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The Hebridean Way cycle route: A comprehensive guide

Written by Fiona

May 21 2024

Guest writer and cyclist Matt Gemmell has created this fantastic and very comprehensive guide to completing the Hebridean Way Cycle on the Outer Hebrides in north-west Scotland.

Vatersay. Credit: Matt Gemmell

10 islands, 6 causeways & 2 ferries

The Hebridean Way cycle route has long been on my must do list and I recently went, after a very last-minute decision with minimal planning. It was also the first trip on my recently converted Brompton and I had hoped to have a shakedown trip but sometimes the moment arrives and you just need to go for it.

This is less about the story of my journey and more about helpful pointers. It is 185 miles of road cycling plus side trips for sightseeing, supplies or camping. 

The official guide is very handy with lots of tips. There are downloads, leaflet, books and maps that can be purchased. See Hebridean Way Cycle and CalMac as starting points.

Beautiful beach on Vatersay. Credit: Matt Gemmell

The Hebridean Way cycle: The Route

  • Vatersay
  • Barra
  • ferry
  • Eriskay
  • South Uist
  • Benbecula
  • Grimsay
  • North Uist
  • Berneray
  • ferry
  • Harris
  • Lewis

Harris and Lewis are joined so they are technically not two islands but they refer to themselves as two separate islands and who are we to argue? They are certainly distinct differences in terms of geography, with Harris being more mountainous and Lewis offering more low-lying moorland but don’t believe anyone who says Lewis is flat. At best, Lewis is undulating and especially on the final stretch to the Butt and to the main town of Stornoway. 

The official guide suggests six stages:

  • Day 1: Vatersay to Daliburgh | 26 miles
  • Day 2: Daliburgh to Clachan | 37 Miles
  • Day 3: Clachan to Berneray | 27 Miles
  • Day 4: Berneray to Tarbert | 21 miles
  • Day 5: Tarbert to Callanish | 38 miles
  • Day 6: Callanish to the Butt of Lewis 36 miles. 

Note: You also need to cycle to the start from the ferry at Castlebay to Vatersay, which is six miles, and at the end of the route at the Butt of Lewis back to Stornoway, which is 28 miles. 

The schedule may suit some people but I felt that it was a bit restrictive. It does help with planning and booking ferries and accommodation but I wondered if it would be too tough or too easy in that timeframe.

Instead, I kept my itinerary and intentions fluid. If the weather was lovely, why cycle past some of the best beaches in the world or miss outstanding tourist sights? On the other hand, if the weather was nothing brilliant it might be better just to cycle.

For me that was what panned out and if I had had accommodation booked, I would have been sometimes stopped cycling at lunchtime. We are all different and like to tackle adventures in different ways.

South Uist, with Hecla to the left. Credit: Matt Gemmell

The Hebridean Way cycle: Planned or ad hoc

Everyone I spoke to when cycling on The Hebridean Way had booked stuff months in advance and it probably doesn’t suit ad hoc as well, although I managed. I was camping and prepared to wild camp. Accommodation would be a real issue and when bad weather threatened (and happened), I couldn’t find alternatives at short notice. I rarely even saw a B&B sign.

Ferries could also be an issue, particularly in high season and I found it best to book once I knew how I was progressing. 

The Hebridean Way cycle: Which direction?

You need to decide your direction of travel before you even pick your ferry to get to the Hebrides. The official guide suggests south to north, to cycle with the prevailing south westerly wind at your back.

I would completely concur with this and the full route in a headwind would be horrendous. I did see some hardy souls going southwards and good luck to them.

On my second day of the route, I started with some strong tail winds and I flew along. Later in the day, when the strong wind had been joined by heavy rain it became unpleasant.

As the route twisted and turned more easterly towards Berneray, it felt like a headwind with occasional blasts knocking me sideways and it was foul. Make your own mind up, but don’t say you were not warned.

The ferry has a potential for a soaking from the sea. Credit: Matt Gemmell
A ferry from the Hebrides. Credit: Matt Gemmell

The Hebridean Way cycle: Travel


To get to the Hebrides, I took a CalMac ferry from Oban to Castlebay, on Barra. There is also a ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway. In addition, you can reach Tarbert on Harris by departing Uig on Skye.

Note that there are buses and trains to and from Oban, but only buses from Ullapool. The train station at Oban is right next to the ferry port. The nearest rail station from Ullapool is Garve some 33 miles east.

