Isle of Barra, Scotland, TNT magazine
There are not many airports in the world where a stray cow can disrupt the flight path of a scheduled plane landing. There are also not many airports that can be closed for the day, not because of a national strike, but because of an unexpected high tide, leaving the runway submerged by the sea. In fact, there’s only one. It’s the airport on the Isle of Barra, a tiny spot of Hebridean perfection, off the coast of northwest Scotland.
For here, the planes take off and land from Traigh Mhòr, a wide shallow bay at the north tip of the island, a glorious crescent of golden-blonde sand. Standing with luggage in my hand on a beautiful summer’s day, with turquoise, crystal-clear waters lapping the sand, it feels almost Caribbean. Somewhat surprisingly, considering the notorious weather that plagues Scotland a local tells me, the Western Isles and neighbouring Inner Hebrides are some of the sunniest places in all of Britain.
Located at the very tip of the Outer Hebrides archipelago, below its northern siblings Lewis, Harris and Uist, Barra is the last in this unruly chain of quiet, rural farming communities. Yet this remote corner of the UK is the perfect place for a cycling, kayaking or walking break, a weekend away from the drain of city life, or a great introduction to what Scotland does best: wild scenery, world famous hospitality, peaty whiskies and the odd wired-hair ginger cow. All the clichés are here.
I arrive in Castlebay, the island’s biggest town, population around 800, to be greeted by the island’s most famous sight. Floating in the middle of the bay on a rocky islet is Kisimul Castle, a granite-grey stone fortress that was once home to the Clan MacNeil. More famously, the medieval castle is rumoured, along with Lochranza Castle on the Isle of Arran, to be the inspiration for Tintin and Snowy’s Scottish adventure in Herge’s The Black Island. In good weather kayak tours are possible around the castle, but I opt for the more straightforward five-minute dinghy ride from the village’s pier to its briny steps, which tumble down into the sea.
Stocking up on a bag of sticky, chewy fudge from The Hebridean Toffee Factory – its onsite shop is one of only a handful in the village so it can’t be missed – I rent a bike for the afternoon to explore the island further and escape so-called ‘civilsation’. It’s not long before fields of fuzzy sheep and orange Highland cattle outnumber people and after a couple of kilometres I cross a causeway to the neighbouring island of Vatersay. Up a steep incline, the road curves to reveal a wind-blown islet, dotted with church ruins, romantic hideaway cottages and a blanket of wild, rolling sea that stretches all the way to the frontier of New Foundland in Canada.
Famed for its remote landscapes, Vatersay is really an extension of Barra and home to healthy populations of otters, seals and herons and a number of glorious strips of shingle and sand. So with the wind at my back and an empty, single-track road ahead of me I freewheel across the island, then linger for a while at a couple of empty beaches, dipping my toes into the icy Atlantic waters with not a soul in sight. Back on the bike, I find myself drawn to the southernmost tip of the island to Vatersay Bay, regarded as the most beautiful in the country. It does not disappoint. For a moment I stand at the westernmost point in Britain and feel like I am about to step off the edge of the world.
As is typical for a balmy Scottish summer, the clouds start to gather and the sky glooms over. Ever the optimist, I’m dressed in shorts and t-shirt so I hobble back onto my bike for the 40-minute trip back to Castlebay. The woolly clouds on the horizon mean it won’t be too long before it’s time to head indoors. But it’s a blessing in disguise, especially when the island’s famed hospitality consists of fresh-of-the-boat mussels, scallops and langoustines, peaty single malt whiskies, roaring fireplaces and any number of amber-hued Hebridean ales. I already know what my next conversation with a local will be. Mine’s a dram of your finest, please landlord.