Barra, Barra Airport, Benbecula, Bucket list, CalMac Ferries, Canna, DeHavilland Twin Otter, Eigg, Harry Potter, Hogwarts Express, Jacobite Express, Lochmaddy, Mallaig, Muck, North Uist, Old Man of Storr, Outer Hebrides, Portree, Rum, Scotland, Skye, Small Isles, Steam train, Uig, Whale watching, White tailed eagle
So, where would you go to mend a broken heart? Ibiza perhaps. Get tanked up and pull some birds, live life to the max, and all that. Forget about thwarted love with some good old fashioned lust. Or Paris. City of Lights. Heal the hurt by absorbing culture, arts, architecture. Faced with the eternal mystery of La Giaconda, what does a passing liaison amoureuse even matter? This too, after all, shall pass. Or even Amsterdam. Where, with sufficient herbal encouragement, one can forget about just about anything. Nope. The true miserable introvert goes to the Outer Hebrides. Alone.
Thus it was that in the summer of 2012, heart-broken and spirit-low, I found myself alone in Mallaig on the west coast of Scotland, gearing up for a solo jaunt across some of the loneliest terrain I had ever encountered. Why Mallaig? Simple really. For some reason, still unbeknownst to me, I had agreed that summer to walk the West Highland Way with a group of friends. Which involved two of my personal bêtes noire – exercise and dormitories. By the time we finished up in Fort William, despite the immense rush of having completed a week-long hike through the mountains, I was exhausted, and in desperate need of some alone-time.
I had, thankfully, foreseen such an eventuality, and planned a week-long jaunt around the islands, explicitly for the purpose of riding the Jacobite train to Mallaig and flying from Benbecula in the Hebrides, landing at Barra Airport – famous for actually being a beach. Implicitly, however, it was the loneliest holiday I could think of. Perfect for the heartbroken, and extremely miserable, introvert.
The Outer Hebrides. Just as a name it is rich with the allusion of loneliness. It sounds like the loneliest place on earth. The Outer Hebrides. Familiar from the soothing-but-incomprehensible lull of the shipping forecast on the radio in my parents’ car when a small child. The Outer Hebrides. In actuality, they are less than 50 miles from the coast of the Scottish mainland, and less than 35 miles from Skye. Still, they sounded like the perfect place to be alone. And I wasn’t wrong.
The journey from Fort William to Mallaig (from where one can catch a ferry to Skye and thence on to the Outer Hebrides) is spectacular. In 2009, Wanderlust magazine voted it the best rail journey in the world, ahead of such luminaries as the Trans-Siberia Railway and the Cuzco-Macchu Pichu line in Peru. Although one can make this extraordinary journey by regular, multiple-unit train, that would be missing a trick. A very big trick. The West Coast Railway Company runs the Jacobite Express for the full length of the route. Probably most famous as the train used to film the Hogwarts’ Express scenes of the Harry Potter films, the 42 mile trip is undertaken in ex-British Railways coaches from the 1960s and pulled by one of three ex-LMS/British Railways steam locomotives. A standard class single ticket will currently set you back some £29 (€37.50; $41). And, boy, is it worth it. The countryside is just incredible, from the end of the highlands all the way down to the coast. If possible, I would recommend sitting on the left side in one of the rearmost carriages; that way, you get a fantastic view of the whole train as it curves across the horseshoe-shaped Glenfinnan Viaduct. Also the left-hand side of the train affords amazing coastal views from Arisaig (upon whose beach Local Hero, one of my favourite ever movies was filmed) onwards.
In addition to being the terminus of the West Highland Line, Mallaig is also an important fishing port and the base for Caledonian MacBrayne ferries to Skye and the Small Isles/Inner Hebrides. I had planned two nights here, with a day cruise of the aforementioned Small Isles before heading out across Skye. I had booked a tiny, single room at the Steam Inn a pub/inn round the corner from the station. It was basic but clean, a perfect place to spend my first night alone. And alone I spent it – frazzled from constant companionship for the duration of the West Highland hike, I couldn’t even bring myself to go down to the bar. Setting a pattern for many, if not most, solo adventures to come, I bought a couple of bottles of wine from the local supermarket and retired to my room. I did, however, venture forth for food. As Mallaig is a major fishing port, the local fish and chip shops must be pretty good, I figured. Sadly, I was wrong, but two bottles of cheap pink wine quickly washed away the taste of stale batter.
