We seldom get enquiries about visiting Barra. I guess most people look at a map and see a tiny island (just 23 square miles in area), and wonder whether it’s worth the 5-hour boat trip from Oban.
So is Barra worth a visit?
We would say “Yes”. But with the caveat that it’s not something you should consider if you are on a first-time visit to Scotland, unless you have several weeks' holiday. I say this because getting to/from Barra will take you a full day and there are other islands that are easier to access if your time in Scotland is limited.
The remoteness of Barra is what makes it special. This is an island that hasn’t been spoilt by an influx of “white settlers”. It is still an authentic Island community. Everyone seems to know each other, and with only ~1,200 inhabitants, there’s a good chance they do.
We loved the sense of community and the friendliness of the islanders. For example, Barra is the only place I’ve been where a complete stranger has doffed his cap to me in greeting.
So, if we’ve interested you in the idea of a visit to Barra, here are some tips that will help you make the most of your stay.
Barra is located at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides, so if you are going to this island it makes sense to combine it with a tour of some of the other Western Isles. It’s logical to combine Barra with a visit to South / North Uist, and 7 - 8 days shared between these islands would give you a relaxed trip with enough time to explore their many attractions.
When we visited this August, we spent 4 nights on Barra, and 4 nights on South Uist (I’ll tell you about South Uist in my next Blog). This gave us enough time to cover everything we’d wanted to see, but the weather was kind to us so were able to use every day to the maximum.
We would recommend that you stay at least 3 days. If you are into watersports or sea angling, then you could keep yourselves active here for a week. But we reckon 4 nights is the optimum length. Long enough to get a feel for the island, whilst still leaving you with a desire to return.
The following are all possible to fit into a 4-night stay on Barra. Actually, we did even more than this, but I don’t want to bore you by listing all the things we did.
When I think of Barra, 2 images immediately come to mind. The planes coming into land on the beach at Traigh Mhor, and the view of Kisimul Castle as the Oban ferry arrives in Castlebay, which is Barra’s main township.
Kisimul is a very distinctive castle which, like Eilean Donan and Castle Stalker, stands on a little island just a short distance offshore from Castlebay. You could, if you were keen, swim out to the castle, but you don’t need to get wet as there is a boat that ferries visitors to and fro. The crossing only takes 3 - 4 mins, but on the return leg, the boat does a 360 of the island so you can get a closer look from the outside.
Unfortunately, we were unable to visit Kisimul Castle during this trip as the building is undergoing restoration work and is currently closed. Although interior access wasn’t possible, some people were taking advantage of the Kayak hire in Castlebay, and paddled out to the island for a closer look.
The castle dates from the 1400s and was home to the Chiefs of the MacNeil Clan. The oldest part of the castle is the square 3-storey tower house. There then followed a Curtain wall which encircles a courtyard within which several other buildings stand.
Like Eilean Donan and Castle Stalker, Kisimul was in a ruinous and roofless state until being restored in the 1900s. The restoration work was conducted by an American, Robert Lister MacNeil who had inherited the title of the 45th Chief of Clan MacNeil. What he hadn’t inherited was the Clan seat (bankruptcy forced a previous Chieftain to sell the castle in 1839), so in 1937 he brought it back into Clan MacNeil ownership.
Fortunately, Robert was also an architect with an understanding of the heritage of the building. Over several decades, he managed to restore the castle with the intention that it should be a focal point for members of the Clan MacNeil. The castle is now leased to Historic Scotland for the modest sum of £1 and a bottle of whisky per annum.
There’s one place on this island that every visitor will stop to take a picture at, and that’s the gate that leads down to the white sands of Vatersay Bay.
It’s amazing how such a simple thing as a gate in a sand dune has become so symbolic of an Island. It makes me wonder how many other beaches could become social media phenomena if they stuck an old gate on them.
This gate and the beach it leads to are very photogenic, but there is more to Vatersay than this and we’d encourage you to leave the tourist crowd behind and take a walk around the island to explore some of its other beaches and great viewpoints.
At this point, I should clarify that Vatersay is not a part of Barra, but is an island in its own right. Fortunately, the island is now linked to Barra by a 250-metre long causeway that was built in 1991. It’s amazing that the islanders had to wait so long to get such a short causeway built, but that’s the downside of living far away from the people who control the money in London.
So apart from the beach at Vatersay Bay, what else is there to see here?
Our first recommendation is to explore Traigh Siar (the West Beach) which is just behind, or in front depending on how you look at things, Vatersay Bay. The 2 beaches straddle a narrow isthmus of land but the character of the beaches is very different.
