The Isle of Barra – Outer Hebrides

It has been a whirlwind of a month which has most recently landed me back in Victoria BC, Canada (my home waters), but I feel I am only just arriving here and in order to truly arrive, I feel I need to reflect on my magical times in Scotland.

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I didn’t know it was a dream of mine to paddle in Scotland, until I paddled in the Small Isles last year. Once I had floated around in the tidal streams; explored the bleak, yet beautiful rocky and heather coloured islands and had the opportunity to bask in the depth of cultural myth that fills this place, I knew I needed to return.

This year I was lucky enough to get an amazing weather window that forecast calm winds and cool seas. It was just the push I needed to hop on a ferry from Oban to the Outer Hebrides and launch my little kayak from Castle Bay on the Isle of Barra heading for the cliffed islands stretching south into the horizon.

I arrived and immediately floated my boat, setting out for an evening paddle. I wove my way through the Isles as the sun dipped itself into the ocean and the puffins heralded dusk, returning home after a long day fishing. I arrived at the Isle of Mingulay at 10pm and fell asleep under a pastel sky.

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An early start took me around the Isle of Berneray with breathtaking sea cliffs covered in curious Razor Bills, screeching Kittiwakes, bobbing Puffins and 2 golden eagles soaring high above the lighthouse. The calm waters around Barra Head afforded me a closeness and stillness to be a silent witness below the skies completely alive with birds on the wing.

The west coast of Mingulay was exciting. It is a cliffed and rugged coast with caves, arches and fissures perfect for paddling through and around. Being alone, I had a word with myself about what kinds of passages I may paddle and decided that anything I would want a helmet for was completely out of the question. But when I got to a natural arch inside a cave that heralded light on the other side… I had to do it! I took a deep breath, held it, accelerated and blasted through the opening into another cave and out into the daylight. I guess it wasn’t really all that dangerous, but I felt exposed for a moment. Once on the other side the sense of excitement and surprise was overwhelming and it spilled out of my mouth as a hoot that echoed through the cave walls.

I wove my way back north being sure to explore each isle in its entirety. The wind stayed down, the seas were forgiving and I moved through the seascape with wonder and ease. When I arrived back at Castle Bay, it was a Sunday and I could hear music coming from the local pub. I’ve never been one to pass up a good old local jam, so I headed for the sunny patio and ended up with a beer and a whisky in front of me as we sang old songs accompanied by accordion! The local scotsmen of Barra are alright with me!

I had one more day to paddle and decided it would be a wasted day if I didn’t set a goal, so I decided I would paddle around Barra. It was only 26 Nm but with half of the paddle likely to be into a stiff headwind, I wrestled a bit with my lazy self. I set out on the west side of the Isle and into a 15kn wind, finding myself more and more comfortable to paddle alone, in bigger sea conditions… It did take a bit of getting use to at first but paddling alone is feeling liberating.

The hard work paid off and once I reached the northern most reaches of Barra and it’s turquoise seas I turned to head south with an even stiffer tailwind. The push was a lovely change and as I paddled south, I sang and laughed as I danced with the wind and water. As the utilitarian Scottish castle came into view on my arrival back into Castle Bay, 2 white tailed eagles took flight from the nearby shore to soar above me and carry on southwards circling higher and higher. I settled into my tent that night, preparing for an early morning onto the ferry back to Oban, feeling as though I had tasted a little bit of magic that this place has to offer. I have not yet satisfied my desire to paddle in this place and the Isles to the north of the Outer Hebrides is now calling!

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