Barra and Vatersay

Accessible travel, Active & sustainable travel, Barra, Food & Drink, Island enthusiast, Nature, Outdoor Activities, Vatersay

By Robin McKelvie

Barra beach runway by Mike Austin

I’ve been lucky enough to arrive in Barra over the years by plane, on both ferries, on a small cruise ship and even by sea kayak. No two trips are the same on an island I sometimes hear called the ‘Jewel of the Hebrides’. For me the ‘Outer Hebrides in Miniature’ is more accurate. If you want a wee window into this 130-mile long archipelago there is a strong case for making it Barra, an island whose natural thrills are backed up by a vibrant community. And for me the community make any trip to the Scottish isles.

Sarah MacLean, manager of Bùth Bharraigh Ltd, agrees that it makes no sense to do what some poor souls do and plan to only breeze through Barra from the Oban ferry on route to all points north. “People come off the ferry at 1830 and plan to drive round the island before leaving the next day,” says Maclean. “They don’t realise what we have here in such a compact, easy to get around space. We meet quite a few of them who simply change their plans and decide to spend more time on Barra. And then come back again next year. We get a lot of repeat visitors to our island.”

Sea kayaking in Barra

Bùth Bharraigh Community and Visitor Hub – which is recommended on the Scottish Islands Passport app – is very Barra. It’s a community tourism hub that rose from the ashes of the abandoned Visit Scotland information centre here in 2017. As well as providing essential insider information on Barra and (joined at the hip by a causeway) Vatersay they also have a laundry service, bike hire, free wifi with tea and coffee and printing and copying services.

The ever-helpful community ethos of Bùth Bharraigh shines through. For example they don’t know the meaning of opening hours, only of helping visitors in need of their help. “When the ferry is late it’s an issue for people,” explains MacLean. “They might be a single traveller coming to an island for the first time and feel a little daunted. We will stay open to welcome them with a smile and help them sort everything out.”

Bùth Bharraigh are members of the community tourism SCOTO, whose central tenet of ‘temporary locals’ plays out in real time on Barra. There is something in their set-up for both visitors and locals. They offer a route to market for around 100 local producers and sell produce from their community garden, arts and crafts, seafood, jams and chutneys, and homebaking. They try to stay as local as possible with beef and venison from the Uists and tea from Tiree, helping the other isles.

This forward-looking Bùth Bharraigh vision continues with their approach to the environment. The shop also has a ‘Refillery’, where you fill your own bag or container with nuts, dried fruits, herbs, spices and pulses, as part of Barra’s community push towards net zero. I’m not in the least surprised the shop won an award of ‘Highlands and Islands Independent Retailer of the Year’ in 2022.

Elsewhere around the island mankind has left a rich and long footprint. The layers of history that make Barra so special are keen to reveal themselves. People have lived on Barra since Neolithic times and traces of various earlier settlements emerge with the likes of the standing stones of Brevig Bay and the Dun Cuier complex. Then there is the Dun Bharpa cairn, where the dead were laid to rest in Neolithic times.

White beaches in Barra

Some destinations boast that you can be on the beach within an hour of touching down. Barra doesn’t have to, you land right on a sweeping Atlantic beach. Barra is a unique wee escape in myriad ways. It also packs a serious active punch into its compact four by eight mile frame.

The west coast of Barra is laced with puffy white sand beaches. When I was up here writing the National Geographic guide to Scotland a visitor from America said the beaches in the Outer Hebrides look like the Caribbean. I suggested to him that it should be the other way round as the landscapes here are millions of years older!

A great way to explore the island is on a sea kayak trip with Chris from Clearwater Paddling, a brilliant local company who are listed on the Scottish Islands Passport app. Barra offers world class kayaking and within another hour I’d seen an otter scurrying along the shore, a brace of golden eagles soaring high above and over a dozen other seabirds. As we cruised into a little cove for lunch I came a bit too close and personal for comfort to an adult seal. He reared up before torpedoing right under my kayak. If you want to get closer to nature Barra is certainly the place.

View from Heaval

Barra offers as much, if not more, out of the water as in. One day after cycling all the way from the southern fringe to the northern edge of Barra I hiked up the highest peak, Sheabhal. Here the whole island opened up, as well as the mystical and remote Bishop’s Isles to the south.

Perhaps the island’s most unusual manmade attraction is the Barra Golf Club, the UK’s most westerly. This is a truly unique course that would stump the likes of Tiger Woods and Rory Mcllroy. It may only have nine holes, but it contains tricky hazards such as the ‘largest bunker in the world’ (a giant Atlantic beach) and fences built around the greens to keep out the cows that have the same effect on golf balls! Fairways on Barra are little more than rock-strewn hillsides and many players consider themselves lucky to lose only one ball a hole. Still, with sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean and seals bashing around in the surf, it has to be one of the most scenic courses in the world.

Robin in Barra

Vatersay is the only one of the Bishop’s Isles south of Barra that is still inhabited and is handily connected to Barra. On one wild day I eked out of Castlebay and hiked across the causeway, where I saw a mini-tornado whipping up the water. Then it was up the highest point on Vatersay, Theisabhal Mor. After a picnic with myriad islands for company I swooped down like a plane on to yet another pristine white Atlantic beach with not a soul on it.

Wherever you go and whatever you do on Barra make sure to check out the Scottish Islands Passport app. It opens up Barra experiences like the Barra stretch of the Hebridean Way, Barra Heritage Centre and has information on bike hire and beach wheelchairs. There is information too on trips out to the abandoned isle of Mingulay, which shows what can happen to an island when the community is not cherished and protected.

One place on Barra I always pop into is the legendary Castlebay Bay Hotel. When you come to Barra you must too. You may be lucky to chance upon an impromptu session from the legendary Vatersay Boys, but even if you don’t it’s always a lively and welcoming spot where locals and visitors alike mingle. You can feast on Barra lamb here and boat-fresh local seafood too, congratulating yourself on choosing to visit an island – and a community – that offers a thrilling, life-affirming window into the Outer Hebrides.

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