Welcome to Isle of Barra
A trip to the Island of Barra has all the trappings of adventure. Lying to the southern end of the chain of islands known as the Outer Hebrides or the Western Isles, it is one of the remotest areas in Europe. It is sparsely populated, with a population of just 1300. The first language of its inhabitants, Gaelic, is an ancient tongue which is a mystery even to most Scots. Its rugged hills, grassy spaces, golden beaches, sheer cliffs and sparkling waters are a haven for wildlife; sea eagles, golden eagles, puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes, seals, otters and thousands of species of wild flowers can all be found here.
Towards Castlebay from Heaval, Isle of Barra
Photograph courtesy of Derek McGinn
Another reason to feel that a journey to Barra is an adventure is the nature of these journeys themselves. Either you have to sail across the magnificent but often turbulent Sea of Hebrides or arrive by air. And flying to Barra is not as conventional as it may sound: when the light aircraft, such as the De Havilland Twin Otters operated by Loganair, land at Barra Airport they land on the beach. This is one of Barra’s claims to fame: its airport is the only one in the world which uses a beach as a runway for scheduled flights.
Testament to Barra’s prehistoric settlement can be seen at a number of interesting archaeological sites scattered around the island. On the southern slopes of Bentangaval a stream leads down to a sheltered valley and the remains of a Neolithic work platform built around 4000 BC. Standing stones, such as those at Brevig Bay, and chambered cairns, such as the impressive 35 metres in diameter and five metres high tomb at Dun Bharpa, provide further insights into the lives of Barra’s prehistoric settlers.
Christianity arrived in Barra in the 7th century AD. In 620 Saint Barr, whose name may be the source of the island’s, established a number of monastic buildings at Cille Bharra. The spot is now marked by a 12th century ‘cashel’. A unique gravestone found at Cille Barra in 1865, which has been dated to the 9th century, underscores the site’s significance. At the beginning of the 9th century Vikings began to arrive in the Outer Hebrides, gradually settling Barra over the following 300 years. Before 1865 it was largely supposition that the Celtic and Scandinavian communities intermingled and Viking settlers adopted Christianity within the early years of their settlement. However, the gravestone’s markings, on one side with a Celtic cross and on the other with Norse runes, add significant weight to these arguments.
As the Norse abandoned their possessions in the Outer Hebrides in the 13th century a new power developed in the islands; the MacDonalds, Lords of the Isles, aristocrats of mixed Celtic and Scandinavian blood. Nonetheless, in 1427 the lands of Barra were granted by the Lords of the Isles to Clan MacNeil. The MacNeil’s entrenched their position by strengthening Kisimul Castle, built on a rock in Castle Bay, at the south of the island. Their designs were so successful that Kisimul Castle remains one of only a few in Scotland which has never been taken in battle. Partly as a result the family maintained their possession of Barra for over 400 years, until the bankruptcy forced them to sell to Colonel Gordon of Cluny in 1838.
In the years that followed the potato famine of 1846 and a series of ‘Clearances’, by which Cluny forced the tenants off the land and replaced them with sheep which were thought to yield more profit, decimated the island’s population. Many islanders, including many MacNeils, were driven away to the new cities and to the Americas. In 1937, one such emigrant to the Americas, 45th clan chief of the MacNeil’s Robert Lister, used the fortune he has gained as an architect to buy back much of his family’s former properties and lands, and set about restoring the castle. In 2000 his son and 46th clan chief, Ian Roderick, handed over the restored castle to Historic Scotland on a 1000 year lease at an annual rent of £1 a year and a bottle of whisky. Today’s fascinating and stunningly located Kisimul Castle, the proud legacy of Robert Lister, is one of Barra’s ‘must visit’ places.
Mostly today’s Barra is a beautiful and tranquil island. However, the visitor may be surprised by some exceptions. At the north of the island lies Aird Mhidhinis, the main fishing harbour. The Village is industrial and full of life and character. Another exception will be witnessed during July’s celebrations. Barra Live, with shows and live music makes the island a centre for the Western Isles’ youth for much of July and at the end of the month Feis Bharraig (the Barra festival) attracts musicians and performers as well as sizeable crowds. Even if your idea of going to Barra is to escape it all, July’s events might help you realise that the Island has a great deal of vitality to offer too.