Outer Hebrides Adventure – Live Blog
Greetings folks! This blog is coming to you live from the Outer Hebrides and will follow my travels on my first trip straying from the Scottish mainland. I’ll be spending most of my time on the Isle of Barra with Clan Macneil, where I’ve been invited to attend a special ceremony at Kisimul Castle. I’m expecting internet connection and speed to be rather ropey so I’ll try and update once a day – Here we go!
31st October – Edinburgh to Barra via Oban
This entry comes to you from terribly, terribly rough seas. I thought I had seasoned sea legs, but maybe I’ll have to work on them a bit more considering I’ve spent the last hour unable to do anything but lie horizontally with my guts somewhere near the roof of the cabin. It’s a little bit like those pirate ship rides at theme parks that swing back and forth, but instead of lasting five minutes it’s going to last another three hours.
The first leg of my journey began this morning at Edinburgh Waverley Station, where I caught the train to Glasgow then changed to the West Highland Line to take me to Oban. I was lost in the world of my newspaper when I looked out the window and suddenly realised we were in the Highlands. It’s incredible how the scenery changes so quickly in Scotland. One minute we’re in quaint countryside and the next we’re surrounded by the beautiful reds and browns of the Highlands. The train hurtled along the edge of Loch Long, then Loch Lomond providing a magnificent view of the steep, steep side of Ben Loman. The train was delayed for about 10 minutes in Ardlui which was a bit stressful considering I would already only have a 15 minute stopover in Oban before the ferry embarked for Barra. However the good people at ScotRail assured me the ferry would wait for me (if we weren’t too late…!). Arriving in Oban, the sun came out and was bouncing off the water to greet me. But I had no time to loose – after a mad dash I made it to my ferry with about five seconds to spare before we embarked. Ironically the ship I’m on is called the MV Clansman. And was a bit confused when I was greeted on board by a man dressed as a witch before remembering today is Halloween.
I would say there’s only about 10 passengers max on board. And it’s a big ferry so it feels a wee bit lonely. I guess one of the reasons it’s so empty is the terrible weather that is battering the UK at the moment. Or maybe people just prefer to fly these days. I spent the first hour of the trip with my eyes glued to the window as we sailed through the Sound of Mull. I ventured outside before the sun set and got absolutely pelted with hail while I took the picture below. You’re welcome, dear readers.
The sun went down about the same time we hit the Minch, and that’s when the weather got really rough. I’m pleased to report I haven’t needed to use the sick bags that are planted around the ferry in excess. It’s actually kind of fun going up and down on the high seas – as long as I keep lying down hopefully I’ll be fine!
31st October – Arrival in Barra
After four hours of train travel and five ropey hours of ferrying, I’ve finally made it to Barra! However it’s very dark and oh so windy, so adventures will have to wait till tomorrow. I feel a bit sorry for the people who were meant to be sailing onto Lochboisdale after Barra. The captain decided the sea was far to rough to continue the journey tonight. I had my first glimpse of Kisimul Castle rising up out of the water as we arrived, it’s a lot bigger than I imagined and can’t wait to head out there tomorrow. The wind is absolutely howling outside, I was almost picked up and blown away as I trudged towards my B&B. Today’s entry ends with a quote a found in a book when I arrived in Barra – Over and out!
Mountains divide us, and a waste of seas;
yet still the blood is strong;
the heart is Highland
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides.
- Canadian Boat Song, circa 1829
1st November – Kisimul Castle Conservation Plan
As luck would have it, The only other guests at the B&B this morning were a journalist and a cameraman from STV who were here also to cover the Kisimul Castle story. I hitched a ride with them to the other side of Barra, past the wild west coast beaches, to Barra Airport to greet the chief as he arrived on a plane from Glasgow. Barra Airport is another story in itself all together -it’s the only airport in the world where scheduled flights use the beach as the runway. Also at the airport to greet the chief was Ian Walford, Chief Executive of Historic Scotland and Alasdiar Allen, MSP for the Western Isles.
From there we traveled along the decidedly calmer eastern side of the isle, back to Castlebay for the ceremony at Kisimul Castle. It was announced today that Kisimul Castle, seat of Clan Macneil of Barra, is to undergo major conservation, archaeological and interpretation work as part of an agreement reached between Historic Scotland and the clan. The announcement was finalised today, thirteen years after Historic Scotland was granted stewardship of the Castle by Ian Roderick Macneil of Barra, the late 46th chief, for £1 and a bottle of Tallisker whisky per year. Construction of the castle began around 1039, making Kisimul one of the oldest castles in Europe.
The work will see and investment of over £200,000, half of which has come from funds donated by Clan Macneil members, and will go towards three key projects to be completed by the end of 2015. This includes re-roofing the flat roof over the main hall; reinforcing concrete structures and overhauling the chapel roof and incorporating a new timber walkway. The chief was especially pleased that Historic Scotland have made special efforts to record local knowledge of the source of materials used to build Kisimul, conserving the fabric of this stunning ancient monument. You can read the full statement from Historic Scotland by clicking here. I’ve also posted the statement from the Macneil which you can view here.
