Barra (Gaelic: Barraigh) is an island in the Outer Hebrides or Western Isles of Scotland. The main village is the ferry port, Castlebay. A causeway links Barra to the island of Vatersay, and further south are the uninhabited islands of Pabbay, Sandray, Mingulay and Berneray.
The resident population is about 1,100; two-thirds of them speak Gaelic but everyone speaks English.
Barra is predominately Catholic, so there are fewer restrictions on Sunday activities (e.g. shop opening) than on the islands further north. There are also some wayside shrines, unusual for Scotland.
Castlebay gets its name because Kisimul Castle, the seat of Clan MacNeil, sits on a rock out in the bay. (And Kisimul in turn is from Gaelic ciosamul meaning "castle island", so it's all very logical.) A Clan McNeil gathering takes place on Barra every two years, reuniting their diaspora from across the world.
It's either a short flight or a long ferry crossing.
Daily flights from Glasgow take just over an hour. Flights are operated by Loganair using Twin Otters, with a 15 kg limit for checked luggage on this route. Flight timetables vary with the tide as Barra's runway is the beach, believed to be the only place in the world where scheduled flights use a beach runway.
- 1 Barra Airport (BRR IATA), Northbay HS9 5YD. Small modern terminal building with toilets and a cafe, and it's reassuring that "Traigh Mhor", the runway area, translates as big beach. The round-the-island bus W32 runs to the airport three times a day routinely plus an extra late afternoon run on request. To Castlebay it takes 20 min, fare £2, local taxis also available. Car hire available (see "Get around") but do pre-book, they have few vehicles. Private aircraft are welcome with prior permission.
- The Oban-Castlebay ferry takes 5 hours daily April-Oct, plus an extra Wednesday sailing via Coll and Tiree. Nov-March there's no Thursday or Saturday sailing or link to Coll or Tiree. Return fares are £143 per car plus £31 per adult including the driver (valid for 2020). Trains and buses from Glasgow connect with the ferries at Oban, so you can travel all the way in one day.
- 2 Castlebay ferry terminal, Castlebay HS9 5XD. M-F 07:00-17:00, Sa 07:00-15:00, Su 07:00-13:00. Open for all sailings, it's the small white-washed low building by the pier. With toilets and Wifi. 400 yards to shops and ATM. Free parking.
- Six miles north of Barra, Eriskay is a small island linked by causeway to South Uist, and this is nowadays the route to the main chain of the Western Isles. A ferry runs from 3 Aird Mhor on the north coast of Barra to Eriskay. This sails daily year-round, with up to 5 ferries per day, taking 40 minutes, return fare £22 per car and £6.50 per adult including the driver (valid for 2020). A bus may connect on Barra between Castlebay and Aird Mhor, and on Eriskay a bus may connect all the way north via Lochboisedale, Benbecula and North Uist, with another ferry crossing to Harris. So by this Western Isles Overland Route you can travel within a day between Barra and Stornoway on Lewis. The traditional ferry route from Castlebay to Lochboisdale no longer sails.
Cruise ships sometimes visit Barra, e.g. the Hebridean Princess. Castlebay has 12 visitor moorings for yachts and other small craft.
Castlebay is a small walkable place, though you need a boat ride to reach the castle. The whole island is about ten miles long by six miles wide, with its sights and settlements strung along the 13 mile loop of the coastal "main road" A888. (This is basically just a lane, but well-paved). So you'll also need bike, bus, car-hire or taxi.
- Bike hire is £16 for one day, then £10 a day.
- Buses run Mon-Sat, with a single fare of £1-£3.
- Bus W32 circles the island either clockwise (north from Castlebay via Borve on the west coast) or anti-clockwise (via Brevig on the east coast) to Northbay. Here it takes the side lane north to Ardmhor (for ferries to Eriskay), the airport, and Eoligarry; then it retraces its route to Northbay and completes the circuit to Castlebay. There are four regular buses 07:00-13:30 plus occasional extras.
- Bus W33 runs south from Castlebay across the causeway onto Vatersay, where it serves Caolas, the Uidh promontery, and the main settlement of Vatersay to the south. Just two buses, at 09:30 and noon, a third in school holidays, and you need to book.
- And see Western Isles Overland Route for connections by bus and ferry to Eriskay and all the way up the chain of islands to the north tip of Lewis.
- Arrange car hire through Barra Car Hire on 01871 890 313 (for on-island hire only) or Car Hire Hebrides on 01870 603 228 (they'll do off-island and one way hire across the Western Isles.)
- Campbell Taxis, 60 Tangasdale, HS9 5XW, ☏ .
- Barra Taxi, Garrygall, HS9 5UH, ☏ .
