Tales from Barra, Part I – Crossing the Sea of the Hebrides

Written on Wednesday, 21st November 2006
The MV Clansman sailed from Oban yesterday for Barra and South Uist and, this time, I was aboard. The Clansman is a very different ship from my old friends the Hebridean Isles and the Isle of Arran, which take duty on the Kennacraig-Islay route. One of the first clues to the seas it plies are the fully-enclosed, motorised orange lifeboats which are slung high on the ship. These contrast with the open lifeboats on the other ships. The next difference is the accommodation. The Clansman is much larger and has many more lounger seats on either side amidships. Forward is the cafeteria (where I established myself) and aft the bar and open verandah deck. One deck up, above the cafeteria, is the comfortable observation deck. Given the forecast of gales, storms and high seas, I’d swallowed a couple of tablets for the security of my stomach, which seemed to be a well-founded precaution. The ferry was far from full so there was plenty of space, unfortunately regularly invaded by a small horde of screaming kids hurtling around the deck, but they settled down before long.
Dusk fell as we entered the Sound of Mull and the winds were keeping all but the hardiest smokers inside. I could tell when we’d reached the open ocean, not only by the light of Ardnamurchan Point appearing to starboard, but the increased motion of the ship. Still three hours to run at this point and there was a pretty vigorous pitch – rolling kept to a minimum by the stabilisers. I felt comfortable enough by this time to eat and had a good meal. I recognised one or two of the crew who’d been on the Islay ferries during the summer.
The Clansman has charts of the seas around the west coast of Scotland on which her route and turning points had been plotted. This helped to follow her progress against the few lights which were visible in the darkness of the winter night.
Having settled down to watch TV for a while, the cahnnel was switched by the passengers to watch the Celtic/Manchester United football game. Now, football bores me rigid, so I spent some time looking at the maps of Barra and making optimistic plans for geographing.
I met a chap from the Czech Republic on the ferry who was returning to Barra. He’d had a couple of jobs over there, including as a fsherman, before his present employment as a garage mechanic. He told me that, coming from a central European country, he wanted to find out something about the lives of island people, and fishing seemed the way to do it.
We arrived in Castlebay on time and I walked the bike off the ferry before the other vehicles. The hostel turned out to be only a couple of hundred metres away and I bagged a room to myself. It’s very clean and comfortable with TV, games, guitars and even an autoharp. Didn’t manage to raise the owners and, at the time of writing a day later, still haven’t. One other person in the hostel, a lad from Edinburgh who comes over regularly, but he tends to keep his own company.
After settling in, went up the road to the Castlebay Pub for a pint. The place was in darkness and populated by an enthusiastic crowd wearing green-and-white hooped tops and all watching the football on a big screen. There were still fifteen minutes of the match to go and these minutes were sufficiently exciting to catch my interest, given that it was too dark to read. Celtic scoreed a cracker of a goal from a free kick to take a 1-0 lead ten minutes from time and the place went wild with delight. Seven minutes later, wild with rage as the red team were awarded a controversial penalty. Joy was unbounded when this was saved and the boys in green went on to win the match.
So, after a couple of pints, back to the hostel and so to bed.

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