‘You don’t actually have to go on the ferry to go on holiday… you just have to go south of the Clisham!’ It’s my dad talking, I’m about 10, and we’re on the road to Harris.
I still remember his words vividly, more than 30 years later. It seemed to be a revelation to himself, as much as to anyone, that you could go on holiday without so much as getting on the ferry (the legendary Suilven) or going through Inverness and stopping at the Little Chef in Tomatin.
That particular trip, south of the Clisham, turned out to be very much a holiday of two halves – from the earwig-infested caravan in Scarista, where it was chucking it down with rain so you couldn’t even properly escape them (I still remember stuffing my ears with cotton wool at night, just in case), to the bed and breakfast haven that we fled to in Lickisto after a miserable couple of days.
But what is most vivid about it, in my memory, is that sensation – once we had got over the horror of the ‘eerie wigs’ (that’s one from my wee brother) – of something close to wonder at being ‘on holiday’ while still so very close to home.
That’s a feeling that’s stayed with me over the years, despite some trips abroad to some very far-flung destinations. Three months in New Zealand, for one.
Now, I would still choose a few days in the mountains of Scotland over anything else and I look forward to the days, not that far away now, when my kids will be big enough to come on proper wee adventures in the outdoors along with me.
They’re still pretty wee – eight and five – but they can both ride bikes and one thing that will be high on the list is mountain biking. I had been thinking ‘Fort William’ as the closest place for this but that future plan has been kicked out in favour of something more immediate and closer to home.
It will be back down the A859 for us. We’ll be going back to Harris!
We’re no strangers to that road – driven it often enough for swimming lessons with Cammy on a Saturday morning and Horgabost is our beach of choice for camping in the summer, when the weather is good enough. But I’m planning a mountain biking holiday at Scaladale.
This is the kind of week for those of us trying to ‘live our best life’ here, especially if we have an outdoorsy bent. It’s something to seriously consider, to disconnect from all that social media and tech and general nonsense and get your kids and yourselves reconnected in the outdoors.
I gave this a wee mention in my blog last week, in ‘Directions of Travel’ – written when I was pretty fresh off the hills, having enjoyed a day out with the Scaladale team, where they introduced me to mountain biking to give me a flavour of what they provide at the centre.
I’ve been helping them publicise their holidays over the past week but thought I would put the story on the blog too, as, if there is any group of people whom I would most like to reach, with the message about what’s on offer at Scaladale, it’s island parents like myself, looking to pass on their love of the outdoors to their children.
Scaladale is the outdoor activity centre and hostel at Ardvourlie, owned by the Lewis and Harris Youth Club Association.
The centre is launched these mountain biking holidays for families and groups (children should be aged 10 or over), this Spring and Autumn, with seven weeks available through the year.
The dates are April 8-14, 15-21 and 22-28 and then October 20-26 and November 3-9, 10-16 and 17-23.
Each holiday lasts five days and includes the use of bikes – the centre has a fleet of very nice Whyte hardtail bikes, in a variety of sizes from children and teen sizes through to large adults – as well as all protective gear, such as helmets and safety glasses.
The holidays can include transfers from the airport or the ferry terminal and can also include a shopping service, in advance of your arrival and during your stay.
While the transfers bit wouldn’t be too relevant if you’re just having to travel down or up the road, I quite like the idea of not having to worry about stocking up during the week and they might find quite a few island holidaymakers make use of that…
Importantly, these holidays are fully guided and are a good opportunity for coaching. Also, the days would not be about biking from dawn to dusk – most days would be a half-day riding – and could also include trips out in the Scaladale minibus if desired, with a Scaladale instructor becoming driver and tour guide for the afternoon.
The riding itself would centre on the route from Bogha Glas through to Miabhag. The complete loop, which is 13 miles long and around five hours, is usually the end goal. But remember, you work up to it and that’s by day five!
Day one usually consists of the first part of that track, from Bogha Glas up to the bealach at Tom Ruisg, overlooking Langavat.
This is just an outing of a couple of hours and gives the Scaladale instructors the chance to gauge fitness and skill levels, so they can decide how best to work on those over the next few days so that everyone can tackle the day five challenge with enthusiasm and positivity.
That’s the route Kate Lewis, centre manager, took me on, for my mountain biking taster, accompanied by instructors Calum Blane and Finlay Emmott.
It was quite a special experience. The hills were white with snow and it was very beautiful to be out, although that did make the going a bit more challenging.
It was a crash course in mountain biking (without the crash, thankfully) and a good indication of what holidaymakers could expect to get out of their five days at the centre.
“It gives me an idea of where people are at with mountain biking,” said Kate, as she explained why it made such a good first day. “You can gauge their fitness and ability and then tailor the rest of the week to progress them from that point – and it sets up the challenge of, by day five, doing the whole route through to Miabhag.”
This guided ride from Bogha Glas to Miabhag has been offered by Scaladale in the past as part of the Isle of Harris Mountain Festival.
“It is a challenge,” admitted Kate. “When we did it as part of the mountain festival, people were saying afterwards, ‘don’t go out with Kate – she’ll beast you!”
But she stressed: “I’ve done it as a guided route with groups of every ability and experience and everyone loved it. I want to encourage people, whatever level they are at, to get as much fun and enjoyment out of mountain biking as possible.
“There’s lots of riding you can do on Harris that’s not too challenging but very remote, so you get that wonderful feeling of wilderness and being in the middle of nowhere. For people who come on holiday, that’s what they want. It’s certainly what I wanted, when I came here.”
The holidays are only available in the Spring and Autumn as the centre is too busy with other activities and residentials for young people during the warmer months. There are eight spaces available each week and they are aimed at families or groups who want to improve their ‘wild riding’ skills.
“Mountain biking is so beneficial for mental and physical wellbeing and just stacks of fun! There is some amazing riding in Harris but it can be hard to know where to go.”
It is also, as Kate said, “sustainable tourism directly benefitting the local community”.
This is because the income from the holidays will hopefully grow over the coming year so that it’s sufficient to support the programme of mountain biking outreach which Scaladale runs in the school holidays. This is where the Scaladale staff go out with the minibus and pick up young people from all corners of the island and take them to the Castle Grounds in Stornoway for subsidised mountain biking sessions.
The project is aimed at tackling social isolation and has – like the holidays and the purchase of the Whyte bikes – been made possible by European LEADER Youth Lag funding. That will run out in a year, however – by which point the holidays will need to be properly off the ground.
There are more pluses to booking one of these mountain biking holidays at Scaladale.
Apart from the riding through the landscape – through coastal, mountain and woodland locations – there is the informal atmosphere at the centre (unsupervised at night-time) and the indoor games and stunning views to be enjoyed from the communal area during down time.
Also, additional activities such as archery and abseiling can be arranged and those booking the November holidays will be able to make use of the Scaladale indoor ice rink, which is dismantled in April to make room for the more activities during the warmer months.
Kate said: “The holidays will be very family friendly and aimed at people of any age who want to improve their mountain biking in an incredible wild environment. The holidays will be quite affordable compared to other guided riding holidays as they will be using our self-catering hostel.
“We are ready to take bookings for our first holidays which will be during three weeks in April. We will only take eight on each week and tailor the holiday to their needs. All we need now is support from holidaymakers to make this into a win-win adventure for all of us.”
And, of course, if you live in Lewis and Harris, you don’t even need to get on the ferry…!
The holidays can be booked directly on the Scaladale website or by contacting the centre by telephone or email. For more information, visit the website at: https://www.scaladale-centre.co.uk/mtb-hols, telephone 01859 502502 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.