Vatersay lies to the south of Barra, facing Castlebay across the Sound of Vatersay. Think of a capital letter "H" laid on its side, and you have a rough idea of the geography of the island. Overall it is approximately three miles by three, but so deeply indented by the sea from the east and west that only a narrow strip of machair, or sandy grassland and dunes, prevents it becoming two separate islands.
Vatersay has been the most southerly inhabited island in the Western Isles since 1912, when Mingulay was abandoned. Man has lived here for thousands of years, but Vatersay only really began to feature on the map as a result of land reform. By 1906 the island had been owned for many years by Lady Gordon Cathcart, who had visited it just once during the period. Her tenants farmed the whole island as a single holding.
Pressure on land throughout the Western Isles led one man to sail to the island and invoke an ancient right by erecting a thatched dwelling and lighting a fire within a single day. He was followed by others, who together became known as the Vatersay Raiders. Some were rewarded with imprisonment, but in 1909 the Government responded more positively by buying the island and divided it up into 58 crofts. Amongst the new residents was a very young Nan MacKinnon, who would late help preserve a vast wealth of traditional songs and folklore about Vatersay and Mingulay.
During the 1900s the island became known mostly for rearing beef, and for lobster fishing. Cattle were transported to market by ferry from Castlebay, but they first had to swim the 250m Sound of Vatersay to Barra. In 1986 a prize bull called Bernie drowned while making the crossing, and long-standing calls for a fixed link to Barra increased.
Construction began on a 250m causeway in 1989, and it officially came into use in July 1991. There are reports that the causeway had been used even before the road was laid along its top: and another oddity was that it was never formally opened. The causeway cost £3.7m and consumed nearly a quarter of a million tonnes of rock, most of it quarried from the Barra hillside immediately to the north.
The effect has been to transform access to and from Vatersay and bring stability to the population to ensure that Vatersay will never go the way of Mingulay and other abandoned outlying islands in the Western Isles. In 2001 it was home to 94 people.
The main settlement, a scattered township also called Vatersay, lies at the southern end of the machair bar linking the two main parts of the island together. In the nearby fields you can hear the now rare call of the corncrake. Elsewhere on the island a village called Eorasdail was established at the south eastern tip of Vatersay by fishermen from Mingulay, and was still occupied until the 1970s. Today it is abandoned and accessible only on foot.
For such a beautiful island, Vatersay has been marked more than once by tragedy: and the signs are still visible. A memorial and a cairn of rocks above West Bay marks the burial site of 350 men women and children whose bodies were washed ashore here on 28 September 1853. The three-masted sailing ship Annie Jane was en route from Liverpool to Quebec carrying over 450 emigrants when it was wrecked in West Bay during a storm. Fewer than a quarter of the crew and passengers made it ashore alive.
And between the shoreline and the road as it skirts the north side of Vatersay Bay is the very obvious wreckage of an aircraft scattered amongst the heather. This is all that remains of an RAF Catalina flying boat, JX273, which crashed higher up the hillside on 12 May 1944 during a training flight from Oban. Three of the nine men on board were killed. As you look at the wreckage, the surprising thing is that anyone survived.
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