- Dans Taxi +44 1871 810497
- Barra Island Tours +44 1871 810255
- 1 Kisimul Castle, Castlebay HS9 5UZ (five minute boat trip from Kisimul), ☏ . April-Sept daily 09:30-17:30, last outbound boat 16:30. Closed Oct-March. Small castle, reached by a 5-min boat ride from Castlebay, weather permitting. Built in late 15th century and showing its age, with the Great Hall closed for restoration. Wisely, the Clan Chief lives in Edinburgh. Adult £6, Child £3.60, Concession £4.80.
- 2 Barra Heritage Centre (Dualchas), Castlebay HS9 5XD (near community school), ☏ . Apr-Oct Tu-F 11:00-16:00, Sa 10:00-14:00, but opening erratic. Local history exhibition. Adults £3, Concession £2, Children £1.
- Overlooking the ferry port, note the 19th C "Our Lady, Star of the Sea" RC church. Masses are held here Sat & Sun mornings, and at various times around the island.
- Along the west coast, 3 Tangasdale is the best beach. The medieval ruin on the islet out on the bay is "McLeod's Tower" or "Sinclair Castle". There's a small standing stone near the roadside at Borve, and the Neolithic chambered burial cairn of Dun Bharpa in the hills above. On the hill just south of the turnoff for the golf-course is Dun Chuidhir Iron Age broch. On Grean Head to the north, Atlantic breakers pound against the cliffs.
- A mile east along the main road from Castlebay towards Breivig is the start of the footpath up Heaval, see "Do". All along the more sheltered 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.
- At 4 Northbay a side lane branches north. Local artist Margaret Somerville has created a statue of St Barr, the island's saint, in the little bay here, as well as the shell pictures of seabirds and fish dotted around the island. The north end of Barra offers a vista of nearby uninhabited islands, as well as Eriskay and the Stack Isles, Ben More in South Uist, and on a clear day Benbecula and North Uist.
- The lane continues north past the airport (toilets and cafe here) towards Eoligarry - a siren sounds when an aircraft's approaching and you need to get clear of the beach. This would be a really bad time for the dog to go hurtling after the seagulls.
- 5 Chapel of Cille Bharra, Eoligarry. 3 or 4 chapels here, notably the 16th-century burial chapel, restored in the 1970s. This contains a replica of a stone with Viking runes and Celtic design, commemorating the Christian burial of the Viking princess Thorgeth, Steinar's daughter. The original stone is in the National Museum in Edinburgh. The "main" chapel adjacent is now a ruin, the third chapel is a scrappy ruin, and the fourth has been obliterated. In the graveyard under a simple cross lies Sir Compton MacKenzie, whose best-loved work Whisky Galore was inspired by the running aground of the whisky-laden ship "The Politician" nearby in 1941. Free.
- From Castlebay a lane branches south, to cross a causeway to 6 Vatersay. This island has very fine beaches, and usually the best surfing and wind-surfing. Note the memorial to "Annie Jane", a ship from Liverpool taking emigrants to Montreal, wrecked in West Bay in 1853 with the loss of 350 lives. A number of Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age remains are found on Vatersay, while offshore to the west is the inaccessible 236-foot stack of Biruaslum - with, incredibly, a prehistoric fort.
- Walk: no end of fine walks along deserted beaches.
- Climb 1 Heaval. It's a short sharp ascent from the main road up the ridge to the summit at 384 m (1,260 ft). The record for racing up it and back stands at 24 min, but most folk take 40 min each way. Two thirds of the way up is a statue of the Madonna and Child overlooking Castlebay. The view from the top takes in Mingulay and Barra Head lighthouse to the south; you might even see the hills of Ireland.
- 2 Barra Golf Club, Cleat, HS9 5XX (north end of the island). Nine-hole course, the most westerly golf course in Scotland.
- 3 Sea kayaking. Includes point to point kayak tours around the Hebrides, wild camping overnight.
- Boat trips run in calm weather to the uninhabited islands just south. The most spectacular is Mingulay, with its vast cliffs, and a tumult of sea-birds wheeling over the waters.
- Castlebay Community School has a swimming pool, a fitness suite, and a library with internet facilities.
- Barrathon: The island's thirteen miles of main road make nicely for a half-marathon circuit, and the "Barrathon" is held at the end of June. To date they've not organised a double-circuit full marathon but there's nothing holding you back.
- MacNeil Clan Gathering: If you are a MacNeil then you are most welcome at the Clan Gathering, held in even years, the next being 8-15 Aug 2022. Its events are mostly held in Castlebay Community Hall.
- Castlebay has ATMs and a filling station.
- 1 Co-op, Castlebay, HS9 5XD (South side of the bay, near the school), ☏ . M-Sa 07:00-22:00; Su 12:30-22:00.
- 2 Grocer, Main Street, Castlebay. sells newspapers.
- 3 Hardware store, in Castlebay.
- The local newspaper is Guth Bharraigh, which will tell you what's on.
