Barra (September 2020)

After months of lockdown in Belfast because of Covid-19, I was itching to escape the greyness of the city to somewhere rural and wild. Foreign travel seemed a no-no, with cancellations and new restrictions being imposed at short notice. I’d traveled to Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides last year and really enjoyed them so focused in on there again. Barra, the smallest island in the Outer Hebrides, has a reputation for beauty, and the added bonus of an airplane landing on a beach - something I’d always fancied doing. Though the best laid plans...

Barra is the most southerly of the inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides, and is often said to encapsulate the whole of the Outer Hebrides in one island. With a population barely over a thousand and small in size (11 miles long and 6 miles wide), it was ideal for a stay of a few days.

The first indications that the flight to Barra might not be entirely smooth came at the gate at Glasgow airport, where an announcement was made that if anyone needed the toilet they should go now. “Sounds ominous!” someone exclaimed, correctly. 

 It transpired that visibility at Barra was poor, just borderline for us to land. We made a first attempt at landing - there was a brief view of a very rough sea and some land, and then we were ascending again. Clearly not clear enough. 

 I could see straight into the cockpit and had a view of the flightpath, so could follow what was going on. We flew slightly north of the island and circled around for a bit, presumably to see if conditions might improve. Then we had another go - sea, briefly land, and then rising again. I looked again at the flight path on the instrument panel - the pilot had drawn in a line straight back to Glasgow. We weren’t going to land on Barra today. Shortly afterwards the co-pilot passed around a handwritten note, telling us what we already knew: “Two attempts were made at landing but visibility was too poor. Heading back to Glasgow, ETA 1pm. Apologies “. 

Back in Glasgow a very smooth Loganair operation kicked into action. There were no more flights to Barra today, and the flight tomorrow was full, but we could fly tomorrow to Benbecula, take a minibus down South Uist and then ferry from Eriskay to Barra. Everything would be arranged by Loganair. I had no idea where Benbecula was but it sounded like the only way to Barra, and a bit of an adventure. We were booked into a very nice hotel at Glasgow airport and awaited the new day and the new route.

A new day, a new flight, and a new destination -  Benbecula (having Googled it, I now knew where it was, in the middle of the Outer Hebrides). Coming in to land you could see how wild and beautiful the islands are.

Benbecula airport on a lovely sunny day; no visibility problems here.

Traveling down South Uist, in a minibus hired out by Loganair. It looked pretty wild - very flat in many places, then mountainous in other parts.

Final stage - the ferry from Eriskay to Barra. Many of the other passengers were doing the  Hebridean way - travelling across the length of the Outer Hebrides, from Barra in the south to the Butt of Lewis in the far north. Though having had to fly to Benbecula - kind of in the middle - slightly spoilt that nice linear plan.

Crossing between Eriskay and Barra - the water was lit up beautifully by the sunlight but retained a kind of dangerous wildness. 

Made it! This is Castlebay, the main (really the only) village on the island. If it looks familiar then you’ve probably seen it before - it was the filming location for the original version of Whisky Galore.

The dramatically-located Castle Kisimul in Castlebay. Hope they have flood insurance.

Home for the next few days - the lovely Glen River caravan (actually a static mobile home), just a short walk out of Castlebay. It had wonderful views of the mountains in one direction, and the sea the other. And there was the added amusement of seemingly endless rabbits running around it.

I loved the view out the kitchen to Heaval, the highest mountain on Barra.

Glen River Caravan came with its own tame robin, which would take food from my hand.

Having settled in, and seeing that the forecast for the afternoon was good, I tackled Heaval, the mountain just behind where I was staying and the highest point on Barra. There was a very stiff walk up the road out of Castlebay, and an even stiffer clamber up the mountainside, but the views were just outstanding. The local joke is that the statue of Madonna and child is the Barra version of Christ the Redeemer - it’s about 3 feet high.

Looking back down at Castlebay while climbing up Heaval. The light shimmering on the water was extraordinary.

The view from the trigonometry point at the top of Heaval was amazing - and incredibly windy!

Hello, my old friend. The Hebridean bus timetable. As incomprehensible as ever.  

Not that it mattered in the end. As I stood waiting at a bus stop on my first day, a man shouted over that no buses were running on the island - a combination of Covid and the bus company having fallen out with the council. I’d seen no mention of this important fact anywhere. Time for Plan B...

Plan B! An electric bicycle, from Barra Bike Hire in Castlebay (I can thoroughly recommend them, Tony was incredibly helpful in sorting me out at very short notice). I’d hardly been on a bicycle since my school days but I took to this very quickly, and loved it. With the empty roads and not too many hills, it was ideal for getting about the compact Barra. 

Beautiful road on the way down to Vatersay, perfect for cycling. Apart from the occasional hilly bit.

This is the wreckage of an RAF Catalina that crashed in 1944 on Barra while on combat patrol. The plane was off course and hit high ground. Three of the nine crew were killed; it’s pretty amazing the rest survived. The RAF salvaged some bits, but the rest of the aircraft was just left, and can be seen quite close to the road to Vatersay island. I visited it a couple of times, it’s got quite an eerie feeling.

They don’t call it Barradise for nothing! The incredible beach at Bagh Bhatarsaigh on Vatersay.

The cows around here seem to enjoy chewing bits of old rope. They also aren’t that keen on having their picture taken while doing it. I got head butted in the chest quite firmly a couple of times. Northern Irish cows are definitely friendlier.

