After forty three years I was once again going to Barra, a small island in the Scottish Outer Hebrides, the seat of the Clan Mac Neil.

I got my first glimpse of Barra from the deck of a small ferry boat after a more than five turbulent hour crossing from Oban, on the mainland, to Castlebay. My son then six years old and his sister five were ecstatic as the huge castle, surrounded by the sea, emerged through the grey late afternoon mist. I was just so happy to see land at last and to find my legs again. We had gone on a family summer vacation, from England, longing to see where my family name had come from. We had not done any research on where we might stay. We landed with no accommodation plans and found all immediate bed & breakfast homes full up. We learned very fast the generosity of the Barra inhabitants. The Post mistress started to call, one by one, everyone who might take us in. Even after several “sorry – nothing available”  did she lose her smile or her reassurance that she would definitely find us somewhere to stay. And find us a place she did with Mary Mac Neil of Eoligarry. The ferry only came to the island on Tuesdays and Thursdays then, so we had nine beautiful days on Barra. A time I have never forgotten.

Now I was going to Barra again. But this time there was to be no sea crossing, we were going “the better way” and flying with Flybe Air. We also now lived in Canada. So on August 7th we flew from Toronto to Dublin and then on to Glasgow. We had left our home in glorious sunshine and temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius, wearing only shorts and thin t.shirts. We landed in Glasgow early on Monday, August 8th to a wet cold miserable morning. As we walked from the plane across the tarmac to the airport buildings we began to shiver. It was a relief to collect our cases, hurriedly unpack in the airport and don some long pants and a warm jacket.

Shortly after this our son & daughter-in-law arrived from Montreal and we sat and had a large Scottish breakfast together in a quiet airport cafe. Then it was off to check our bags for our flight to Barra. The plane was a very small one. In fact we shared our cabin with the pilot himself. The engines roared and the plane bobbled and swayed as it began to pick up speed. From my small window I looked down at the white-capped sea, 9,000 feet below. My first glimpse of Barra this time was very much different than my first trip. We dropped through the clouds and there before me was the wide stretch of beach that is Barra Airport, when the tide is out. What a fantastic experience watching the wheels of my small plane running through the waters edge and up onto the dry sand. There was a cool breeze, but the sun was shining as we disembarked to the sound of the pipes. It was a glorious start to The Worldwide Gathering of Clan Mac Neil 2016.

We walked across the warm sand, between the fluffy sand dunes, through the airport building and around to the side to collect our cases. As arranged by Sarah MacLean, organizer of this year’s gathering we were met by Rob Stewart and his taxi who drove us into Castlebay. It didn’t look the same as before. A church and school were now closed.

We reached our destination, the Castlebay Community Hall where a genealogy class was taking place and there we had our first encounter with Mac Neil’s from different lands. A description of Barra with detailed information on tracing your heritage back through DNA was given by our Clan Newsletter’s editor, Vince Mac Neil from Cape Breton, with interesting stories on the history of past Barra Mac Neil’s by Calum Mac Neil, a native of Barra. Along with us in the discussion group were Vince’s parents, Eddie & Patty Mac Neil, John Mc Neil and his son, Andrew, from Australia, Rhoda Mac Neil, Calum’s wife and many more Mac Neil’s, both from other lands and Barra itself. It was a pity it had to come to an end but in true hospitality we were then driven on to our accommodations.

We had carefully spent weeks, several months previously, delving into the varied types of accommodations that were available to us, this time round, and we had chosen The Bayview Guest House. A good choice. As it’s name implies it was perched on the side of a small bay at Nask with a view of The Sea of the Hebrides. It was a lovely place, quite sheltered amongst hills of radiant yellow gorse and deep purple heather. It had excellent clean spacious rooms with the most delicious breakfast, you could think of, served in an attractive dining room looking out over the water. All this for thirty five pounds per. person per. night. The four of us were given lifts many times during our stay but on the odd occasion when we made our own way into Castlebay it would take us 20 minutes to walk or five pounds for a taxi. The day we arrived on Barra corresponded with the 80th anniversary of the opening of Barra’s airport so that evening we were all invited back to one of the airport’s hangers and there we watched the movie, “Whisky Galore“. Along with many of the island inhabitants we picked out scenes that were actually taken on Barra. Driven again back into Castlebay, a few of us, paid a visit to The Castlebay Pub and joined the locals and visitors alike for a couple of pints. A perfect ending to a perfect day.

The next morning after a full breakfast, we strolled into Castlebay in glorious sunshine. A private tour of Kisimul Castle was planned for the morning. There was no getting into a little rowing boat this time. We climbed into a small motor boat and after two trips we were all safely unloaded at the castle’s steps, to the sound of the pipes coming from the castle’s ramparts. There on the landing stage waited our chief, Roderick Mac Neil or “Rory” as he’s known to all on Barra. Rory and his wife Sau Ming no longer live in the castle but the extensive repairs they have carried out to the castle has made it an absolute treasure trove to investigate. After roving over the castle walls, and in & out of all the rooms, we gathered in the grand hall for our chief’s welcoming speech. Then came a clan photo of us all, right inside the castle grounds. Another quick visit to the souvenir shop and it was time to be taken back to the mainland.

A tasty soup and superb ginger cake had been prepared for us, for lunch, in the community hall, by Sarah and her helpers, and this was followed by Mairi MacLean giving us a tour of Castlebay itself. (Recipe of the ginger cake supplied at the end of this article). Our immediate party of four managed to get reservations in the local restaurant which served excellent Indian curry’s, for our evening meal. Situated at the bottom of the hill across from the castle’s ferry dock, it is so busy you must reserve your table. After dining there, we once more headed back to the community hall. Sarah drove us to the house of Rhoda & Calum Mac Neil’s where we enjoyed a wonderful evening at their house ceilidh. What a surprise we got. Again meeting Vince and his family we were entertained by Angus Mac Neil on an electronic bagpipe and Calum told us many more stories of the Barra Mac Neil’s history. We were staying only a five minute walk from here so we had a lovely wander back to Bayview in the warm night air.

The third day awoke cloudy, cool and with a fine mist covering the hilltops. We again walked into Castlebay for a Gaelic lesson given by Sarah Ferguson. Mac Neils from Australia, South Africa, South of England & Cape Breton all converged on the community hall once more. We were also treated to listening to a radio host, Janice Ross, who had just published her book, “Voices Galore”, about the local people. Sarah MacLean then invited us to make a banner, of our choice, to add to the many they already have hanging across the rafters of the community hall, in remembrance of our visit there.

Next a call at the post office, located near the bottom of the main street, to visit the small cafe attached to it. Here they served the most delicious scones with strawberry jam & clotted cream and a pot of tea. Unbelievably good. Then back to the hall to take a bus tour of the island. By the time we boarded Hector Mac Neil’s tour bus it was raining quite steadily. We maybe couldn’t see as much as we’d have liked but we still had a great time.

We visited St.Barr’s statue and church, up past the airport again and down the other side of the island & off to the isle of Vatersay, passing the War Memorial. Despite the inclement weather we enjoyed the tour with all our new found friends and took in the full commentary by Calum Mac Neil. As the bus passed our guest house we were dropped off, at the door, to get ready for the big ceilidh that night. As the rain still persisted we took a taxi into Castlebay, ate again at the super restaurant we had found and then experienced a local ceilidh in the village community hall.

First to take the floor were Highland Dancers, Charlotte Mairi & Catriona Eilohlin O’Carroll from the Eileen O’Carroll School of Dance. Eileen is the daughter of Mary-Anne Mac Neil of Earsary, Isle of Barra.
Sarah MacLean’s adorable two children, Anna & Alexander gave us a duet in both English & Gaelic and then Anna performed an interesting song of all the American States she had learned in school.

