Good things often start with chance encounters! It was a horrid, wet September day when we bumped into Marion Conway on the CalMac ferry over the Sound of Harris. Marion is a Barra woman, born and bred on the small island which is often rated as the most beautiful of the inhabited isles in the Outer Hebrides. "Come by and take a look at my place when you are next on Barra," she said with a smile. And so we did.
James' View is stunning. You'd barely credit that the building was once no more than a simple Hebridean dwelling – a place where generations of Marion's family have told tales of love and life, stories of grief and loss. Over 200 years, the home has been rebuilt time and time again, with the most recent renovations – supervised by Marion and her husband Will – transforming James' View into one of the most elegant homes on the island.
"Stay if you like," said Marion. And so we did. We have come to love James' View, as a place to retreat and pursue our work as writers and editors. But it's also a place for adventure and excursions. On a number of occasions we've made off-island trips. Pre-dinner drinks at the pub on the neighbouring island of Eriskay are a favourite. From the house, it's just a short walk to the pier, from where – apart from the regular CalMac ferries – there are boat trips to the now uninhabited island of Mingulay. The boat which makes that run is the Boy James – and, yes, there is a tenuous connection with James' View.
James' View is perfectly placed for exploring Barra. A number of fine walks, with varying degrees of difficulty, set off from the front door. And there are shops, pubs, a bank, cafés, an excellent public library and the local swimming pool all within a short walk from the house. While many visitors will probably want a car, there is good public transport on the island. The bus from the airport, for example, will drop visitors off at the front door of the house.
The big draw is of course the Barra coast and mountain landscape and the island's history and culture. But not every day on Barra is blissfully sunny, and that's where James' View is very special. It is a cosy retreat, a place where one can draw the curtains, light the log fire and escape from the world. We have enjoyed long, leisurely evenings around that fire and lingered over fish suppers at the handsome wooden dining table. Barra fresh fish is hard to beat!
Over the years, we have stayed in all sorts of accommodation in the Hebrides, from simple B&Bs to well appointed hotels. But there's long been a shortage of really top notch places to stay in Barra, and James' View really fills a gap. Whether for a couple or a larger group, the house is a prefect place to stay.
We've always been wary of island properties owned by absentee investors who have little or no personal link with the community. The lifeblood of many Scottish islands has been sapped by outsiders who buy up island properties for the rental market. James' View is different. This is a home which has been in Marion's family for generations. Marion herself will proudly tell you that she was born in the room which now serves as the guest bedroom on the ground floor. During a stay at James' View, you'll surely bump into members of Marion's family, and that'll be a chance to find out more about the history of this family home and life on this uniquely appealing Hebridean island.
A word of warning: Barra is addictive. We have returned time and again to the island. This year, we were there over Easter for four weeks. And later in 2017 we shall be returning for another equally long stay.
Find out more about staying at James' View. It is very rare that we ever directly promote anything in hidden europe. But we have so enjoyed visiting Barra and staying at James' View that we decided that the house really deserves a special mention.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)