Return to paradise

Forty years after he last visited Scotland's Western Isles, Frank Partridge found some things were gone - but not the magic
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The Independent Travel

The twin-prop plane from Glasgow takes a final buffeting from the wind, drops through the cloud, and emerges a few miles short of Britain's only airport where the schedules are determined by the state of the tide. Those passengers aboard the Loganair flight to Barra who have never landed on a beach prepare for touchdown with either apprehension or excitement. The nervous buckle their safety belts with extra care; the thrill-seekers get their cameras out. In the event, it's reassuringly uneventful. The Twin Otter was built for just this kind of assignment: its broad tyres sink softly into the wet sand and roll gently to a standstill a few yards from the terminal. We step on to the vast white strand - insignificant Lowry-esque figures bending into the stiff breeze, wondering if we've packed the right things.

The twin-prop plane from Glasgow takes a final buffeting from the wind, drops through the cloud, and emerges a few miles short of Britain's only airport where the schedules are determined by the state of the tide. Those passengers aboard the Loganair flight to Barra who have never landed on a beach prepare for touchdown with either apprehension or excitement. The nervous buckle their safety belts with extra care; the thrill-seekers get their cameras out. In the event, it's reassuringly uneventful. The Twin Otter was built for just this kind of assignment: its broad tyres sink softly into the wet sand and roll gently to a standstill a few yards from the terminal. We step on to the vast white strand - insignificant Lowry-esque figures bending into the stiff breeze, wondering if we've packed the right things.

A windsock has been standing beside Barra's strand, the Traigh Mor, since the summer of 1936: just about the time that the first passenger terminal opened at a grass airfield near Gatwick racecourse.

When I last flew to Barra, the pound in my pocket consisted of tanners, florins and half-crowns; man was yet to walk on the moon; the island itself had no public electricity supply. It was 1965. The airport "terminal" was a prefabricated hut run with great efficiency by my second cousin, Katie, who took the bookings, sold tickets and carried a walkie-talkie to communicate with incoming pilots. In her navy blue serge BEA uniform and windblown silk scarf she was without doubt the most glamorous woman in the world. Today's terminal building is three times the size of the old place, with a check-in desk, X-ray machine for hand-luggage, and a cafeteria frying unappealing hamburgers. I dread to think what Katie would have made of all that.

Some things never change: the Traigh Mor still teems with cockles which, along with Barra's large and succulent scallops, remain greatly prized. But in so many other ways the world has moved on. Back in '65, you could drive across the sand right up to the plane; deposit or collect the appropriate passenger; pick up a newspaper (at least one day old, possibly more); and, if you were lucky, even sneak a moment or two in the cockpit. Today, to be allowed anywhere near the plane, you need a boarding pass, and have to answer questions about who packed your luggage. You'd think you were at Gatwick.

It's probably not a good idea to revisit a childhood idyll - a place where you frequently return in your dreams - because the child and the adult rarely look at life in the same way. Once, I would have seized on the sharp wind that made us shiver on arrival as a perfect opportunity for kite-flying. These days, when the breeze gets up, I suffer from earache.

I went to Barra almost every summer between the launch of Sputnik and the release of Sergeant Pepper because my mother was born there and we had access to the family croft in the northern township of Eoligarry. From the jetty, a gentle soul known as Big Neil ran an intermittent passenger ferry service to South Uist. At the age of nine, I spent the whole of July and August on the island, indulgently tended by an aunt. It must have seemed like forever, but the island was such a source of wonder and adventure that I don't remember feeling remotely homesick.

Every day was filled with Swiss Family Robinson-style possibilities. There were seriously competitive ball-games on the flat grassland known as the machair, or the glaringly white, empty beaches. Some had towering sand-dunes - ideal arenas for war games, tunnelling, or hide-and-seek. We collected flat pebbles and made them skim out to sea. One still evening, my brother held the unofficial all-comers' record for a single stone of 28 hops across the harbour.

On my fifth birthday my father led me through mist and cloud to the summit of Heaval (not much more than a thousand feet, but the nearest thing on Barra to a mountain). My day was capped by a party at which, by a remarkable coincidence, the lucky sixpence found its way into my slice of cake. My pride and joy, a model yacht, explored every cove and inlet, until I misread the current one day and it raced out to sea. There were fishing expeditions, when we trailed lines off the back of the boat and caught mackerel without even trying. Once a year, Big Neil took us to the deserted island of Fuday, where we explored caves and dodged huge and allegedly deadly jellyfish to charge naked into the surf.

