Barra, Outer Hebrides

Choosing your holiday destination based on the type of airport you arrive at may not seem like the most sensible option. But to my logic, it made perfect sense.

You see, unless I wanted to waste two days on a ferry (from Oban on the Scottish mainland to Lochboisdale on South Uist takes five hours on the ferry) I’d have to fly in. And on Barra, you land on a beach.

Now, this takes some explaining to the uninitiated.

You land on a beach.

No, this is not a question of chartering a plane and instructing the pilot to ignore local instructions.

Barra airport is the only European airport -some say in the world- that is fully registered, bonded and licensed, yet instead of a tarmac landing strip, uses the local beach.

Flybe, via its local franchisee Loganair, operates the daily flight between Glasgow and Barra airport. Private flights also use the airport, as well as the military and emergency services.

Flights are heavily dependent upon the tides. High tides = no flights, as the runway’s underwater. Low tide= several miles of wonderful sandy beach, perfect for planes to land on. As long as they don’t mind the salt water splashing up and rotting the chassis.

Loganair uses Canadian built Ottar planes with extra big wheels. Perfect for bouncing along the beach.

We took off from Glasgow airport, in security conditions harsher than any I’ve experienced outside of the USA. Boots off, scanned down with the handheld scanner even if we didn’t set off the xray machine. True, it’s only a few days since Bin Laden was gunned down, but it still seemed excessive for an internal flight.

These Ottar planes aren’t the largest inside. They seem to seat 18, in very small bucket seats. The stewardess doubles as the co-pilot. Inside, it’s a bit like playing air simulator, as you look out over the pilots shoulders into the sky, over the instrument cockpit. It was fun. What it would be like in a storm, I dread to think.

As I stared out into the flurry of sand thrown up by the airplane’s wheels, I stared out into paradise.

A huge white beach stretched out into the distance, under a brilliant sun. Green hills ran down to the glittering Atlantic. Small white houses were nestled in the folds of the hills.

A small modern airport building, with a cafe and a police desk, welcomed us. A large bobby guarded the door to ensure noone took anything that wasn’t theirs. Dion is Cuidich said his car. Who was Dion, and why was he a Cuidich I wondered? It turns out to be the motto of the Northern Constabulary, which in English means “to protect and to serve”.

A very British police motto, even if it was in Gaelic.

A small pickup took our luggage to the building. The Americans were going mad.

We collected our luggage and wandered into the car park. A small white bus with a sign saying “Castlebay” was on display in the corner, amongst the Mercs and BMW’s. The Yanks and I hung around, wondering if this was the much vaunted “post bus” that runs all over the isle. It was, but the driver was having a cuppa.

Eventually, he wandered out. A pleasant enough fellow, about five foot tall, with the eyebrows of a man with only three grandparents and an accent thick enough to drown in. I couldn’t work out what he was on about. The Yanks just assumed he was talking Gaelic. “You English?” one of them drawled to me. I agreed that I was. “Mind translating?” he inquired. I didn’t like to admit that I had no more idea of what the driver was saying than the rest of them.

He took the fare off us in an easy going manner, as we just threw money to him until he decided he’d got enough. He loaded the luggage into the van: No boot, he just put the luggage on the spare seats. But he was a friendly enough fellow, who (eventually) worked out where we were going and went out of his route to drop us at our hotels.

Now, remember, that this is a fellow who is employed by a company, which is retained by the Council of the Isles to run a scheduled bus service. He could have dropped us at the bus stop, in front of the post office, and just pointed. But instead, he ran us up in front of all three hotels and helped us unload our luggage. As far as I can make out, he didn’t do this because of a hope of a tip; he didn’t do it because he had been told to; he did it because it was the right thing to do.

Now, I probably have to clear up a few misapprehensions here. Let’s start from the beginning.

The Hebrides are made up of a whole load of islands (130?), of which only about 7 are important. In order to speed things up, the British Military and the Council of the Isles have built a series of causeways connecting the closer inhabited isles. These groups are then connected via CalMac ferries.

So, we have the bottom two (Barra and Vatersay) both linked by a causeway. Then Calmac takes you over to Eriskay. From Eriskay (where Bonny Prince Charles landed for to start the Restoration) you take the causeway over to South Uist. South Uist connects to Benabacula via causeway, which in turn leads to North Uist via another causeway. Then you catch a ferry to Harris, which leads to the main island of Lewis.

Any other island, you hire a fisherman to take you there.

Got it?

Barra is a small island, just eight miles long and five wide at its widest point. Covering about twenty square miles, its permanent population is just under 1000. It has two ferry ports, an airport and an Urban Center, called Castlebay.

Castlebay, with a population of, I estimate, around 300 people, has a ferry port and a hospital. Two hotels, some B&B’s, an excellent cafe, a Royal Bank of Scotland branch (up here its just the Bank of Scotland, no Royal, but its the same entity, don’t be fooled!), a post office, a police station, a life boat station, a medical helipad and two phone booths. No mobile phone coverage, at least in the south of the island. It is, without a doubt, the most amazing place I’ve ever been.

How can I put this. You go to Gibraltar, and it’s a little British colony, but it’s spoilt because people are working at being British.

You go to Castlebay, and it’s British, but nobody is working at being British, because it would be a foreign concept to them.

So you walk down the main street of Gib and people are offering “Full English Breakfast’s” in a desperate attempt to remind people that they owe loyalty to Crown. Red post office boxes have been imported from a novelty shop, and traditional British bins have been shipped in from a second hand metalworking depot.

