Sunday, 22 April 2018

Barra (Part 1)

It isn't everyday that a Ringed Plover runs past you while sitting in an airport cafe. 

I had woken earlier than planned that morning - that has been known to happen when one suddenly realises they are laying in 2 inches of water. It appeared that the strong winds which had buffeted my tent most of the night - despite my carefully selected and pretty sheltered camping spot - had been strong enough to lift the edge of my fly sheet a few inches. Even that small opportunity was sufficient for the famous Scottish horizontal rain to blow right into my tent. With the exception of some higher ground by my head (luckily where my camera and other rain sensitive kit had spent the night) and the inside of my sleeping bag everything was drenched. To be honest, I was surprised I had slept as long as I did!

Deciding there was little to be gained from attempting a lay-in that morning I struck camp, packing everything the best I could in the still pouring rain and gusting winds, with the nagging thought in the back of my mind that with everything wringing wet there was no way my rucksack was going to meet the baggage weight allowance for my flight. On the way out I had only been 0.1 kg inside the limit!

I limped (Oh my aching knees - it had been a long time since I walked that far, with a pack that heavy!) the short distant across the sand dunes, just half a kilometre or so, to the nearest proper shelter - the airport. It was closed of course, at that time in the morning, but it gave me something to stand behind out of the worst of the rain and wind while I attempted to repack my sodden kit into a format that would be accepted on a plane! Luckily not long after I finished consolidating my pack the cafe owner arrived to start setting up, took pity on me and let me sit inside despite being two hours before opening time- thank you!

That I was this close to the airport was not by chance, this was my final morning on the island before flying home. I'd hoped for the weather of the previous day to hold and allow me to enjoy a morning mooching along the white sandy beaches, or exploring the small area of Barra north of the airfield, before my early afternoon flight. But it was not to be - shelter from the rain and rest for my achy legs won favour that day.

And thus I came to be sat by a rain lashed window, reading my damp-around-the-edges book* when a small but rapid movement in the corner of my eye alerted me to the plover's presence. I love these dumpy little birds but it didn't hang around for long, darting across the tarmac onto the runway. A strange place for a small wading bird you may think, the runway of a commercial airport.


Three days previously the small, propeller powered De Havilland Twin Otter aircraft I was aboard dropped out of thick cloud over the sea. We hadn't seen the ground since taking off from Glasgow almost an hour earlier. As the air cleared the cluster of islands at the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides came into sight below, a view I had been waiting 15 years to experience. As we overflew the tiny control tower at Barra airport and banked hard left to land into the wind I looked south across the island at the hills I had planned to cross that afternoon. They looked higher than I had anticipated.

Seconds later the fixed undercarriage was touching down on wet sand. Yes, sand - the only commercial flight in the world which lands on a beach, when the tide is out of course. It was this novel claim to fame that first brought Barra to the attention of my teenage self, with aspirations of a career as a commercial pilot. The novelty of landing on a beach, the aircraft which flew the route, the back-to-basic nature of the operation; no automated landing aids, just a wind sock, the pilots skill and the favour of the Scottish weather and tides all complied to make this the route I wanted to fly! When I accepted in my early twenties that a commercial pilots licence was financially out of reach I tucked away this novelty as a 'must-do-one-day' item; a bucket list entry.  And now, finally, here I was.

I was well into 'pinch myself, this can't be true' territory as I disembarked from the plane after a thoroughly enjoyable flight, and stepped over sea weed and shells into the 'terminal' - a.k.a. the cafe. Collecting my rucksack from the bus shelter which passes for a Baggage Reclaim I repacked all my kit into a single bag and headed south under dark grey skies. At the end of the beach (well, runway... whatever) I left the road and headed up to the summit of Beinn Eireabhal (201m above me) after stopping to watch the plane I arrived on departing with a fresh load of passengers.

My plan had been to go directly south, straight down the spine of the island. While the shortest route in some respects, it certainly would not be the quickest. It would be cross country all the way with plenty of ascending, and descending, before arriving at the highest point, Heabhal, a full 383m above my planned destination of Castlebay (Bagh a Chaisteil), the island's main town. 

And I needed to get to Castlebay before the shops shut. One item I had intentionally left out of my kit list up to this point was a gas cylinder for my camping stove (which of course you are not allowed to take on a plane). The internet had suggested that the only shop on the island likely to stock them was in the main town, and the prospect of having no hot food was not particularly appealing. It wasn't exactly warm after all, there had been snow on the hills around Glasgow that morning.

