Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Barra: local beaches for local (clothed) people?

A news story about the Outer Hebrides island of Barra reminded me to go and look up this clip on YouTube:


Looks like it's a good job I didn't try this on Barra instead of Berneray. Actually I did, off the west beach of Barra close to the big hotel on my first trip there - unaware of the problems that being nude on Barra can cause...

The VisitScotland approach to marketing has often been annoying, but recently they've got it right. There's a great advert at the moment advertising what it's like out here that you may have seen online or in the cinema. The approach is sound: produce content that appeals to a more younger demographic - possibly the kind of people who may become residents and help keep the population up - and put it on the media they use, such as YouTube and Facebook.

Unfortunately, it's all gone a bit wrong.

On Barra, VisitScotland recently tried to make a short film featuring nude surfers (with the dangly bits covered by their boards) and the famous airport where planes land on the beach. The resulting footage was to go onto various social networking sites. But, as the BBC reports, it's turned into something akin to an episode from Father Ted:

"However, a priest contacted the agency after complaints from parishioners."

Eh? Why a priest? What the hell has it got to do with him? Is this an ecumenical matter? If the act was illegal, then surely the police should have been informed. Or, if it's a local issue, then the local councillors.


As the Western Isles news put it:

"Three male surfers spent part of last week shivering in the nude in bitter February winds only to be roasted by the wrath of the local clergy."

What exactly were they doing? The priest, named as Canon Angus MacQueen, is quoted in The Scotsman in a manner reminiscent of Royston Valley: 

"These surfers were naked and running down by the island's airport carrying surfboards. Many people were outraged. We don't want to attract this kind of tourism to Barra. We are overbooked in the summer as it is." 

Ah, a "We don't like this kind of people here" person (notice how they're always a bit vague on who "we" are). So, Angus, what kind of people do you want? People who don't want to have a good time? Non-surfers? Clothed surfers? Or perhaps nude surfers, but only when accommodation is not overbooked - perhaps November only? Oh, and who elected you the spokesperson for the Isle of Barra tourist industry?

He goes on:

Canon MacQueen said the surfers had moved to the island and were involved in canoeing tourism. He added: "They are not real Barra men. Barra people would not have done what they did."

And that's what it boils down to. It's not about nudism. It's not about surfboarding. Canon MacQueen just believes in "Local beaches for local people." 

Is this a universal view amongst Barra residents? Unlikely; the considerable number of Barra people I've met over the last decade seem pretty liberal, friendly, tolerant and broad-minded. Other newspaper quotes confirm this:


"However, one local said: "The rest of us had a good laugh. The surfers were posing and positioning the surf board in front of themselves. They must have been freezing. They were hanging around the airport at Traigh Mhòr and were being filmed as the plane landed. Everybody here was just laughing at it but the priest complained vociferously to VisitScotland." So, Canon, who exactly were the "we" you referred to, and how many people are in this "we"...?

And ... they weren't even openly nude. It was pretty much the same as the charity calendars of naked people with strategically placed implements - one of which, on Lewis, raised a fair bit of money for charity. No problems there - even on the island of Lewis.

"VisitScotland said it had been a quirky idea aimed at young people and was not intended to cause offence. It said all the footage had been destroyed."


Hell of an over-reaction - how dangerous is this material? Get a grip - it's 2008. It's harmless, clean fun. And it would be interesting to do a poll of Barra residents to find out how many really were offended, and how many didn't really care.

End result: The mainland media are having a field day with this, with Barra being ridiculed as a backwards place. Newspapers such as The Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Daily Record, and more locally the Stornoway Gazette, have quickly picked up the story, as they do. And along with the (positive) attribute of being the place where the plane lands on the beach (which I've done, and is spectacular)(but I was clothed at the time), Barra is now known as the Hebridean island where harmless nudity - even if strategically covered - causes a local rumpus.

VisitScotland should have ignored him. Barra residents joined in the fun. And the Barra tourist industry quietly told him to shut up while putting someone positive and welcoming in front of the microphone.

I wonder what my Finnish colleagues would make of this? Here's one of them (Professor Mayra), in group socialising mode:



The programme for their annual conference this year concludes with: 17:30 Crash Course to Finland part 2: Sauna Excursion. Hmmm, not coming to a Hebridean island called Barra, if Angus has anything to do with it, at any time soon, I suspect...

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[Update 4/3/08] From Donna Black, VisitScotland:

I work in the press office at VisitScotland and wanted to clarify a few things regarding this story. The cost of the recent filming on Barra was £7,400. The £2million figure quoted relates to our new cinema advert featuring Barra, and other marketing that we are doing in London, the Midlands and the South of England. You can see the cinema advert at http://perfectday.visitscotland.com/. Most of the footage we shot on Barra will still be used, so the £7,400 investment has not gone to waste. It is just the footage of the naked surfers that we have decided not to use. We made that decision as soon as we received feedback from local residents about their concerns. Our intention was to promote adventure sports to a younger audience on YouTube, however, we realise we misjudged this element of the filming, and have apologised for any offence caused. We will continue to promote Barra and other parts of Scotland as ideal locations for adventure sports, just without the nudity!


  1. What makes this ironic is that the previous big story about Barra also involved their priest and moral issues:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article718310.eceIt does seem odd that the complainants in the current incident complained to their priest. This implies that it's probably some of the elder members of the congregation, who want to be discrete and feel more comfortable getting the priest to help. It's a remnant of how social and moral issues were often dealt with most of the time. A pity that, in this case, the priest didn't quietly reassure the complainants that what happened was innocent, modern, harmless fun. Instead of going of on one. In the words of Father Jack, Visit Scotland should have told him to "Feck off!".

  2. Well, world is different in different places. I am starting to be more and more convinced by the goodness of Finnish national tradition of common saunas. As we Finns know, it has nothing to do with sinful stuff, God, if there is such, created us being naked, but in many places it is just not very wise to go out and run around with our birthsuites. What comes to modern view of the body, produced by the media, Finland is doing a good job by providing a realistic reference point on body. We rarely are models and actors (or photoshopped on the go). As I have seen my mother, grand mother and other relatives, random people etc. naked, I may have little less problems to find peace within my own body as it gets older everyday. Hiding bodies is not a good way to go, i think - although I do not wish my colleagues to show up to work bare naked. Unfortunately, the sauna tradition is not in its strongest days even in Finland. Who knows how it will evolve...

  3. (Checks the calendar)This is an early April Fools Day joke, isn't it?

  4. And now I have 'That would be an ecumenical matter' stuck in my head!Madness.