“Mummy, mummy, the eagles are coming to get us!”
I looked up, but the slice of blue sky visible above the high, ragged rocks was clear and empty. We were just finishing a steep climb up on a road that hadn’t existed on my last visit here, blasted out of the ancient rocks just eight years before, down from the main road though the island, then back up and up, then down again, dynamited through the steep hills and cliffs that make this island coast so beautiful
My young daughter, 10 years old at the time, was making the pace on the climb. It was a warm beautiful day and we always rode like this on our cyclecamping trips, her in front of me, setting the pace. Which could be excruciatingly slow sometimes, but this was a small price to pay. Not many ten year olds would put up with every holiday they ever went on consisting of riding their bike each day, from one wild, windy often wet and cold place to another, for at least two weeks, often more, without ever complaining. Well, hardly ever!
I had thought this would be a point in the days route where, not only would the pace slow right down, but that we’d actually be off and walking. This road dives up and down through hills to the tiny settlement of Rhenigidale quite dramatically, meriting a couple of chevrons on the OS map. Id never ridden it before, as my last visit to the Hebrides had been twenty years before, when the only way to Rhenigidale was along a wild coastal path, but I’d walked that from Tarbert along the coast back then and knew the terrain.
Earlier that day, we had left Leverburgh, after arriving by ferry from Berneray. We’d spent longer than intended on Berneray. My daughter had fallen in love with the hostel there. Both its setting, and its character. So I agreed we could stay there an extra day or two. It had proved to be an excellent idea. The front door of the old thatched stone house opens right on to one one of the many Hebridean silver sand beaches and so two days here provided a welcome bit of variety for her, walks, sea swimming, shell collecting. We baked cakes in the old Rayburn oven in the hostel for all the other people staying there, even cleaning and housekeeping the old hostel seemed to be part of the fun.
On our second night after sharing a meal with the others there, we were all discussing our plans for the next stages of our holiday. One couple seemed a little worried for my daughter when we set out our plan to ride to Rhenigidale.
The husband was definite it would be too much for my daughter. “ Harris isnt flat like the Uists, my dear.”
I reminded him we had already discussed my previous trips to the area, so yes I was aware. I knew we’d have a long slow climb on the pass through the highest hills on the island, between Clisham, the very highest point on Harris, and the hills that go down to the rocky coast and our destination that day. And I knew this new road we were planning to take would be a tough cycle ride for me let alone a ten year old. But we had all day to do thirty miles and I knew my daughter. This wasn’t her first cycle tour. And she’d ridden through the hills of Cornwall and Devon at an even younger age. She had managed the relentless ups and downs of those counties just fine. She wasn’t fast, but she was determined, and had lots of stamina. The strategy we had employed then was: only twenty to thirty miles a day, plenty of snack stops, make sure we never run out of food and water and get off and walk if you want. Which she had done on most of those Cornish hills .I’d ride up to the top of the climb, leave my bike, run back down and push her bike up for her while she walked alongside me. That had worked fine, when she was seven years old. Three years on, she had several cycling tours behind her, she was stronger and more experienced, so I wasn’t worried at all.
The main pass climb that skirted Clisham, went even better than planned. It was a glorious day, if quite hot. Down into her lowest gear, she turned the pedals evenly, if very slowly, ahead of me. Did the whole climb without stopping once. At the top, we found a place to leave our bikes and clambered up a small hill, where we could sit and have a proper picnic. The weather was warm, sunny, the skies absolutely clear and the views amazing. Frances glanced down and pointed to a line through the heather and rocks, snaking down and then steeply up in the distance.
“We are not going down that, are we?”
I wasn’t sure…it looked sort of in the right place, but never having seen the road before, I wasn’t certain as it wasn’t even on the ten year old map I had been using! I couldn’t think what else it could be though, but the note of hesitation in her voice made me think it wouldn’t be a good idea to feed any misconceptions about the last leg of our journey.
“Don’t think so.”
