Barra is an island in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. The island has a population of 1078, and is connected by causeway to Vatersay in the south and by ferry to Eriskay (and hence South Uist) in the north. The airport is one of only two in the world where scheduled flights land on a beach runway. The main settlement is Castlebay.
Barra, Vatersay and the uninhabited smaller isles to the south - Pabbay, Sandray, Mingulay and Berneray - form the southernmost group in the Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles.
Gaelic is widely spoken but everyone also speaks and uses English.
Barra is a predominately Catholic island, so there are fewer restrictions on Sunday activities (shops etc.) than the islands further North. There are also some wayside shrines which is unusual in Scotland. The island featured on the BBC television series, "Island Parish". There is also a small Church of Scotland congregation.
Barra is the seat of Clan MacNeil, and Castle Kismul stands in on a rock in the bay of the island centre, Castlebay. A clan gathering takes place every two years, which reunites MacNeils from all over the world, some of whom are descendants of forced emigrants long ago. The population is over 1100, and the island has a busy community life.
The Tourist Information Office is in Main Street, Castlebay (01871 810336) and open from Easter to October only (usually opens for evening ferry arrivals). Coming off the ferry, take the right fork in the road and head up past the shops.
The island can be reached by Calmac ferry from Oban or Eriskay but is famous for its beach airport.
The Summer schedule is as follows:
- Oban - Castlebay : daily, taking 5+ hours. An additional sailing on Thursday travels via Coll and Tiree.
- Eriskay - daily, up to 5 per day, taking 40 minutes; this ferry lands at the north end of the island, and there are often (but not always) connecting buses to Castlebay. The first sailing on Sunday is request-only: passengers should telephone the Lochboisdale office by 14.00 on the Saturday before.
Barra Airport uses the beach as the runway, which means that flight times vary with the tide. Flights from Glasgow and Benbecula on most days (weather permitting) are operated by Loganair as a franchise of FlyeBe . The prices of the flight from Benbecula to Barra are fixed, extremely cheap, and well worth the experience.
- A Twin Otter aircraft provides a service from Glasgow, and, at the moment, goes to Benbecula and back - but this local service is under threat of closure due to Council cuts.
Barra is linked by causeway to Vatersay to the South.
By bus and ferry
- Coach parties also visit Barra.
- The cruise ship "Hebridean Princess" is a frequent visitor.
- There is ample mooring for yachts in Castlebay Harbour, or you can land your private aircraft at the beach airport with prior permission.
- There is a bus service that meets ferries and plane, and there are local taxis, as well as car hire.
- The island is only ten miles long and four wide, so many people choose to walk or hire a bicycle locally (be aware of at least two steep hills).
- Castlebay village can easily be explored on foot.
There are good bus services during the day Monday to Saturday, but little in the evening and none on Sundays.
There are three bus routes:
- W32: to/from Castlebay via either the east or west coast to Northbay, the airport, Ardmhor slipway and Eoligarry.
- W33: between Castlebay and Vatersay
The buses on Barra form part of a much larger network covering the length of the Western Isles, including a complete journey northbound and southbound to/from Ness. All Western Isles timetables may be found here.
- Kisimul Castle, Castlebay, HS9 5UZ (five minute boat trip from Kisimul), ☎ +44 1871 810313. 9:30-17:30. Small castle, but only accessible by boat in the summer (1 April - 30 September). Adult £5.50, Child £3.30, Concession £4.40.
- Barra Heritage & Cultural Centre, HS9 5XD, ☎ +44 1871 810413, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. M-Sa 10:30-16:30. A small exhibition and café in the school which is open in the summer (April - October). Adults £3, Concession £2, Children £1.
- The airport. worth stopping by to watch a plane land on the sand.
- The church. quite interesting, and gives good views of the bay.
- Heaval. From the shoulder of Heaval, the highest peak, look south to the cliffs of Mingulay and the Barra Head lighthouse on Berneray. From the top of Heaval, on a very clear day, it is possible to see Ireland. The walk up Heaval takes around 40 minutes, and about two-thirds of the way up there is a statue of the Madonna and Child overlooking Castlebay.
- All along the east side are views of the inner isles, and on a clear day the hills of Rhum and the peaks of the Cuillins look very close.
- The north end of the island offers very clear views of nearby uninhabited islands, as well as Eriskay and the Stack Isles, including "Weaver's Castle", and Ben More in South Uist is particularly striking. On a clear day you can see as far as North Uist.
- The west looks to the Atlantic Ocean, and its breakers are spectacular as they encounter the cliffs at Grean Head, or pound against the rocks that line the coast road.
- Vatersay (Linked to Barra by a vehicle causeway. Buses run from Castlebay). Vatersay, like the west and north of Barra, has beaches of the very highest quality, white, fine and often empty. Vatersay commemorates the sinking of the emigrant ship, "The Annie Jane", and the loss of a Catalina Aircraft in World War II. It also has an important archeological site, known as "Allt Chrisal" as well as other historical ruins such as the site of St Brendan's Chapel.
- Chapel of Cille Bharra (in Eoligarry at the north end of the island). The island's Viking history is preserved not only in many of its place-names but also in the small chapel of Cille Bharra. This building has been restored, and contains a replica of a stone containing both Viking runes and Celtic designs. The stone commemorates the Christian burial of a Viking princess - Thorgeth, daughter of Steinar. The orioginal stone is kept in Edinburgh. In the graveyard here is the grave of Compton MacKenzie, who took the idea for the story "Whisky Galore" from the sinking of "The Politician" during World War II. It is thought that Mackenzie used the idea and possibly some of the drafted text about which a local school teacher had asked him his opinion. free.
