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My first glimpse of Barra, from the back seat of a twin engine plane, landing on the white sand beach. Barra is one of the smaller islands in the Outer Hebrides of Western Scotland, with a population of around 1,100. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)
TravelTraveler Magazine

Flying to Barra

“Boarding pass?”

I dug the card from my bag and handed it to the woman at the shop in the Glasgow Airport—her nametag said “Lauren”, her straight brown hair fell to her shoulders, and her nose was pierced with a barely-there gold stud.

“Where you flying to?” she wondered aloud, but I only stared back at her, enchanted by that Glaswegian accent—almost incomprehensible but thick and creamy as a mouth of whisky fudge.

“To Barra,” I answered. “Have you ever been?” I doubted anyone from Glasgow ever got out to the Western Isles.

“Aye!” she surprised me, “I had my first drink in Barra!”

“So it was fun then?” I asked, imagining her amongst a crowd of young people in a dark pub.

“I was eleven years old,” she surprised me again. Sheesh—eleven?

“I was in the pub w’ my family and the folks there jes’ handed me a pint.”

“And you drank it?”

“Aye—‘twas a pint o’ heavy . . . ‘twas disgusting!” she remembered aloud, then told me all about her first pint of beer as a child. I listened.

“Then another time, I was 7 or 8 I think, we were out in the isles again ‘n they put down a shot o’ whisky for me. I remember my mother looked from across the room like ‘Don’t you drink that!’ but then my grandfather was on the other side winking at me and sayin’ ‘Drink up!’ and I just didn’t know who to listen to.”

“And?” I asked.

“I just did it!” She cocked her head back and swallowed the invisible shot, impersonating her seven-year old self.

“Oh it was horrible—just horrible!”

“So then the beer in Barra wasn’t your first drink?”

“Well it was my first, you know, proper drink. The whisky—that was just my first shot.”

“What should I see in Barra?” I changed the subject, suddenly concerned for Scottish children.

“Oh . . . effrythin’!” she exclaimed and her face erupted into a giant grin.

“Oh, it’s lovely over in Barra—the nicest folk in the world—and they’re all in bands and it’s all Ceilidh music. It’s so small but so wonderful . . .” she remembered

“ . . . yeah—just a wee place,” Lauren added wistfully, then wished me well on my journey.

Not surprisingly, it was raining hard in Glasgow. The fog was so thick I could barely see the tiny plane we were boarding for Barra—a twin-engine Otter with places for twelve passengers.

Trudy, who I gathered was the flight attendant, counted us out like students on a school trip, “. . .ten, eleven, twelve.”

She didn’t count the baby in the carrier seat, gurgling away beneath a blanket—lucky thirteen. His name was Aydan and he was only eight weeks old. This would be his very first flight, his very first travels anywhere on this Earth—to Barra, where he would meet his extended family.

Trudy was already cooing over the mother and baby, “You know, just two days ago we had a newborn! Barely 24 hours old and we flew him back to Barra!” Then she explained how all the expecting mothers from Barra give birth at the hospitals in Glasgow or Stornoway.

“24 hours old—just a wee thing and he didn’t even had a name yet!” she laughed.

“But did he have a boarding pass?” I jumped in, curious.

“Aye—it said: Infant, Surname,” she recalled, walking us out to the plane. I offered Aydan’s mother a hand and ended up carrying the baby myself, a precious bundle of blankets and stringy black hair. As my own luggage was loaded and strapped into the back hatch of the tiny plane, I loaded baby Aydan onto the plane and into the hands of his waiting mother.

I boarded last and settled into the far back of the plane, followed by Trudy who briefed us on the flight ahead.

“We’re in no hurry to go now because on Barra the tide is still in,” she paused, then looked at me and explained, “The tide needs to be out in order for us to land on the beach.”

Huh? We were landing on the beach?

“Anyway—we should get there today,” Trudy continued, then she slid in beside the captain and buckled herself in, mumbling, “You never know with the Western Isles.”

It turns out Trudy was the co-pilot, and she was flying our plane to Barra. We took off into the white cloud of Glasgow and shook like a tambourine with wings. Little Aydan whimpered and I dozed.

A half-hour later, I woke up to a new sky—utterly clear but for a few gauzy bits of cotton, floating in the invisible sky and beneath us, the open sea like a sheet of blue leather.

Our little tin can plane hummed over the ocean, far away from the Scottish mainland and over so many little green islands, fringed with rocky coastlines and brown seaweed. White sheep polka-dotted each remote outcropping and the sea shone brighter and clearer, until it took on an almost Caribbean appearance. Even from the plane I could see the emerald sandy shallows beneath the rippling waves.

The water came closer and closer to us, faster and faster, until I grew concerned that maybe I would need to strap on one of those lifejackets that Trudy had shown us back in Glasgow. I felt with one hand under my seat—there was my lifejacket, and there was the water, out the window, thirty feet—no twenty feet below, splashing away from our engines until the very last second when the white sand appeared . . . and then—bump—we landed on the beach.

And there I was—on the wide, wet sands of Tràigh Mhor, rolling to a gentle stop on this speck of a place called Barra—just me—with a wee baby, on a wee plane, on a wee island.

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Touching down on the beach in beautiful Barra, in the Western Isles of Scotland (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)