Friday, 6 June 2014

The Wild West - a Trip to the Outer Hebrides

'...Breaking the silence of the seas, Among the farthest Hebrides' - that was well back in my school days when my fantasies about this faraway land tucked in a corner of Scotland were triggered by none other than Wordsworth in his Solitary Reaper. I had dreamt of a land set apart from the rest of the world by miles of ferocious water crashing on to the rocky cliffs, a rugged, wind-swept land and surprisingly, it was a wild yet serene picture I had painted in my imagination. I wanted to be there.

That was about a quarter of a century ago and little did I know then that Lady Luck would indeed smile and I would one day find myself in the land of the 'Yon solitary Highland Lass' and even planning a trip to the 'Farthest Hebrides'.

The Outer Hebrides is a chain of more than 100 islands located about 40 miles west of the mainland of Scotland. Also known as Western Isles, there are 15 inhabited islands in this archipelago. Causeways have been built connecting some of these islands at places and with ferry services elsewhere. I had managed 2 days of holiday and working around the weekend could get four days off. Since it takes a whole day to get to these islands from Edinburgh by more conventional transport, I would have only a couple of days to visit. Moreover, everything shuts down on a Sunday in these parts of the world, hence that too needed to be considered for the planning.

A few years back on the BBC program Coast I had watched Neil Oliver flying in on a twin-engine propeller aircraft and landing on a white sandy beach. I was left gaping (not at Neil Oliver, though I quite fancy him)! I could not believe the beach was actually a runway on an official airport, where the flight times are decided by the timings of the tides. The decision was made - I was going to the southernmost inhabited island of the Outer Hebrides - to Barra. At £75, even though the single journey would make it more expensive, I was convinced that it was an experience worth the money.

A tiny little island of about 25 square miles with a population of just over a thousand and a 14 miles stretch of road circling it, Barra is connected with its neighbouring island of Vatersay in the south by a causeway. Vatersay's only village, also Vatersay, has a population of about 70. To the north of Barra is Eriskay accessible by a 40 minute ferry service. A causeway connects Eriskay to South Uist, with further causeway connections to Benbecula and on to North Uist. I had two and half days and depending on the weather, the plan was to hire a bike and explore some of these areas between Vatersay and South Uist. Weather permitting, I would have also liked to visit the southern uninhabited island of Mingulay. The weather - that was the biggest factor. I was glued to the news for the next few days.


The Logan Air flight operated by FlyBe was scheduled to depart from Glasgow at 9:50 am on Friday. I had left Edinburgh very early at half six, taking the bus and was at the Glasgow International Airport well before the scheduled check-in time. The weather forecast had deteriorated over the past week and eventually had ended up being forecast as stormy right on the weekend. The rains were supposed to hit the Western Isles by midday - worse, there was warning of gale force winds preceding it. The flight was scheduled to land in Barra at 11am, just about the time the gales picked up. I had strong suspicion that the flight would be delayed, if not cancelled altogether. Following a very stringent security check at Glasgow Airport, I waited at the coffee shop for the gates to be displayed. As scheduled, at 9:15 am the gate number was updated up on the board. However all it showed was a '*' instead of a comprehensive gate number. My suspicion was changed to belief - the flight was definitely cancelled! At the same time I also realised I had fellow passengers around me (whom I came to know later), who were equally bemused by the gaffe. After some frantic inquiries we were told that the flight normally left from the extreme end, gates 1-3, so we trudged along to a part of the airport I had never been before and most probably, never will. The flight number never came up on the board but it was Gate 3 that the flight was leaving from. As we walked on to the tarmac to board the flight, I could barely hide my excitement at the first sight of the Twin Otter propeller plane. It was a tiny aircraft and for the first time I would be flying on anything of this kind. We walked up the step ladder to enter the tiny fuselage. Seats were laid out, single ones on the left and double row to the right. With a capacity of 19 people, the interiors were indeed cosy, some of the well endowed passengers, squeezing themselves into the tiny space. I was seated on the left, the privileges of the most expensive tickets came with a choice of seats during booking. There were a few empty seats left after everyone boarded, so the passengers moved around and made themselves comfortable, some relieved to sprawl out on the double row of seats. The co-pilot gave us the safety briefing while I couldn't stop myself from staring at the dials and equipment inside the cockpit.

