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Oct 28 2014

The Isles of Barra and Vatersay

This will sound a bit strange coming from a Brit who is a world traveller, but the Outer Hebrides seemed like a place far, far away.  It isn’t.  In fact, it’s much closer and more accessible that many of the places I’ve travelled to in recent years,  However, that was my perception as a child and it stayed with me into adulthood.

When I left Glasgow at the beginning of August, I never thought I would end up in the Outer Hebrides.  It never entered my head until I got chatting to a Scottish couple the day I visited the Isle of Iona.  The woman was originally from one of the Outer Hebridean islands and they were on holiday on the Isle of Mull.  She talked about the islands with such passion.  It sounded magical and, as I didn’t have a route planned out and I was in the right vicinity, I had no reason not to go, providing I could get accommodation in my price range.

I was nearest to the Isle of Barra, so I phoned up both hostels on the island.  One was full, but the other had a spare bed due to a cancellation.  I was in luck.  I booked that bed and, when I returned to Oban, I bought a ticket to Barra for later that day.  It was meant to be.  I had a bit of time, so I put my bag into one of the lockers at the train station beside the ferry terminal.  I had lunch and used the free WiFi before heading off to stock up on some supplies – insect repellent and a couple of other essential items.

Tickets Oban to Castlebay

Isle of Barra

I travelled to Barra from Oban, which is on the mainland, because it isn’t possible to take a ferry from the Isle of Mull to the Isle of Barra.

The journey by ferry took about five and a half hours.  For hours, there wasn’t much to see apart from the open sea.  The sky, however, was incredible with interesting cloud formations and the pastel pink and blue in the sky.  Then, as we edged closer to Barra, we started to see tiny, uninhabited islands.  This was the Outer Hebrides.  It was like nothing I had ever seen with islands dotted all over.

Ferry Oban - Castlebay

The closer we got to Barra, the more excited I got.  Finally, the ferry docked in Castlebay and I took my first step onto an Outer Hebridean island.  After all those years of thinking about it as a distant land, I had finally made it.  That was a pretty special feeling.

Arrival in Castlebay

I made my way to the hostel, which was just a short walk from the port.  I was shown my bed and I asked if there was a shop where I could get some food and general supplies.  To my surprise there was a Co-op, which stays open until 10pm.  The ferry arrived slighly later than the planned arrival time of 8.30pm, so I had to get a move on.  The Co-op is a great store, which holds pretty much everything you need.  I returned to the hostel, prepared something quick to eat, and sat staring out at the sea, drinking a beer.  It still wasn’t completely dark at 10pm, which amazed me.  I breathed a sigh of relief and felt really content and grateful to be in such a beautiful place.  I knew immediately that this was going to be good.

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Unfortunately, the contentment didn’t last because the hostel was booked for the next night.  That meant I had nowhere to stay.  If I had brought a tent and camping equipment, it wouldn’t have been a big issue, but I hadn’t.  So, my options were: Pay more per night if I could get a room somewhere else.  That would limit how long I could continue travelling for.  As I would be in a B&B, I wouldn’t have the option of cooking, which would mean buying lunch and an evening meal.  That would have been fine if I had budgeted for it, but I hadn’t.  I hadn’t because this trip was spontaneous and completely unplanned.  My second option was to leave the island.  That was the last resort because I had only just arrived.  I met someone at the hostel who did just that, which was a shame.  In a last ditch attempt, before following up on either of those options, I rang the only other hostel on the island to see if they had had a cancellation.  They hadn’t, but the woman was really kind.  She said that she had another option.  She had a caravan that I could stay in, although I’d have to use the same, showers, toilets, and kitchen facilities as the campers.  There was a light at the end of the tunnel after all.  I could stay on Barra.  It was a bit of a way from Castlebay, but she offered to pick me up in the afternoon.  Perfect!  Without hesitation, I said I’d take it.  What a relief that was, I can tell you.  As I was going to be further away, I went back to the Co-op and picked up more supplies to keep me going and then I had a wander around Castlebay.

Castlebay

Castlebay

Castlebay is the main town on the Isle of Barra.  It’s tiny, cute, and picturesque.  If you arrive on Barra by ferry, you will pass Kissimul Castle.  It’s a castle on its own tiny island, just off the shore of Barra.  If you fancy it, you can take a short boat ride to the island to visit this 15th century castle which was once the seat of the MacNeil Clan.

Heaval is the highest summit on the island.  The day I wanted to go up, it was raining.  The ground was sodden and the sky was grey.  You really need a clear day to make the most of it.  It’s a shame because I would have loved to have seen the view from there.  While I was in a shop, I overheard some locals talking about the annual Heaval race that had taken place the day before.  People from all over descend on the island to run up and down.  Just getting up there would have pleased me.

I saw some posters for a potato competition.  I found out that it was taking place at the local pub the day I was there.  This is also an annual event, it seems.  It’s a way of raising money for different causes.  I had no idea what a potato competition was nor what to expect, so I had to investigate.  I mean, what on earth could a potato competition be?  I was about to find out and be astounded at some of the entries.

