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The Barra Beach Landing, and Hebridean Hiking

The Barra Beach Landing, and Hebridean Hiking

Old Jun 8, 2014, 1:52 pm
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The Barra Beach Landing, and Hebridean Hiking

It’s been a while since we had a Barra-related report here on Flyertalk, but I imagine it’s better known here than by the general population. For those who haven’t heard of it, this small dot in the north atlantic, part of the chain of islands making up the Outer Hebrides, somehow manages to warrant a tiny airport – but they couldn’t stretch to a runway! Or at least, not in the traditional tarmac/ concrete. Instead, they use Traigh Mhor (in English, “big beach”) for all plane movements, with arrivals and departures therefore constrained by the tides.

It’s the only location to feature regular scheduled services in such a manner; although since the demise of the inter-island route between Barra and Benbecula, there's just a single destination, Glasgow. These flights are operated by Loganair, using a rather diminutive plane - the DeHavilland DHC-6, or “Twin Otter”. Although I’ve been back north of the border for nine months, I’ve not ventured any further than my home of Edinburgh- so a visit to some proper Scotland seemed a suitable post-exam treat. I put together a three night itinerary for just Barra and Vatersay, which is probably longer than most would devote to them – so read on for details of the trip!


(I’m using this as the launch trip for my new travel blog, which you can find here. But I’m keen that this supplements my contributions to Flyertalk, not diminishes them. I’ve always included `interludes’ in my report – scenic, musical, even mathematical! –but will push more of the details of those to the blog. This means I can do more creative things with images and video as well as more effectively crosslink related content. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to give the full logistical run down here on FT, where it’s likely to be of more interest than for the casual blog reader. The reports will aim to be self-contained on both sites, so you can pick whichever style you prefer rather than needing to disentangle the two. I hope this is seen as a fair compromise and in accordance with the forum rules!)

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Old Jun 8, 2014, 1:52 pm
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Planning and Booking

As mentioned, the only public option for getting to BRR is on Loganair, but they won’t sell you a ticket directly; you can either attach it as a codeshare to a BA flight in to Glasgow, or book through FlyBe. Whilst I’m no stranger to improbable routings to gain BA legs, with Glasgow the next city over it seemed a little too ridiculous. A quick check of the pricing confirmed that suspicion!

So, Flybe it was. This is an airline I’d not used until last November, but I’ve picked up four segments between Edinburgh and Birmingham (their largest base) since then, including one on my first prop plane in a couple of years. They’re a low cost carrier that sometimes forgets to be low cost, and their loyalty program seems entirely forgettable (redemptions paradoxically costing more than revenue tickets sometimes!), so I’ve generally avoided them in preference for Easyjet when making regional flights around the UK. Not being entirely sure of how their pricing moves, therefore, I played safe and booked this trip almost four months out (the flights taking place at the close of May), at a rate I was happy with, then studiously avoided getting any future quotes.

Flybe offered three levels of ticketing- essentials, new economy and plus (since rebranded as Just Fly, Get More, and All-in). As you’d expect, these become increasingly flexible and allow more luggage, as you climb the scale; plus also confers the kind of perks you generally expect from status in a loyalty program (double points, lounge access, priority boarding). However, for flights operated by Loganair you get a better deal at the low end – such as the inclusion of a hold bag that would otherwise attract a fee - whilst limitations of the planes and airports make the top end less attractive. For instance, you can’t take more than 20kg in the hold to Barra whatever your ticket type, and there’s no lounge or a meaningful boarding process to get priority in! Hand luggage allowances are also tighter with respect to both dimensions and weight.

Nonetheless, I found myself with a plus ticket on the outbound, for the simple reason that that’s all they were selling. But the price looked economical enough –a shade over 71. Coming back that’d have been rather pricier (and, as noted, pointless), but essentials was offered for 61 and change. I couldn’t figure out how to activate the free seat selection for the outbound without paying another 6.50 for the return leg, so all together it ran me a smidge under 140 for flights, lounge access at GLA, luggage, 3 rewards points (whatever they're good for) and seat selection.

