Spirit of the Outer He­brides

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

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

A new film ver­sion of Whisky Ga­lore! cap­tures the essence of life in the Western Isles. Nigel Richard­son de­vel­ops a taste for it

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