If you follow us on social media, receive our e-blast or read The Geographer you may have noticed that we are asking our members (and followers) to get involved by sending us their submissions for their favourite place in Scotland, you can get involved by sending your favourite places in Scotland to firstname.lastname@example.org On today’s blog we are sharing Jamie’s favourite place, Barra in the Outer Hebrides. To read our full series make sure to subscribe to our e-blast via our home page and join us to receive your copies of The Geographer.
Like its inhabitants a century earlier, the morning’s tide had fled the shore, leaving a wide-arced smile of golden sand polished and glistening. Grey seals lounged lazily on the beach, nonchalantly turning to watch our incoming boat. I was instantly beguiled by the haunting beauty of this barren outpost of Gaeldom.
Two hours earlier, rippled cirrocumulus had promised fine weather as Donald MacLeod, onetime fisherman, now skipper of the ”˜Boy James’, welcomed eight of us aboard his small boat. The Perkins engine purred and the clouds dissipated into blue sky as we set out from Barra’s harbour in Castlebay into choppy waters towards the penultimate island of the southern tip of the Western Isles archipelago. Approaching the island, Donald ferried us the last distance in a dinghy and we vaulted over shift and tilt of dark water onto a rocky promontory. I trekked up the broad, tussocky slope towards the western cliff-tops, passing ruined, sand-encroached crofts, huddled together like hump-backed widows in mourning-grey.
Although the people must have lived a precarious life on the margins, looking down on the village, nestled above a bay of azure, the place transformed into a perfect, sunny haven. At over two hundred metres, Mingulay’s sea cliffs are among the highest in Europe and home to a plethora of puffins, razorbills, guillemots and kittiwakes. I stood atop a deep cleft gouged into the cliffs by the boisterous sea and spent the late morning watching the birds fly to and from their nesting ledges.
My ancestors are a proud line of boat-builders, crofters and bards from the Outer Hebrides. Though I had grown up steeped in their stories of tossed seas, safe landfall and Celtic hospitality, my only prior knowledge of Mingulay derived from the popular Scottish folk song. As the island’s contours disappeared over the horizon, I thought about the last twenty-one families who left behind their village homes in 1912. Only then did I appreciate the romance and longing felt by those men in the ”˜Boat Song’ who, in time to the pull of their oars, sing about ”˜sailing homeward’ to their beloved Mingulay.