Posted by: christinelaennec | August 19, 2017

An unforgettable holiday: Barra and Eriskay, July 2017

Hello!  What a fantastic holiday we had last month. We spent a week on the Isle of Barra, at the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides, before travelling up to Eriskay and points further north.  We’d been to Barra on day trips before, but never for more than a few hours.  Even after a week on this small island (population 1200) we felt there was so much more we wanted to see.  And the weather!  Honestly, we had day after day of warmth and sun, with hardly any midges.  In ten days, there were two afternoons that were not warm and sunny.  It was just glorious.

Michael and the Dafter travelled by the plane, because the Dafter’s ME pains get especially bad on long car trips.  I drove the car, with the wheelchair and most of our things.  I spent a drenching day in Oban, because the 1:30 ferry to Barra had “technical issues” (luckily repaired), and didn’t sail until the evening.  It was so wet that I had to buy a waterproof cover for my backpack, as I was worried my phone and camera would be harmed.  My trousers got soaked through three times that day, as I mooched about.  But they dried three times as well.  Oban has a craft shop, a wool shop and a bookshop!  So I was fine.  The weather caused the Dafter and Michael’s flight to be delayed by four hours, but they landed on the beach just fine (Barra’s airport is on a cockle beach!) and their taxi driver was very obliging.  By the time my ferry sailed at 7:30 pm, the monsoon was starting to abate, and as we were coming out of the Sound of Mull into the Minch the weather was definitely improving to the west:

On the ferry to Barra, July 2017.  Another ferry is coming into the Sound of Mull, from Tiree and Coll.

We docked in Castlebay at 12:30 am and I had joined them in the cottage by 1 am.  And that was the last rain we saw for several days!

The Dafter still has to rest for many hours a day, but she was able to walk short distances and she did a lot of art.

The Dafter painting on the shoreline. Isle of Barra, July 2017.

I enjoyed church on Sunday, and also attended Mass later on in the week.  The islands in the south of the chain of the Outer Hebrides did not become Protestant at the time of the Reformation and it was interesting to see how much was happening on a Sunday.  When I went to Mass, I asked the priest if I could sit at the back, and I was very warmly welcomed.

The island has suffered some terrible tragedies in the past few months.  Two of their teenagers were caught up in the Manchester bombing in May (one died and one is severely injured), the funeral of a young man took place the week we were there, and a few weeks ago two divers lost their lives in an accident.  It’s hard to understand how such a small community could lose so many young people within a few months, but it is a very resilient community, and I think one where faith is still very important.  I believe there is one school, serving children from Barra and Vatersay, from nursery through to age 18.  Traditional music, ceilidhs and Highland dancing seem to be alive and well, and enjoyed by all age groups. When something tragic happens, I think people there (and all the family members on the mainland and further afield) will truly support one another.  Many whose lives are tragically changed in an instant will not have such a close and supportive community to help them through.

Castlebay, Isle of Barra, with Kisimul Castle in the bay. July 2017.

Castlebay is the main centre of population of the island, and as you can see it gets its name from the fact that there is a castle in the middle of the bay.  I can show you more about that in a minute.

One day we drove across the causeway to Vatersay, and enjoyed an afternoon on this stunning beach:

Beach on Vatersay, July 2017.

The Dafter and I, Vatersay. July 2017.

Vatersay, July 2017.

Machair flowers, Vatersay, July 2017.

Michael and I went on a few excursions together.  We climbed up Heaval, which is the hill above Castlebay.  And we really enjoyed Barra’s community shop.  Michael was delighted by the selection of local foods, and I was amazed by the crafts, wool and craft supplies on offer.  In fact, I broke one of my knitting needles while on Barra and so I was extremely grateful for the “Buth Bharraigh”:

Buth Bharraigh, the community co-op on Barra. July 2017.

Another day we all went to the charity shop.  This was another Aladdin’s cave.  The islanders seem to recycle everything.  There were racks of school uniform, racks of formal wear, lots of good winter jackets, shoes and boots of every style and size.  And an entire room full of books!  The selection of things on offer was far greater than in any charity shop in a mainland city.

On one of our days, the Dafter was well enough to come with us to Castle Kisimul, in the middle of the bay.  It is a very small place inside, and she was so happy to be able to clamber about it for a while.

Me and Michael in Castlebay, Isle of Barra. July 2017.  Eaglais Reul na Mara (the Church of the Star of the Sea) is prominent behind us, and behind it is Heaval.

The boat to the castle goes every half an hour.  Castle Kisimul is the seat of the MacNeil clan of Barra, and is managed by Historic Environment Scotland.

The Dafter photographing Kisimul Castle, Castlebay, Isle of Barra. July 2017.

Coming up to Kisimul Castle on the boat.

The courtyard inside Kisimul Castle.

Many of the buildings were closed for renovation, but not all of them.

“Finally, a doorway that’s too low even for me!”

Inside the tower of Kisimul Castle. July 2017.

The indispensable fresh water well, Kisimul Castle.

Getting ready to take the boat back to Castlebay.

I will always remember that hour spent exploring Kisimul Castle, because the Dafter almost seemed well, and was having such a good time.  She had to rest all of the next day, but it was worth it.

