Cycling without age – the perfect island fit

A Dun Berisay resident out and about, with befriender Jill Maclean and Ashley MacLeodA Dun Berisay resident out and about, with befriender Jill Maclean and Ashley MacLeod
A Dun Berisay resident out and about, with befriender Jill Maclean and Ashley MacLeod
Sometimes an idea comes along that’s so simple in concept and so effective in impact that you wonder how on earth it didn’t come to light before. That was certainly the impression left when the charity, Cycling Without Age, began to expand their offering in Lewis and Harris.

From an island perspective, scarcely could anything feel more appropriate. The idea is beautiful in its simplicity: giving the indoor-bound elderly the chance to experience the outdoors in the company of more youthful volunteers, on specially-designed bikes, or trishaws as they’re called.

Given that we have a wonderful environment on our doorstep and a high proportion of elderly in our communities – and, without delving into a sense of exceptionalism, an in-built community ethos – the islands would seem to be the perfect fit.

And, so far anyway, it’s proved exactly that.

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It’s still in the early stages of it being rolled out, but to date the reaction has been tremendous. A few trial runs were organised recently with residents in care homes in Stornoway... and, in what should be no surprise to anyone, they absolutely loved it.

Amy Rigg, the secretary of the Lewis and Harris “chapter” of Cycling Without Age Scotland, said that from a very tentative beginning they quickly built up pace and momentum.

“We have been overwhelmed by the positive response from all within the community and it’s been particularly noticeable after Covid,” she said.

“It’s so good to see care home residents being able to get out and about and people in the community love to see that. We get so many waves and toots from cars when we are cycling along the road. It’s great.”

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How the charity came to be in Lewis is a story in itself. Amy’s in-laws are involved with the group in Perth as volunteers and in conversation with CWAS chief executive, Christine Bell, happened to mention that their son and daughter-in-law were living up in Lewis.

That immediately piqued the interest of Christine as the charity, at that point, had no presence in any of the Scottish islands. So contact was made, conversations ensued, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“We thought it sounded like a fantastic project so we put some feelers out to see if folk would be interested,” said Amy.

“We held an information evening in Sandwick Hall and Christine came up and spoke at the event. We got very positive feedback from all who attended. From that, we created a small committee who met regularly for about a year, planning and securing funding, mainly through grants.

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“We quickly got to the stage where we managed to purchase two trishaws, two electric bikes and a storage container. Alastair Glover at Bespoke donated hi-vis bibs for us to wear when representing the charity and when out cycling.

“Christine then visited again in August last year. She spoke to pupils in the Nicolson which led to a group of pupils selecting CWAS as their chosen charity for their Youth and Philanthropy Initiative project. That gave us another welcome boost

“A few of us visited local care homes to explain the project in more detail and Bethesda and Blar Buidhe agreed to run a pilot project.”

It was only then that its real potential was to become clear. In discussion with care home staff a number of willing residents were chosen for the pilot – and it proved a revelation.

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“Some were maybe a little bit hesitant at first, but they very quickly relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed the experience,” said Amy. “The trishaws move at walking pace and the passengers are wrapped up nice and warm.

"We also have lovely befrienders who sit with them to chat and reassure them. If it’s appropriate we take carers out with them and sometimes we have taken them out with family members.

“They just love getting a view of where they lived or places they know. On one trip we took a resident out to where her niece lives. We knocked on the door and what a lovely surprise she got when she saw her auntie sitting there in the trishaw waving to her!

“Another time we had a minister out who was in his 90s. He thoroughly enjoyed meeting people he hadn't seen for years and shaking their hand, just like he would have done so many times over the years.

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“But the real beauty of it is that it allows care home residents, or those who are housebound, to connect with and feel part of their community again. It means so much on so many different levels.”

One of the volunteers on the local committee is Jane Nicolson, a former police inspector in Stornoway who retired from the force in April 2021. She similarly was taken aback by just how much it was enjoyed by those that came out.

