Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2020/1 posted by hidden europe on

Brendan’s arrival had been much touted. He didn’t come as a surprise. Days prior to his arrival there was talk of Brendan. There was a run on lettuces and toilet rolls here on the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. People like to stock up on the essentials when there’s a big storm coming.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Brendan’s arrival had been much touted. He didn’t come as a surprise. Days prior to his arrival there was talk of Brendan. There was a run on lettuces and toilet rolls here on the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. People like to stock up on the essentials when there’s a big storm coming.

Storm Brendan was a big low-pressure cell which swept up Ireland’s west coast and hit Scotland on Monday. In the Outer Hebrides, even low-lying areas were buffeted by extraordinarily strong winds gusting to over 130 kilometres per hour. On the Scottish mainland, some recording stations in the hills clocked gusts of over 180 kilometres per hour.

On the island of Barra, you can map the severity of the storms by their impact on daily life. It doesn’t take much for the ferries to be cancelled. During these winter months, the boats to the mainland are cancelled more often than they run.

Notch up the Beaufort scale a bit, and then the plane is cancelled. Loganair do a fine job in keeping Barra connected with the wider world, the company’s small Twin Otter aircraft touching down on the island’s great cockle strand even when there’s a roaring gale. It’s the only place in the world where scheduled passenger flights routinely land on a beach.

The timetable is shaped by the changing tides. If the tide is in, no plane! But even at low tide, strong winds can make landing difficult, so the plane is sometimes cancelled. But that’s much rarer than the boat not arriving.

You know when it’s a really big storm because then it’s not merely the ferries and the boats which don’t arrive. Holy Mass is cancelled. It takes a lot in this fairly devout island in the Outer Hebrides for Mass to be cancelled.

Monday’s liturgical outing was scheduled to take place at the local care home where a number of Barra’s frailest older residents enjoy the evening of their lives in sheltered accommodation on a promontory with glorious sea views. It is, as it happens, named after the same saint as this week’s storm. With Storm Brendan battering Barra, the regular Monday afternoon Mass at St Brendan’s was cancelled.

It was a wise decision on the part of the island priest, Father John Paul MacKinnon. Huge waves battered the coast, rain lashed down and only the foolish would venture out in such weather. The island’s schools and shops were closed as everyone sought shelter at home.

People often ask us why we spend prolonged periods in such a remote spot as Barra. Walking into Castlebay Bar last evening, the solitary barman looked pleased to see a couple of customers.

"Stuck here, are you?" he asked. He clearly judged it inconceivable that outsiders might opt for an extended stay on Barra at a time when the weather is so challenging.

But that, for us, is part of the appeal of this island. Most people take connectivity for granted. It’s good, we think, to experience that sense of isolation engendered by a huge storm. Most people take lettuce for granted. But the bare shelves of the island’s shops are a reminder that Barra runs to a different rhythm. Three days after Brendan tore through the Hebrides, there is still roadside debris and huge sea swell is making travel by boat quite challenging.

Lettuce and toilet rolls are, we hear, on the way.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, 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.