The take-off seemed effortless. The powerful engines lifting the light aircraft with ease, the lift-off much quicker than my experience with jet engines on Boeings and Airbuses. I was yet to be awed by the power of these propeller engines, because as per the forecast, the bad weather would actually hit us.

It was a clear day on the mainland and the view was breathtaking from the low flying flight. It was a glorious day and I started to believe that the forecast may well turn out wrong. We flew over the Scottish highlands I have so loved to walk around till they gave way to the islands, the inner Hebrides.


By the time the plane hit the last stretch of the Sea of Hebrides before arriving at Barra, it had started to grow gloomier. Fierce black clouds were appearing on the Atlantic ahead of us as and all I could see was water all around me. I am struggling for words to describe my feeling at that moment. The gloomy weather and the vast expanse of the sea together were painting a pretty daunting picture, though scared will not be the appropriate word to describe how I felt. It even had a funny mix of excitement and anticipation in it to render me speechless.


We had started to fly very low at this point as we started to move into the dark clouds. We were being hit by waves of turbulence and the tiny aircraft shook and rattled under the impact. I kept my eyes firmly planted on the cockpit - in case the pilots showed any signs of excitement, I would start to panic. The public address system crackled, and the captain's voice floated in 'Ladies and Gentlemen, please fasten your seat belts. We are ready for descent'

I shifted my glance outside the window. As the aircraft made a turn, I had the first glimpse of the blue waters and white sands that make the Western Isles so famous. Barra managed to sparkle even under the dark clouds. The descent was short and quick, pushing my adrenaline overboard as I grabbed on to my seat. The Big Beach (Gaelic: Traig Mhor) situated to the north of the island with its infinite stretch of white sands appeared underneath. I braced myself for the touchdown.

I was pleasantly surprised by the softest landing I have ever experienced. As the wheels touched land, the white sand cushioned the impact while the sea water splashed, on the windows as well, as the aircraft raced along the beach to a gradual slowdown by the airport building.



As the engines were switched off, I felt the tiny aircraft being rocked by the gales. The co-pilot warned the passengers to hold on to their hats as they disembarked on to the beach. As I was stepping down the ladder trying to be careful in the wind, and perhaps looking a bit shaken up, the Captain reassured me that they have flown in far worse weather conditions. Indeed flying here requires immense skill, earns respect.

While the regulars made their way to the airport building, some of the visitors including your truly were so overwhelmed by the experience that they had to be ordered in eventually. The beach had to be cleared since the aircraft would be leaving soon. A Mitsubishi Warrior had also arrived by now and picked up the cargo. The baggage collection was in the airport car park. I hadn't got any checked-in so I made my way outside.



The airport was a tiny structure on the beach complete with its communication tower and most of its space taken up by its cafe. I stepped out of the airport and was immediately struck by the desolateness of the landscape. All around was tall grassland in low hilly terrain, devoid of any trees. And in that blustery wind, it was wilderness personified.

My plan was to wait for the next flight arrival which was due at about 2pm and watch the landing. I would spend the time walking around the beach, taking in the views around the Northbay. So, as the plane flew back to Glasgow carrying passengers to the mainland and the beach was open for walking again, I went back to the white shell beach of Traig Mhor. I started walking towards the north, glad that the strong wind was from behind. The sun was shining now.


According to Walkhighlands website, Northbay has a pleasant walk which goes from the airport to the end of the beach around the Eoligarry peninsula (the northernmost part of Barra), then goes up a hill for a beautiful view all around and then back to the airport again - Eoligarry Explorer 

This was my intended route. However, the wind by now was gradually growing stronger and staying on my feet was starting to get more and more difficult. I decided to drop my plans of going to any higher ground and instead got on the A888, the main road that circles the island. It was still a fight against the elements on my way back to the airport. I was walking south and the wind was blasting me on the face. And then the rains started.




I stumbled back to safety of the airport building almost fumbling my way as the shell dust and sands blew into my eyes and blinded me. Even though the weather was a disappointment, at the same time it was instrumental in enhancing the feel of wilderness of the place - dark skies, lashing rain, ferocious winds and a landscape devoid of any trees, the wild grass swept to the ground - not far from what I had imagined all those years back. Even the cattle had decided to return in this wild weather.

It was still an hour's wait for the incoming flight and hunger pangs were setting in. The cafe was serving local produce and so with my tea I tried out some hand-picked cockles cooked in chili and garlic.