Revisiting the island sets off a kind of wrestling match between past and present. But it's not a fair contest. Memory is selective. It removes all the bad weather days when we must have been forced to stay indoors and read a book.

Some aspects of modern life, notably communications, have changed for the better. Instead of a mushy medium wave radio signal (and, until 1967, no television at all), the islanders have PCs and satellite dishes. Castlebay School offers the public free access to the internet. Some Barra residents even make a living from the web. There's Vladimir, a mysterious Russian who allegedly runs a mail order business selling Soviet army surplus gear. And there's Gerry Porter, a part-time musician with a small factory producing the most delicious fudge you'll ever taste. Gerry claims, with more sadness than pride, that his fudge is the only product still manufactured on an island that's become dangerously dependent on subsidies and tourism.

Barra's small industries may have disappeared, and its fishing fleet all but sunk by EU-protected factory ships and high-tech trawlers, but getting from A to B has improved out of all recognition since we chugged around in our Morris Minor. The roads, though still requiring passing places, no longer have a thin line of grass down the middle. On election night last month, the island rejoiced as a local boy overturned a Labour majority to secure the Western Isles for the SNP. In 1966, communications in the islands were so poor that it took nearly two days to collect and count the votes.

Big Neil's passenger ferry is long gone, but in its place is a new car ferry terminal a few miles away, linking Barra with Eriskay - the island where Bonnie Prince Charlie first landed in Scotland, and where the SS Politician, carrying a quarter of a million bottles of Scotch, was shipwrecked in 1941. The event inspired so many local legends that Compton MacKenzie's classic novel, Whisky Galore, probably wrote itself. The Politician lounge-bar on Eriskay contains memorabilia from the wreck, including a bottle of whisky (not for sale), that the pilferers somehow overlooked. More importantly for Eriskay's - and Barra's - survival, a new causeway runs across to South Uist, opening up another route to the mainland.

Another new-ish causeway connects Barra with Vatersay, a farming island with yet more ravishing, unspoilt beaches sloping gently into the clear water. This was exciting new territory to explore. After an exhilarating walk along the beach I discovered the most southerly Post Office in the islands - scarcely bigger than a garden shed, and open whenever you ring the bell at Mrs Campbell's house next door.

Compton MacKenzie spent much of his later life in a large house next to the Traigh Mor, and was buried near my grandparents at the cemetery on Eoligarry Hill. The primrose-strewn climb to the cairn at the summit rewards the walker with a panoramic view of half a dozen islands - links in a chain of land and causeway stretching all the way to Lewis in the far north-west.

The broader view is roughly as I remember it from 40 years ago, but the foreground contains a shocking sight. Over the field from our old croft, right in the heart of the settlement, are the rusting remains of two dozen lorries, buses and cars.

But just as the island knocked me to the canvas, it lifted me up with a typical moment of magic. Among the sightseers poking around Eoligarry cemetery and its medieval chapel was a group of bird-watchers from England. One of the party had gone off in search of the elusive corncrake. The three who put down their binoculars to have a quiet moment in the tiny chapel were richly rewarded. As they emerged back into the daylight, a small, brown-speckled head popped up out of the long grass like a periscope.

These are difficult times for the island, but, as long as it can keep conjuring up its corncrake moments, Barra's future is assured.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer flew to Barra from Glasgow with Loganair (0870 850 9850; www.loganair.co.uk), which runs a daily service to and from the island (except Sundays). Car-ferry services to Barra are operated by Caledonian MacBrayne (08705 650000; www.calmac.co.uk). In summer, there is a daily link between Castlebay and Oban, on the mainland. Barra is connected to the rest of the Western Isles by a 40-minute ferry trip from Ardmhor to Eriskay, which runs up to five times a day in both directions.

GETTING AROUND

Barra Car Hire, Castlebay (01871 810243).

STAYING THERE

The writer stayed at the Isle of Barra Hotel (01871 810383; www.isleofbarra.com/iob.html) which has an excellent restaurant renowned for its Atlantic views. Doubles start at £42 per person per night. Heathbank Hotel (01871 890266; www.barrahotel.co.uk) at Northbay on the more sheltered eastern shore, has a small restaurant and doubles from £35 per person, including breakfast.

VISITING THERE

Kisimul Castle (01871 810449) opens daily in summer from 9.30am-6.30pm. Admission is £3, including the ferry across the bay. Barra Heritage Centre (01871 810 413), Castlebay, is open Monday-Friday 11am-4pm, admission £2.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The tourist information centre in Castlebay opens 9am-5pm Monday-Saturday, noon-3pm Sunday. Visit Scotland (0845 2255121; www.visitscotland.com).

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