Balnabodach

Caravan on Barra

I moved to a caravan on the east of the island to a hamlet called Balnabodach, which is about 3 miles or so from Castlebay.  I happened to be there during Hurricane Bertha and, boy, did I feel it one night.  I thought my caravan was going to end up on top of the campervan next to me.  Thankfully, it didn’t.

Staying outside the main town on the island when you don’t have a car is more of a challenge, but it isn’t impossible. I managed to catch the bus in the mornings by flagging it down.  I had to get out of my large town/city mentaity, thinking I had to wait at a bus stop.  There aren’t any, so the bus will stop wherever you are.  I met a few locals on the bus and I had the same bus driver pretty much the whole time I was on the island.

What I didn’t realise while I was in Balnabodach was that I was very close to the remains of a deserted village.  Excavations of the area have discovered artifacts that date back as far as 2000 BC and evidence that people from the Iron Age’ lived there from 200BC – AD200.

Barra Airport

Barra Airport

I like to get recommendations from locals on where to go.  However, I was a little perplexed when the locals on the Isle of Barra told me a great place to go for a walk was the around the airport.  That seemed a little strange, but I wanted to go to the airport to see planes landing and taking off on the beach.  That was a bit different and something I was really interested in seeing.  The locals were right about going there for a walk.  The beaches around the airport are incredible.  When the first plane was ready to land and take off, I found a little spot on the grass for myself for the spectacle to begin, with coffee and cake I had bought from the cafe in the airport terminal.  I was there for hours in the end.  It’s quite addictive.

Isle of Vatersay

Vatersay

If you stay on the Isle of Barra, even if you don’t have a car, you can get to the Isle of Vatersay.  You can either walk or take the bus.  There is a causeway that links the two islands and Vatersay has only one village on the island.

I took the bus to Castlebay, which is where it terminated.  What I didn’t realise was that it stops there for 30 mins and then continues on to Vatersay.  I started walking, expecting to pick up a different bus along the way, but lo and behold, it was the same driver with one of the same passengers on board, an elderly woman.  She said that once in a while rather than getting a bus straight back, she goes on a longer journey by taking the bus that goes all the way to the Isle of Vatersay before returning to Barra.  The scenery is spectacular, so it’s a wonderful scenic bus ride.

The bus driver and this local woman were very helpful. They told me where to go for a walk.  They said to take the coastal route round. I did that and, wow wee, the beaches looked fantastic: Deserted, white sandy beaches with the clear, light blue water lapping onto the shore.  Just watch out for the jellyfish that get washed up by the tide.

I was fortunate to be there on a day when the sky was blue and the sun was shining.  It was still very windy though.  The route wasn’t particularly well signposted, just as the locals had warned, so I got a little lost and didn’t exactly follow the route I was supposed to take. I did try.  It’s not a major problem because you really can’t get lost.  It’s far too small a place for that to happen.

Before I alighted the bus, the driver asked if I was ‘okay with cows’.  That seemed like a strange thing to ask, but I replied, ‘Yes, I think so.’  He said I would come across a lot of cows and to be careful because they can get aggressive.  If I wasn’t already concerned, I was by the time I had left the bus.  Sure enough, as I walked round, I came across a ton of cows, some of which had calves.  I carefully made my way round them.

After a long walk, having returned safely without incident, I walked to the community hall, which doubles as a cafe. It’s great.  I had proper coffee, which was a joy having had so much instant coffee, and a slice of homemade cake – yum! What a fantastic resource for locals and holidaymakers alike.  I relaxed for a bit before continuing on to see more of the island as I walked back towards Barra, picking up the bus as it made its final journey from Vatersay to Barra.

Perhaps it was the fact that it was my first Outer Hebridean island, but I loved Barra.  The longer I stayed, the longer I wanted to stay. I had to force myself to move on to explore the other islands.  For a small island, there is so much to see on both Barra and Vatersay.

Location

If you’re getting around by public transport, just be warned that the buses don’t always turn up.  That happened to me the day when I wanted to go to the ferry terminal to get a boat to Eriskay, the next Outer Hebridean island northbound.  I was very lucky because one of the lovely people working at the caravan site drove me to the ferry terminal.  If you’re a foot passenger, you don’t need to book.  Just turn up and buy the ticket on the ferry.  It’s only a 35-minute journey.  It only cost £8 as a foot passenger when I did it.  When you arrive on the other side, there will be a bus ready and waiting to take ferry passenger as far as Benbecula.

Have your say

Have you been to the Isles of Barra and Vatersay?  If so, what was your favourite bit?  Did you use public transport, cycle, or drive while you were there?  If you haven’t been, would you be interested in going?

About the author

Teresa Keane

Teresa has been to almost 60 countries. She started travelling independently at the age of 38 when she gave up her job, rented out her house, put her possessions in storage and spent a year travelling the world. It changed her life. She now creates, publishes, & promotes online travel content and is an experienced freelance trainer & EFL teacher.

2 comments

  1. John D

    Oh! the immortal words “in the potato we trust”. I’m sure I’d love that island.

    Kissimul Castle, at a glance reminds me of Castle Kirk (Caislean na Circe) on Lough Corrib.

    Well done with the images – they help tell the story of this scenic location.

  2. Teresa Keane

    I’m sure you would love it. It’s very similar to Ireland in so many ways. I’m glad you like the photos.

    Teresa.

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