Hebridean hopscotch — cycling along Scotland's magical west coast

Laura Villinger

Hebridean hopscotch — cycling along Scotland's magical west coast

Bike Touring Collection by komoot

Scotland's northwest coast is truly a magical island landscape: endless white sandy beaches, crystal-clear, sky blue water and lush green meadows covered in wildflowers, all splashed across a rugged lunar-like landscape built of rolling moorland and craggy coastlines. Lucky visitors may even spot a few dolphins, whales, otters or eagles, although all who visit will leave with one thing: Everlasting memories of this region’s unique, untouched scenery.

Along this route, thanks to the combination of numerous bike trails and the odd ferry crossing, you’ll hop through the center of Gaelic culture and get to know eleven of the islands. The ride starts on the Western Isles, better known as the Outer Hebrides, where you’ll enjoy tranquil and quiet streets, secluded bays, and the opportunity to visit a gallery or a whiskey distillery. Here, you can immerse yourself in the past and explore Callanish's megalithic stone formations and the traditional black houses of the 18th and 19th centuries.

On the Isle of Skye, you’ll discover the home of Scotland's most renowned landscapes: The Fairly Glen, the Quiraing, the Old Man of Storr and the Cuillin Massif. Here, you’ll have to share Skye’s majestic sights with a fair few tourists, however, or head out onto the islands lonely roads to enjoy the rough beauty of the island undisturbed. Just remember: Flat is not a word that describes anything here.

Along each stage, you’ll find picnic areas, cafés, supermarkets and accommodation, and many of the islands are so small that you can explore them in one day. And if this is not motivating enough, you can also pedal safe in the knowledge that spontaneity is all you need: The islands’ infrastructure is perfect for on-the-fly decision making, and you don’t need to plan ferry-crossings or accommodation in advance. And if you travel with a tent, you can start individual stages more easily and look forward to lonely nights on the beach with a view of wonderful blue water as far as the eye can see. Just keep in mind that you’re in Scotland; the weather here can change at a moment’s notice. Don't forget to bring your windproof rainwear, and cycle in a northerly direction if possible—that way the wind will give you a nice assist from behind.

Although the Hebrides are often visited by boat, Oban is the most ideal starting point for this Tour, which can be reached comfortably by train. And after you’re done, Harry Potter fans, in particular, are in for an extra treat on the way back: the Hogwarts Express will be departing from Mallaig.

Ferry timetables can be found here: aferry.co.uk

On The Map

Tours & Highlights

    29.4 mi
    10.6 mph
    1,125 ft
    1,100 ft
    Intermediate bike ride. Good fitness required. Mostly paved surfaces. Suitable for all skill levels. The Tour includes a crossing by ferry.

    On this first leg of this Tour, you will already discover three of the eleven islands. You’ll start in the picturesque coastal town of Castlebay before making your first detour south to the southernmost of all the islands: Vater. As you go, you’ll be able to marvel at the white sandy beaches, the stunning turquoise water and the beautiful wildflowers as you ride through this dune-like landscape.

    Riding along the west coast, you’ll eventually meet the green island of Barra. Your next Highlight is the Traigh Mhor Beach, a beautiful strip of coastline that also serves as Barra’s airport — but only when the tide is low. Take a break at the airport café or climb the dunes on Traigh Eais beach until it's time to board the ferry to Eriskay.

    Once you arrive at Eriskay, you’ll feel an automatic invitation to linger. So, pitch your tent in the most perfect spot imaginable, the silvery beach lining the coastline, and get ready for your first night in the wild.

    37.9 mi
    10.7 mph
    550 ft
    600 ft
    Intermediate bike ride. Good fitness required. Mostly paved surfaces. Suitable for all skill levels.

    Today's stage is very flat. With a bit of luck, and with the wind behind you, your bike will almost seem to pedal itself.

    Starting out, a near mile-long (1.5 kilometer-long) causeway will take you to South Uist. This island is the second largest in the Outer Hebrides and is famous for being equal parts windy and isolated. You won’t find too many people here. Beaches, mountains and peat marshes have long since conquered this island, although you’ll still find a number of green moorland areas complete with shimmering blue ponds. As you cycle onward, you’ll pass Benin Thor, the highest mountain on the island, along with golden sand beaches and the ‘Our Lady of the Island’ statue. South Uist and Benbecula — your next destination — are also connected by a causeway. Here you will find supermarkets, hotels, a hostel and a campground.

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  • Intermediate
    40.2 mi
    10.7 mph
    800 ft
    800 ft
    Intermediate bike ride. Good fitness required. Mostly paved surfaces. Suitable for all skill levels.

    Today’s ride is mostly flat — a welcome relief — although the landscape loses some of the striking green colors you’ll have fallen in love with by now. The next island waiting for you is Grimsay.