And oh, what a delight that is, with the most adorable seat map ever:

I was pretty sure I wanted an individual seat, and that legroom was likely to be tight away from the exit rows. Wasn’t sure which side would offer the best views, so hedged my bets and stuck to the left for both, as you see: 7A at the back on outbound, 1A at the front for the return: my first ever claim of the front row! Alas, I didn’t actually get either of these seats in the event (more on that later); think of your choices as more train-style preferences than a hard-and-fast booking.

Transport sorted, the next step was to figure out where I’d be staying. This proved more challenging- there’s only a handful of options on the island, and most of them have little capacity. Filtering further by price, location and duff reviews left me with a very short shortlist. Few have anything resembling a booking system, and as I’m allergic to telephones it took a few days of email to gauge availability (this is not a destination for the impulse buyer!). In the end, I almost lucked out. The perfectly-reviewed, amazingly priced (30 a night) and reasonably well-located Brevig Bay B&B had a room- that is to say, their only room- available for the last two nights of my stay, but I’d have to start out elsewhere. For that I opted for the pricier (62/night) yet more remote Heathbank hotel; being nearer the airport, I reasoned that I could work my way around the island in stages!

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Old Jun 8, 2014, 1:53 pm
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Edinburgh to GLA

This turned out to be a relevant factor in my packing for the trip. Normally I have this down to a fine, if slightly ridiculous, art on trips where I intend to take photos- hand luggage is a specialised camera backpack with a handy slot for an ipad and some paper documents, then it’s a rollaboard or larger case for the hold depending on trip length. But with the plan of walking first from airport to hotel, then between hotel and B&B, wheeled luggage was right out. That meant a decent rucksack, which wouldn’t play nice with the camera bag (which would also fall afoul of the loganair sizer, had it ever been enforced!). Instead I used my backup camera sling, which will take all the lenses, but prevents me from keeping one on the slr body. Neither bag was suitable for the ipad, so I decided to do without. Factor in its replacement –my first ever OS map (452 Barra & Vatersay, for both of you who were dying to know) and this is as close to the student backpacker look as I’ve ever got! Anyone who saw me sweatily slogging round the island with the full loadout would rapidly have the notion that this is how I travel dispelled- I guess I’ll always be looked down upon by the ‘real travel, not tourism’ types, but I know what I enjoy, and that’s ending each day with a real bed, and starting the next one with a shower and change of clothes. Still, I managed over 16 miles of genuine hiking during my time on the islands, and probably another 8 or so pounded out on recognisable roads.

I’m getting ahead of myself, as usual. Day one started a city over from where I needed to be; Edinburgh, instead of Glasgow. Many of my trips have this complication, but given the short distance between these two (compared to, say, the Bristol – London legs I used to have to tackle), I figured I could do it on the day rather than relocate to a Glaswegian hotel the night before. However, like many an Edinburgher, I’ve spent far too little time in Glasgow and had never been to its airport, GLA, so wasn’t sure how long would be enough. With nothing else to do that morning, I decided to build in a lot of slack – after all, I’d have the lounge if I got there unreasonably early, and would want enough time for a pre-flight lunch.

So I had a particular train departure in mind, from EDB to Glasgow Queen Street – to which the fastest services are about 50 minutes. But First, the train operator, never fails to disappoint – not only was my planned service cancelled, so was the one scheduled for fifteen minutes later. No one had any useful info, but as the rolling stock for both was already at the platform, I assumed there was an issue on the line and that it could well impact on later trains too.

Fortunately, there’s a backup option, to Glasgow’s grander station: central. But this would be leaving later than I planned, and weighed in at nearly an hour and a half. Immediately glad of the slack, but there was an extra wrinkle: whilst I knew it was possible to get from central to the airport, I didn’t actually know how. Fortunately the slow journey gave me more than enough time to pull together a saner itinerary than those the journey planner websites offered, opting for the express bus 500 rather than a second train and local bus. This turns out to be only a couple of minutes walk from the station, - as it happens, I’d been through Central the previous week so had got my traditional lost-despite-a-map wanderings out of my system then and instead had a fair grasp of where I needed to go.