- Northbay. A local artist has created a statue of St Barr, the island's saint, in the little bay at Northbay, and the same artist, Margaret Somerville, created the shell pictures of seabirds and fish that you will see in various locations.
- Cycle or drive around the island.
- On a calm day, take a boat trip (enquire locally) to one of the uninhabited islands to the south.
- There are boat trips to Mingulay in good weather, giving a chance to see its spectacular cliffs close up as well as a colony of puffins and other wildlife.
- Heritage Centre. In Castlebay, near the Community School, is the Heritage Centre, and the school itself has a swimming pool and fitness suite, as well as a community library with internet facilities.
- There are many walks, of varying levels, along beaches or uphill.
- The island has several ruined 'duns' or Iron Age fortified positions, which served as look-out and sometimes refuge points, the idea being if a beacon was lit at one site you could see it from the next and pass on the signal that invaders were approaching.
There are several local events that have become internationally known.
- The Barrathon. The "Barrathon" at the end of June is a half-marathon run round the island's thirteen miles of circular road. Registration for this is fast and furious, as competition for places is high.
- "BarraFest" is a music festival that takes place at the end of August, on the 'machair' or grass land near the sand dunes at Tangusdale on the West Side. There are also the Barra Games in July, and a Gaelic Festival, or Feis, as well as the "Fisherman's Mass", or blessing of the fleet, not to forget the Heaval Race, which includes runners of every age.
- MacNeil Clan Gathering. If you are a MacNeil then you are eligible to come to the famous Clan Gathering.
- Co-op. At Castlebay (South side of the bay, near the school) is open Mon-Sat 08:30-20:00, Sun 12:30-18:00.
- The local newspaper is "Guth Bharraigh", which will tell you what's on.
- In Castlebay there is a Tourist Office and petrol/diesel pumps.
- The local initiative "Island Markets" gives an opportunity for local people to sell their produce in the community school or hall, and an associated local produce shop, Buth Bharraigh, is currently being established.
- Hebridean Toffee (the toffee shop), castlebay, isle of barra (turn first left after leaving ferry), ☎ +44 1871 810898, e-mail: email@example.com. 9-5. Scottish tablet made and sold here. Local quality crafts and gifts all year round
The meals in the hotels in Castlebay can be good, especially the fresh local fish and shellfish.
- Isle of Barra Beach Hotel, Tangasdale Beach.
- Castlebay Hotel. The food is reasonable value and quite good quality. The service is an excellent exapmle of Island hospitality. The seafood options are good.
- Craigard Hotel.
- Dualchas Café, in the Heritage Centre, Castlebay. daytime only.
- Cafe Kisimul, Castlebay (by the harbour, down from the petrol pumps in Castlebay), ☎ +44 1871 810645, +44 1871 810870. Morning 'til late. In the evenings this cafe provides excellent food with a mixture of Italian and Indian cuisines. The aroma of the Indian food is just too inviting. Great staff with a trattoria like atmosphere. Only about 6 indoor tables. It is advisable to book at weekends and in high season. If you like Indian style food just don't walk past in the evening ... that aroma is just too much and you might kick yourself for not booking a table. Not expensive.
- Northbay. has its own, smaller, hotel.
- For those wishing more of a snack meal there are cafés in Castlebay, and the village halls in Vatersay and Northbay offer coffees, teas, home baking and gifts.
- The Deck (the toffee shop), castlebay, isle of barra (first left after leaving ferry), ☎ +44 1871 810898, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. 9-5. The highest quality local food and drink and daily fresh home baking on the deck.
- Each of the four hotels has its own bar or cocktail lounge. There are often dances and ceilidhs which are either licensed to sell alcohol or where you are expected to bring your own bottle.
- Castlebay Hotel. Often has live music late on Saturday Nights. The local group "The Vatersay Boys" are very popular locally and will get you up and dancing.
- Craigard Hotel.
- Halaman Bar, Isle of Barra Beach Hotel. (This is located several a few km out of Castlebay. Large car park.). Architect designed, it looks really posh. Great place to watch the sunset.
Booking ahead is recommended as the island can get fully booked at popular times.
- Dunard Hostel (Castlebay), ☎ +44 1871 810443. Is a 16 bed hostel which caters for families as well as individuals. Book well in advance to stay in summer. A few minutes walk from the ferry.
Bed & breakfast
- Castlebay Hotel, ☎ +44 1871 810223. Is a few minutes walk from the ferry. Website also has general info on the island.
- Isle of Barra Beach Hotel, ☎ +44 1871 810383. Tangasdale Beach, is in a lovely location next to Tangasdale Beach, about 2 miles from Castlebay.
There are designated campsites, and there are public conveniences in Castlebay and in Eoligarry.
- The Hebridean Hopscotch ticket offers an opportunity to travel either north to Uist from Barra or south to Oban.
- Going north, you can take a ferry to Harris and drive or take public transport to the main town of Stornoway in Lewis. If you take a ferry from Lochmaddy in North Uist yiou can continue your holiday through Skye.
- Going south, you can choose a ferry once a week that will take you to Tiree or Coll, or go straight to Oban, from which ferry connections to islands such as Mull or Colonsay are easy. Bus and train connections are available from Oban to take you anywhere in Scotland.