Lots more on Lismore

Located in a giant sea loch and with mountains beyond, the Isle of Lismore makes for an outstanding family bike ride packed with interest.

Loch Fiart

Loch Fiart

My 10-year-old son Bertie and I arrive at the ferry from Port Appin to Lismore in good time for the 11am departure but I’m panicking. The vessel is small – more of a fishing boat really – but already is laden with bikes. No matter: the ferryman does an extra run and the incident turns out to be the only blemish (and a very minor one at that) on one of those rare days when the glory of the weather matches the splendour of the landscape.

Translated from Gaelic as ‘great garden’, Lismore is 10 miles long by about a mile wide and situated in the middle of Loch Linnhe north of Oban. The principal road begins beside the coast but soon diverts inland and stays there for most of its way south. Despite the initial lack of coastal views the road is a continual delight partly because the weather is so fine and partly because it’s so peaceful.

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Boarding the Lismore ferry at Port Appin

The island has a population of around 180 and exudes a strong sense of community. We first pause at the cathedral church of St Moluag, having come over with the vicar who was on his way to lead the weekly service. At the Lismore public hall the tables and chairs are out for a produce sale in aid of hall funds and we also pass the post office – proud winner of the post office of the year competition in 2006 – and a fire station. Curiously, all the facilities are separated from one another as if mindful of invading each other’s personal space. We gain some height as the road proceeds south and affords fine views towards Oban and the approaching and departing Hebridian ferries.

Reeds herald Kilcheran Loch and, by this point, grass grows in the middle of the road. Just pass the loch the Tarmac disappears all together and we cycle on a broad and well defined, winding and undulating grass track. The route was once stoned, though, so the surface is firm and our progress little hindered.

IMG_3787The ride now really changes gear and becomes an adventure. Earlier, when I’d lent my bike against a wall beside the church I’d startled the sheep and, rounding a sharp corner near Loch Fiart, I send the cattle scattering. The track follows a ledge with the waters of the loch down below and crags above then enters a valley so flat bottomed it’s as if the terrain has been adapted for sports pitches. Bertie is getting a little anxious, conscious of the distance we still have to travel on our return and in an area with no sign of habitation. It’s been this way since the 1840s when 400 people were evicted from seven townships in the southern half of the island under the Highland clearances. I’m loving the isolation, though, and egg him on all the way to the end of the road at a derelict farmhouse. Peering through the window we see the iron hearth, shelves and pegs where coats once hung.

You can proceed past the farmhouse along a narrow footpath to the southern tip of Lismore. We opt instead to clamber up a grassy knowl and have sandwiches overlooking the island of Mull and, in front of it, a lighthouse on an islet. It’s first keeper in 1833 was a descendent of Alexander Selkirk, the original Robinson Crusoe. Like father, like great grandson, I guess.

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Lismore Gaelic Heritage Museum

An exchange of texts with my wife and daughter who are walking elsewhere on the island reveals that the café at the heritage museum closes earlier than we thought at 4pm so we can’t dilly-dally and sadly have to forego diversions to Bernera Island, the ruins of Castle Coeffin and abandoned harbour at Sailean, all on the west coast and accessible by cyclable tracks. (There’s so much to see on Lismore I’d recommend an overnight or early start). I do, however, divert to Achnacroish where ferries connect to Oban but there is little there. I’m glad I left Bertie resting at the spine road especially as it’s hard work returning back uphill. I have, at least, earnt my reward of a cuppa and cake at the café followed by a quick look around the adjoining museum.

We next branch off to the eastern coast and leave the bikes to climb up to the broch of Tirfuir, a well preserved example of the circular forts built in the Iron Age by the Pictish inhabitants of Scotland. Our final diversion is my favourite: the former limestone quarrying village of Port Ramsay. It’s very close to the ferry terminal so we’re able to explore it without worrying about how much time to leave for the final leg of the journey.

