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 was about 1200 in 2011; 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.
- 1 Barra Airport (BRR IATA), Eoligarry HS9 5YD, ☏ . Daily flights from Glasgow take just over an hour. They're operated by Loganair using Twin Otters, with a 15 kg limit for checked luggage on this route. Flight timetables vary with the tide as the runway is the beach, the only place in the world where scheduled flights use a beach runway, and it's reassuring that Traigh Mhòr the runway translates as big beach. The terminal is small and modern with toilets and a cafe. A hour ahead of flight is plenty early enough to check in here. The round-the-island bus W32 runs to the airport three times a day plus an extra late afternoon run on request, taking 20 min to Castlebay, and taxis are also available. Car hire is available (see "Get around") but do pre-book, they have few vehicles. Private aircraft are welcome with prior permission.
- 2 Castlebay ferry terminal, Castlebay HS9 5XD. M-F 07:00-17:00, Sa 07:00-15:00, Su 07:00-13:00. This is the landing point for Calmac ferries from Oban, taking 5 hours daily April-Oct, plus an extra Wednesday sailing via Coll and Tiree. Nov-March there are five sailings a week and no link to Coll or Tiree. Until end of March 2024, return fares are £148.60 per car, £31.80 per adult including driver, and £15.90 per child. Trains and buses from Glasgow connect with the ferries at Oban, so you can travel all the way in one day. The terminal is the small white-washed low building by the pier, with toilets and Wifi. Free parking.
- 3 Àird Mhòr six miles north of Barra has ferries from Eriskay, a small island linked by causeway to South Uist. There are five ferries M-Sa year round, taking 40 min; April-Oct has five Sunday ferries and Nov-March has two. Until end of March 2024, return fares are £23.20 per car, £6.70 per adult including driver, and £2.40 per child. A bus connects on Barra between Castlebay and Àird Mhòr, and on Eriskay a bus connects all the way north via Lochboisedale on South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist and Berneray, where another ferry crosses to Harris. So you can travel within a day between Barra and Stornoway on Lewis. The traditional ferry route between Castlebay and Lochboisdale no longer sails.
- Small craft: Castlebay Marina has 16 visitor berths for yachts and other small craft, it is open April - September. Showers laundry and bike hire is available.
Castlebay is a small walkable place. The whole island is ten miles long by six miles wide, with its sights and settlements strung along the 13-mile coastal loop of the A888. This "main road" is just a single-track lane with passing places, but well-paved. So you'll also need bike, bus or car.
- Barra Bike Hire (+44 7985 637957) is based in Castlebay. Bike Hire is also available at Castlebay Marina or through Visitor Information at Bùth Bharraigh.
- Buses run M-Sa, 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 Àird Mhór 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 12:00, a third in school holidays, and you need to book.
- And see Outer Hebrides#Get around for connections by bus and ferry beyond Eriskay up the chain of islands to Stornoway on Lewis. Or click on the above Bus link to find all timetables.
- Car hire: Isle of Barra Car Hire Contact Hugh on 01871 890313 or 07410 544014 (WhatsApp) Car Hire Hebrides (+44 1871 890313) can pick up at the airport or either ferry pier.
- Taxi: There are 3 taxis on the island. Cursty Peigi 07531 352767 Neil James 07837 603321 Asti 07957 280392
- 1 Kisimul Castle, Castlebay HS9 5UZ, ☏ . Closed. Small castle, reached by a 5-min boat ride from Castlebay, weather permitting. Built late 15th century and showing its age, and closed for restoration. Wisely, the Clan Chief lives in Edinburgh.
- Our Lady, Star of the Sea is the Roman Catholic church overlooking the ferry port. It was completed in 1888 when development as a herring port brought a Catholic workforce to Barra. Mass is held here Saturday and Sunday mornings, and around the island midweek.
- 2 Barra Heritage Centre (Dualchas), Castlebay HS9 5XD (by sports centre), ☏ . May-Aug M-F 10:00-17:00. Local history exhibition. Adult £6, child free.
- 3 Tangasdale on the west coast is Barra's best beach. The medieval ruin on the islet in 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.
- East along the main road from Castlebay towards Brevig is the start of the path up Heaval. This more sheltered side has views of the Inner Hebrides, and on a clear day the hills of Rhum and the peaks of the Cuillins look very close.
