MacPhail: There’s no place like Barra for a celebration

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Experiencing variety and contrast of people and place is a good way to build and maintain some degree of equilibrium and perspective in the fast-moving and ever-changing world of today.

The past two weekends have very enjoyably provided a great experience of the familiar and the new.

A couple of weeks ago, Andrew and I decided to head off somewhere on the St Olave for a few of days. There had been a long period of deciding what to do with the Ceilidh House, then considering whether or not to go through with the sale of it, and then a long complex road to getting the deal done after we had decided that selling was the right option.

As with most complicated journeys, when it was finally concluded there was a great feeling of relief and we both thought we should celebrate.

If you are going to mark any occasion like that, it has to be done right away. If it is left even a few weeks, the essence of what you are celebrating is lost – new issues and excitements will have arrived, the sense of relief will have disappeared and the feeling of celebration will be eclipsed by the return to normality.

After fuelling in Oban and loading with Andrew’s choice of supplies, which would have kept us going on  an Atlantic crossing, we headed out of Oban Bay with no definitive plan as to where we might end up.

Tobermory, Loch Drambuidh, Arinagour in Coll, Arisaig, Eigg, Muck and Tiree were all discussed and were all good options. We had talked about going to Barra in the days before, but a few of our usual partners in crime there were away, and because of the time leaving Oban it would be after midnight before we arrived – everyone would be in bed and important establishments shut.

However, as we neared the top of the Sound of Mull, the excitement of heading for Castlebay got the better of us, so to the north-west, past the Cairns of Coll, we headed and then across the Sea of the Hebrides we sailed.

Thick fog came down about five miles off Castlebay and it made the approach even more atmospheric than usual. Coming past Maol Dòmhnaich, it lifted briefly but then descended on us again as we swung into the bay. The sight of Kisimul Castle appearing through a shroud of fog in the midsummer twilight evoked powerfully all the excitement and magical associations we have with this place and its people.

I can advise with complete confidence that if anyone ever has anything to celebrate, then Barra is the place to do it.

We were tied up by midnight, then soon met by friends from Vatersay and the events of that night and the next day were the perfect combination of good fun, music and nonsense that we were hoping for.

Having a tune with Vatersay Boys box player Micheal DD is always a great experience and the raw musicality comes through in every note he plays. Another musical highlight was the singing of our friend Donald Frances MacNeil, also from Vatersay.

DF has probably the best untrained, natural singing voice I have heard. The looks on the faces of holidaymakers at the table next to us was a sight to behold when this very tough and hardy-looking fisherman sat down beside us and began singing with a voice and intelligent expressive delivery of song that you would expect from a top professional performer.

Barra and Vatersay are not like any other islands, or indeed like any other places I have been. There is a confidence and strength of identity in the people and a refusal to adhere to outside convention that is far more robust than in any other population.

We had plans to visit many more people than we managed, so we will need to return soon.

Adventures in Bordeaux to follow…