"They absolutely loved it,” she said. “Just getting out of the homes and into the fresh air is an adventure for them. There’s an extra buzz of excitement at the homes now when we are visiting.

"We had sisters from Uig out who just laughed and smiled from the minute they sat on the seats till the minute they got off, and that rubs off on everyone.

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“On one of the first visits we were a bit concerned when we were out as it was starting to drizzle and we thought we better get back to the home. But the lady who was with us was in her element, not in the slightest bit concerned about a wee bit of rain. She was actually enjoying the experience, telling us she couldn’t remember the last time she actually felt rain on her face and did not want us to rush back.

“Most of them would happily stay out, enjoying a different experience, being able to stop and chat to folk we meet out and about and seeing places they’d never visited before.”

An international perspective

While Cycling Without Age has only recently been introduced to the islands, it’s by no means a new project. It was first established in 2012 in Copenhagen – a city which places huge importance on cycling, with an infrastructure so suit – but due to its utter effectiveness rapidly spread. It’s now found in 52 countries, mostly Europe, the USA and Australia.

However, in order to support the work involved, an extensive volunteer effort is required, from pilots, chapter captains, mechanics, administrators and trainers.

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Having come to the charity through its introduction in Lewis, Jane headed out to Singapore on holiday, where she decided to put her new-found skills to work – albeit in a rather different environment to the conditions that’s normally found in Lewis.

“I met up with the CWA Singapore chapter and it proved that it doesn’t matter what part of the world you are in, your cultural background, size or disability, Cycling Without Age is an amazing scheme that brings so much joy to everyone involved,” she said.

"The two Malay ladies I took out came up to my waist and reminded me of the two ladies from Uig, smiling and laughing all the way. There may have been a slight language barrier now and again but it didn’t make the slightest bit of difference, they just loved it.

“The next two I had out when I was out there were an Indian gentleman and a Singaporean and they had a similar experience. It’s a bit different over there compared to Lewis. As well as obviously the weather and climate, here where you know the majority of folk and just say hello in the passing.

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"But in Singapore you just get on with your own business. Having said that, one of the gentlemen was smiling and waving to everyone we passed shouting ‘be happy!’ and anyone we did pass had no option but to smile and wave back. It was priceless!

“But you have to remember it’s as much a feel good experience for all the volunteers involved, as well as the ones out on the trishaw.”

Back home the work and effort continues, with the local committee spurred on by the fantastic reaction from the pilot project they ran with Blar Buidhe and Bethesda.

It’s easy to see what its numerous benefits are – the sense of freedom enjoyed by those who go out, the physical and mental health benefits of good, clean fresh air, and the rekindling of a sense of connection with the wider community environs that would have at one point been so natural to those involved.

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So far, Amy says that their appeal for volunteers has met with a tremendous response – 40 to date – but, of course, there’s always room for more and as it spreads further every little bit of assistance will be welcome..

"We have had a great response,” she said. “We found that there is a higher demand for volunteers on week days, so it is good to have volunteers who have flexible work hours or are retired.

"It's a very inclusive project and if you don't want to cycle there is a befriending role also. The thing is that the volunteers get as much out of it as the passengers. We have such good fun. It's a real feel good project.”

The intention now is to expand it beyond the boundaries of Stornoway, into communities like Harris, Ness and Lochs. It’s also recently just started up in Uist.

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That, however, is going to require an even bigger commitment in terms of volunteers. But it shouldn’t prove too much of a burden, considering the obvious benefits. As Jane says, it’s a win-win on all accounts – just a case of getting the message across.

"I have to say the staff and managers at the care homes have been amazing,” she said. “Some at the start were a bit concerned if it would work and how it would work out but they quickly saw the benefits, once we actually took people out.

"They were so excited on the day they were due to go out and ate and slept better when they came back, and they had so many yarns to tell once they got back. A few of them even said it was the best day they ever had.”

For more information on the project visit: