It was a trip that required specific preparation. First, I checked the midge forecast. Some west coast areas on the Scottish mainland were showing maximum, but the Outer Hebrides looked less hostile. I ordered two top-quality head nets and wondered who to take along. Second, I got hold of the OS Explorer maps for my planned route and spent hours scouring them for potential wild camps. Finally, I rang Ray Mears. He’s got a new book out on wilderness cookery and was clearly the man to ask. “Take a frying pan, butter, flour and fisherman’s salt,” he advised. “They’ll be good for any mackerel you catch. Forage juniper berries, bilberries, heather tea, chanterelle mushrooms and possibly birch boletes.”
I was hoping Ray would volunteer to come along and do the cooking, but when I mentioned bicycles – my plan was a week’s bikepacking, cycling and camping en route – he made it clear he is a canoe person. I had to persuade my son Conor, who likes cycling but not midges. “Do you promise that there won’t be any?”
His attitude to foraging also seemed unenthusiastic. When I suggested he bone up on the identification of our essential food items, he mimicked Graham Chapman’s Brian: “Of course they’ve brought forth juniper berries! They’re juniper bushes!”
His casual approach was confirmed when we arrived in Oban. While I packed our bicycle panniers he went out to forage and came back without any juniper berries at all, just three sugar packets from Costa, one sachet of HP sauce, and a bottle of whisky whose label claimed it was blended for the 1907 British Antarctic Expedition. By the time we got off in Barra, one of the most southerly of the Outer Hebrides, five hours later, a significant portion of these supplies was already gone.
We had left the car in Oban (a week costs £30) and our route would take us up the Outer Hebrides to Harris, across the sea to Skye, then south down the mainland coast, including the Ardnamurchan peninsula, before a final leg on the Isle of Mull. In total it would be about 250 miles of cycling, seven ferries, nine islands and, I secretly suspected, somewhere in excess of a trillion midges. We rode hybrid bikes supplied by Oban Cycles, each with two 20-litre panniers and a large dry bag on top. Don’t be tempted to take larger bags: you will only fill them and then regret it. I personally would never add a rucksack, a pack raft, paddles, lilos, camp chairs or a dog in a trailer, but on our journey we overtook cyclists with all these things. My luxury item, actually nine luxury items, was those Explorer paper maps.
My memories of Barra were from the early 1980s, when I’d met a gnarled old crofter who lived in a thatched cottage, spoke Gaelic and showed me how to hand-clip a sheep. Now, as we disembarked in Castlebay, there seemed to be a lot more houses, none of them anywhere near as pretty as that thatched cottage. Outside the Co-op supermarket, young lads were larking around on bikes. One banged on the window of a swanky campervan that had rolled off our ferry. “Hey mister,” he said to the elderly driver, “I like yer pussy wagon.” Barra, it seemed, had moved with the times.
Conor returned from foraging in the Co-op holding a pat of butter. “Just like Ray said!” I didn’t comment on the huge lump of haggis, the kilo of spuds and all the cans of beer. Our bikes were now so heavy that we could barely move, but we forced them down to the start of the Hebridean Way, close to the causeway attaching Barra to the island of Vatersay, to the south. This 150-mile, signed cycle route goes all the way up the Outer islands, finishing on the northern tip of Lewis.
Wild camping on Barra did not look straightforward: there were a lot of bungalows sprouting from bare concrete gardens, plus a bumper crop of barbed-wire fences. In the end we spent our first night at Croft Number Two campsite (pitch for two £16), a lovely spot close to a white sand beach on the north end of the island. After dark we listened to the corncrakes and curlews, mixed with the sound of our campervan neighbours watching television – which only increased our determination to escape the world of electric hook-ups for wild camping freedom.
Next morning a short ferry hop to Eriskay set us on our way, and we were soon rolling across the causeway on to South Uist. Despite Covid restrictions we had no problems boarding any ferries, and booked ahead only for the two main crossings. On a clear, blustery day, we made good progress along single-track lanes lined with wildflowers, quickly crossing South Uist and Benbecula. These two are usually considered the least attractive of the islands, although I genuinely have a soft spot for places where garden ornaments include rusting JCB diggers and the skeletal chassis of dead cars.
On North Uist we scouted a few diversionary lanes for wild camps, but flat, dry, unenclosed spots were hard to find. We ended up at the well-organised campsite at Balranald Hebridean Holidays campsite (pitch for two £12): it’s right on a beautiful beach, with very welcome hot showers.
Next day, on Harris, we battled up the west coast in strong winds and showers, enjoying the epic sweep of mountains, white sand beaches and a sea that defied the bunched grey clouds to remain a sharp emerald green. This time we were determined to wild camp. If you have never done it before, make sure the search for a pitch is a pleasure, not a nerve-shredding race against time. We debated every candidate with care, because the forecast was not good: would the tent get flooded or blown away?
The rules in Scotland are simple: camp on unenclosed land, away from dwellings and roads, and spend no more than three nights in one place. Most of all, leave no trace. We settled on a sheltered hollow in the dunes at Luskentyre, where we ate potatoes boiled in seawater, with fried haggis and lumps of cheese. I made a feeble protest that we should be out foraging. Conor met this with a derisive, “Get off my juniper berries!”
To avoid midges we sat on the breezy beach and watched the exquisitely slow drama of a stormy sunset over the island of Taransay. Harris, we agreed, deserved a far longer stay than our single night.
We woke to the noise of tent ropes thrumming in the wind, packed quickly and tackled the 15-mile climb over the broad shoulder of Ceann Reamhar (467 metres) towards Tarbert. Now the weather was seriously bad, but we dozed through the rough ferry crossing to Uig on Skye. With a forecast of torrential rain and 45mph winds, I’d booked us into a B&B at Broadford, but as we emerged from Uig’s port we began to wonder if the remaining 35 miles would even be possible on a bike. It took three hours to cover the 17 miles to Portree, where we stood, soaked and shivering, under the shelter of a petrol station roof. The rain was coming down in great wind-tattered sheets. A local pointed out the folly of our plan: “The road from here gets narrower and busier. Get a taxi.”
It is a marvel of Scottish weather that 24 hours later we were sitting in sunshine on a delightful and deserted pebble beach beside Loch Ailort and our fortunes were almost entirely reversed. I had even satisfied a lifelong ambition: to find a deer skull with antlers attached. Our bellies were pleasantly full of haggis and potato. We had swum in the sea. We had seen a sea eagle fly low over us. We had a campfire and whisky in our mugs. We were sipping it through our head nets. One trillion midges had come to celebrate our change in fortunes.
“You said there wouldn’t be any.”
Now that the fire was going well, I threw on some damp driftwood and got a good fug of smoke going. The midges became socially distanced, probably put off by our coughing.
They say midges cost the Scottish economy millions every year in lost work hours and tourism revenue, but I’d look at it differently: they guarantee you a deserted beach with stunning panoramas of the Inner Hebrides. I also think that they are like rain: not welcome on a holiday, but not insufferable with the right equipment and strategic planning. The right equipment is long sleeves, gloves, long trousers and a head net over a hat with a brim. Think Chernobyl inspection team. No kilts. I personally think there isn’t a repellent made that deters them, although an M9 flamethrower would probably work. The October-May period is generally less midge-heavy, and wind and bright sunshine keep them down.
Our next day was the best: a long, rolling ride south to the shores of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. I even managed to assuage my guilt about total forage-failure by picking handfuls of wild bilberries and raspberries. These kept us going until we found a good cafe in Acharacle (Cafe Tioram), then pressed on to Ardnamurchan Point. This wild, rocky headland is the furthest west you can go on the British mainland and we were determined to camp. Stashing the bikes in a clump of heather, we yomped a mile to an incredible sandy beach locked inside great smooth ribs of granite. Patches of grass were dotted with white seashells. With the wind coming at a steady clip, we pitched in the lee of a large boulder and battened down with rocks on guy ropes.
Our campfire burned well in the wind, enough to boil a kettle and make hot toddies with the last of the whisky. “I love wild camping,” sighed Conor, finishing off the last of the bilberries we’d collected.
As darkness came, we saw the lighthouse begin to beat. Then, as the fire burned low, the stars came out and all the seashells on the grass began to gleam like tiny fallen constellations.
• Bikes were provided by Oban Cycles, which hires touring bikes and ebikes from £180 a week. Accommodation in Oban and on Skye was provided by Airbnb: Glenroy Guesthouse, Oban from £35 a night and Shiloh B&B, Broadford, £39. OS Explorer maps for the route are numbers 390, 398, 408, 410, 411 and 452-455