Life's a beach: For years the islanders of Barra were flown in and out of their home - and who cared about a drop of water on the runway? Then someone decided they needed a different plane . . . Jim White reports on a Hebridean farce

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Indy Lifestyle Online
There used to be a clue, the locals say, for any pilot attempting to take his plane down into Barra airport. If the seagulls were walking on the runway, you could go straight in and land. If they were paddling, you took a recce flight, then landed with care. And if the seagulls were swimming, you turned round and went back to Glasgow.

On Barra, the eight-mile-long island at the southern tip of the Hebrides immortalised by Compton Mackenzie in Whisky Galore, there is no airstrip: planes use the beach instead. Traigh Mhor, it is called, a mile-long, half-mile-wide gleam of white sand, littered with weather-bleached cockle shells and washed twice a day by sea of a blue more usually associated with the Caribbean. Mackenzie spent his royalties building a house to overlook it - not the usual way with airports.

For the past 35 years there has been a scheduled once-a-day service from Glasgow to Barra: aircraft landing between tides, bringing in post and newspapers and taking the island's sick to hospital, and its healthy to work, on the mainland. It is, according to the Scottish Office, which subsidises the route, a lifeline service. On 28 March this year the lifeline was modernised: a new aircraft was brought in to replace one reckoned obsolete and uneconomic by its owners. And then the trouble began.

Last Monday at Glasgow airport, along with 16 other Barra-bound passengers including Calum Macdonald, MP for the Western Isles, and a small girl clutching a cage containing a hamster, I boarded a new Shorts 360 aircraft. It had the words 'British Airways Express' boastfully painted down the side; over the Highlands we were served complimentary tea and biscuits.

But the Express never made it. The pilot abandoned the flight on Tiree, 35 miles of foaming Hebridean Sea from his destination: too much water on the runway at Barra to risk a landing, he explained, rather shamefaced.

'You would have thought,' said Patricia Allan, Barra born and bred and on her way home from hospital in Glasgow, 'that they would have realised there might be water on our runway before they brought in a plane which can't land on the stuff.'

Mrs Allan, like most of her neighbours, is not a fan of the Shorts 360. Not normally exercised by aviation matters, she was furious that of 105 flights since it was introduced, 15 have been abandoned because of too much water or too much wind, and another 70 delayed for up to five hours. In one July week the island was without its air service for four days on the trot and Mrs Allan's medication spent 96 hours sitting in Glasgow airport. And this during the summer. Heaven knows what will happen in winter.

'You know why it's called the Shorts 360?' runs a local gag. 'Because it flies out of Glasgow, turns round 360 degrees and flies back again.'

Barra folk have become so incensed with a level of service which would humiliate British Rail that they arranged a public meeting last Monday to demand their old plane back. Mr Macdonald was on his way to attend it.

'Usually when they decide not to land,' he said, 'they take passengers back to Glasgow and abandon them until the next day. They don't give them any compensation because they blame the weather. They call it an act of God. It would be rather embarrassing if they failed to get us there on the day of a public meeting called to complain about the service.'

Indeed, as he spoke an announcement was made that a special relief plane, capable of landing on watery beaches, would shuttle us to Barra. It turned out to be one of the small aircraft which used to fly the route, brought out of mothballs just in time.

There was quite a reception committee of camcorder-laden tourists to meet the plane as we scudded to a halt, three hours late, through the wash at Traigh Mhor. 'Aye,' said Niall MacPherson, the island postman, there to pick up the mail. 'It gets a rarer thing to see, a plane landing here. Once a man could post a letter in Glasgow one day and I could deliver it for him here the next. Now when that happens we put out the flags.'

For 35 years Mr MacPherson's sister, Kitty, ran Barra airport on her own: she checked passengers in, welcomed them aboard and helped the pilot to load their bags. Since the modernisation, such a staffing level has become a thing of the past.

'Basically,' said Peter Kesterton, of the Highlands and Islands Airports Authority, 'because of the use of the Shorts 360 by the airline, the airport is now a category A airport and must be staffed accordingly.'

Consequently, four safety and security firemen are permanently at the ready, two British Airways uniformed hostesses check tickets and ensure no one goes on the beach, fire vehicles litter the sand, and a small village of prefabricated buildings has sprung up on the shoreline to accommodate all the extra kit. Mr MacPherson is, for safety and security reasons, no longer allowed to unload the post from the plane's hold himself. He has to wait until two firemen driving a plastic-wheeled moon buggy have done it for him.

So what do the staff at the airport, there because of the new plane, do when the new plane fails to appear? 'We attend to our appliances,' one of them explained.

