We leave Carbost at around 0530, heading for Barra in the Outer Hebrides. There is a strong wind from the south-east which is in our favour, and we speed along at 7 knots. Gradually Skye fades into the haze and the faint shapes of the Outer Hebrides begin to appear on the horizon. There is a long swell coming in from the Atlantic and Ruby Tuesday rears and plunges her bow into each successive wave, loving every moment of it.
As we approach, I dip into my “Land of Mountain and Flood” to remind me of the geological events that led to the formation of the Outer Hebrides. The rocks here, gneisses, are amongst the oldest rocks on earth, having formed three billion years ago – in terms of a human lifetime, it is almost impossible to comprehend how old that is. The mountains we had seen on Skye at 60 million years old are mere infants in comparison. Even more mind boggling is that these rocks were formed nowhere near here – originally they were part of the Laurentia supercontinent, most of which is North America now, and they are more similar to rocks in Canada and Greenland than they are to other rocks in the rest of Britain. There would have been no life on land at this time – presumably the landscape would have looked like a desert today – the only life at all being a few single-celled organisms in the seas.
It seems that these rocks originated from molten rock in the earth’s mantle reaching the surface through volcanoes which were then eroded down to produce sediments that accumulated at the bottom of early oceans. These were subsequently buried deep in the earth’s crust and transformed over the next 1000 million years by the great temperatures and pressures into the light and dark banded gneiss that we see today. Some of these may have been up to 30 km deep, but were gradually lifted up to the surface again by tectonic movements. Then around 1700 million years ago two ancient continents collided, forcing up the crust which was gradually metamorphosed and folded to form the basis of the mountains of the Outer Hebrides. These were again gradually worn down by erosion over the next 500 million years or so. Then at around 1100 million years ago, a major fracture developed called the Outer Hebrides Fault, and the two sides ground against each other to crush and deform the surrounding rocks, which today starts in Lewis and runs all the way south through the Uists to Barra, sometimes on the land, sometimes offshore.
More recently, the Outer Hebrides were covered on and off by vast ice sheets that scoured the surface into what we see today. As the ice melted, grassland vegetation became established, and as soil began to form and the climate warmed still further, this was replaced by forests of oak, hazel and birch about 8000 years ago. Then as the climate cooled again, and possibly aided by stone-age farmers, the trees disappeared and were replaced by the acid peatlands common throughout the islands.
My thoughts are interrupted by a dolphin jumping out of the water just next to us. Then another, and another, then several more. A whole pod has joined us and seem determined to show off their skills. The sea around us seems alive as they twist and turn on both sides and underneath the boat, spurred on by the knowledge that they have an appreciative audience. They accompany us for perhaps about five miles before disappearing quietly back into their own world. Even though we have seen dolphins often before, there is always something awe-inspiring about seeing them so close and imagining there is an affinity between us and them. It is tempting to think they are also curious about us, other sentient creatures aware of their own existence.
The wind veers around to the south and south-west, so we adjust the sails so that we are sailing close-hauled almost directly into it. Unfortunately, this means that we can no longer aim directly for Barra and we have to take a couple of long tacks to get closer to our destination. In the mid-afternoon, however, with just a few more miles to go, the wind drops completely, the sails flap uselessly, and we have to motor the last few miles into Castlebay.
In the morning, I sit in the cockpit and drink my early morning cup of tea. Strong winds from the north have been blowing all night and are predicted to carry on for most of the day. Despite being sheltered by Sheabhal mountain rising up behind Castlebay, and the short reach between us and the shore, waves are being whipped up and slap noisily against the side of Ruby Tuesday. Overhead a seagull battles against the wind, but despite all its efforts it remains in the same place, and eventually peels off to take shelter somewhere else. A tall ship has tied up next to us – it wasn’t there when we went to sleep last night, so they must have arrived very late.
Suddenly a small fishing boat with two men in it appears and ties up to the pontoon. Some of the other sailors gather around it. Intrigued, the First Mate ambles over to investigate, and discovers that they are selling fresh scallops collected this morning. She buys a dozen for lunch and brings them back in a bucket of sea water to keep them until their execution. I feel a bit sorry for them until one spits water at us.
