IT was in this week 90 years ago that the history of the world’s most unique airport began. The only airport in the world located on a sea beach, and thus the only one whose runways are washed twice a day by the tides, is on the Outer Hebridean island of Barra.

The airport is world-famous, but I suspect few Scots know how it started. In the early months of 1933, transport entrepreneur John Cuthill Sword, who had built up a large fleet of buses, and his wife Christina set up Midland & Scottish Air Ferries to cash in on the growing demand for air travel around the country.

It was Scotland’s first airline and the Swords put up £20,000 to acquire half-a-dozen aircraft and hire pilots such as famed test pilot Johnny Rae and former RAF fighter pilot Jimmy Orrell.

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The first two operational flights of the new airline were flown by Rae and Orrell and took place on April 14, 1933, to a field near Campbeltown called The Strath, the de Havilland Dragon aircraft filled with company staff and representatives of the press. They were met by local dignitaries and landed a quantity of newspapers, starting a delivery process that would continue on daily flights.

Soon the hunt was on for more landing sites which could prove Sword’s theory that his planes could operate where the railway companies could not.

From its base at Renfrew Airport, Midland & Scottish started a service to Campbeltown and onwards to Islay and the route saw a number of aviation firsts – the first air ambulance flight in Scotland fetched an injured fisherman from Islay to Glasgow, while the world’s first commercial flight by a female pilot was undertaken by Winnie Drinkwater.

Orrell, who would later become famous as chief test pilot for Avro, makers of the Lancaster bomber, was charged by Sword to find landing sites in the Hebrides and north west coast, and on June 14 1933, he made the first flight by an aircraft to land on Barra. The aircraft was a de Havilland Dragon designated as G-ACCZ and Orrell made steady progress out to the island.

The chosen location for the landing was Traigh Mhòr, the largest expanse of beach on the northern side of the island – the name translates into English as Big Beach. It was famed as a cockle beach, supplying Barra and beyond with its shellfish.

We don’t know who told Orrell where to land, but he accomplished the landing and take-off safely and then carried on with a three-day survey of potential landing sites in the Outer and Inner Hebrides, visiting Coll and Stornoway among other places.

Orrell had proved conclusively that Traigh Mhòr was suitable for a commercial aircraft, and the mystery is why Midland & Scottish did not immediately start a service as they had done to Campbeltown, though that was probably down to the financial difficulties the airline was experiencing which put it out of business not long afterwards.

Instead, the story of Barra Airport goes quiet for a year, as related by Roy Calderwood, the author of Times Subject To Tides, The Story Of Barra Airport, which was published in 1999. Calderwood tells how a Short Scion aircraft of West of Scotland Air Services landed at Traigh Mhòr sometime in 1935.

The following year saw a new airline, Northern & Scottish Airways, which had been set up in Glasgow in 1934 by George Nicholson – like Sword, he was a bus operator – apply to run a service from Renfrew Airport to Barra.

The Air Ministry issued an official licence for Traigh Mhòr to be an airfield on August 7, 1936, and most people date Barra Airport’s history from then.

The original adverts stated: “Commencement of scheduled services to Barra calling – on demand”. A scheduled service was introduced with the price of a single ticket from Renfrew to Barra being £4, perhaps £400-500 in modern money.

Northern & Scottish Airways used Spartan Cruisers and de Havilland Dragon Rapides. Calderwood writes: “A daily service to Barra was being promoted in the airline’s advertisements in The Oban Times from early July although Barra was not included in the regular schedule, Glasgow-Skye-North Uist-Benbecula-South Uist-Barra-Glasgow, and vice versa until October”.

Aircraft using Barra Airport required to be hosed down with fresh water – I believe they still do – because of the corrosive seawater picked up on landing and take-off.

There have been sadnesses in its history, with a handful of aircraft crashing over the last 90 years, while one poignant day is remembered on the island even now. Sir Compton Mackenzie had lived on Barra for many years – and when he died in 1972 he came “home” to the island.

Calderwood writes: “Loganair was entrusted with conveying the body of Sir Crompton MacKenzie to Barra for burial. He had requested that he be laid to rest in the cemetery at Cille Bharra alongside such friends as John MacPherson. About 100 people met the special Shorts Skyvan charter flight on December 4 when it landed on the Traigh Mhòr in atrocious weather conditions.”

There have been many happy days, too, including the award of the MBE to long-serving airport manager, the formidable Katie MacPherson, in 1969.

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New buildings have been added down the decades and after BEA operated the flights to and from Barra for many years, airlines such as Loganair made it a popular destination, not least because tourists would visit just to say they had landed on Traigh Mhòr.

Barra was given full airport status in 1974 and is now part of the Highland and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) group. According to the airport’s website: “passenger numbers at Barra are now over 14,000 per year with around 1400 aircraft movements…Barra operates twice-daily flights to and from Glasgow – providing a vital link for residents and visitors alike. It also welcomes around 60 private light aircraft flights a year.”

It all began 90 years ago this week.