by Jack Crombie
Pam (my wife) and I left Chicago on Sunday night aboard a jet bound for Edinburgh, Scotland after seven days of frenetic preparation and ticked off the final item from our “get out of town” list.
Eastbound transatlantic flights always result in the loss of a night’s sleep with resultant jet-lag and extreme crabbiness. This flight was typical, leaving us disheveled and crabby with more luggage than we needed at the car hire office, “conveniently located” what seemed like a short five-mile hike from the main terminal.
Prior to our departure, I had carefully selected a car with a rental company that had offered a great deal, if paid in advance. Booking your car well in advance of the holiday is essential to secure a reasonable rate. When we actually saw the car we had selected, we decided on a modest upgrade that would better service a touring holiday that was set to include my parents and daughter Kimberly. This upgrade was accomplished easily with only the minor problem that it tripled the previously agreed price.
Only slightly daunted we set of in our new chariot driving on “the wrong side of the road” bound for my parent’s house in Newtyle, Angus, where we arrived without major incident around noon. The normal greetings and associated reuniting ensued after which we all went out for a pub lunch at a local hostelry where some excellent fish and Scottish beer was sampled.
Due to jetlag and not the lunch, we decided to take a short recuperative nap till 3 p.m. Rejuvenated, we arose, gathered Kim, my mum and dad and their luggage into our car and departed on a fairly leisurely and scenic three-hour journey for the west coast of Scotland. Our destination was the bustling and scenic town of Oban where we were scheduled to catch the ferry to the Isles the next day. We spent the night in a charmingly eclectic hotel called the Falls of Laura just outside Oban. The owners were obviously extensive travelers and their west highland hotel is incongruously decorated with the spoils and souvenirs of their adventures in the Far East.
As my parents are in their upper 80’s, a handicapped accessible hotel was a necessity. Though the appropriate rooms did not have a very good view, it was otherwise pretty good and I would give it a two thumbs up (On a scale of five) recommendation. After a somewhat restless night due to our dislocated sleep pattern, we arose only somewhat refreshed to what was to be the first of our holiday’s full Scottish breakfasts.
One might get indigestion just recounting what a full Scottish breakfast actually includes. There were choices such as the local delicacy kippers (smoked herring), smoked salmon with scrambled eggs or of course “the full Scottish cooked breakfast”. This is the “Full Monty” of breakfasts and consists of, but is not limited to fried tomato, Scottish thick (Like Canadian) bacon, mushrooms, a potato scone (like a potato pancake), black (blood) pudding, eggs and sometimes a slice of haggis and baked beans. While the main course of breakfast was being prepared, one might occupy the time by helping oneself to a plate of porridge, yogurt, fresh fruit or muesli, washed down by fresh juice, coffee or tea and accompanied by toast and butter with marmalade or fresh preserves.
Suitably sustained and already accompanied by an extra few pounds of body mass (when these pounds reach 14 they become “stones” and people in Scotland who for example weigh 140 pounds would be said to weigh 14 stones), we left the hotel and made the short trip down the road to Oban to board the ferry, bound for the Isle of Barra.
The ferry was quite large and capable of carrying multiple semi-trucks and many cars. It had a bar, a coffee shop and a cafeteria and, like all the ferries we caught, was handicapped accessible with an elevator from the car deck up to the boat deck. The 90 miles, 7 hours trip across what can be stormy waters, appropriately called “The Minch,” was on this occasion, smooth and at times brought tears to my eyes, such was the beauty of the scenery. The main port on the Island of Barra is called Castlebay, so called because of the castle sitting out in the waters of the bay which is the ancestral home of the chief of the clan MacNeil. It was our disembarkation point.
The entire population of the island is about 1300 people, most of whom, perhaps unsurprisingly, seem to be called MacNeil. Our Hotel, the Isle of Barra beach hotel, was located within ten minutes of Castlebay. Before reaching it, one has to quickly adjust to
the single track roads, the complete darkness and the sheep roaming freely at the side of the road. Arriving at our hotel, we found it to be fairly modern but eclectic. It was not really handicapped accessible and proved a little bit of a challenge for my mum. Having had dinner on the ferry we went to bed early in our modern well-appointed en suite rooms where the European style “downy” covers served as very warm and comfortable bedding.
On rising and looking out our hotel room window we were greeted by glorious blue skies, which served to make the gorgeous silver beach with its perfectly formed and large surf a perfect picture for a postcard.
The rooms at the Barra beach hotel overlook a long curved silver sand beach decorated with large perfectly shaped waves inviting hardy surfers and it is largely because of the great view from the hotel rooms that justifies me giving it a three-star rating.
During our stay, despite the great weather we did not see any surfers, no bathers and a total of about five people walking along this huge beach despite the glorious weather. Tearing ourselves away from this beautiful vista we bravely assembled in the dining room for our next Scottish breakfast. At about 11 a.m., we embarked on a tour of the island and decided to explore every byway, there are no highways, on the island. This in-depth exploration, we completed by 1 p.m.
Did I mention that the island is small? I should quickly say, that what the island lacks in size and in population, it makes up for in remote and lonely beauty.
The beaches that line its coast in spectacular profusion are huge, completely unspoiled and made from brilliant white sand. Walking along these beaches, one is struck by the absolute absence of any of the man produced flotsam and jetsam so common on the shore lines of beaches the world over and making for a very different experience for the beachcomber.
The solitude that you are most likely to enjoy while walking on the beaches is not that difficult to explain, apart from the fact that hardly anyone actually lives on the island, the waters lapping at your feet might charitably be characterized as being, rather chilly, and more accurately as being cold.
The beaches are practically deserted except for the very occasional surfer or ocean kayaker tempted by the large and perfect surf. I never saw anyone in the water myself though our hotel did offer wets suits and surf boards to any intrepid guest wishing to give it a go and I did see a number of cars with surf boards and kayaks on their roofs. The spectacularly large beach is even used as the island airport when the tide is out. It is apparently the only beach in the world to be used by a regular scheduled airline service as a runway.
If you are looking for some quiet solitude, a place where the rest of the world only lightly touches but where you can get a decent beer and a warm bed, then Barra might just be your ideal destination.