The Outer Hebrides has the kind of majestic, isolated quality to it that it allows itself to feel truly apart from the rest of the UK. The isolation you feel from the rest of the world here isn’t just measured in distance, but in infrastructure and ease of access too – the fearsome sea that seperates the six hour ferry ride can often be some of the most challenging waters in the country. The flights, running from Glasgow to the beach airport in the north of Barra are amongst the hardiest flights in Scotland, but even they get hit by weather delays. Come to Barra at any time of year, and you feel lucky just to be here. Outer Hebridean adventures still feel like just that, an adventure, and it’s one of the main reasons so many people want to return each year.
I’m lucky to have had a few Outer Hebridean adventures and I think heading to Barra is always one of the highlights. There’s a barren, weathered feeling to the island that I love. In this article, I look at what to do in Barra, how to get there, some options on where to stay and some personal highlights from my trips.
How to get to Barra
There are a few different ways to get to Barra. Ferry is the cheapest – the Cal Mac ferry from Oban takes around five hours, leaving in the afternoon from Oban, arriving in the evening and then departing the next day. There’s something rather romantic approaching the islands on your Outer Hebridean adventures on a large ferry, and an even more romantic feeling when you hear the horn blowing the next morning meaning it’s leaving and you’ll be left on the island on your own. Using one of the largest ships in the fleet, the MV Isles of Lewis, there’s plenty of space to stretch out during the journey and pace around for a while, and there are generous sized seats and lie flat sofas in which to take a nap. If you want a longer adventure, you can always take the ferry to the north of the Outer Hebrides and wind your way down to Barra and leave from there – a popular route for many.
The other option is the Loganair flight from Glasgow. Only taking just over an hour, the rugged DHC6 Twin Otter spears its way through often dense, low-lying Hebrides cloud to a blissful sandy beach below which acts as the island’s runway and airport. It’s a wonderful experience, really feeling like you’ve arrived. It is more expensive, but the benefits of being there in such a short space of time are obvious.
What do on Barra
As you can imagine, activities on Outer Hebridean adventures, let alone on Barra itself, are likely to be focussed on outdoor pursuits and what you can do depends on the time of year you visit. There’s a joy in not planning too much on your adventures around this part of the world though, and sometimes simply sitting on the dunes with a bottle of beer and nothing else to do is the best activity of all. However, it makes sense to see as much of the island as you possibly can, and there are a few ways of doing that. Some information below.
Walking around the island itself is by the main road that stretches around its perimeter, and this can get surprisngly busy, so it’s best to head to the smaller island of Vatersay for hiking opportunities, or stretch your legs on the seeming endless supply of white sandy beaches that fringe both islands. Walk Highlands have a few walks of different lengths that are well worth trying out.
I’ve cycled around the island on my visits to Barra and it’s definitely the best way to get around. There are hills, but the distance is short and the views are worth it when you get to the top. It also makes day trips to some of the further reaches of the islands bays and inlets a possibility, whereas walking it can be quite hard. Take a cycle to Vatarsay and be sure to visit their lovely little tearoom and cafe in the village hall on the stunning Traigh a Bhaigh beach.
If the weather’s good, it makes sense that one of the best ways to see Barra is from the sea. You can spot some of the world’s rarest sea and birdlife on your Outer Hebridean adventures and there are a few kayaking companies such as Barra Surf Adventures and Clearwater Paddling who offer carefully catered trips and tours to see the best of the islands from the sea. As with most islands, there’s a wealth of things to see when you’re travelling on the water that you really can’t access from the land, so I’d really recommend getting out on the waves if you can! If you have your own kayaks, it’s always wise to consult one of the guides at the above companies before, just so you know where to paddle and what to look out for and avoid.
Some further recommendations below:
Go to the north of the island to check out Eioligarry and the island’s airport
There is a gorgeous old chapel, graveyard and a stunning beach called Traigh Sgurabhal at the northern tip of Barra within a small ancient ruined community.
Walk on the dunes at Traig Eais
Some of the whitest sand I’ve ever seen.
Pop across to Eriksay for a day
At certain times the ferry to little Eriksay, slightly north of Barra, runs in time to have lunch on the island’s stunning beaches before returning.
See the PBY Catalina ruins on Vatersay
There are twisted remains of a Catalina from WW2 that crashed here in poor weather in the 1940s. Spooky.
Visit Buth Bharraigh for your supplies and bike hire
This lovely little place is a “community social enterprise that is a route to market for local producers to sell their wares.” Really friendly and helpful about all aspects of Barra life too, so if you have a question, head here!
Where to say on Barra (camping is part of the adventure!)
The Visit Scotland website provides a comprehensive list of places to stay on Barra, but when I’ve visited, I’ve experienced a mix of camping and hosteling which is one of the best ways to experience the island. There are parts of Barra where wild camping is legal, so it makes sense to put a small backpacking tent on your back and head off to one of the sheltered bays to pitch your tent for the night. The below pictures were taken on the beach at Bagh Halaman just next to the sand dunes. Just remember to never leave litter, stay district and as far away from other tents as you can.
Some highlights for me include:
Small isolated campsite on the northern edge of the island
The furthest westerly point of the UK, and the furthest westerly campsite. A small campsite by the water. Stunning sunsets when the weather’s good.
Dunard Hostel and Lodge
I stayed here once and really enjoyed it. They have all you’d imagine a small hostel to have, including a dining space, roaring fire, communal kitchen and plenty of books to keep you going. They also have huts at the top of the garden for extra more private accommodation.
What to eat and drink on Barra
For a tiny, remote island, there are a few options. Make sure to check out Cafe Kisimul, a beautiful but rather erroneous looking Indian restaurant which serves some of the best seafood curries to be had in Scotland. The Barra Airport Cafe is often a great stopping off point if you’re venturing out around the island, and it has the benefit of having outside space in the summer so you can watch the comings and goings of the planes from Glasgow. The Vatersay Community Hall Cafe offers great lunches out in the sticks down south, and more ‘in-town’, the Castlebay Post Office Cafe serves great coffee and cream teas. If you’re looking for something a bit more up-market, the Isle of Barra Beach Hotel provides excellent food and what’s more, has a fine selection of whisky!
Your Outer Hebridean adventures need not end in Barra – many people continue north to take in the wonderful sights and cultures of Harris and Lewis too while out so far west. It is one of my favourite parts of the country, and much of my writing and photography is inspired by this part of the world.
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