The beach landings are considered a tourist attraction in Barra and so, even in that worsening weather, there were quite a few people waiting at the airport. However, the flight took its time to arrive as everyone patiently waited in the wind and the horizontal rain. Finally, after a delay of about 20 mins, it eventually appeared in the dark sky as a tiny blur in the dense cloud. It then popped out of the low clouds, still hazy in the pouring rain descending fast and proceeding to make a graceful landing in the blustery wind. Indeed they do fly in worse weather, I was once more filled with respect for the pilots.
All flights were eventually cancelled for the next couple of days due to the extremely low clouds.


During my stay in Barra, I would be putting up at the youth hostel in Castlebay, to the south of the island. This is the main town of the island with the ferry terminal connecting to Oban on the mainland and Lochboisdale in South Uist. Bus services are provided on the island by H MacNeil and their services connect with the ferry and the flight. There are separate bus services covering the west and the east of the island. The one I was getting on was to take us through the west. The delayed flight had delayed the bus service. But it would then miss the connecting bus through the east of the island. Calls were made between drivers and alternate arrangements were made for some of the passengers having their destination on the east coast. Someone picking up kids from school had had a breakdown and they called the bus service to pick them up. I figured out from the flurry of phone calls going around that once we were dropped off at Castlebay, they would be attended to. Our driver was concerned that the kids would have to wait that long in this weather. It was touching to see how the island knitted together in a close community. As the bus took us to Castlebay, through the misty, rain spattered windows and the dense low clouds covering the island, I was trying to imagine the spectacular landscape I was riding through. I could sometimes see the sea and cliffs, but everything was disappointingly covered in dark haze.

It turned out to be a door to door bus service and the locals were dropped at their gates with a promise to see them the next day. In that worsening weather, no one was allowed to walk. I was dropped off at the Dunard hostel. The town had earned its name from the spectacular Kisimul castle gracing the waters in its bay. By now the rains was pouring down with a vengeance and the castle was a blurry picture, standing out in the fierce sea all by itself under the dark clouds on its rocky outcrop.


Perhaps Dunard is the most unique hostel I have been to till date. It has an open door policy. The reservations are put down on the board everyday with empty spaces in each room noted on the board. People can come in at any time, check for empty spaces on the board and check themselves in - writing their names on the board to fill up the empty blocks. They have to operate as a mixed dorm to make this work. At end of stay the boarders take their bed sheets out, put the money due in the honesty jar and leave and apparently, it all worked so well. Notices pasted on the wall gave all information the boarders may need. The owners would come down later in the evening to meet the 8pm ferry as this is when they expected most visitors to turn up. Apart from the hostel, Dunard also has an adjacent lodge and a couple of wigwams. It was really good to see that they tried their best to accommodate everyone comfortably considering their age and abilities. 
I had already reserved a bed a couple of weeks back and found my name in Bunk room 2.

I was the only one to arrive by the bus and the hostel looked empty. I made myself a cup of tea and waited in the lounge for the rain and wind to ease. The heating was off and it was cold. The forecast said the sun would be out around five in the evening and I was hoping it would. In fact, it indeed started to look better in an hour. It was still raining but looked lighter. I decided to venture out. As I walked around the empty rain drenched streets around the bay I bumped into my fellow passengers from Glasgow, Liz and Tom. They were travelling from Dunfermline and were on a walking holiday. They didn't look too happy with the weather either but still remained cheerful under their jacket hoods.

A boat service to the Kisimul castle leaves every 30 mins from the bay, but it was closed down due to the weather. Ferry trips to the uninhabited islands were cancelled too due to the weather and, as I would come to know, they remained cancelled for the next couple of days as well. So my plans of visiting Mingulay was left for another trip. I trotted down to the local co-operative to buy some food for the next few days and then parked myself at the Tartan Table Cafe close by. While I was indulging in the local hake goujons and some strawberry cheesecake, the sky eventually cleared up and the sun came out.

It was a different world in the sun. What a contrast with the grey waters now replaced by a turquoise blue matching the sky and suddenly I was surrounded by hills I didn't know existed. The highest point in Barra is Heaval, a distinctive conical hill towering over Castlebay at 1250ft. The sun was to set at 9:45pm and I had just about 3 hours - enough time to be up and back, but sensibly decided against it,  and returned to the hostel after exploring the lower grounds. The view was incredible from my dorm room as Castlebay slipped into the late dusk of summer.







