Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2017/11 posted by hidden europe on

There is a special dynamic to island life. One meets the same people day after day - but often in different contexts. We bump into people in the most unlikely spots. On the east side of Barra, a number of rocky peninsulas jut out into the Sea of the Hebrides. Away to the north is Tràigh Mhòr, the bleached cockle strand where the daily plane from Glasgow lands.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

On the east side of Barra, a number of rocky peninsulas jut out into the Sea of the Hebrides. Away to the north is Tràigh Mhòr, the bleached cockle strand where the daily plane from Glasgow lands. It is, they say, the only place in the world where scheduled air services regularly land on a beach.

"We actually have three runways here at Barra," explains one of the team which staffs this remote island airport. That's two more than at London Gatwick, which relies on just a single runway. Looking out over the beach, currently covered with high-tide water, it's hard to discern three distinct runways. This is, after all, no more than a beach. But the end of each of those three notional runways is marked by a wooden pole, so pilots landing at Barra can choose from which angle they will approach the beach. The preference, of course, is to land into the wind.

It is always a hit-and-miss affair flying into Barra. On Tuesday, low cloud forced the plane to turn back and return to Glasgow. The cockle pickers on the beach have grown so accustomed to the coming and going of the plane that they barely notice it. Bright orange windsocks flying on the edge of the beach warn cockle pickers and visitors not to venture too close to the landing area when the plane is due.

Fish and seafood are big in Barra. "Aye," says one of the pickers on the beach. "It's more than just cockles. We have scallops the size of dinner plates." Cut down from the airport, past the house where Compton Mackenzie lived, and the first road on the left heads out through Àird Mhòr to the slipway used by the new car ferry to the nearby island of Eriskay. It's a fine wee island, and on a nice spring evening the island pub is a great spot for pre-dinner drinks. But those who linger risk being stranded on Eriskay for the night - for the last boat of the day back to Barra leaves just after six.

The next peninsula south of Àird Mhòr hosts the small community of Àird Mhithinis. At the very end is a jetty where boats with names like Laurel, Joanna and Primrose offload their daily catch of fish. Everything from sole to langoustines, from prawns to monkfish. Produce is shipped to markets as far away as Italy and Croatia, but some ends up on dinner plates here on the island. It's a rare joy to be able to buy fish directly at the quayside where it is landed.

There is a special dynamic to island life. One meets the same people day after day - but often in different contexts. The woman with whom you spoke on the bus turns up a day or two later in the post office. The man to whom you nodded on a walk ends up sitting in the same pew at church. And then you realise that he's the very same person who, a week or two back, explained about the trinity of runways at the island airport.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Posted in Places
This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.