The following day I set out for the ‘mini-cruise‘ around the small isles. In effect, this is just a matter of sitting on the ferry as it makes its rounds. You don’t get to disembark, instead having to settle for photographing the aforementioned islands from the deck (or, as the day drew on and it got colder, through the window of the bar). Perfect. No interaction necessary. Just me, my book, my camera (phone) and an occasional foray to the bar for coffee. The non-landing ‘cruise’ took a little over four hours and cost around £10 (€13; $14.25) and was well worth it. As well as seeing four islands (Eigg, Muck, Rum and Canna, which sound like some obscure regional stag party itinerary) I got to see dolphins, a whale (distantly) and several white-tailed eagles. And jellyfish. Lots of jellyfish. Ick.
Despite attaining the loneliness I desired, I spent that evening deafened by settling gulls and huddled against a cold wind in the semi-shelter of the Mallaig RNLI lifeboat station – the only place I could get half-decent 3G reception in those heady days when small hotels didn’t have wifi.
I arrived in Portree, the ‘capital’ of Skye, the following day around lunchtime. The ferry from Mallaig to Armadale, the sea-bound entrance point to the Isle of Skye, had been half an hour late which naturally led to me spending most of the morning panicking that I’d miss the bus between Armadale and Portree. Of course, the bus only exists to ferry ferry passengers, so to speak, so it waited for us. Well, for me. The journey between Armadale and Portree was predictably stunning. (One of the few downsides I can imagine to being Scottish must be the constant inability to be impressed by natural landscapes. There really are very few places which, at their most beautiful, can even approach an average Scottish landscape. On the other hand, being from good old Stoke-on-Trent, I’m impressed if the barman has the normal number of limbs). We passed some of the most incredible views it had ever been my privilege to witness. The Old Man of Storr was just off to the left of the bus route. I only wished I had had the time and motility to see the island properly.
Portree, just as predictably, was also incredibly beautiful. Having booked several weeks ahead of time, I was due to stay in a reasonably priced hostel dormitory. I arrived to find that I could not check in for another three hours. Three hours was enough to tour the town – another amazingly picturesque place with a (famous) quay of multicoloured cottages and a perfect view out across the Irish Sea (spoiled only slightly by a large cruise liner moored just past the end of the bay). Three hours was also enough for me to decide to abandon the booking and find a private room in the Portree Hotel, right in the centre of town. At £60 (€77.50; $85) for a tiny, aged, and somewhat distressed single room with no view at all, it didn’t exactly represent great value for money. It did, however, represent privacy. And as any self-respecting miserable introvert will tell you, privacy is worth whatever you can afford to pay. Another local supermarket, another couple of bottles of wine, and I was set for the night.
The next day I made my way to Uig. I would have dearly loved to spend more time on Skye, to visit the world-famous distillery and the even-more-famous Storr rocks, but the bus timetables were not my friend. I did swear that one day I would go back under my own steam. And indeed one day I will. My day’s journey ended at a Youth Hostel a couple of miles outside Uig. A Youth Hostel. With a dormitory. Into which I was booked. I went down to the local pub and proceeded to panic. I was set to spend the night in an enclosed room full of Other People. And their farts. I used the pub wifi to try and find a private room somewhere. Anywhere. But it was a Saturday night at the height of the summer tourist season. No dice. Enclosed room and farts it was then. Which meant I had to get drunk. Very drunk. Which I did. I could still feel myself breathing those damn farts though.
The ferry from Uig to Lochmaddy, the main port of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides proper, landed on the afternoon of Sunday 5th August. The day of the London Olympics 100m men’s sprint final. But, more importantly, a Sunday. I disembarked into a light drizzle to be met by a preacher with a broad Northern Irish accent bellowing scripture at a small and entirely middle-aged congregation on the dock-side. Not sure whether this was a frequent occurrence or a one-off some-sort-of-anniversary-of-something-or-the-other special, I tried to take a few photos, but Northern Irish accents have always enormously intimidated me, especially when coupled with religion, so in the end I just took off toward the guest house I had booked.
Sunday 5th August. Sunday. Lochmaddy had a shop. Right next to my guest house. But it was Sunday. The shop was shut. No matter. I arrived at my guest house at the time I had told the landlady. And, indeed, there she was to greet me. She was jolly and happy and very Scottish. She showed me the room, with which I was more than pleased. She explained how to use the tea and coffee making facilities and pointed out the free biscuits. She showed me the kitchen and which of the items in the fridge made up my breakfast. It turned out she didn’t live in the house. She didn’t, in fact, live anywhere near the house. And nobody else was booked to stay. I was the sole occupant of this big, isolated and more-than-slightly-spooky guest house. Damn. The local shop was closed, so no chance of wine or crisps. There were no cafes or restaurants open anywhere near the docks. I was, it would seem, buggered.
