Photos by Author
Years ago, when childcare was required for our son, we only spent one week of our holidays together as a family, the rest my wife and I split to cut down on school holiday childcare costs, being the only driver of the couple, I had the luxury of the car to use.
So I started taking our son Ben on what we called ‘Beanos’ a short boys-only holiday. The first with Ben aged just 8, was a relatively local camping trip to Penkridge, Staffs to use as a base for a trip to RAF Cosford and Cannock Chase.
The next year Ben was beginning to become interested in photography, so we took a trip to Wiltshire for Lacock Abbey (the home of Fox-Talbot, an early photography pioneer). We also visited Stone Henge (more about stone circles later) whilst in Wiltshire, slumming it in a nice hotel this time.
We went camping next year at Milton Keynes for Bletchley Park. Our final trip before a two-year hiatus (for the obvious reason, as when travel was permitted and feasible we used the time for family holidays) was mountain biking in the Lake District, again camping, only the easier routes as Ben was still quite young.
This year we were back with a bang, our most ambitious Beano yet, having got hold of a nice second-hand Road bike for Ben now fifteen, we planned a thousand-mile round trip to The Outer Hebridean Isle of Lewis, to visit my wife’s aunt who lives there. The two bikes got unceremoniously stuffed in the boot of the car and luggage was gently placed on top.
Day 1 and 2
The Long and Winding Road
Leaving Burton on Trent at 10.00 am, we drove up past the lakes and got to Motherwell for an overnight stop around 3.00 pm. I did think about taking the bikes out and storing them in our hotel bedroom, but after managing to park outside the bedroom, I decided that they couldn’t be removed in the time it would take for the car alarm to wake me up. After a fab pub tea that night and a cooked breakfast the next morning, we cracked on to Ullapool, arriving in plenty of time for the evening ferry.
My original plan had been to leave the car on the mainland and cycle the whole week, but having changed the car late last year I was reluctant to leave it unattended for a whole week. When we added in the long distances between places and the unreliable weather, we decided to take the car across on the ferry.
By 9.00 pm on day 2, I was glad we had the car; a thick sea mist had come and I wouldn’t have fancied cycling the fifteen miles to our destination of Shader.
The trip across the moorland was a bit of a trauma, often not being able to see six-foot beyond my bonnet. My aunt-in-law had kindly parked by the junction we needed to turn off at, to make sure we didn’t miss it.
After unpacking the car, a wee dram of whisky (Note the lack of ‘E’ in the spelling) was consumed (by the two adults in the house, of course!) as I had purchased a selection of miniatures in a shop at Ullapool just before boarding.
A quick word about alcohol if you are visiting Scotland, obviously drinking anything alcoholic and driving is not advised. Still, it isn’t widely known that the allowed levels of alcohol in the bloodstream are significantly lower than in England and Wales, just over half, in fact, so watch that hangover in the morning.
If you are wondering how well I knew our host if she lives a nine-hour drive and three-hour ferry trip away, although having owned the property for over a decade, my wife’s Aunt only moved up there a couple of years ago, originally residing in Surrey and more recently Derbyshire for a few years, so we know each other well. We weren’t virtual strangers and get along very well as friends as well as in-law relatives.
Our first day on the Island of Lewis.
After waking up to the smell of a cooked breakfast, we set off on a thirty-mile round trip to the capital of the island Stornoway with a population of 8000. We had come through Stornoway the night before but decided to explore it in more detail and to buy a ‘Type C’ USB cable as I’d managed to pack a broken one and the phone battery was now critical. Locking up the bikes, we explored the harbour and shops, and quite a lot of interesting cafes and restaurants.
Butt Of Lewis Lighthouse
Around 8 miles north of Shader is Butt of Lewis Lighthouse, built in 1860 from redbrick it became fully automated as recently as 1998. The Butt of Lewis is home to some of the oldest rocks in Europe having been formed in the Precambrian era, three billion years ago.
A GPS station is also located nearby to further aid navigation. On the way we passed Ness football club and got some photos. Doubling back further up we found a fab cafe at Port of Ness, can you see a common denominator? Food.
Arnol Black house
A shorter trip to the Black house at Arnol around 8 miles away from Shader. A black house was the principal accommodation on the island until the early part of the twentieth century,
The home was split into two parts, one-half was stabling for livestock, the other is human accommodation. The house we visited was built in the 1880s and was occupied right up until the late 1960s.
The general design dates back centuries pretty much unchanged. It can be entered for a small admission fee, check opening times before you visit as on our visit it was closed, but a ruined example across the way is accessible for free, so we had a look around there.
