Isle of Barra

Arriving in Castlebay

If you really want to get away from it all, visit the tiny island of Barra for its empty golden beaches, sandy grasslands, wild flowers and rugged interior. Nestling near the bottom of the Western Isles chain, it has been quite rightly called "Barradise". The old b/w movie "Whisky Galore" (known as "Tight Little Island" in the US) was filmed here based on the novel by Compton MacKenzie who adapted the true story of the S.S. Politician which sank off nearby Eriskay with its cargo of whisky in 1941. Its sequel Rockets Galore made in colour a few years later was also shot around the island.

An excellent place for cycling, Barra's main road loops twelve miles around the island. At Northbay, an offshoot takes you up the Eoligarry peninsula to Barra's northern tip. The airport is set on a huge sandy beach where planes land from the mainland and neighbouring islands.

The population of the island is just over 1100. Many of the islanders still speak Gaelic.

There are plans to build a whisky distillery on Barra.

Photo of Castlebay

How to get to Barra

Air (a light aircraft lands on the beach)
British Airways has an online searchable timetable.
There are regular flights from the mainland (Glasgow) and flights from Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis via Benbecula.
Barra Airport info online.

Vehicle ferry from mainland:
The vehicle ferry sails from Oban on the mainland and Lochboisdale on South Uist. Vehicle reservation required. The official Caledonian Macbrayne web site lists the current timetables in detail. Winter timetables usually have slightly fewer sailings than the summer ones.

Sound of Barra Ferry:
The island of Eriskay is now linked to South Uist by a causeway. A new service by Caledonian Macbrayne operates a small vehicle ferry on the 40-minute crossing between Eriskay and Barra. There are several sailings every day throughout the year. Check timetable online.
This service replaces the previous locally operated ferries between Ludag/Eriskay/Barra.

Barra Map Barra location

Travel Tips:

Barra Island Tours is a family-run business offering guided trips (2 - 4 hours) for up to 6 people in an executive MPV. Collection from and return to anywhere on Barra is included. Ideal if you do not have your own transport. Day tours to Eriskay, the Uists and Benbecula can also be arranged. Contact Rob Daly on 01871 810255 or 07972375494.

Car hire is provided by Hugh MacNeil in Northbay who will deliver the car to any part of the island (tel: 01871 890 313). Also Margaret Macmillan in Eoligarry (tel: 01871 890 366) who has a fleet of cars.

Taxi services are available - tel: 01871 810 216 or 01871 810590. Island tours can be arranged.

Bikes can be hired from John MacDougall at 29 St. Brendan's Road, Castlebay (telephone 01871 810 284).
You can pick up free sheets with timetables for each local route from tourist offices in the Western Isles and at Stornoway bus station. Buses generally run in time with the ferries and there are less in winter than in summer.

My travellers' tips file may also be useful if you are planning a trip to Scotland. It covers airlines, national car hire, train information, etc.

Castlebay
Barra photos on this page all © The Internet Guide to Scotland

Annual Events:

Visit the events calendar on Explore Barra for more info.

Outdoor Activities:
The island is great for cycling, walking, watersports, etc.

  • Barra Power Kiting - contact Nick and Kay - tel: 01871 810950.
  • Barra Snorkel Safari offers a 90-minute session with 2 experienced guides and all equipment provided. Tuition also available.
  • Clearwater Paddling - sea kayaking day trips from Barra. Weekend tours and longer holidays also available. Tel: 01871 810 443.
  • Boat trips to Mingulay, Eriskay, Barra Head, etc. can be arranged - try Barra Fishing Charters (tel: 01871 890384). Mingulay (uninhabited) has fantastic bird colonies.
  • Hidden Hebrides (based on Lewis) specialises in island walking holidays and tours of Lewis, Harris, the Uists and Barra. Contact Mick Blunt on 07724 150015.

Sightseeing

CASTLEBAY
Began as a 19th-century fishing port, today it is home to the vehicle ferry (which brings in much of the island's food and supplies) and has a couple of hotels, church, post office (originally opened in 1875), public telephones, school, Royal Bank of Scotland, grocers with petrol station, supermarket, swimming pool, sports hall, tourist information centre with community shop next door. There's a cafe in the main street.

