Barra, Outer Hebrides – where the plane lands on the beach

The island of Barra offers many typical Outer Hebridean themes: strong Gaelic identity, sense of heritage, plus amazing beaches – take a short trip to Vatersay at least. Hope for sun though. And, yes, it’s the island where the plane lands on the beach.

Castlebay is the main centre on the island of Barra, down at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides. These islands on the western rim of Scotland end like a chain shedding links.

At the bottom end – the south end – from South Uist, a causeway leads to tiny Eriskay, then it’s 40 minutes on the ferry to Barra, in turn joined by a causeway to another tiny island: Vatersay.

After that, well, there are other bare and rocky outcroppings  – of which the best-known is Mingulay, thanks to a song –  but none occupied these days.

How to get to the Isle of Barra

Final approach Barra Airport, aka The Beach.  Not a sheep or a cockle picker in sight. They've been shooed away.
Final approach Barra Airport, aka The Beach. Not a sheep or a cockle picker in sight. They’ve been shooed away.

Most people come by sea, on the Calmac ferry from Oban that either sails directly to Castlebay on Barra, or calls first at Lochboisdale in South Uist. The journey should be less than five hours.

There is also a 40 minute ferry crossing from the island of Eriskay to Barra, should you be taking in other islands in the chain.

If you fly, then of course you have the excitement of that quite famous (and unique) landing on the beach. There are direct flights from Glasgow Airport. There are also connections between from Benbecula and Stornoway in the Outher Hebrides.

What to do on the Islands of Barra and Vatersay

So Barra is the full stop on the island sentence. It’s kinda round like a full stop or period as well. What’s it got? Well, that all depends on whether or not the sun shines.

If you waken up on the first morning and look out to a perfect reflection of Kisimul Castle in the bay and the sky is blue, then get that breakfast over and done with quickly.

There are beaches to see, sands to stroll on, views to admire.

Traigh Eais, near the airport on Barra
Traigh Eais, near the airport on Barra

(Pictured here) This is Traigh Eais, which is definitely not Gaelic for ‘the beach at the back of the airport’. Nevertheless, that’s where it is. And there are plenty more.

What To See On Barra

If it’s raining then, I suppose, you could visit Kisimul Castle. Ho-hum. (By the way, ho-hums on this website are never a very encouraging noise.)

Oh, wait. You can’t. At time of writing it’s closed because bits are falling off it or something.

You could take in Barra Heritage and Cultural Centre.

Or…watch the plane land on the beach…or…well, just wait around till the rain stops. Drive round the island perhaps. It won’t take you long. Cyclists should check the wind direction first.

Blinding white sands…

Here are some pictures of Barra in the sunshine. I thought I was going to get some kind of snow-blindness, so white were the sands.

There is a ‘Three Beaches” walk on adjoining Vatersay but you may be beguiled on any one of them just to sit slack-jawed, listening to the water and the cries of seabirds. There will be no other sound.

Incidentally, we were reminded of Vatersay when we had a day exploring the beaches of Connemara when in Ireland.

Many of Barra’s beaches are only seconds from a parking place, should you be of a particularly indolent disposition. There is archaeology too; ancient religious sites…piles of significant stones of various sorts.

Beach on Vatersay
Beach on Vatersay
Barra And The Clearances

There is a deserted village (Balnabodach) reiterating the prevailing Hebridean theme of desertion, depopulation and/or wicked forced clearance.

Colonel Gordon of Cluny is an infamous name around here. Many of these themes can be explored at the heritage centre, Dualchas, in Castlebay.

Just as an aside, though Gordon of Cluny was an appalling landlord after he bought Barra in the 1830s, his predecessor, Colonel Roderick MacNeil, last chief of the Clan MacNeil, was just as bad.

He coerced his tenants to work in the kelp processing factory he had built at Northbay on Barra. In operation by 1835, this was a unique example of forced labour in Scotland.

(And enough to put you off visiting Kisimul Castle, though that isn’t altogether rational! Besides, the castle’s closed.)

Castlebay from the Vatersay Road
Castlebay from the Vatersay Road.

(Pictured) Castlebay from the Vatersay Road. Could I get a picture with the sun on the houses? Nope – though the sun shone on Vatersay just minutes later. But at least it shows there is a castle and a bay. The castle is the squarish structure on the right, in the bay.

Kisimul Castle in Castlebay on the Isle of Barra
Kisimul Castle in Castlebay on the Isle of Barra. Looks weirdly semi-tropical from this angle. It isn’t.
Eating On Barra

As for refreshments and accommodation, there is of course a choice of bed and breakfasts and self-catering places. We ate at the Castlebay Hotel.

Delicious soups, disappointing main courses. Choose carefully. But these places change over time – so who knows? Could be better. Could be worse. As ever, TripAdvisor is your guide…

And we only got our beer in the pub part of the hotel after the barman had finished his cigarette and decided to detach himself from a bunch of lads standing outside in the evening sunshine to come in and serve us.