CalMac are currently under a lot of pressure with a shortage of ferries and all kind of problems. However, I enjoyed all my ferry crossings and they were easy to book and purchase online.

Remember to book your bike on the ferries. It’s free to do so but you must book.

If you are part of a group of six or more cyclists, you need to call CalMac to inform them.

Definitely check weather forecasts and CalMac’s website before travelling. The staff were great and the ferries, especially to and from the mainland, were excellent. They were large ships and felt modern with nice facilities, including spotless toilets, coffee bars, restaurants and lounges. The smaller ferries were fine, too.

More ferry info:

There was a great café at the Barra to Eriskay terminal, with a fabulous selection of cakes. At Berneray for Harris there was an unmanned waiting room which was adequate even when I was very cold and wet and near hypothermic. There was a café not too far away but it was particularly horrible weather so I stayed put.

When you have your ticket, you wait at a yellow sign for cyclists. A member of staff checks your ticket, scanning your phone if applicable and directs you aboard, usually after vehicle traffic.

You should walk, rather than cycle on to the ferries and be careful if your shoes have cleats, or if the deck is wet and slippery. Staff on the deck direct you to where you stow your bike.

On the larger ferries there are ropes attached to a rail which you tie on to your bike. The smaller ferries didn’t have ropes but I used a strap that I had.

Obviously, obey the staff but if there is any choice, avoid bits next to where water could surge in. Salt water would not be brilliant for bicycle bearings.

On arrival, bikes are usually last off and, to be fair, that’s probably best. Get yourself sorted for the next leg, let the ferry traffic move ahead and you will find the road is a lot quieter as a result. Whether behind or coming towards you, you can usually tell when a ferry has arrived or is due by the volume of traffic.

Flying to the Outer Hebrides

You could fly to Barra and land on its world-famous beach runway. There were also airports at Benbecula and at Stornoway. It might be fun, especially landing at Barra, but I never looked and I am unaware if bikes are carried.

Matt rides a modified Brompton. Credit: Matt Gemmell

The Hebridean Way cycle: Type of bike

The official website suggests that any type of bike would be suitable and I would agree. Knobbly tyres are not needed and may be harder work. The entire route is on roads and the surfaces are generally fine.

I used a folding Brompton bike, albeit with modified lower gears and it was great. It had the advantage of being able to fold for buses and trains.

A small-wheel bike is never going to be faster than a full-sized bike but it was surprisingly good and I covered the distances easily.

I met various groups of cyclists and chatted with them. I kept leapfrogging one pair of road cyclists and they joked that we were like the tortoise and the hare. And, just like that old story, guess what? The tortoise got to the Butt of Lewis first. The hares had stopped for coffee and very graciously said on arrival that the tortoise had won.

What is more important is that your bike fits you, is in good condition, maintained and serviced if required. Carry spares and tools backed up by the knowledge of how to use them.

Self-reliance is always my aim. I downloaded a few diagrams so I had them off-line if needed. I was very fortunate and had no mechanicals whatsoever. If you are unused to your bike being loaded for the trip, a few practice runs to get used to it would be sensible.

Wild camping. Credit: Matt Gemmell

Fitness  for The Hebridean Way cycle

This is a very subjective topic. I would say that a reasonable level of fitness would be good but you don’t need to be superman or woman. The bike won’t go 185-plus miles on its own and there are some pretty tough hills, especially on Harris. You can always walk some of the hills but again this is another factor where a fixed schedule wouldn’t help.

My advice is to start slow and steady and build as you go. Remember you are there to enjoy yourself and not for masochistic torture.

Gear, safety, clothing

I didn’t wear lycra, which is a bit of a thing for Bromptoneers, although my one concession was slightly padded boxer shorts. The rest of my gear was pretty standard outdoor clothes, including zip off convertible trousers, a breathable top, a mid-layer, a windproof gilet and waterproof jacket and trousers.

I have one set of clothing for during the day and a set for the evening in the tent, or wherever. That set must stay dry at all costs.

I did have an extra pair of padded boxers and a pair of running shorts, which could be swimwear, nightwear or day wear. I had waterproof socks, too, which were new but they failed dramatically and were “proof” that there was “water” around. They are in a bin in Harris. After that I went barefoot, as there was no point in soaking my last remaining pair of dry socks by putting them in my wet shoes. It sounds gruesome, but it was fine. Some may think this is hardcore but the more clothes you carry, the heavier your load becomes.