Main street, Castlebay

The Barra Heritage Centre has a cafe, genealogy documents, art exhibitions and activities. Telephone 01871 810 413. When you drive up from the ferry, you need to turn left to get to the centre.

Photo of Kisimul Castle

KISIMUL CASTLE
Kisimul Castle (there are several different spellings) sits on a rocky islet in the bay just off Castlebay. Legend has it that this has been the stronghold of the MacNeils since the 11th century.

With its square keep and curtain wall, Kisimul has a similar design to Dunstaffnage Castle. To withstand sieges, the castle was equipped with two artesian wells to provide water and a fish trap in a catchment basin. A galley used to be berthed alongside on a sloping beach with the crewhouse nearby. At the first sign of trouble, the crew were expected to launch the ship and defend the castle from attack.

The 21st chief had to sell Barra in 1838 and soon the castle was in ruins. Many of the MacNeils went to seek a better life in America. In the late 1930s, the 45th clan chief, American architect Robert Lister Macneil, returned to the island and bought the castle. Before his death in 1970 he succeeded in completing the much-needed restoration work. Water was piped from Castlebay and telephones installed.

His son Ian Roderick, Professor of Law, took over the castle and in 2000 he handed the castle into the care of Historic Scotland on a 1000-year lease with an annual token rent of £1 and a bottle of whisky. This will ensure that conservation work will continue to maintain the castle for generations to come. His son, Roderick Wilson Macneil, is the current Chief of the MacNeils of Barra.

A small boat takes tourists across to the castle during the summer (daily from 1 April to 30 September). Admission charge to the castle includes the boat fare. Tel: 01871 810313 or contact Historic Scotland.

More info can be found on the following sites:
Clan MacNeil Gatherings on Barra.
Clan MacNeil in Canada.

BEN HEAVAL (384 metres)
Hill overlooking Castlebay. The record to run to the top and back in the annual hill race stands at 24 minutes. Halfway up the side is "Our Lady of the Sea", a white marble statue of the Madonna and Child.

VATERSAY
This island just south of Castlebay was linked to Barra by a causeway in 1990. I believe that there is a bus from Castlebay from Monday to Saturday. Sites on this tiny island include:

  • the remains of a Catalina flying boat which crashed near the road during the Second World War,
  • Vatersay Bay, a sandy beach on the eastern side of the island,
  • the monument to victims of a shipwreck which occurred in 1853 when the Annie Jane left Liverpool bound for Quebec with hundreds of emigrants. The ship was swept onto the rocky Vatersay coast and most of the passengers were drowned.

Taking the main road in a clockwise direction from Castlebay on Barra you will see the following places of interest:

MACLEOD'S TOWER - Dun Mhic Leoid (a few miles west of Castlebay)
Also known as Castle Sinclair. Located on an islet in Loch Tangusdale is a medieval tower-house which originally had 3 storeys, measuring 2.9 x 2.6 metres inside, with walls 1.4 metres thick. Nearby is the so-called St. Columba's Well.

BORVE
Small standing stone near the roadside.

CRAIGSTON
Follow the dirt track up to the museum in a thatched cottage. Check opening times before you go though to avoid disappointment as it's a 15 minute walk from where you park your car. The times are usually posted there on a wooden signboard.

DUN BHARPA
A large well-preserved Neolithic chambered burial cairn 2.5 km south of the road (map grid reference NF 671019).

DUN CHUIDHIR (or Dun Cuier)
Before the turn to Grean and Cleit, on a low hill close to the road, are the well-preserved remains of an Iron Age broch (map grid reference NF 664034).

GREAN
Nine-hole golf course with electrified fencing around the holes to keep the sheep away. Tickets available from hotels or the Tourist Information Centre in Castlebay.

QUEEN VICTORIA'S ROCK
Just outside Northbay. When viewed at the correct angle, resembles the monarch's distinctive profile. Overlooks a reservoir.

NORTHBAY
Start of the road leading up the Eoligarry peninsula. In the 1970s a fish processing plant was built at Ardveenish and this now includes a small shop selling fresh fish. You'll find a public telephone just before you get to Cockle Strand.

