10 Things You Need To Know
About The Isle of Barra
We’re all going on a summer holiday. We’re all going to… the Isle of Barra.
Okay, so maybe this isn’t your plan right now, but I hope it will be. When I first visited this Hebridean gem, it was the first time ever I’d chosen a destination in Scotland as my summer beach holiday. I blame that great ball of fire in the sky; if only it made an appearance more often, us Scots would be far less inclined to venture off abroad.
Barra was my tenth Scottish island, and it was my trip there that really accelerated my desire to see more of the islands. My adventures have since been focused around island-hopping, so much so that I challenged myself to visit thirty islands before my thirtieth birthday and… I DID IT.
Despite racking up a number of new additions to my list of Scottish islands, Barra remains is my top three, and I very doubt it will ever be shifted from this spot.
Wondering why I loved it so much? Here are ten things you should know.
1. It is the epitome of ‘good things come in small packages’
Us Scottish folk have a tendency to throw around the word ‘wee’, even in instances where something isn’t all that small. I can assure you however that Barra definitely falls into the ‘wee’ category.
At just 8 miles x 5 miles at the widest point, it’s certainly not one of Scotland’s larger islands, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in beauty and character.
Barra supplies infinite scenic stimulation, fantastic local produce, and an enviable and palpable sense of community, all rooted in a rich clan history.
Still not convinced? Read on.
2. You’ll fly into the most beautiful airport in the world.
Gliding down onto the shimmering sands of the beach at Barra Airport is not your everyday aviation experience and should feature somewhere on every travel wish-list. It is the only commercial beach landing IN THE WORLD and the flight times are, of course, dictated by the tides.
The flight itself is the stuff that scenic dreams are made off. Look down upon the wild beauty of the Highlands, the iconic colourful facades of Tobermory, and coastlines so beautiful they will pull on your heart-strings.
The approach to Barra really would have you convinced it was somewhere far more exotic. Famous as it is, the flight is always met by a crowd of spectators eager to capture the pocket-sized plane on its decent.
Post-landing, I have never been so charmed by an airport in my life; witnessing such a unique, small-scale operation was a real novelty. I particularly enjoyed watching my baggage come off the flight at the same time as me, before being deposited in a bus shelter – sorry the ’Baggage Reclaim’ – outside the wee dinky building.
I would urge everyone and anyone to do this flight in their lifetime. My thoughts throughout the journey were variations of…
“Why the hell haven’t I done this before?!”
3. OR you will sail towards a castle in a beautiful bay.
If low flying, miniature propellor planes are not your thing, you can instead enjoy a sea-based journey to Barra on the ferry from Oban.
When dry land comes into sight and you see an ancient castle rise from the surface of the water, and don’t worry, it’s not that you’ve just had too many ‘Malts of the Month’ on the CalMac ferry!
Kisimul Castle (pronounced Kish-imul) is an emblem of the island, and gives the main town of Castlebay its name; a reminder that us Scots were traditionally fond of a say-it-as-you-see-it naming approach.
You can visit the castle via a short boat transfer, or just enjoy it’s prominence on the liquid horizon from almost anywhere in Castlebay.
4. After a visit to Cafe Kisimul, fish curry will never taste the same again.
Yup, you’ve guess it – this island eatery is also named after the aforementioned castle. AND, if you choose to eat alfresco you can gawk at said castle while you savour your seafood. Do expect some souvenir midge bites for the pleasure however!
Cafe Kisimul is an island institution, and one which I had high expectations of based on some strong recommendations from fellow Scottish travel enthusiasts.
Glancing over the Indian/Italian menu, a wave of indecisiveness washed over me as I struggled to commit to any of the seriously seductive seafood dishes; first world problems.
Less than an hour later, I congratulated myself on two outstanding choices – the scallop pakora, followed by a cod & monkfish, tuna based masala.
The meal was so good, we put down our cutlery and immediately rebooked for the following evening. Enough said.
