A One Day Walking Tour of Barra (June 2019)

An early(ish) start to get as much done as possible in what’s become a slightly curtailed trip due to a frisky northerly wind meaning the ferry from Mallaig was cancelled, forcing me to re-route the next day via Oban.  A rough crossing and a late arrival left little time to hop north from Barra, across Eriskay to South Uist, and a short walk on a very windy westerly facing beach, the sands moving constantly underfoot, creating patterns as the surface moved with the gusts.

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I wanted to see all of the islands, which made for a long day with a lot of driving, in order to get right up to Berneray.  We explored lots of tangental roads, but many of these ended up at a property instead of an isolated beach and it seemed as though the main roads were just as enchanting in terms of landscape.  I was rewarded by seeing a couple of daytime owls – maybe not unusual here? – and managed to put my leg in a bit peaty hole whilst stalking one (to no avail) with my long lens.

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Back to Vatersay, the first port of call on what I’d determined would be a long day of walking. Lots of cows hanging around at the start (bother!) but we manage to get across a small field they are neglecting for the time being and make our way over the dunes to the first of todays pristine beaches.  White sands, crystal clear waters, blues and greens of the richest and most varied hues I’ve ever seen.  I spent a while thinking of adjectives and decided there are no words that can do them justice.  And maybe we don’t need metaphors and language to describe these marvels. They just are.  No photo, no guidebook I’ve ever seen has conveyed the full splendour of these remote paradises.  Beguiling, dazzling and oh so inviting.

With thoughts dragged back down to somewhere a little more terrestrial and the walk proceeds along the beach and up the hill, although I soon realise I’ve gone off piste when I get cut off by a lethal overhanging fence/cliff combo, that neither the dog or I are up for trying.  Correcting our course we head inland slightly and over a wonderful rock strewn hill, passing an interesting dun en route.  I can see cows far off and wonder if I’ll end up backtracking to avoid them – I’m not scared of them per-se (I milked one by hand for a year or two in a past life) – but I really don’t like mingling amongst them on open ground when I’ve got the Zed dog in tow (which is always).

We tiptoe towards them, a few boulders on our left giving a sense of security if the cows were to get overexcited and are arrested momentarily by one of the most silvery lights I’ve ever seen over the sea, we stop and grab a few pics.  Moving on we approach the second piece of beachy wonderfulness of the day, cows along the liminal land to the left and us sticking closely to the waters edge, looking across to the nearby islands before striking once again up over grass clad lowland hills.  It’s not long before we come across a curious little enclosure containing tractors, fascinating I’m sure but I’ve never been a big motor fan so we don’t linger for long.

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We follow some oyster catchers for a while but they’re not best pleased giving the racket they’re making so we decide to leave them in peace as the view opens up to the south and we can see the remains of an abandoned village.  If Ted was here he’d have been down there like a shot, but there’s another herd of moo moos so we decide to give it a swerve and grab a couple of shots from the saddle of the hill with the longer lens.

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Making our way back along the path where the hill meets the sea we meet an enthusiastic American lady, she’s walking solo and is in for a brilliant day.  There’s one more beach to go – this one even has a few people on it – and we pause a while to watch a yacht gliding slowly out of the bay into the open water.

The day is yet young and it’s time to head to the north of the island, I have to see a plane land on the beach at the worlds only full time tidal airport – my dad will never forgive me if I don’t.  There are three landing today which is unusual, possibly due to industrial action at Glasgow airport the day before.  I still manage to mess my timings up a bit though and decide to incorporate my plane spotting fun into a walk taking in the headland and the beach opposite.

The car park is by a cemetery that contains the remains of a very old church where someone very important is buried but it’s no dogs so we don’t find out any more.  There’s quite a lot of tarmac road to contend with on the way out, worth it though for the splendid views across the sound.  Passing a small clachann I wonder what it would be like to live here, whilst it would undoubtably be beautiful in winter and I’d love to come back in the darker half of the year, I ponder how they keep their spirits up on the shortest days.

Probably a good time to mention how surprised I was by just how Catholic these islands are – I’d heard it mentioned but not given it much thought, icons, Madonnas and shrines almost as prevalent here as in Italy, a stark contrast to the more northern Hebridean Isles.

