Barra lies almost at the southern end of the Western Isles archipelago, and for many visitors it is the highlight of their tour of the Western Isles: being home not only to the friendliest bunch of people you are likely to meet anywhere, but also to some truly stunning scenery.
Barra is an irregularly-shaped island measuring some eight miles by five: it's tempting to think of it as resembling a giant turtle, swimming north east. The encircling A888 marks the outline of its shell, and there are four flippers projecting beyond it. Those at the front are more delicate: those at the rear are more heavily built, and there's a head sticking out to the north east.
The island was granted to Gilleonan MacNeil in 1427 by Alexander MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, and was to stay in the MacNeil family for over 400 years, largely thanks to the impregnability of the clan seat of Kisimul Castle, in Castle Bay.
What other Clans had failed to take from the MacNeils by force was lost in 1838 when the 40th Chief of the Clan, Roderick MacNeil became bankrupt and was forced to sell Barra to Colonel Gordon of Cluny for £38,050. Colonel Gordon then proceeded to clear much of the island of its tenants to make way for sheep. In 1851 most of Barra's residents were forced to board ships bound for North America, all their belongings confiscated as they left.
In 1937 the American architect Robert MacNeil, who had been recognised as the 45th Clan Chief of the MacNeils, visited Barra soon after the opening of the airport on the island. He purchased most of the Barra estate lost to the family in 1838, including Kisimul Castle.
The island's village capital of Castlebay has long been seen as the main gateway to Barra. It is the terminus for the ferry link to Oban and Lochboisdale in South Uist. From 2003, the island opened a new "back door" with the full operation of the Sound of Barra Ferry linking Ardmhor in northern Barra with Eriskay, which in turn is linked by causeway to South Uist.
Castlebay is dominated by the attractive Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea, while at the west end of the village is Dualchas (the Barra Heritage Centre). From the west end of Castlebay a side road heads south to the causeway linking Barra with Vatersay.
You can think of Barra as a shoreline of rocky bays and stunning beaches surrounding a largely inaccessible and mountainous interior. Apart from Castlebay itself, the only significant settlements are around Northbay in the north east of the island, and Borve in the west.
A detour from the main road taking in the northern end of the island is an important part of the Barra experience. Here lies the main fishing harbour of Aird Mhidhinis, industrial but full of character. Here, too, is the terminus for the Sound of Barra Ferry. And close by is Barra's world famous beach airport at Traigh Mhor. North again is Eoligarry with the ruined church and chapels of Cille Bharra and stunning views to Fuday and to Eriskay beyond it.
Barra Fest: If you are planning to visit Barra in mid-July you should explicitly ask whether your visit will coincide with "Barra Fest". This festival sees Barra become the place to be for the west of Scotland's youth culture for one weekend each year. If that's your scene, fine. If it isn't, you need to know that the character of Castlebay and parts of the island is very different from its normal tranquil self for this couple of days.
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