- 4 Brevig standing stone is on the ridge towards Heaval summit. It's 2.79 m / 9 ft 2 ins tall, near a similar stone that's been cast down and broken.
- 5 Northbay is a road junction, with A888 continuing its orbit of Barra while a lane north leads to the ferry pier for Eriskay, the airport, and Eoligarry. St Barr's Roman Catholic Church was opened in 1906 and the islet between church and junction has a statue of the saint - or one of them, there's half a dozen of the fellows. Best known is Finbar of Cork (550-623) but he never ventured this way.
- Traigh Mhòr is the airfield beach. A siren sounds when an aircraft is approaching and you need to get clear, so this would be a really bad moment for the dog to go hurtling away after the seagulls. The uninhabited island at its north end is one of several called Orosay (Orasaigh) or Oronsay, from the Old Norse word Örfirisey for a tidal island. Further east are Hellisay and Gighay, divided by a narrow channel.
- 6 Chapel of Cille Bharra, Eoligarry HS9 5YE. 24 hrs. Three or four chapels are 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 (1883-1972), whose best-loved work Whisky Galore! was inspired by the running aground of the whisky-laden ship SS Politician off nearby Eriskay in 1941. Free.
- Dun Sgurabhal or Scurrival is the indistinct remains of an Iron Age dun on a knoll half a mile northwest of the chapel.
- Fiaraidh north and Fuday east of Eoligarry are uninhabited islands used for rough grazing. Beyond to the northeast is Eriskay, linked by ferry to Barra.
- 7 Vatersay (Bhatarsaigh) is an inhabited island reached by a causeway built in 1991. The island lacks a sheltered harbour so before that, transport depended on makeshift arrangements with barges, freighters and even the medieval practice of swimming cattle across the channel. The best beaches are on the tombola connecting the north and south halves of the island, and the best surfing and wind-surfing are usually here. The tombola is the start point of the Hebridean Way, and has a memorial to "Annie Jane", a ship from Liverpool taking emigrants to Montreal, wrecked here in 1853 with the loss of 350 lives. A number of Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age remains are found on Vatersay.
- 8 Biruaslum is a 236 ft / 72 m sea stack topped by a prehistoric dun. The islet is virtually inaccessible behind its cliffs, but at low tide in good weather it's possible to scramble across the gorge separating it from Vatersay.
- Walk: no end of fine walks along deserted beaches.
- Hebridean Way is a way-marked hiking and cycling trail the length of the Outer Hebrides. The start point is Vatersay community hall. Follow the road along the east coast and cross the causeway to Barra: hikers here strike inland over the hills to Tangasdale beach, cyclists stay on the road. Continue clockwise around the island to Àird Mhòr, where the ferry plies to Eriskay and the next stage.
- 1 Heaval at 383 m / 1257 ft is Barra's highest hill, a short sharp ascent from the main road. 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. Nine-hole course, the most westerly golf course in Scotland. Beware of the bull. Golf clubs are available for hire at Bùth Bharraigh (£5/set) and green fees are payable at the honesty box at the Golf Course.
- Kayaking: Clearwater Paddling, based in Castlebay, organise local excursions and longer trips around the Hebrides.
- Boat trips sail 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 Sports Centre[dead link] west edge of the village has a swimming pool, fitness suite and gym.
- Run: The island's 13 miles of main road make nicely for a half-marathon circuit. However the organised "Barrathon" in June has folded.
- Fèis Bharraigh is a Gaelic language event held at Castlebay school, with performers restricted to school age. The next is probably 8-12 July 2024, tbc. Barrafest music festival is no longer held.
- MacNeil Clan Gathering: If you are a MacNeil then you are most welcome at the Clan Gathering, held in even years, with the next probably in Aug 2024, tbc. Events are mostly in Castlebay Community Hall.
- A & C Maclean is a general store on Pier Rd Castlebay, with newspapers, butchers and filling station, open M-Sa 09:00-17:30, Su 12:30-16:00.
- RBS bank next to Maclean's is open M Tu Th F 10:00-16:00 and has an exterior ATM.
- Co-op Food, Castlebay HS9 5XD (quarter mile west of ferry pier), ☏ . M-Sa 07:00-22:00; Su 12:30-22:00. The island's main store.