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Port Ramsey

We feel like we’d gone behind the scenes of Lismore, off the well trodden tourist – and cyclist – trail. The original settlement is a row of limestone quarriers’ cottages, the thickness of their walls giving an indication of harsh winter conditions. Each property has a small – and mostly immaculately kept – garden on the other side of the track. The coast curves at this point in a coastal feature that is part bay and part mudflats where fields merge with the shore. Port Ramsay residents live free range, alternative lifestyles and I’m not just talking about the livestock! On our way round the bay we pass a caravan named Atlas Supreme that is partly supported by the old hull of a boat. The sound of folk music issues from the door and I can make out a figure through the Venetian blinds. All rather Bohemian – as is a restored croft with grass roof and two sunlights just around the corner. Bet the owner has a compost loo too.

While we wait for our return ferry the girls spot us as they quaff cappuccinos at the restaurant across the water in Port Appin. It’s been a day to remember for all of us and we have plenty to talk about that evening in our holiday cottage, appropriately the Old Ferry House.

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Return from broch of Tirfuir

Fact file

Distance: 25 miles.

Time: Allow all day – and a long one, ideally.

Directions:

Very simple orientation. From the jetty near to Port Ramsay at the northern tip of Lismore follow the only road south. Eventually, where the road appears to end and there’s a farm to the right, fork left and up a track to pass through a gate and continue ahead on a grassy track as far as a derelict farm where the track ends. Return the way you came. Take the first right to visit Achnacroish. The left turn for Castle Coeffin is discreetly signed at a farmhouse 750 metres north of the heritage centre, just south of the church. The right turn for Tirefour broch and final left turn for Port Ramsay are also signed. Take your pick!

Map: here

Refreshments:

Isle of Lismore café. Shares a modern, eco-friendly building with the heritage museum (see below). Tables and chairs outside. Open 11am-4pm. Last orders for hot food at 3pm. isleoflismorecafe.com and 01631 760020.

The Pierhead seafood restaurant, Port Appin. pierhousehotel.co.uk and 01631 730302.

IMG_3866Ferries:

The Port Appin ferry runs between 8am and 8pm. Crossing to Lismore takes five mins. No extra charge for bikes. 01631 730686. Alternatively take the ferry from Oban to Achnacroish which runs four times a day and takes 50 mins.

Bike hire:

Port Appin bikes. Run by Margaret Davidson from her house at 9 Shuna View which is on the left just as you approach Port Appin and just a few minutes ride from the ferry terminal. Adult bikes £15 and children’s bikes £10 per day. 01631 730391.

Recommended accommodation:

The Old Ferry House, Port Appin (self catering).

Places to visit:

Lismore Gaelic Heritage Museum. Includes reconstructed late 19th century cottar’s house and displays on the island’s landscape, industry, agriculture and population. Open from April to Oct, 10am-4pm. lismoregaelicheritagecentre.org.

Cathedral church of St Moluag. 14th century church that was the seat of the Bishops of Argyll for nearly 400 years. Includes some notable modern stained glass windows. Open during daylight hours.

Recommended website: isleoflismore.com.

Don't forget to stop at the end!

Don’t forget to stop at the end!

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Beginners’ island

The island of Great Cumbrae is as easy to reach as it is to cycle around.

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Ascending Barbary Hill

Having in the past cycled around the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland riding Great Cumbrae was always going to be a breeze. “Scotland’s most accessible island” proclaimed the leaflet I picked up before boarding the ferry from Largs. Indeed. After just an hour’s drive from Glasgow and the 10-minute crossing we were on the island. For me Great Cumbrae was almost not remote enough – although it was perfect for my nine-year-old son, Bertie, with whom I hoped this was the first Scottish island adventure of many. No point in hitting him with the hard stuff quite yet …

We began our circuit in the merry, little Victorian town of Millport, the only settlement on the island, strung out around a large bay in the south. In keeping with the pint-size of Cumbrae the town contains the Cathedral of the Isles, the smallest in Europe, and what is “recorded as” the narrowest house in Britain called The Wedge which squeezes into a two-yard gap next to a bistro on the seafront.