The forecast for the next day had rains arriving in the late morning, so an early start was a must. The plan was to go over to Tangasdale, about 2 miles from Castlebay to the west. It has the most popular beach in Barra and after a walk up the cliffs to the ruins of an Iron Age fort at Dun Ban. Details of the walk here - Dun Ban and Halaman Bay, Tangasdale


The walk started from the phone booth on the A888 in Tangasdale. Phone booths still have a major usefulness in these parts of the world where mobile connection can only be said as sporadic. I walked the 2 miles from the hostel and got off the road on to the lush green machairs once I spotted the telephone box. The machair was dotted with wild flowers. Machair is a Gaelic word meaning the fertile land by the seas. The highly nutrient soil created by the sea shells are covered with wild flowers during the summer months. I was greeted with the remnants of a Second World War bunker.


Walking past it and the loch Tangasdale with its white sandy shore and a ruin of a castle known as Mcleod's tower, I walked up the rocky terrains passing the remnants of houses from the early settlers. From here the sea opened up to the west with magnificent view of the waves crashing on the cliffs. It felt like standing at the edge of the world, and being there on my own, it sent shivers down the spine.



Finding the path on the cliffs was all about locating the marker posts far and between. I am not sure how far I could have gone, but dark clouds were gathering out in the ocean, and I felt the strong winds blowing them inland. The hills around were already enveloped by the clouds, so I decided to return. I had seen the ferocity of the rains yesterday and would not have wanted to face it in this open wilderness.

After coming down the cliffs and crossing a boggy stretch, when I realised my boots had given up and were leaking, I ended up in a tiny secluded beach separated by a grassy ridge from the main beach of Halaman Bay. I decided to have my mid morning snack sitting on the rocks by the white sands. It wasn't long before I was tempted to take off my shoes and walk in the water, it was summer after all, even though a very wet one. I realised my blunder within seconds. The water felt like an icy stab and my feet went numb from the shock. I whimpered and scurried back through the cold sand back to the rocks, trying to steal whatever warmth I could gather from my hands and the wet socks. Whatever may the Barra photographs on a sunny day say, this definitely was the difference from the blue water and white sands of the Carribeans - the dark clouds were a dead give away anyway. I booted up and went off walking trying to get the heat back to my toes. Crossing the ridge I was now on the magnificent beach of Halaman Bay, a huge expanse of golden sand being kissed by the blue seas.




I walked the length of the beach and by the time I reached the other end, the skies had descended into another tempest. I now had an incredibly difficult 3 miles walk back to Castlebay, fighting against the wind and the lashing rain.
Soaked to my bones and dripping, I found myself at the Tartan Table Cafe again. There were only a few places to eat in Barra and most were in Castlebay. I quite liked this place as it was in a building that also held the local community centre. It served as a play area for children and a gathering place for the locals. I heard some of the, speaking in Gaelic, which is widely used in the Outer Hebrides. Though I had hoped to learn a couple of words before I came here, I had no recollection of the words I learnt even before I had closed the webpage.
I went for the locally procured fish and chips.

Even though it was raining and there were forecast of heavy showers through the afternoon, I had decided to go over to the adjacent island of Vatersay. The bus to Vatersay would leave Castlebay at around 1:30 pm. About 8 miles from Castlebay and on a sea side path, this would have been a beautiful walk on a better day. Unfortunately, it was not today. The skies had opened up and the rain was relentless.
Vatersay and Barra are connected by a 900 ft causeway built in the early 90s making communication much easier. It is now only 15 mins by road compared to the much longer duration it took earlier to cross on ferries and boats. The bus stopped en route and I was surprised to find my fellow passengers from Glasgow airport boarding. Exasperated by the rains their walking holiday was fast turning into a bus ride holiday, however, their spirit was indomitable. Later I came to know that they had actually walked back from Vatersay even in the inclement weather.

Vatersay's beauty is in its spectacular white sand beaches. A 4 mile walk through the island goes across the magnificent coastline, a standing stone, the ruins of an aircraft and the Annie Jane memorial. This was built in memory of the unfortunate immigrants who perished when the ship Annie Jane carrying them to Canada capsized on the rocks in 1853.