Mr MacPherson is not amused by the new arrangements. 'What is going on here is a farce, a circus,' he said as he threw the morning's mail into his post bus at 4.05 in the afternoon. There had been times in the past, he added, when the island was steamrollered into accepting developments that officials on the mainland told them would be for their own good - a fish-meal plant, for instance, which covered the entire island in a malodorous pall - but this time the locals were not going to stand for it. 'I tell you, the meeting tonight, it'll be a loud one.'

He was not wrong. Calum MacDonald made it in time to share a platform in the hall of the island's school with Scott Grier, managing director of LoganAir, the British Airways franchisee responsible for operations on the route. In front of them, 400 islanders - a quarter of the population - squeezed into every nook. They were anxious to hear Mr Grier explain why he had introduced a plane to the Barra service which had difficulty with beaches.

'May I start by apologising,' said Mr Grier, city suit, tight-knotted tie, slick hair, reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. 'I accept that due to teething troubles the present level of service is not acceptable.'

He then spoke for 15 minutes about rationalisation, accountancy procedures, modernisation, his commercial judgement that the Shorts was the plane for the job. His conclusion was that he would arrange for more tests and trials on the beach. But the Shorts would stay.

His speech had the effect of an Alka Seltzer thrown into a glass of water. One by one, the locals stood up with Shorts horror stories, yarns of weddings and funerals, work and hospital appointments missed; a catalogue of delays and cancellations and inconvenience.

'You sit there in your office in Glasgow,' said one old man, his voice cracking with fury, 'making your clever commercial decisions. What I say is: think about those people who are dependent upon you, and for God's sake give us a plane which can land.'

Mr Grier looked pityingly at him, as if this poor islander simply did not understand the greater political and economic realities of running an airline and thought it was merely a matter of getting planes to land on time.

And there's the rub. LoganAir has been in financial difficulties for some time. Pressure from bankers has obliged it to rationalise its fleet to two planes - the Shorts and a tiny eight-seater called an Islander - and to enter a franchise deal with British Airways (a takeover by any other name). Never mind that the old Twin Otter plane was the appropriate one for Barra, it was a rarity in Britain, thus expensive to maintain. Fortunately for Scott Grier, despite the unproven performance of the Shorts in the local conditions, he persuaded the Scottish Office to continue subsidising him to run the route.

How much the subsidy ran to, Mr Grier would not reveal. Nor, despite vociferous demands, would he agree to pay compensation, British Rail-style, for passengers affected by cancellations.

'Ah, but surely,' said Father Donald Mackay, a local priest, 'if a plane is cancelled, the Scottish Office subsidy for that day will be shared out among those inconvenienced. What else could be done with it?'

Even Mr Grier smiled at that one. But he would not give way. The Shorts would continue to ply the Barra route: there was, he pointed out, an idea abroad to install a tarmac runway along part of the beach. Perhaps that could solve the problem.

'I am just a simple islander,' said Donald Manford, a cockle fisherman, 'and thus not privy to the insights of a clever mainlander. But it seems to me it is easier to change the plane to suit the island, rather than change the island to suit the plane.' The hall erupted in applause.

After four hours of grilling, Mr MacDonald moved a motion to issue a complaint to the Scottish Office about the service with a view to them removing the licence and subsidy to LoganAir (British Airways Express) and awarding it to someone who operated a plane which could land. Scott Grier, smooth and unruffled under fire, remained unflustered. The Scottish Office had shut down Ravenscraig and Rosyth - it was unlikely to worry about the views of a few hundred Hebrideans.

'Our aerodrome is the finest in the world,' Father McQueen, another local priest, said to Mr Grier as the meeting broke up in anger and grumbling. 'You, sir, have made an idiot of our aerodrome and our island.'

On Tuesday morning at first light Scott Grier was flown off the island in a specially chartered plane: one of the little ones, guaranteed to land. He missed a lovely day. The wind lancing in from Greenland had died overnight, taking the rain which had soaked the beach with it. It was a bright, clean summer morning, visibility perfect, the beach hard and dry. Two seasons in two days: typical Barra.

'If it were like this every day, there wouldn't be any trouble with the Shorts,' said Captain Roly Beaumont, chief pilot of LoganAir. Interesting logic: like saying that if there were no crime on London's streets, the Metropolitan Police's low clear-up rate would be no problem. Only half an hour behind schedule, the Shorts 360 did indeed land on Barra. Before it could take off again for Glasgow, however, a car parked on the road skirting the beach had to be removed. 'New regulations,' a fireman explained. 'Cars parked in the vicinity constitute a hazard.'

After three quarters of an hour's search, the owner could not be found. So the squad of Barra firemen scrambled and took one of their appliances up on to the road to tow the vehicle to safety. As they struggled with the car's hand-brake, Donald Manford arrived to watch.

'The pity of all this is that Compton is not alive to see it,' he said, peering across the beach at the car bouncing reluctantly along the road past Mackenzie's house. 'Sure, he would have had three books and a film out of it by now.'

(Photograph omitted)