- Buth Bharraigh is a local produce hub, at Unit 2, Castlebay Industrial Estate (M-Sa 10:00-18:00, Su 12:00-16:00).
- 4 Hebridean Toffee, Castlebay HS9 5XD (turn first left after leaving ferry), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Apr-Oct: M-Th 09:00-17:00, F Sa 09:00-19:00, Su 12:00-16:00, Nov-Mar: Th 09:00-17:00, F Sa 09:00-19:00. Scottish tablet made and sold here, with toffee and other local quality crafts and gifts sold all year round.
- For a quick snack there are cafés in Castlebay, and the village halls in Vatersay and Northbay offer coffees, teas, home baking and gifts.
- The Deck (Outside the Toffee shop), Castlebay, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Apr-Oct: M-Th 09:00-17:00, F Sa 09:00-19:00, Su 12:00-16:00; Nov-Mar: Th 09:00-17:00, F Sa 09:00-19:00. Good local food and drink and fresh home baking outside on the Deck: al fresco if warm, all freezo otherwise.
- Dualchas Café, in the Heritage Centre, Castlebay. daytime only.
- Cafe Kisimul, Castlebay (by the harbour), ☏ , . M-Sa 10:00-22:00, Su 17:00-21:00. Offers Italian, Indian, traditional Hebridean and vegetarian options. Great staff with a trattoria-like atmosphere. Only about 6 indoor tables. It is advisable to book at weekends and in high season.
All the hotels on the island offer dining to non-residents. Fresh local fish and shellfish are always a good pick.
- Isle of Barra Beach Hotel, Tangasdale Beach. Dinner 18:00-20:45. Restaurant with fine ocean views.
- Castlebay Hotel. Daily 12:00-14:00 & 18:00-20:30 (to 21:30 May-Sept). The food is reasonable value and quality especially the seafood. Friendly service. Mains £13-20.
- Craigard Hotel, Castlebay. Daily 12:30-14:00 & 17:30-21:00. Mostly sea-food. Occasional live bands and big screen football matches.
- Heathbank Hotel, Northbay. April-Sept: snacks from 13:00, main menu 17:00-20:00. Mainly seafood.
- 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, Castlebay.
- Halaman Bar, Isle of Barra Beach Hotel. (a few km out of Castlebay). Architect designed, it looks really posh. Great place to watch the sunset. Large car park.
- Isle of Barra Distillers in Castlebay make gin, and they intend to produce whisky eventually. No tours.
Be ready to book your accommodation as soon as you book your transport, and vice versa. Both have limited capacity. This applies at any time of year: summer is busy, but in winter places shut down.
All the accommodation is small and family-owned. It's not always listed on the tourist board website, as there are charges and hassles to do so.
- Camping: There are designated campsites (which take tourer caravans) at Borve on the west coast, Balnabodach on the east coast, and two at Eoiligarry at the north tip.
- 1 Dunard Hostel, Castlebay, ☏ . A 16-bed hostel which caters for families and solo travellers. Close to the ferry pier. Bunk £20, twin room £45.
- Tigh-Na-Mara Guest House, Castlebay HS9 5XD, ☏ . B&B open April-Oct. Doubles £80.
- 2 Castlebay Hotel, ☏ . It's a few minutes walk from the ferry. Website also has general info on the island. from £60.
- 3 Craigard Hotel, Castlebay HS9 5XD (overlooking ferry pier), ☏ . Check-in: 14:00, check-out: 10:30. Friendly small hotel with restaurant. B&B double from £60.
- 4 Isle of Barra Beach Hotel (on the west coast, about 2 miles from Castlebay.), ☏ . Open May-Sept. In a lovely location next to Tangasdale Beach, 2 night minimum stay.
Beware that Google map shows a duplicate of this hotel away up a rocky hill on Vatersay. No, nothing here but sheep.
- 5 Heathbank Hotel, Northbay (on the east coast 6 miles from Castlebay). Small hotel with bar and restaurant. Closes during October, otherwise year-round. from £75.
- Self-catering: At least two dozen places dotted around, including on Vatersay. They're mostly cottages plus a few static caravans, and generally let from Saturday to Saturday.
As of July 2021, there is no mobile signal on Barra from any UK carrier; the residents are fed up complaining. Your accommodation may have Wifi.
- Back to the mainland by ferry to Oban, which has trains and buses to Glasgow, and ferries to the more southern Hebrides.
- North lies the chain of Western Isles linked by ferries and buses. The early bus goes all the way, so in a single day you can reach Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula (for flights to Glasgow), North Uist (for ferries to Skye), Harris and finally Stornoway on Lewis, for ferries to Ullapool and flights to Glagow and Edinburgh.
- South the islands are more separated, and you may prefer to backtrack via Oban, but at least one ferry per week in summer is direct to Colonsay, Islay and Kennacraig on the Argyll mainland.