Go to Castlebay, and they will offer people everything but “Full English Breakfast” in a desperate attempt to prove that they are “cosmopolitan” and not a backwards part of Britain.

But, without a doubt, it’s Britain. The clues are in the little things. All the BBC stations on the radio. The “Neighbourhood Watch” stickers on lampposts. The lampposts. The old fashioned bins. The road signs. The Post Office. Little Gaelic signs (although everyone seems to be bi-lingual). If you were dropped out of a plane, you would look around and quickly come to the conclusion that this was Britain. Not a colony, but the real deal.

I was only there for two days, but I found the people there to be some of the most honest, friendly, frank, open and generous people I’ve ever come across.

It must have something to do with growing up on an island with a population of less than 1,000. Cars are left open. So are front doors. Everyone waves at everyone else. Buy a packet of polos in the same shop (there are only two) on the same day and you get an inquiry as to whether you’re eating enough, dearie.

I stayed in the Craighard Hotel, which turned out to be an expat hotel owned by Julian and his wife, a friendly couple from England, although I only ever met Julian.

It’s a small and recently renovated hotel (my 2005 Rough Guide says of it, in its previous incarnation, that it came second amongst the two hotels: it’s changed) which has to be one of the cleanest hotels I’ve ever stayed out. Not just clean, it’s the materials that count. Everything was clean, sparkling and, if not new, well looked after.

True, the only soaps included in the room was a single squeeze bottle of “soap/shampoo”, and the food wasn’t up to an international standard, but I would certainly stay there again without a doubt.

The food was actually, rather strange. Served by a cheerful and quite attractive local girl, whose main fault was saying “that’s no trouble at all” after every single request, it was quite… provincial?

The soup of the day (at least they refrained from calling it soup de jour) was chicken and rice. I mean, who puts rice in a soup? Take the rice out, you would have had a very nice soup.

The main course, local lamb served in a slow roasted red wine sauce and local vegetables, turned out to be more mutton with the weirdest vegetables I’ve ever had. I have no idea what they were doing with those vegetables. After some thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that they were first frying the vegetables, then boiling them with soy sauce. Either that, or they were oven cooking them and them caramelizing them. They seemed to have been cooked in a strong sweet – sugary solution.

Still, the views from the restaurant made up for all the culinary nonsense.

Castlebay (surprise!) has a castle in the middle of its bay. A lovely ancient Scottish castle, it was owned by the local lairds until the end of the 19th century, when the bankrupt gambler in charge of the place sold it all to a rather nasty British colonel. It was bought back by a great grandson who was an American, in the 30’s, who rebuilt part of it. A further son then leased it to Heritage Scotland for the princely sum of 1 pound and a bottle of scotch a year.

To get out to the castle, you pay the local tourism office 5 pounds, and then get on board the modern ferry which takes you out. You are then lead into the on-island shop where they try to sell you a one pound guide or a membership to Heritage Scotland. After enjoying the castle (I certainly did) you are taken on a boat trip around the island before being deposited back on shore.

When you wander around Barra, you are at first hit by the sheer differences. There are no villages, as you would understand them.

Instead, there are groups of houses. Most of them are two story homes with very, very strong sloping roofs (more for the wind than the snow, I am told). Indeed, you will often see the roofs sloping halfway down the first story! Often you will find a sheep or two in the front garden, working as lawnmowers.

There is a single track road that runs around the island. You can’t get lost there – walk an hour in any direction, you will hit the coast and the road. Turn right or left, you will eventually find Castlebay or the airport.

Go down south a little bit, you will find Vattersay. A strange empty island, with a hamlet in the middle, it is a wide open space that feels a bit like a farm.

It has a huge golden beach on one side, and I’m told another one on the other side. My “Walks to the Islands” suggests a circuitous track around the island. Ignoring this, as it was full of plastic coat covered hikers, I struck out across the fields towards the southern edge.

Now, the hiking route takes you around the northern edge. I was heading south. I crossed two hills quite easily, only running into one bog, when I hit a sheep fence. Some herder had decided to run a fence across the island to prevent sheep from falling over the edge. It was barbed wire tipped. I eyed it with caution.

Mind you, I had already noticed that the sheep of the island tend to ignore fences, and make their own gates. I wandered along the fence until I found where the sheep had been wiggling underneath, and did the same.

Pausing only to wipe some mud and sheep-muck off, I continued over the hill.

High Scottish cliffs, covered in birds and with the Atlantic crashing against them, may be commonplace to you, but it’s a new experience to me. I wandered over the cliffs for a good hour, perfectly happily.

Coming back, I went along the west coast (again having to pop underneath another sheep hole), investigating the rock pools as I went.

As I climbed onto the bus to catch the ferry to Eriskay, I felt a strange sensation of sadness, and even of nausea. True, this may have been due to the two pints of locally brewed ale I had downed at lunch, combined with the speed the driver took off at.

But I like to think it was at the thought of leaving Barra.

It’s a great place.

3 Replies to “Barra, Outer Hebrides”

  1. Bank of Scotland and RBS are totally different banks! Used to be independant but now B of S are owned by LLoyds (41% of whose shares are owned by the British taxpayers) and RBS are, well 84% owned by the British taxpayer.

  2. I may have been that policeman. We don’t have a desk at the airport but I spent lots of time there to meet the tourists and natives.

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