For a long time there have been two aviation-related items on my Scottish bucket list. I will have to wait a little longer to tick off the world’s shortest commercial flight – a 1.7 mile hop from Papa Westray to Westray in the Orkney Islands. But this May I realised a travel ambition: to land on the beach on the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.
Flights to Barra are operated by Loganair. I flew from Glasgow on a Twin Otter. They typically have a capacity of about 19 passengers though there were only 13 of us on board on the outbound leg and just four when we returned to Glasgow. It’s an intimate affair. Two crew members accompany the flight; the pilot is joined by a first officer who doubles as cabin crew for the obligatory safety briefing.
I’d heard that flights could be bumpy and in such a tiny plane I was fully prepared to feel queasy. Luckily for me, the weather was calm and the skies clear – both times. The flight time is about an hour from Glasgow and along the way we had some great views of some of the other islands.
My experience at Glasgow Airport was strange. Thanks to COVID, there were few people around when I arrived. In fact, I was directed down a side passage instead of entering the departure gate area via the duty free shop as was the norm. Even though I’d flown from Glasgow a few times before, it was a bit disconcerting, particularly when passengers were outnumbered by staff by a ratio of about 4:1. And this was for a civilised departure time of 10.15am. Eventually, a few businesses opened – Boots, WHSmiths, the duty free shop and the pub. The fact that everything else remained closed and there were fewer than 20 people waiting to fly in the whole terminal – not to mention seeing just a dozen flights for that day on the departure board – was a real eye-opener to the devastating effect this pandemic has had on airport economies.
Nevertheless, as I boarded the plane I was grinning. It’s always exciting to fly, but this was the first plane I’d boarded since October 2020. Approaching Barra at low altitude, we had a good view of the landing strip and airport. Aside from the beach itself, the airport comprised a few small buildings that housed the terminal, fire service and maintenance operations. Baggage reclaim was a bus shelter, though the bus itself idled in the car park as it waited for passengers.
I had a better chance to see how this airport functioned on the return leg. At high tide, the water is too far in to enable a safe landing. Even at low tide, a reccy is done by Land Rover to check there’s no debris left on the beach by the tide and to make sure the beach is dry enough to permit a safe landing. Whichever direction the plane lands, there’s plenty of room for it to taxi to the “stand” on the part of the beach closest to the terminal.
From my window seat I had a clear view of the landing. As we landed, the water on Traigh Mhor beach created a spray off the wheel. It was a smooth landing though – touching down on soft sand is definitely a lot more comfortable than doing so on the usual runway asphalt. Coupled with the lack of wind, it was one of the smoothest landings I’ve ever experienced.
And of course, being such a tiny plane with so few passengers, disembarkation was fast too. As it is a domestic flight there were no inbound formalities, though on the return leg bags were weighed and all passengers, regardless of whether they were in possession of an electronic boarding pass, were checked in by hand. It takes next to no time, but I’d recommend getting up to the airport well ahead of the departure time.
It is possible to fly in on the early flight and out on the later one, giving you a few hours on Barra. I opted for a two-night stay so I could see more of this charming island. Though Kisimul Castle is currently closed, boat trips to Mingulay to see its ruined village and bird cliffs are running, and there are plenty of excellent hikes to unspoilt beaches. Across the road you won’t want to miss the dune-backed Traigh Eais beach – a short but rewarding walk – and of course you’ll be able to see the incoming flight touch down. The bus driver was happy to let me stay on the bus for some bonus sightseeing as he looped up to Eoligarry to the north of the island.
To check out flight availability, visit the Loganair website.
To watch the videos of the flight landing, check out my Facebook page, Julia Hammond Travel Writing.