Crust Pizza was very welcome. Credit: Matt Gemmell
Standing Shroom Only pizza. Credit: Matt Gemmell

I had full camping gear, including a stove, which meant that I could stop anywhere. I also carried a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) which would summon help in a life or limb emergency. This is peace of mind for something not much bigger than a matchbox and a couple of hundred quid.

Although the route is entirely on road, some bits are fairly remote and help could be a long time coming. So, some basics, such as a first aid kit and being prepared are sensible. Prepare for the worst and you’ll be fine. Some emergency high energy food and drink is a good idea.

You’ll probably want to take a camera. Using your phone is attractive but as well as lesser quality pictures, photography is another drain on a severely stretched battery. A camera is more weight and more batteries to maintain but provides nicer pictures. I took a small mirrorless camera with two batteries, carried in a bumbag. At the last minute, I ditched, filters and a mini tripod.

The same goes for binoculars and a multitude of other luxuries. Is it essential to you? Can you carry it? There will be a lot of hard choices and compromises. To be fair, the bike does take the load better than you with a hiking rucksack, but there are still constraints. It is up to you to choose.

Fortunately, we live in a country with very few risks from wild animals. I personally can’t imagine having the additional pressure as I set up camp of wondering about bears, crocodiles, snakes or tigers.  Our most feared beastie is Culicoides impunctatus, or the infamous midge. People are terrified of them. Yes, they are annoying and can really spoil an early morning or evening but even if bitten, they are merely a nuisance unless you are very unlucky. However, ticks can change your life.

Try to find a breezy spot away from still water for midges. The Western Isles with their fairly reliable breeze are as good as anywhere.  There is even a midge forecast. (Note from editor: If you are bitten and end up with itchy and inflamed bites, try this wee gadget Bite Away.)

I don’t bother with creams or potions but go for the barrier method and have a full midge jacket with built in hood and mitts. I never needed it on this trip but from June onwards you will.

But back to ticks, which could give you Lyme disease. There is more chance of getting ticks if you are camping or lying on grass. Remove any that you see as soon as possible and watch out for signs of Lyme disease. Check yourself (or a friend) particularly looking at folds in the skin. I got one of the tiny nymph ones attached to my arm, which was my first in 10 years since I did the Cape Wrath Trail. A bullseye rash may be present but not necessarily, seek medical help if unsure.

See Lyme Disease UK. Also take a tick remover with you.

Matt wild camped. He found a spot on South Uist. Credit: Matt Gemmell

Hebridean Way cycle: Route, markings & nav

The start and finish of the Hebridean Way cycle route are marked with metal pillars and an inset map made of a grid of drilled holes. These can also be spotted along the route. I only realised at the end, when someone told me, that there was a larger hole to indicate where you were.

There were blue direction markers with white text and arrows throughout the route and especially at junctions and all were well placed and obvious. Occasionally, I yearned for a wee confirmation sign if I hadn’t seen one for a while but they were very good and I never missed a turn.

Because of my last-minute decision to go, I only had an old road map with the route marked with a highlighter pen (which was a bit inadequate), augmented by Ordnance Survey maps on my phone. I only used the phone to very occasionally confirm my position. Using it constantly drains the battery.

Ironically, a lovely new Garmin cycling computer was waiting at home for my upcoming birthday. My wife is fairly rigid about getting presents too early. Despite this I managed fine and I was never “misplaced”.  

On Lewis and looking back to the Harris hill pass. Credit: Matt Gemmell

Roads and navigation

As said already, The Hebridean Way is entirely on roads. Compared to the mainland, there were an unusual and distinct lack of road signs including distance signs.

Be courteous and let cars pass when safe to do so. At blind hills you may wish to wave them on if safe for them to overtake. Be nice and hopefully they will be, too.

Considering it is an official cycling route, I never saw any signs alerting drivers to that, which is not very fair to motorists. 

The first hill is right after the ferry leaving Castlebay, Barra on the way to Vatersay and it is marked as a 12% hill up towards the war memorial and 11.5% on the way back. The rest is undulating with some fairly stiff long climbs in Harris. 

Roads were busy at times but more so further north where the main roads are the only roads. Further south the way diverted to quiet roads.

Roads were all good surfaces but even in allegedly flat bits it was very undulating. Car went by fast, particularly in the north when roads were two lanes. To be fair, almost all the drivers passed giving a wide berth and waited at blind spots.