BUAILE NAM BODACH
Old village of 5 or 6 former dwelling houses on the shore of Loch na Obbe, near Bodach (just east of Northbay and south of the road end at Bruernish). Its Gaelic name means 'Meeting place of the old men'. The Buaile nam Bodach Preservation Society was set up in January 1999 to raise funds for archaeological research on the site. It is thought that there may also be a buried Viking village in the same area.

COCKLE STRAND (Eoligarry peninsula)
Huge tidal beach which serves as the island's airstrip for regular flights from Glasgow and Benbecula. Unique in this country as being the only runway washed by the sea. Refreshments can be bought in the small airport terminal building. Toilets also available. The islanders go out collecting cockles from the wet sand.

Photo of Cockle Strand Photo of Cockle Strand Photo of Cockle Strand

"Suidheachan", a huge white bungalow overlooking Cockle Strand was built for famous author Compton Mackenzie in 1935. The house used to belong to Harold and Brenda Couzens who did B&B and ran a small harling business. When they retired the house was bought in October 1996 by Sir Compton's great nephew, Alan Mackenzie Howard (an actor), and his partner Sally Beauman (a writer).

If you cut across the grass opposite the airport building and head into the dunes to the rear of "Suidheachan", you will come to a wonderful beach called Traigh Eais which looks westwards out across the Atlantic ocean. Over a mile long, at times it is often deserted. This photo, taken from Dun Scurrival, shows Traigh Eais on the right and part of Cockle Strand on the left. Photo of Traigh Eais from Dun Scurrival

COMPTON MACKENZIE'S GRAVE
The novelist's very plain grave (a simple cross) can be found in Cille Bharra cemetery which is situated a little way up the hillside overlooking Eoligarry jetty. Two 12th-century chapels stand in the middle, one lays in ruins, whilst the other has been restored to house carved stones and a sort of Catholic shrine.

EOLIGARRY
Jetty from which ferries used to sail over to Ludag on South Uist and the island of Eriskay.

DUN SCURRIVAL
Climb this hill on a clear day for panoramic views of the sea, beaches and islands.

Photo from Dun Scurrival overlooking Eoligarry, Eriskay and South Uist

Mingulay
Mingulay

MINGULAY & BARRA HEAD
The uninhabited islands of Mingulay, Berneray and Pabbay (also known as the Bishop's Isles) sit at the southern most tip of the Western Isles chain. There are high cliffs and huge seabird colonies. The islands (now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland) were evacuated in 1912 and the ruins of croft houses can still be seen. Built by Robert Stevenson, the Barra Head lighthouse on Berneray was completed in 1833. The light was automated in 1980 and the keepers' accommodation is now partially derelict (care should be taken inside).
Visiting these islands is very much weather dependent. Small boats go out from Barra (such as Barra Fishing Charters) and the occasional cruise ship will visit in the summer months. There is a small slipway on Berneray but the usual place to land on Mingulay is on the beach (where there is a seal colony). In summer time you can see beautiful carpets of wild flowers.

Barra Head
Barra Head cliffs
Mingulay
Mingulay
Barra Head lighthouse
Barra Head lighthouse
Mingulay
Mingulay

Accommodation

There are hotels, B&B and self-catering accommodation on the island. For listings, visit:

Miscellaneous list of B&Bs:

  • Mrs. M. S. MacNeil, Ceol Mara, Nask (near Castlebay). Tel: 01871 810294. Modern bungalow overlooking Castlebay. Panoramic views to Minch and islands. Large comfortable lounge. Rooms: 2 twin and 1 double (all ensuite).
  • Mrs. Linda Maclean, Tigh Na Mara, Castlebay. Tel: 01871 810 304. 3 star guest house. 2 minutes walk from ferry. 5 bedrooms (single, double, twin). B&B or room only.

There are 4 hotels on the island:

  • Castlebay Hotel. 3 stars. Tel: 01871 810 223.
  • Craigard Hotel in Castlebay. Tel: 01871 810 200. 3 stars. Rooms: 3 double, 3 twin, 1 family (all ensuite). Open all year.
  • Heathbank Hotel - a 3 star inn with 5 ensuite bedrooms at Northbay. Tel: 01871 890266.
  • Isle of Barra Hotel, Tangasdale Beach. 30 rooms. Large modern building, family run, good food, nice location on the west coast of the island overlooking a beach near the main road. Tel 01871 810383.

