Words and pictures by Rob St. John
Barra, the most southerly of the Scottish Outer Hebrides, is a quiet, wind-whipped place in mid February. Weather systems crash waves of rain and sleet over the bare landscape. The bedrock seems only millimetres beneath your feet, protrusions licked with overlapping atolls of lantern-like lichen. Shops and hotels mostly closed, we were lucky to rent a small, crofting cottage for a week. A peat fire to keep alight: the consistently amazing combustion of slabs of damp, prehistoric vegetation. Looking at a map of the island, the sea swells along a coastline seemingly cut by a shaky hand. Contour lines trace steep, undulating peaks, lichen-like when plotted from above, the slow uplift and reconfiguration of an ancient seafloor.
First, to a western bay where horseshoe arms of rock jut out into the Atlantic: fists thrust into white, whipped water. Sleet flickered past like scratched film. On the horizon, clouds rose like towering islands; the white sand beach blurred into the over-saturated sky. The bay between was held in suspension: the hum and thrum of the heavy waves like faraway industry; the fetch and furrow of deep time turned over and again. A flock of oystercatchers flicker black and white like a shuffled pack of cards, their calls sweetly decaying into the thick air. The Sound of Barra as a solute echo-chamber.
Otter prints, up and over the sand dune. Four-toed, dog-like marks in the compacted beach, left paw slightly ahead of right in an elongated, sinuous lope. And gone again, as quickly as they began, lost in the braided current of a shallow stream wavering its way to the sea. Marks made and washed away over and again along the beach: tracks and paths tangling together through time. Buoys bobbing in the grey, turning sea draw hopeful eyes.
As we passed a crashed World War Two plane on the southern tip of the archipelago, its wings wind-worn and scattered, a sea eagle soared in front of the car. The bird’s broad, dark wings were held rigid against the shifting air and its white, beacon-like tail feathers splayed like insignia. Later that day on the north of the island, a rainbow hooped technicolours onto the airport beach, a mirrored, shining level of wet sand from which a twin prop aircraft wobbled into the air.
That week in midwinter, Barra was an island of takeoffs and landings: birds and planes, wind catching cracks in your clothing, quiet lulls in mirrored, golden bays. Finding substance in an absent search. Finally, back to the crofthouse, starlings flocking like jewel-studded shadows around the warm chimney-top, which spilled rings of peat, smoke into the softening gloam, the trace of an arc and return.
This piece appears in the next issue of our Antidote to Indifference fanzine, which is island themed and which will be out next month. Rob St. John will be a guest of ours at Port Eliot festival this year.