Isle of Barra

Written by Chris Thornton | 25th of May 2023
Isle of Barra

Nestled in the fringes of the North Atlantic, the Isle of Barra is a gem of the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. A place of breathtaking beauty and rich culture, this small island captures the essence of a tranquil, unspoiled natural paradise. Barra is a microcosm of Scottish charm and heritage, surrounded by crystal-clear waters and dotted with white sandy beaches.

The Isle of Barra is the second southernmost inhabited island of the Outer Hebrides, with a population of just over a thousand. Despite its size, Barra's significance is monumental, as a fascinating snapshot of Scottish island life. Its picturesque landscapes, compelling history, and vibrant Gaelic culture make it a captivating destination for those seeking to explore a unique corner of the world.

This article will take you on a journey through the Isle of Barra, unveiling its history, geography, wildlife, culture, economy, and vibrant community life that thrives in this isolated yet enchanting corner of the world.

A brief history of the Isle of Barra

The Isle of Barra has a long and rich history, with human habitation tracing back to the Neolithic period. Artefacts and ancient remains found on the island testify to its early inhabitants' resourcefulness and resilience in a landscape that, while beautiful, could be harsh and unforgiving.

Barra's history is deeply intertwined with the Celtic and Norse cultures. The influence of the Celts is evident in the island's enduring Gaelic traditions, while traces of Norse invasions are found in local place names and historical records.

Kisimul Castle

During the Middle Ages, Barra came under the control of the Clan MacNeil. The clan's chief, known for his boldness and charisma, established the iconic Kisimul Castle (pronounced Kish-imul) on a rocky islet in Castlebay, the island's main village. This fortress, often called the "Castle in the Sea," stands as a powerful symbol of Barra's past and a significant attraction for visitors today.

Boat trips can be taken via a small ferry just off Pier Road.

Barra Isle, explore Scotland. Ancient seat of Clan MacNeil.
Kisimul Castle is a major feature of Castlebay.

The Highland Clearances

The 19th century brought considerable challenges to the Isle of Barra, as it did to much of Scotland. The Highland Clearances, a period of forced evictions and emigration, deeply affected the island's population. As a result, many islanders left their homes for new opportunities overseas, particularly in Canada and Australia.

However, the spirit of the Isle of Barra has always been one of resilience. Despite past hardships, the island's communities have retained their vibrant culture and deep connection to their homeland. Today, the island stands as a testament to this enduring spirit, where ancient traditions live on, and history is etched into the very landscape.


The picturesque town of Castlebay is the largest settlement on the island, with a population of around 1000. The town gets its name from the large medieval castle in the bay, the ancestral home of Clan Macneil. Once a thriving herring port, it used to house 400 boats in its harbour.

Castlebay has everything you will need while visiting Barra, including accommodation, food, shops, a post office, a petrol station and a hospital.

The island community of Castlebay, an ideal starting point.
Castlebay, showing town, harbour/pier and castle.

Geography and wildlife

With its diverse landscapes, the Isle of Barra is a haven for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. The island's terrain varies from sandy beaches and flat machair lands to rugged hills and moorlands. The highest peak on the island, Heaval, stands tall at 383 meters and offers panoramic views of the surrounding seascape and islands.

One of Barra's most remarkable geographical features is its coastline. The island boasts over a dozen beautiful beaches, each with its unique charm. The most famous of these is perhaps Traigh Mhòr, a stunning strip of sand that doubles as the runway for Barra Airport, the only airport in the world where scheduled flights land on the beach.

Barra's coastal waters are crystal clear and teeming with marine life, making the island an excellent spot for fishing and wildlife watching. Seals are a common sight, basking on the rocks or bobbing in the water, and the island's waters are home to an array of fish and shellfish species.

Inland, the island is interspersed with several freshwater lochs, some stocked with trout, providing opportunities for freshwater fishing. These lochs and the surrounding wetlands are also crucial habitats for various bird species, making Barra a birdwatcher's paradise.

