The first time I visited Castlebay on the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, was in 2003. I had visited a few of the Inner Hebrides (Mull, Iona, Arran, Bute etc) previously, but had never been further afield than these islands. Below are embellished notes from a Diary that I wrote of my trip to Barra. It is interesting for me, to show how chronically under-prepared I was when I visited. Firstly, I visited out of season, so most of the tourist attractions were shut. Secondly, I did not do any research about where to eat, where to drink, how to get around etc. It was the mistakes that I made going to Barra, that prompted me to be more prepared for every subsequent trip to the Scottish Islands. If you have not read it already I have completed a 5000 word article – Scottish islands on a Budget that details some of things you should take into consideration whilst planning your trip.
Although I have been on long journeys before, the 8 hours (with delays) that it took me to reach Oban felt like an eternity. I had decided to travel by train and although the scenery was pretty spectacular on the way there, as soon as it got dark, time seemed to take that little bit longer. Eventually, I reached my Guest House in the heart of Oban and tired and exhausted, retired for an early night.
After a hearty breakfast, I sauntered down to the Harbour Front to survey my options. The choices were few and far between. Take a tour, see the seals, visit the sealife sanctuary. These were just a few of the things to do in and around Oban. Still undecided, I waited for the Tourist Information Office, which is housed in a beautifully converted church, to open. I gave the friendly Advisor my options and asked for his advice. His reply was short, but to the point, “You can’t do any. They are all shut”.
What I failed to mention is that I am in Oban, out of season. March to be precise. I had naively hoped that there may be someone able to provide a trip for an independent traveller. Contemplating this, I went to sit by the Ferry Terminal, hoping some jolly captain would see my plight and take pity on me and then take me on an amazing journey to some unknown utopian island. After an hour, I was still sat there.
I decided to go for a walk around the Harbour where I noticed a sign advertising a trip to a a Seal Colony, near the island of Kerrera. I dutifully paid the small fee and boarded the wooden boat. After about 20 minutes of beautiful scenery, we slowly pulled up beside a rocky promontory known as Seal Island. I looked carefully and saw a few seals bobbing around and generally being slovenly.
Once I had finished the seal island tour I had a radical idea. I had been perusing the timetable carefully, until I could recite it word for word and I noticed that there was a Ferry to Castlebay on the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. Feeling rather pleased with myself, I seized the moment and booked a single ticket from the Ticket Office. After reading about Barra in the Tourist Information Centre, I learned that Barra is the only airport in the world where the plane takes off and lands on the beach. This would be a great adventure I thought.
Excitedly, I boarded the Ferry and then set off into the unknown. The Ferry glided effortlessly through the calm water. I sat on the deck for a while soaking up the last of the suns rays. We carried on through the Sound of Mull, where on both sides, there was spectacular coastline. I mainly looked towards the left hand side towards the imposing Isle of Mull. The island had a rocky profile and was punctuated with the odd, isolated house. Then, as if by magic, the colourful town of Tobermory came into view. A rioutous rainblow of coloured houses hugged the Harbour and gave the town a slightly Mediterranean feel.
After making it through the Sound of Mull, I was able to make out the profile of the Isle of Coll, although by this time it was becoming darker and difficult to see. As we journeyed out into the open sea, the Ferry suddenly started to roll slightly, which took a little bit of getting used to. A few hours later. we docked at Castlebay and I must admit to being pleased to being back on dry land. I knew that my accommodation was only a couple of minutes away from the slipway. I looked at all the buildings but they all looked the same. However, I knew that if I set off walking, I would eventually find it. How big can Castlebay be?
After a decent nights sleep, I awoke to the soothing sound of gentle waves lapping outside my window. I ate a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and tomatoes and then walked down to the Post Office to get a bus timetable. The next bus to the airport was later in the morning, so I waited outside and admired the view down to the slipway. It was piercingly cold and extremely windy but there was a clear, vibrant blue sky. The Postbus drew up and my fellow passengers and I boarded the bus in an orderly fashion. The bus wound its way along the islands eastern postal route. Every 10 minutes or so, the driver would stop the bus, empty a post box and a passenger would depart.
By the time we reached the Airport, I was the last passenger. I asked the Postman how much l owed and left the bus. The Airport was the only building for about a mile. It was at the end of a Cockleshell beach. The tide was out, so I thought there may be a chance of a plane coming in to land. No such luck. I enquired at the Reception Desk, to see if I could book a single flight to Glasgow. “No problem” said the helpful lady. I handed over my money and received my ticket.
I quickly made my way outside and waited for the Postbus as it was due back in around 5 mins. The bus duly arrived and we set off back to Castlebay. This time the driver took the western route around the island. The only major village we passed was called Borve. It was a small settlement of evenly-spaced out houses. There were two excellent sandy beaches nearby that would be a delight to visit in summer. The bus then wound its way inland and back to Castlebay. I departed and headed back to my B & B.
The following day I spoke to the owner of the B & B and arranged to stay for an extra day. The weather was still overcast, so I decided to wait until the afternoon to go out. After lunch, I heard a knock at the door. It was the owner. She explained that her daughter was due back on the plane from Glasgow, but that she had just rung to say that the plane had been cancelled due to bad weather. She elaborated by saying that there was also no ferry today and I would need to catch the new flight, which was tomorrow. I thanked her for letting me know and asked if I could stay another day. Luckily it was quiet in the B & B. I stayed in my room and continued watching TV. I did not have a guide book with me and the only information I had to hand was a leaflet from the Tourist Information Office.
In the early evening, I walked to the local hotel to ask for a table for my evening meal. The Bar person escorted me to a table where I enjoyed a succulent breaded haddock and chips, with quartered carrots and mange tout. I washed this down with a bottle of mineral water. At the far side of the bar was a Pool table. I had a quick game, paid for my meal and then headed back to the B & B.
On the day of my departure, I headed down to the harbour front to take some pictures. I then boarded the Postbus and set off for the Airport. I was the only passenger. I arrived at the Airport and checked in. I then checked out the small aircraft that would be my home for the next hour or so. Time moved on and it was time to board the aircraft. I showed my boarding pass and stepped onto the plane.
There were only 16 seats and once everyone was seated, the Air Hostess read out the safety instructions. The engines started up and the plane shot forward across the sand and took off swiftly. The plane climbed gradually until it was above the clouds.
I felt that I had not made the most of the trip to Barra and this spurred me on to make the most of the time I have on every island. It also gave me an incentive to return, which I have been able to do. I did not visit the Isle of Vatersay or travel north to see the rest of the Outer Hebrides. Again, this was an opportunity missed. I did not even visit Kisimul Castle as it was out of season. However, I feel that I had to go through this to be as prepared as I am now.
This is not to show that you should not visit out of season. It is to make sure that you make each moment that you are there count. You may never get the chance to go back.