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Barra and Vatersay: The Spectacular Southern End of the Outer Hebrides

Published
October 6, 2022
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The following blog post is based on a chapter in my new book, The Scottish Isles: Part 2: Skye and the Outer Hebrides. The first volume, The Scottish Isles: Part 1: Shetlands, Orkneys and Hebrides is currently on sale at a reduced price, US $2.99 for the Kindle and US $9.99 for the paperback. The two front covers follow, after which the post begins.

Barra and Vatersay, among the other isles nearby. North at top.

THE ferry from Eriskay to Barra only took about forty minutes, landing in the north of the island. There is also another ferry to the main town, Castlebay, which takes twice as long.

There are a great many camping sites both on Barra and on Vatersay, even though both islands are fairly small.

Local road signs on Barra, including a sign advertising a campsite

Perhaps this is because Barra is also accessible by air, even though it is so small. Interestingly enough, Barra is said to be the only place in the world in which regularly scheduled air services land on tidal sands. These are called the Barra sands, conspicuous toward the north of Barra in the satellite image below.

Detail from a wider Copernicus Sentinel-2 image, showing Eriskay, Barra and Vatersay, with names added for this post. European Space Agency, 28 June 2018, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO via Wikimedia Commons.

Barra Airport, with a plane landing on the sands and a warning sign. Photograph by James Gray, 1998, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Barra Airport Control Tower today

The next photograph shows the beach that is used by the planes, as it appears at high tide. I took the photo at half past four in the morning. At this time of year, it was amazing how short the nights were.

Photo of the beach on which the planes land, at Barra. The beach is inundated, as it was close to high tide at that time.

Looking the other way on the same beach, at the same time of the morning

Another campsite

Barra is also the southern terminus of the Outer Hebrides section of the Hebridean Whale Trail, a series of spots where you can watch whales.

Hebridean Whale Trail Sign

Here are four more photos showing scenes of island life on Barra, which certainly seems like the place to get away from it all.

Heading southward, I soon got to Castlebay, the main town on the island. The town gets its name from the fact that there is, indeed, a castle in the bay, Kisimul Castle.

A veritable profusion of tourism signs, near Castlebay

The castle is quite impressive, its tall external walls enclosing a keep in which additional buildings have been erected. Kisimul Castle probably also once sported projecting outer decks of wood, which would have created more floor area and enabled people to exercise.

Kisimul Castle, with Castlebay behind. Photograph by Conor Lawless, 21 April 2017, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

A selfie in front of Kisimul Castle

The following photo of Castlebay includes a sign for Café Kisimul, and the castle at left. You can see that the castle is absolutely huge as seen from the town, even if it looks small from a distance.

At the time of writing, Kisimul Castle is closed for conservation works. But normally you can visit it and marvel at everything.

Here is a video I made of Castlebay and the airport sands, really early in the morning yet with no darkness.

The last island in the Outer Hebrides chain is Vatersay, which is also connected by a causeway and two excellent beaches, one on the west side and one on the east side. And that really is the end of the line.

The two longest beaches on Vatersay are known straightforwardly as the West Beach and the East Beach in English, and in Scots Gaelic as Tràigh Shiar (West Beach) and Tràigh a’ Bhàigh (The Bay Beach).

The East Beach / Tràigh a’ Bhàigh on Vatersay, at half past seven at night, and fairly near high tide as well

I camped at one of the two Barra campsites. And then I caught the local ferry back to Eriskay, returned my hired car to the garage in Balivanich and, with some regrets, took the ferry from Lochmaddy back to Uig on Skye, where my other hired car awaited me for the journey back to London, noise, and what we call civilisation.

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