The island's flora is equally impressive. The machair, a unique coastal habitat found in the Hebrides, bursts into a carpet of colourful wildflowers in the summer months. This rich tapestry of flowers creates a stunning visual display and supports a wealth of insect life, contributing to the island's biodiversity.

You'll find heather moorland and peat bogs in the uplands, vital habitats that support unique wildlife and plant species. These areas are also essential carbon sinks, helping mitigate climate change's impacts.

The Isle of Barra's geography and wildlife are exceptional, showcasing a harmonious balance between land, sea, and sky. It is an island where nature reigns supreme, offering a refuge for wildlife and a paradise for those who appreciate the beauty and tranquillity of the natural world.

Culture of Barra

The culture of the Isle of Barra is a vibrant tapestry woven from centuries of tradition, with threads of Gaelic heritage running prominently through it. The island's culture is a living testament to the resilience and creativity of its inhabitants, influenced by the rhythms of the sea, the seasons, and the land itself.

More than half speak Scottish Gaelic

Language plays a pivotal role in Barra's cultural identity. Gaelic, the ancient language of Scotland's Highlands and Islands, is still spoken by a significant portion of the island's population - 761 out of a population of 1172 in 2011. From casual conversations to formal events, the lilting cadences of Gaelic lend a unique charm to Barra, connecting the present with the past and reinforcing a sense of community.

They love a ceilidh on Barra

Music and dance are integral aspects of Barra's culture. The island is renowned for its ceilidhs and social gatherings where locals and visitors can enjoy traditional music, dancing, and storytelling. The sound of bagpipes, fiddles, and accordions fills the air while the rhythmic steps of Scottish dances echo through the halls. The island also hosts various music festivals annually, attracting artists and audiences from across Scotland and beyond.

Barra's cultural calendar is marked by various festivals and events that celebrate local customs and community spirit. The Barra and Vatersay Island Feis is a highlight, a week-long celebration of Gaelic culture that includes music workshops, Gaelic language classes, and a range of performances and activities for all ages.


Another remarkable aspect of Barra's culture is the island's strong storytelling tradition. Folklore and tales passed down through generations are integral to the island's cultural heritage. Stories of mythical creatures, legendary heroes, and historical events are shared and preserved, keeping the island's rich oral history alive.

Handicrafts and local industries also play a vital role in the cultural landscape. From Harris Tweed weaving to intricate silverwork, the island's artisans keep traditional crafts alive while contributing to the local economy.

The culture of the Isle of Barra is a beautiful blend of tradition and innovation, deeply rooted in the past yet evolving with the times. This rich cultural heritage and the island's stunning natural beauty make Barra a truly unique and captivating place.

Barra Airport

Barra Airport, also known as Barra Eoligarry Airport, is a short-runway airport situated in the wide shallow bay of Traigh Mhòr at the northern tip of the Isle of Barra. Its uniqueness lies in being the only airport in the world where scheduled flights use a tidal beach as the runway; YES, THE PLANES LAND ON THE BEACH!

The airport is operated by Highlands and Islands Airports Limited, which owns most of the regional airports in mainland Scotland and the outlying islands. Established in 1936, the airport's only destination is Glasgow.

Flights are booked up months in advance during the summer, so it's worth booking early via the Loganair website (the only airline running flights to Barra). Costs will be around £80 per person.

Barra Airport welcomes around 14,000 visitors each year. The airport is an experience to behold; landing on the beach is definitely a "butt-clenching" moment.

A bus is available from the airport to take you to Castlebay, but you can also hire a car from Carhire Hebrides to make it more convenient to explore all the island has to offer.

Flying to Barra over a sandy beach.
Barra looks much more exotic than you would expect!
Barra Airport plane
The beach is off limits while the airport is active.
Landing on sand at Barra Airport.
Would you like to experience this flight?

Neighbouring islands

Many islands can be found near Barra, including Muldoanich, Sandray, Pabbay, Fuday, Hellisay, Fuiay, Uist and Barra Head. The largest islands near Barra are as follows:


One of the notable islands near Barra is Mingulay, the second largest of the Bishop's Isles in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Located 12 nautical miles (22 kilometres) south of Barra, it's known for its important seabird populations, including puffins, black-legged kittiwakes, and razorbills, which nest in the sea-cliffs, amongst the highest in the British Isles.

