Kisimul Castle

If there is such a thing as God’s country, Scotland would be it. We are flying low, over green farmland threaded with yellow gorse in bloom, headed to the Outer Hebrides, a name that never fails to thrill me with its sea-splashed remoteness. Scraping low over the countryside is almost as surreal as was exiting a transatlantic jumbo jet to board the teensy plane on the tarmac in Glasgow.

It had been longer than I could remember since I could pass through an airport without showing picture ID. But then, nothing about flying to the Isle of Barra fits in with modern conventional air travel, down to the expect-sunshine-at-your-peril airport code on the British Airways luggage tag: BRR.

Barra, the second southernmost inhabited island of Scotland’s remote Outer Hebrides, is accessible only by the once-daily flight from Glasgow (timing subject to the tides and often canceled due to weather) or an overnight ferry. It’s a place you really have to want to get to. Many people travel there for hiking, for silence, and for the heart’s-ease that Scotland’s empty mountains and placid seas specialize in. Me, I’m interested in dichotomies.

Travel magazines delight in sprawling photos of Scotland’s landscape. Rarely is the story told that these places were preserved not for their beauty, but because absentee landlords of the 18th and 19th centuries, often acting as asset strippers, depopulated the land to make room for more profitable sheep farms or tens of thousands of acres of hunting grounds.

From Kisimul Castle onto CastlebayBarra’s residents were subject to one of the most brutal of these landlords, who rounded them up like cattle and shipped them penniless to Canada. He turned the entire island into a sheep farm after the government turned down his offer to make it into a penal colony.

But most people aren’t aware of this history. They go to Barra for a reason both more prosaic and more immediately thrilling: the adventure of landing on the world’s only beach airport runway. It’s something my plane-obsessed English husband Ian has wanted to do ever since he was a kid, and I thought is was as good a reason as any to seek out a distant island. How many people get a chance to take a regularly scheduled flight to a cockleshell beach?

A tasty Scottish burr welcomed us on board at Glasgow airport. “Sit anywhere you like,” he said, “just leave the front two rows clear,” which left 14 spaces for 11 passengers. When we were all aboard, he crept up front, hunched to half height, to wave the seat belt and demonstration life jacket at us before climbing into his copilot’s seat and fiddling with a broken armrest. “Oh, and make sure your bags are tucked under the seat in front of you,” he added as an afterthought—as if anything but a bag of crisps could easily fit under the seat. I put my backpack, which until that morning had seemed a nice, squat traveling size, snugly under my feet.

Ian wiggled his shoulders into a chair that was roughly the size of the jogging stroller we’d just bought for our niece. “I’m not sure about the seat belt,” he said. “All it really does is assure me that the seat’s going to stay attached to my bum no matter what.”

In seconds, we whined off the runway and above Glasgow, racing west—at least, that’s what it looked like on the map propped up next to the pilot. I was suddenly reminded that I’m scared of heights. But with a rare clear Scottish day below, I could still enjoy the view while my jelly-like knees were folded somewhere near my chin. From this height, the mountains looked like moss-covered boulders, and we passed over lochs the color of lapus lazuli, so big I kept mistaking them for the sea.

The woman across the aisle leaned over and confided to me, inconsequentially, that “they have the map to make sure they remember to turn north over Tiree.” Finally, we passed the Isle of Mull, and were over open water, surrounded by islands: long, stretchy islands; stubby islands; flat islands, islands with craggy landscapes reaching out of the horizon like some mythical edge of the world.

Barra Runway

An hour later, as we descended to Barra, my mind rebelled at the sight. Surely we weren’t going to land on that? Clear blue water and white sand raced closer, and I kept looking for the asphalt. Before I had time to register the two windsocks and the lone figures gathering cockleshells, a foot of sea spray washed up the sides of the plane and we rolled toward dry land.

We scrambled out of the tiny plane and onto Traigh Mhor, the blinding white beach, completely silent once our propellers stopped. With the other passengers, we snapped pictures while our bags were unloaded along with the island’s daily newspapers. The pilots shook their heads at us. “You do this every day?” I asked one of them. “Weather permitting,” he said, his eyes laughing at me. “Wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Barra is tiny, about 10 miles around and four across. When the bus bounced out of the airport parking lot, it stopped at a dead end. The road sign pointed right to “Castlebay, west,” and left to “Castlebay, east.” One way or another, you’d end up in Castlebay, where only the locals know when the grocery store is open. “Licensed Grocers,” says its sign, “Open except when closed.”

BarraWe spent four short days of hiking the silent hills and watching the gentle rain, as I tried to reconcile my love of these wide open spaces with what it had once cost inhabitants to keep it empty. We diverted once to tour the ancestral home of the MacNeil clan, frigid 9th-century Kisimul Castle sitting damply in the middle of the bay.

We returned to the airport in a downpour. The tiny waiting area, where bags were checked and tea was served, was crowded. “Not sure if the flight’s coming back from Benbecula,” said the lady at the check-in counter. If the pilots couldn’t get a clear spot in the clouds, they couldn’t land the plane. They were waiting it out on the island of Benbecula, seeing if the weather cleared.

An hour later, the news came. They’d left Benbecula, but with no guarantee they’re landing on Barra. If we had just spent four days anywhere else, we’d have been anxious. But we knew the risks when we booked the flight: tide or weather could keep us Barra-bound. Besides, Barra acts like a balm on your nerves.

“Ach, it’ll come, sure,” said the woman who’d ridden the bus from the hotel with us. “Or not.” Her accent was a curious mix of Dublin heavily overlaid with Glasgow. Just then one of the airport workers in orange, hanging around his truck outside, pointed up over the building.

Ian came in, chilly and soggy. “It just flew overhead,” he said, “But they can’t seem to find a clear space to get through.” It was another 20 minutes before the plane suddenly pulled up in front of the terminal. In the wide arc of the beach, it had come in almost 90 degrees off the actual runway. The lone passenger, dripping, came in laughing to her waiting friends. “Oh, a little rough,” she said. “’Twas nothing.”

A quick bag search (no X-ray machine here), and the pilots waved us back toward the plane. As I buckled into my stroller-sized seat and watched the pilot refold his map in the cockpit, I sighed. The passenger next to me echoed my grim thoughts. “Back to civilization,” he said regretfully.

“Ach, no,” said the Scots-speaking Irishwoman. “No, you’re leaving it.” The plane bumped out over the cockleshells and sprayed water as it lifted up. She couldn’t have been more right.