    Once you get underway, you’ll be on the causeway — and on your way to North Uist — before you know it. Once you arrive in the northwest of the island, you’ll encounter a spectacular paradise for bird and animal watchers. And whether you consider yourself one or not, you’re going to want to take a quick break to enjoy the view.

    For the next stage of today’s ride, you’ll be following the coastline. Once you've passed the "Scolpaig Tower", there’s not too far to go. If you’re looking for a place indoors to stay, there's a popular hostel on Berneray Island. If the weather’s good, however, Cluchan Sands should be your goal, for another night in the tent next to the beautiful turquoise water and a couple of picnic tables for convenience.

    45.6 mi
    11.3 mph
    1,750 ft
    1,750 ft
    Expert bike ride. Very good fitness required. Mostly paved surfaces. Suitable for all skill levels. The Tour includes a crossing by ferry.

    To start this stage, you’re going to have to jump on the ferry. And don’t worry if you miss the next connection and have to wait a while; you’ll not get bored on Berneray. While you wait, watch the seals and the otters in the nearby bay and treat yourself to a shower as the fishing port or grab a full English breakfast. You’ve earned it by now. Then, once you’re on the ferry, you’ll soon arrive in Harris, island number nine.

    Here you will find the most beautiful beaches in the whole of the UK. In fact, if Scotland was a little sunnier, we’re sure that this island would have long been overrun with hotel complexes by now. A particular Highlight which is definitely worth a visit is the pastel-colored Luskentyre beach.

    As you ride through Harris, the diverse scenery will take your breath away. On the Golden Road heading east, you’ll visit sme fishing villages that are situated on mini fjords. Here, nature is still as wild as it should be and the landscape resembles something moon-like.

    Continuing onward, you’ll eventually reach the main street again shortly before Tarbert. Here you can enjoy some smooth sailing down to the brand new Whiskey Distillery of the Outer Hebrides, the only distillery on the island. After all that climbing you’ve earned yourself a dram, or at the very least a nice big piece of cake.

    39.5 mi
    10.0 mph
    2,000 ft
    2,000 ft
    Expert bike ride. Very good fitness required. Mostly paved surfaces. Suitable for all skill levels.

    From Tarbert, head over to Lewis and Harris. In fact, you’ll be returning to this port later to take the ferry across to Skye — but that will have to wait for a few days. Otherwise, you’ll miss the epic secrets hidden to the north. And you really don’t want to do that,

    Harris and Lewis is actually one island, even though many people assume it’s two. A mountain range through the middle of the island carves the landscape up into two, however, which gives this one island the feel of two.

    At the start of the day, two beautiful hills await you. Once climbed, the descent is something that you’re guaranteed to enjoy before you continue westward. As you ride, watch out for the views of endless plains on your left before you reach The Standing Stones of Callanish. This world-renowned Highlight is shaped like a Celtic cross and is the largest of such structures in all of the British Isles. Get ready to be impressed. To see it all, we recommend spending the night in the area. You can choose to sleep again in your tent or in one of the Callanish Camping Pods nearby.

    As a special tip, wait until the golden hour — the moment the sun starts to set over the stones — and take some beautiful photographs of this 5,000-year-old structure.

    42.3 mi
    10.4 mph
    1,675 ft
    1,650 ft
    Expert bike ride. Very good fitness required. Mostly paved surfaces. Suitable for all skill levels.

    Stage 6 is a day where you will pedal from Highlight to Highlight. First, you’ll reach the "Broch Dun Carloway", a well-preserved Iron Age tower. A few miles further down the road, you’ll encounter an entire village of authentic black houses that were reconstructed according to the architectural traditions of the island. This, an open-air museum, complete with a quaint cafe, is more than worth the detour. Located in a small bay, it costs you nothing to enjoy the sites of the rolling green hills that seem to fall effortlessly into the stunning turquoise water.

    After a short break, it’s on to the most north-westerly point of Scotland, the so-called ‘Butt of Lewis’. This Highlight is actually in the Guinness Book of World Records as the stormiest point in the entirety of the British Isles — which might not make it the most suitable place to stop on your bike. Due to its reputation, however, this point is actually a solid tourist attraction in its own right, and you’ll find numerous places to stock up on provisions, get a hearty meal or enjoy a beer after a day in the saddle. Even up here at the end of the world.

    28.6 mi
    10.2 mph
    1,050 ft
    1,050 ft
    Intermediate bike ride. Good fitness required. Mostly paved surfaces. Suitable for all skill levels.

    Up here, you’re at the top of the world. You literally can’t cycle further north, so all that’s left to do is to turn around and experience the rest of the island. And today’s ride will be dominated by the ‘Black Moor’.

    While you ride, you might even catch a glimpse or two of some locals peat cutting. If not, you’ll only ever see one thing: Moorland. If you like trails with a lot of nothing, then this section is made for you. Enjoy the tranquility, because soon you reach the hustle and bustle of the largest village of the Outer Hebrides: Stornaway. And even though up here this place is a mecca, Stornaway is still tiny and tucked away in wild nature, so don’t worry about getting bombarded by an overwhelming sense of ‘civilization’.