Mingulay is an uninhabited island, abandoned by its Gaelic-speaking residents in 1912 and has remained uninhabited since. The island also features in this excellent song by Skippinish, "The Clearances Again", sung by a local fisherman in protest of new restrictions to fishing around the islands. Have a listen below:


Vatersay, the southernmost and westernmost inhabited island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, is known for its unique geographical and cultural features. The island is irregularly shaped and composed of two rocky parts, north and south, linked by a sandy isthmus.

This isthmus is covered in sand dunes and is flanked by large white-sand beaches on either side: Bàgh Siar (West Bay) and Bàgh Bhatarsaigh (Vatersay Bay) to the east. The island measures approximately 3 miles (5 kilometres) from north to south, with the northern section stretching about 3.5 miles (5.5 kilometres) from west to east

Lewis & Harris

Further north but in the same chain of islands is Lewis and Harris, the largest islands of the Outer Hebrides.

Tourist attractions on the Isle of Barra

Barra Golf Club

Barra Golf Club, located on the Isle of Barra in the Western Isles of Scotland, boasts the most westerly golf course in the United Kingdom. The club was established in 1992 and is situated at Cleat, near the Isle Of Barra Hotel and 6 miles from Castlebay. Despite being a small course, it offers stunning views over the Atlantic Ocean and is uniquely attractive with its natural contours and elevated links.

The 9-hole course stretches over 2396 yards and is set on machair land (low-lying grassy plain), which provides an excellent natural turf playing surface. The course is particularly noteworthy for its exceptional attractiveness and the stunning views it offers over the Atlantic.

The club has a lease on the land for the course from the Cleat crofting township for 25 years. While the club doesn't have a clubhouse, it is planning to build one as a 'millennium' project. The future clubhouse site promises to offer beautiful views over the beach and parts of the course and out into the Atlantic.

Barra Golf Club charges a daily visitor rate of £10.00, and memberships are also available, with the full membership cost at £90.00. There are different membership types, including Off Island Membership (£70.00), Student Membership (£40.00), and Junior Membership (Ages 12-16, £20.00). For details about membership or any other enquiries, the Club Secretary, Roddy McIntyre, can be contacted

Kayaking & Surfing

Isle of Barra Surf and Coastal Adventures is well placed to provide a great day on the waters off Barra. Sea kayak trips, paddle boards and surfing are all on offer.


There are a variety of walks available on Barra in addition to all the fantastic coastal locations.

  • Castlebay and Ledaig shore (1.75 miles) - In this relatively short walk, you'll venture eastward from Castlebay towards a quaint headland that offers a stunning vantage point of the diminutive islet known as Orasaigh. The bay's panorama unfolds beautifully from this spot, while the rugged shoreline invites exploration. With a touch of luck, you may even spot Barra seals and other local wildlife in their natural habitat.

  • Dùn Ban and Halaman Bay, Tangasdale (3 miles) - This exceptional walk guides you along the banks of Loch Tangasdale before traversing a desolate, stony terrain en route to the awe-inspiring iron-age stronghold of Dùn Ban. Poised in a superb location, the fort is a testament to the island's ancient heritage. The journey back includes visiting Halaman Beach, an area renowned for its outstanding beauty and popularity among visitors and locals on Barra.

  • Eoligarry Explorer (5.5 miles) - Occupying the northernmost stretch of Barra, the Eoligarry peninsula offers an array of experiences through its diverse walking trail. The path invites you to scale a modest hill, promising rewarding vistas at its peak, and leads to an old church and dun, stirring echoes of the past. The sight of stunning beaches accentuates the journey, each a picture of tranquillity. An added charm of this route is a café at the airport, providing a cosy spot for a well-deserved break.

  • Heaval, from Castlebay (3.25 miles) - Heaval is the highest point on the Isle of Barra and rises high above Castlebay. It's a short and steep walk, but it will reward you with stunning views of the island and Castlebay on clear days.

