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Barra for the day

For readers in doubt, Barra is the southernmost inhabited island in the Outer Hebrides, that windswept place that is always hidden behind the TV weather forecaster’s head while he or she waves his/her hands across the rest of the country. There are only about 1600 inhabitants to get upset over this and most of those know that their weather is sufficiently unique so no general forecast is going to be of much use to them. Certainly in the course of the 60 mile passage between Oban and Barra it did seem to us that our ferry had moved us into another weather system, notably different and as luck would have it, better than what we had left behind.

We arrived to find a place where the air is so free from pollution that the light has a shiny, dream-like quality imparting subtle changes to every shade and colour. Kate’s delight knew no bounds as our arrival immediately triggered memories of childhood holidays spent here with her family. True, the place has changed from what she knew. Today this is a thriving community with lots going on all year round. Tourism is a big thing but even so early in the season the place has a vibrant feel to it. You don’t come to live on a place like Barra expecting to find someone to employ you in a regular nine to five job though. If you do you’ll be disappointed. But this is a place where individuality counts and your expertise can be used to the full.

Take our Bed&Breakfast, for instance, where we seized upon the opportunity to jump on a couple of bikes they had purchased for visitors’ use. Keeping hire bikes in good repair locally falls to a retired ex-policeman who has the special skills needed for this, not a living in itself but part of the network of local skills that a remote community draws on when it needs them. Unfortunately for us our bikes still awaited his attention this year so it was with gears crashing and brakes rubbing that we set off clockwise around the island along the A888, Barra’s main road.

Thankfully the cool wind was light so with the sun popping in and out all day we only had to find a sheltered spot to be able to rest our weary legs when we needed to, which was quite often. The road is, naturally, narrow and even on Barra not all car drivers are ‘cycle-aware’, but what they are is friendly. At first you begin to wonder why someone has smiled and raised a hand to wave at you. Then someone else does it and soon you begin to realise that it is simply what they do – being nice to other people is what comes naturally here and stopping for a chat is expected behaviour too.

Our first lunch-stop was beside a small lochan whose surface the wind rippled gently for us. The next was at Eoligarry, Barra’s airport, and yet another fine sandy beach but this time naturally crusted with broken shells giving firm footing for the planes which land there. The third was beside a natural inlet on Barra’s east side where a pair of sandpipers joined us to poke about in the weed looking for their lunch and then finally after we had crawled up the steep hill behind Castlebay we stopped again so the legs could recover before we swooped down to the township beneath us. Across the Minch the Cuillin mountains on Skye winked at us in the sun, puffy cumulus clouds hovering over them and in the bay the castle, restored at some expense by one of our American cousins, part of the extended MacNeil family, stood out proudly on its own island.

We came to Barra for different reasons, Kate to recall her childhood past and me to savour a first encounter with the Outer Hebrides but we both found a place full of surprises. Least expected of all was the ‘Cafe Kisimul’ on Castlebay’s Main Street a place offering spicy Indian food to rival anything a large city can offer and a terrific menu choice for us vegetarians. In only 36 hours on the island we found ourselves eating their superb food twice, neither time being disappointed. Then, whilst idling away a few moments on the harbour wall waiting for our ferry home we had a close encounter with one of Barra’s wilder inhabitants. Just yards away below us a big dog otter was hunting and feeding on crabs and fish in the bay. Normally so shy these creatures are rarely seen close up. To come this close to the port where ferries dock, people embark in dinghies, and with the bus stop guaranteeing an almost constant human presence, this chap must have felt confident he was not going to be disturbed as he rummaged about. Just like the other 1599 inhabitants of the island, this was his home.

We asked Pauline, in the Kisimul, whether she might conjure up some dolphins for us on the journey back to the mainland and as it turned out she was a good as her promise for there they were, diving in and out of the ship’s bow wave in a display of sheer joy. Thanks again, Pauline, for the food and for the special treats.

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One Response to Barra for the day

  1. SV-Footprint

    I'm so glad you guys had such a fun time in Barra… I went years ago with about 15 girls on an archaeological tour of the Outer Hebrides (the one guy dropped out). Barra Airport I loved, and it is one of my dreams to eventually land (as a passenger) on that beach (plane times are matched to the low tide).

    Hope you enjoyed the birthday celebrations too.

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