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Friday, 8 January 2010

Western Isles 2009 - Barra

The Outer Hebrides, alternatively known as the Western Isles, are situated at the extreme North West of Scotland, and stretch for over 100 miles. Where practically possible, they are linked by permanent causeways, usable at any state of the tide.
and Barra are linked but you will have to take a ferry from Barra to Eriskay.
Eriskay is linked to South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist and Berneray, but you will need a ferry to get from Berneray to Harris and Lewis.

October/November might seem odd months to choose to visit, but as one local told us enthusiastically “I love this time of year, the wildlife enjoy the peace, and the low sunlight makes the landscape look fantastic”. We had to agree, we virtually had the place to ourselves and when the sun was out the scenery was utterly beautiful, colours so lovely that the camera was always in my hand.

The sunlight brings the colours alive

We had our share of storms though, interspersed with a day or two of cloudless skies and star-spangled nights. It turned out to be unusually mild, which was a bonus, the downside being more rain. Even on a bleak and windy day though, the glorious beaches and rugged coast could take your breath away, physically and metaphorically.

The sand is white and the sea turquoise even on a cloudy day

The best thing (which has probably spoilt us for evermore) was the freedom to camp virtually anywhere. The summer crowds gone (the islands were apparently inundated with motorhomes this year) we could park yards from a beach, walk the length of the shore in the morning and feel that we were the only people in the world.

Can you beat this for a wild camp?

There are only a handful of campsites on the islands, most closed off season, so unless you are accustomed to wild camping you might find it a little daunting, you need to have your basic services sorted. A solar panel in these latitudes at this time of year is unfortunately of little use and if you are going to live in comfort, with a little TV or laptop use, you will need a generator of some sort. (The constant breeze did get me thinking about a wind generator - there are certainly plenty about, supplying schools and community centres)

If you have refillable gas bottles, as we have, you will need to change at least one of them back to Calor gas, as the only Autogas station is in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. Calor gas is fairly readily available but can appear in some unusual places, like the backyard of a private bungalow! We swapped our smaller Gaslow bottle for a 6 Kg Calor bottle which would last us 5 - 6 days, we would then use a little out of our large Gaslow bottle until we could find a Calor refill. Over six weeks we managed quite happily like this.

Water and waste we didn’t find to be a problem, there are some dedicated motorhome/caravan water and waste points by the Eriskay and Berneray ferry terminals, but elsewhere we generally found Public toilets to be open, sometimes with an outside tap and toilet disposal point. Everywhere we found people to be friendly and helpful, garages and local stores often have a tap you can use to top up fresh water.

Motorhome/Caravan water and waste point at Eriskay terminal

Now a cautionary tale. Talking to the local residents and crofters, it soon became evident that in the summer the number of motorhomes about had begun to cause some irritation. Clogging up the roads and car parks was one thing (which some residents seemed to accept with good humour as a price to be borne for tourism), but what did rankle was a belief that motorhomers were deliberately avoiding spending any money on the islands. This was summed up by a possibly apocryphal, but common story of a motorhomer overheard bragging that he had only spent £7.50 on the islands in two weeks! There is a common belief that people like us stock up in supermarkets on the mainland to avoid the higher costs of food on the islands.

What you won’t avoid is the higher prices for fuel and gas, it’s obviously going to cost more to ship it out and the local inhabitants, farmers, crofters and fisherman suffer badly when the oil price rises. The island’s economy is fragile, the only people making any real money are public service employees and builders, and that is centred around Stornoway. Elsewhere crofters and others are scratching a living and it is beholden on us motorhomers to put some much needed cash into the economy by buying food from the small post offices and other enterprises, especially when we can camp for free and are treated to such good hospitality.

The Scottish government Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) ferry pricing scheme introduced in 2008 has meant that Caledonian MacBrayne prices have dropped drastically, with a significant increase in tourist and motorhome traffic. Some residents are questioning the wisdom of this scheme and feel the increase in disruption to their lives is not being counterbalanced by the spending revenue. It’s in our hands!

Stop press: We have just become aware that the wild camping site at Barra airport has been fenced off due to local complaints and overuse of the area. This will obviously put pressure on other areas.
It looks as if the Islanders will soon have to make a decision on whether they invest in facilities for motorhomes and campers or put up the shutters. A difficult economic and political decision for them.

Barra, and the journey there
Barra was going to be our first island, at the Southern end of the Hebridean chain.
We completed the journey up from Cornwall in three days, stopping off at Caravan Club sites in Burnham on Crouch (GPS: 51.2770 N, 3.0091 W), Low Park Wood near Kendal in the Lake district (GPS: 54.2847 N, 2.7544 W) and the Maragowan Caravan Club site at Killin. (GPS: 56.4752 N, 4.3207 W). Using up our free site night vouchers claimed from our CC credit card made that a fairly painless process for us inveterate free campers.