Vatersay Bay faces to the east which means it is sheltered from the wind and waves that blow in from the North Atlantic. It’s a safe beach to swim in and it’s the beach that the tourists congregate on.
Traigh Siar is just 300 metres away but it bears the brunt of the North Atlantic and has signs posted around it to warn you about the “Strong Undercurrents”. Consequently, you will often find this beach devoid of visitors because everyone flocks to the other side.
The beauty of Traigh Siar is the colour of the waters. You can really appreciate this by walking along the rocky southern shoreline as this gives you elevated vantage points to look down into seas of Caribbean hues of turquoise and blue.
From Traigh Siar, we followed a walking route, through fields abundant with wildflowers, that took us on a loop of the south island via Bagh a Deas (South Bay). The route is marked by posts, but they are spaced at irregular intervals, and spotting the next one to aim for can be a challenge. Along the trail, you can visit a small and rather unimpressive standing stone, meet the resident cows on Bagh a Deas Beach, and explore the sad remains of the abandoned crofting community of Eorasdail.
We completed the trail in under 2 hours, which gave us enough time to get coffee and cake at Vatersay Community Hall (one of the few places that opens on Barra on a Sunday) before heading to the beach for a swim. The waters were surprisingly warm, but I’m Scottish and my idea of warm seas is maybe different from yours.
Another great beach on Vatersay for safe swimming can be found at the Uidh. Just follow the Uidh road to its end and there is a small car park just before a sheltered beach that faces north towards Castlebay with a distant view of Kisimul Castle.
Barra’s claim to fame is that it is the only place in the world that has a scheduled flight that lands on a beach. We’ve never flown to Barra, but we have friends who have done this trip purely for the thrill of landing on the beach.
But you don’t need to be on the plane to enjoy this spectacle. Traigh Mhor (Big Beach) is, as the name explains, a very big area of sand when the tide is out. So, there are lots of places around the shore where you can stand to watch the arrival and departure of the little LoganAir prop planes. For the plane geeks (of which I’m one) it's a DHC6 Twin Otter.
The schedule of arrival/departures changes slightly with the tide times so you need to check these before you go. You also need to watch out for the hoisting of Red Windsocks around the beach which warn you to keep off the sands as a plane is imminent.
Watching the planes land on the beach was the highlight of the trip for our 12-year-old son.
After watching the planes, we recommend that you continue on the road around Traigh Mhor to get to the stunning beach of Traigh Sgurabhal just north of Eoligarry.
This beach has a vast area of sparklingly bright white sand. It is literally blinding when the sun comes out, so be sure to take your sunglasses.
But this beach is beautiful no matter what the weather is doing. In fact, I think the magic of the place is magnified by forbidding grey skies.
Whilst in the Eoligarry area, it is worth taking the time to visit the ruins of Cille Bharra chapel and its cemetery, which is the ancient burial ground of Clan MacNeil. A church has been here since medieval times and it is linked with a 6th century Irish Bishop called Finnbarr. The Finnbarr connection is said to be the reason why Barra is so named.
I found the graveyard to be a very moving place and I’d encourage you to pause here and contemplate. If you have time, try to find the grave of Compton Mackenzie who wrote the much-loved book “Whisky Galore”. It’s very fitting that his last resting place looks across the sea to Eriskay and the resting place of the shipwreck that inspired his book. It’s a very simple gravestone, just a granite cross with his name. No mention of his literary fame.
Here’s a curious true story about Compton’s funeral. When Compton’s body was returned to Barra for the burial, his good friend Calum Johnston piped a lament whilst the coffin was being carried from the plane. Calum then collapsed and died at the cemetery as Compton was being buried.
If you feel the need to burn some calories and also want to get a great viewpoint, you have to climb to Barra’s highest point, the summit of Heaval. It’s not going to take you too long as it’s only 383 metres. Starting from the waterfront of Castlebay, you can be up and down in 2 hours.
On the way up to the summit, you’ll want to deviate a little bit from the direct line to the top in order to get up close to the statue known as “Our Lady of the Sea”. In this part of the Outer Hebrides, Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion. As you drive around Barra you’ll see churches with wonderful names like; “Our Lady of the Waves” and “Our Lady Star of the Sea”.
When you reach the statue, you might be a little bit disappointed that it’s not as big as you might be expecting it to be. However, it is made from marble and we salute the dedication and fitness of the people that managed to carry it so far up the hill.
Pressing on, it’s only a short distance uphill from the statue to the summit where you can do a 360 and take in the whole island.