In further disappointment, though, the through-ticket I had purchased at EDB to the airport was not valid on this bus service, despite it being run by the same parent company. No financial double hit, though: in what must be my finest travel hack, I hold a 16-25 railcard despite being in my 30s. This notionally gets me a third off of travel, but in practice there are various exclusions and minimum fares, so it would be 12 whether I wanted to a single to central or all the way to the station. Frustratingly, you can’t buy an open return between Edinburgh and Glasgow, so the pair of singles ran me 20.70 (thanks to healthier discount on the off-peak ticket back) even though I can get a day return for 8.75 with careful choice of trains. Factor in another 8.50 for the bus and you’re edging into Heathrow Express territory!

Regardless, it all did the job, as the 500 whisked me to GLA’s doorstep in barely a quarter hour, repairing the damage to my timings dealt by the trains. Bag drop with FlyBe was only a matter of minutes, too; no queue, and they walked me through the ‘self service’ machine. My backpack had to go to the nonstandard luggage team, but conveniently that’s right next to their check in section. All told, I went from the platform at Central to the security lanes at the airport in 26 minutes!

Security took a bit longer than I’m used to at EDI, but nothing horrific, so it was onwards to the lounge. My plus ticket entitled me to access, but Flybe currently lack a lounge at GLA. Instead, I was directed to the Skylounge. I believe this is for priority pass holders; you can also stump up 18 on the door, but I wouldn’t.unless the terminal was much more crowded and you intended to put a sizeable dent in the limited catering options. Still, can’t complain when its free; I’d swung by EAT en route to get a proper lunch, and settled in at a comfy chair after supplementing it with an assortment of tiny cakes (some of these were amazing, but certainly don’t constitute a meal- closest you can get is, bizarrely, a round of toast!).

View from Skylounge

With not much happening on the tarmac, and the Skylounge being a considerable distance from Flybe’s gates, I set off slightly before they called the Barra departure; it was assigned a gate as I worked my way through the terminal. This meant I was one of the first to the small staging area that makes up gates 1,2 and 3, except for three priests! They were headed elsewhere (Benbecula, I think) rather than to offer spiritual support to those of us about to board the tiny Twin Otter, G-BVVK: construction number 666!

Small, far away - first glimpse of the Twin Otter

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Old Jun 8, 2014, 1:53 pm
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GLA-BRR and thoughts on the Twin Otter

Boarding at GLA

It seems I can only hold a single technical fact related to planes in my head – that the strange noise often encounted on A320-family planes is the power transfer unit – so instead of pretending and rehashing the Wikipedia page, I’ll point out that the Twin Otter is a small two engined propeller plane and move on to the passenger experience!

Back row legroom - more on the left, but plenty on the right.

I got seat shifted across row 7 – that is, from one seat to the other – so I didn’t get the most spacious seat onboard, but still had more than enough room. Bags have to fit the smaller sizer not because the overhead bins are smaller, but because they’re entirely absent! Given that there is no part of the cabin my not-especially-tall self can stand upright in, arguably there’s no overhead anything. Other features conspicuous by their absence are armrests, a toilet, any kind of catering, in flight entertainment beyond the magazine, or cabin crew. There weren’t even many passengers – 13 of us, from a maximum capacity of 19.

Prior to this, the smallest plane I’d ever been on was a Dash-8, and probably the roughest flight was my first, on a deep-winter Ryanair service to (approximately) Oslo. So as we traded the reassuring stability of GLA’s runway for a distinctly turbulent experience in the air, I found myself reaching for the armrests I didn’t have and fearing that I’d made a huge mistake. Things did settle down somewhat once we were more convincingly aloft, so I downgraded my opinion to small mistake –selecting the back row. Obviously no too flights are identical, but my experience up the front on the return leg seemed much smoother, and crucially, there was no overpowering smell of fuel and the engines are slightly less deafening (conversation with the man in 7A would have been impossible!)

I’d previously only heard about the Twin Otter from Sir Ran Fiennes autobiography, where he firmly endorsed it based on experiences at the poles. But it now occurs to me that a man who considers cutting off his frostbitten fingers in his shed with a hacksaw a medically-sensible approach to pain might have a slightly different relationship with fear and discomfort than I do. If you’re used to jets then this is a bumpy ride, no doubt about it.

