I check my list, as I have done in the past for dangerous places (Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan etc.) They generally do not help me that much; but tend to reassure the dear loved ones left behind.
Checklist for Barra: November 2013
Reluctantly leave one credit card with my wife Joan. (Done.)
Check status on Barra boat and buy tickets. (To do.)
Intro letter to impress the locals. (Received from Anne McGuire MP.)
Check medical status and requirements for Barra with GP. (Did this in 1958 with my BCG.)
Take some spare passport photos. (On computer.)
Leave some signed cheques for Joan. (Done with bad grace.)
Squito burner (Skipped that one.)
Trinkets for the natives (Skipped that one also.)
Guys assemble in Balshagray Avenue from 8.30 onwards. We (Sam, Robert and I) set out on our great expedition. A 'bucket list' trip to Barra (ie one thing to do before one dies). We drive to Oban, entirely without incident. Out on the 'Clansman' for five hours to Castlebay. There are three very naughty children on the voyage. I dissuade Sam from drowning them. The journey past Mull is hopelessly calm. A more satisfying swell as we head out of the shelter of Coll into more open seas.
We have a bowl of soup on CalMac. Where are the linen tablecloths of yesteryear? One of my staunchly Conservative aunts said that she began to hate the Labour party seriously in 1926 when she (having had six hours of sea-sickness en route from Stornoway to Mallaig on an overnight steamer) went at 5am to a David MacBrayne dining room for a cup of tea; and had to endure the (famously emaciated and sickly) Jimmy Maxton tucking into porridge and bacon, sausages and eggs: all served by stewards to a table immaculate in its Irish linen.
There is a watery crescent moon peering out of black clouds as we head into Castlebay at 7pm. We check into the Castlebay Hotel and have a very good dinner (oysters and cockles and fish pie for me). We three wee boys chat over wee drams about boyish things for a wee time, as wee boys often do. I tell stories.
We are up for a (full and excellent) 8.30am breakfast; the only other residents at breakfast are a wind turbine construction team. They remind me of the elderly Hebridean lady who said 'Wind farm? Why do we need a wind farm? We have plenty of wind up here already.'
We wander around Castlebay (not a challenging task). A plaque to Alexander Mackendrick (of 'Whisky Galore' directing fame) is interesting: what a talented man. Kisimul Castle I had always thought to be a large castle way out in the bay: but my brain has been remiss in interpreting the photographs – in reality it is a wee castle close to the pier. We identify the rather quaint Kisimul Café, where we are booked to eat in the evening.
Then the 10.30 bus, free for me (thanks to young taxpayers), out of Barra across the causeway and into Vatersay. The weather is calm but threatens rain: out at sea one can indeed see sharp showers. We get off the bus at Vatersay village, not a major centre of population – but blessed with shell sand beaches and machair land. We make our way back north along the east-facing beach, with some animated oyster catcher birds as companions. Rejoining the road, we head towards the causeway, stopping to inspect the metallic corpse of a wartime Catalina which had crashed by the shore. A plaque remembers the 10 dead crew.
At the causeway, there are breakers crashing on rocks on the Atlantic side of the Sound of Vatersay, and a wee seal bobs up and down watching us; but, on the quieter other side, there are signs of considerable fishing activity.
The road takes us up the steep south edge of Barra, with spectacular views out east towards Coll. Just after the highest point, there is an elegant memorial (of 1993 vintage) remembering the dead of two wars: the vast majority of the names are merchant navy personnel.
We get to Castlebay at 2pm, having covered some six miles in dry sunshine – a big walk for me; and reward ourselves with sandwiches, beer and a hotel view over the bay – we look out rather smugly at the first shower of the day. The sun at 3pm is already beginning to die in the western sky: Sam says: 'Just like me.' At 6pm the three musketeers regroup. A few swift drinks and off to the Café Kisimul.
We have probably the best Indo-Pak meal I have ever eaten (scallop pakora and then curried organic Barra lamb). We head home (pausing only briefly to take in some of the 'X-Factor', or some such nonsense, in the Castlebay Bar). Over the bay, there is the crescent of a waning (says Sam) moon. Actually the moon was waxing. The three of us talk about education for two hours. I tell stories. I always tell stories.
Last night we discussed weather prospects with our genial host John. Winds of 35 mph (perhaps with higher gusts) are forecast. 'When does the ferry stop sailing, ie at what wind speed?' asks Sam. 'It depends on the skipper,' says our host.
This morning dawns bright and still. We are up for 9am breakfast; at 10.30 we want a taxi to go to the north side of Barra. There is no taxi available. So John volunteers to take us and to ensure a taxi collects us later in the day. We therefore enjoy a conducted tour up the west coast route with a running commentary all the way.
Compton Mackenzie's house is pointed out to us, still owned and (sometimes) used by a descendant: so here was where Mackenzie wrote and philandered. Our host talks about his own sons, one a master on the Lochmaddy-Uig-Tarbert CalMac boat, the other an engineer in Singapore with a subsidiary of Cathay Pacific: in all a typical Hebridean family story.
At the extreme north tip we start to walk south, mainly by road but with one or two diversions, the first of them down to an Atlantic coastline of spectacular energy. Back on the road we go into the cemetery and locate (we think, because the headstone is badly eroded) Compton Mackenzie's grave. Here also is buried Compton Mackenzie's friend and piper Calum, who played at the Mackenzie funeral, promptly died and was buried here two days after his pal. There is also a headstone (in Italian) to an Italian who died in Barra in 1941: intriguing, might he have been a POW sent to work in Barra as an agricultural labourer?