We finished our picnic. Refilled our water bottles from a stream and walked back down to where we had left our bikes. The sun was still pretty high in the sky, it was very warm, and we still had many hours of daylight left, even in late summer up here.
The “track” Frances had spotted from a distance proved to be our road after all, and I got a brief reproachful look when she realised but then she just sighed a little and turned on to it.
Downhill at first, bending, then coasting down towards Loch Seaforth (or Shiphort) the big sea loch that slices into the eastern coast of Harris. But then our road turned again, away from the little loch Maraig that sits to the side of the greater body of water, and began to climb up.
I kept chatting to my daughter, telling her she should get off whenever she wanted.
She told me she was fine. Her short legs kept turning evenly, if very slowly. I was pretty impressed. It was a tough climb, and I’d have welcomed the excuse to get off for a bit, myself.
It was very hot, the air seemed to still completely, the soft, welcome breeze we had on the open section of the climb before was now gone, and even though the sun was still high, it grew a touch darker, the higher we climbed, as steep banks of scrub and rock began to rise up each side of the road. Ever steeper and narrowing, as these roads blasted into the high old cliffs and hills of Scotland often are.
The big wide skies of the Hebrides we had grown so used to on this trip seemed to disappear as we neared the high point of the climb, sliced from our view by the wall of rough jagged silver grey rocks rising up around us, as the road ground its way over and through the ancient hill.
That was when she started telling me about the eagles and I started looking around for them!
It was possible. This was the kind of place you’d find them. But I couldn’t see any. My daughter seemed to be panicking more and more about these eagles which she now seemed to be convinced were diving down to eat us. I suddenly realised it was a possibility the heat, the sun and the exertion might have led to a bit of dehydration or even a bit of sunstroke and she might possibly be imagining these flying beasts about to devour us. I told her to stop riding. She just carried on. So I accelerated up the last few yards of the climb, rode in front of her and blocked her path.
She stopped pedalling. By now we were right at the top, but there was finally a bit of shade afforded by the high cliffs as the sun had also finished its climb and was just beginning the long slow descent to sunset.
We sat in the shade, sipping water slowly and sharing the bag of dried fruit, seeds and nuts we always carried. The sun dropped slowly, and almost imperceptibly, lower behind the rocks until the shade finally covered the whole road. By then we were refreshed and rested, ready to get back on the bike
Finally we were heading down to Rhenigidale, less than a dozen homes, scattered up and down the steepish sides of a tiny inlet. The road dropped down almost to the sea, then turned and began to climb back up a little. The hostel was tucked into the hillside, up a little climb of steps. A traditional croft cottage, not thatched like Berneray, but definitely with its own charm.
We left the bikes below and scrambled up the steps, into the door. First job, prepare snack and drink. This was easy here, as the warden at the time, whom we met later on, was Alistair Mackay a kind and generous man who made sure there was a good store of food and beverages for visitors.
A few minutes later, we were sitting on the bench outside the cottage, drinks in hand, a welcome sea breeze drifting in from the sea just below us, watching the gannets drop headfirst, sharp and straight from the eastern sky over the Shiant Isles, into the brilliant blue.
“I’m not riding back up there, Mum”, my daughter announced firmly.
“Well, I don’t know how else we are going to get back out” I replied. “Don’t think swimming’s an option”.
“We’ll think of something”.
As I said I knew my daughter. The same determination and strength of character that had got her here, 30 miles of riding that many adults wouldn’t manage without getting off and walking once or twice, meant she’d probably stick to this decision and I would indeed not get her back up that road on a bicycle.
And she did indeed think of something. Which is a whole other story.
NB. The photos of my daughter come from a different part of that years trip, using a cheap camera which broke a few days before we reached Harris. The photos I’ve used to illustrate the trip described in the post were actually taken on another visit to Rhenigidale. Which explains the lack of blue skies which were plentiful that particular day. In the late 1990’s I didn’t own a decent camera nor a smartphone (they didn’t exist).