Barra – Whisky Galore and So Much More!
Wendy flew over to Barra to discover the origins of the classic Scottish comedy
Landing on the beach runway on Barra has long been on my bucket list – and as our tiny 12-seater plane flew low over the Outer Hebrides’ dazzling white beaches and sparkling turquoise waters, I realised the experience was definitely going to live up to my ‘once-in-lifetime’ expectations!
The landing was perfect and we taxied to a stop in front of the compact airport building – and the long line of people who were there simply to watch the plane land.
For the first time ever, I took my shoes off to disembark from a plane! Then I walked barefoot across the sand, through the café that also serves as security/arrivals/customs and picked up my case from the baggage rack next to the bus stop. If only all flights could be as easy as this!
The Outer Hebrides’ link with the classic Ealing comedy
I was in Barra with five other Scottish journalists for VisitScotland’s press trip to promote the Outer Hebrides’ link with the classic Ealing comedy, Whisky Galore. The 1949 film is based on the novel by Barra resident Compton Mackenzie which, in turn, was inspired by SS Politician going aground on rocks off the nearby island of Eriskay, with 50,000 cases of whisky on board!
The original Whisky Galore was filmed entirely on Barra and the movie’s been attracting visitors to the island ever since. And, with the ‘retelling’ of Whisky Galore having just been made, VisitScotland and Visit Outer Hebrides had decided it was time for a Whisky Galore press trip!
Turquoise seas twinkle in the sunlight
Our first stop was the Isle of Barra Beach Hotel, our home for the night. Perched on top of a sand dune, this stylish hotel overlooks a stunning beach, where waves crash onto the shore and turquoise seas twinkle in the sunlight.
The menu promised fish and chips – with a few additions, including freshly caught scallops, prawns and mussels. What a mouthwatering start to our visit.
The places which feature in the ‘real’ story
Our afternoon was devoted to a trip to the Isle of Eriskay to visit the places which feature in the ‘real’ story of Whisky Galore so we boarded a small fishing boat, Boy James, captained by the very-welcoming Donald Maclean.
As it was a calm day (by Hebridean standards!) and time doesn’t seem to matter as much on an island, Doanald treated us to a wee detour, where we gate-crashed a party of 200 sunbathing seals! Whenever the seals spotted our boat, they slipped from the rocks into the water and promptly gave us a breathaking demonstration of their swimming, leaping and diving skills!
A wee dram of Hebridean whisky
Eriskay’s slipway is at the edge of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Beach, which called for a spot of paddling and, of course, a dram of Hebridean whisky. As we sipped, Les McInulty, our tour guide, explained that Bonnie Prince Charlie took his first steps on Scottish soil when he landed here in July, 1745.
Around a headland at the end of the beach, we found the local pub ‘AM Politician’, named after the famous shipwreck and home to a very special bottle of whisky. “This is from the SS Politician,” the barman told us as he passed the whisky bottle among us – although we were banned from even opening the bottle for a sniff!
The channel where the SS Politician came to grief
We walked through the scattering of houses around the pub and up to Eriskay Church, which provides a stunning view of the narrow channel where the SS Politician came to grief. “Parts of the ship are still there just as, rumour has it, bottles of whisky are still hidden around the island,” revealed Les.
A quick sail back to Barra and it was time for dinner at Café Kisimul, which overlooks Kisimul Castle, which features in Whisky Galore – as does the bank next door, which ‘played’ the post office.
Scallop Pakoras followed by Hebridean Lamb Korma
Somehow, Café Kisimul perfectly executed the potentially bizarre combination of being an Indian/Italian restaurant specialising in Hebridean produce. Scallop Pakoras followed by Hebridean Lamb Korma certainly hit the spot – and to work off a few of those calories, we went for a sunset walk along the beach.
Except sunset refused to happen! It was after 11pm and still daylight. Even at midnight, there was only the merest whisper of impending darkness. And if hard living hacks were still the order of the day, we might have drunk the bar dry while waiting for sunset to show but those days are long gone so it was a case of one Hebridean G&T and off to bed!
Next morning, we toured more of the places on Barra that appeared in Whisky Galore, including Vatersay Island and its stunning beaches – at one point, only a narrow strip of sand separates the Atlantic from the Minch.
Donald appeared in Whisky Galore
As we drove to our lunch venue, Les screeched to a halt outside a small bungalow overlooking a tiny inlet. “This is where Donald J Currie lives.” Les told us – and, as if by magic, Donald J Currie appeared.
Les explained that, although his name doesn’t appear in the credits, Donald appeared in Whisky Galore when he was about five.
“I’m in a scene near the start of the film – I’m the wee boy looking out at the storm,” said Donald (73), who is a retired Merchant Seaman. “Almost everyone on the island appeared in Whisky Galore, although there are very few of them here now.”
But what does remain is the whisky! “I think there may still be some hidden away,” laughs Donald. “I suspect my Old Man might have known where to look!”
More fabulous local produce
With that, Donald returns to mending his creels and we head to the Heathbank Hotel for more fabulous local produce. As we eat, a few of us try to persuade the VisitScotland team to extend our stay!
However, this really was a flying visit and we return to the airport, where we join the crowd watching the incoming Flybe plane that will take us back to the mainland land on the beach.
And then it’s time to fly home – and although I may have removed one item from bucket list, a new one has appeared. Return to the Outer Hebrides.