HAVE WE GOT VIEWS FOR YOU
SCOTLAND AS YOU’VE PROBABLY NEVER SEEN IT BEFORE
THE anticipation is building inside the aircraft as flinty, white-flecked water slowly gives way to land. A smattering of greenishbrown rocky outcrops are visible through breaks in the wispy cloud, looking like giant, mosscovered stepping stones. The topography continues to unfurl beneath us, revealing rugged cliffs, sand dunes, marram grass, wildflower-strewn machair and patchwork-like crofts. We’re drawing closer now. A gasp of delight ripples through the cabin as a bright turquoise lagoon looms into view.
The plane begins a slow, graceful arc around the wide bay. There’s a crackle of excitement when at last we see it: the white sands of the runway. Gliding earthwards, I hold my breath. The wheels touch down; a glittering curtain of salty spray rises like a ceremonial water salute.
Disembarking to make our way towards the terminal building, there comes a lilting warning that I register just in time: “Watch out for the jellyfish”. My foot hovers in mid-air, perilous inches from the gelatinous blob on the wet sand.
Welcome to Barra, the only scheduled beach landing in the world. More than 12,000 passengers pass through the tiny airport each year.
While some use it as a gateway for islandhopping up the Outer Hebrides chain, others come simply for the thrill of ticking it off their bucket list.
Yet, for the people who live and work on Barra, the stretch of beach at Traigh Mhor is more than simply a stunning backdrop: the daily Loganair flights provide a lifeline.
Waiting to meet the aircraft is Michael Galbraith, station manager for Barra Airport. He keeps a close eye as the plane is unloaded and the incoming passengers, including myself, traipse up the sandy ramp to Arrivals.
Galbraith has worked here for 23 years and for the past 19 he’s been in charge. His eyes crinkle into a smile when rattling off what his role entails. “Fire service, tower, prepare the runway – the whole lot,” he says. “We wear multiple hats here.”
It is a sentiment echoed by duty fire crew Jamie Irving, 41, and Neil Ferguson, 28, when asked about how their jobs differ from other airports. “Clean toilets, paint fences,” says Ferguson, checking them off on his fingers. “Cut grass,” adds Irving. “We are trained firefighters, but do all that too.”
At high tide all three runways are fully submerged (hence the lone jellyfish practically at the door). Galbraith and his team carry out beach inspections twice each day. “We look for sandbanks, algae or anything washed in by the tide,” he explains.
Potential hazards can include marine debris, plastic waste, driftwood, dead animals and sea birds. “We’ve had a wee baby shark,” says Galbraith. “It was nearly dead and unable to be saved. We’ve had a dolphin in the past. We put it back into the sea. Whether it survived or not, I don’t know.”
Even something as seemingly innocuous as seaweed must be monitored. Fortunately, this is a relatively clean beach so we don’t get much dirty seaweed,” he says. “When we do get seaweed, we need to check for any stones attached because that could puncture the aircraft tyres.”
Low cloud cover has meant a slight delay to our inbound flight and the ground staff are now trying to get the outgoing passengers onto the plane as quickly as possible.
Janet MacLean, 58, who heads up Loganair customer services at Barra, is checking boarding passes at the gate. She has the brisk, no-nonsense demeanour of a woman who gets things done.
As part of his security duties Jimmy Ferguson, 53, is patrolling the beach to ensure the runway is kept clear. “When the windsocks are up, it is an active airfield,” he says. “Some people see the aircraft leaving and mistakenly assume that they can then go on the beach.”
On one occasion a family of visitors began building a sandcastle – a tractor was swiftly dispatched to flatten it so the plane could land later that day.
“Someone started flying a kite on the beach,” says Ferguson. “I explained to him that wasn’t a very good idea.”
Today, though, there are thankfully no such unwanted incursions. The aircraft taxis nimbly across the sand before taking off to return to Glasgow. As it disappears to a mere dot in the sky, Galbraith ushers us into the warmth of the airport cafe.
Above the nearby check-in desk hangs a row of photographs showing planes on the beach throughout the years.
The Air Ministry officially licensed Traigh Mhor as an airfield on August 7, 1936, and a daily service was promoted in the Oban Times from early July that year.
In October 1974, Loganair began flights under contract to British Airways and took over the service in its own right in April 1975. Fast forward to 2017 and Loganair flies twice daily from Glasgow – with a single flight on Sundays – operating under a Public Service Obligation (PSO) contract on behalf of the Scottish Government.
A subsidy has been paid on the GlasgowBarra air route by the Scottish Government since the mid-1970s. Under European regulations, a PSO was imposed during the mid-1990s to enable this funding to continue. Like the CalMac ferries running between Oban and Castlebay, the Loganair 19-seater Twin Otter aircraft has become woven into the fabric of island life.
The other prong is tourism, with the beach at Barra regularly featuring in travel lists of the world’s most stunning airport settings. Visitors can even get a stamped and dated landing certificate.
GALBRAITH was born and bred on Barra (“I’m a native as they say. The natives are friendly”). An affable character with plenty of charm and canny one-liners, the 47-year-old chuckles when I joke he should be on commission from VisitScotland.
“It is almost like we work for tourist board,” he admits. “We will chat to people in the airport and tell them about the history and where to visit on the island. We sell the place as much as we can.”
Glancing around the bustling space, it is certainly busy. “This year we have put on around 26 extra flights, taking it up to three flights a day,” says Galbraith, who reckons that there may be scope for more growth. In the past we never knew what the potential was because when the plane was full, that was it. There wasn’t any official data collated on what the demand was for people not getting a seat.
“The Scottish Government have been very good and listened to the community when we said: ‘Look, we need more seats’. They put on two flights a day and even that is filling up, hence the three. What we find is that the tourists will book quite far in
Main image: Barra Airport’s flight information service officer Joyce Beverstock Above right: Captain Fabio Giovacchini (left) and First Officer Rico van Dijk Above left: Airport staff await the next Loganair flight