Barra – a Beautiful Hebridean Island.

One of the great joys of Barra – and there are many – is how to get there. Some might take the train from Glasgow to Oban on Scotland’s far west coast, then a five hour ferry ride, perhaps even seven hours if you go via the isles of Canna and Rum.
I was lucky enough to take the flight from Glasgow in a tiny jet which lands on a wide, curvaceous stretch of beach. I might mention here a three hour wait for fog to lift on the islands, but lift it thankfully did. What disturbed and delighted me most was the plane shimmying across the watery, pale sands, finishing with aplomb beside the airport (a small, squat building nestling on a neck of wildflower-strewn sand hills betwixt the heaving Atlantic and the aquamarine Hebridean Sea.
I came by invitation and my friends reassured me that this was a normal landing. Some time later, I was still buzzing with the feeling of freedom such an unfettered entry into life in the Outer Hebrides engendered.
Make your way here and you will find a pearly string of islands from Barra with its tiny family of rugged neighbours in the south to the flatter Uists, and more solid bulk of mountainous Harris and the peaty moors of Lewis in the north. Each person will tell you that their island is the best and they each have so much to offer. But It was certainly Barra’s turn to shine!
My hosts took me on a wonderful tour of Barra, including some of the islands within easy reach either by ferry or causeway. Why don’t you come along for the ride?
Kisimul Castle, home to the MacNeil clan, sits strategically within the harbour of Castle Bay, Barra’s main town. Neolithic and medieval sites abound across the islands and require exploration by car or on foot.
An hour’s ferry ride north and we reached the island of Eriskay where the story of Whisky Galore came to life. A ship had sunk with a cargo of whisky and other goods which were claimed by the local fishermen and farmers. Though humorous in many respects, the event caused severe social disruption within the small community when some of the culprits were jailed by the government of the day for stealing.
At the substantial causeway linking the island to South Uist in the north, I was delighted by a sign which announced ‘Otters Cross Here’ but sadly there were none about. Our journey took us to a ruined temple, owned by the Lords of the Isles, which appeared to be surrounded by a series of ancient burial mounds.
On a slight rise off the main road, a statue honoured the birthplace of Flora MacDonald, of Bonnie Prince Charlie fame. I found her history quite fascinating as well. She was jailed in London for a year for her part in helping the Jacobite prince evade his enemies, dressed as her maid. Some of you may know the lovely song which commemorates this incredible act of bravery. Upon her release, she escaped Scotland’s political woes but was later caught up, with her husband, in the American War of Independence.
The islands also saw great hardship with the clearances and there were rebellious groups of farmers who squatted on lands that had better resources than their own in a time of great social upheaval and poverty.
Vatersay, another causeway-linked island, this time to the south of Barra, had experienced the dreadful aftermath of a shipwreck. Sometime in the 19th century, the majority of a shipload of 350 emigrants bound for Quebec from Liverpool had perished in a storm. Beneath the monument on its great sandhill, the poor souls who had been washed ashore now lay buried.
Strangely another accident had occurred but much later during WW2. An airforce plane had crashed by the shore. The wreckage which had been recovered now lay beside a monument, a stark reminder of the tragic flight. These dramatic events from the past proved very moving.
But it was Barra’s landscape of pristine inlets and treeless hills – humped and scaly like giant amphibious creatures now turned to stone – which captured my imagination.
Above the rich machair grasslands, the calls of seabirds were a constant backdrop. I was lucky too, to see a large group of seals luxuriating in the sun on rocks in a sea-weedy bay. Perhaps the most remarkable find of the trip for me was on my last day, not long before my flight, with the discovery of fresh paw prints in the sand: of a parent otter, heavy and clawed, with its pup’s nearby – a tiny, delicate mirror image. So many wonderful memories!