Bernera Barracks, Glenelg

Written by Chris Thornton | 30th of December 2022
Bernera Barracks, Glenelg.

The ruins of Bernera Barracks are a testament to a tumultuous time in Scottish history, marked by rebellion and conflict. In the aftermath of the 1715 Jacobite uprising, the government sought to assert control over the Highlands by constructing new infantry barracks at four strategically essential locations:

  • Ruthven, Kingussie.

  • Kiliwhimin, Fort Augustus.

  • Bernera, Glenelg.

  • Inversnaid, between Loch Lomond and Loch Arklet.

One of these was the Bernera Barracks, located near the Isle of Skye, a region of vital importance due to its connections to the Western Isles.

After I visited Ruthven Barracks last year (one of the four forts built in the highlands), it was great to write about the barracks at Bernera and see the similarities in the design of the buildings.

Bernera Barracks incorporate alterations from the plans - angle towers.
Intact archway at Bernera Barracks.

A barracks for British Government troops

Construction on the Bernera Barracks began in 1719 and was completed in 1723, built by Sir Patrick Strachan. Designed to accommodate up to 240 troops, the barracks were intended to provide defence against light attacks and serve as a secure base from which troops could patrol the surrounding area. It was also meant to safeguard the important route between the Isle of Skye and the mainland.

The primary mission of soldiers based at Bernera Barracks:

  • Subdue the local population.

  • Control the sea lane in the Sound of Sleat.

  • Prevent any further Jacobite risings.

Construction of Bernera Barracks

There are conflicting reports about the construction of the Bernera Barracks. Some sources claim that the stone used in its construction was quarried from nearby, while others say it was taken from the Glenelg Brochs, Dun Telve, and Dun Troddan in 1722. The brochs are in ruins now, so this could be true... a real shame to destroy these ancient structures.

Indeed the broch is ruined. Dun Telve Broch.
Dun Telve Broch, ransacked for stone to build the barracks.

Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the Bernera Barracks were a formidable structure built to withstand potential attacks and exert control over the region, but it was nowhere near as defensible as the fort at Ruthven built high on a steep mound.

The original design drawings can be seen in the image below. Bernera Barracks is the most impressive of the four forts, standing four stories high.

Officers' quarters still exist as private houses and are not in the same ruinous condition as the barracks. Ruined remains of the guard house and bake house also exist on the site.

Design plans of Bernera Barracks. Neither the land surface.
Original plans of Bernera Barracks.

Bernera Barracks during the Jacobite uprisings

Despite its size and strength, the Bernera Barracks played no significant role in the 1745 Jacobite uprising and was never attacked by the Jacobite army. Still, it likely played a role in the suppression of Jacobite clans in the Highlands and Islands following the uprising.

By 1795, the barracks were already in disrepair, and the military presence had been reduced to a corporal and a few privates. The army eventually left the barracks for good in 1797, and it seems they were only used as a poor house in the 1830s and temporary accommodations during the Highland Clearances.

Image of the ruined barracks near Glenelg.
Side view of one of the garrison blocks.

Bernera Barracks today

All that remains today of the Bernera Barracks is the roofless stone shell of the building. It stands as a reminder of the turbulent history of the Highlands; located a few hundred yards north of Glenelg, the barracks can be reached via a track from the centre of the town.

The barracks are surrounded by fencing that will stop you from getting too close to this dangerous ruin, but you can get pretty close and still see all the external features. Amazingly, the ruin is still complete, despite large trees sprouting from the interior.

Despite its dilapidated state, the barracks are largely intact, with two main accommodation blocks, the remains of two towers, and a western curtain wall that stands at its original height. However, the eastern wall is missing, providing a view into the courtyard that would otherwise be blocked.

The Bernera Barracks are a scheduled monument and offer a glimpse into the past efforts to exert control over the Highlands during a tumultuous time in Scottish history.

Bernera Barracks. Historic Environment Scotland should help!
An interesting ruin near Glenelg.

How to get to Bernera Barracks

  1. Start by finding your way to Glenelg, a small village located on the mainland of Scotland, near the Isle of Skye within Ross and Cromarty.

  2. From the centre of Glenelg, look for a track that leads northwards out of the village. This track will take you to the Bernera Barracks.

  3. Follow the track for a short distance, avoiding the front garden of Barracks Cottage.

  4. As you continue along the track, you will soon see the Bernera Barracks coming into view. The barracks are located a few hundred yards north of Glenelg.

  5. When you reach the barracks, you will find a large, dilapidated structure that is largely intact, despite its poor state of repair.

  6. Look around the barracks from a safe distance, being mindful of any loose stones or debris that may be present.

  7. The barracks comprise two main accommodation blocks, the remains of two towers, and a western curtain wall that stands at its original height. The eastern wall is missing, providing a view into the courtyard that would otherwise be blocked.

  8. When you are finished exploring the Bernera Barracks, retrace your steps back to the track and make your way back to the centre of Glenelg.

What3words: 
///jumpy.migrants.shepherds
Google maps link

Bernera Barracks, a dangerous ruin.
Bernera Barracks ruin.

Areas of interest near Bernera Barracks

  • Glen Shiel: Located near Glenelg, Glen Shiel is a stunning glen home to a range of outdoor activities, including hiking, fishing, and birdwatching.

  • Eilean Donan Castle: This iconic castle from the Highlander motion picture sits on an island in Loch Duich and is a top-rated tourist attraction.

  • The Falls of Glomach: These breathtaking waterfalls are located in the Kintail Mountains and are considered some of the most impressive in Scotland.

Key information on Bernera Barracks

  • Bernera Barracks was built between 1719 and 1723.

  • The Jacobite army never attacked the barracks during the uprising.

  • Bernera Barracks is one of four barracks/forts constructed simultaneously.

  • The fort was abandoned in 1797.

  • The interior of the ruin is inaccessible.

Ruthven Barracks near Kingussie.
This is Ruthven Barracks near Kingussie, built at the same time as Bernera Barracks.

Conclusion

While the Bernera Barracks may not be in the same good condition and as accessible as the Ruthven Barracks ruin, they remain a fascinating and historically significant site. It is a shame that they cannot be consolidated and made safe for closer examination, as they would undoubtedly be a valuable tourist attraction to the area. Given their poor state of repair, getting too close to the ruins is not advisable.

Location map of Bernera Barracks.

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