    As a special tip, we recommend cycling through the beautiful garden of the neo-Gothic Lews Castle. Once in, you’ll feel truly at peace, so why not treat yourself to a power nap under a tree?

    63.5 mi
    12.4 mph
    1,925 ft
    1,950 ft
    Expert bike ride. Very good fitness required. Mostly paved surfaces. Suitable for all skill levels. The Tour includes a crossing by ferry.

    You’ll already be familiar with a fair amount of today’s ride, although you’ll likely get a new perspective over the landscape as you cycle in the opposite direction. The ride itself is largely flat through moorland that’s dominated by pools and swamps before you come out once more on to the well-known route you’ve ridden before.

    If you didn’t climb the Heroes of Lochs when you were here before — now’s the time. Summit the hillock and enjoy the view. And before you have to start pedaling uphill again further down the road, consider stopping for a picnic in the Alice Community Woodland to strengthen yourself for the upcoming climb.

    Once you are back in Tarbert, you’ll be taking the ferry to Uig on the Isle of Skye. And even though this place is surprisingly small, you’ll find everything you need to get a good night’s rest with campgrounds that are well equipped for visitors.

    Now it’s time for a quick pause to congratulate yourself: You’ve already covered ten islands. One left to go.

    31.2 mi
    9.4 mph
    2,350 ft
    2,325 ft
    Expert bike ride. Very good fitness required. Mostly paved surfaces. Suitable for all skill levels.

    Welcome to the Isle of Skye — the Island of Fog. Or island number 11 for you. This island is perhaps the most well known out of all the ones you’ve explored yet.

    Skye is packed with dramatic landscapes and majestic nature. To start today’s ride, we recommend taking a quick detour from Uig to Fairly Glen, the Valley of the Fairies. If you get up early enough, you’ll have the magical landscape all to yourself, before conquering the legendary climb up the Quiraing Pass.

    As you wind your way through the pass, the gradient will quickly reverse in parts any you’ll roll comfortably back down towards sea level. Sticking to the main road, a stopover on the colorfully patterned Kilt Rock is definitely worthwhile, as well as a quick stop to check out the Old Man of Storr. Here, we even recommending dismounting your trusty bike and hiking up the few almost-vertical feet to the striking spire at the top. This is something you don’t see everyday, so enjoy it while you can.

    As you continue further down the same street, you’ll drive right up to Portree, the largest town on Skye and your destination for the night. As you arrive, you’ll also catch your first glimpses of the Cullin Massif.

    Arriving tired yet satisfied, it’s only fitting to round the say off with a big ol’ bag of fish and chips.

    36.5 mi
    7.9 mph
    3,250 ft
    3,275 ft
    Expert bike ride. Very good fitness required. Some portions of the Tour may require you to push your bike.

    If you liked yesterday’s stage, you’re going to love this one. Today, the adventure rolls on, taking you off the beaten track and up the Struan, a one-lane track through the middle of the island.

    If your legs are tired, you’ll quickly find the perfect place for a revitalizing stop in the form of the Fairy Pools. If you packed your swimming trunks, now’s the time to get them out. If you didn’t… well; maybe you’ll get creative. Enjoy some moments at this serene mountain pool and give your legs the rest they deserve. After all, we’ve got all day.

    Once you get back on the bike, you’ll ride further towards Sligachan. As you arrive, you’ll enjoy a beautiful, panoramic view of the mountains in the distance. Here, you’ll also find numerous places to book a night’s stay, as well as plenty of places cooking the type of food that your belly’s guaranteed to be craving by now.

    33.2 mi
    10.2 mph
    1,475 ft
    1,475 ft
    Intermediate bike ride. Good fitness required. Mostly paved surfaces. Suitable for all skill levels.

    As you wake up today, you’ll be witness to a spectacular site: A bridge with three arches nestling behind the Cullin Hills. Today is your last day; the culmination of your Hebridean hopscotch, so it’s important you make the most of it. Today’s adventure will take you to Armadale.

    As you ride, you’ll spend much of your time today cycling through the ‘Garden of Skye’, a gently undulating, hilly landscape filled with lakes, sea views, and another whiskey distillery. Broadford also serves as today’s refill point: the second largest settlement on Skye and home to a huge supermarket.

    After restocking, it’s back on the road towards Armadale. Take your time on this segment as it’s the last bit of island flair you’ll get to enjoy before heading back to the British mainland. Once in Armadale, explore the local castle, take in your last breaths of that fine Hebridean sea air — and enjoy a couple of slices of cake. Your Hebridean adventure has come to an end.

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Collection Stats

  • Tours
  • Distance
    428 mi
  • Duration
    41:15 h
  • Elevation
    17,925 ft

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Hebridean hopscotch — cycling along Scotland's magical west coast