Sunday, 5 September 2010

Hebridean Holiday - Part 1 - Isle of Barra

We wanted a "get away from it all" holiday this year and that was certainly what we got in this delightful cottage on the Isle of Barra. We stayed here for almost a week and what a delight - no mobile phone signal, no television, no radio. I suppose it would be difficult to live this way, but for a holiday it was wonderful.

We arrived off the ferry from Oban about 8.30 on the Monday evening. In Oban it had been raining stair-rods most of the day and we were wondering whether it was wise to be heading for the Outer Hebrides, but by the time we arrived the clouds had dispersed, there was just a gentle breeze, the full moon was rising over the Minch and we could see the island of Rhum clearly from the cottage window.

South Bank Cottage is just a few miles from the "capital" Castlebay in the village of Earsary on the east coast of the island. It is a converted Whitehouse. A whitehouse is one step up from a blackhouse - still very thick walls, small, but with the addition of windows and chimneys. And unlike a blackhouse which is bare drystone walling, the walls are rendered and painted white.

Our first day was spent just meandering around the island getting a feel for the place. We went up to the north end and saw a plane coming in to land on the beach. Barra boasts the only beach airport in the world to offer daily scheduled services - they are just scheduled to coincide with low tide. It is quite something to see a plane landing on a beach where there are several people cockle gathering. This was one of the busiest beaches we came across - there were 6 people on it! Most were deserted even though the weather was fine and we are still in peak holiday season.

On the Wednesday morning we went into Castlebay and took the boat trip to Kisimul Castle - the medieval seat of the clan Macneil, set on a rock on the middle of the bay. The castle is now managed by Historic Scotland and is open to the public for the summer months. We were the first visitors that morning so had the place to ourselves.

What a delightful surprise on entering through the gate of the castle - inside this rather forbidding and defensive fortress everything was suddenly on a small domestic scale. There were houses built with their backs to the main castle wall arranged around a little courtyard, almost like a small village. Part of the castle had been made habitable again in the middle of last century and it was enough to give one a feel of what a comfortable home it could be now that we have all the luxuries that modern technology can provide. I can recommend it as a place to visit - and they have a well stocked shop that inlcudes hats, scarves and bags from our embroidery business - Anna Macneil.

The next day was a wonderful experience - a trip to Mingulay - more of that in the next post. Friday was spent doing a bit more pottering around. We headed down to Vattersay, the most southerly of the inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides, but joined to Barra by a causeway. We stopped en-route to visit the remains of a wheelhouse - an iron-age dwelling peculiar to the Outer Hebrides and the Shetland Isles. In this particular example there were remains of several buildings from different periods. The wheel house pictured here is so named because it is circular and has internal walls arranged much like the spokes of a wheel, creating little rooms which appear to have all had specific purposes.

Our time on Barra came to an end the next day. If we had been heading straight home it might have seemed quite a disappointment, but fortunately we had another few days holiday to go - we were simply heading across the Sound of Barra to the island of Eriskay and then on to South Uist to continue our Hebridean adventure.

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