As we got off the bus at Vatersay, the rains ceased long enough to help me walk on the golden sands of the east beach for a while. Fishing trawlers and equipment were lying all around, Crabs caught in net were waiting to be pulled up, it was the picture of a community where fishing is the main livelihood.




Unfortunately, the weather did not hold up for long. Barely had I walked the length of the beach that the rains came down again. The accompanied wind is always strong in these open lands. I managed to cross the machair in the wild wind for a glimpse of the wonderful Traigh Siar beach on the west coast but then the sharp shower forced me to retreat. The camera was well and truly locked in as I returned to the village cafe. The return bus was still an hour away and there was no shelter from the elements. There wasn't a single soul in sight and the only cafe on the island was closed being Saturday afternoon. As I heard the wind raging and the waves crashing, I ruled out walking back to Castlebay. I waited in the wet and cold, trying to shield myself from the wind at the doorway of the closed cafe. I wondered about the first settlers to these islands. Braving the elements, what had inspired them to settle in these wilderness.

Not surprisingly, when the bus did arrive, I was the only passenger as it raced through the single track roads turning and twisting by the sea side. I could only imagine how spectacular it would have been on any other day, a beautiful walk by the coast I would have hated to miss. The bus had to reverse a couple of times to let oncoming vehicles to pass. Eventually, I was dropped off at the hostel. I was glad to be back to the warmth of the hostel as I ran for a hot shower to save my frozen limbs. The fire was on in the lounge and I could not wait to get beside it.

Once the blood started to return to my feet and fingertips, I found that I had been moved to a different dormitory to fit new guests in. I moved my belongings and then took my cup of tea to the lounge. Everyone at the hostel were huddled there by the fire. I met Christine, travelling from Sussex on her own and Hugh who was volunteering for National Trust. There was Anne whiwas supposed to be out camping with her father. However, his flight was cancelled so she was putting up at the hostel for the day as well. We spent a cosy evening chatting while the world outside was being battered.


At last I woke up to a beautiful morning - it was Sunday.

Even though the forecast was for light showers through the day, the clouds were starting to clear up. I was still recovering from the previous day's battering but Heaval was definitely on my list today. Hugh had just about made it on the previous morning with an early start, but Christine had abandoned it half way up because of the weather. Both of them had said it was an extremely boggy walk - something I definitely wanted to avoid with my now leaking walking boots. 

So I started off. I had noticed a path going up the 'Glen' walk and thought might give it a try in case it helped me avoid the bog. I soon figured out that it was not at all a short cut and I was in the middle of horse grazing boggy ground, worse than just boggy ground. The only way out was way back through mud, which I wanted to avoid, or to climb over the barbed fences. I chose the latter, and though once getting stuck, I managed to reach dry grounds safely and then retrace my steps to the start of the normal walk up the Heaval on the A888, about 2 miles from the ferry terminal. There are two separate paths, going up the hill both starting in front of a quarry. I decided to take the second one and it was relatively less boggy. However, since the cloud was still covering the hill and I could see more coming in from the sea on the East, I decided to wait it out and come back later. I went on a stroll by the coast instead.



After about an hour I found myself back at the starting point of the walk up the Heaval. The sun was now truly out and it was starting to get pretty warm. The walk up the hill, though short was extremely steep. I saw other walkers joining in as well. For a change, I was not on my own. It was a popular route, more so after a couple of days of extreme weather. Everyone was waiting for the weather to clear.

Close to the summit, sheltered by the steep slopes, a marble statue of Madonna and the Child looks out to the oceans. For a seafaring community they carry the prayers of the fishermen setting sail.

It also provides a magnificent viewpoint.



From here onwards the boggy path disappears and I was left on an extremely steep grassy incline.

Holding on to the grass for grip and finding footholds in the soil, when I finally made it up to the top, my legs were aching and heart thumping from exhaustion and excitement. I realised how much I had underestimated this mere climb of sub 2000 ft hill. But the pain was worth it as I soaked in the view from the top. It was a clear day and the uninhabited southern islands of Vatersay, Pabbay, Mingulay and Berneray formed a string of dotted beads on the blue Atlantic, while I could see Eriskay and Uist to the north, a beautiful panoramic view out to the sea. On the west, the blue sea extended to nothingness. It was breathtaking.


