The flying Scots postman who waits for time and tide: A remote island relies on flights to a beach for its mail service. Charles Oulton reports

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The Independent Online
IN THE cockpit of the De Havilland Canada Twin Otter, the pilot glances down on the Outer Hebridean island of Barra and mutters some rather disconcerting remarks into his mouthpiece. 'We haven't enough fuel to muck around,' he says as he starts his descent.

The nerves are jangling a bit: there has already been a report of winds gusting to 48 knots, continued heavy rain and 4km visibility, but nobody had said anything about having only enough fuel for one attempt at landing.

But as always, one attempt is enough, even though the entire airfield was not there approximately an hour ago, and will not be there in an hour from now.

In the absence of a conventional airfield and runway, the Twin Otter has just landed on a beach, as it always does some time during the afternoon, and will be back again tomorrow to resume one of the more unusual customer services on offer in this remote part of the United Kingdom.

Loganair have been landing on Traigh Mhor (Gaelic for Great Shore) since 1974, and the 1,500 inhabitants of Barra would be out of touch without it.

Although the Twin Otter has seats for 20 passengers, it also doubles as a postal delivery service, flying in up to 24 sacks of parcels and letters each day at this time of year.

At the appointed tidal time each day, except Sundays, Niall Macpherson, one of the island's two postmen, is waiting on the beach for the plane to arrive from Glasgow airport an hour away.

He has spent the morning driving round the island collecting mail for the next flight, as well as delivering the mail which arrived the previous day.

Because each house outside the main town of Castlebay is usually down a long track from a main road, he drives an average of 72 miles a day, and not just as a postman. He is also a bus driver.

Because the island has no public transport, Mr Macpherson's minibus is also used by people who want to go shopping and don't want to use their own cars. With no garage on the island, working cars are at a premium anyway, and the minibus has become a vital part of Barra life.

So has Mr Macpherson, 58, who has returned to the island of his birth after travelling the world with the merchant navy. Born on the island, he is a familiar figure - his father was a well known raconteur on Barra, and had some of his stories translated by Compton Mackenzie, the author of Whisky Galore.

Because letter boxes only let in the wind, many islanders give him a spare door key so he can deliver the mail when they are not there. He knows most people by name and often delivers mail to passing motorists. 'It's a good life, although it's not as romantic as it sounds at the moment,' he said. 'There is a 70mph wind and the rain is teeming down. But it's wonderful between April and September. I love the job, the islanders depend on the service and the tourists love it.'

Twenty years ago, the old Highlands and Islands Development Board carried out a study to investigate the feasibility of building an airfield on Barra. They decided the beach of sand and shell was all the island needed. Although it seems daunting to the uninitiated, Captain Roly Beaumont, the chief pilot of Loganair, agrees there is no difficulty in using the beach as an airfield.

'It can be pretty turbulent when the wind is in a particular direction, but we've never had any problems. And it's rarely difficult in good flying conditions,' he said. 'The beach covers several hundred acres, and you don't have to worry about other flights. The only real difference from other flying is the need to get the tides right, an hour before and after high water.'

Captain Beaumont remembers first flying to Barra 13 years ago when he took one passenger to Glasgow so he could mend his television set.

It showed the importance of the service. 'We are a mainstream airline operator, but we think it is also important to provide this service because it is so vital to the local community.'

(Photograph omitted)