Lion Rock

Lion Rock

You can’t really go wrong with the route as it follows the B-road that tightly hugs the coast throughout and there is only one junction which you barely register. A map is superfluous unless you add on the inner circuit more of which later. We set off in an anti-clockwise direction by cycling around the back of the island’s best and biggest beach, Kames Bay. We rounded the bulky south-eastern headland and then headed north past Lion Rock. (Couldn’t spot the likeness ourselves). Just across the sea to the south we could see Portencross Castle and Goldenberry Hill and, next to them, Clydeport freight terminal and the Hunterston marine construction yard and power station, further reminders that Cumbrae is anything but a far, flung Scottish island.

There are lots of natural things hereabouts too – including shag, cormorant, eider duck and grey seals. The Clyde sea area, swilling around on a shallow plateau of glacial debris is one of Britain’s classic marine heritage regions as we found out at a small museum and aquarium at the University Marine Biological Station. It’s origins date back to 1884 when the station was a floating laboratory on a boat called The Ark.

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White Bay

To all intents and purposes the coast road is a cycle track and, in parts, as rough as one (not that it matters) with the exception of the stretch between Millport and the ferry slip which is plied by the connecting bus service. Cyclists whizzed around the island like charabancs in the olden days and motorcyclists on the Isle of Man TT but at a somewhat more modest speed. Bicycles – and all sorts of man-powered vehicles – far outnumbered motor vehicles. We passed a large group of roller skaters, a four-some on a covered quadricycle and, most extraordinarily, a team of seven on what’s called a conference bike! You can also hire a Raleigh Chopper to really cut a retro dash.

The route was always going to be busy given that it was a sunny Saturday in August and only a fortnight after the end of the Olympics. Inspire a generation? Several generations, more like – from young children in trailers, to young families on tag-alongs and tandems, right through to retired folk and a middle-aged man bulging in Team GB Lycra. Every hundred yards or so we spotted bikes laid down on the verge and then, just over top, families playing on one of the several, small, shingly beaches. The greatest concentration of cyclists was, inevitably, at the Fintry Bay tearooms. They are very modern now but this was once the site of a lemonade factory where drinks for sale included his very own ginger ale and Cumbrae Grog, the name of which encapsulates the ‘Five go mad’ feel of the island.

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Kames Bay

A new addition to the circuit is a poignant war memorial a little further around the coast which is dedicated to “the men and women of the British and allied forces who sacrificed their lives for our freedom and have no grave.” Cut-outs of figures representing the army, Royal Navy, RAF and merchant navy direct your gaze to the sea and sky.

Before we knew it we were back on the outskirts of Millport. A row of imposing Victorian villas formed a guard of honour as we rounded the final south-eastern corner. Each has a large front garden and shares a wood to the rear and, on the other side of the road, a large green leading to the sea, a combination that must get local estate agents purring.

Catching the ferry to Cumbrae

Catching the ferry to Cumbrae

We ended the coastal circuit wanting more exercise, a little altitude and fewer cyclists. At least, I did – so we set off on a supplementary circuit of the Cumbrae’s inner loop. We’d been around the walls and it was time to get up on the roof. A cyclist helped us with some directions. He was a lithe chap his twenties, bathed in sweat and riding an expensive-looking bike. Suddenly, this felt like a different sort of ride and gave Bertie a frisson of outer Scottish isles. The road took us up the short, steep Barbary Hill, a mere midget with a summit of just 127 metres, but which provides a panorama and the peacefulness that was well worth the effort. The dramatic, serrated silhouette of Arran beckoned. Bute and Wee Cumbrae are also close by and, on such a clear day, we could also see as far north as Ben Lomond in the Trossachs and south as the distinctive muffin shape of Ailsa Craig, nine miles off the coast of south Ayrshire.

With that we completed a speedy descent into Millport to reward ourselves with a game of crazy golf and ice creams at the Ritz Café. This eaterie is so authentically sixties – complete with booths of red bank seating and menu displayed in letters stuck to a white board – it could be a museum piece. Mods, due in town for a scooter rally the following weekend, must love it here. For some time travel, a quick spin and an enjoyable day out Cumbrae is unbeatable especially for those with young families. After Scotland’s Isle of Wight, next time for us it’s Arran.

