Tuesday 11 August 2015

Away in the Islands, summer 2015


So, I haven't posted anything for a while.  Relax - this isn't because I've given up blogging, but rather because I've been away for my summer holiday.  We spent 2 weeks on the island of Barra, in the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland.  It was cold and windy - the "summer" of 2015 has been dismal so far with temperatures up to 10 degrees Celsius below average for the time of year.  Still, we did a lot of walks and relaxed quite a bit.

A typically-crowded beach on Barra, on one of the better days of our visit
Apparently, it's been an excellent year for orchids.  We certainly saw huge numbers of several different sorts.  Here's one example:

So, what can I tell you about Barra that might be of interest to wargamers, model-makers or amateur historians?


The main settlement on Barra is Castlebay.  It's a somewhat obvious name, since the village lines the shore of a large bay - and there's a castle in the middle of the sea!  Kisimul Castle is on a rocky islet a couple of hundred metres offshore from the mainland of Barra and is the traditional seat of the MacNeill clan.  The MacNeills of Barra were famed (infamous?) as seaborne raiders; they terrorised quite a few other island and mainland communities during the Middle Ages.  Also, Barra was a hotbed of Viking activity long before that!

What you see of the castle these days is a restoration from the 1930s, so I've no idea how accurately it represents the original version.  However, one of the things that I like about it is that the interior of the castle is filled with buildings.  Too often, our wargames castles are barren, empty shells without any dwelling or utility rooms on the inside.

The well (which provided the castle with fresh water, despite its location on a rocky islet in the sea!) is in the centre in this picture, just in front of the partially-obscured door of the further building.

Dun a'Chaolais Broch

On a couple of occasions, we travelled from Barra to the adjacent island of Vatersay; there's a modern causeway linking the 2 islands so it is easy to drive from one to the other.  Near the road in the north of Vatersay, on the top of a small hill, are the remains of a probable broch.

Brochs are uniquely Scottish buildings from about 2000 years ago. found around the northern and western fringes of the country.  Originally, this structure would have been a round, dry-stone tower some 16m across and proportionally tall, with very thick walls.  The inside would have been divided into multiple small chambers.

No-one is sure how brochs were used (early theories that they were forts seem to be discouraged by modern archaeologists), but they may have been high status dwellings, watch towers or some combination of these and other factors.

Even though this site is essentially just a pile of stones with just traces of walls, it's still impressively large!

The Vatersay Catalina

Further south on Vatersay, but right beside the road, is the wreckage of an RAF Catalina flying boat that crashed on the island in 1944.  The aircraft was on a (night?) training flight out of Oban when it became lost and hit a nearby hill with the loss of several crew members.  RAF recovery teams dragged the wreckage down to the shore and took away the engines and some other parts.  The remainder of the aircraft has been left in place to this day.

There is a memorial at the site to the crew; it is well-maintained and respected (there was a wreath of poppies at the foot when we visited).  Around the highlands and islands of Scotland there are quite a few crash sites of long-range patrol aircraft, but this is by far the easiest to reach and has the most to see of any that I have encountered.

Visitors can walk right up to the pieces of wreckage; there are no barriers or warning signs.  It's quite a sobering moment, though.

Commonwealth War Grave

In the north of Barra there is the very old church of Kilbar.  This is most famous for a stone slab with early Christian symbols on one side and Viking runes on the other, possibly looted from Iona (I did say that the islanders from Barra had a reputation as raiders!)

However, something else caught my eye as well.  There's a marker at the gate to the cemetery proclaiming the presence of Commonwealth War Graves.  It turns out that there is just a single war-related grave here and it is inscribed with an Italian name.  I didn't write it down, so sadly I cannot remember it here.  I think that his first name was Enrico, though.

Further enquiries of a local historian revealed the following story: Enrico was a Jewish-Italian opera singer who happened to be in Britain when Italy entered the Second World War.  He was therefore detained and put on a ship, presumably to be deported.  However, the ship was torpedoed by German aircraft in the Bay of Biscay and sank.  Apparently bodies were washed up all along the Western Isles, including that of poor Enrico on Barra.

This version of events does raise a few questions in my mind, though:
  • If the ship was torpedoed in the Bay of Biscay then how did the bodies end up far away on the west coast of Scotland?  Perhaps it didn't sink immediately and drifted for a few days?  Or maybe it was further north than I've been told in the first place?  Possibly the currents or stormy winds were strong enough at that time to move the wreckage such a distance?
  • Enrico was not a member of any Commonwealth military force, so how did he end up in an official Commonwealth war grave?  My informant suggested that maybe this was because the British armed forces were responsible for collecting and burying the bodies of those killed at sea.  This is possibly correct, I suppose?  I had always assumed that Commonwealth war grave status was just for combatants, but I must be mistaken on this.


I've tried to avoid presenting a list of everything that we saw and did on Barra and the nearby islands.  Instead this article is edited to present just those items which (I hope!) might be of interest to the people that I imagine are my audience.

In my next post, I'll talk about the paper models I made whilst on holiday.  S.I.G!


  1. It is a shame that the weather was not as good as you hoped. That castle does interest me and I shall look it up on the internet to get more details. Overall though a break from the normal and to my mind so much better than laying on a beach covering yourself in oil and trying to cook yourself!

    1. When we book a holiday in January, we can't tell what the weather will be in August, can we? Some years are better than others; this one is (so far) much worse than average.
      Anyway, you're right: lying on a crowded, hot beach is not my idea of fun!

  2. Nice pics and it looks like a very peaceful place to visit.

    1. Thanks, F.E.M. Yes, I do like to get away from people for my holidays; the Scottish islands are indeed peaceful!

  3. I find it fascinating that you found so much of interest i what appears to be a very bleak area (not helped by the weather I suspect). Always good to have the batteries re-charged though !

    1. Bleak? Yes, in the strict dictionary sense of "lacking vegetation, exposed", I suppose. But I have never thought of the Hebrides as inhospitable - and the relative lack of development means that a lot of history is very accessible!

  4. Yes it has been an odd summer so far. Looks like a beautiful place full of interesting things to view.

    1. Thanks, Simon. I think that I could probably find something to interest me in most places, but I do prefer being in a beautiful, quiet landscape!

  5. The CWGC lists 15 burials in St Brendans RC Cemetery - the Italian is Oreste Fisanotti. He died on 2 July 1940, but there are no further details. It turns out though that he was on board the Anadora Star hit by one torpedo from U-47 about 125 miles west by north of Malin Head, Co. Donegal and foundered later in 56°30N/10°38W. The ship had 479 German internees, 734 Italian internees, 86 German prisoners-of-war and 200 military guards on board. The master, 12 officers, 42 crewmen, 37 guards, 470 Italians and 243 Germans were lost. 119 crew members, 163 guards and 586 Italians and Germans were picked up by HMCS St. Laurent (H 83) (Cdr H.G. De Wolf, RCN) and landed at Greenock.

    1. Wow, thanks for this detailed research, Edwin - very impressive! You know, it never occurred to me to look up the CWGC website, though it seems obvious in hindsight.

      You've identified a different Italian, though drowned in the same incident. Oreste Fisanotti was buried in the main cemetery on the west coast of the island. The poor soul that I discovered was buried in the much smaller Eolaigearraidh cemetery to the north and was indeed called "Enrico Muzio".

  6. Interesting post, thanks for that. It's been a while since I have been that way, fond memories

    1. Thanks, Dave. If it's been a while then perhaps you should go back for a visit yourself!