School children from Castlebay School welcomed the Macneil, Ian Walford and Alasdair Allen to the island, with a lovely wee lass playing the pipes. A short ceremony was then conducted in the courtyard of the castle. Later on in the day I met with The Macneil again and interviewed him for about an hour – you’ll have to stay tuned for my upcoming feature with him
I ended the day by venturing up into the hills north of Castlebay where I was treated to a blusteringly beautiful sunset and some spectacular views of Barra, Vatersay and the Bishop’s Isles. I felt like the only person in the world as there wasn’t a soul up in the hills. I can’t quite believe that me, a young woman from small town New Zealand, has ended up here – It really was exceedingly beautiful and some off the most impressive landscapes I have ever seen. Off to Eriskay and Lochboisdale tomorrow – I’m dead tired so better get some sleep!
2nd November – Vatersay
On Barra, the main topic on conversation is not the weather, but the ferry. However, I can assure you that all anyone on the island was talking about today was the absolutely horrendous weather that hit the island this morning. I had planned on popping over to Eriskay and Lochboisdale via the ferry, but while walking to the bus stop this morning I got caught in a everlasting downpour and was completely soaked through by the time I reached the stop. I met the island bus driver, Hector MacNeil, at Castlebay Pier and we decided today probably wasn’t the best day to go island hopping. The storm seemed to be getting worse so he very kindly dropped me back at my B&B and told me I could accompany him on his run over to Vatersay later in the day once I had dried off.
It didn’t take me long to dry off (thank the stars for double glazing and central heating – something my modest home in Edinburgh sadly doesn’t have!), and I met Hector a couple of hours later outside my B&B in Nask, just slightly south of Castlebay. We then descended up the hill towards Vatersay, an island separated from Barra by a 250m body of water. Vatersay is the most southerly inhabited island in the Western Isles. There are a few more islands south of Vatersay (known as Bishop’s Isles), but these days the islands are home only to a variety of birdlife.
Hector also doubles as a package delivery driver, so he had a few parcels to drop off around the island. In 1990 a causeway was built between Barra and Vatersay so now it’s possible to drive between the two islands. Previously the only way to get to Vatersay was by Ferry from Castlebay. For years the military opposed residents petitions to build the causeway, but in 1987 the Council got an Act of Parliament which said the causeway was needed ‘to maintain the present population of Vatersay and relieve hardship’. The immediate reaction to the causeway saw the population rise from 65 in 1988 to 83 in 1993, and planning applications soar from a mere two in 1985-9 to 24, including four new houses, in 1990-3. The current population of Vatersay is somewhere around 100.
We chatted about the similarities of my home and the Western Isles. Hector told me he knows of a fair few people who have moved out to New Zealand, probably because the industries are the same – farming and fishing. It definitely looks similar except for one difference – there are no trees here – it’s just rolling, rocky machair and heather-ladden hills.
We then came to the wreckage of a Catalina – a 70 year old plane wreck from the Second World War. Catalinas were often referred to as a flying boat for their ability to land and take off at sea. On the night of 12th May 1944 this particular plane took off from Oban with nine crew on board for a training exercise. They were due to fly over the nearby point of Barra Head, but lost their way and found themselves well off their intended course. The pilot tried in vain to gain altitude and the plane crashed into the side of the nearby hill Heishavel Beag. Three of the crew were killed, with six surviving the crash. The wreckage was dragged down the hill by the RAF, where it has been left to rust in peace for the last 70 years.
The wreckage is just near a beautiful white sandy beach on the east coast of the island. You can’t tell from the photos but the rain was absolutely heaving down on us. Further along the road was a monument to the emigrant ship ‘Annie Jane’ which was lost just off the coast of Vatersay in 1853. The ship was en route to Quebec from Liverpool via Glasgow, and no doubt contained many Scottish folk in search of a new life. I’ve been thinking a lot about the people who left Barra and Vatersay, either by force or choice at the turn of the 20th century, and hope to follow this up with a blog post over the coming weeks.
As we approached the village of Vatersay, Hector pointed out the ruins of a substantial house looming in the distance. The house was belonged to the old landlord of the island – Lady Cathcart – and this house was where the shepherd stayed when Vatersay was cleared for sheep. Lady Catchart, who visited the island only once, refused to allow crofting tenants back on her land, and after various court interdicts and some imprisonment of crofters, the Department of Agriculture bought the island and reinstated the crofts.
We dropped off a few more packages and turned around to make our way back to Barra. On the way we stopped to pick up another passenger, who turned out to be one of the Barra’s celebrities. Maggie ‘Scraggie Aggie’ Mackinnon was featured in the 2008 BBC2 series An Island Parish, which followed the day to day life of parishes in Barra, Eriskay and South Uist. Of course the first topic of conversation was the weather, followed by the latest news on the ferry crossings. We then chatted about Kisimul Castle and the plans announced yesterday. Maggie spoke very highly of the late clan chief, Iain MacNeil, saying how much of a lovely man he was.
