Tales from Barra Part II – A cycle-tour around the island

Written on Wednesday, 21st November 2006

This morning dawned grey and overcast, but with the weather forecast of rain later. Given that the forecast for tomorrow was even worse, I decided that the ride around the island was a carpe diem decision, so the d. was duly carped. Showered, breakfasted and buttressed against the weather, I was on the road by ten.
I decided to go clockwise around the main road that circles the island, which took me in fifteen minutes to the west, Atlantic coast and sight of the first of many stunning sandy beaches.
Barra is comprised of Lewisian gneisses, which has been ground by glaciers creating a rocky substrate on which only a thin layer of soil can gain purchase. There is some fertile land in one or two glens and the coastal fringes to the west and north are characterised by machair – the rich, florally-abundant grassland of the sandy soils.
There are plenty of modern houses in several settlements around the island and a surprising amount of traffic to dodge on the single-track roads. Every settlement has a church, most of them Catholic, for Barra retains the old religion against its presbyterian neighbours to the north.
At Northbay I took the small road that runs north to the full extent of the island, passing scattered houses all along the way. This area, Aird Mhidhinish, is deeply-cut with sea-lochs which provide shelter for small fishing boats. Even so, boats are pulled in to clefts in the rock for winter shelter and frequently tied-down with four ropes against the winter gales.
As I came up to Traigh Mhor – the great strand – I spoke to a man who was about to head off across the sands. He was Polish and had worked during the summer as a builder. Now he was picking the cockles which are abundant on these tidal sandflats. The cockles are sent to Oban once a week for onward despatch but, because there was no ferry on Sunday this time, he buried his collected cockles again until they could be found a place on a ferry. I saw four different people out collecting cockles on this and another strand to the north.
As we spoke, the Glasgow plane came in to land. Barra airport is unique in that the flights are entirely dependent on the tides. For there is no runway, just the vast flats of Traigh Mhor. Once landed, the plane taxies up to the edge of the dunes and the island’s small airport terminal. This has to be the best way to come to Barra, and one day I shall fly here. The seas around the islands are the most astonishing blues, greens and purples and, on the right day, the islands must appear from the air as green jewels set in surfy mounts.
By now it was spitting with rain and I’d put on the waterproofs. A few miles further and the end of the road was marked with a bus-turning head and the tracks leading on to one or two more cottages.
Turned about, I was now head into the wind and progress got slower – not helped by the fact that I hadn’t actually cycled at all this year. The rain was well set in and I stopped at the ancient chapels at Cille-bharra to shelter for a short while. Here are three ancient churches, only one still roofed, and one of the island’s graveyards. The roofed chapel contains a small shrine to the Virgin Mary and a replica of a carved stone cross, the original of which was taken, to the islanders’ continuing disgust, to the Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh. Here too is buried Compton Mackenzie, who loved these islands and their people, and immortalised them in many books, most famously Whisky Galore.
[[[Self-edited section which may get added back in one day.]]]
I stopped again in Northbay to look at the church of Sr Barr. This is a large impressive church which has just celebrated its centenary. It must be capable of holding 400 people in the pews and has a choir gallery at the west end to add drama to the Mass.
From Northbay to Castlebay was a slog of seven miles in increasing winds and my unfitness, together with the wet and cold, combined to make it less than fun. To my surprise, the distance passed more quickly than I expected and I coasted down the last steep mile with considerable pleasure to the hostel, where I dried, changed and spent the afternoon drinking coffee and idling the hours.
I should report that the clouds cleared as the light faded and the hills of Vatersay stood outlined against an apricot glow as the sun set somewhere over the western ocean beyond.

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