Sunday, 15 July 2012

Castles, Cornflakes and Drunken Frog Hunting - Barrathon 2012


Making plans for the weekend

Dolphins following the ferry

The clue is in the name. Castlebay. The approach by sea to the main settlement on the Hebridean Isle of Barra is dominated by the castle perched on its rock in the middle of the bay, accessible only by boat (or swimming if you are so inclined). The castle is only a 5 minute boat trip from the shore and as it had been a few years since I had last been there I was keen to take another look and it wasn’t too hard to persuade the other Lynx Pack runners to go as part of the post Barrathon entertainment. 

Our transport
leaving Castlebay


Landing at the Castle


The site is believed to have been occupied since earliest times but the castle wasn't built until the turbulent 15th Century as the seat and stronghold of the clan MacNeil after the Chief Gill-Adhamnain MacNeil was given the Isle of Barra by Alexander MacDonald, the Lord of the Isles. In the 18th Century the chief of the clan MacNeil left the castle for a house on the island which was probably much more practical if not more comfortable, and the castle fell into ruins, was gutted by fire and its stone plundered to be used as ballast in boats and in construction of other buildings in Castlebay such as the post office. In 1837 the 41st chief of the clan was forced to sell Barra as he fell into financial ruin.

In 1914 Robert Lister MacNeil of Barra inherited the title of clan chief but by now the line of succession was firmly based across the Atlantic however in 1937 he purchased the castle and set about restoring it into a living home, if not faithfully recreating its original design and with liberal use of modern materials such as concrete. In 2000 Ian Roderick MacNeil of Barra put the castle into the care of Historic Scotland under the lease of one pound and one bottle of Talisker whisky each year.
The view back to Castlebay


The incorporation of the new into the old lacks the sophistication of modern restoration projects and an uneasy juxtaposition of elements gives an unsettling effect. Finding a bedroom with a fully fitted en suite bathroom was a surprise and it was strange to find windows that had been clumsily glazed with Perspex rather than glass. This is a restoration project where it feel that the new has been forced upon the old rather than fully incorporated or blended. Nonetheless nothing can detract from its imposing character and stark beauty and the impression of formidable strength and impermeability, there is no question as to why this location was chosen for the castle.


Usually the eagerly anticipated approach to Castlebay involves sailing past little islands, glimpses of magnificent sandy beaches on Vatersay and of course the imposing structure of the castle on its rock guarding the entrance to the bay, but not this time. Thick, thick mist had descended down to sea level, so much so that there appeared to be two Calmac ferry men stood at the bow of the ship acting as lookouts while the foghorn was blown at repeated intervals whilst the passengers made nervous jokes about the accuracy of the boat’s satnav system. 
Castlbay appearing out of the gloom
And suddenly the castle appeared looming out of the gloom, it was incredibly atmospheric and throughout the evening the mist cleared and closed in again giving tantalising glimpses of the castle.
ghostly apparition


By morning the mist had cleared and left a grey overcast but quite humid and still day for the race. After an appearance by the Olympic torch at the start and local celebrity Father Roddy of BBC2's "An island Parish" fame was introduced to the crowd were set off on our 13.1 (hilly) miles. After a slightly over enthusiastic start coupled with a dodgy stomach the race became a bit of an ordeal for me after about 4 miles and I spent the next 6 miles persuading myself that the self loathing created by running a slow time would be far less than the self loathing created by a DNF….while a significant proportion of the field proceeded to overtake me including Hamish, my heb half nemesis. Everyone else seemed to have ran well though, Bert had started slowly but predictably enough ran a pretty good time, Geoff seemed to fly round and John also was going very strongly. Judging by the photos that Innes took it was hard to tell if Mike was enjoying himself in the race or not but I certainly got a boost from seeing Innes at the top of the infamous hill. The ladies race was won by a New Zealander on holiday with Gillian in 2nd and it was good to see that Gillian hadn’t lost her fitness while off on her world travels. Simon did his usual stop/start running moving up and down through the field like a yo yo and he was narrowly beaten in a sprint finish by John who, out of us all was the only prize winner.