Three days later I find the answer, from John in the Castlebay Hotel:
Hi Iain, we are so pleased you all enjoyed your trip to Barra. The gravestone you looked at in Cille Bharraidh was Enrico Muzio an opera singer from Napoli who lived in London. He was an internee aboard the Arandora Star heading for Canada on July 1940 when she was torpedoed off the west coast of the Hebrides. There was also another Italian washed ashore on Barra and he is interred at Borve graveyard – Oreste Fisanoti; and more were washed up on the other islands.
Inspired by John, I check the story: a somewhat gung-ho German U-boat captain in essence killed hundreds of his alleged 'allies', mostly Italians but including some German POWs; the death toll was added to by UK guards on the Arandora Star riddling the ship's lifeboats with rifle fire to prevent their human cargo from 'escaping'. Most of the bodies recovered in the Hebrides from that sad affair ended up on Colonsay, I discover.
The issue of 'Italian' internment in the second world war was controversial at the time and subsequently. Scotland had about 5,500 'Italians', many of them actually native-born Scots (who escaped internment). But the male Italian-born 'Italians', many of whom who had come from Barga or Lazio 20 or more years earlier, were interned.
Scotland's eminent historian Tom Devine has written: 'The most tragic incident in the entire history of the Italians in Scotland came about because of this policy. On 2 July 1940 the Arandora Star carrying 712 Italian "enemy aliens" to Canada was torpedoed in the Atlantic by a U-boat. Altogether 450 internees drowned. The dead from Scotland were mainly harmless cafe owners, small shopkeepers and young shop workers.'
Out to the north is the legendary Eriskay. Hugh Roberton of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir famously said (on a vinyl record that still exists): 'It is a little island but, long after we are all dead and forgotten, it will be remembered.' And of course the great Paul Robeson picked up a song sheet on Bond St in London and added to the immortality of Eriskay.
Here also is where SS Politician of 'Whisky Galore' fame came to grief: confusing the Sound of Barra with the Sound of Eriskay was not good news.
Then the coastline of South Uist. Much further away and to the east are the shapes of Eigg and Rum, and the very distant (but distinctively snow-capped) peaks of the Cuillins. There is bright sunshine, the merest zephyr of a wind and an extraordinarily good quality of light. We reach the famous Cockle Ebb with the world's most exotic airport, and walk on the beach/ airport.
The sand is indeed rich with cockleshells, possibly the reason why the surface is amazingly hard and compact and therefore so suited to its aeronautical duties. With some time to spare, we walk to the famous Traigh Eais. A notice says 'No kite flying while the airport is open ie windsock visible.' It is a very long and beautiful beach, but with menacing Atlantic breakers and surf; and indeed there are notices warning about its undercurrents.
Our taxi dutifully turns up at 1pm and proceeds down the east side ie the Minch route to Castlebay, the driver helpfully informative. And insightful: 'You guys on a "bucket list" trip?'
Lunch at the bar; our host and I have a largely Gaelic conversation on the merits of eating 'sgadan' and 'guga' ie herring and gannet, and indeed cormorants. And we talk about the extinction of the herring industry (dead by the 1950s, with trawlers much to blame). I have spoken more Gaelic in Barra in two days than on my last few trips to Stornoway: and remember enough of my pitiful Gaelic consistently to use the polite vocative plural to address our host. (My father in the 1950s – otherwise discouraging of my attempts to learn Gaelic – gave me a half-crown, a fortune then, for mastering that aspect of Gaelic etiquette.)
And then we have an hour's walk to the end of Ledaig and back. Ledaig I can only describe as a suburban part of Castlebay: but, given that Castlebay is not urban by any definition, 'suburban' may not be the best word.
Now, at 3.30, the wind has picked up to the level of a rather stiff breeze and a black-clouded front is moving in from the Atlantic.
By mid-evening the wind is indeed rather high. CalMac warns that the Sunday sailing from Oban may well be disrupted by winds of 45mph. But, as we watch from the hotel, at 8.50 (10 minutes early) the Lord of the Isles sails serenely into Castlebay (admittedly with the side-thrusters clearly in overdrive).
Good dinner: I have sea trout (if only because there are no farmed sea trout). It is okay. A tad cold, but good. We tell stories, ie I tell stories. Again.
At almost midnight the wind is still whistling around parts of the hotel. But that is what I loved about living at the Butt of Lewis when I was eight years old: the wind whistled but one had the security of a warm bed and some secure parental figures. Six decades later, I have a warm bed; and Robert and Sam as my secure surrogate parents.
At 5.50am there is still something of a gale; but when I get up an hour later it has abated. Sam, Robert and I head down to the Barra Pier at 7.30 or so; as the 'Lord of the Isles' slides regally into Castlebay from Lochboisdale. All the chat from the locals on the pier is in Gaelic: so unlike Stornoway.
Off at 7.50 and we tuck into a hearty CalMac breakfast; there is nothing better to deter the effects of a heavy swell of the Southern Minch or Sea of the Hebrides (or of an incipient hangover) than a good fry-up. We are tossed around a little for a couple of hours. As Barra recedes, we see Rum and Eigg to the north east; and Coll looms up ahead.
Calm appears, and indeed stunning sunshine, as we sail past the top of Mull; the high slopes and houses of Tobermory; then Fishnish; and Craignure; the lighthouse at the tip of Lismore; and, at 1pm, into Oban. Three hours later we are back in Glasgow. It has been good to be away for a little time. It was a great adventure to a great place. I enjoyed it all so much.