A wee blog today about cycling. A cycle route, in particular, for those who would like some ideas for when they holidaying are on the Isle of Lewis or for regular island cyclists who might want to share some reflections on one of our (I think anyway) best circuits. It won’t need much, if any, introduction to Leodhasaich cyclists. It is … the Callanish loop.
It’s probably my favourite route and it’s the one I usually choose to do at the weekends.
Leaving from and returning to Stornoway, this circular is 30 miles (48km) long and because it takes you across the interior of the island, lovely and tranquil in all its magical nothingness, and past the Callanish Stones and a couple of potential coffee stops, I think it’s also a good one for visitors.
There’s definitely been a growth in the number of people who are experiencing the Outer Hebrides by bike since the Hebridean Way cycling route was launched, but the islands have a lot to offer in the way of shorter cycling adventures as well.
It’s a good place to ride for a few hours as well as several days.
You certainly get a much richer experience of the landscape if you are on a bike as opposed to being inside a car and the Callanish loop is a fantastic cross-island route.
In brief, it goes from Stornoway through Marybank, out the single-track Pentland Road to Breasclete, before joining the main road and passing through Callanish, Garynahine and Lochganvich until it turns off the main road again in Achmore to take another single-track road back to Stornoway.
There are some climbs, yes, but there are terrific descents too. This is, for me, all about the ride across the island on the Pentland Road and then the downhill from the hills above Achmore.
So, starting from Stornoway at the Manor roundabout (GR 42632340 on OS Explorer map 459) take the exit to the west, towards the A859 to An Tairbeart (Tarbert).
This takes you up through Willowglen, often the hairiest part of the cycle due to traffic, and when you are just under a mile from the start you will see a sign pointing right for an ‘Alternate Single Track Route’, to Achmore, Breasclete and Carloway. Follow that sign, leaving the A859, and very shortly afterwards take the immediate left after Lava’s Garage for the ‘Rathad Phentland’ for ‘Carlabhaigh and Breascleit’. (Yes, our road signs are in Gaelic.)
This is the start of the Pentland Road across the interior of the island, to the villages of Breasclete and Carloway on the west side.
I gathered a wee bit of history on the Pentland Road from my father, who grew up in Breasclete in the 1950s. This is what he recalled…
“The route was originally designed in Lord Leverhulme’s time to be the basis of a railway, to take fish which would be caught by his fleet in the North Atlantic, to the processing plant that he was going to build in Stornoway. But of course due to the opposition of the Stornoway businessmen of the day, Lord Leverhulme’s grand schemes did not come to fruition.
“It was named after Lord Pentland, who was a minister with official standing for roads, in government in the early 20s. The Pentland Road was a rough metal road. It wasn’t tarred until the 80s. Alex Macdonald, the former convener, was instrumental in getting it tarred. Before that, you couldn’t use it from Carloway to Stornoway because of the state it was in with potholes.”
My father added that the sections from the Carloway / Breasclete fork in the road, towards the west side, had been “sort of maintained in a reasonable state” because that was where people had their peat banks – the folk from Tolsta Chaolais and Breasclete having their banks along the Breasclete leg and folk from Doune, Kirvick and Carloway having the other leg.
When I was wee, our peat bank was much nearer to Stornoway, along the main stretch of the Pentland Road and my father confirmed that this was indeed where the townie peat banks were.
He also dismissed any notions of the peats being a hazy rural idyll by stating categorically: “Peat was the nearest thing to slavery that we had!” I’m not sure how much he was kidding.
Some people still cut peat – you’ll see evidence of it along the way – but the resource the Pentland Road is becoming best known for nowadays is its wind resource. And it’s a wind farm that marks the next waypoint on our route.
Around 6km after joining the Pentland Road at Marybank – having left all the houses behind you – you will come to the Beinn Ghrideag wind farm owned by Point and Sandwick Trust and then the three-way junction, pointing up to the left to Achmore or ahead to Breasclete and Carloway.
Carry on straight ahead and enjoy the long stretch across the moor. This can be hard going into the wind but in the right conditions this part of the cycle is a real tonic. There’s enough up and down to be interesting but none of the hills are a killer, you can see all the way down to the Harris hills and enjoy the solitude of being under a big sky. Some people might call it bleak but I wouldn’t.