Climbing the first hill
Me in front of Bert in a race - now that doesn't happen often!
Hamish "enjoying" the hill
Simon enjoying the hill
Mike enjoying the hill
Me - for the record i didn't enjoy the hill!
 I was just glad it was a picturesque course as it gave me something else to focus on as my running speed reached glacial pace.
Anyway after a swim, sauna and the buffet to end all buffets it was back to the hotel for some chill out time before venturing out the Kisimul café for a curry and then on to the Celidh.
Prize winners

In their party frocks

Kisimul curry cafe
The Barra celidh is one of the best ever and this year was no exception and the hall was packed out with people dancing to the tunes of the Vatersay Boys. Another celebrity  had made an appearance on the Island to perform at the celidh – Michelle McManus of Pop Idol fame and similarly to last year when Bert was determined to have his photo taken with Father Roddy he was now determined to have his photo taken with the lovely Michelle. Unfortunately he was too shy to ask so I had to and Michelle was very nice about it. Bert shy - aye, right!
Bert knew that wearing a kilt would make him a hit with the ladies
Perfect post race recovery drink
The post Celidh entertainment takes place in the Castlebay bar before the final stagger back up the hill to the hotel and it was during this stagger up the road that we became aware of a loud noise emanating from various areas of grassland – a loud grating noise with a constant rhythmn which almost sounded as though it was made by a machine so mechanical was its repetition. I peered into the dense grassland at the side of the road but nothing was moving and someone suggested it may be a frog or a toad which did seem feasible at the time. However after a few drinks at the castlebay bar I was less restrained and clambered over the barbed wire fence into the thick, dense, not to mention wet, shrubbery. As I stumbled towards where I thought the noise was coming from all went quiet. Definitely a frog, thought I. I retreated slowly and after another whisky decided it was bedtime for the fearless frog hunter. Naturally Simon was delighted when I crashed into the bedroom at 2am soaking wet and covered in grass and weeds to report my discovery….

On reporting my discovery to the others at breakfast time John, who is the font of all knowledge about Scotland and its natural history, confirmed that what i had been hunting and what had been making that distinctive noise was definitely that rare species of bird, the Corncrake. Simon misheard him and for a time seemed to think I had spent the night crawling through the fields looking for a cornflake. Obviously a hangover impairs your hearing too.
After the Sunday morning visit to the castle it was time for tea and cakes and a visit to the Herring trail, a walk along the shoreline of Castlebay with informative signboards mounted on barrels describing the former Herring industry on Barra. The Herring industry attracted many workers to Barra in the 1800’s and was a key factor in Barra’s relative wealth. It was said that at the height of the “herring boom” it was possible to walk from Castlebay to Vatersay across the decks of all of the fishing boats anchored in the harbour.

No, i don't know if they do....

the trail stretches along the shoreline

Herring barrels

Vatersay beaches in the background

relaxing in the sun

tea and cakes
On Sunday afternoon we all went our separate ways in search of entertainment and so Simon, Bert and I went for a cycle ride around the half marathon race route in reverse and for quite a while I was astonished as to how hilly it was. How did we manage to race a half marathon around that?
We stopped at the beach for a while and dozed in the sunshine and explored the rockpools while the curious seals poked their heads up above the water to look at us and then we cycled to Eric and Lynda’s holiday cottage and for more sunbathing and tea and cakes. With all these stops it was turning into an incredibly long bike ride, although not in distance.

blue skies and seas

sunshine and sparkling rockpools

more relaxing in the sun

and more relaxing in the sun!
The last stop was at the superbly situated Isles of Barra hotel for a beer sitting at a table overlooking the stretch of white sandy beach before rolling back into castle bay – just in time for a cold glass of white wine sitting at a table overlooking the castle.

Beer...and relaxing in the sun

Enjoying the view

Trying to get a better view


And then sadly it was all over for another year and we made our way back to Oban the following day and even then plans were being hatched for a return to Barra next year

Onboard entertainment included the launching of the lifeboat


It was a bit breezy on deck!

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