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Planning A Trip To The Isle of Barra

Planning A Trip To The Isle of Barra

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Ah, the beautiful Isle of Barra- with its hilly landscape and craggy coastline, machair and moorland, sea and surf and some of the most fantastic beaches in the world.

We recently spent five blissful days on the island that has earned the nicknames Barradise and Barrabados, and now I’m here to help you plan your perfect island adventure!

Barra is an island that does require forward planning and you need to book some things well in advance. Having said that, you also need to have some flexibility and move with the flow of island life. Ferry/flight delays and cancellations and wild weather can disrupt your trip, so you need to be adaptable.

Remember- the islanders live with these inconveniences, and it’s all part of the charm of living life on a rugged and remote island.

In saying that, our trip went well with very few hitches!

In this guide, I’ve included the need-to-know information when planning a trip to Barra: how to get to Barra, what you need to know about the island’s opening hours, public transport options, things to do on Barra, and plenty more helpful tips!


The Isle of Barra: Sea, sand and serenity

The Isle of Barra is one of the most southern islands of the Outer Hebrides with a population of just over 1100. After Vatersay, it’s the second southernmost inhabited island. The island gets its name from Saint Barr (or Saint Finbarr).

At just 8 miles long and 5 miles wide, it takes only 40 minutes to drive the ring road that runs around the island, making it a relatively easy island to explore.

The west side of the island is known for its fantastic white sandy beaches, while the east coast is home to a more rocky coastline. Castlebay is the main town on Barra and is located at the south of the island.

The north of the island is home to Traigh Mhòr, the world’s only airport located on a beach! Flights depart Glasgow twice daily, and watching the twin otter plane land on the white sand has become a right of passage for travellers to witness when they visit the island.

The main industries on Barra are fishing and crofting.

Around 60% of the island speaks Gaelic- but they happily speak English too!

How many days do you need to explore Barra?

We spent 4 nights and 4 full days on the Isle of Barra, and I think this is a nice amount of time to explore the island (as well as Vatersay) at a slow pace.

Because the weather on this side of the Atlantic can be a little unpredictable (and changeable), it’s a good idea to plan for a slow travel adventure in case you need to put activities off or swap things around due to wild weather days.

We had two fantastic days full of sunshine, and two windy and rainy days. It was great to experience both types of weather; we ventured to the beach on the sunny days, and had some downtime on the wilder days!

A trip to Barra isn’t complete without a day out in the sunshine, so staying for a bit longer than a weekend gives you a better chance of experiencing Barrabados!

When is the best time to visit Barra?

We visited during the peak tourist season in the middle of summer (July/August) and I think this is the perfect time to visit. We had some outstanding summer days- and we even managed to have a couple of beaches all to ourselves. Summer is also when the wildflowers on the machair bloom- it’s a magical sight to see!

Because Barra is such a remote island, it doesn’t attract large crowds of tourists, and the island didn’t feel busy to us at all. The only issue you may encounter is finding availability for accommodation and tours- but I’ll discuss booking tours and attractions later in this article.

The majority of places on Barra are open between April and September, so aim to visit during this time.

How To Get To Barra

There are two ways to get to the Isle of Barra:

  • Fly and do the famous landing on the beach
  • Catch the ferry

By air

The quickest (and coolest) way to get to Barra is by air. Did you know Barra is home to the world’s only beach airport for scheduled flights? Landing on the Traigh Mhòr beach is an unforgettable experience. This is how we chose to travel to the island!

The small twin otter plane seats just 12 people, and you can see right into the cockpit. On a clear day, enjoy views of the North Atlantic ocean and other Hebridean islands including Mull, Coll, Eigg and Rum before you begin your descent into Barra.

The landing on the beach is the smoothest landing I’ve experienced, in fact, you can barely tell when you touch the ground!

isle of barra beach landing

We paid £340 for 2 adults and 1 infant, for return tickets from Glasgow.

Flights to Barra depart twice daily from Glasgow with Loganair. The flight takes just 1 hour and 15 minutes. Visit the Loganair website to book.

By ferry

The Calmac ferry arriving in Castlebay

The main ferry that travellers take to the Isle of Barra departs from Oban and takes 4 hours and 45 minutes. You can also catch a ferry to Barra from Tiree, Eriskay, or Lochboisdale if you were planning on visiting other islands before Barra.

The Oban ferry travels to Castlebay, the main town in Barra; the ferries from Tiree and Lochboisdale also sail to Castlebay. The Eriskay ferry travels to Ardmhor on the northeast coast.

Can you take a car across on the ferry? Yes, you can! I recommend booking your space on the ferry in advance- especially if you’re travelling in the summer- as spaces can fill up quickly. Even though Barra is a small island, having a car to explore the island is much easier than using public transport on the island, as the bus is intermittent.

The best way to check ferry timetables and book your tickets is via the CalMac website.

