I am standing on the edge of the pier in Oban, the gateway to the islands of Scotland. Tomorrow, a Cal Mac ferry from the ferry port down the road will take me on a 6 hour journey to Castlebay in Barra. As the light begins to fall, I head to the nearest pub, maps in hand, to contemplate my journey. I feel a connection to Oban; as a place in its own right it has the brimming anticipation of any port town, but as part of a wider relationship to the rest of Scotland it feels isolated, and it provides a brief taste of the wilderness I’m yet to experience on my journey.
The pub is warm and full of seasonal visitors. Many have just arrived from Europe, starting at Oban looking for work here and on the many islands before the summer season starts. There’s an excitement in the pub and talk of far-flung islands with Scandinavian sounding names. I take a pew and study my map in preparation for the journey tomorrow. Getting to the islands will be easy, CalMac are adept at accommodating foot passengers with affordable tickets, but at the other end I’m not too sure where I’ll be heading. I’ve heard talk of some excellent campsites near Castlebay, and I know there’s plenty of wild camping options too. Earmarking a few essential spots to visit while i’m on Barra, I keep the plan consciously loose and flexible, and head to bed at the nearby Oban Backpackers in preparation for my journey in the morning.
There’s the calmness of a spring day in the air as I wake and head to the ferry port. With everything either in my rucksack or tied around it, there’s a sense of liberation being able to buy a ticket on the spot and walk onto a huge ferry alone, ignoring the bureaucracy and paperwork of the many passenger and freight vehicles that are loading. The MV Isle of Lewis is the workhorse of the Oban - Barra route, once the fastest ferry ships in Scotland when she was built in 1995, and still one of the largest in the CalMac fleet. As we move out of port, I settle on a bench on the top deck, watching the Scottish mainland diminish in size and feeling the wind and seaspray quicken around the ship.
The journey to Barra is an enigmatic voyage in itself. It’s a long enough journey to settle in and consider the passing of time in stages. At first, we weave around small ships, tall ships and fishing boats with the dramatic Isle of Mull on our port side. After that, the smaller islands of Coll and Tiree come and go, and we are left facing the sea mist of the north western Atlantic. There’s 4 hours of this, and a good time to get some rest, stock up on coffee and consider the next step.
Arriving in Castlebay in Barra is an event in its own right. Given the length of the ferry journey, there’s an acknowledgement by everyone on board of the sheer remoteness of these islands. We slow well in advance of the ferry terminal, with the isolated beauty of Barra, its sheltered shores and remote beaches looming out of the fog that often shrouds this part of the islands. The ship falls quiet, and we navigate around Kisimul Castle, a small medieval harbour castle that dates back to the late 15th century and built at the height of Gaelic power on these islands during the Middle Ages. Everyone onboard the ferry admires the beauty of the isolation; the little colourful harbour houses and peppered indications of civilisation in sporadic clusters across the town. Aside from a couple of hotels, a pub and a Coop, facilities here are few and far between, highly seasonal and highly dependent on prevailing weather and conditions. As I step off the ship, I realise I’ve come to the perfect place for camping in quietness and solitude.
A friendly local offers a hand by dropping me to the nearest camping spot. I meet Donald, the campsite owner at Borve campsite, who welcomes me and what now now feels like a heavy rucksack. After eight hours of travelling from the mainland of Scotland, I’ve reached the furthest westerly campsite in the United Kingdom. I pitch up by the beach overlooking a small cluster of rocks. The quiet descends as the evening draws in and I make my way to to the nearby Isle of Barra Beach Hotel for a walk on the beach and the only pint to be found for a couple of miles in either direction.
The next day my plans for exploring begin in earnest, and I start the day with a homebrew coffee using my stove while considering my options for seeing as most of Barra in the time I have here. Over coffee, a neighbouring tent offers some some advice, which dictates my explorations here. The hotel up the road hire out bicycles, which are a perfect way of getting around on the largely traffic free stretches of tarmac that circle the island. I’ve always wanted to see the airport on the beach at the north of the island, so I pack a small rucksack and head slowly towards it on the bike. I take in small coves and isolated beaches, stopping at one to observe a group of seals enjoying the surf and the plethora of fish found in the shallows. There’s an unnerving but beautiful quietness that encircles the island in low lying sea mist. Small cottages and larger farm buildings stand side by side, often one solitary light on amongst a cluster of buildings the only indication of habitation for miles around. As I progress north the geography of the islands change, and they become lower lying, easier to cycle and comprise some of the most beautiful sand dunes I’ve seen atop large, sweeping, almost endless beaches.
The airport at Barra is a sight to behold. De Havilland Twin Otter planes take off at low tide on the beach, bouncing over ruts in the sand and leaving in their wake a trail of sea water and spray. It’s such a draw that a few visitors and locals alike join me in propping up the fence and watching as two planes take-off and land coming from and leaving to Glasgow and the relative haven of the Scottish mainland. With only a couple of planes a day, the arrival of a Loganair flight is an event for the island in itself, and I reflect on how lifelines such as this must be maintained in order for civilization to continue in such unique, remote locations.
I’m enjoying my time in the northerly most point of Barra. With the bike leaning against the nearest fence, I stroll across the great expanse of sand that makes up the opposite side of the island to the airport. It’s calm here, a gentle wind flows through the marram grass and I have the whole place to myself. I’m one of the furthest westerly people in the UK at this point. There’s nothing but the great ocean expanse from here to Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada.
I make my way back to Castlebay via the easterly side of the island. There’s a more sheltered feel here, boats lie at rest and small groups of huts and shacks act as makeshift fishing villages that house small operations owned by those making a living in the harsh northern Atlantic Ocean. There’s a feel of productivity and the quiet bustle of island life on this coastline, and I spend a bit of time watching the day’s CalMac ferry sailing maneuver Castlebay as it did with me onboard the day before.
The evening is spent in quiet solitude in my tent, reading about the islands and listening to the Atlantic’s gentle roar from the warmth of my tent. Hip flask by my side, I spend the evening with candlelight for company,
The next morning, the drizzle has rolled in to such an extent the beach I once pitched next to has all but disappeared in the mist. It’s a quiet and solemn atmosphere as I make my final walk along the beach at Borve. I manage a very quick dip - stripping on an isolated beach and making a dive for it only to run back to the warmth of my abandoned clothes and submit myself to the comfort of my jumper. It’s an invigorating end to an invigorating trip.
I’ve spent a long weekend, much of it travelling to this far island of the United Kingdom, exploring what it means to live and travel on the edges of this space we call home. I have always been interested by borders, and this trip to Barra reconfirmed by love for exploring the boundaries and limits of our home nation whilst exploring the landscapes that feel familiar, but that we so seldom get to see or experience. Visiting Barra on my own also gave me a new appreciation for solo travel, something I’ve always enjoyed, and I feel my experience of the island was greatly enhanced because of it. I will almost certainly be heading back, tent and sleeping bag firmly in-tow.