From the Heaval it is possible to walk on the hills and ridges all the way to the Northbay and I wanted to do some of it at the least. However, I was without a map and though the terrain was quite obvious on the clear day I was not convinced as the clouds were still making unannounced entries. I had met a group of walking friends from Hamilton on my way up the Heaval and they seemed to be pretty much disinterested about returning the same way. They welcomed me into their group. There wasn't any bus service on a Sunday, so wherever we ended up, we had to slog back to Castlebay or to a telephone box to call a taxi. However, rather than going all the way to North Bay we did a horse-shoe by climbing three surrounding tops of the Heaval before starting to walk down to the east coast of the island.




It was a long and tedious climb down to the road through grassy land, hidden streams and some more fence climbing. We had ended up about 4 miles from Castlebay, and it was then the expected slog back on the A888.
By the time we reached Castlebay it was already 4pm. I said my goodbyes to Francis, Catherine and Lorna as I headed for the hostel. I had had my best day in Barra. When Christine greeted me at the hostel she was wondering why I was grinning like the Cheshire cat. So after a shower to wash off the bog, I decided to go over to the Castlebay hotel to celebrate my last day in this spectacular island. It was a fancy place to eat on the island. Bumping into Tom and Liz was becoming like a habit as they also dropped in for the evening. A couple of cyclists I had met earlier in the day were there as well. It was the last evening on Barra for all of us. It was quite amusing how I kept on meeting the same people over the three days I was there. Though not surprising since it's only a 8 miles long and 7 miles wide island with only a single major village.

I even managed to order a chocolate gateau.

After food, I went out for a walk round the shore reading the story of the Herring industry painted in words and pictures by the shore. The last ferry was leaving and the atmosphere was very calm and peaceful. I decided to sit on one of the benches for a while.


As the sun gradually went behind the hills, I decided to return. However, as soon as I had started to stroll
 back to the hostel, I was stopped on my tracks as a sudden streak of light reappeared from behind the hills and hit the Kisimul castle. The bay was awash in a golden glow. It looked mesmerising. 

I waited and was rewarded by a glorious sunset. A perfect ending to a perfect day.



The rest of the evening was spent in the hostel lounge around the fire, mostly chatting about Scotland, the common topic that connected us all. I was leaving by the morning ferry while a few others were flying out by the morning flight, the same one Liz and Tom would be taking. The cyclists I had met in the morning were also at the hostel and would be going over to South Uist and then on to their cycling journey of the Outer Hebrides to return from Stornoway. Christine was spending a couple of more days in Barra honing her kayaking skills and so was Hugh before he went over to Harris and from there to St Kilda for his volunteering work with NTS.

It was well past midnight when we finally went to bed.
The clouds were back the next morning.

My ferry to Oban was leaving at 9:20am. I woke up early and went for a final walk round the bay. The cloud cover was thick and even though it was not yet raining, it was obvious that it would soon. The bright and beautiful previous day was a distant memory. But the place was just as peaceful and I wanted the feeling to linger on.

The ferry arrived from Lochboisdale at about 9am and we all boarded. The group of ladies I had walked with on the Heaval were returning as well. As the ferry started moving, Heaval was barely visible behind the clouds. I stood for a while on the deck, but then the rains started. I came back to the comfort of the lounge.

Oban was 5 hours away.


Trivia
The Outer Hebrides can be reached from the mainland via Castlebay in Barra, Lochboisdale in South Uist or Stornoway in Harris. Caledonian Macbrayne run ferry services from Oban and Ullapool.

The ferry to Castlebay leaves in the afternoon from Oban and takes 5 hours to reach. The cost for foot passengers was £14.50 each way when I travelled in 2014 summer.
On Thursdays there used to be a morning ferry with stopovers at the islands of Coll and Tiree and it takes 7 hours to reach Castlebay. Even though the islands are tiny, not much of these islands can be seen in the little stopover time.
The Caledonian MacBrayne website has the latest timetables and ticket options http://www.calmac.co.uk/timetables/
An island hopper is an economical and convenient way to move around the islands if visiting more than one.

