“Drive clockwise round the island,” Uilleam, an employee on the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry between the islands of Eriskay and Barra, told us. “And get breakfast at Barra Airport.”
His instructions seemed a little odd – get breakfast at Barra Airport? – but neither my parents nor I had ever been to the Isle of Barra before, so we took Uilleam (who had regaled us with jokes and tales from the community) at his word. We only had a day there, after all.
Our arrival on Barra, one of the most southerly inhabited isles in the Outer Hebrides, was not quite how I had envisaged it. The photos I’ve seen show sparkling sands, blue skies, and the imposing site of Heabhal, the island’s largest hill, looming over the small town of Castlebay. What we were greeted with was rain. Rain, rain, and more rain.
Okay, okay: I grew up in the Outer Hebrides, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. But all the same, while I tend to be of the opinion that “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes”, in the islands this line of thinking can truthfully only take you so far. Still, we persevered, and started driving clockwise round the island, one which is only eight miles long and four miles wide.
We passed a small harbour, some hardy-looking Hebridean sheep, and countless homes with brightly painted red roofs. Uilleam had explained that the men on Barra have traditionally worked at sea, in the fishing and oil industries; when the men were onshore, they occupied their time by painting and renovating their homes – hence the prevalence of red-topped buildings on Barra.
An Introduction to Castlebay
It wasn’t long before we reached Castlebay, and it was easy to see why we were told to circle the island in a clockwise direction. On a less rain-lashed day, with no clouds, the view out into the bay would be beautiful: Kisimul Castle stands lonely and proud in the harbour, a foreboding-looking medieval tower that is still the seat of the Clan Macneil.
Already hungry, we decided to ignore Uilleam’s last piece of advice – get breakfast at Barra Airport – and see what was on offer in Castlebay. We popped into the local post office to ask for some recommendations, and had a lovely chat with the woman behind the counter.
It was interesting to learn from her that in Barra, people are more likely to take the ferry to Oban, or the plane to Glasgow, than visit Stornoway, which is generally thought of as the ‘capital’ of the Outer Hebrides. (Although given our long drive south through the Outer Hebrides archipelago, I can’t say I was surprised; if it was me, I’d be making good use of that quick flight to Scotland’s largest city too.)
In terms of breakfast, it turns out that before 10am on a winter weekday, options in Barra are limited – unless you pay a visit to Barra Airport. We should have listened to Uilleam, after all! So we piled back into the car and continued on our clockwise journey, stopping every so often so I could get out and snap some photos, photos of the wild beaches, the roaring waves, and the old red phone boxes that stand sentinel along single track roads.
Breakfast at Barra Airport
By the time we reached the airport, I was soaked to the skin, even though I had come prepared with a waterproof jacket and a scarf bigger than my head. But damp clothes couldn’t dampen my spirits: if I’m honest, it was Barra Airport I had been most excited about visiting. It’s the only airport in the world that uses a beach runway for scheduled flights, and is regularly listed as one of the most scenic landing spots on earth.
It seemed that everyone else on the island had the same idea (or had been given the same advice from Uilleam!), as the airport was full of people tucking into proper Scottish breakfasts. All three of us went for a traditional breakfast roll: bacon, potato scone, sausage, and Stornoway Black Pudding. It was delicious, and warming, the perfect antiote to the weather outside.
Filled with food, the waiting game began. Due to the tidal nature of the beach, arrival and departure times at Barra Airport are more vague guidelines than hard-and-fast timetables. Combine the beach runway with rain, fog, and strong winds, and you’ve got even more problems – would we see any planes land on the cockleshell beach runway that day?
We gave up after an hour, and circled the island again, this time visiting some of the now-open shops in Castlebay, and taking a detour to the golf course, where only the sheep were brave enough to get out onto the green in the wind and rain.
The delayed plane meant we also had time for a drive over the causeway to the Isle of Vatersay, home of the famed Scottish music group, The Vatersay Boys. It felt very quiet – hardly surprising, given the weather – but what amazed me was that even on a dreadfully dreich day, the beach was still sparkling, and the sea still aquamarine.
A Return to the Airport
Back at the airport, we waited again, while the cloud began to lift ever so slightly. Suddenly, there it was – a dot in the clouds that quickly became a propeller plane, whirring its way towards us with its wheels kicking up water from the low tide. It really was a sight to behold. We were rewarded for our patience too, as while we stood chatting to our local Member of Parliament, another plane landed, making up for its absence that morning.
There was much in Barra we missed, thanks to the weather and the time of year; boat trips to Kisimul Castle, for example, don’t start until April, and we couldn’t even see the summit of Heabhal, let alone climb it to see the statue of Our Lady of the Sea, and admire the view of Castlebay from above.
But while the rain may have limited our island adventures in Barra, our day trip to the island was thoroughly enjoyable all the same. As for next time? I don’t just want to watch the plane land on the beach at Barra Airport – I want to be a passenger on the plane!
A special thanks to my parents, who organised our Outer Hebrides road trip, and with whom I had so many laughs with on our journey through Uist to Barra!