Another day we spent some time on the western side of the island, with the breakers coming in from the Atlantic.  These cloudy days bring out a different set of colours than the sunny and sparkly days:

The Dafter photographing the waves on the Atlantic coast of Barra.

We weren’t quite alone:

The cows grazing near the beach. Sometimes they come onto the beach, as we could see from their hoof-prints. Isle of Barra, July 2017.

I hugely enjoyed knitting during our holiday.  I began making a fair isle skirt from scraps of wool.  I took a big bag of scraps with me, since we had the car, and choosing which colour to use next was (and is) just so much fun!  Details are on my Ravelry page here if you’re interested.

Knitting on the beach, Isle of Barra, July 2017.

The Dafter said, of the above photo, “People think that’s really funny – they don’t realise that’s just what you do!”  And it’s true – I have several photos over the years of me knitting on the beach in Scotland!

At the end of our week, we bid a sad farewell to Barra and travelled to Eriskay on the ferry, less than an hour’s journey.  It was a beautiful crossing and the Dafter was able to stand up quite a bit, to take photos.  There were seals sunning themselves on the rocks, and the colour of the water was gorgeous.

On the ferry to Eriskay, July 2017.

Enjoying the crossing!

We headed for lunch to Am Politician, a pub named after the cargo ship that sank off Eriskay, loaded with whisky.  The tale of the islanders’ cunning salvage operation was made into the film Whisky Galore, which starred quite a few of the local population at the time.  I believe it’s been or is being remade as well.  The very obliging barmaid showed us some of the original bottles, as well as a machete from the ship:

The Dafter gets to hold the machete from The Politician. In Am Politician pub, Isle of Eriskay, July 2017.

She told us that people on the island are still coming across caches that were hidden in walls and other places to this day.  Remodelling your house in Eriskay can be an interesting experience!  She said that all the whisky has evaporated in such circumstances, but I think the pub still has some of the original whisky.

The view as we had our lunch was mesmerising to me:

View from Am Politician, Isle of Eriskay. July 2017

The Dafter was feeling very unwell after lunch, but managed to walk from the car down onto the beach.  She wanted to paint, and so took watercolours and painted while sitting in the gently lapping water – using the water for her paints!

The Dafter watercolouring, Isle of Eriskay, July 2017.

We travelled for a few more days, visiting friends in the Uists and of course the Isle of Harris where we’ve holidayed every year since 1994, except for a few years when the Dafter was bedbound.  The days after our week in the Barra cottage, where we could prepare our own food, were hard going on the Dafter because she now has so many stomach problems. (Food intolerances are a common symptom of ME – apparently the flora in the gut of people with ME is hugely less varied than in healthy people).  However, she enjoyed seeing folk again and she was very patient for our sakes.

It was the longest holiday we’ve had in quite a few years.  For me it was a full two weeks’ break, as I then drove back from Harris, staying overnight to break the journey.  I came home feeling more rested than I have since 2010.  I’m hugely grateful.

Now the schools are back in Glasgow, and the Dafter is about to begin a part-time Art course.  She got an A for the course she did last year!  That was wonderful, because it was such a struggle, from beginning to end.  Michael and I are making plans for the new academic year, too.  Some of the trees are even beginning to turn, and the nights are drawing in.  However, we often have a beautiful Indian Summer in September, so let’s hope we’re treated to that.  I hope you are enjoying life, whatever you are doing!



  1. I was enthralled by your island sojourn. So much still to discover in Scotland! Photos of the Dafter looking radiant and happy will be so precious to look back on. I wish her all the best for the start of her new course and a continued upward journey. Love to you and Michael too. All is in turmoil here – will update you soon once things clarify!

    • Lovely to hear from you, Linda. Sending you good wishes!

  2. How wonderful!! I am totally green with envy! The TV series Shetland has just started here. I guess I will have to settle for that! I can’t understand half of what they are saying…but I love the scenery 🙂 xx

  3. A lovely post on your holidays. How wonderful that you could all be together. The shops you mentioned on Barra sound like something I would enjoy and it was super to see the photos of you and your family. Has your daughter ever thought of creating a blog for her art and photography?

  4. What a lovely break for you all, and a good long time to be away in such beautiful surroundings. When you get weather like that you really can’t beat Scotland. 🙂 That restaurant on Eriskay has a wonderful view. It’s great to see the Dafter managing to do so much, and many congratulations to her on that A level result. I hope you’re right about the Indian summer in September, that would be most welcome.

  5. I smiled all the way through this post! It was lovely to see you all together and enjoying your holiday. Fingers crossed for the beginning of the school year…

  6. I enjoyed you sharing your holiday with us and all your photos. What remote and beautiful islands and even a castle surrounded by water.

  7. What a lovely post! Vatersay beach!! Oh my goodness – how beautiful! My husband is half Scottish, but has never visited any of the islands – I’ve been showing him your blog, hoping to persuade him that we need to visit some of these stunning places. I’m pleased you felt well rested afterwards. Thank you for sharing your memories. x

  8. Looks like you all had a lovely holiday. Love seeing all the photos.
    Best wishes to the Dafter on the start of school and congratulations on the A in last art course. ♡

  9. Finally reading this travel post! The pictures of the beaches are just amazing — loved that view out of the pub. I’m so glad you all had this special time and that you had such good weather too!

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