It’s the outer in Outer Hebrides that makes the islands sound harder to get to than they actually are. But you can easily visit them just for a weekend.
There’s no need to head straight to the beach when you arrive on Barra. If you come by air you land right on it. The glorious Cockle Strand is formed of just that – crushed cockle shells – and is the only beach in the world which doubles up as a commercial airport. Arrivals and departures are scheduled to fit in with the tides.
Taking off from Glasgow is an experience too, as I found out. The cabin was so small it looks like a coffin with wings. Six footers were bent almost double, hands on their knees as they made their way to their seats. A bearded chap gave a pre-flight briefing. It’s all so informal and the Twin Otter aircraft so old that I half-expected him to pass around Biggles hats. He then twisted round in one of the front seats and stood up – as far as he could – took a step back and sat in their cockpit. Yes: he was the pilot.
The informality continued on my transfer by school bus from the airport terminal (a grand term for what is a small building with a dish on top) to Castlebay, Barra’s only real village. I was starting to feel like one of the locals before I even got there.
Cockle Strand, with its possee of photographers, was busy compared to the other beaches I visited. The following morning I cycled over a causeway from Barra to Vatersay and had great views down over a deserted tombolo. This isn’t an unpopular fair stall but the name for a thin strip of land between two beaches scalloped by the sea on either side. My only company was a couple who had parked up their campervan (you comes across lots of them in the Hebrides) and were having tea while their five Yorkshire terriers scurried around in a little pen beside their tent. Vatersay is one of Prince Charles’ favourite islands and the royal yacht used to anchor at another of its beaches. If the Outer Hebrides was a few hundred miles further south its white sands would be packed – and somewhat warmer. They are bracing and invigorating with an elemental beauty if not somewhere that you’d want to spend an afternoon building sandcastles with the kids.
Idyllic as it is now, Vatersay has some grim associations. A memorial commemorates the 350 victims of a shipwreck here in 1853 and you can still see the rusting remains of a plane that crashed into a hillside during the Second World War.
Cycling and the coast were themes of the following day too. Described as the Outer Hebrides in miniature, Barra has just one main road which runs for 12 miles around its perimeter and includes only one big hill. You’ll neither get lost nor too tired and there are lots of intriguing features along the way which provide good excuses to stop.
One of them is the ruins of the Bolnabodach village set in a secluded location beside a loch. There are many villages like this in the Hebrides, many of them settled following the Clearances and deserted in relatively recent times – in the case of Bolnabodach, the 1920s. One of the blackhouses, called the plague house, still has its windows stoned up following an outbreak of typhoid in 1899 which wiped out an entire family with the exception of a young girl and her father who was out at sea when disease struck.
With time to spare I walked up Heavel, the highest point on the island. Following an exceptionally dry May, the moss on its flanks was bone dry which made the task easier but it was still a stiff climb up to the statue of the Madonna and child and I was panting heavily by the time I reach the the summit. The view made it well worth it. I could see where I’d been as well as the great freewheel all the way to where I was about to return.
Back in Castlebay I took the boat for the short hop over to the 15th century Kisimul Castle, magically situated in the centre of the bay on its own little island. There’s not a great deal to see inside but getting there is fun. I was among the last group out of the castle. “Hadn’t you better lock up?” I asked the warden, seeing that she had left the huge iron gate at the top of the jetty open. “Oh no,” she said. “We don’t need to do that here. I can keep an eye from my house and soon get over if there’s an invasion.”
Later that evening I watched the arrival of the ferry from Oban having been woken by the clanking of the outgoing sailing first thing that morning. The crossing takes five hours and I’m sure that the passengers would maintain, as many do, that it’s best to arrive at an island by sea. But I was already looking forward to the novelty and speed of the return leg of my fabulous flying visit.
Bike hire: Barra Cycle Hire (01871 810284).
Recommended accommodation: Tigh Na Mara guest house (01871 810304 or http://www.tighnamara-barra.co.uk).