Just had a weekend back at Barra and Vatersay, which was fantastic. (particular thanks to everyone at Buth Bharraigh for making me so welcome at the talk.) Following on from that, thought I'd write a tongue-in-cheek blog about travelling there.
How to get there?
If you take the ferry then it's five hours from Oban: initially sheltered as it threads the channel north of Mull, becoming livelier as it picks up Atlantic swells out past the Isle of Coll. Barra will be clear on the horizon, or a rumour daubed in cloud, or entirely lost in mist. You might see basking sharks, whales, pods of dolphins, seabirds surfing the ship's bows, or perhaps someone losing their Calmac breakfast through their fingers on the way to the toilet if it's stormy.
Prefer to fly? Yes? Fancy landing on a beach? You do? What about when the tide's coming in and the plane kicks up huge plumes of spray either side as it lands? Still fancy it? Yes? The scheduled flight to Barra is spectacularly scenic, but not always easy on the nerves. You'll fly up to Loch Lomond, towards the Firth of Lorne and then Mull, then out over the Atlantic. And in summer I guarantee you that a waving line of tourists will be there beside the terminal to cheer your arrival. Note to newcomers: that’s not a bus shelter, it’s a baggage reclaim. And do not get freaked out by the pilot's desolate humour. Or by the slightly leaking emergency exit you've been placed beside. Or by the lady in seat 12 who's counting her rosary beads. Or by the nerve-shredding bit when the pilot reduces throttle at cruising altitude somewhere over the ocean and pretends to fall asleep and you hear the wind whistle and moan around the fuselage rather than any reassuring twin-prop engine drone…
How many islands?
Loads. Barra and Vatersay, the two main islands, are joined together by a causeway. But there’s a host of (uninhabited) others: Berneray the most southerly; Mingulay, with its jaw-dropping cliffs and the ruins of a township; Pabbay, the priest’s island; then Sandray, Muldoniach, Fuiay, Flodday, Hellisay and Gigha, Fuday and Fiaray, plus countless smaller isles and stacks. Climbing Heaval, Barra’s highest hill, from Castlebay (the main town) affords view of nearly all of them, along with Eriskay and South Uist to the north; and on a clear evening with the sun going down in the west, St Kilda can be seen on the western horizon.
And there’s an amazing hidden lagoon between two of these islands. But I’m not going to tell where it is because I want it to myself.
What’s the weather like?
If someone asks, 'Have you heard there's a storm coming?' The correct response isn’t to talk about isobars: instead you should say, 'Yes, and I've bought extra milk / bread / whatever was left in the shops.' Hurricane force winds can be routine in winter, which means that the ferries will be cancelled and all the shops emptied of produce. The water in the toilet will become lively (tending towards a gentle bidet.) Small children in the outdoors will begin to levitate sideways, so keep them tethered at all times with lengths of string and stodgy home baking.
Of course the weather can be lovely too. It can turn fair for weeks on end in summer. The white beaches will become luminously white, the shoreside shallows the turquoise colour of tropical lagoons. And with the skylarks up, and the machair vivid with flowers, as a Scot it’s hard not to think: Oh but we’ll pay for this.
What are the people like?
Warm, funny, a mixture of incomers and oldstayers, predominantly Catholic (as are all the southernmost Western Isles - Vatersay, Barra, Eriskay, South Uist). Quite a few people have two or three jobs. Gossip is rife (the islanders call this island scrutiny 'the goldfish bowl') but there's a sense of community which is, as you would expect, incredibly strong.
Many of the Barraich (Barra folk) have nicknames. These might relate to jobs, physical appearance, or have a meaning long since forgotten - perhaps even given at school, or birth. This isn’t a major impediment to the occasional visitor or even recent émigré - unless you decide to take part in a pub quiz, like we did, and finds that there’s a nickname round. In which case you will need to pressgang a wise member of said Barraich onto your team. Or lose badly.
Island humour can be surreal, which suited me well. Typical example overheard during lunchtime serving at a pub in Castlebay:
Island man 1: (thoughtful, looking out of the pub window.) See how the bay we live in is called Castlebay?
Island man 2: Hm.
Island man 1: See how it's got a castle in it?
Island man 2: Hm.
Island man 1: Wonder what they called it before the castle was built?
(Pause; me expecting an ancient and mellifluous Gaelic phrase-name)
Island man 2: Bay?
Any wildlife of note?
There are many birds, and several of them will cause you no trouble. But if you visit from April onwards then there is one bird to avoid: the corncrake. The Gaelic word for corncrake is trèan-ri-trèan, which roughly translates as: Dear God make it Shut Up. The male's call has been likened (by me) to a chair being scraped across a patio over and over by someone intent on destroying your mind with sound alone.
In addition, his favourite time to call is four am, which closely corresponds with your body clock's maximal desire to wring his neck. They are a protected species, unfortunately.
Why should I go there?
Beaches, culture, scenery, fantastic people, fresh seafood, pubs, kayaking, windsurfing, wildlife, and great curries just about sums it up for me. Mainly because there's nowhere else like it.
My novel The Last of us was published by The Borough Press in April 2016.