When Bonnie did finally relieve herself on the soft grassy plains of the Barra shore, ten hours after leaving home in Leith, such was my own relief that I could hear a chorus of Mendelssohn’s Hebridean overture sounding through the wind.
We were lucky.The ferry crossing was smooth, we met some friendly locals, and spotted some wildlife.
Sitting atop the open deck of the ferry from Oban to Barra, our fellow passengers resembled the clergy and tourists of a giant nautical cathedral – some taking photographs of the surrounding, some studying guidebooks, and others staring ahead in quiet, faithful contemplation; seemingly transfixed by the scale of the blue upon blue sea and sky and the hypnotic hum from the diesel engines of the ship. Swaying, trance-like, with a firm grim on a lightweight dog, I turned my full face to the bright, evangelical light of the evening sun. And then as if delivering up response to a prayer, dolphins appeared.
The CalMac captain proudly alerted passengers to news of a pod of common dolphins (distinctive by their yellow bellies) jumping through the ship’s wake and our number suddenly swelled on top the open deck. Watching dolphins chase a ferry is a near-spiritual experience. If this, nature, is God, then I’m a believer.
I met Brendan Johnston over a pint of Oban ale and a copy of ‘Fishing News’ (a surprisingly engaging publication with pull-out pin ups of skippers and their catch at Peterhead Fish Market, the latest on EU quotas, and a maritime-themed crossword). Brendan was on his way home to Lochboisdale after four days’ with a crew diving for razor clams. He had safely delivered the fresh seafood by van to Edinburgh Airport in time for export but not before the van had broken down on the A9. It had been his first trip off the islands for three years and I found him in reflective mood. He told me about his two dogs rescued from Andalucia, Spain, during time spent travelling after university; about folk stories from the isles and ‘the wee people’ or ‘fairies’ (all tales involving brothers fighting over cows and ending abruptly, seemingly without any parable or moral resolution), and about returning to the family croft in South Uist where he now lives with ‘his missus’ in a caravan with their collection of adopted dogs, horses and hens. He asked me if I fancied that sort of life. I said that I did, very much.
Brendan advised that I would enjoy Barra but that it is a close-knit community of many MacNeils and that when I had had enough of the MacNeils, I should stop by to visit him and ‘his missus’ at their croft in Howmore, South Uist, on my travels.
Dugard Hostel is exactly as a hostel should be – clean, well organised and with a flotsam of travellers sitting around a wood-burning stove trying to out boast one another’s tales. Triston, from Cornwall and now helping his brother with seasonal kayak work in the Barra summer months and cockle-picking in the winter, was quiet after a Vatersay Boys gig the previous night.
The next morning, we walked down to the harbour to take in the view of Castlebay – a castle and a bay. While I wrote a letter outside the post office at the harbour, Bonnie earned her keep by securing us a lift to the other side of the island for a sightseeing trip.
On his delivery route around Barra, Donald MacNeil, the postman, told us about his jack russell puppy called Lassie (“because she’s a female dug”), about all night raves at the beach in his younger party days, and about his own island holiday adventures (to Sicily, Corsica, and “any island south of Barra”), all while negotiating single track roads at an alarming speed. I tried to make a reference to the Katie Morag books but he just looked ahead and smiled politely.
Arriving early at our destination – Barra international airport – but without a flight to catch, we spent a blissful morning running down sand dunes, solar-charging and stretching out an achy back with some downward-dog moves. I listened to the Blue Rose Code album, The Ballad of Peckham Rye.
Oh, North, you’ve been a friend to me,
I’ve crossed your border just to bring me peace.
Oh, North, I was a hungry child, I was a restless soul, I’ve been running wild.
Oh, North, watching your herons fly,
I’ve been blue on blue on blue and all the while.
Oh, North, I count your Atlantic waves, all your secrets I’ll take them to my grave.
Hector MacNeil then took us back to Castleby in the village bus in time to meet with the Bara Bunting project leaders in the community shop and craft centre. Barra Bunting was the Voluntary Arts 2013 Epic Award winner from Scotland and I met with them at the awards ceremony in Derry/ Londonderry when I was just a few days’ into my job with Voluntary Arts. Sarah from Barra Bunting modestly told me about the challenges of setting up a viable social enterprise to sell local produce, her craft workshops (‘crochet ceilidhs’) aimed at sustaining culture and heritage on the island, and the revival of skiff boat building as a means to involve older men in arts volunteering.
Barra Bunting invites anyone with a connection to Barra – past or present – to make a piece of bunting to add to the >300 flags that decorate the community shop. I duly presented my triangle of bunting and explained the theme to Sarah – off cuts of Harris tweed gifted to me by a former Voluntary Arts colleague, some wool threads from my Mum’s sewing box, and a badge depicting one of Lowry’s small, black dogs (the 2015 Epic Awards were held at BBC Media City, Salford, next to the Lowry Gallery).
My final ‘work meeting’ of the day was with Andy Miles from the University of Manchester ‘Understanding Everyday Participation’ (UEP) project. By coincidence, Andy and Head of Research at Creative Scotland, Alastair Evans, are following a similar route to me through the Outer Hebrides this week. Over a seafood curry at Cafe Kisimul- an Indian/ Scottish fusion restaurant that is better than first appearances suggest – we discussed the UEP early research findings regarding community engagement, volunteering and creative regeneration. I had seen a poster earlier in the day for a ‘Whisky Galore’ night at the Dualchas Community Centre and persuaded Andy to come along after the curry. I’m familiar with the Compton Mackenzie story of the shipwrecked SS Politician and islanders’ liberation of the whisky cargo but watching the original film adaption in a community hall filled with people old enough to remember 1941 was special. It might have been the drams of whisky but I found the Ealing comedy classic lines such as ” And if you don’t like that, you can go to Glasgow…. Oh nooo” very, very funny. Andy informed me this was a form of anthropological ‘participant observation’.
Tomorrow, we head to South Uist and Eriskay, site of the original Whisky Galore plot. It’s almost worth getting out the bunting.
Ok. Let’s get the Jess the cat and Postman Pat jokes out the way right now. Hilarious. More like HRB riding with HRH Royal Mail!
Anyway, emboldened by an improvement in sanitary facilities and with food in my belly, I was quick-witted enough to organise some transportation and, while the human was playing on the beach, I scouted out the sand dunes for any stray Alsatians (they have an alarming habit of appearing near airports). Coast clear, I could enjoy day 1 of my holiday and feel the wind in my long locks of black hair.