I wasn't feeling on top form that day (having made an overnight coach trip with hardly any sleep the night before might not have been helping in that regard). I'd also already walked 8 miles that morning from the bus station to the airport (stupid mistake, next time I'll just pay the bus fare!), there was a cold wind blowing and a steady rain getting gradually heavier which looked set to continue for the foreseeable future. I'll be honest - I was ready for the easy option that day.

The 'easy' option was the main road, the A888; a little longer than the cross country route but much flatter and easier terrain. It runs around Barra in a big circle and from where I joined it the distance was pretty much even either way to get to Castlebay. I settled on walking the western route; the wind was coming from the east and the potentially more sheltered route seemed like a good idea at the time. Despite being an 'A road' it is single track for probably 95% of its length (I walked pretty much the whole circle while I was there). Even that option still left me with 5 1/2 miles to walk before the shop closed - I made it with less than 10 minutes to spare!

Those miles from airport to Castlebay, regardless of the wind and the rain and the sullen grey skies revealed a beautiful island which seemed as detached from the hectic pace of modern life as it was from the mainland itself. I had always admired the Twin Otter as an aircraft, but I had no idea it was also a teleportation device. I had left the crowded, industrialised, dirty, noisy madness of Glasgow and been transported to another world. A world of scattered crofts and white sandy beaches, of turquoise water and rocky moorlands, of moss and heather, sand dunes and wading birds, of lobster pots and fishing boats, where all the locals wave as they drive past - my kind of world!

That first afternoon I wasn't really able to enjoy it to its fullest - my ankles were hurting, my stomach was tying itself in knots and my primary focus was getting to Castlebay in time - but boy could I see the potential. The beaches I walked past called to me, the hills and moors beckoned me 'higher up, and further in' and the birds were a constant reminder that this was no ordinary afternoon stroll - Stonechats and Redwings, Hooded Crows, a Peregrine; nearer the sea Oyster Catchers and Redshank, Cormorants and Shelduck; Meadow Pipits everywhere.

Even when my goal was achieved (by the skin of my teeth), and with gas bottle and extra food rations in tow I started walking again, the then even heavier rain and wind drove me to my first planned camp site without much pause to take in the stunning landscape. One final cruel obstacle made me work for my peace and rest. From the maps I had poured over while planning my trip I thought I could access the isolated little cove I had ear marked as overnight stop number 1 by following the shoreline. It was not so.

A quarry carved out of the hillside met the water at the point I had hoped to make my way around - the stone walls were sheer and wet, and a fence pinned into the rock itself barred the way beyond it. Even fresh, dry and pack-less it would have been an interesting clamber round - maybe at low tide, I'd have given it a shot. But I was none of those things, and the tide was almost fully in - I would have to back track and go up and over to reach 'my' valley.

Back track I did, and up I went passing a dried up starfish some 40 m above the tideline. Doubtless dropped by some shoreline scavenger it looked as out of place on that heather hillside as I had felt that morning, sporting walking boots and a large rucksack, in the city. I was not destined for city life - give me the lonely hills any day, even in the rain.

Having scrambled back down to my planned camp ground I hurriedly pitched my tent on the flattest spot I could find. Too hurriedly as it turned out - it wasn't flat enough. Unceremoniously shoving all my gear inside I followed it in and out of the rain; very shortly there after I crawled in to my sleeping bag, eager to be stationary, dry and horizontal. I stayed there. The hot food could wait until morning. The rain continued to fall, lulling me off into fitful sleep. I love the sound of rain on canvas, it feels like cheating the weather, but my stomach was still doing abdominal gymnastics.

And so my long awaited trip to Barra was book ended by rain, the last morning mirroring the first afternoon. Was this a bad thing? I won't lie, at the time I'd have happily settled for a bit of sunshine, or even just a dramatic, stormy sunset to finish the day off with a bit of style. But looking back on it now, a few weeks later, would I have appreciated the weather I was gifted over the next few days as much if it hadn't started out miserable? I don't think I would. The best was very definitely yet to come, but that will have to wait for the next instalment.


* My book was 'The Song of the Rolling Earth' by John Lister-Kaye, founder of the Aigas Field Centre in the Scottish Highlands. A thoroughly appropriate read for the circumstances about the natural and cultural history of Scotland, albeit with justifiably greater focus on the highlands than islands. It's a fascinating read and I'll be writing up a 'Best Books' post when I get around to finishing the last few chapters.