That’s mitigated somewhat by the amazing view- I don’t know what height they operate these planes at, but it’s pretty low, and any route over the Scottish highlands and beyond to the Hebrides is going to be an unreasonable feast for the eyes. We were apparently making good time, so the pilots treated us to a scenic approach to BRR, offering my first look at Castlebay (and the castle and bay from which its name is assembled) before sweeping out to admire some coastline, eventually landing from the west. I managed to capture all that on video, albeit through a rather murky window, so you may be interested in that:

The beach landing itself is perhaps the smoothest part of the whole journey; after a short taxi back to practically the door of the terminal, we were given a few minutes to grab photos before they needed us to clear out of the way for the next flight. With a turnaround timetabled at just twenty minutes, hanging around to watch it depart was a no-brainer, so I grabbed a few shots of that too.



...and away

With the weather having cheered up since Glasgow, I was keen to get started on my sightseeing, so I set off west across the dunes to get a better look at the beach we’d flown over. But I was mindful of my 5k hike around to Heathbank, so after a short coastal stroll I returned to the road.

I’ll abandon chronology at this point, to talk a bit about first my accommodations and then what I got up to (spoiler: a lot of walking). Then in the final post I’ll pick the thread back up here at BRR, in time for the return flight.

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Old Jun 8, 2014, 1:54 pm
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First up, then, was Heathbank. I’d booked a single, and was presented with a fair-sized, if basic, room with a decent view (the fear of the lone traveller on the cheap is that you’ll be staying in a cupboard):

The bathroom was also well appointed, although shower only, no tub:

The location is a however bit of a challenge if you’re without a vehicle – the walk from the airport was viable, but I don’t think I could have slogged all the way around to Castlebay. That means that the hotel is your only option for evening meals if you’re on foot / public transport (since there’s only a handful of buses a day).

Only being there the one night, I don’t have much else to say. I got an unsurprisingly peaceful night’s sleep, thanks to the walks and complete lack of intruding sound or artificial light. That was interrupted by my alarm because Heathbank, like so many Scottish lodgings, subscribe to the crazy idea that 7:45am is a time when holidaymakers might want breakfast. Service ends at 9, but there are further time pressures; checkout is 10:30, but if carless you’ll probably want the 9:40 bus rather than kicking around until nearly midday. On the plus side, if you have the appetite there’s a substantial offering: as well as self-serve cereals and fruit, cooked options are the full Scottish, eggs how you like them, or fish. Based on the other guests, you could also mix-and-match, but I stuck with the fish: an excellent portion of local smoked haddock, served up with scrambled eggs and wholegrain toast.

The rest of my stay was spent at Brevig Bay B&B, which I would recommend to anyone except for the inconvenient fact that this is their last season as a guesthouse. I had such a lovely stay that you’ll have to allow me to gush anyway. For starters, despite being half the price of Heathbank I had a much larger double room and private bathroom:

On arrival day I received freshly-cooked shortbread, and for the rest of the stay I was plied with other straight-from-the-oven goodies:

And how could you get tired of the view of the bay from the garden?

As with any truly excellent B&B, though, what really made it was my hosts. They shared tips for my planned assault on Heaval; lent me a fascinating book about Scotland, offered to run me around due to my lack of a car, and were just generally full of knowledge about the islands, which they clearly love. They’ll be focussing their efforts on their micro-bakery (which filled the house with amazing smells throughout my stay) and jams once the B&B is wound down, so if you find yourself visiting Barra, I urge you to investigate those instead: try the produce shop by Castlebay hotel for the jam!

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Old Jun 8, 2014, 1:55 pm
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Scenic Interlude - Barra

(As mentioned, these portions will mostly be a trailer for fuller write-ups and more extensive photo galleries on the blog for those who are interested; see here for the post related to this one!)

If you’re visiting Barra, hope for good weather, as pretty much the entire appeal is wandering around outside. From the outset I had a particular goal in mind: to reach the highest point of the island, Heabhal. This was initially scuppered on the day I’d planned by its disappearance into cloud cover:

So I opted first for a simpler walk on a headland near Castlebay,

then made a brief visit to Kisimul Castle (shown here on a sunnier day!)