Carry on this road for just under 10km from the wind farm junction and just enjoy the ride. As it is single track, you will need to use the passing places to give way to cars – and they to you – and keep an ear out for any cars coming up fast behind you, too, so you can let them pass.
Coming to the Carloway/Breasclete junction, take the road on the left, towards Breasclete. Within 5km, you will have reached the village, crossing a cattle grid and coming down sharply towards a crossroads. There are a couple of ways you can get from here onto the main road for Callanish. My preferred route is to go left at the crossroads, then downhill, following the road as it bends round to the right and then passes Breasclete school before meeting the main road.
Join the A858 here, turning left and heading south out of Breasclete towards Callanish which is only about 1km away. This village is, of course, home to the world-famous Callanish Stones but there is much newer attraction on the block too – the Callanish Alpacas!
The Calanais Standing Stones are estimated to be 5,000 years old and are an absolute must-see for anyone visiting the Outer Hebrides.
There is a visitor centre beside them, containing an interactive ‘Story of the Stones’ exhibition, which explores their history. There is also a shop and cafe there, making this an excellent location to take a break from the bike and grab a coffee.
There are a couple of ways to reach the Stones from the main road through Callanish. You can see them, up on the hill to your right, and just follow the signs.
The Alpacas are also located just off the main road in Callanish, up a wee driveway to the right. They too are signposted and this is where Mollans Cafe is, offering hot drinks and food. This cafe has a great name for its fish and chips and also serves home baking.
Both cafes are on restricted hours for the winter season. The Calanais cafe is open from 10am to 4pm, Tuesdays to Saturdays, from November to March. Mollans at the Alpacas is open Friday and Saturday from midday to 7.30pm and on Sundays from midday to 4pm.
It’s possible to go to see the Callanish Stones anytime at all – it’s open access – but the Alpacas should be booked ahead, as visitors are allowed to help feed them at certain times of day.
Back on the main road, and the cycle continues on the main road out of Callanish, passing shortly afterwards through Garynahine. Keep going straight here, ignoring the turning for Uig, and stay on the A858 westwards for about 5km until you reach the wee settlement of Lochganvich.
I have to say, this stretch from Garynahine to Lochganvich always feels like hard work. It can be a really busy road with traffic, some of it travelling at great speed, and there are some hard climbs too. Just after Lochganvich, there is a straight stretch of road with a nasty wee incline at the end of it but that takes you into Achmore, which is where you leave the main road again – oh the relief – making sure to cast a last look behind you at the Harris hills before you turn towards town.
This single track route, about 1km into the village of Achmore, is signposted to the left, uphill.
I love this part of the route. There’s a bit of an up at first – make sure you accelerate hard to get over the cattle grid – but it soon levels off and climbs in a very manageable way before setting you up for a terrific ride downhill. It’s almost 2km of continual downhill with views over Stornoway, over Broad Bay and the Minch and across to the mainland mountains. Oh, the joy of it!
By the time you have to start pedalling again, it’s only around 2km before you are back at the wind farm junction. There, turn right and go straight back to Marybank and to town.
Confession time. Until this week, I thought the stretch of road from Achmore to the wind farm junction was part of the Pentland Road but my father put me straight.
“That’s not the Pentland Road!” he said, a look of mock (I think) horror on his face. “The Pentland Road does not go anywhere near Achmore! The Pentland Road is just from the fork, to Breasclete and Carloway. The Achmore road is the Beinn a’ Bhuna road – Rathad Beinn a’ Bhuna!”
It’s named after its high point, Beinn a’ Bhuna, which is just up to your right as you approach the big downhill towards town. So there you have it – Rathad Beinn a’ Bhuna. Every day’s a school day.
PS. I’m assuming most road cyclists will have their own wheels with them but anyone wishing to hire a bike can do so from Bespoke Bicycles at The Hub, where there are standard hybrids, ebike hybrids and ebike mountain bikes available. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with inquiries.
PPS. Thanks to my mighty friend Sandie Maciver of SandiePhotos for the pics.
Route: Callanish circular from Stornoway
Time: 2.5 hours cycling at 12mph
Difficulty: Moderate cycle (in my subjective view)
Maps used: Ordnance Survey Explorer 459 Central Lewis & Stornoway