Visit the Hebrides
Visit the Hebrides
Get Adobe Flash player

Barraigh agus Bhatarsaigh -  Isles of Barra and Vatersay

Isle of Lewis | Isle of Harris | The Uists

Barra and Vatersay sit as the two most southerly inhabited islands of the Outer Hebrides. They are also the two most westerly points of the Western Isles, reaching 75 miles out into the Atlantic from the UK mainland.

Barra and Vatersay are tiny – Barra is only five miles wide at its widest point and eight miles long,  and the little island group boasts a population of just over 1,100. But the 23 square mile (60 square kilometre) island group has much to offer, and is packed with history and scenery. It is often said that all of the many and varied  Hebridean landscapes are packed into Barra – this may not be strictly true, but the stunning diversity of this tiny set of communities gives Barra a special atmosphere.

The annual Barrafest and the Feis Bharraigh celebrate and exemplify Barra’s contemporary culture. The Barrafest, which takes place at the end of July, is a music festival featuring many contemporary Celtic favourites – often including home-grown talent such as the Vatersay Boys. Feis Bharraigh is a traditional music, drama, language and literature event held since 1981 and part-funded by the Scottish Arts Council.

Geography and landscape

Barra sits on the same Lewisian gneiss as the rest of the Hebrides, and like the rest of the Hebrides, with some igneous intrusions (volcanic rocks unchanged by metamorphic pressure). Its main peak, Heaval, is at 383 metres  high and is located just outside Castlebay, the main settlement. Barra is connected to Vatersay by causeway, which was completed in 1991.

The seas around Barra and Vatersay are challenging in the winter, and the construction of the Vatersay causeway proved problematic, connecting a gap of 250 metres over seas at least 11 metres deep, with strong tidal currents. Over 220,000 tonnes of rock was used in the building of the causeway. Since the causeway was built, the population of Vatersay has begun to grow again.

The Eoligarry peninsula in the north of Barra is a Scottish Natural Heritage Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) – not because of its animal or plant life, but because of the unique nature of the erosional features and processes of the sand dunes, which enable scientists to follow the constant renewal of the machair (grasslands). The SSSI is in close proximity to Barra airport.

The geography of Barra has made the construction of an airfield relatively difficult – and so Barra Airport is the only airfield in the world with regular scheduled flights to land on a beach, Traigh Mor. The airfield was licensed for use in 1936, the same year that a small grass airfield in England called Gatwick also opened. In 1937 the cost of a return flight from Barra to Glasgow was £7 and 17 shillings – the equivalent to over £400 today.  As then, flight timings to Barra airport depend on the ebb and flow of the tide to the beach – which is also a cockle strand when no planes are flying.

History

Barra has well-defined Bronze Age and Iron age remains: the Channel 4 television programme ‘Time Team’ broadcast a programme from the island in 2008 about the hamlet and beach of Allasdale on Barra. The team found Bronze Age burial remains, Iron Age roundhouses and an Iron Age wheelhouse. The burials were dated between 1880-1490 BC, and the roundhouses between 500-400 BC. The wheelhouse dates from around 100BC. Early human occupation of Barra was maintained by agriculture, animal husbandry and fishing – there are remains of sheep buried beneath one of the roundhouses, and whale and seal bones were also found.

Barra has remained an essentially seafaring and agricultural community ever since. The main settlement, Castlebay, is so named because of Kisimul Castle, which sits on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the harbour. It is not known exactly who by whom and when the castle was built, but it remains the only significant surviving medieval castle in the islands. It is though that it was built by the originally Irish MacNeils from  the 11th century, but even Historic Scotland are unsure about its actual provenance. Alexander, Lord of the Isles (who was in alliance with King James I of Scotland) controlled the islands during the Middle Ages until he gifted Barra to the MacNeil clan in 1427.

The MacNeil name is still strong on Barra, despite Roderick, Chief of MacNeil, selling the island to Colonel Gordon of Cluny when he faced bankruptcy in 1838. The island was cleared of many of its inhabitants, like many other areas of the Highlands and Islands. The name of the MacNeils was redeemed by the actions of Robert Lister MacNeil, who in 1937 bought back the island and set about restoring the castle and estate. His son gifted the castle to Historic Scotland in 2000 in exchange for a yearly rent of a bottle of whisky and £1; the island itself was left in trust with the Scottish Government in 2003 for the people of Barra.

The 1949 Ealing Studios comedy ‘Whisky Galore!’ based on the story with the same name by Sir Edward Compton Mackenzie was filmed on the Isle of Barra. Mackenzie, who had a house on Barra from 1930, is buried on the island at Eoligarry. The ‘Whisky Galore’ story itself was a retelling of a famous shipwreck of the SS Politician which actually occurred on the isle of Eriskay in 1941, when during wartime rationing, a ship out of Liverpool went down with 28,000 casks of whisky aboard. Many were illegally salvaged by islanders before official intervention; occasional bottles from this shipment are presented for auction and raise thousands of pounds for their notoriety.

Sadly, shipwrecks and plane crashes have been frequent staples of life on Barra and Vatersay – the Annie Jane, a passenger ship of of Liverpool carrying migrants to Montreal in Canada, foundered on the shores of Vatersay in September 1853, with the loss of 350 lives despite the efforts of the islanders of Vatersay who attempted a rescue despite the raging seas.

During the Second World War in May 1944, an RAF Catalina long-range patrol plane from RAF Oban crashed on Vatersay at Heishaval Beag on Vatersay, fully loaded and with depth charges under each wing. Three crew were killed and the remaining six were injured. The partial wreckage of the plane can still be seen and a memorial plaque has been erected to the dead and injured.