John Mc Neil from Australia got all the congregation joining in with his rendition of “Waltzing Matilda”.
Then came Linda Mackinnon who sang two beautiful ballads followed by Seonaidh Beaton on the electronic bagpipes. Robert Ross told us a story which had us all laughing, then Sarah MacLean, our organizer, gave us a lovely song in Gaelic. The night’s entertainment was concluded with a ditty by David Beaton MacLeod from Harris/Skye with us all joining in on the chorus.

The four of us were once more safely transported back to Bayview. The weather had been so miserable all day, with such thick low lying clouds they had to cancel the planes flying in, but none of it had deterred us. We had experienced another full day of local heritage and were the richer for it. We were hoping for some high winds, that night, to drive the black clouds away but none came and we looked out on another gray day.

There was a second informal visit, to the castle, planned that morning but we stayed close to the guest house and just took short walks over tiny streams and up the nearby hills to watch the sea crashing up against the rocks. As the heavy mists soaked you quite quickly we caught a taxi into Castlebay and had a pleasant lunch in one of the hotel bars.The afternoon rowing lessons were canceled due to the heavy swell of the water but this gave us more time to get ready for the clan dinner in the evening and to start packing for the trip home. Unfortunately, more people were due on Barra, to attend the dinner, but the planes were once again canceled, for a second day, due to the low clouds & heavy rain. Still those who did attend were well fed on:-

Menu for The Clan Dinner:-

Summer soup with a Brevig Bakery Roll,
Barratlantic Smoked Salmon Pate with Oatcakes & Garadh Garnish,
Island Roast Lamb with Eoligarry New Potatoes & a selection of vegetables,
Followed by Apple Crumble with Ice-cream,
Washed down with Coffee, Port or Whisky.

This was a time when we mingled together, got news of each one’s home town & learned so much from one another. The chief and his wife talked freely to us all and we heard more interesting history of the work they and their parent’s had done on the castle. A project we were all thankful for and which renewed our ties to our family home. Many great photo’s were taken to remind us of a wonderful evening and friendships were made that night that will last a lifetime.

By the time we were to leave the dinner the rain had stopped. Again we were all offered a ride home. But we were well and truly fed, the winds were calm, and the night felt warm so we once more set off on foot to walk back to our accommodations. It was lovely to look down on the twinkling lights of Castlebay and see the castle stark in the bay for the last time. One thing we did not expect, at 11pm all the local road lighting around us was extinguished and it plunged our way home in complete darkness. Then the silvery moon pushed it’s way from behind the thick clouds and glowed on the water in the bay. We walked the last little way by the light of the moon and talked about the marvelous time that we had had. We hoped this meant there was enough strength in the warm winds to drive the low clouds further out into the Atlantic, so the planes could once more land on Barra, as we needed to leave the island the next day for the rest of our holiday in England.

At 7.am. on our final morning we said goodbye to our son & daughter-in-law for they were catching the ferry, that appeared now to look more like an ocean liner, than the small ferry that had brought us to Barra, all those years ago. We caught a taxi a couple of hours later and headed for the airport still unsure if we would get to Glasgow that afternoon. It wasn’t that we were in a hurry to leave this beautiful, remote, awe-inspiring island of 1,100 people, but we now had the second part of our journey to fulfill.
Trains to Durham & then Coventry in England to visit family and friends there – but that is another story.

Recipe for Barra Ginger Cake:-

8oz. of margarine
2 cups of sugar
2 cups of sultanas
2 cups of water
4 tsp. of mixed spice
2 tsp. of ground ginger
2 tsp. of bicarbonate soda
1 tsp. of cream of tartar

Boil all above ingredients in a pot until margarine is melted.
When cool add 4 eggs &  4 cups of flour – mix well.
Bake 50 – 60 mins. at 150 degrees C. (approx. 225 F.)

Beannachd leat. Na h-uile la gu math duit. Gun an ath turas a choinnicheas sinn, Barra.
Which I hope all means:-      Goodbye, and may all your days be good, until we meet again, Barra).

Louise Mc Neal Fielder

“A special thank you goes to Chief Roderick Mac Neil & his wife Sau Ming, Sarah MacLean & all her helpers, for making our stay a wonderful experience. We will never forget it.”

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