Sunday, 30 May 2010

Oban to Barra

May 19  Oban to Barra
Oh well, it had to happen sometime, but why when we were going on our first cruise to the islands.  Sea mist and fog and drizzle!
Having loaded up with petrol, food and wine at the nearby Tescos, we queued for the 1400 ferry, landing at Barra at 1830. What a shame about the weather!
There is generally only one road through or around these islands, and that is a single-track road with frequent passing places.  With no parking spaces and no camp-sites, we made our way towards the airfield, where there used to parking on the beach, at Cockle Strand.  There are regular daily flights from here which land and take-off from the beach, obviously at low tide.  Last summer they were besieged by campervans, no doubt boasting that they’d been able to stay night after night for free, and there was a tightening up of wild camping on the island.  A few crofters open up their land for camping, otherwise it’s very difficult.  I certainly wouldn’t want to come here during the busy months.  We found only two possible places to camp, near the northern tip, one unofficial at Eolaigearraidh, near a fishing jetty ( loo, water, waste disposal, room for 6), and a crofter’s field (room for about 20) and that was your lot.
The mist was down, so couldn’t see much, but we had a short walk along a deserted white-sand beach and tried to imagine what it must be like with a bit of sunshine!

The following day, we set off on a cycle ride round the island of Barra and across the causeway to the neighbouring island of Vatersay.  The islands were linked in the 1980s following pressure from locals, after the drowning of the prize bull, Bernie!  The crofters used to swim their cattle across the short stretch of water to take them to market, but on this occasion the bull drowned, so the Sound of Vatersay was bridged.
We cycled along the east coast of Barra, up and down to Castle Bay, where the ferry pulls in from Oban.  We called in for a coffee and cake at the Dualchas heritage centre, which was warm and welcoming.  Bearing in mind that it’s in the 20s at home, it was quite a chilly 14deg here, with a cold wind.  There’s a complete lack of tourist development here, and cafes are fairly rare, so you grab a coffee where you can!  There’s the odd, nnsigned co-op and nothing else. At Castle Bay, Chiosmuil Castle stands on a tiny rock out in the bay, seemingly floating on water.  Built around 1427, it was the home of the Macneil clan. On past the little church deicated to St Barr and a statue of him set in the lochan. St Finbarr came here is the 7th century, and the island has been RC since the 1600s. The southern islands are roman catholic, whereas North Uist, Lewis and Harris are Protestant.  Not like the wishy-washy nature of our obedience, the northern Hebridean islands still respect the strict tenets of John Calvin, and no shops, restaurants and bars areopen on Sunday, whereas in the south, there are no shops, restaurants and bars!!  Benbecula, in the middle, is said to be a mixture of both religions.
  We continued on climbing steeply up and then a fast downhill all the way to the causeway, passing an odd-looking fella with some co-op bags, resting by the side of the road.  On to Vatersay, with its wonderfully surfaced roads, only 5 miles long, edged with masses of yellow primroses.  There looked to be a nice cliff walk, but that was all, so we turned around back to the causeway, again past the odd-looking fella with the shopping bags, hopefully coming to the end of his 10 mile walk to get the groceries!!
We continued on up the west coast of barra, with views out over the Atlantic Ocean, white-sand, deserted beaches, turquoise sea in sheltered bays. Quite hilly, with some steep, short climbs. 
After 32mls we were back at the north of the island.  Whilst I stopped to visit the 7th century church of St Barr at Cille Bharra, which its replica of gravestones found here with Norse runes carved on one side and celtic cross on the other, thought to be evidence of Nordic conversion to Christianity.  Too much for Ian, he was off on his bike to check out the waste disposal facilities at the site further on!! Just to add, for next time, the Barra Hotel on the Beach on west coast has Wi-fi!

A quick, “dunky” shower in the van and then we were off to Ardmore and the ferry to Eriskay, a brief sail of 45 mins. Couldn’t see anything because of the mist and drizzle.  Shame!

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