Facilities in Barra

Bùth Bharraigh

Castlebay is home to a Co-op supermarket, which has all the essentials you’ll need. They have an excellent range of baby supplies; they sell Aptamil and Cow & Gate baby formula, in both premade bottles and powdered formula.

Bùth Bharraigh is a social enterprise and is the island’s visitor information centre and shop. The shop sells fresh locally sourced produce and has a refillery. It’s also a great place to do some shopping to pick up some unique gifts made by locals. They have a large bookshop with plenty of titles about the Outer Hebrides and the rest of Scotland. You can also sit down for a cup of tea or coffee and use their free Wi-Fi, and they have two beach wheelchairs visitors can use. For a full list of their services, visit their website.

The Post Office has a tearoom that opens at 10.30 am. They serve tea, coffee and an assortment of cakes. Barra Island Stores sell ice cream and you can also order pizza and chips and other warm meals for lunch.

Garadh A Bhagh A Tuath on the northeast side of the island is a community garden that has a wonderful cafe that is popular with locals.

Greim at Grinn is a popular food stall that sells locally sourced seafood. Their opening hours and menu can be found on their Facebook page.

Over on the west coast, the Isle of Barra Beach Hotel serves tea, coffee and cake from 12.30 pm – 3.30 pm. They also have a bar that opens at 6 pm.

For dinner, Cafe Kisimul is an island institution that serves Indian and Italian dishes with their ingredients sourced from the island. Castlebay Hotel and The Craigard Hotel both have restaurants that are open for dinner.

The airport has a vending machine (the cafe is closed).

Accommodation on Barra

The view from The Annexe in Castlebay

Finding the perfect accommodation on Barra can be a little tricky because the majority of accommodation providers don’t list on accommodation aggregators such as Booking.com and Airbnb. But never fear- I’m here to help!

The best places to find accommodation in Barra include the Visit Outer Hebrides website, Barra Accommodation (which has a handy location map), and by contacting Bùth Bharraigh who can assist you with finding suitable accommodation.

Here are some of my recommendations for accommodation in Barra:

My recommendation: The Annexe in Castlebay

The Annexe

We stayed at The Annexe in Castlebay, a self-catering Airbnb located right in the heart of the town. My favourite thing about this accommodation is the incredible view of Kisimul Castle and the bay from the living room. Each evening we enjoyed the view of the Calmac ferry sliding into the bay bringing new visitors to the island.

Because we were travelling with Alex when he was just 8 months old, we opted for a self-catering property so we had cooking facilities to prepare his meals, and so we could put him down for naps in a separate room so we could have a break ourselves!

The Annexe…

  • Sleeps 2 (plus a baby)
  • Is dog-friendly
  • Has a washing machine and clothes horse
  • Has a kitchen with an oven and hob
  • Has 5-star views overlooking the bay, Kisimul Castle, and across to Vatersay
  • Is within walking distance of restaurants and cafes
  • Is located directly across from the ferry terminal

More accommodation recommendations

  • Hotel recommendation: Isle of Barra Beach Hotel – this hotel is located on the remote beach of Tangasdale on the western side of the island, a five-minute drive from the town of Castlebay. If you want to wake up and have the beach at your fingertips, this is the ideal place to stay. They have a restaurant and bar, and if you’re arriving late you can preorder a meal so that you can simply relax and enjoy the view of the beach right away!
  • Hostel recommendation: Dunard Hostel – for those visiting the Isle of Barra on a budget, the Dunard Hostel is the perfect choice. Located centrally in Castlebay, all facilities, cafes and restaurants are within walking distance, and the ferry terminal is just across the road. The hostel can also arrange activities such as sea kayaking and paddleboarding.
  • Guest house recommendation: Tigh Na Mara Guest House – located in the heart of Castlebay with views across to Kisimul Castle and the neighbouring island of Vatersay, Tigh Na Mara Guest House is a cosy stone cottage turned bed and breakfast.

Campsites on Barra

Travelling to Barra in a camper or motorhome is a popular way to explore the island. You can take your camper across on the Calmac ferry, and enjoy the island at your leisure.

Barra is home to 6 campsites. You can search for information on campsites in Barra on the Visit Outer Hebrides website, and the Bùth Bharraigh website has some helpful information about camping in Barra.

Be sure to make reservations at campsites in advance.

Sustainability travel tip

Rather than wild camping on Barra, try to use designated campsites. It’s a win-win, you’ll have access to electricity, water, and dumping sites- and you won’t be damaging fragile ecosystems such as Machair. DO NOT drive or camp on the Machair- these ecosystems are one of the rarest habitats in Europe for birds and a range of wildflowers. The variety of plants on the machair encourages a variety of invertebrates, which in turn attracts birds to the machair to feed and breed. It’s also the favoured home of great yellow bumblebees.

Tips for making bookings

The concept of ‘island time’ on Barra

Being an island in the Outer Hebrides, Barra subscribes to something called ‘island time’- which basically means that the islanders don’t work to a rigid schedule, and will sometimes only get around to doing some things on their own time. It’s not laziness- they just don’t do the rat race.