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We eventually turn left and pop over over a short hill – the “well signposted” path is obviously for the more eagle-eyed among us but the posts are there if you look hard enough.  For a way at least.  It’s around now that I note the incoming squall – visible out over the sea for a good thirty minutes before it arrives.  The fact that I can see through it is comforting and it duly passes over, adding significantly to our feral appearance.

We have to freestyle down the other side as we’ve lost the path altogether but it’s easy going and we can see our destination – the vast Traigh Eais beach.   The sand is so beautiful it would be rude not to just rip the shoes and socks off and walk along barefoot, a bit of grounding never did anyone any harm.  The sand alternates between being surprisingly unyielding and a squidgy softness that’s almost worrying at times, I believe there are a few areas of sinking sand around the islands.  It’s a delicious experience though and we walk the length, saying hello to the nesting seabirds at the southern curve, something they don’t seem to appreciate at all so we take the hint and take our leave of them.

Now for the excitement! Back across the dunes to the tiny, tiny airport. A bit of a wait ahead as  everything is running late, this gap is filled by chatting to Dirk from Switzerland who takes an interest in my camera.  We end up swapping stories about an amazing restaurant under the Matterhorn (Italian side if you’re interested).  After what seems an age the plane arrives, and Dirk and his wife head off to board it, Glasgow bound.  The plane starts up and shifts along 50 metres, there’s another one coming in – it’s all go here today, at least 30 more people visiting the small island, some of them for only a few hours, or even just to experience the unusual landing.

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We head back up the road, seeing both planes safely into the air.  It’s not long before we’re following a flock of starlings along the fence line, it had happened on the earlier walk too and was fascinating to watch and fine company for a stretch, taking my mind off the hard impact of the tarmac after the soft sand of earlier.

There’s still time for one more adventure, even taking into account an accidental visit to the gin distillery, which of course led to the purchase of some gin, for medicinal purposes – it promised to convey all the benefits of atlantic seaweed, practically a health drink.  I persuade myself that I’m buying it for Ted, but given it’s another three weeks until we’re reunited I know I’m telling myself fibs (I do manage to save enough for a couple of G&Ts each with him and his bro though).  Fortified by a wee – road friendly – dram, taken neat to appreciate the flavour, Zed and I head up around Castlebay to start our final walk of the day.  Gin man has given me the low down on the best way to tackle the hill, Barra’s highest summit and I decide to take his advice, particularly now none of my digital OS maps now work due to a recent phone software ‘upgrade’.

It’s a short but stiff climb, and I think I’ve taken a bit of a detour by mistake but we make the top fairly quickly.  Although small in stature compared to many hills, it’s a tiny bit airy on top for someone who’s a complete scaredy cat when it comes to heights and I had to give myself a bit of a kick up the bum to get to the trig point.  I take a few pics and dither about whether or not to strike across to another nearby summit which seems achievable without too much effort.  Less than 10 minutes in though and the crazy collie manages to fall into a tiny lochan, up to his neck, giving both of us a bit of a shock.  I have to pull him out – presumably the bottom is too soft for him to get traction for the leap and I decide that was an omen to turn back.  After about five minutes I stop to take a shot that I know Ted would take and realise I’ve managed to lose my phone, so I end up spending another twenty minutes retracing our ramblings until I manage to track it down.

Definitely time to get off the hill now, and we make our way back along a slightly lower trajectory than on the way up.  We’re suddenly startled by a huge bird (probably itself equally as startled) which we’ve knocked up from the nearby grass.  I’m convinced it’s an eagle – please don’t spoil my party if you know otherwise from the picture – and spend a while photographing it as it circles up above us, soaring high on the thermals.  What a treat.

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The ferry is heading into Castlebay so we linger to take a few more shots, then pretty tired, and regretting the decision to walk in trainers with no socks and the subsequent holes worn in my feet we make for the pub.  Tricky parking, and an illegal drive the wrong way up a one way street but we manage it in the end and I’m rewarded with a delicious smoked mackerel salad with chips, hard earned after a long days exploring.

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We head back to the hotel, the ferry leaves at the crack of dawn and we’re ready for a kip.

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