Like many Aberdonians, I’m fairly well travelled. A combination of work and holidays has taken me all the way from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, yet I’ve never really explored my own country.
I know the North-east well – except the hilly or snowy bits – and I’m familiar with the best shopping streets and galleries of many of our cities. I’ve even spent an amazingly chilly few days poking around the rich archaeology of the Orkney Isles, but much of the Highlands, West Coast and Hebridean islands remains uncharted territory. The triple threat of poor weather, high costs and particularly vicious midges meant Scotland’s west coast never really reached the top of my must visit list, despite Instagram-perfect scenery.
Getting to Barra takes a while. You can fly in from Glasgow, landing on the beach at Traigh Mhor, though arrivals are subject to the tides. Our dog was coming with us and we wanted a more relaxed long weekend, so we opted to drive cross-country to Oban, meandering down the site of Loch Tay and through the Trossachs, before taking the Caledonian McBrayne ferry over to the island. Unfortunately, some technical issues with the ferry meant our sailing was moved up from early afternoon to unsociably early. When we arrived at the ferry terminal at 6.30am,
we discovered the sailing had been moved again to the afternoon, so we headed up the coast, discovering the tranquil setting of Dunstaffnage Castle and strolling in Port Appin, before finding a café offering great homemade scones and hot chocolate.
As the ferry sailed serenely past Mull, Coll and a host of tiny islets, we were surprised to find there were great on board facilities for dogs, generously portioned comfort food in the café and a crew that seemed to be dedicated to being both helpful and entertaining.
Don’t expect Barra to offer 5* boutique hotels or sophisticated shopping. Aside from a small toffee factory and a heritage centre that hadn’t yet opened for the season, we found a Co-Op, a craft gallery and a community shop. This probably explains why our souvenirs consisted of two potted Barra primroses and a large jar of dried wild mushrooms.
There are some luxurious self-catering cottages, but these are often booked up a year ahead in summer. We opted to stay at the Castlebay Hotel, a TripAdvisor favourite which was both dog and people-friendly and featured a good restaurant. We also loved the airport café for freshly baked scones and the delightfully eccentric and slightly surreal Café Kisimul, possibly the only Indian-Italian fusion restaurant in the country. It sounds off-putting, but it’s ranked as one of the 50 best curry houses in the UK, thanks to the scallop pakoras and monkfish masala.
At times, Barra itself seemed quite surreal. For starters, there’s a castle slap bang in the middle of the bay, everything is gloriously unpolished and there are over twenty deserted white sand beaches, complete with shells, dunes, azure seas and the kind of blue skies that make you feel you’ve gone back to the dawn of time, or been transported to another country. It’s so natural, unspoilt and peaceful even the midges decided not to bother us. Had it been 20 degrees warmer, Barra would have resembled the Caribbean.
It’s made us want to discover more of our own country and we will certainly return to Barra. It’s the perfect place to get away from the pressures of everyday life. www.calmac.co.uk operate over 25 car and passenger ferry routes including the Hebrides, Firth of Clyde islands and Hopscotch Island hopping tickets.