But, hey, it was a nice beer and worth waiting for.  Still, it’s the sort of thing you always remember and it colours your thoughts on the place…

Friends who visited in 2022 said that Cafe Kisimul is the place to eat and gets a really good name, setting the standard for the island.

Oh, and the Barra Airport cafe does a perfectly acceptable coffee.

In Castlebay, the Hebridean Toffee Company is another option.  You can sit outside on their decking if it’s fine. Their café does a lot more than toffee. 

Visiting Kisimul Castle – Naah

(Know what? I’m just going to keep the following paras on this page even though you can’t visit the castle at the moment.)

Castlebay has (as we have pretty firmly established by now) a castle in the bay. Johanna visited. Kisimul Castle is in the care of Historic Environment Scotland, our government agency charged with stopping very old historic things from falling down totally.

Usually they are very good on interpretation, but Johanna returned disappointed from this castle experience.

Kisimul Castle has little interpretation in its sparse rooms. Your entrance fee also buys you a walk round the ramparts, ho-hum, and a wee circuit by boat of the rocky islet on which the fortress sits.

That day, the boatman seemed to be of an especially taciturn disposition plus the whole experience only takes about half an hour.

Barra oystercatcher and thrift
Barra oystercatcher and thrift.

Anyway, after this wholly uncharacteristic Historic Environment Scotland offering, Johanna was  suitably underwhelmed.

Also, she was doubly disappointed when she learned that I had been sitting in the sunshine on the rocks near the dunes at Tangasdale – just a couple of minutes drive from Castlebay – and had seen an otter.

I missed the photo and had to make do with an oystercatcher and some thrift though. I hope you’ll make do with it as well. 

Common all around the Scottish coasts, the oystercatcher’s piping call reaches a peak of hysteria during the breeding season.

The thrift plant meanwhile, used to appear on old threepenny bits but (even if you are from the UK) most of you won’t remember that anyway. But it’s a characteristic coastal plant.

Memorial to wartime Catalina flying-boat crash.
Memorial to wartime Catalina flying-boat crash. Wreckage still lies next to memorial, far left. Vatersay.
Poignant Memorials of war

Meanwhile, there is another theme, possibly not always noticed, and equally unexpected for the casual visitor. It runs through Barra and up into the rest of the Outer Hebrides.

We were reminded of it on the road to Vatersay – when we noticed a gully full of aluminium spars and sheeting.

The broken metal was once a Catalina, a wartime flying boat. A very dignified little memorial records the tragic loss of some of the crew when the plane crashed nearby.

Even more poignantly, there was a little wreath at its base, left by the family of one of the crash survivors. He lived till 2011. His comrades died in 1944. This was a thought-provoking reminder of the sacrifice made by that generation of young men.

Outer Hebrides in wartime

Reminders of conflict seem such an instrusion in these peaceful out-of-the-way places.

Though the localities are mentioned on other pages on this site, when you get to Eriskay, take a look at the local kirkyard (just by the pub).

There you will find a sad little row in the corner of unidentified Merchant Navy graves.

Or visit the ancient churchyard of Nunton on Benbecula, where – amongst others – three Australian servicemen have their last resting place after their aircraft came down short of the runway at RAF Benbecula.

It’s very sobering to find Commonwealth War Graves in such a seemingly remote rural setting. 

Just a reminder that these islands face the open Atlantic and had an important role to play in the WWII Battle of the Atlantic and the containment of  the German U-boats.

Landing on Barra
Landing on Barra. The timetable is dependent on the tide.

Barra, like the rest of the Outer Hebrides, is a very good place for otters.

Pictured here is a Twin Otter that has just landed on the beach, or airport, as it is called on Barra.

Every time a plane comes in staff also have to shoo away not just the occasional deranged sheep but also cockle harvesters. 

Is Barra Worth Visiting?

So, overall, should you go to Barra? If you are outdoorsy, then, yes, probably.

You might find better dining than we did on our last trip. (Actually, you will, as Cafe Kisimul wasn’t around when we last visited.) You might get that great shot of the otter.

(Wait on the rocks west of the bay at Tangasdale, a few minutues NNW of Castlebay – fine walk here towards Doirlinn Head.) But there are plenty of them about.

Barra makes a good introduction to the main themes of the Outer Hebrides, as mentioned here, if heading northbound. And its Gaelic speaking community is strong and resourceful.

However, in early April 2023, the local police issued a warning notice to Barra visitors. Not everyone who visits is, apparently, very conscientious or respectful. (Let’s face it…the sort of people who might be happier in some beer-and-chips built-up resort…maybe in Spain. I don’t know.)

Anyway, the local bobbies say that visitors need to take in the island “with consideration to other visitors and those lucky enough to live here all year round”. Parking in passing places, throwing rubbish around and uncontrolled rampaging dogs are some of the complaints. Really, it’s enough to put you off…

Read more about the other Western Isles, say: Eriskay or the Uists and Benbecula; or the top end of the islands: Lewis or Harris.