On one of Scotland’s remote Outer Hebrides Islands, townspeople and a sprinkling of tourists lined up atop the grassy mound, leaning against the rickety, wooden-slat fence that fronted the beach area, and waited. A tractor hitched with a sweeper combed the wide expanse of sand for hidden debris.
Outer Hebrides Islands
All eyes looked toward the sky, straining through thick nimbus clouds to see that first glimpse of silver piercing through the fluff. I expected Tattoo, the character from Fantasy Island to shout, “De Plane, De Plane.”
I felt the anticipation of the locals here on Barra Island, with its windswept sandy beaches, ancient metamorphic rocks and fertile pastures. It is one of 15 inhabited islands among 50 comprising the Outer Hebrides archipelago that dots the North Atlantic off the western coast of Scotland.
The event of the day for the isle’s 1,200 residents happened at 11:32 A.M. The 19-passenger Twin Otter Loganair plane arriving from Glasgow broke through the clouds to the cheers of onlookers, glided lower, and landed on the beach.
Supplies, mail, visitors and desired cargo from the outside world had touched down. Tiny Barra Island boasts the only airport in the world with three runways on packed-down sand, scheduled flights that vary with the tides, and planes that land and take off from the beach.
Just steps from our viewing space stood a concrete airport terminal building with a converted bus stop shelter that doubled as the baggage claim area. A café provided delicious Scottish scones and a proper cup of Black House Tea before the happening.
The airport check-in counter consisted of one computer station and one clerk who appeared from the kitchen area to assist prospective travelers. I recalled those days when air travel used to be this simple.
As passengers deplaned onto the beach, the five minutes of island excitement had come and gone. We headed across the road, up a path cut through tall dune grasses, over the knoll to a breadth of sand, wider and longer than I have ever seen.
Cockle Strand — aptly named as thousands of cockle shells littered the expanse — seemed like a movie set with its boundless, big sky, rolling surf and endless white powder. I combed the area and filled my pockets with dainty shells, memories of this peaceful place.
Medieval Kismuil Castle
Our soft adventure in the Outer Hebrides had begun at dawn as I watched the gentle waves of Castlebay splash against the Isle of Barra. From my stateroom on the 90-passenger ship, Corinthian, I spotted a stone bastion perched on a spit of a rock in the middle of the inlet. Only accessible by boat, Kismuil Castle had served as the stronghold of the MacNeil Clan since the 15th Century.
It remains the only surviving medieval fortress in this archipelago, so in 2001, the clan wisely turned the castle over to the Historic Scotland Society on a 1000-year lease for the annual sum of one Pound Sterling and a bottle of whiskey. With revenue from scheduled tours, this run-down citadel can receive needed restoration.
Settled by the Vikings
Settled by the Vikings in the 6th Century and considered important trading ports of the Norse Kingdom for 400 years, these islands were transferred to Scotland by the Treaty of Perth in 1266. Scottish clans including the MacNeils, the MacLeods, the MacDonalds and the Mackenzies fought for island dominance.
After the 1707 Treaty of Union, when the Outer Hebrides became part of Great Britain, areas where people lived were replaced with sheep farms. Many residents suffered forced relocation and eviction from their land. Sheep still outnumber the people.
The Isle of Lewis and Harris- the Birthplace of Harris Tweed
Our last stopover in the Outer Hebrides, the Isle of Lewis and Harris proved the most captivating. Not only is it the largest, but also lays claim to historic fame as the birthplace of the iconic Harris Tweed. I’ve always admired the stunning, aristocratic look of a Harris Tweed jacket woven with pure virgin, organic wool.
Harris Tweed introduced an official fashion icon attached to every piece of tweed produced as the true indicator of this authentic, hand-woven fabric. If it doesn’t carry the symbol don’t buy it, I was warned.
We docked in the inner harbor of this isle’s largest city, Stornaway, which has maintained its ancient mariner character for thousands of years.
Eager to watch local weavers making complex, colorful patterns on their looms, I could hardly wait to canvas stores lining the narrow streets. Just steps from the ship, access to the world of Harris Tweed seduced me and I knew the British pounds in my wallet would slip away for sure.
5,000-Year-Old Callanish Stones
But shopping had to wait. History called. A 5,000-year-old grouping of thirteen vertical slivers of rock that pre-date Stonehenge by 2,000 years emerged from the rural hills of the Isle of Lewis. Placed upright in the pattern of a Celtic cross, the Callanish Stones drew wows, gaping jaws and fixed eyes of wonderment from visitors.
Recorded as the oldest rocks in Britain —maybe the world — the largest one weighs approximately 7 tons and is 4.8 meters high. As I left the field of standing stones behind, unanswered questions filtered through the damp air, but I would never forget the privilege of exploring this timeless formation.
Victorian Lews Castle
Back in Stornaway, one more castle beckoned. We crossed over the Creed River Bridge and hiked up through a dense forest to reach the Victorian Lews Castle. Built between 1841 and 1851, it served as the country house of Sir James Matheson, who had bought the entire island with the fortune he made from the Chinese Opium trade.
The property, given to the people of Stornaway in 1923, provided accommodations for 700 British Airmen during WWII, served as a museum, and now offers charming bed and breakfast quarters − a reason to return.
Lewis Loom Center
Despite numerous, meticulous boutiques with incredible displays of Harris Tweed jackets, purses, scarves and hats, I felt drawn to the Lewis Loom Center on the main street. A veritable junk heap, cluttered piles of tweed fabric reached to the ceiling, and wool items crammed every nook and cranny.
An elderly Scotsman puffing on his pipe sat obtrusively in the doorway on a stool and yelled out sale prices of items in which customers showed interest. He never rose from his perch. I loved rummaging through the chaos, knowing that an absolute find would jump from the disorder.
Amazingly, every scrap, remnant and finished Harris Tweed item carried the official logo of authenticity. I found it almost as hard to tear myself away from this house of wool as I did from the Callanish Stones.
As the ship slipped from the harbor, I realized that just days ago, the ‘Outer Hebrides’ was only a name. I never knew that these dots of land bristled with history and abounded with sheep. Vikings, Scottish Clans, medieval fortresses, beach runways, ancient stone formations and hand-woven wool evidenced the strength and determination of these peoples isolated in the North Atlantic.
Read more on travel in Scotland: Scotland’s Orkney Isles, Land Pawned for a Dowry
Author’s Bio: After a life-long profession of treating the mentally ill at a PA psychiatric hospital for 33 years and also serving as its Director of Admissions, Carol L. Bowman retired to Lake Chapala, Mexico in 2006 with her husband, to pursue more positive passions. Her family thought that she, too, had ‘gone mad.’ She’s been teaching English to Mexican adults for ten years, in a program operated by volunteer expatriates and writing for local on-line and print publications. Using her adventures experienced during visits to over 80 countries to capture a niche in travel writing, Carol also dabbles in ‘memoir.’ A frequent contributor to Lake Chapala English magazine, “El Ojo del Lago,” she’s won several literary awards from that publication, including Best Feature in 2010 and Best Fiction in 2014. She also netted a story regarding her psychiatric field work in the published anthology, “Tales from the Couch.”