The Falls of Dochart

The Falls of Dochart just before Killin were heavily swollen with peaty coloured water, a visual treat to end our passage through the Trossachs.
The Maragowan campsite is alongside the river, protected by raised levees from floodwater, but I noticed that a large number of hook-up points were on elevated posts, just in case. The site is also home to hundreds of ducks who rule the roost and absolutely know they have right of way over motorcaravans!

Visiting the MVWP (in Caravan Club parlance) or Motor Van Waste Point (pump 'n dump to us), we were amazed and delighted to see that the otherwise ubiquitous (in Caravan Club land) heavy manhole cover over the drain had been replaced by a strong galvanised grating - removing in one fell swoop the twin hazards of groin or back injury and dropping a front wheel down the hole!

Why can't they all be like this?

Passing on our congratulations to the warden, she explained that they had a lot of elderly, but single, motorhomers who found the whole process of lifting a manhole cover and manoeuvring their van over the hole extremely arduous, but despite organising the manufacture of the grates themselves it had taken 8 months of wrangling with management to obtain permission to fit them!
More power to their cause (for which we have agitated ourselves to no avail), but why do campsite wardens have to teach the Caravan Club management some common sense?

On the road to Oban

From Killin to Oban is about 60 miles, a journey punctuated by mist and light rain.
We linked up with our friends Liz & Roger on the "motorhome only" marked bays in the council bus and lorry park next to Tesco on the other side of town (GPS: 56.4093N, 5.4711 W). The parking regulations sign is a bit ambiguous, but on the tourist office’s advice we stopped overnight and nobody bothered us. The sign said that light vans up to 1.5 tonne were free and we presumptuously took that to mean us. Otherwise it’s £10 for 8 hours or more. (Don’t park in Tesco’s, they will charge you £70!)

A ferry to the Isles

We rose early to be in line at 0715 for the 0830 Calmac ferry, a damp and muggy night just surrendering to morning as we loaded. It was bitingly cold on deck but worth it for the sights of the Sound of Mull. Eventually the wind and chill got under our skin and we retreated to the cafeteria for the “full Scottish”! - which was even more of a heart attack on a plate than your average full English, elbowing out the tomatoes and mushrooms in favour of black pudding and a rather disgusting reconstituted pork product resembling a rolled out sausage (apparently called Lorne).
Still it gave us the necessary fortification for the increasingly lumpy sea, which we viewed this time from the forward lounge.

The Sound of Mull

A half hour delay at Tiree for some unscheduled engine repairs put our arrival time at Castlebay on Barra back a bit, Kisimul Castle not emerging out of the gloom until three forty-five.

Our ferry approaches Castlebay

Sue paid a quick visit to the tourist office for a sheet with information for motorhomes that she had read was available, but they had handed them all out - including their own sheet, so we couldn't even get a photocopy!
There is however a public toilet at Castlebay Hall, just over the hill from the Co-Op stores, in the direction of the airport.

Out of Castlebay, it was immediately apparent that the scenery was unique and wonderful, driving around little coves, the sea was turquoise and the sand coral white even in the overcast conditions, even the seaweed was a vibrant ochre.

We fetched up on a windy pitch in sight of Barra Airport - large signs warning us that there was no walking on the beach when the windsocks were up! Amazingly, this is the only beach airport in the world which operates a regular, scheduled service.
GPS: 57.0210 N, 7.4471 W

Our pitch by the beach, with a view of Barra airport

The next day we watched the first Flybe flight approaching, the landing lights of the Twin Otter visible before the plane itself in the dull conditions. It seemed to touch down very swiftly and soon had rolled to a halt on the rock hard sand in front of the terminal building. We had a cuppa in the airport "lounge" before watching the takeoff. Taxiing down the beach it turned into the strong headwind and was into the air in seconds, fantastic.

Make your way to the terminal please!


After lunch we took a walk to the magnificent mile long Traigh Eais beach - wild and windy, it sent our spirits soaring. It is an awesome setting - defined at either end by jagged rocky headlands and enclosed by high, deserted dunes, the wide long sweep of white sand, shells and pebbles washed by endless rows of crashing Atlantic rollers, filling the air with sound and mist, roaring like a vast ecstatic crowd at the beach's empty stage. Instant personal battery re-charge!

Over the dunes to Traigh Eais

A lonely jellyfish

We decided to move to to Eoligarry, a quintessentially picturesque cove and jetty, adorned with a handful of colourful fishing boats, lazing on the beach with just the perfect air of languid belonging.

Timeless charm at Eoligarry

In a small building there is a shelter, a disabled toilet, and around the back a lifting sewer cover and water tap thoughtfully provided for motorhomers. The effluent however, travels a mere 50 metre down a pipe before discharging into a rock pool before the sand!
GPS: 57.0416 N, 7.4212 W

Half a mile away is Cille Bharra Chapel, accorded to St Barr or Finnbarr, a 6th Century Irish Bishop. Inside a recently re-roofed part of the ruined church is a plain altar, simple touching offerings and a copy of the Kilbar Norse Runic stone - the original being housed in the Scottish Museum of Antiquities, Edinburgh.