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Millport

Fact file

Distance: 14 miles.

Time: 2 hours.

Directions: Very simple. Start at Kames Bay just to the east of Millport centre and proceed anti-clockwise all the way around the coast road (B896). For the inner loop, when back in Millport continue past the harbour and Garrison House then turn left signed to the cathedral. Once in open country follow the sign to the left indicating a parking spot and viewpoint a mile away. After the viewpoint follow the road as it bears right at the top of the loop and then back to Kames Bay.

Map: here

Eating:

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Ritz Cafe, Millport

Shop at National Centre for watersports near the slipway. Open Mon-Sat from 12.30-5pm and on Sun from 11.30am to 4pm. 01475 530757.

Fintry Bay tearooms in the middle of the west coast of the island. Open daily from 10am-5pm from April-Oct. 01475 530246.

The Ritz Café near the harbour in Millport. See above. 01475 530459.

The Harbour bistro also near the harbour in Millport. Highly recommended. 01475 531200.

Other options include a hotel (The Royal George), fish and chips, Chinese and Indian takeaways and several low-budget restaurants in Millport.

Bike hire:

On your Bike, Stuart St, Millport. 01475 530300. Onyourbikemillport.com. Full day’s hire £5.40. Very helpful.

Bremner’s Stores, Cardiff St, Millport. 01475 530707.

Mapes, Guildford St, Millport. 01475 530444. Mapesmillport.co.uk.

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A “conference bike” for up to six riders is available for hire in Millport

Whether the weather be fine …

Discover a peaceful corner of Shetland and compare the current and ancient capitals of the islands.

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Bridge End, West Burra

It was a pea-souper. Real ‘what the heck am I doing here?’ weather. But, having planned the ride six months previously for the end of a grand cycle tour of the Shetland Islands, I was determined to complete it. I reached the farmhouse where the road run out at the end of my linear route and ate lunch sitting on the ground, sheltering in the corner of a dry stone wall. Still foggy. Still questioning my sanity. Then, miraculously, as I began to retrace my route passing the places I’d earmarked earlier as good photo points, the skies cleared and so my ride can be shared.

I began in Lerwick, the capital of Shetland and its only town, where I’d been based for three nights. I stocked up for food for the ride at Tesco but no bananas were available. “Due to a transport issue our main fresh delivery did not make the main sailing”, read a sign on the door. Like the weather itself, such inconveniences are part and parcel of life on the islands, over 100 miles from the coast of Scotland. The Shetland Times dedicates 500 words to the weather forecast every week and, today, I was similarly preoccupied.

Scalloway

Scalloway

The first stage of the ride was an almightly climb or, at least, it felt like it to me even though the summit was only around 100 metres. I rested near the top in a what looked like an old war bunker. Since it doesn’t get dark in early summer until around midnight I hadn’t brought lights but could’ve done with them as I continued on and up into the fog. I passed a group of three cyclists coming in the other direction in one of those reassuring moments of solidarity that keeps you going when the going gets tough.

The reward for the ascent was a great freewheel down and picture postcard view over Scalloway, the ancient capital of the islands. It was a quintessential Shetland scene with baronial castle centre stage, the harbour beyond and red, timber, Scandinavian-style houses in the foreground with Shetland ponies grazing beside them.

Scalloway

Scalloway

I pootled around the village having a look at a plinth that commemorates the Shetland bus. This was the name given to fishing boats which covertly transported men, arms and cargo between Shetland and Nazi-occupied Norway during the Second World War, often under the cover of darkness. A new museum tells the full story. Next door is the early 17th century castle. I padded around its spooky passages having borrowed the key from the Scalloway Hotel. It’s all low key in these parts.

Even after these visits – and another hunt for that elusive bananas in the convenience store – the visibility had barely improved so I set off towards Burra on the second part of my ride still more in hope than anticipation. Tronda, my first island of the day’s hat-trick, became connected to the mainland and rejuvenated in the process by a bridge built in 1971. No sooner had I reflected on the structure than I was across the island itself and heading towards West Burra along a permanent causeway built at the same time as the mainland bridge. It reminded me of the Churchill Barriers that link the islands of southern Orkney and was just as novel to cycle across.

Bridge to Tondra

Bridge to Tondra

At the end of the road on East Burra (location of my infamous sandwich stop) I left the bike for a short walk across a narrow neck of land towards the deserted croft site of Symbister. The tenants had once hoped to build a proper access road but funds run out in the early 1930s so it was never completed and, the following decade, the settlement was abandoned. The same fate befell a 17th century merchant laird’s house, called the Haa of Houss, now roofless and part of a farm.

Back on the bike the fog had finally lifted and my mood with it. Now the ride was a delight, the gentle inclines, declines and bends adding to the interest. Burra feels much more like a backwater than much of the rest of the Shetland Islands. All of the archipelago used to be like this before the oil money, I was told. The wealth that came to the islands is the reason that their roads are so well maintained even though, for the most part and especially on Burra, they carry little traffic.

Bridge End

Bridge End

My favourite spot was Bridge End where the two lung-shaped halves of West and East Burra join. With a marina and canoeists on manoeuvres it almost had a bustle about it compared to the rest of the islands. The war memorial gave the best vantage point over the junction – and the bench in front of it was the perfect swig stop. The day was getting better by the minute. I also diverted briefly to Hamnavoe, Shetland’s only purpose-built fishing village developed in the 1920s but with a name that dates back to Viking times as does the headland with lighthouse that guards the bay, Fugla Ness. Far out to sea I could make out the distinctive shape of Foula, the most isolated, inhabited island in the UK. I’d tried but failed to fly there yesterday. Another place for another time. A quirk of Hamnavoe are its old decorative iron railings which, like those elsewhere on Shetland, were not removed and recycled for the war effort.

Back in Scalloway I varied the theme by returning to Lerwick via the northerly route which gave me a fine view over a golf course and into Dales Voe – as well as a long, gradual climb up the side of it. Now on the National Cycle Network I left the main road and approach Lerwick along a minor road and, finally – as if to bring me back to reality – through an industrial estate. I’d been very tempted but, in the end, I was so glad I hadn’t turned back early. All things come to he who waits.

Hamnavoe

Hamnavoe

Fact file

Distance:  28 miles.

Time: 4 hours.

IMG_0347_12_1Directions: After seting off from Victoria Pier in Lerwick cycle south on the A969 which becomes the A970 as it leaves the town and continues up a long hill. At the top turn right onto B9073 signed to Scalloway then left onto A970 to descend into the town for a look around. Return briefly the way you came then, just after leaving Scalloway, turn right onto B9074 signed to Tronda and Burra. In Hamnavoe turn left signed to Papil, Houss and Bridge End. At war memorial in Bridge End bear left, cross bridge and continue to the end of the road at Houss. Repeat the route back to the Scalloway t-junction. Turn right onto A970 to Lerwick but, this time, follow it all the way to Lerwick. Ignore turn for B9073 at which point you join National Cycle Network Route 1. At top of hill turn right signed for Route 1. In Lerwick turn right onto A970 to return to the pier.

Map: here

Eating:

Hay’s Dock, beside Shetland Museum, Lerwick. 01595 741569 and haysdock.co.uk. Stylish, modern café/restaurant. Good choice of takeaways, restaurants and hotels elsewhere in town.

The Kiln Bar and Café, Scalloway. 01595 880830. Basic fare. Great picture window over the bay.

The Scalloway Hotel. 01595 880444 and scalloway-hotel.co.uk.

Hamnavoe has a convenience store (Andrew Halcrow’s) beside the harbour.

Bike hire:

Grantfield Garage, North Rd, Lerwick. 01595 692709 and grantfieldgarage.co.uk. £12.50 per day. Highly recommended.

West Burra

West Burra

War and peace

You can cycle every road on Hoy, Orkney, in a day – and take in a couple ferry crossings too.

033 Path from Rackwick bothy

Path from Rackwick bothy

Hoy comes from the Old Norse ‘haey’ meaning high island and it’s the relief that makes this one of the Orkney Islands the odd man out and by far the most scenic and dramatic. The northern end is characterised by bare, towering Howgill-like fells with cliffs to match. The good news is that the high points largely surround the route rather than cross it so you’re mostly looking up at them rather than cycling over them.

The journey actually starts on Orkney Mainland at Stromness. Reminiscent of Whitby and Staithes in North Yorkshire, Stromness is a traditional, down-to-earth fishing and harbour town with narrow, flag-stoned streets. It’s also the terminus for the ferry from Scrabster in northern Scotland but you are looking for a much smaller vessel for the short crossing to Hoy.

027 Disembarking at Moaness Pier, Hoy

Disembarking at Moaness Pier, Hoy

Disembarking at Moaness pier you’re as much in a different world as on a different island. Having been sat still for a while it’s no problem straining the legs a little up the incline from the pier. The road soon levels out and starts to follow the bottom of a beautiful glacial valley lined by pairs of telegraph poles like giant matchsticks. They brought power to the island for the first time as recently as 1980.

037 Old Man of Hoy

Old Man of Hoy

Once the last of the cars from the ferry has past you (and there won’t be many) you will be alone and all you’ll hear is endless birdsong and the swish-swish of bike tyres on Tarmac. Either side of the road among the heather are numerous sunken squares where peat has been dug out over the years. The road has just one destination, the former crofting and fishing village of Rackwick. Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown described Rackwick as “Orkney’s last enchantment” and it’s easy to see why. A glorious sandy beach with red sandstone boulders lies below the cliffs. A handful of houses are scattered around the bay but there’s no shop, pub or café which – along with its inaccessibility – is probably the reason that the place has retained its charm. You may want just to find a spot to sit and enjoy the silence but, if you have itchy legs, leave the bike for the three-mile walk (six in total) to the Old Man of Hoy, the tallest sea stack in Europe (137m) and the most famous sight on the island if not all Orkney. Quite why people – including, famously, Chris Bonnington in 1966 – want to climb it is beyond me. You’d almost think that the weight of a climber on the Old Man would cause it to topple over. I did the return walk in a comfortable two hours but signs recommend you allow for three. The path is very simple to follow and has recently been surfaced so is easy to do in cycling footwear.

Retrace your route to Hoy village and turn right up the road that runs all the way and high along the east coast of the island. It starts with a long, slow haul but most cyclists will be able to manage it – and subsequent lesser ascents – without dismounting. The rewards are extensive views across to Orkney Mainland, Stromness, the oil terminal island of Flotta (easily distinguishable by its orange flare) and South Ronaldsay. In between and all around lies Scapa Flow, the base of the British naval fleet during the two world wars. Today it’s hard to image such a tranquil scene being dominated by war ships. The harbour is best known for the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet at the end of the first world war which saw the deliberate sinking of five battle-cruisers, 10 battleships, five cruisers and 32 destroyers. Earlier in the war and also in Scapa Flow over 800 men died as the result of an explosion on HMS Vanguard and a similar number perished when a German torpedo sank HMS Royal Oak in the second world war. You can find out more about these incidents and others at the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre & Museum at Lyness and visit the last resting place of many sailors at the nearby naval cemetary which is every bit as pristine and moving as those in Normandy.

043 Rackwick with plough (landscape)

Rackwick, Orney’s “last enchantment”

For an alternative war heritage experience, head up to the Wee Fea viewpoint and picnic spot, a short but very steep and stoney climb from Lyness. At the top what looks like a haunted castle was actually the naval communications centre during the second world war. Padding around the dark corridors, rooms and stairs is an eerie experience and not for the faint-hearted. All around the Lyness area you will come across mysterious, derelict military buildings giving an indication of the scale and scope of operations here 70 years ago. Most are as open to inquisitive passers-by as they are to the elements. I particularly enjoyed exploring the former camp including gunnery training room and pier at Rinnigill. Equally extraordinary is the front of a former Art-Deco garrison theatre which has been turned into a private house. Other unlikely accommodation includes hippy-style sixties coaches, grass growing over their tyres, while old Nissen huts are now barns, garages and greenhouses.

