The past few days have been one of those once-in-a-lifetime learning experiences and an opportunity to meet and really get to know some of the finest people in Scotland – or really anywhere for that matter. It all started with a conversation with my friend Barb in June before I left Portland. She thought we could meet up in a few months when she was in Scotland visiting friends. After exchanging messages with her friend Mary (with whom she visited last year in Stornoway), it was settled that I would fly into Barra (an island at the southernmost of the Outer Hebrides) on 3 October. I later found out that I would be landing on a beach, the only airport in the word where scheduled flight us a beach as the runway. And that is the extent of my planning for this excursion to the Outer Hebrides, the rest of the plans were in the hands of fate. (And Mary too.)
On Monday (3 October) I made my way from Edinburgh to Glasgow via train, where the plane was scheduled to take a small group of people over to the Barra Airport that morning at 11:05. After confirming with Barb that the flight was still on to land in Barra as scheduled, I boarded the plan and in a few minutes we were in the air.
(The red pointer below shows the Isle of Barra. About a 45 minute plan ride from Glasgow.)
The trip over in the small, 28 seat plane was smooth for the most part. When the plane is lighter, like this one, you can generally feel more turbulence. Our approach to the place we were to land was uneventful, though I thought I saw the beach where we were to land, but was relieved when I saw a much larger beach ahead. From what I understood later, several people in vehicles were sent out to the landing area to chase away stray birds that could interfere with the plane’s landing.
After our flawless landing, I stepped out of the plane and was met with a gust of wind. And the wind kept blowing strongly from the time I left the plane until I entered the terminal building. I’d soon learn the relevance of the strong winds and its impact to our plans.
It was here I met up with Barb and was introduced to Mary and her mother Katie. Barb mentioned then that neither Mary or her mother drove. So who was going to drive us? Barb, my American friend, was going to be driving the car – the one with the steering wheel on the right and driving on the left side of the road – and on island roads that are mostly one-lane roads with turn outs sporadically placed. With my bag stowed in the boot (trunk), and we assumed our places in the car (Mary and Katie in the back, me in the left-front passenger position and Barb at the wheel) – off we went.
(Above: Mary on left and Barb, behind the wheel)
Somewhere during the drive from the airport, I learned that we may have to stay the night on the island, due to the wind and waves causing cancellation of the scheduled ferry crossing later that afternoon. While we learned our fate, we were also interested in finding a place to eat. The remainder of the afternoon was composed of some sightseeing, finding a place to eat, dodging sheep in the road, visiting churches, and admiring the beautiful landscape and waves crashing on the shore. Mary was making do with spotty internet and phone service to determine if the ferry was going to run and if there was a place at the hotel for us to stay that night should the ferry cancel.
To occupy our time, we visited a local toffee factory’s gift shop and think we eventually found something to eat at the airport. I kept hearing about the scones there at the airport, but they were out when we returned to their cafe.
We had hoped to get a ride out to Kisimul Castle out in the bay, but regular operations had stopped at the end of September. Various attempts at getting someone to take us over were not successful, so we made do with looking at it and taking pictures from the shore. We also made it over to Vatersay, via a causeway, and drove around the island, visited a memorial and took in the sights.
Kisimul Castle (below)
(Side Note: Mary lives and works in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, also in the Outer Hebrides, and her mother lives in the family home, where Mary was raised with her 5 brothers and sisters, on the island of Bebecula. Katie has always lived on the island.)
We made out way back to the hotel where we checked in and then met up in the solarium on the ground floor of the small hotel. In the solarium we had our afternoon drinks and looked out at the winds buffeting the waters while confirming that the ferry was going to be out of the question. This free time did give us an opportunity to get better acquainted and to learn more about life on the Outer Hebrides (or Western Isles).
Later, we all gathered in the hotel’s dining room and had more conversation and some really fine food. The three of them (Barb, Mary, and Katie) had stayed at the hotel the previous evening. I was glad to be inside where it was warm and out of the wind.