Cille Bharra Chapel

The many well tended gravestones attested to the relatively short lifespan, by modern standards, of the recently deceased, life had never been easy on these islands.
There is also the grave of Compton MacKenzie, author of the book "Whisky Galore", the true story of the nearby founding on Eriskay of the SS Politician with a cargo of whisky bound for foreign shores.

Northwards to the rocky bay of Bagh nan Clach is Dun Scurrival, a 2000 year old ruined fort perched on the top of Ben Eoligarry. A bit of a scramble to the top but the fantastic views were only exceeded by the fantastic wind, which nearly knocked me off my feet.

Bagh nan Clach from halfway up Ben Eoligarry

Traigh Eais from the top!

Returning to sea level we found a thoughtfully provided removable link in the barbed wire fence to the beach and wandered back to the van, thrilled at this vast, deserted expanse of white sand, littered with sea shells and seabirds.

Shells galore!

Just below a tall sand dune we were amazed to see the remains of a dozen or so vehicles that had been pushed or bulldozed onto the beach. Half submerged by the sand, the steel components were slowly returning to the elements from which they came, but the plastic seats and wiring poked out of sand like the remains of some alien invader. We did hear that the wrecks had been put there to stop the dunes disintegrating but I’m not convinced.

Dune re-enforcement or dumping ground?

After another day and no improvement in the weather we broke camp and completed the circuit of the island back to Castlebay, stopping off at Borgh to check the availability of Calor gas bottles. We needn’t have worried though, they had all sizes in stock, including our 6kg bottle. It’s easy to miss the stockist however, it looks just like another large bungalow, but with a small Calor gas sign propped against the wall outside. GPS: 56.9820N, 7.5059 W

In order to eke out our gas supplies I’ve converted our generator back to petrol and filled up our can (stored on the bike rack) at the filling station in Castlebay. Basically just a set of pumps by the side of the road, you help yourself and then go to the grocers A & C Maclean opposite to pay.



Next we headed for Vatersay, a separate island from Barra, reached by a stone causeway. There are two splendid back to back white sand beaches here, the coves separated only by a band of sand dunes.

Vatersay East beach

Despite reading that there was some organised camping here, all we found was a patch of stony ground opposite the community hall, suitable for two vans at the most.
A sign headed "Vatersay Township" was asking £4 a night for tents and motorhomes on the "parking areas provided" but the few pegged off areas along the roadside were too steep or lumpy to put a motorhome and contradicted the other instruction of "strictly no vehicles on the grass". A few crude and rather hostile looking notices reiterating this instruction added to the confusion.
When the grazing cattle started munching by the van door we decided to beat a retreat, and moved to a memorial car park half a mile away, the other side of the cattle grid.

The remnants of a WWII Catalina float plane

On 12th of May 1944 a Catalina float plane on a training flight from Oban crashed here, and remarkably, large pieces of the aircraft still lie on the hillside, camouflage paint and stencilled instructions on the aluminium wing sections visible even now.
A memorial stone to the three crew who died and six that survived is placed nearby.

On the way over to Vatersay Liz and Roger spotted the Barralantic fish packing plant at Aird Mhithinis. Being dedicated seekers out of fresh seafood they paid a visit to the factory, and after tramping through the debris of countless scallop shells were rewarded with some of the largest, plumpest specimens we have seen at £19 a kilo. These they shared with us after they had been seared in the pan, then sauteed with chopped shallots and peppers, cream and a splash of Pernod - sublime!

Get your scallops here!

With perfect timing our Calor gas bottle ran out, so after a pump 'n dump at the Vatersay community hall we made our way back to Borgh for a refill. The only snag was - there was nobody home! A chat with one neighbour revealed that the wife was off the island on holiday and the husband was at work on the ferry. What to do? After a couple of fruitless phone calls the other neighbour turned up and allowed us to take what we needed. That's life on Barra! Be prepared for high prices though - £25 for a 6kg refill.

Waiting for the tide!

Before leaving Barra, we decided to pay a visit to Kisimul Castle, which sits on a rocky island in Castlebay. Originally the seat of the Clan MacNeil, it was abandoned in 1838, and fell into ruin, the stone used for ballast in fishing boats. In 1938 it was purchased by the then Clan Chief, an American, who rebuilt it, though largely with cement and reinforced concrete, thus leaving a legacy of crude restoration. It has since been leased to Historic Scotland for a 1000 years, for the extortionate annual sum of £1 and a bottle of whisky. Worth a visit just the same.

Kisimul Castle

Finally, we retraced our steps a bit (nothing new there) back up to the terminal at Aird Mhor for the ferry to Eriskay. This is the same price as the ferry from Castlebay to Loch Boisdale on South Uist, to which Eriskay is linked by a causeway, but at just over half an hour is far quicker and saves us doubling back to see Eriskay. Price for a 5-8 metre van £41.30.

Waiting for the ferry to spring to life

By the side of the terminal building there is a wonderful otter sculpture, a very beautiful and entertaining piece of artwork.

Otters catching their lunch!

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