Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2018/2 posted by hidden europe on

Islands breed patience – among both the living and the dead. Especially in mid-winter in Barra, when the storms can be relentless. For us, however, there is a rare pleasure in being at the mercy of the elements. One feels connected with nature in a way which is harder to discern in Berlin.

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Dear fellow travellers

We have been on the island of Barra since Christmas Eve. Being on an island reshapes one's horizons. In Berlin, we have a real sense of living in the very heart of Europe. We could hop on a direct train to the Baltic coast, the Alps or even to Russia.

Here on Barra, one still feels connected with the wider world, but in a very different way. This morning, I heard the sad tale of the short life of Freya, the great-niece of a gentleman who lives up at Eoligarry at the north end of the island. Freya died within two hours of her birth. Her funeral is today.

Another funeral had been scheduled for tomorrow. Morag passed away in Campbeltown last week at the age of 71. But the boat from the Scottish mainland to Castlebay – the main settlement on Barra - was cancelled, so it’s not possible to bring Morag’s remains to the island. So tomorrow’s Requiem Mass for Morag has been postponed.

Islands breed patience – among both the living and the dead. Especially in mid-winter in Barra, when the storms can be relentless. You never really quite know when the boats will go. High winds and sea swell play havoc with the timetables. For those who are used to planning their travel ages in advance, the whims of the weather can be very troubling.

For us, however, there is a rare pleasure in being at the mercy of the elements. One feels connected with nature in a way which is harder to discern in Berlin. In Barra, there is a real sense of a link to things that are sacred and simple. That, in part, is due to the Barra landscape.

I paused this morning in driving snow by a ruined chapel at Eoligarry, where a stone bears a runic inscription which reveals that it is a memorial to Thorgerth, Steinar’s daughter. The reverse side of the stone has a beautiful Celtic design with interlaced plaits. It’s a reminder that this island has seen Norse and Irish settlers who all brought their own rites and rituals.

Across Barra, there are stone rings and burial cairns which all attest to the importance of ceremony in the Barra landscape. But ceremony here is not merely a matter of history, for the rhythm of the week in this deeply Catholic part of the Outer Hebrides is shaped in part by the daily Mass schedule - and that timetable, it has to be said, is rather more predictable than the boats. So today being Tuesday, the morning Mass was at Eoligarry. Apart from any spiritual blessings, Tuesday Mass at Eoligarry gives a good pretext to stop afterwards at the café of Barra's small airport where, even if there are no planes, decent coffee is served with a fine view of the great cockle strand which doubles as the airport's runway.

It is a fine spot just to think. Back in Berlin, the lives and deaths of Freya and Morag would never have touched me in the manner in which they do in Barra. There is a very real sense in which I find myself more connected in Barra than would ever be the case in a big city. Wilderness, and island wilderness in particular, brings its own special graces.

Nicky Gardner
(editor, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and 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.