Words and photography by Oliver Eastwood
On April 22nd 1884, Thomas Stevens, a British-born American miner, set off by bicycle from San Francisco, California. Riding a penny-farthing and carrying little more than a pen and paper, a few spare items of clothing and a revolver, one might think he was heading out for a day cycle. Yet almost three years and 13,500 miles later, Thomas rode back into San Francisco, becoming the first person to cycle around the world. 130 years later, and admittedly with slightly less fanfare, a father and his 12-year-old son boarded a ferry from Oban to Castlebay on Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. Over the course of the next two weeks, they cycled and camped up the island chain, experiencing the best of the Scottish Islands from the saddles of their bicycles.
Cycling up South Uist on the Outer Hebrides, aged 12.
That 12-year-old was me, and that 350km trip was the first of many cycle tours I would embark on. Since that first trip in 2014, I’ve done thousands of kilometres of touring, almost all of them solo through Scotland’s Highlands and Islands. I’ve wild camped on beautiful seashores and in lush forests, ridden through mist-covered hills and alongside soaring cliffs, and cooked meals in the company of Highland cattle, and all whilst carrying everything I needed to survive – food, clothes, camping gear – on my bike. Is it tough work? It can be – unlike conventional tourism, there’s no car to carry your gear, and no caravan or hotel room to retreat to at the end of a tough day. On the days where you spend hours in the saddle, climbing hills for what seems like forever, you really feel every kilogram on the bike.
Why do it the hard way when you can just go by car? Well, the benefits of cycling extend far beyond bragging rights and rock-hard calves (although both pretty nice). The big one is obvious – in comparison to flying off for a ski trip in France or driving a car around the country, cycle touring has almost zero environmental impact. But there’s much more to it than meets the eye. Ironically, and happily, the isolated nature of cycle touring means people become so important. Cycling and wild camping through some of Scotland’s remotest areas, you’re lucky to speak to more than one person a day. That’s why every chance you get to stop in at a café or a local art store, you take it, and in doing so you meet some incredible people. You also form a community on the road with other cyclists – sharing meals, trading stories and laughing like old friends.
Most importantly, I never feel more in touch with nature than when I’m on my bike. Pedalling along at a steady 20km/h, you feel every breath of wind, smell the saltiness of the sea air, can hear birdsong or a crashing waterfall, and are aware of every drop of rain falling on your body. Life slows down in the saddle. I notice things that motorists rush past – an otter diving for shellfish, a golden eagle hovering above a mountain, a patch of blackberries that provides a burst of sweetness to fuel me up the next hill. Scotland’s access laws give me the right to camp almost anywhere, and from my tent I have watched waves lap against the shore of a sea loch and seen clear night skies filled with millions of stars. When I’m on the bike, I am so acutely aware of my place within the natural environment – every pedal stroke feels like such a privilege when you’re amongst so much beauty.
Wild camping on the west coast of Mull, 2022
Just in case I’m painting too much of a starry-eyed picture here, it’s worth noting that cycle touring carries just as much potential for mishaps as any other holiday, and that’s speaking from experience. I’ve had to sprint 50km on a fully loaded bike in the pouring rain to catch a ferry, have had my bike break down in the middle of nowhere, and have endured thousands of midge and tick bites. But with the right planning, and a good amount of luck, these incidents are few and far between; plus, they just add to the adventure.
So how can you get started? Just go! People always tell me “there’s no way I could do that!”, but there’s nothing special about me – I haven’t done any training, I don’t have fancy gear, and I’m certainly no macho “wild man”. I’m just a regular guy that hops on his bike and rides for a while.
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