ time) – but Tarbert is still the main community on Harris, thanks to the ferry that connects the island with Skye to the south.

Harris boat

As we climb up the hill away from the town, we quickly find ourselves in the kind of countryside that will accompany us for the first half of our ride. Craggy hillocks are covered in dense grass and heather of the deepest green, pockmarked by mounds of exposed pale limestone.

Whichever way I look I can see water, either tiny lochs nestled between the rocks, or the cold expanses of the Minch that separates the Outer Hebrides from the mainland. Today I can also see water when I look up. The rain has returned, and I zip up my jacket a bit tighter to stop the trickle from my helmet finding its way down the back of my neck.

After a few minutes we’ve settled into a rhythm of tapping up the hill while chatting about the views and bemoaning our luck with the weather. Then we hear a beep from a car horn.

Looking back, we see Lewis’s car parked up at a junction, and he’s gesturing out of the window for us to follow him. It’s the only turning we had to remember on the entire ride today, and we missed it.

We turn back to the junction, and I see a sign saying ‘The Golden Road’, which sounds promising. This is the route that will take us in a long loop around the coast of the southern part of Harris, wiggling in and out of the bays and rolling over headlands.

Apparently, the locals called it ‘The Golden Road’ because of the high cost of building it at the end of the 19th century.

Harris causeway

As soon as we turn onto the single-lane road, we begin the rise and fall that characterises this half of the route. There are no mountains around these parts, so we never gain any real height, but equally, we’re never on flat ground.

As if to mimic the sea that lies constantly to our left, the road rolls smoothly in a wave that sees us bobbing up and down as we get out of the saddle for the climbs, pause ever so briefly at the crests, and then plunge down the other side to begin the pattern all over again.

The ups are steep in places, but never so long that we go into the red – while the downs are fun, but don’t offer enough time to get any real speed up.

As a result, we naturally adopt an undemanding tempo, which seems to be in keeping with the slow pace of life in the area. We see a man walking his dog, someone else tinkering with a boat, but otherwise we are riding in blissful solitude.

Harris church

Coming round a bend we see Lewis’s car up ahead and we draw alongside while the photographer disappears up a soggy hill to get a better angle on his shot.

The rain is still whipping into our faces, and Lewis points to some houses sitting on the shoreline. ‘You’ll notice the houses around here are all built at the same angle,’ he says. ‘It’s to make sure they’re all pointed into the wind.’

It seems that everything that happens on this island is dictated by its unique weather. ‘They came and filmed scenes from Braveheart here,’ Lewis continues.

‘It cost the production company a fortune because they were paying loads of people to be here every day and they needed dry weather to shoot the scene. The trouble was – it didn’t stop raining for a week.’ I can believe that.

I’m beginning to wonder if we’re going to have similar misfortune with our own two-wheeled production. And with that, as if to show up my lack of faith, the rain stops.

Island life

Harris climbing

The Isle of Harris isn’t actually an island at all. It’s connected to Lewis, with the border between the two being defined by a ridge of mountains that crosses the island about 10km north of Tarbert.

As a result, the whole island is commonly given the slightly clumsy name of the Isle of Lewis and Harris. It’s the largest island of the Outer Hebrides, which is itself a string of more than 60 islands stretching over 200km down the west coast of Scotland.

Only 15 of those islands are inhabited, with Lewis and Harris having the biggest population of around 21,000, and Flodagh having the smallest, with a total population of seven. As an aside, the Isle of Lewis and Harris is the biggest island in the UK (if you discount the really big island that makes up mainland England, Scotland and Wales).

Harris road

Geologically speaking, it’s also one of the oldest places in the world. The rocks down the east coast of Harris have been dated at three thousand million years old, and as I cycle past them, I can’t help thinking that they look in pretty good nick. Which is more than can be said for the buildings.

The route is littered with sheds and barns, all of which seem to be in a condition somewhere between dilapidated and disintegrating. It’s uncertain what any of them were once used for, but all of them have succumbed to Harris’s brutal weather.

Harris clothes

Right now the weather is perking up a bit. We’ve still got a stiff headwind to contend with, but the rain has gone and the temperature has risen enough to risk riding without a rain cape.

We trundle along the shoreline, passing inlets that look like tiny Norwegian fjords. Other humans are noticeably absent, but we’re not alone. Out to sea, seals lounge on rocks and bob happily around in the water, and on the grassy hillsides, Highland cows munch lazily on heather, stopping only to watch our passing before resuming their meal.

Mussel memory

As we ride, Rob points out that the edges of the roads are lined with mussel shells. I look closer, and sure enough they are everywhere, scattered in the grass and on the tarmac.

We later learn that the local seabirds have perfected the technique of cracking them open by dropping them from a height onto the hard road surface.

Harris coast road

Eventually, after 37km of weaving down the east coast, we arrive at the southernmost point of the island, which is home to St Clement’s, a 16th century church built by the McLeod clan, who still count Lewis and Harris as their ancestral home.

It seems like a good spot for a rest, so we dismount and have a peer around the ancient church, straining to read the inscriptions on tombs of long-dead McLeod clan chiefs, and trying – mostly in vain – not to skid on the stone floor in our cleats.

This marks the turning point in our route. Leaving the church, we head northwards and the character of the ride changes significantly. Where before the roads were twisty and bumpy, now they’re long and straight. There’s still no sign of anything that could be accurately described as traffic and, best of all, we’ve got the wind behind us. We’re positively flying.

The dawdling is over, and we get into the drops for the first time today and start to two-up time-trial down the arrow-straight road, just to enjoy the feeling of speed.

We blast through the small town of Leverburgh, named after William Lever, one of the founders of Lever Brothers, who bought the island in 1918.

It’s said he didn’t like a hill that obscured the view from his house, so he had it blown up. Soon we’re on the western coast road, and on this side of the island, the rocky bays have been replaced with long stretches of immaculate sandy beaches, while the rugged hillocks have given way to wide green fields and gentle, rolling hills. It could be a completely different island.

Harris cow

The beauty and remoteness of Harris has made it a favourite hideaway for the great and good. Along the coast, stunning houses are under construction, built into the hillsides with incredible sea views.

An ancient, tumbledown tower has been renovated with huge, modern glass windows to create something that would have Grand Designs’ Kevin McCloud in raptures.

‘Robbie Coltrane has a house round here somewhere,’ Lewis informs us during a brief stop to take photos. ‘We had a kids concert a while back, with some of the parents providing the music, and it turned out that the guy playing the drums used to be in the Buzzcocks.’

Harris descending

About 10km further on, the road swings inland towards the hills and the landscape begins to change again. As we climb, the lushness disappears and the terrain becomes more exposed.

Peaty expanses of heather are strewn with boulders that have been exposed by glaciers. It has an other-worldly character, which helps to explain why Stanley Kubrick chose this area to film the Jupiter scenes for the final section of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The climb crawls upwards for around 6km, although it’s never steep enough to force us out of the saddle.

We rise into a thick mist, which makes the landscape even more eerie than it was before, and coats us in a thin film of moisture.

I consider donning my rain jacket again, but decide against it. By the time we reach the highest point we’re within 5km of the finish, and from here it’s a fast, straight run home.

We race along the final stretch, sprinting past each other down the empty road, unconcerned by the damp mist or the chilly afternoon air. It’s been a great ride in a truly unique setting, and just for today, London can keep its heatwave.

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