Spirit of the Outer Hebrides
We’d come to Barra on the ferry – five hours and 76 nautical miles from Oban – and forgotten something as simple as a comb. “You’ll get bits and bobs like that in the top shop,” said Lorna, the landlady of our b&b. “We call it the top shop because it’s at the top of the… och, you’ll get used to it.”
And we did get used to it: the simplicity of life in the Outer Hebrides, the Atlantic archipelago known as An t-Eilean Fada, “The Long Island”, in Scots Gaelic. No locked doors – they’re proud of that – and, on Barra, a road that is like a poem, finishing where it began.
On a map, these Western Isles look flimsy and tendril-like, threaded by causeways and the dotted lines of ferry routes from Barra in the south to Lewis in the north, via the Uists, Benbecula and Harris. Each peaty, beach-fringed land mass has a distinct topography and identity. All are rinsed by a charm as pure as the spread of light off the Atlantic, as my partner and I discovered on a week-long south-to-north exploration by car on which the sun only stopped shining to let the moon have a turn.
Fewer than 30,000 people now live on the islands – a Lewis man we met told of finding himself at Clapham Junction station in London and watching what seemed to him “the entire population of the Western Isles” getting off a single train. But that doesn’t stop them having views on the merits and practices of islands other than their own.
“Watch out for the drivers of North Uist,” one native of Barra told me. “Nine times out of 10 they don’t bother with the passing places [on single track roads], they come straight at you.” A man in South Uist, meanwhile, reckoned one day was easily enough time for a visitor to spend on Barra, which after all “is only 12 miles around”.
Ah yes, but Barra seemed to me a universe in miniature, like a rock pool. The top shop is the shop at the top of the main street of the capital, Castlebay. It sells hi-vis jackets and novelty puffins but no combs when we were there (we made do with the
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