Another hike, but where Heaval is short and sharp, this trail climbs at a gentler pace and takes you through several millennia of civilization on Barra.
Starting from the large cemetery at Allasdale, you follow an indistinct path that is randomly punctuated with numbered posts. After our visit to Skye in March, where paths were churned to mud by the heavy footfall, it was a real pleasure to be on a trail where there was so little evidence of tourism impacting the land.
Soon after starting the hike, you come to the remains of Dun Cuithir broch. As brochs go, this appears to have been quite a modest-sized one, and the remaining sections of the lower wall aren’t very impressive. But the sheep clearly appreciate the shelter that it provides, so watch where you’re stepping.
After the broch, the path becomes a bit vague as several of the waymarking posts have fallen over and we wandered around chasing fence posts until Junior’s sharp eyes managed to identify a post on the horizon. Back on the right route, you pass several old black houses and it’s still possible to distinguish the areas where they cultivated the land for crops.
If you follow the numbered posts in sequence, the path takes you up through some marshy ground to the remains of an Iron Age farmhouse called “Tigh Talamhanta”. To my uneducated eyes, it was just a pile of stones, but I’m told it’s an example of an “Aisled Farmhouse”. Looking at the boggy ground around the site made me wonder how different the climate must have been in the Iron Age as the current landscape seemed unsuited to any sort of arable farming.
But the main attraction of this hike is Dun Bharpa, a large Bronze Age burial cairn located high in the hills at the Bealach (pass) between the peaks of Beinn Mhartainn and Grianan. I’ve visited lots of burial cairns in my time, but I can’t think of many that are located in quite such a difficult spot to get to. Again, I found myself wondering how different the landscape & climate must have been in Bronze Age times for this to be considered the best location to bury the most important people in your society.
It is a genuinely impressive burial cairn and is much larger than I expected. On its southern side, there are 2 large uprights stones that would appear to mark the entrance to the tomb, but to the best of my knowledge, Bharpa Dun has never been excavated. I hope some archaeologists will give it some attention as I feel sure it has some interesting stories to tell.
This hike took us about 2 hours 30 minutes and it was quite boggy in places, so you do need proper waterproof hiking boots.
If asked to name my Top 5 Scottish beaches, at least 2 would be on Barra. I’ve already mentioned the vast beach at Eoligarry, and the famous beach at Vatersay Bay, but there’s more than that on Barra, so here are some pics to let you see what we mean.
This is not an exhaustive list of “Foodie” places on Barra, it’s just the best of the places we tried.
Located in Northbay, this is a great example of the community spirit that we mentioned earlier. Gàradh a’ Bhàgh a’ Tuath (which translates as “The Peoples’ Garden of the Bay”) is a charitable project that reinvests its profits back into the community. They have a lovely cafe, and, as you’d guess from the name, an amazingly prolific garden.
Their crops of tomatoes, onions, leeks, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, raspberries, and more, put our efforts at growing vegetables to shame.
You can buy their fresh fruit and veg, or just pop into the attractive cafe and the garden’s produce the easy way. The menu is simple, but good value and you’re helping the community at the same time.
There are not many places on Barra to go for dinner, so it's fortunate that Cafe Kismul is very good. It’s also very popular so you need to pre-book a table, or pre-order your take-away for collection at a certain time. They are incredibly busy!
What you might not be expecting, is that Cafe Kismul is an Indian restaurant. They do wonderful fish curries using locally caught fish, but the curry we enjoyed most was lamb-based (the lamb is also locally sourced). The cafe is located in Castlebay not far from the ferry terminal and, if you sit at an outside table, you can dine with a view of Castle Kisimul.
Barratlantic is a fish processing company and the biggest business on the island. You’ll see their trucks going to and fro shipping quantities of locally caught fish to markets in far-flung places.
Their factory is at the end of the single-track road signposted to Ardveenish (just east of Northbay). They’ve recently opened a shop beside the factory where you can buy fish that is literally the “catch of the day”.
Barra is the perfect place to go if you are of the “Slow Travel” mindset. It’s not an island that you can rush, if you tried to whizz around it in a day or two, you’d miss what makes Barra feel special.
Come here to relax. Don’t make a rigid schedule, because you’ll find beaches here that make you lose your sense of time. Barra is about reconnecting with simple pleasures, like wading barefoot through turquoise seas with soft sand beneath your feet.
It is an island that is about being outdoors, so come prepared for the weather to be wet, or bring some good books to chill with on rainy days. Ideally, bring a copy of “Whisky Galore” and a good bottle of single malt.
Despite its diminutive size, we left knowing we wanted to come back again.