Tomorrow I plan to hit the beaches on the West side of the island, but not before attending a Catholic Church service at the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea. I was intrigued to discover that Barra is predominately Catholic, and it seems as if religion is a big part of island life, with 80.2% of the population identifying as Catholic during the 2001 census.
3rd November – Star of the Sea and the West Coast of Barra
Barra is one of the only places in Scotland where the Scottish Reformation didn’t really make an impact. Interestingly the North of the Western Isles is predominantly Protestant, with clashes between the two christian factions on the isles extremely rare. I was intrigued to find that Catholicism has had a stronghold on the island since the 17th century – possibly because it was the religion of Clan Macneil, who were ardent Stuart supporters. Even the Cromwellian laws forbidding the practice of the Catholic faith seem to have been ignored on Barra – in Cromwellian times in 1671 the priest at the time claimed his flock numbered 1000. Four years later, two Catholic priests were held virtual prisoner on the island by locals who demanded the priests cater to their spiritual needs.
This morning I attended a Catholic Mass at the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea – one of 5 Roman Catholic churches on Barra and Vatersey. The church opened on Christmas Eve 1888 when people from all around the islands gathered for Midnight Mass. It seats around 800 people, however today I would say there was around 150 people at mass. I was raised in the Catholic Church back home in New Zealand, so the mass felt very familiar apart from a few prayers and words that were slightly different. Sunday mass still seems to be a staple of island life here on Barra.
I spent the afternoon wandering about the wild west coast of the island. Every now and then I would pass a ruin of somebodys home – i’m constantly reminded of the people who lived here long ago on Barra, what happened to them and where they have gone. The beaches here are absolutely beautiful – the sand is white and the water a deep blue. I kept expecting it to rain all day, and amazingly the bad weather held off! But it’s oh so very windy!
4th November – Back to the Mainland
I am pleased to report that this morning’s journey has been the most spectacular smooth sail across the minch. The ferry (this time i’m onboard the Hebridean Isles) left Castlebay loaded to the brim at 8:50am. There are a lot more passengers on board this time, and since it is a bright beautiful day I am able to see everything around for miles. I’m even able to go and stand out on the deck without risk of being blown overboard into the rolling Atlantic.
The scenery was amazing as we left Barra, providing spectacular views of Vatersay, Sandray, Barra, Eriskay and South Uist. As we got further out into the ocean I could see the snow-capped mountains of Skye off in the distance, behind the Isle of Rum. We’ve just hit the Sound of Mull, and already am feeling a little bit sad to be back in civilisation. After four days of not seeing any trees, I found it quite bizarre to see a large forest of pines on entrance to the sound.
I’m currently reading a book about the history of Barra by Kenneth Branigan. It’s quite fitting that as we’ve been sailing this morning I’ve been reading all about the emigration periods in Barra between 1770 and 1840. Most of those who left Barra went to Canada – namely Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Cape Bretton. There are lots of theories about why people left Barra, but mostly it seems they were fed up with their landlord (Roderick the Gentle – chief of Clan Macneil) and went in search of a better life. Another theory is that by the time the late 18th century rolled around, the Macneil chiefs had converted to protestantism so were rather nasty to their largely Catholic tenants on Barra.
Branigan’s book also goes into what life would have been like for the people of Barra arriving in Canada. Barra, although very windy, is known for having generally mild winters – which isn’t the case on the east coast of Canada. Nova Scotia offered plenty of pine forests for shelter from the elements, and an endless supply of firewood. But to go from having no trees at all to the vast forests of Canada that needed to be cleared in order to make way for farms was the bane of many a new settlers existence. However Canada provided far better farming than Barra, and land grants were extremely generous (especially to Catholics). Although initially their new life would have been hard, it certainly would have paid off in the end.
4th November – Oban
I’m now on the train heading back to Edinburgh. I had a few hours stopover this afternoon in Oban which was delightful as the sun was out in full force. I was going to try and head up to Dunstaffnage or Dunollie Castle – steeped in MacDougall history – but I’m sorry to say the Oban Whisky Distillery well and truly distracted me. I took a tour of the distillery and where I whole-heatedly indulged in a few samples. The town of Oban was built around the distillery, which was established in 1794. I was glad to learn that there are hardly any waste products in the making of whisky – most of the by-products are used or sold. One example being the grain that is left over from the mash is made into pellets and sold to farmers. In some of the bigger distilleries, the c02 that is released during the distilling process is captured and sold to soft drink manufacturers. Apparently the c02 you’ll find in Irn-Bru comes from the Macallan distillery.
I’m running low on battery so I better sign off – It’s been an amazing trip and feel so lucky to have experienced this remote little corner of Scotland. On the ferry back from Barra I picked up a little self-published book in the gift shop called Jura and George Orwell. It’s been my dream for a long time to visit the Isle of Jura and to stay in the cottage where Orwell lived out the final years of his life writing 1984. Here’s to more adventures in West Scotland! SláinteTagged