At the southern tip of the island and the furthest out point of our cycle ride, there lies Castlebay (Bagh a Chaisteil), the village capital of the island. It’s where the Calmac ferries come and go to Oban and Lock Boisdale on South Uist. We popped in to the Calmac office, to book our tickets for the next leg of the journey north. Our crossing from Barra would depart from the little unattended slipway at Ardmhor on the north side of the island, crossing the Sound of Barra to Eriskay.
Calmac Ferry terminals are great for motorhomes, as here not only can you buy your ferry tickets, but you can also take advantage of their free wifi. Every seasoned motorhomer will know that lingering in cafes with free wifi is an occupational hazard, especially on the Outer Hebrides, where 3G and mobile coverage is patchy at best. Calmac ferry terminals all have customer toilets too and usually a hot drinks machine (this may seem a strange point to note, however, the seasoned travellers among you will appreciate this information!), even the unmanned terminals have a little wooden waiting area. The waiting room is generally populated by a mix of foot passengers and cyclists resting their legs and motorists stretching theirs, all chatting convivially and sharing in an anticipation of what the next stage of their journey will bring.
As you arrive at Castlebay on the ferry, you’ll be greeted by the sight of the medieval Kisimul Castle, rising majestically from the water, hence Castle Bay. The castle has a chequered history and in previous times has been quite unloved, they even used stone from the once dilapidated castle for fishing boat ballast and paving in Glasgow.
Kisimul was the original seat of the clan MacNeil who first came to Barra in the 11th century. It seems from archeological investigation the the castle has existed in various forms since around that time, although the little rock in the bay on which the castle was built, may have been inhabited much earlier than that, as archeologists discovered prehistoric artefacts during their excavations. Which leads me to wonder which ferry they caught to get there? Surely not CalMac?
The current laird has restored and leased the castle back to Historic Scotland, for the princely sum of a bottle of whisky and £1 per year. For about £5 during the better weather, you can visit the ‘castle in the sea’ via a 5 minute boat ride. I expect my friend from our home village, who’s surname is also McNeil, will be visiting her family seat when she travels up to Barra next month.
We made use of the hole in the wall at the bank in Castlebay and popped into a couple of the shops to stock up with provisions. If you want shops, petrol, a bank or hotel on Barra, then Castlebay is pretty much it. Don’t miss Buth Bharraigh, the community shop and cafe, where you can buy anything from craft supplies and vegetarian food to fishing rods. Here’s where you’ll also find laundry, bike hire and free wifi and help if you’re stuck with your knitting or crochet, sounds a bit like RAC for knitters! They’re also open on a Sunday, which is fairly unusual for the Outer Hebrides.
This community social enterprise centre is also home to Barra Bunting, a wonderful initiative which started as a community project in 2012. First inspired by Kirstie’s Handmade Britain television programme, this little line of flags has now grown into a challenge to beat the world record of 4km of continuous bunting. Anyone can submit a flag, as long as they have set foot on either Barra or Vatersay. It’s now on my list of things to do and there’s a wonderful online gallery where you can see flags from all corners of the world made by past visitors to the island.
We passed on the opportunity to use the Barra golf course with its honesty box system of collecting green fees and instead headed north again, passing yet more absolutely breathtaking beaches.
We called in at a little jetty, following the signs for “Bouys and Gulls” and “Fish and Ships” I naively thought for a minute that we were about to chance upon a cleverly named chippy with public conveniences. However, I soon realised that this was just another witty Hebridean sign, directing us quite correctly to the sea shore where we could feast our eyes on the view.
This time we had a welcome tail wind, but no less hilly route back to the campsite. We’d heard about the place you can buy fresh fish on the east coast at Ardveenish and followed the signs off the ‘main’ road to Barratlantic
We cycled up to the huge factory shed where they process the fresh fish and followed instructions on the notice outside the open door to ring the bell. No one appeared for quite some time so we went inside the little sales area where we found there were fridges full of fresh Dover Sole, Monkfish, and Turbot, all caught from the waters around the Western Isles, along with their speciality Langoustines and diver caught Scallops.
Eventually we were served by a friendly Barratlantic person and we popped a fish filled, well wrapped parcel into my cycle pannier and looked forward to an evening banquet of barbecued salmon and salad back at at our favourite restaurant – our motorhome!