Lochmaddy itself was quite beautiful. Spread out along the coast, it had a bank (well, a bungalow with a Royal Bank of Scotland sign affixed to the front), a visitors’ centre (closed) and a mini-mart (closed) attached to the petrol station (closed). Thus it was that I found myself venturing inland towards the Lochmaddy Hotel. Which had a bar. That did food. And booze. It was there through a pleasant haze borne of fish, chips and beer, that I watched Usain Bolt beat the 100m Olympic record. I was happy for him. I was even happier for myself. By the time I returned through the foggy and totally silent streets of the village, I was hungry again. My breakfast called to me from the kitchen, but I had no idea where or when I would have a chance to eat the following day. And in any case, the breakfast only consisted of two slightly-stale and over-refrigerated slices of white bread, a banana and a yoghurt. Instead, seized by a stroke of drunken genius, I went from bedroom to bedroom (all thankfully unlocked) throughout the whole guesthouse eating the free biscuits that came with the tea and coffee making facilities. If you, dear reader, stayed in a guesthouse near Lochmaddy port in early August 2012 and found, much to your eternal disappointment, that the tea and coffee making facilities did not include any biscuits, then I apologise from the bottom of my wretched heart. But, damn, they tasted good.
The following day, there was but one bus to Benbecula Airport on the isle of Benbecula from whence I would travel by air to Barra beach. And it left in mid-afternoon. In the three hours between leaving the guest house and the bus departure time, there was little else to occupy me in Lochmaddy other than the (very good) visitors’ centre. Consequently, I now know more about the history of North Uist than I ever thought possible.
The bus journey from Lochmaddy to the airport traversed an almost alien landscape of craters, pools and barren land and ended quite anti-climatictally at a small industrial estate on the outskirts of Benbecula itself. That being the only possible bus that would connect with my flight, I found that I had three hours to kill at Benbecula airport. Now I am no stranger to long layovers. I have done 10 hours in the old Bangkok Don Muang Airport and a further eight hours at Amsterdam Schiphol at the other end of the same day without the slightest problem. Six h0urs in Heydar Aliyev International Airport, Baku? Bring it on! Even the best part of an afternoon spent staring at a dirty, tiled wall in Trivandrum Airport in India was manageable. But Benbecula? For three hours? I almost went crazy. There was a cafe. It was closed. There was a runway. It was empty. There didn’t appear to be anyone else in the entire building. Until I actually went to the gate to board the flight, when I was searched and patted down and questioned like I was wearing al Al Qaeda t-shirt and carrying a bag with a ticking alarm clock hanging from the zip. I can only assume that the security staff there were even more bored than I was.
The flight itself was great. 20 minutes aboard a DeHavilland Twin Otter, seated right behind the pilot with great views across the Little Minch and the Sea of the Hebrides towards mainland Scotland. Barra Airport regularly features on Top 10 Airports bucket lists. It has a terminal building, with a cafe and a departure lounge. It has a baggage reclaim area (albeit a small shed attached to the side of the building). What makes it a constant presence on the bucket lists is the fact that the main runway is actually the beach. It is the only airport in the world where flight schedules are dictated by the tides. And, glued to the porthole as I was, it is a pretty fucking impressive place to land a plane. Forgive the swearing, but if you ever do this journey, you will realise just how justified it is.
Unfortunately, famous beach-bound airport aside, there is not a great deal more to see or do on the island of Barra. I had two days in a B&B before my flight back off the beach to Glasgow, and spent much of it reading in bed and (surprise surprise) drinking cheap wine from the local supermarket. Cafe Kisimul is a very pleasant cafe that turns into a highly rated Italian, Indian and local seafood restaurant in the evening. However, having had lunch there, I was too late to book a table for dinner – it was sold out. There is a castle in the middle of the bay (the main town is called Castlebay – such native cunning!) which is worth an hour round boat trip and a few photographs. Failing that, it was a pretty good place to recuperate and read but nothing much more. The biggest downside, however, was that the B&B, clean, reasonable and well located as it was, nevertheless felt like staying in someone’s house. Hence my natural introvert’s reaction of 48 hours of buttocks being tightly clenched in embarrassment. Oh well.
The flight back to Glasgow was even more spectacular than the flight in from Benbecula. It helped that I could clearly see parts of the West Highland Way that I had walked some 10 days previously – specifically Loch Lomond and Conic Hill; and was able to reflect on how much better I already felt than I had then. So perhaps, after all, a week spent away from the world with just myself for company was exactly what I needed. Sometimes, it’s just good to be alone, however shitty you feel. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.