Getting a return flight ticket makes it relatively cheaper especially if you are staying for a few days on the island. For my trip, the single was £75 while the return would have cost me £110.Tickets can be purchased from http://www.flybe.com/

It is good to prebook the Dunard Hostel by visiting their website http://www.dunardhostel.co.uk/ as the hostel can be very busy. Also, make the booking payment only after you have received the availability confirmation. There are only 5 rooms, two 4 bed dormitories, two twin and a family room. Expect the dorms to be mixed though the owner Chris did mention they try to keep it gender specific but it does not always work. The price is £17 per night. The response to emails is not very prompt but you will definitely hear back from them. Also I tried to call them up but never got an answer. But be patient, your bookings will be fine. If you want more private accommodation, they also have a lodge.

If someone is interested in adventure, they can book for sea-kayaking trips at the hostel.

Sea safaris leave from near the ferry terminal to the uninhabited island including Mingulay. The price if I remember was £50 per person. The trip is for approximately 5 hours with 3 hrs on Mingulay. The Kisimul castle on the rocky outcrop can be visited by a 5 minute boat ride from the ferry terminal. The boat leaves every 30 minutes and costs £5.50 that includes the admission charges.

Though Barra is a quiet island, it has relatively good facilities for the tourists. The Castlebay and the Craigard hotels are a couple of the more finer places to stay. There are a quite a few Bed and Breakfasts and Self-catering cottages around in other villages as well. The hotels in Castlebay have their restaurants where non residents are welcome. Kisimul Cafe by the ferry terminal serves Indian and Italian food. And there is the Tartan Table Cafe near the Co-operative. Eating out options are almost non existent in other villages in Barra.

Most places, including bus services shut down by 5pm and everything by 6pm apart from the hotel restaurants. Even they stop serving food after 8pm I have heard. So do check the timetables and opening times for your planning. Many places are closed on Saturdays and everything closes down on Sunday.

The Tourist Information is to the right as you leave the ferry terminal. I got more information on the local walks from Walkhighlands http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/outer-hebrides/barra.shtml than I got from the Tourist Information. But you can collect the Bus and Ferry timetables from here if you aren't already carrying them. http://www.cnesiar.gov.uk/travel/busservice/current/indexb.asp
There aren't frequent bus services, but adequate if you are on a walking holiday. Ticket costs are based on distance and start from £0.80 to £6.20 for a single, return fares are cheaper - as of 2014. With 14 miles of circular road, the island can be visited on foot. Bike can also be rented from Barra cycle hire by calling them up or visiting them. They are located further right from the Tourist Information. However, watch out for the strong wind and there are some gruellingly uphill stretches. The wind is normally blowing from South to North, but it may as well be random. If renting a car, they can be hired from Northbay. However, practice reversing on hilly terrain as you may need to give way to oncoming traffic at the passing places.

Unfortunately due to the weather I was unable to see the island in the extent I would have liked to. The western stretch of Barra has more beaches while the eastern is more cliffs. Eoligarry pensinsula starting from the airport in Northbay is a beautiful walk with its extended white sandy beaches and blue seas. The ferry to Eriskay leaves from here. You can check these websites to know more about places of interest in Barra
http://www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk/our-islands/isles-of-barra-and-vatersay/barra
http://www.scotland-inverness.co.uk/barra.htm

Mobile phone network is almost non-existent. I have a Vodafone connection but only received signals sporadically in the middle of nowhere but never in Castlebay. Though I noticed a strong EE connection in Castlebay while searching for network. The WiFi in Dunard Hostel is very good.

The Heaval is an energetic climb. After the Madonna and Child, rather than taking the top straight away, it may be easier to walk around to the west face and then climb up. Though walking to the west face itself can be challenging in the steep grassy incline.

Sturdy boots and waterproof clothing is a must. You will also need to protect yourself from the strong wind. Watch out for the tides when on the beach. You may need to climb a few fences on your walks but respect the outdoors and please carry the litter back. The tourist influx is already leaving its mark going by the litter (especially crushed Lucozade bottles) lying around - the downsides of adventure tourism.


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8 comments:

  1. A very informative and engrossing read.Thank you for sharing your experiences with us Saheli.

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    1. Thanks Moumita. Even though the weather did try to play a spolisport on this trip, I still consider this a very special journey for me and hence worth sharing. Glad you liked it and thanks for reading!

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  2. One of the best travel blogs I have come across in last 15yrs or so, keep it up.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Babu da for the encouragement! Really glad that you liked it and thanks for reading and sharing.

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  4. What a great experience! Your beautiful description and fantastic pictures made it an awesome read. I shall always look forward to roam the world through your blog posts. Best wishes

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