The next morning, we met for breakfast, still not knowing if we could get off the island. Barb and I were wondering if this would be a Scottish version of Gilligan’s Island, and we were the castaways who couldn’t get off of the island.
After breakfast we learned that the ferry was expected to leave later in the morning, though the first two crossings were cancelled. We headed over to the ferry and were able to drive on-board. And we were off to the next island, which I believe was Eriskay and South Uist.
We kept making our way north until we got to where Katie lived, on the Isle of Benbecula. We first went to a salmon smoking firm where we met two of Mary’s brothers and sampled some of their product – then headed to Katie’s home. When we got to Katie’s, she was ready to serve us a meal and within 15 minutes we had a table full of all sorts of food and treats. Katie made sure we had enough and we certainly didn’t go away hungry. I even learned how Katie makes her scones – so will give it a try probably in the next week or so.
Below, pictures of Mary, Katie, and Barbara.
This experience is exactly what I was hoping to have from my travels. To really get to know people who live in various parts of the UK and Europe, their history, language (Mary and Katie both spoke Gaelic), and families. Mary and Katie were very kind to share their history and knowledge of the islands.
After saying our good-byes to Katie, we headed off towards Stornoway, our next destination. We arrived in Stornoway in the early evening and were greeted with a sunset (above) that filled the sky. Both Barb and I took some amazing pictures. We decided to fix dinner at Mary’s home, so we picked up some items at the store and made just a simple dinner, still being a little full from our feasting at Katie’s earlier in the day. Barb went to bed early and I stayed up and had a chance to talk more with Mary. Before long we too were ready for a good night’s sleep.
In the morning, we were greeted by sunshine and calm winds. Our first destination was to visit the Callanish Stones (Standing Stones) some of which are located outside outside of Stornoway. We located four sets of the stones, with the first set being the most extensive.
On the way to the forth set of stones, Barb and I were able to see and smell some peat after it was cut. Mary and Katie spoke about how their family, like many of the island families, cut and stored peat to heat their homes. Mary also picked some heather that was still in bloom.
Layers of Peat
Sprig of Heather
After lunch we headed further north on the Isle of Lewis to visit Dun Carloway, a broch (a drystone hollow-walled roundhouse structure from the Iron Age) that is probably the best preserved and complete of the other broch found around Scotland. We could also see the double-walled buildings that evolved from this earlier form of housing and protective fortress.
Next stop was Blackhouse Village where you can see early Scottish homes with double walls and thatched roofs. From this village, we were able to see the Atlantic Ocean. The weather was holding up and was sunny and very pleasant – with little or no wind.
Our final planned stop was Dun Eistean, a site at the north end, the very north end, of Lewis, sometimes called the Butt. (Hence the name of today’s post: “From Barra to Butt”.) This small island is only accessible by a small bridge and formally a stronghold of Clan Morrison (Barb’s ancestors). The ruins of two large buildings and groups of inter-connecting structures can still be seen. (Mary didn’t like crossing the bridge.) Given the perfect weather, we took many pictures of the sea, nearby lighthouse, and Dun Eistean.
(Mary, was not a fan of the bridge and needed some support from Barb to cross to Dun Eistean.)
When we got back into Stornoway, we drove by Lews Castle, a Victorian era castle, used as a country house for Sir James Matheson. A beautiful building that is very well maintained to this day. Nearby we took some pictures of the Stornoway harbor and calm waters as the sun was setting.
Later, we picked up Mary’s daughter Katy who was visiting. We had a great time getting to know Katy at dinner. We didn’t leave the restaurant until 11:00 – good that I was able to get a 30 minute nap earlier.
Today, we said our good-byes to Mary and Katy and look forward to some future adventures. Barb was headed back to the States and I returned to Edinburgh, where I’ll be until 30 November. No plans for any additional side-trips, but you never know….