I do love a good abandoned car. Especially when it’s raining.

On my second day I cycled up the east coast of Barra, which is rockier than the west and quite reminiscent of Donegal.

You see red telephone boxes all over the island, though I was a little dubious if any of them were actually working.

This is the abandoned Nineteenth century village of Balnabodach, on the east coast of Barra. During famine in the 1850s the villagers were all forcibly evicted by the landlord and sent off to Canada. Legend has it that one woman was taken away while she was milking a cow down by the lough you can see in the first picture.

I noticed one house was of substantially better construction compared to the other black houses; there seems to have been some occupation later in the nineteenth century. When I looked it up I discovered this house is known even today as the plague house - typhoid fever had killed several of the family in the 1890s. The windows were blocked up at the time - and they still are. You can see the blocked up window in the last picture.

I spent quite a while here and it had a real haunting beauty; the ghosts of a tragic past felt very close.

Just what you need after a long day rambling around Barra - a nice relaxing  bath in a field.

Cycling up the east coast I passed Barra airport and looked a little wistfully at the beach where I was supposed to have landed a couple of days earlier. After the tide retreats the runway has to be prepared for the next landing.

These slightly strange objects were on the beach near Eoligarry, in the North of Barra. They seemed to be associated with catching or processing shellfish. I found them a little sinister, like mouldering old beach loungers, long abandoned.

After a bit of hunting I tracked down the grave of Compton Mackenzie, author of Whisky Galore, in the little graveyard at Eoligarry. The book was based on real events - the actual SS Politician sank on the adjacent island of Eriskay, though the film of the book was shot on Barra.

The church at Eoligarry had this lovely little shrine to the Virgin Mary (the southern islands in the Hebrides are overwhelmingly Catholic, while the northern islands are Free Presbyterian). I was quite touched by the seashells around the statue.

This religious ritual associated with Saint Brigid sounded fascinating, and is clearly pagan in origin. The sheet recounting it was in the little chapel.

I was incredibly lucky with the weather - there were some very heavy downpours, but I was almost always inside when they happened.

Sunday, my last full day on Barra, and the weather was absolutely glorious. Castlebay was looking its very best.

Quicksand! I didn’t think this actually existed outside of Hollywood films, but apparently it does. I decided not to venture any further to find out what would happen. This was on the beach at Traigh Hamara.

After a long and very wild walk across moorland (if I’d twisted an ankle I’d have been in real trouble, there was nothing around for what seemed like miles), I reached the impressive ruin of the Neolithic passage tomb at Dun Bharpa. It reminded me of the passage tombs I’d seen recently at Carrowkeel,  Co. Sligo.

Coming back down from the passage tomb I was surprised to see a white horse suddenly appear on the hillside to my right, apparently running around completely free. It ran the whole way up to the top of a small outcrop, zigzagging back and forward, and stood there silhouetted against the sky. I was quite captivated, it seemed so free and ethereal. I stood watching it for ages, then walked on a bit and realised the building just ahead was a little church - St. Brendan's.  My father was Brendan and passed away five years ago after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease; it was difficult not to make a connection with this horse running so freely now.

Monday, and time to fly back from Barra. The flight was delayed - so the departure screen said - so I had time to pop out of the terminal and go for a walk along the beach. There can’t be too many airports like that!

With time to kill because of the (allegedly) delayed flight I could watch the runway being prepared on the beach for the landing. Because of the tide, the runway has to be carefully cleared for every flight.

Returning to the terminal I found that the flight hadn’t been delayed - it had been cancelled. Not only would I not get to land on the beach, I wouldn’t get to take off from it either! 

But on the plus side my adventure would continue - Loganair would arrange to take us up to Benbecula (the reverse journey of how we arrived), we would stay the night there, and then fly from Benbecula to Glasgow tomorrow morning. 

Ensconced in the very nice Isle of Benbecula hotel for the night (and for free). The hotel was technically closed but was reserved for situations like this, when flights were delayed. The very efficient manager had sorted us all out with rooms and ordered in Chinese food (all the facilities were closed), so it was all very pleasant. With the curlews crying outside, and the eerie flatness of the landscape, it was an excellent place to read The Woman in Black.

Sign of the times - the Covid declaration form I had to fill in at the hotel. Glasgow had had new restrictions introduced just before I travelled from there.

I went for a quick walk around this part of Benbecula. There was a little hamlet nearby but all the houses looked strangely empty,  no lights on anywhere, and no people to be seen. The wind whistled in the street lamps in a peculiar and unsettling way. I returned hurriedly to the hotel as the light faded. The Woman in Black took on a new resonance, especially as a lamb, apparently separated from its mother, cried balefully for hours nearby.

Back at Benbecula airport on Tuesday morning. One of my regrets when staying on Barra is that I didn’t hear any Gaelic being spoken. It’s widely spoken on the island - just not around tourists!  Catherine, the owner of the place I was staying in, was Barra born and bred, and a native Gaelic speaker. I was quite intrigued by the Barra accent, which reminded me of some of the accents on the west coast of Ireland. English was spoken in a very precise way, and I wondered if that was because the speaker was actually translating from Gaelic in their heads.

Back home without further misadventure, and with a wonderful souvenir - Paul Strand’s very evocative book of photographs taken in the Outer Hebrides in the 1950s; I bought it in the excellent souvenir shop in Castlebay.

II’ll be back to Barra, there’s no doubt about that - I still have to land on that bloody beach!

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