In the south, there was a lot of single-track with passing places and I had to be assertive if folk didn’t look like they were going to give me courtesy, or slow down. If so, I moved out to make myself more visible and slowed them down. I think most weren’t acting out of badness, just not thinking or looking far enough ahead.

One problem happened twice in that a car pulled in to let me through and up towards them and a van behind thought they were pulling in for them and pulled out into my path. In short, look ahead, cycle defensively and be very alert.

Wild camping on Lewis. Credit: Matt Gemmell
Callanish on Lewis. Credit: Matt Gemmell

Infrastructure & accommodation

The suggested six stages did not seem to have facilities unless planned and nothing was obvious from the road. The best was probably Vatersay and that made it all look so promising.

The Islands are beginning to provide a lot of motorhome/campervan spots but little tent provision. A campsite owner thought people with tents could provide for themselves as they are able to wild camp. It is not just as easy as that when cycling on roads compared to walking through the countryside, but there are places.  

I saw very few B&B signs from the road. Even when looking online I found very little and they were all unavailable. On my wet and miserable Wednesday, as I cycled to about 9pm searching for a camping spot, I became desperate before I eventually found the campsite at Horgabost.

My first night was at Vatersay and they really got it right at the community hall with camping at £3 for tents or £10 for vans with an honesty box. It was lovely. Folk would camp there anyway but there were toilets, showers (£1 coins) and water. It is a pity other places didn’t follow suit to the same extent. 

Running water to fill your water bottles wasn’t as plentiful in the countryside as it is in the mainland. I did have a water filter but augmented it by buying bottled drinks from shops and garages. 

I also camped at the site at Horgabost, Harris, at a reasonable distance from the ferry at Leverburgh. There were toilets, showers etc for £10 a night. It was busy but the small tent field was quiet, if a bit exposed to high winds that night. There was a lovely beach which was a shame that the weather was rotten. There was snack van outside but it wasn’t open when I was there.

At Stornoway I stayed at Laxdale Holiday Park for £17 and it was very nice with full facilities. There was a bit of road noise and being back in a big town was a bit of a shock to the system, so remember to pack earplugs.

I had two wild camps and no I’m not going to divulge the locations. They were both great but overuse can spoil places. Find your own, that’s what wild means. Be discrete and leave absolutely no trace. See the Scottish Outdoor Access Code for details on what you can and can’t do and how to camp responsibly.

The Hebridean Way cycle: Eating & drinking

Eating out during the day saved some cooking at night and supports local businesses. I carried high energy biscuits and flapjacks, which came in handy. I ate on the ferries, too, and this saved me having to cook the first night. The food and drink on the ferries was very good.

There are a few cafes, shops and filling stations along the way and I found plenty of variety of food and even coffee to keep me going. 

The ferry terminal at Aird Mhor, Barra, has a coffee shop with a fabulous selection of cakes. The one really unmissable one for me was Crust Pizza on Lewis on the way to Callanish. It is a blue portacabin in the middle of nowhere but, oh, the pizza was fabulous. There are no tables or chairs and I stood in the rain devouring my pizza as only a hungry cyclist can.

Internet/Phone signal

Research and previous experience in the Highlands suggested EE has the best signal but I generally got 4G on Vodafone and was able to communicate, play on Facebook every day and plan and book ferries etc.

Protect your phone, keep it safe, dry and topped up with power, especially as your tickets will probably be on it.

Look out for the Iolaire Monument at Stornoway. Credit: Matt Gemmell

Power particularly if camping 

My phone is the main power-hungry requirement plus my watch, which was recording for Strava, my camera and bike lights. I tried to be frugal and careful but two power-banks totalling about 22000mAh kept me going. You may be able get top ups in cafes etc with permission and I found a very long cable useful for that.


Although I took plenty of cash and kept coins for small purchases, most of the time I just used my bank card and had no problems.

Cycling the Hebridean Way: Conclusion

The Hebridean Way Cycle route is very enjoyable and you can make it as long or as short as you want. There are lots of sights to see and plenty of places to divert if time and the weather allow. Spend money locally and wave to the locals who do invariably wave.

Have fun, share stories with other cyclists and travellers and no matter how fit or unfit you are, remember how lucky you are to be able to do this in such a beautiful place.

  • * Many thanks to Matt for this full overview of cycling The Hebridean Way.

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