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SCOT­LAND AS YOU’VE PROB­A­BLY NEVER SEEN IT BE­FORE

The Herald Magazine - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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