  • Dùn Cuithir archaeological walk, Allasdale (5 miles) - This moderate walk takes you through rough moorland on the island's west side. The main draw is the many archaeological sites that can be found, including an ancient broch and a chambered cairn.

It's also possible to hire bikes in Castlebay from Barra Bike Hire. Consider cycling to Vatersay, it's an exceptional route, but you will need moderate fitness.

View from Heaval on Barra. Beautiful islands.
The steep walk up Heaval is rewarded with this view.
Geography of Barra. inhabited islands in the South Hebrides.
The amazing landscapes of Barra.

FAQs on the Isle of Barra

Here are a few frequently asked questions on the Isle of Barra.

What is the Isle of Barra known for?

Beautiful beaches, the castle of Kisimul, the airport using the beach for a runway, wildlife and archaeology.

Landing on a wet beach airport. Hebridean sea tours.
A beach landing is not for the faint hearted.

Who owns the Isle of Barra?

The Isle of Barra is part of the Scottish islands off the west coast of Scotland.

How to get to the Isle of Barra?

Ferry or aeroplane are your only two options. All ferries terminate in Castlebay, coming from Lochboisdale, Oban and Tiree. The ferry from Oban will take just under five hours, the Calmac website will have costs and booking information.

If you fancy flying, you can catch a small aeroplane from Glasgow directly to Barra Airport on the island's north side.

Can you visit Barra without a car?

It's possible to get around Barra without a car, but expect to do a lot of walking, potentially over 5 miles, to get to some sites. For example, if you wanted to walk from the airport to Castlebay, it will likely take you around 3 hours on foot to walk the 8.1 miles.

public bus service is also available if you don't have the energy to walk everywhere!

How long does it take to drive around Barra?

The road on Barra is circular, with a lead-off to the north to reach Barra Airport. In a car travelling the A888, you could drive from Castlebay and back within an hour.

Where is the best place to stay on Barra?

Consider Craigard Hotel for accommodation or an evening meal in Castlebay; it has excellent views of the castle and docking ferries. Also, consider the Isle of Barra Beach Hotel on the island's west side. Why not sample some gin from Barra Distillers at the Castlebay Bar?

Kisimul Castle near the town of Castlebay. Boat tours are available.
Kisimul Castle.

Key information on the Isle of Barra

  • The Isle of Barra is in the west of Scotland near the bottom of the Outer Hebrides.

  • Barra Airport has no runway, just a beach!

  • Barra has a long, fascinating history dating back to Neolithic times.

  • Kisimul Castle, a large medieval castle, exists near Castlebay on the south side of the island.

  • The island was affected by the Highland Clearances and lost much of its population.

  • Castlebay is the largest settlement on the island.

  • Most people speak Scottish Gaelic on Barra.

  • There are many nearby islands to explore, including Vatersay and Mingulay.

  • The island offers golf, kayaking and many walks for tourists.

  • Accessible by aeroplane or ferry from the Scottish mainland.

  • Barra is home to many lovely beaches.


The Isle of Barra in Scotland is a hidden gem that promises an unforgettable experience to its visitors. Its rich history, distinctive geography, and vibrant culture converge to create a soothing and stimulating atmosphere. Barra has something for everyone, from the unique Barra Airport, with its beach runway, to the inviting golf course that boasts magnificent views and the serene walking trails that crisscross the island.

Its neighbouring islands, Vatersay and Mingulay, add to the allure, offering their own unique landscapes and stories.

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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Hi, please leave a comment below, or why not start a discussion on the forum?


Ally Morrison
8th of August 2023 @ 12:48:32

Originally from Lewis myself but married in Fochabers for 30 years, your adaptation and opinion on Barra is spot on , we as Islanders have known the beauty and way if life in our lovely islands but recently we see disrespect from visitors who have now discovered this hidden jewel I hope it remains Highland and Scottish for time and memorial.. But we'll done your site is comprehensive and we'll put together..

Barry Sobey
1st of August 2023 @ 03:25:48

I am visiting your island next month and am looking forward to comparing the islands way of life to the Cornish way of life living close to Bodmin moor