Near to Arnol is a complete ‘Sheeling’ which is a tiny cottage on the croft land where families moved to in summer to tend their livestock on the land. Although tiny, it’s bigger than some holiday camping pods we’ve used. It is in excellent condition showing how families lived well into even my lifetime.
While we were there, a couple arrived on bikes, and we started chatting. After a few minutes, I was almost embarrassed that we had driven to Ullapool and then brought the car across; this couple had flown from Geneva to Edinburgh and were doing a six-week cycle tour carrying all their needs in panniers, camping and using B&B’s. An incredible achievement, and I assume they are still cycling around the Islands while I’m back at work.
On every trip on the bikes, I used a rucksack to hold our cameras, normally a pair of Nikon DSLR’s (I might go mirror-less one day but that item will have to fight with a new bike.
I seem to have the two most expensive hobbies known to man, if I took up fishing I think I would be bankrupt! But for the first part of the week, instead of his Nikon, Ben was using a classic Pentax K1000 35mm SLR acquired from a relative. He loved the basic features of it and bought the roll of film out of his own money (Twelve quid!). The film is yet to be processed but will be sent off soon.
The Callanish Standing Stones
The Callanish standing stones are about 25 miles away from Shader, further past the Arnol Black House. We set off early and reached there in time for lunch in the excellent cafe at the visitors centre.
The Stones are one the most significant stone circles in Scotland, dating back to the iron age, with some activity taking place on the site right to prehistoric times. They have appeared on several record sleeves including one by Ultravox and referenced in a song by The Waterboys.
The Callanish Stones also inspired the design of the fictional stone circle in the TV series Outlander.
Nearby are more stone circles, the two most impressive being named Callanish II and Callanish III. Again plenty more cyclists had made the effort to find the stones. In the gift shop, I looked longingly at a reproduction of the famous Uig Chess set found on Lewis, but at several hundred pounds I decided it was out of budget and made do with a piece of it as a fridge magnet, along with a print from a local artist as a present for Mrs E. We also found Callanish III on our travels, but II eluded us.
On our return back to Shader, we learnt of another stone circle just a mile away from our bungalow so we set off with our Aunt to have a look.
Steinacleit is what is known as a recumbent circle where all the stones are now lying down, whether built like this or have fallen over, a famous example of a recumbent circle can be seen at Arbor Low in Derbyshire, a little nearer to my home in Staffs. We then walked down to the dramatic coastline at the end of the bungalow’s land.
I have been interested in Stone circles for many years after watching as a child the 1970’s Quatermass, starring John Mills set at a fictional circle of Ringstone Round. A while back I wrote a feature for Derbyshire Life on the stone circles near me in the midlands, now whenever I see a sign to a stone circle I have to follow it, Ben always groans and then proceeds to take the piss out of me.
Tarbert – the other ‘town’
We cheated today on our last day and used the car because I wanted to visit Tarbert. Officially Tarbet is on Harris, but Lewis and Harris are two parts of the same Island being Joined in the middle for a few miles.
Tarbet was a fifty-mile trip and is the only other town on the Island, so I couldn’t entice Ben on a hundred-mile round bike ride, so the car moved for one of the few times during our time on the island.
Little more than a large village, Tarbert is very quaint. We had lunch in a nice cafe, then a look at the distillery that, along with the ferry terminal, dominates the coastline.
During the drive back, we stopped at the Iron Age village near Bosta. Unfortunately, it was closed to due to an imminent coach trip arrival and limited numbers being allowed in at any one time, it was however still interesting to look round the outside. The village had been covered completely with sand and was not known to have existed until a violent storm in 1993, the site was excavated in 1996, and almost fully intact houses were found. The site is very similar to its larger and more famous cousin Skara Brae on the Orkneys, somewhere else I visited pre-Ben and would like to return to.
That evening a takeaway from the local hotel was grabbed as a thank you to our host for the week, 3 excellent pizzas, mine featuring haggis.
Day 7 and 8
Catching the lunchtime ferry from Stornoway, we landed back at Ullapool and had tea whilst the traffic cleared, everyone on the boat seemed to drive down the same road to Inverness, so some more haggis, this time battered with chips and then a three-hour drive to Perth (our overnight stop) car parked completely by chance outside our window.
The next morning up and at breakfast a Scottish-sounding fast food outlet and then the long drive back home, less than ten minutes from home we had to stop at the services for a call of nature by me. We hadn’t been back in the house half an hour before we got the inevitable ‘This house was tidy for week before you two came home!’
A great week making some fabulous memories with my son, we met lots of people cycling the same routes, perhaps like the Swiss couple clocking up mileages I can only dream of, but I can say I’ve cycled in the Outer Hebrides. Perhaps next time I can put all our bikes on the roof and tempt Mrs E to come with us.