031 Rackwick Bay

Rackwick Bay

I proceeded as far as North Ness from which there are views across the narrow sound to Longhope, Hoy’s main settlement. If you’re really energetic and want to visit the village and its lifeboat museum continue on the flat road that hugs the shore all the way around North Bay and across The Ayre causeway. Be warned, though. The return distance of this optional extra is 12 miles and the ferry route marked on the map from Longhope to Houton on Orkney Mainland runs only once a day and very early in the morning!

The service from Lyness is much more frequent and provides a more obvious route back to Mainland. From Houton it’s a short sharp incline from the harbour then a straight-forward if unexciting eight-mile blast along the straight main road to Stromness. You can avoid most of the A965 by following a minor road through Cairston. After one last moderate ascent, Stromness comes into view.

030 En route from Rackwick to north Hoy

En route from Rackwick to north Hoy

Fact file

Distance: 31 miles.

Time: Full day – and well worth a stop-over if you want to include the Old Man of Hoy walk.
Stop!

Directions:

Take the ferry from Stromness to Moaness on Hoy. From the pier follow the only road inland and uphill. Take the first left and, at a crossroads, continue straight over signed to Rackwick. Follow this road for about four miles to Rackwick. For the hostel and footpath to the Old Man of Hoy fork right just as you enter the village. The footpath is well signed and begins to the left of the hostel. For the beach don’t fork but continue to the end of the road, past the car park and down a grassy track, through fieldgates and past a bothy. Leave your bike just before a bridge over the brook and complete the last few yards on foot.

Retrace your route to the crossroads at Hoy village. This time turn right and simply follow the B9047 all the way to Lyness. For the Wee Fea viewpoint turn right at the crossroads beside the Hoy Hotel. Ascend for ¾ of a mile up a steep track. Return the same way turning right at the road to continue travelling south on the B9047. Continue to North Ness – or all the way round to Longhope if you have time – then retrace your route to Lyness. Turn right at the Hoy Hotel crossroads to reach the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre & Museum and ferry terminal.

Disembark at Houton then turn right at the toilets to reach the A964. Turn left and keep going to the t-junction with the A965. Turn left and over a bridge then first left (unsigned) through Cairston to Stromness. Turn left at the roundabout to return to the harbour.

Map: here

Eating:

Beneth’ Hill Café, Moaness pier. Tel: 01856 791119.
The Hoy Hotel, Lyness. Tel: 01856 791377.
The Royal, Longhope. Tel: 01856 701276.
The Stromabank Hotel, Longhope. Tel: 01856 701611.
The Pump House Café (within the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre & Museum), Lyness. Tel: 01856 791300.

There are few facilities on Hoy especially in the north. One option is to stock-up in Stromness – where there are lots of shops, eating places and an open-all-hours Co-op – before you set off. Note also that the Hoy Inn (listed in some guidebooks) has closed down.

Overnight stays:

Hoy hostel. Modern, very spick and span and personally recommended. Tel: 0845 293 7373.
Rackwick hostel. Much more of a back to basics, traditional hostelling experience. Tel: 0845 293 7373.
Quoydale Farm B&B, Hoy. Run by the same lady who manages the hostels. Tel: 01856 791315
Hotels, as above.

Ferry:

Orkney Ferries. Crossing time on both services: 30-35 mins.

Bike hire:

Stromness Cycle Hire. Tel: 01856 850750.
Orkney Cycle Hire (also in Stromness). Tel: 01856 850255.

043 Rackwick with plough (landscape)

Rackwick Bay.

Flying visit

It’s the outer in Outer Hebrides that makes the islands sound harder to get to than they actually are. But you can easily visit them just for a weekend.

