I have written exactly two bits of travel writing. One of my travel pieces was published on Beliefnet, and the other was rejected by Islands Magazine. Both pieces were written after I took a trip to Scotland’s Western Isles in the fall of 2000. In the heretofore unpublished piece below I make mention of a Glaswegian cover band called Manford Clan[sic–see comments below]. The band has long since broken up, but over the years the drummer, Craig Smith, and I have kept up a correspondence (he even comments on this blog from time to time). On January 26 I had the great pleasure of officiating at his his wedding to the lovely Michelle Thompson[sic–see comment below] at Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, Ca. It was a wedding like no other.
My fascination with the Island of Barra began with a story. “The king of Scotland,” or so my father told me, echoing the words of his uncle Neil, “declared that the Isle of Barra would go to the clan whose sailors won a boat race. The first clan to touch the island, could claim it as their own.” The MacNeils were winning the race, but began to fear they might loose to the Campbells” (or the Stewarts or the MacDonalds—the story changed a little each time it was told) “and so the head of the clan, our ancestor, laid his arm on the gunwale, took out his sword, chopped off his hand and threw it on to the island, making the MacNeils the first clan to touch the island. And that’s why we’re all a little bit crazy.”
The story was just goth enough in that way that appeals to preadolescent boys that it burrowed itself into the fertile soil of my imagination and gave me a deep rooted and unabatable desire to visit the tiny Isle of Barra, which sits at the southern-most and western-most tip of the Outer Hebrides in the islands off of Scotland’s western coast. In the fall of 2000, after many years of dreaming, I finally set foot—and hand—on the Isle of Barra.
The congregation I serve as a pastor had given me the opportunity to attend a week-long conference on the Isle of Iona in the Inner Hebrides, and when I discovered that the ferries to Iona and Barra both departed from the village of Oban, I seized the opportunity to visit my ancestral island home.
It’s a long boat ride to Barra. The seven hour journey passes some stunning scenery as the ferry makes its way through the Ross [sic–see comment below] of Mull—I counted two castles and several picturesque fishing villages nestled into the rugged Scottish coastline—and out into some equally choppy water as the ferry sails through the Sea of the Hebrides.
Thinking it might be the best way to avoid seasickness, and in celebration of the fact that we Presbyterians have never really been much good at teatotaling, I went to the ship’s bar for a pint of Scottish ale. There I met the Manfred Clan [sic–see comment below], a rock and roll cover band from Glasgow on their way to a weekend-long gig on Barra, who, with their good humor and solid Glaswegian hospitality, helped transform the journey I was making so that my visit to Barra became about visiting a living island and not just an investigation into the ancestral myths to which we Gringos so deftly cling.
It began with a replacement for the beer I was finishing up, and then another, and at least one more. At first my new friends expressed a sense of amazement, mixed, perhaps, with some discomfort, at the fact that they were imbibing with a man of the cloth. But I informed them, with all of my pastoral authority, that wherever two or three are gathered there’s always a fifth. We drank to that, and in the course of our consumption of beer, I learned about life in modern Scotland, about religion and politics and soccer and about how the past meets and influences the present—at least for three twenty-somethings from Glasgow—and I was invited to hear them play that night and the next in one of the island’s bars.
That first night I took a rain check. By the time we reached Castlebay, the island’s only real town, I was at least a pint and a half too far gone to be much good for anything but sleep, and I found my way by taxi to the hotel where I was staying two miles outside of town.
The next day, my only full day on Barra, I played the part of a real tourist, delving into the land of my family’s past. I visited Kisimul Castle, which sits on a rock outcropping in the bay. I’m told it is the oldest stone castle in Scotland and that it boasts Scotland’s first flushing toilet, which is conveniently located in the dungeon and flushes twice a day with the tide’s ebb and flow. I rented a bicycle and rode the fourteen miles around the island’s perimeter, enjoying perfect weather and pretending I was some Scottish version of Ansel Adams, as I took roll upon roll of photos. Barra is truly a ruggedly beautiful, photogenic and utterly charming island—fully worth the price of admission by day and, I discovered, priceless by night.
I live in the Silicon Valley, where, because everyone is so busy inventing faster computers and earning more money, there is precious little night life. Barra is not San José. When I took a taxi into town to catch my friends in the band, I discovered that Castlebay, which boasts a population of about twelve hundred people and two bars, had two live bands playing that night, one in each bar, making the total number of live music venues about half of that to be found on a given night in my home town which has about eight hundred thousand more people. I discovered this because I went first to the wrong bar and was treated to some traditional Celtic music before I ambled over to the other bar where my friends were singing covers of the Eagles, Bob Dylan, U2, and the Police. It was an amazing scene. The bar was quite small and before long it was quite full as well.
We Americans sometimes think upon our counterparts from Europe’s more Northern climes as being somewhat affected by the long, cold, and dark winters so that a sort of stiffness of the joints sets in that manifests itself in an inability to do things like dance. But that wasn’t the problem on Barra, at least not that night. On that night the atmosphere in the bar seemed to be infused with a deep happiness. And people danced, sometimes clinging to one another with an almost Mediterranean passion, sometimes bumping elbows with their neighbors like so many junior highers; keeping the barkeeps busy but not, as far as I could tell, drinking to excess, and remaining happy in each other’s presence—not something we do so easily in my part of the world.
Everywhere else in Scotland, I’m told, the bars have to close their doors at eleven or twelve, but not on Barra. Either they have a waiver that allows them to drink late, or the folks who enforce those kinds of codes on Barra are like the Protestant reformation— “it never quite made it this far out,” one of the locals told me.
The music and the dancing went on into the night later than I did. One of my fellow patrons in the bar began to express an annoying displeasure at my monogamy, and I left before she could steal from me the evening’s joy. I walked the two miles back to my hotel, surrounded, I supposed, by the spirits of my ancestors, and practically swimming through stars that shone crisply in the clear northern sky, thinking to myself that, among all people on that night, I was blessed.
The next morning I caught the ferry back to the mainland, and had the pleasure once more of sharing the trip with my friends from the band. As we relived the weekend I told them about why I had to leave their gig early and about the woman whose insistence upon a dance and maybe more had sent me running for the safety of my hotel. “O, aye, the midge,” they said, comparing her to the little mosquitoes that inhabit Scotland’s western isles. “Minister or no, Ben, you’ve got to learn to tell them to bug off!” (except they didn’t say bug).
And with that sage advice, my journey to Barra came to an end. My newfound friends drove me to Glasgow and gave me a tour of their home town, exclaiming with pride “Ye’ll ha’ mir fun ‘ta Glasgow funeral than an Edinburgh weddin’!” From Glasgow I made my way home.
There is this postscript however. When I got home, I decided to learn more about my ancestors who had lived on Barra. I spoke to my cousin who is the family genealogist. She informed me, somewhat apologetically, that, in fact, our ancestors aren’t really from Barra at all. We’re from another island, an even smaller island called Gigha.
But I’m glad I didn’t know that. I’m glad I thought I was of Barra stock and that under that assumption I went to the island, because even if Barra isn’t in my blood, after just one weekend on that wonderful, rugged island, so exquisitely peopled with folks who love music and who can dance, Barra is in my heart; and besides, now I’m compelled to go to Gigha, which gives me an excuse to go back to Scotland, to visit another island, which I’m sure is beautiful in its own right, and, perhaps, by the goodness of divine grace, I’ll get to meet another band.