By mid-afternoon conditions had improved sufficiently to hit the hills, claiming both Heabhal and its sister Hartabhal too:

The evening of my arrival I also took a stroll to enjoy the late sunshine; that lead me to Loch Ob.

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Old Jun 8, 2014, 1:55 pm
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Scenic Interlude - Vatersay

Vatersay, linked by a small causeway on the south west of Barra, takes the themes of the larger island –remote but beautiful – and runs with them. Helped by the best weather of my stay my circular route of the south of the island and its amazing beaches was a definite highlight of the trip.

(More pictures and route details are available on the blog.)

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Old Jun 8, 2014, 1:56 pm
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G-BZFP- note different seating to G-BVVK.

A perennial topic when discussing my travels with less Flyertalk-y friends is the issue of security, and the frustration of its more farcical aspects. I’ve often argued that the backlash is just as ridiculous – would anyone really be willing to fly on a carrier with no security? Well, now I have. I suppose they reserve the right to do a pat-down at Barra, but they’re not equipped for more technological interventions than that or looking in bags, and in my case didn’t bother with either! A side effect of this is that on arrival at Glasgow you’re not allowed to access the airside section of the terminal, instead being escorted straight to a baggage reclaim hall (usually for Channel Islands, it seems); a factoid perhaps worth keeping in mind if you were to try BRR-GLA-LHR with BA, as you’ll have to face proper security just as if you’d turned up on the airport bus.

On board, you can also see straight into the cockpit; with keen enough eyesight, you can use the pilots' moving map as IFE or to figure out what you're observing through the window.

The various outgoing planes I’d observed from Barra (and photographed earlier) took an approach to flying which, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, could be summarised as “aim at the sea, and miss”, proceeding east from the terminal building. For us, though, we instead set out across the sands (and through a few puddles) before turning round and gunning it towards land for takeoff. Pilot preference or weather conditions, I have no idea, but it means that my video is more of a drive than a flight:

Maybe I was calmer having done it once before, perhaps sitting near the front was genuinely better, or perhaps it was because we had even better visibility than on the outbound, but I enjoyed this flight a lot more, despite it marking the end of my holiday and trading Barra for Glasgow (sorry Weegies, it just doesn’t compare!).

Back at GLA

I’ll spare you the mundanity of my return to Edinburgh– buses and trains all behaved exactly as hoped, and I lucked out with a one minute connection to a bus home rather than lug that pack any further. So I’ll close here by encouraging any flying fan visiting Scotland to build in a side trip to BRR, and entirely expect I’ll do the same again, as gateway to exploring more of the Hebrides, in due course.

As for a replacement entry on the novelty flight shopping list? Well, Loganair do offer something even smaller, and much, much quicker; the two minute hop between Westray and Papa Westray...

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Old Jun 8, 2014, 4:39 pm
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Great report thanks.
I haven't been for 10 years, pleased to see little has changed.
Sorry to hear the available accommodation is reducing on Barra....

Interesting that you get seat assignments now. You used to, but they were only notional...
I didn't realize that the flight from Barra to Benbecular had stopped, either which means using the ferry.... Seems Loganair have cut back a bit.
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Old Jun 8, 2014, 4:52 pm
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The seat assignments are still a bit of a wooly notion I think, apparently they don't get offered at all when you codeshare with BA, and as mentioned my own choices wandered.

Benbecula service only ended April 2013, but given that complaining about the ferries seems to be a local pastime I assume it's quite a loss in terms of convenience.
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Old Jun 8, 2014, 5:09 pm
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Thanks for posting. This is one of our dream trips! I know, we must be odd. Your photos and commentary were excellent. Thanks again.
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Old Jun 9, 2014, 4:39 am
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Thanks for this report - we'll be heading out to BRR this August and your pictures make me even more excited for this trip!
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Old Jun 9, 2014, 8:10 am
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Great report and thanks for sharing. Loved your photographs of Barra.
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Old Jun 9, 2014, 4:16 pm
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I love that sheep.
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Old Jun 9, 2014, 5:31 pm
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thanks for a great TR

I consider myself well travelled in Scotland but Barra I have not been to-----so I will have to make this trip sometime soon

thanks again
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