Several self-catering places are available on the island. These include:

  • 11 Ardveenish has 2 bedrooms (1 double, 1 twin) and sleeps up to 4. Situated by the shore at Northbay.
  • Mingulay Cottage at Bruernish in the north-east of Barra sleeps up to 6 people.

Dunard Hostel offers accommodation in Castlebay 5 minutes walk from the ferry and shops. 4-star, family run hostel with 16 beds. Sea kayaking trips can be organised. Contact Chris & Kate. Tel/Fax: 01871 810 443.

Where to eat

All the hotels on the island serve meals. Cafe Kismul in the High Street (Castlebay) is open during the day as a cafe and opens at night as a restaurant. The Heritage Centre in Castlebay has a restaurant too. Tartan Tables (opposite Castlebay Secondary School) is a great wee place.

Tourist Information Centres

Castlebay, Isle of Barra (telephone: 01871 810336) - open from Easter to October only.

Open all year is the main office in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis
(telephone: 01851 703088 / fax: 01851 705244).

Books

Uists and Barra
Lovely colour guide with over 100 pages of photos devoted to these islands. Covers local heritage and culture, nature, the landscape, places to visit, etc. Written by Francis Thompson. Even if you don't get chance to buy it before you go, you will certainly want a copy for a souvenir when you have visited!
Available from Amazon.co.uk
Tales from Barra
The only book available detailing the history and folk traditions of Barra.
Foreword by Compton Mackenzie. Introduction and notes by John Lorne Campbell.
The tales and stories of John MacPherson - The Coddy - were an instant success on their first publication, and they have been in constant demand ever since. The Coddy was one of the best storytellers and characters of the Western Isles, and he is the inspiration for Whisky Galore. His warmth and personality shine through these stories, which are a wonderful mix of myth, tradition and anecdote.
Available from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Polly
If you are interested in the story of the the SS Politician which ran aground off Eriskay with a quarter of a million bottles of whisky onboard (this real-life wartime event inspired the Whisky Galore book/movie), then I recommend this book written by Roger Hutchinson in 1998.
Using eyewitness accounts, historical papers and official documents, this book tells the story of the SS Politician and the circus that surrounded her, from islanders in small skiffs to wartime excise officers and the final solution to the problem of the vessel affectionately known as the 'Polly'.
Available from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
The Ancient Monuments of the Western Isles
This is an excellent visitors' guide to the main historic sites and monuments on the islands. Very readable, lots of photos and drawings. The book takes you from the prehistoric, through the early Christian period and Norse settlement, to the building of medieval churches and castles, and later traditional dwellings such as the blackhouses. Includes details about Kisimul Castle and a drawing of its floorplan.
Available from Amazon UK


Book cover copyright kea publishing
Times subject to tides: the story of Barra Airport
(ISBN 0951895834). Published in 2000.
Orders can be placed directly with the publisher: kea publishing or via Amazon UK
The book 'tells the story of this unique airport which disappears under the sea twice every day. It looks at the aircraft which have graced the broad sands of the Traigh Mhor, the personalities whose names have become indelibly linked with the island's air services, and at some of the drama which has inevitably become an accepted feature on certain occasions, not least of which are emergency air ambulance evacuations of seriously ill or injured islanders'.

Other Hebridean islands:
The Uists - Isle of Harris - Isle of Lewis - Isle of Skye

Links to external sites:


Isle of Barra
Explore Barra
Wikipedia - Barra
Photos of Barra by Colin Palmer
Isle of Barra Distillery

Eriskay - local council web site
Photos of Eriskay by Colin Palmer

An archived copy of the former Virtual Hebrides site

www.VisitHebrides.com
Cycle routes in the Hebrides
Outer Hebrides Biological Recording Project
Curracag: Outer Hebrides Natural History Society

James Smith - photos
Charles Tait - photos/postcards/calendars

Bill Lawson: Genealogy & Books to buy plus online archive at hebridespeople.com
for family tree research in the Western Isles

Uist Archaeology