Four days on the Isle of Barra

With barely a dozen houses to the south of me and nothing between me and the Newfoundland shores of Canada, the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland is a wonderful place to escape for a while, or for some, for a lifetime. Some think it strange that, after three and a half months doing a solo hike, I should feel compelled to look for somewhere quiet and away from it all for a few days of reflection and writing, but for me Barra proves to be the perfect destination.

There are several ways to get to Barra, including flying to Barra Airport, celebrating it’s eightieth anniversary this year and the world’s only airport on a sand beach where the flight schedule is set by the tides. The three runways organized in a triangle marked by wooden poles at each end and are under water at high tide. I chose to take the ferry into Stornoway on the northernmost of the Outer Hebrides, the Isle of Lewis and, after an overnight stay there, travel by bus and ferry to Barra. It is my introduction to the island way of life. Buses and ferries were not operating to the published schedule and I finally resorted to a taxi for the last 30 miles down South Uist and Eriskay. Happily though the taxi driver suggested I call Calmac (the ferry company) and tell them I would be a little late and would they hold the ferry. I ran down the ramp and onto the ferry ten minutes after the scheduled departure and we were off. Where else would a ferry load of cars and passengers wait for one late-comer?

Barra consists of a single-track road that loops around the island for 13 miles. I know because I walked it up past spectacular sand beaches along the west coast in glorious sunshine and washed by a gentle breeze off the Atlantic. The smell of sea air, the crunch of sand under the feet, and for me, more than anything else, is the sound of the waves as they rhythmically roll in to end their journey on sand and rocks. At the north-east of the island is a road that heads north both to the airport and to Barratlantic, a fish processing plant and the largest single employer on the island. Sadly no fishing boats come in to Castlebay, the town on the island positioned at the south end over-looking Kisimul Castle. I had had visions of buy fresh fish direct from the fishermen at the pier.

The fishing history here is a central theme of the island. At the turn of the 20th century there were over 600 fishing boats packed into Castlebay and 40 fish processing stations, the remains of most of them still visible today. They would employ curers, coopers and herring girls as well as the fishermen who came from far and wide for the season which only ran in Barra from the beginning of May to the end of June. The “herring girls” were women employed to clean and pack the fish working in teams of three with two gutting and one packing the herring in barrels layered with salt. I wander round the bay and try to see how many of the old curing stations I can count. There are many of them. With fishing came money and so hotels were built and remain today.

On my last full day the sun is shining and I take the small boat the couple of hundred meters over to Kisimul Castle the ancestral home of the Clan MacNeil. The castle is small but despite this, at high tide, it occupies absolutely all of the rocky islet that it is built on. The first written record of the castle was in 1549 and it remained occupied until 1838 when Roderick MacNeil, almost bankrupt due to the collapse of the kelp industry and some say a gambling problem, sold the island to Colonel Gordon of Cluny who evicted most of the islanders to make way for sheep farming.

There is nowhere better to learn the story of Barra than at the Heritage Centre in Castlebay. It occupied me for at least two hours although only taking up two rooms. They have a wealth of photos and some great story-boards on the wall to explain about both the clearances and the herring fishing industry. I head off from there to The Hebridean Toffee Company to console myself after the sadness of the clearances to find that they don’t actually make toffee but tablet. They only call themselves a toffee company for the American market as they tell me Americans think tablet is a type of computer and not something you eat. It is a particularly rich and dark tablet and, I suspect uses quite a lot of dark brown sugar or molasses. It could fast become my favorite.

At the southwest of the island there is a road down to Vatersay a tiny island now connected to Barra by a causeway and home to just a very few people and more beaches to explore. Despite how small the island is there are options that allow you to explore, by foot, by bike or by kayak, by car or by boat there are options to choose from.

After a perfect last day of weather I leave Barra in a gale on Calmac’s “Isle of Lewis” for the five hour trip to Oban.

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2 Responses to “Four days on the Isle of Barra

  • Paula McLachlan
    1 year ago

    Hi Andrew,

    We love the photo’s accompanying your travelogue! I particularly liked the “passing place” sign…. as if there’s a lot of traffic!

    A very scenic place with beautiful beaches and landscapes. It would seem that you were very lucky to have such fine weather while in Barra.

    Paula and Bruce

  • This was a lovely blog, and one which took me back to our time on Barra in the campervan when Hannah and Catherine were young

    Sue x

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