In the afternoon, we visit the Heritage Centre. When we arrive, we are the only ones there, and the young man behind the desk tells us that after we have looked around we can have a coffee and a biscuit included in the price. A lot of effort has gone into collecting and showing the history of island life. We learn that the past economy of the island was dependent on fishing, with large numbers of boats operating out of Castlebay and bringing their catch into the processing sites just near where the marina is now. The remains of some of the old quays are still there. We tried to imagine the hustle and bustle as the catches were unloaded, the women would begin the gutting, cleaning and slicing the fish, packing them into boxes to export to the mainland. The season for all this was in June and July, then they would move northwards to Orkney to work, then Wick, and, surprisingly, down to Great Yarmouth in England, before returning back to Barra for the winter.
In the evening, we go to the Castlebay Bar for a drink and find that there is a local ceilidh band on. It is too loud to talk, so we sit and listen. Some of the young folk dance in the area in front of the band. We realise just how old we are getting when we prefer to sit it out.
The next day we get out the folding bikes and cycle around the island. We decide to go anti-clockwise which we find requires a steep climb out of Castlebay before anything else. Halfway up, we wonder if it is a mistake, but conclude that it is probably best to get the steep bit out of the way while we are still fresh, rather than at the end.
Eventually, and a little out of breath, it has to be said, we reach the top of the saddle between Sheabal and Beinn nan Caman and are rewarded by a magnificent view over the Sea of the Hebrides across to Skye in the north and Rum and Canna to the east. The ride down to the little village of Breibhig makes up for it, but we lose all the height we have painfully gained.
Despite following the shoreline, this becomes the pattern – a series of ups and downs, past beautiful little bays and inlets and loose clusters of crofts. The thought is not lost on us that we are passing over some of the oldest rocks on earth.
Eventually, we come to North Bay, a small village where most of the fishing on Barra is now based. There are a number of boats in the harbour and a fish processing plant on the little knoll overlooking the harbour.
Here the road bends round to the west. Just a little bit further on, we reach a junction leading down to the famous Barra airport where the planes land on a sandy beach at low tide. Just as we are contemplating whether to go and see it, we see an aeroplane climbing steeply into the air from behind a small hill and we realise that we have just missed its take-off. If we had only left half-an-hour earlier, we might have seen it.
As we continue, the landscape gradually changes from rocky little bays and numerous inlets on the east coast to more expansive sloping machair pasture and sweeping sandy beaches. It is no coincidence that all the cemeteries are on this side of the island – it is much easier to dig six feet into sand rather than into rock!
Eventually, we come to the Barra Beach Hotel and decide to stop and have a drink. The hotel is really designed for residents only rather than casual walk-ins, but they feel sorry for the two sweaty cyclists before them and tell us that the bar is opening in 30 minutes. But we have to open an account and put the drinks on it, and pay at the reception when we leave. It all seems a bit of a palaver, but we decide that we need the drinks and want to enjoy the view out over the Atlantic Ocean, so we wait. It is worth it.
Since we arrived in Castlebay, we have been fascinated by Kisimul Castle in the middle of the bay. The castle was the family seat of the MacNeil clan, but they had had to sell it and the island of Barra in 1838 to pay their debts. The castle fell into disrepair with much of its stone being taken for ballast for fishing boats. Just a hundred years later, in 1937, it was bought back by the clan chief, Robert MacNeil, an American architect, who spent the rest of his life renovating it. Then in 2000, his son leased it to Historic Scotland for a £1 a year and a bottle of whisky, who have carried on the refurbishment work.
The first time we try to visit it, it is closed because of the weather, which we find is due to the conditions being too rough for the little boat that takes visitors across.
The next day is calmer, and the small boat is running, so we join the queue of a half-a-dozen other people waiting at the small pier opposite the post-office. The small boat makes the run across every half an hour, the cost of which is included in the entry fee.
Inside is quite a surprise – somehow crammed into the restricted space within the walls there is a small courtyard in the centre, a great hall, a living hall with a large fireplace, bedroom, a tower, and a small chapel. There is even a fresh water well, a pretty useful feature for those inside to be able to withstand a lengthy siege.
We climb the tower and walk around the battlements and look over to the Castlebay village on Barra proper. I try and imagine what is must have been like to be standing up here for real and repelling the enemy.