Isle of Barra, Outer Hebrides

At the beginning of May 2017 I returned to the Outer Hebrides to complete my Paul Strand project (see my Tir a' Mhurain blog on this site), and ticked off an entry on my personal bucket list by taking the LoganAir Twin Otter service from Glasgow which lands at low tide on Traigh Mhor beach in the north of the island.

 De Havilland Twin Otter ready to take off from Traigh Mhor, Barra (iPhone)

De Havilland Twin Otter ready to take off from Traigh Mhor, Barra (iPhone)

This is allegedly the only scheduled air service in the world whose timetable is governed by the tides, and unsurprisingly the air strip regularly wins 'Most Beautiful Airport in the World' competitions.

My flight took place in faultless weather, with spectacular views over the western isles and the Knoydart Peninsula from the 18-seat high-wing monoplane. Despite dire warnings on the LoganAir website about restrictions on hand and hold baggage weight and size (which resulted in me wearing my storm waterproof with pockets stuffed with lenses and filters!) nobody seemed to take a blind bit of notice what we were carrying. This may have been because there were only 11 passengers, and I suppose they might have been tougher if the plane had been full.

The turn over Barra's northern peninsula and the approach heading east over the sea and dunes behind Traigh Eais was thrilling, but the landing itself was gossamer smooth (and frankly a bit of an anticlimax!).

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The airport is charming, with miniature Checkin Desk and Baggage Reclaim. A little motorised golf cart shuttles baggage and equipment around, and is used to reach the wind socks, which not only indicate wind direction, but also warn locals to keep off the beach at flight times. I was told this is widely ignored, both by dog walkers and those in search of cockles in the sand.

Checkin and the waiting area share the same space as the famous Barra Airport Cafe. As with many organisations in the western isles, this performs multiple functions, including serving excellent freshly-cooked food around the middle of the day, and handling administration for Barra Car Hire.

I had booked my car by telephone, and the whole process seemed very casual in comparison with the official rituals demanded by the likes of Hertz and Avis in the rest of the world: no DVLA code needed, and I had no written confirmation whatsoever! Accordingly I felt uncertain what to expect (and I'd noted the numbers of the local taxi firms just in case), but I needn't have worried - the handwritten booking schedule in the file box behind the counter carried my details, and I duly collected a nearly new Nissan Note in excellent condition (I'm very happy to recommend Barra Car Hire - 01871 890313 - who are based in Northbay and don't have a website).

I checked in to the nearby Heathbank Hotel and then headed off round the island's single loop road to stretch my legs, enjoy the glorious weather and photograph the landscape as the sun dipped and the wind dropped, leaving the sea lochs like mirrors.

I thoroughly recommend the Heathbank - it has been recently renovated and is extremely comfortable. The food at breakfast and supper is very good and they have a short wine list and a selection of local bottled ales plus real draft Guinness ('real' in the sense of being the softer, stronger and superior Irish variety): http://www.barrahotel.co.uk/

Compared with the Uists and Benbecula, Barra seems more prosperous, although there are some derelict fishing boats. The abandoned crofts are fewer, and generally their stones have been stabilised.

The next day I headed north to the Eolaigearraidh peninsula, where there is a picturesque jetty and the fine sands of Traigh Sgurabhal with shorebirds, and characteristic hebridean colours for which muted processing and some added 'grain' seemed appropriate. 

For the remainder of this day I drove around to the island's capital, Castlebay, and onwards to Vatersay, then carried on to visit the graveyard at Cille Bharra, and then to photograph sundown around the rocks and sands of Traigh Mhor near the airport. This will be the subject of my next post.

More from Barra

May Bumps 2017