On wind and wings, bovines and beaches. A look back on Barra and time spent in the Outer Hebrides

The opening, ideally fit for a child, dwarf or hobbit to squeeze through, revealed a confusing-to-me instrument panel below a narrow windshield. I knew there was a pilot even though I saw only an arm dressed in a short-sleeved, crisp white shirt. She pushed forward on the throttle. The engine came alive filling the snug cabin with a loud rumble. With a gentle jolt the plane moved along the bumpy runway. Most of the passengers peered through the small windows as the plane bounced, rushed over a gritty surface, then lifted off into a vivid blue sky layered with streaks of pale clouds.

Below us lay Traigh Mhor, Barra’s big beach. As the plane turned and headed towards Glasgow, I caught my final glimpses of Barra– the tiny airport backed by wind-swept dunes; turquoise waves washing on cream-colored beaches; Kisimul Castle in Castlebay. I was like a magpie, happily chattering in friend Dave’s ear, excited by having just taken off in one of the smallest planes I’ve ever travelled in, a Loganair Twin Otter. And not only that, but from a wet, rippling sand location –Barra Beach, the only airstrip in existence where the tide washes the make-shift runway in between aircraft arriving from and departing for the Scottish mainland.

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The day before we’d taken a leisurely stroll along a portion of the beach. There we met and chatted with a group of oyster farmers.

Earlier that day we hiked up boggy grass, climbed over one more fence, up one last steep hill and navigated our way through an early morning drizzle. In the fog, the blurred ruins of a house appeared, a ghost from the past and reminder of darker times when the Highland Clearances forced the poor from the land. Moving downhill, the cliffs along Traigh Bhatersaig (Vatersay Beach) were shadowy outlines in the mist.

An unexpected sight greeted us at the beach.

Right away I knew they were locals. They had to be; it was too chilly for tourists.

A few hefty, chubby chunks of flesh lounged on the sand, relaxing by the water. Others rose and stared at us.

By their stance I knew they were saying What are you doing here?

They weren’t shy.

We’d stumbled on a nudist colony! Bathing suits optional.

I hadn’t expected this in the Outer Hebrides.

Whoever heard of cows sunbathing, actually, mist-bathing, on a beach.

Bagh a Deas, or Cow Beach, is a small cove or Vatersay. If you don’t mind sharing the beach with a bovine bunch and a few plops of fertilizer-in-the-making, it offers a peaceful retreat for any wanderer.

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I’m from a village in Germany, cows were a part of the scenery. My favorite cows are brown or tan and roam the hills and valleys of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. In second place are those wooly-coated, broad-nosed beasties with the shaggy bangs that the Scots and I like to call Hamish, Scotland’s Highland cattle. They’re built to handle harsh conditions and don’t mind looking like they just went through a carwash.

Looking bedraggled comes with the territory in the Outer Hebrides. Cows, sheep, dogs, nature and people – all are at the mercy of the ever-present wind and frequent wet weather. Nevertheless, life thrives there.

The islands are remote and take some effort to reach. They give rest to travelers, be they animal or human. People who make their home there are determined, independent yet community-minded; they seem a proud and hardy bunch.

At the airport, while waiting to board, I met and chatted with the pilot’s mother. A petite, slender, fit woman who appeared to be in her 60s, I first saw her striding past Kisimul restaurant in Castlebay. She walked briskly, shiny silver hair blowing in the breeze, a cheery smile etched in a weathered, lined face, evidence of life lived buffeted by wind. I told her that she reminded me of my friend Debbie; she could be a slightly older version of her. She told me her daughter’s desire to fly began when, as a child she watched planes land and depart from Barra.

As our pilot steered us towards Glasgow the plane settled into its steady rhythm. I looked forward to more time in Scotland. There was Glasgow to explore, a Steam train ride through the highlands and an evening of bagpipes to hear at the Royal Edinburgh Tattoo. Yet, when I thought of the past week spent in the Outer Hebrides, it felt that our walking tour in the Western Isles had flown by.

What was it that made this trip so outstanding for me? I wondered. What’s so special about isolated places?

Even with limited resources and a lack of modern conveniences in much of the islands, it seems to me that the Outer Hebrides are infused with a spirit of abundance. Nature –Golden eagles, gannets, puffins, oyster catchers; seals, dolphins, otters, whales; various heathers, bluebells, poppies and other wildflowers, all can be found here. The waters are clear and layered in shades of blue; there are wide open spaces — hills, coastal grasslands, serene and unspoiled beaches and long, winding and nearly-deserted roads to explore, walk and bike. There are places—brochs, blackhouses, standing stones –where the visitor can touch the past while enjoying the present. The air is fresh. You can think in peace. And locals are welcoming. Well, most are, unless you happen to look like you want to invade their beach territory.

Small islands in the Atlantic are prone to being wet and windy. To be honest, I wouldn’t have minded more dry and sunny days; often we were walking in the rain. We’d had a few challenges – hiking along cliffs, a walk in gale-like storm. But even if the Outer Hebrides don’t deliver most people’s idea of the perfect vacation spot, they made it to my top-5 list. Saying Good-Bye, I left the islands energized and inspired.

The group
Members of our Hidden Hebrides Walking Tour (Photo courtesy of Bob Rayner)

One day, I hope to make my way back, to the islands in the wild North Atlantic.

Next time, maybe, I’ll go even farther.

The Orkneys and Shetlands are calling.

“One is apt to overestimate beauty when it is rare”
Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

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