Nasg near Castlebay

Nasg near Castlebay

There’s no need to head straight to the beach when you  arrive on Barra. If you come by air you land right on it. The glorious Cockle Strand is formed of just that – crushed cockle shells – and is the only beach in the world which doubles up as a commercial airport. Arrivals and departures are scheduled to fit in with the tides.

Taking off from Glasgow is an experience too, as I found out. The cabin was so small it looks like a coffin with wings. Six footers were bent almost double, hands on their knees as they made their way to their seats. A bearded chap gave a pre-flight briefing. It’s all so informal and the Twin Otter aircraft so old that I half-expected him to pass around Biggles hats. He then twisted round in one of the front seats and stood up – as far as he could – took a step back and sat in their cockpit. Yes: he was the pilot.

Arrival at Barra airport

Arrival at Barra airport

The informality continued on my transfer by school bus from the airport terminal (a grand term for what is a small building with a dish on top) to Castlebay, Barra’s only real village. I was starting to feel like one of the locals before I even got there.

Cockle Strand, with its possee of photographers, was busy compared to the other beaches I visited. The following morning I cycled over a causeway from Barra to Vatersay and had great views down over a deserted tombolo. This isn’t an unpopular fair stall but the name for a thin strip of land between two beaches scalloped by the sea on either side. My only company was a couple who had parked up their campervan (you comes across lots of them in the Hebrides) and were having tea while their five Yorkshire terriers scurried around in a little pen beside their tent. Vatersay is one of Prince Charles’ favourite islands and the royal yacht used to anchor at another of its beaches. If the Outer Hebrides was a few hundred miles further south its white sands would be packed – and somewhat warmer. They are bracing and invigorating with an elemental beauty if not somewhere that you’d want to spend an afternoon building sandcastles with the kids.

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Vatersay

Idyllic as it is now, Vatersay has some grim associations. A memorial commemorates the 350 victims of a shipwreck here in 1853 and you can still see the rusting remains of a plane that crashed into a hillside during the Second World War.

Cycling and the coast were themes of the following day too. Described as the Outer Hebrides in miniature, Barra has just one main road which runs for 12 miles around its perimeter and includes only one big hill. You’ll neither get lost nor too tired and there are lots of intriguing features along the way which provide good excuses to stop.

One of them is the ruins of the Bolnabodach village set in a secluded location beside a loch. There are many villages like this in the Hebrides, many of them settled following the Clearances and deserted in relatively recent times – in the case of Bolnabodach, the 1920s. One of the blackhouses, called the plague house, still has its windows stoned up following an outbreak of typhoid in 1899 which wiped out an entire family with the exception of a young girl and her father who was out at sea when disease struck.

Heavel

Heavel

With time to spare I walked up Heavel, the highest point on the island. Following an exceptionally dry May, the moss on its flanks was bone dry which made the task easier but it was still a stiff climb up to the statue of the Madonna and child and I was panting heavily by the time I reach the the summit. The view made it well worth it. I could see where I’d been as well as the great freewheel all the way to where I was about to return.

Back in Castlebay I took the boat for the short hop over to the 15th century Kisimul Castle, magically situated in the centre of the bay on its own little island. There’s not a great deal to see inside but getting there is fun. I was among the last group out of the castle. “Hadn’t you better lock up?” I asked the warden, seeing that she had left the huge iron gate at the top of the jetty open. “Oh no,” she said. “We don’t need to do that here. I can keep an eye from my house and soon get over if there’s an invasion.”

Later that evening I watched the arrival of the ferry from Oban having been woken by the clanking of the outgoing sailing first thing that morning. The crossing takes five hours and I’m sure that the passengers would maintain, as many do, that it’s best to arrive at an island by sea. But I was already looking forward to the novelty and speed of the return leg of my fabulous flying visit.

Kisimul Castle

Kisimul Castle

Fact file

Queen Victoria Rock

Queen Victoria Rock

Flights: flybe.com.

Bike hire: Barra Cycle Hire (01871 810284).

Recommended accommodation: Tigh Na Mara guest house  (01871 810304 or http://www.tighnamara-barra.co.uk).