5. The weather forecast is as accurate as Scotland’s myths and legends.
Lets be honest, I may have had a series of internal hissy-fits every time I checked the weather forecast before my ‘summer holiday’ to Barra. Four days of incessent rain, with a cheeky thunderstorm also thrown into the mix. Great!
I needn’t have bothered with an alarm on my first morning in Barra – the force of the rain against my garden cabin was like nature’s equivalent to a brass band. It wasn’t to last however…
By the time we had washed our breakfast dishes in the hostel kitchen, lazer beams of sunlight burst through the sky over Castlebay, triumphantly defeating the cluster of rainclouds and clearing the way for a day of exploration.
A pattern emerged during the trip; intermittent downpours, wild gusts of wind, but overall dry conditions with ample sunshine and blue skies.
The weather is a tease, and the forecast was as useful as a chocolate teapot.
6. The hilly cycle to Vatersay is SO worth it.
Vatersay is an idyllic little isle – the most southernly in the Outer Hebrides – and is conveniently connected to Barra via a short causeway.
“The cycle there is easy”, they said. “It’s only a few miles”, they said.
Okay so it wasn’t a particularly long cycle, but it involved an unexpected series of rollercoaster inclines and dips – far more than my average level of fitness appreciated.
The dreamy coastine quickly quelled any temptation to moan, and distracted me to the point that I nearly fell off my bike.
The beaches were sublime and serene, the kind that provoke a “NO WAY! Is this really Scotland?” reaction.
Even the local cows couldn’t resist an afternoon at the seaside.
7. Honesty really is the best policy.
Honesty jars and boxes; not something you’re ever likely to see in a city. It just wouldn’t work, would it?
On the Isle of Barra, the first honesty jar I saw was in the entrance to our hostel; accessed through a permanently unlocked door. The Dunard Hostel promotes a come-and-go-as-you-please vibe, and you might not even encounter the hostel owners during your stay.
The solution? A blackboard with your name and room on it, a system requiring no room keys/cards, and an honesty jar to leave your outstanding balance. Talk about trusting!
The shower room is available to non-guests, again in exchange for a donation in the honesty jar. AND, if you’re a fan of mackeral, look no further than the hostel fridge, where local youngsters catch it fresh from right outside. Your donations = well earned pocket money.
This system of honesty and trust is one of the things I loved most about Barra.
8. The Castlebay Bar is good for your soul, and bad for your health!
You will inevitably end up in the legendary Castlebay Bar, whether you like it not. The simple task of walking in a straight line will become a challenge when you succumb to a night in this renowned establishment.
This aint no pretty pub, and chances are your pint will taste funky. What can be guaranteed however is a night of top banter, drunken shenanigans, and if you’re lucky, a performance from the notorious Vatersay Boys.
An authentic Barra experience relies upon a visit to this pub. It’s your duty.
9. The locals will welcome you with…. an open door to their vehicle.
Picture the scene, you walk into a local bar to be met with a wild-west style silence and unwelcome glares, tumbleweed cartwheeling across the ground you desperately want to swallow you up.
That is everything that Barra is NOT.
Cast aside any preconceived ideas of insular islanders when you visit this island, and expect curious glances, followed by new-found island friends.
When you’re out walking, be prepared for vehicles to slow down beside you, and offer you a lift to wherever they are going. You have no idea how grateful we were for this simple act of kindness during a sudden downpour.
The people really do make a place, and I’ve never experienced this more than on Barra.
10. There’s a reason it’s called Barra-dise and Barra-bados.
Barra really is a wee slice of paradise. It often resembles a far-flung tropical land, and the island experience is guaranteed to detox your mind and feed your soul.
Whether you arrive by sea or air, explore by foot or bike, indulge in scenery, seafood or whisky (I’ll take all three please), this island will leave an irrevocable imprint on you.
It’s a simple kind of paradise, and it’s right here in bonnie Scotland. Slainte to that!