- Bùth Bharraigh is a community and visitor hub located overlooking the pier in Castlebay. It runs local Visitor Information, accommodation finding service, laundry, free wifi and much more. It also sells a wide range of products including wholefoods and local foods and crafts. open M-F 10:00-17:00, Sa 10:00-16:00, Su 12:00-16:00 (Oct-Mar). M-F 10:00-19:00, Sa 10:00-16:30, 18:00-19:00, Su 12:00-16:00, 18:00-19:00 (Apr-Sept) T: 01871 817948 E: email@example.com
- Hebridean Toffee, Castlebay HS9 5XD, firstname.lastname@example.org. Scottish tablet is made on Isle of Barra and sold in Castlebay Post Office.
- Fresh local fish and shellfish are always a good pick at the local hotels. You need to book: they may have lots of free tables, but on such a small island they can't subsist on walk-ins, and will only stock ingredients and lay on staff if they know customers are coming.
- Cafe Kisimul, Pier Rd, Castlebay HS9 5XD (by the harbour), ☏ . Apr-Sept Th-M 18:00-22:30. Offers Indian and vegetarian options, all dishes are Gluten Free. Great staff with a trattoria-like atmosphere. Only about 10 indoor tables.
- Garadh a Bhagh a Tuath community run cafe at the gardens in Northbay. Delicious freshly made dishes and cakes. Perfect for Lunch or coffee.
- Vatersay Hall Community Cafe community run cafe in Vatersay. Great for lunch or coffee after a beach walk.
- Castlebay Hotel serves daily 12:00-14:00, 18:00-20:30.
- Craigard Hotel in Castlebay serves daily 12:30-14:00, 17:30-21:00.
- Heathbank in Northbay serves April-Sept W-Sa 17:00-19:30, Su 13:00-15:00.
- Hotels have bars open to non-residents, and may have live music: Castlebay Hotel, Craigard Hotel, Heathbank Hotel and Isle of Barra Beach Hotel.
- Ceilidhs - dances and public parties - may be held in community halls that don't routinely serve alcohol. Ask if they have a temporary license, or whether you should bring your own.
- Isle of Barra Distillers in Castlebay make gin, dark rum and vodka, 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, as both have limited capacity. This applies at any time of year: summer is busy, but in winter places shut down.
- Camping and tourer caravan sites are Borve and Wavecrest both at Borve on the west coast, Balnabodach on the east coast, and Barra Sands, Scurrival and Croft No. 2 on Eoiligarry peninsula north of the airport.
- Dunard Hostel, Castlebay HS9 5XD (200 yards west of ferry pier), ☏ . A simple but comfy 16-bed hostel, also with two glamping pods.
- Tigh Na Mara, Castlebay HS9 5XD (100 yards west of ferry pier), ☏ . Welcoming small B&B open April-Oct. B&B double £110.
- Castlebay Hotel, The Square, Castlebay HS9 5XD (facing ferry pier), ☏ . Comfy place with good food in village centre. B&B double £140.
- Craigard Hotel, Castlebay HS9 5XD (quarter mile east of ferry pier), ☏ . Friendly small hotel with 10 rooms and restaurant. Some noise from the pub. B&B double £100.
- Hillside is a B&B further up the hill behind Craigard Hotel.
- Carnan B&B is at 27 Garrygall half a mile east of the ferry pier.
- 1 Bayview, Bentangaval Nask HS9 5XN (a mile west of ferry pier), ☏ . Welcoming comfy B&B plus self-catering cabin, overlooking the small bay west of the port. Open all year, four nights minimum. B&B double £120.
- 2 Isle of Barra Beach Hotel, Tangasdale Beach HS9 5XW (west coast), ☏ . Simple beachfront hotel open May-Sept. Two nights minimum stay. B&B double £150.
- Gearradhmor is a guest house in Craigston on the west coast.
- 3 Heathbank, Northbay HS9 5YQ (northeast coast), ☏ . Charming small hotel with bar and restaurant, modernised in 2022. No pets. Open April-Sept, two nights minimum. B&B double £150.
- Tigh Grianach, Ardveenish HS9 5YA (near Ardmhor ferry), ☏ . Pleasant B&B on the northeast coast near the ferry to Eriskay.
- 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 2022, EE has good signal in most parts of the island. O2 and Vodafone have worse reception, for example, there is limited 3G from Vodafone in Castlebay. 3 has no signal. 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.