Two tickets to ‘Barradise’

On the morning of my big birthday, I opened the envelope which Julie had propped against my cereal bowl and found the best present I could have hoped for – two return tickets from Glasgow to Barra – and the chance for both of us to fulfil an ambition. Inspired by the writings of Sir Compton Mackenzie, the much-loved film version of his Whisky Galore story and captivated by tales of Barra as recounted by The Coddie, we had long hoped to visit the island. Now, the seats on the little plane which connects Barra to the mainland had been reserved and all I had to do was to book an hotel and hire a car.

Scotland’s magnificent west coast

A call to the Castlebay Hotel quickly secured our room with a grandstand view of the comings and goings of the Caledonian MacBrayne’s ferry but a search of the internet could give me no car hire companies. I rang the Castlebay Hotel again and my query was quickly answered – “You just need to call Mr MacNeil and you’ll be fine” said the hotel receptionist in her delightful, lilting voice. I rang the number given and an equally lilting voice bade me leave a message and assured me that my enquiry would be answered promptly. Given that I was calling from our home in France I was a little dubious but, true to his word, a little while later Mr MacNeil phoned back. We had a pleasant exchange about the weather in France and the weather on Barra, and it transpired during our conversation that Mr MacNeil used to ‘Drive the prawns from Barra down to Spain’.

My mind’s eye pictured a weatherbeaten islander herding a shoal of recalcitrant crustaceans over the Pyrenees until, thankfully, a refrigerated lorry was mentioned! I offered my credit card to secure the booking but the kindly Mr MacNeil told me just to present myself at the airport café, ask for the keys and pay when I returned the car. “What about insurance?” I asked. “Och, it’ll be insured just fine” he replied. I was about to bid Mr MacNeil goodnight when I remembered to ask what kind of car I had just hired. He chuckled, “Och, it’ll be a nice one….” A most enjoyable experience and a simple, honest business arrangement – so unlike the usual morass of paperwork and hidden extras.

On the morning of departure from our son’s home in Glasgow we awoke to blizzard conditions (yes, in April!). Thankful that our taxi was equipped with 4-wheel drive we made it to the airport only to be greeted by the news that the runway on the neighbouring island of Tiree was snowbound, and that our flight to Barra would be delayed until further notice. However, just as we reached the limit of our tolerance for airport coffee, the snow stopped, the sun shouldered through the clouds, our tiny plane skittered along the runway – and we were on our way!

Those seasoned travellers on the Glasgow – Barra route will know what a memorable experience it is to fly at relatively low level along Scotland’s magnificent west coast and to sweep in to land on the cockle strand of Traigh Mhor is simply breathtaking (the Glasgow to Barra service is the only scheduled flight in Europe to land on a beach – with its timetable dictated by the tides!) We touched down in a shower of spray and taxied to the tiny terminal building. The steps arrived and we walked across the white sand to reclaim our baggage and collect the keys of Mr MacNeil’s hire car. (It was indeed, ‘a nice one’!) So began a wonderful week on Barra.


Artisit Frank Mosley.

As an artist specialising in Scotland’s scenery, I was instantly captivated by the interconnected islands of Barra and Vatersay. Julie and I were blessed with long days of sunshine and blue skies and we walked on as many beaches as we could: Traigh Mhor, Halaman Bay, Eliogarry, Sgurabhal and through the famous gate to Vatersay Bay. Pristine sands in myriad hues, crystal clear waters in greens, blues and a turquoise almost blindingly vivid. At times, spectacular waves breaking over some of the oldest rocks in the world. At Vatersay’s Siar Bay we stood in silence at the simple memorial to the 350 emigrants, bound for Canada, who drowned in 1853 when a ferocious storm drove their ship, The Annie Jane, aground. Somewhere, beneath our feet, we knew their bodies lay, where they were hastily buried – the islanders having no means to cope with a loss of life of such magnitude.

Back across the causeway to Barra, we climbed the island’s highest peak, Heaval, and marvelled at the panorama of Castlebay below us – Kisimul Castle, ancient seat of the Clan MacNeil at its centre-point. Near the summit we stood by the statue of Our Lady Star of the Sea and watched, enthralled, as an eagle soared majestically above our heads. Returned to Castlebay, we sat in the sunshine outside the Post Office tearoom drinking coffee and chatting to the island’s friendly policeman. On a land mass with barely more than 1,100 inhabitants and an almost zero crime rate we were intrigued to know how he filled his duty hours. “Simple” he smiled.”‘In the morning I drive slowly round the island in a clockwise direction. After lunch I drive round anti-clockwise…” Even our relaxed pace of life at home in rural France seemed hurried by comparison!

Everyone we met had a smile and a welcoming word and if we left only our footprints on the beaches, we knew we would carry a part of this island ‘Barradise’ in our hearts forever. All too soon it was time to return our car and board our Glasgow flight. As the plane climbed up from the beach and the beautiful islands of Barra and Vatersay fell behind us, I knew that I had found more than enough inspiration for my next series of paintings and that, someday soon, we would return.

Words and photos by Frank Mosley. Frank Mosley is an artist inspired by Scotland. For more information and to view Frank’s work see:

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