The trip: wild camping in the West Isles

Photographer Liz Seabrook cycles solo in the Hebrides where she finds a warm welcome, some crackling corncrakes and a sense of freedom

My relationship with riding bikes has been patchy. In the uber-competitive London bike scene, I’ve often found it hard to find my tribe of riders – those who prefer to smell the roses (literally) than to smash around at 17mph for four hours on a Tuesday night, noses pressed to Garmins. But then last autumn, I photographed a bike race called the Trans Pyrenees. Of 126 starters, 11 women took part, one of whom came sixth. Watching her ride for five days, on her own, through the mountains, I decided it was something I could try too. So I started to ride on my own, first in Essex, then Suffolk and then I joined a challenging off-road ride with a bunch of other women in the Canary Islands, until I was ready to take on the Scottish islands. 

As a birthday present to myself, I took May off work and cycled across 20 islands. My partner rode with me for the first nine days, but after that I was on my own, wild camping wherever I could find a place to rest. The Hebrides have one of the lowest crime rates in the UK, so bar the first night I never really worried for my safety while I was on my own in a tent. 

The first night I was on Coll, on my own, and I heard a noise passing backwards and forwards above my tent. It sounded like a dial-up modem or data passing through something. But it turned out to be lapwings. Getting to know the birds and their songs was one of the things I loved most about the trip. Despite being listed on the RSPB’s red list, there are a lot of corncrakes – which sound like electricity pylons crackling – on Coll and Tiree. 

The trip wasn’t without its challenges, such as navigating the ferry timetables, and battling the wind and the odd horrendous A-road (I’m looking at you, Skye). But all of it was worth it for the many highlights. The puffins on Lunga. The rock formations on Staffa. The sight of Glen Sligachan at sunset, the wonder of the Cuillin Ridge sitting clear and proud above you. And, of course, the Hebridean beaches, which are some of the most beautiful in the world – all white sand, turquoise blue sea and, most crucially, practically deserted. 

But the real joy of the trip was the spontaneity of it. When you’ve got a bike you can do whatever you want, particularly in Scotland, where you have the right to roam and generally the landowners happily let you camp on their land. There is something uniquely wonderful about not planning your journey and choosing to follow roads to the end of an island, just to see what’s there. 

Liz Seabrook is a London-based photographer: lizseabrook.com

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