Think of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland and the mind automatically draws a picture of mysterious barren islands steeped in Gaelic lore. It is that and more.
ecluded and populated with self-sufficient and friendly people who appreciate the terms family, home and community, the isle of Barra is a perfect place for a quiet, out-of-doors getaway between land and sea. On an island essentially bereft of trees, slightly more than a thousand people live a life closely attuned to the sea and the seasons.
Barra is a place of stark beauty where rough rocky hills drop right to the sea. The green of grasses and low brush contrasts sharply with the rough glacially worn tans and grays of the island’s higher places. The sea pounds at the edges and Atlantic winds sweep across this southernmost (except for little Vatersay Island connected to it by a causeway) of the Outer Hebrides.
4000 Years of History
Some recent excavations of the island indicate that it has been populated for more than 4,000 years. The Irish made their mark here, as they did throughout the Hebrides. Celtic monks, “saints” and settlers came here from Ireland, staying to create the strong Gaelic language and customs that still persist here. Indeed, it is said that Saint Brendan landed here in the sixth century while on his voyage of discovery to America.
This is the island lair of the Clan MacNeil, which was granted the island in 1427. The seat of the MacNeil clan is Kisimul Castle, rising directly from the waters of Castlebay, the island’s chief town and its main port. A small boat from the town pier, across from the Post Office, brings visitors to explore the castle, but on its own schedule. Although the castle sits on a tiny island (which it almost completely covers) in the sea at the head of the harbor, it has its own fresh water supply and is thought to sit on the site of a prehistoric fort. Although its origins are unknown it likely originates from the 10th century. At sunset it seems to glow as if its stone walls were aflame.
Castlebay Is Bara’s Main Town
Castlebay rises from its harbor in rows of a few dozen buildings that ascend the hillside, and is topped by the granite St. Brendan’s Church, its square steeple confirming the island’s long Catholic heritage. The Castlebay Hotel and Craigard Bar welcome travelers from their hillside perch, and locals share the picnic tables in front of the Kisimul Café on Pier Road with tourists. A small information center is just off Pier Road, a few hundred feet from the ferry pier.
To explore the island, head west out of town along route A888, also known as The Square, so named because runs along the outer perimeter of the island forming — a square. The trip around the square is about twelve miles, circling the highest peaks on the island, Ben Heaval (1,200 feet) and Ben Tangaval (1,100 feet). Leaving town visitors pass by the Dualchas, the Barra Heritage Centre. Just beyond, watch for the touching memorial to the island war dead.
A short distance up the road is the Barra distillery, makers of a single malt whiskey of note. Just beyond lies the first of the great west shore beaches, Tanglesdale Beach with acres of white sand. Nearby, The Isle of Barra Hotel has a good dining room. White sand beaches lie all along this coast until The Square turns east. Golfers looking to play the most westerly course in the British Isles should follow the road to the left, shortly after passing the Barra Church of Scotland.
Barra’s Airport Runway on the Beach
Further along on The Square a left turn leads to Barra Airport. The airport is at Traigh Mor, a huge white-sand beach where regularly scheduled airplanes land at low tide, a fascinating process to watch. The beach is available, except during landings, but across the street a trail leads to another beach of stunning white sand hundreds of yards long and backed by dunes.
Beyond the airport, the Church of Cille Bharra (St Barr’s Church) is an excellent example of very early ecclesiastical settlement, dating from early medieval times and possibly earlier. A cemetery surrounds the ruins of one ancient church and another one that has been restored. Inside the ruined chapel are burials and the whole complex is surrounded by other graves, ancient and modern. Inside the intact North Chapel look for medieval Celtic crosses.
The Rare Machair Ecosystem
The Square continues south along the craggy east coast of the island ending where it began, at Castlebay. All along the sides of the highway, especially along the west shore, lie the machair, a fertile ecosystem of marsh, grasslands and fens composted of windblown seashell sands lying along a low coastal plain. This is one of the rarest ecosystems in Europe. Peppered about are small crofter cottages and houses of the families that farm these delicate lands. The green and cozy machair provides a startling contrast to the rocky central highlands, which are barren of all vegetation.
How to get to Barra
Access to Barra is via the Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries from Oban and from Lochboisdale on South Uist. This ferry system makes it possible to drive the length of the Outer Hebrides from Castlebay to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. Flights are also available from Glasgow and the Island of Benbecula. Along with the ferries, the five-star boutique cruise ship Hebridean Princess calls here on many of its itineraries out of Oban and passengers receive a tour of the Square, airport and Cille Bharra. While a car can be brought over on the ferry from Oban, the island is small enough that it can be easily seen from the seat of a bicycle which, along with kayaks, can be rented on the island.