I had a surprisingly peaceful sleep. Normally my first night in the tent is a very restless, uncomfortable one as my body has to adjust from mattress to the ground. When I awoke I could hear Jim and Brian rustling about and having a blether. They offered me some porridge, but I decided to settle with some pasta as I had to use up the sauce. I was asked to put radio campsite on. When I go backpacking, I take my trusty Creative Zen Touch mp3 player with me. It’s a bulky, solid built thing that holds over 2,000 songs and the battery lasts for 24 hours play time before needing to be charged. I also take some small foldup speakers with me too. Over the years, this combination has been affectionately nicknamed “Radio Campsite”, being the source of many a campsite ceilidh.
A little after 1pm, I decided to head into Castlebay. I needed to get bus times to the ferry terminal for the next day, so I nipped into the Tourist information centre. I was surprised that it was open on a Sunday. I got a bus timetable and had a wee wander around the harbour. This particular Sunday was a special one in Barra, the day of the annual Fisherman’s Mass and Blessing of the Boats. A Barratlantic trailer was set up with mass stuff and there were flags from all different countries hanging all over the pier. I was standing looking into the water, watching some small fish swimming about. They were like stars in the night sky: the more you look, the more you see. I was startled by someone grabbing me by the sides. I turned round to be face to face by a bearded, bunneted Barrach, drunk. He asked me how I was doing, so I told him I was fine and asked how he was. He said he was absolutely gassed. He had been setting up for the Mass all morning so had a few drams when he finished. He asked me my name so I told him. He shook my hand and said “Paul.”. Then I was presented with the most random question. “Do you have any pockets?”. I was standing there with outdoor trousers, and North Face jacket, so had loads of pockets! So I told him I did and he put a can of lager into my hand and said “you hang onto that for a wee while, just a wee while” and then he wandered off. I stood there staring at the can, bewildered at the bizarre conversation I had just had with this maverick.
I laughed to myself and decided to head to the pub. As I walked up the busying street I could see Paul randomly chatting to every person and car he saw. Only in Barra! When I got to the pub, I was glad to see my friends Ian, Toots and Paul (not the Paul I had just met) there. I felt like we hadn’t had a proper chance to catch up. I started to regret sacrificing a day in Barra to go to Mull; my time in Barra had been too short.
I went down to the pier just after the Mass commenced. I’m not a religious guy, well not in the god, Jesus and Mary sense, but there is something nice about the Fisherman’s Mass. Hearing the hymns sung in gaelic is great, but for me I like how different the whole ceremony is from what I expect a typical Mass is like. The focus of the Mass is the sea and keeping believers safe. Thanks is given for keeping our fishermen and anyone that works on or around the sea safe, but it is also acknowledged that “the storm will come.” The boats in the harbour are then blessed to keep them safe for another year and people go up to take communion. Then the fun begins! Fresh herring is cooked on the pier and free to anyone who wants some. All of the boats are dressed up like an oceanic fancy dress party and people are invited to take a ride on one during the procession. Apparently, they used to have a boat race, but because of health and safety they now have a procession.
I met Brian, who was catching some rays on the grass next to the pier. He said we he had booked us a table at Café Kisimul for dinner…score! From the name of the place, you would expect it to be just a normal typical cafe. Not Café Kisimul! It serves the tastiest curries I have ever had. They also serve Italian food but I’ve yet to try it. I headed back to the bar and watched the boats playing in the bay. There were a few hairy moments when I thought some boats were gonna crash into each other, but all was fine. Brian and Jim joined me in the bar and decided to have a spontaneous HitchHop raffle in the bar, so a poster was put up saying it would be drawn at 7pm.
5pm came and it was time for dinner. We got ourselves down to Café Kisimul and ordered. Instead of my usual korma I decided to try the bhoona instead. After some poppadoms, dinner was served. Absolutely delicious! I think I’ve found a new favourite Indian dish. Over dinner, we discussed plans for the next day. I had been thinking about staying in Barra for an extra day and only go to Berneray for one night. However, i decided not to so was gonna get the morning ferry over to Eriskay. Brian and Jim told me they are planning to try to hitch for the late morning ferry. I decided to do the same; it would be nice not to have to get up mega early to get the bus to Aird Mhor.
We returned to the good old Castlebay Bar, and had plenty of time to sell raffle tickets. I was watching the magic of HitchHop happening before my very eyes as an extra £50 had been raised by selling raffle tickets. There was a whole host of prizes, from RNLI dish towels, to CDs to whisky! The draw was a great laugh, with one table being particularly lucky, winning CDs, some other goodies and one of the top prizes: a bottle of Bunnahabhain single malt!
After the raffle, I headed down to the school for the ceilidh. The Fisherman’s Mass family ceilidh is always a great laugh. It is usually held in the assembly hall, but this year it was in the bigger games hall. I arrived to the Vatersay Boys playing the “Hokey Cokey”, always a good laugh. I met Brian and Jim and we got the drinks inn. I realise now that I didn’t actually dance…very unusual for me at a ceilidh. I don’t know why I didn’t dance to any of the sets. I did enjoy watching the madness of the Orcadian Strip the Willow and wish now I had taken part. After the set dances, the Vatersay Boys piped up with their legendary “Oidhche Bha” and that was me switched to dancing mode. We were all dancing about like mad, then they ended the night with their brilliant rendition of Mark Knopfler’s “Going Home”.
Sean McCann is a member of my favourite Canadian band, Great Big Sea. “Rather Be a Sailor” is my favourite song from his second album, “Son of a Sailor” and I think it deserves a wee mention in this post.
If you’ve never worked on water
If you’ve never sailed the sea
You still have a lot to learn
Of living strong and free
With your face to the bow
And your back to the breeze
There’s nothing like a sou’west wind
To set your mind at ease