Castlebay, Barra – Our Lady, Star of the Sea

One of the things on my bucket list is landing on the beach at Barra. Barra is in the Outer Hebrides, reached in 50 minutes on a Loganair flight from Glasgow. On Monday 14 July the flight was booked for 0800. It was then changed to 0950. At 0915 we went to Gate 3, at 0940 boarded, and we had just sat down when the pilot said “There’s a strong SE wind so the tide hasn’t gone out far enough. There’s a foot of water on the beach and this plane doesn’t float. Can you go back to the departure lounge please. We’ll be another hour.” By the time we got to the island it was still wet, but we managed to land. On Wednesday return was less tricky – enjoy these photos. I was at the airport early so photoed the previous arrival and departure. You can find it on youtube, read articles about it, and go on the airport website http://www.hial.co.uk/barra-airport/

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DSC02104DSC02099DSC02114Castlebay, the main village of the island, is called Castlebay because there is a Castle in the bay. Kisimul Castle is Historic Scotland, and on their website – well worth a visit, the ferry runs every half hour. (The Calmac ferry in my photo is the one from Oban). Looking back to the village you can see the church, Our Lady, Star of the Sea. It is familiar to viewers of “An Island Parish” (series 5 and 6), which I have watched occasionally, and those who have watched “Whisky Galore” (one of my favourites).

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Barra, Eriskay and South Uist have always been Catholic islands – the Protestant fires lit by John Knox drove the Catholics out of all of Scotland, except these Outer Hebridean islands. In 1681 Scotland had 1 million people, only 14,000 of them were Catholic, and 12,000 of them lived here – it seems to be a general rule that if the laird was Catholic the people stayed Catholic. In the C21 the website for the five Catholic churches on Barra is http://www.barracatholic.co.uk. (There is a Church of Scotland church on this island, http://www.barra-church.org, but no Episcopal church).

DSC01940This church opened on Christmas Eve 1888 when people from all over the islands gathered for Midnight Mass. The 800 seat church was filled to capacity. The new parish priest was Canon James Chisholm who had been priest at St Brendan’s church, Craigston for some years. The preacher was Father Allan MacDonald of Eriskay – more of him in the next post. The village had dramatically increased in size due to the development of Castlebay as a herring port. New houses, shops, a school, a post office and a bank had opened – and a new church was needed. There was little money around until Castlebay merchant Neil MacNeil left £800 in his will in 1886, and smaller monetary donations followed. Roderick Campbell of 11 Glen offered a part of his croft for the purpose, and John Campbell of 23 Glen suggested that a small quarry be opened on his croft as the rock was granite suitable for building purposes. The architect was G. Woulfe Brennan, and it was built by MacDougall and MacColl of Oban. In January 1891 a bell and clock were added to the clock tower. As I was staying in the hotel next door I can report that the bell goes every hour through the night – and chimes extremely slowly. The priest’s house was added in March 1892. This is the view from the front of the church.

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In one sense it reminded me of the chapels of my youth – the benches and the Victorian design.

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The stained glass windows and the statues of Mary show it is not a Cambridgeshire Baptist church! The North window (above the altar) is quite pleasant, the south window is lovely. It is a war memorial window – see website – installed in 1952. “It was paid for from parents’ separation allowances for their sons in World War II. The window was made by the John Hardman Studios and designed by Patrick Feeny who was the Studio’s chief designer at the time. In the Studio archives it is noted that the design was to make the figures stand out for miles when the lights are on inside the Church. During the wars the island had a population of approx. 1,100 people and 125 men were killed in both World Wars; 95% were members of the Navy and of these 75% were Merchant Navy. The top section of the central light with the figures of Mary and Jesus were completed to be exhibited at the ‘Art in the Service of the Church’ exhibition at Lambeth Palace in the summer of 1951 (in connection with the Festival of Britain).” The Gaelic means “Star of the Sea”.

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The altar was originally in St Columba’s chapel on the Isle of Mingulay and I like Mary and Jesus in their boat.

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I had a smile at one of the notices which was advertising a Diocesan gathering at Morar – we struggle to get people to go to Newcastle for a “do”, imagine if we had to persuade them to cross to the mainland! I tried to sit and say “Morning Prayer” using the Church of England app on my phone. The internet signal from the hotel next door was not strong enough – “Can’t connect to the Church of England” – or it could be an ecumenical comment! I said my prayers anyway.

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