Sunday, 5 August 2012

Barra and Vatersay

Here's a bit of information on the first two islands I visited in the Outer Hebrides:


The island covers about 20 square miles and is 6 miles long and around 5 miles wide. The highest point in Heavel at 383 metres. The main village is Castlebay which is where the ferry from Oban docks and where the majority of the island's population of about 1300 live. There's a small grocer's shop and a larger Co-op, a few hotels and coffee shops, an Italian/Indian restaurant, a tourist information office, an ATM and a post office. The airport is to the north of the island and is the world's only beach airport to have scheduled flights. As the planes land on the beach the times of the flights are of course tide-dependent.

In the bay of Castlebay there is, appropriately enough, a castle. The exact age of Kisimul Castle is disputed, but there was probably a broch here long before there was ever a castle. The castle is owned and managed by Historic Scotland and the ticket price included the short boat journey over to it.

There is also a heritage centre on the road to the west heading out of Castlebay. Next to the heritage centre is the sports centre with pool and sauna. Campervan campers and wild campers can get a shower here for £1.05.

The filming of Whisky Galore! (based on the book of the same name by Compton Mackenzie) took place on Barra, though the incident about which the book is a fictionalised account actually took place on neigbouring Eriskay. Compton Mackenzie is now buried at St Barr's Church on the road past the the airport.

Barra has several standing stones, cairns and fort remains, reflecting its ancient history. St Barr, a follower of St Columbine, is reputed to have come here in the seventh century. Later the Vikings laid claim before the Macneils gained control. The name Macneil is still common on the island today as can be seen on the gravestones in the graveyard of St Barr's Church.

The island did not fair well in the clearances of the 1800s and many islanders emigrated to Canada. The herring industry was important in the 1800s and 1900s with many curing stations operating along the shore of the bay.

Barra is a mainly Catholic island, meaning the Sunday restrictions found in some of the other islands do not apply here. Looking at the readers' letters page of the Stornoway Gazette has given me a taste of things to come as so many of the letters were contributed by God-fearing folk and had a religious slant to them. One example is a letter objecting to the name of a band that took part in the recent Barra festival. The band was called The Holy Ghosts and the reader objected to God's name being taken in vain.


Since 1991 Vatersay has been joined to Barra by means of a causeway. The causeway was built to make the amenities of Barra more accessible to the Vatersay residents with the aim of enabling them to stay put on their island thus stemming the population decline. The island, which is currently the most southerly inhabited of the Outer Hebrides, now has a population of around 120.

The island is 3 miles long and about 2.5 miles across at its widest. It has an hour-glass figure with its pinched-in middle having a sandy beach running either side. The majority of the population now live in the village of Vatersay situated in the south of the island. There is a community centre and a post office, but not much else in the way of facilities.

Vatersay was inhabited in prehistoric times as well as by the Vikings. In more recent time Vatersay was owned as a single farm by Gordon of Cluny. This was the time of the clearances and the population was decimated. The clearances meant there was also a shortage of land for crofting in the surrounding islands. As a desperate measure a group from Barra and Mingulay 'invaded' and set up crofts under an ancient law which said that anyone building a house and lighting a fire in its hearth on the same day could claim the land. The landlord did not agree and several of the Vatersay Raiders, as they became known, were imprisoned. Eventually the island was bought by the government and the land was split into 58 crofts.

Vatersay is also associated with two wrecks which are remembered with monuments. The first is that of the Annie Jane, a boat taking people emigrating from Liverpool to America in 1853. Although about a quarter of those on board survived the shipwreck, over 300 lost their lives and many are buried on Vatersay.

The second wreck is that of a WWII Catalina flying boat. Although the majority of the crew survived, three lost their lives. A memorial has been erected alongside the remains of the wreckage.

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