So how does this affect travellers? If trying to book an activity, you may not receive a reply right away, or at all- especially if you’ve left your planning late.

Opening hours (and days) can vary for restaurants and cafes. Website information may not always be up to date. My best tip is to check the businesses’ Instagram or Facebook page for opening information. Many cafes, restaurants and food trucks post their opening hours (and availability of food) on their social media pages.

Though sometimes it can be a little frustrating, one of the best things about the islands is the slower pace of life. Try to embrace it, but at the same time, try to be organised and book any car hire, accommodation or tours well in advance!

Is it true everything closes on a Sunday?

If you find yourself on an island in the Outer Hebrides on a Sunday, don’t be surprised if you find that almost everything is closed. The Outer Hebridean islands are quite religious, hence why things come to a standstill on a Sunday.

However, Barra is a slight exception to the ‘everything is closed on a Sunday’ rule. Barra is one of the least religious islands in the Outer Hebrides, so some places are still open. You can always buy food at the Co-Op in Castlebay, so you won’t go hungry!

Flights from Glasgow to Barra still operate on a Sunday (in fact, this was when we arrived). The CalMac ferry also runs on Sundays.

The bus doesn’t operate on Sundays, so you’ll either need to have your own car or get a taxi around the island.

Bùth Bharraigh is open on a Sunday, but has reduced hours of 12 pm-4 pm and 6 pm-7 pm.

Cafe Kisimul, The Craigard Hotel, and Castlebay Hotel are all open for dinner. The Vatersay Hall Cafe is open from 12-3 pm.

My advice is to check the opening hours of anywhere you plan to visit on a Sunday. Or plan a day at the beach!

Tips For Getting Around Barra

There are a few different ways of exploring Barra:

  • Car
  • Bus
  • Taxi
  • Driving tour
  • Bike or e-Bike

Exploring Barra by car

The easiest way to explore Barra is by car. Even though Barra is a small island, there is lots to see and do, and having a car means that you’ll be able to see more. You can bring a car across on the ferry, or you can try hiring one on the island.

You can hire a car with Barra Car Hire, however, you need to book well in advance because they have a limited number of vehicles, plus they can be tricky to get ahold of! For more information, call Barra Car Hire on 01871 890313.

If you do need to hire a car, I recommend hiring a car from Celtic Legend and bringing it across on the ferry.

Exploring Barra by bus

Buses on Barra are intermittent, calling every few hours or so, so you really need to plan your day well if you plan on using public transport. Sometimes buses will depart early too- we saw our bus leave a few minutes before it was meant to depart, meaning we missed it!

My advice is to show up to the bus stop 15 minutes before your bus is due to depart so you don’t miss it like we did.

Be sure to carry cash for the bus. You can view the Barra bus timetable here.

Exploring Barra by taxi

Because we didn’t have our own car and we were travelling with an 8-month-old, we relied on taxis to get us where we wanted to go. We used Dan’s Taxis and our driver Cursty was utterly fantastic! Cursty transported us all over the island, including driving us to Vatersay and returning a few hours later to pick us up, and taking us to and from the airport.

She was also happy to stop and let us look at some attractions along the way (if you’d like to do this, ask your taxi driver in advance in case they have more bookings after you).

Taxis on Barra are convenient and affordable, with an airport transfer to Castlebay costing just £20.

Exploring Barra by tour

If you’d prefer a private driving tour of the Isle of Barra, book a tour with Rob from Barra Island Tours.

A private driving tour is a great way to see the island if you don’t have a car and you’re short on time.

Rob has lived on Barra for over 17 years, and runs his tour business with his son, Paul. Standard tours for up to 4 passengers last between 3-4 hours

Barra Island Tours also offers a private taxi service and airport pick-up and drop-off.

Exploring Barra by bike

Barra by bicycle is a great way to explore the island. Barra Bike Hire is locally owned and located in Castlebay.

Standard bike hire costs:

  • £14 for a half-day hire
  • £20 for a full-day hire (cheaper for multiple days)

E-bike hire costs:

  • £28 for a half-day
  • £38 for a full-day (cheaper for multiple days)

Visit the Barra Bike Hire website to book.

Things To Do On Barra

I’ve written a detailed guide on things to do on Barra, so make sure you give that a read. Just quickly, here are some of my favourite things to do:

Kisimul Castle

Kisimul Castle

Kisimul Castle translates to ‘castle island’ and was home to the MacNeils of Barra. The castle was built in the 1400s and was the home of the clan chief. When the tide rolls in the castle looks as though it’s floating on water!

In 2001, the current chief leased the castle to Historic Scotland for an annual fee of £1 and a bottle of whisky (Talisker, if you’re wondering!).

The castle is currently closed to allow for conservation works, however, the Castlebay Marina offers free boat tours to the castle on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. You can book this either at the marina or at the Bùth Bharraigh shop and visitor information.

Visit Isle of Barra Distillers shop

Isle of Barra Distillers is a family-run gin distillery located in the heart of Castlebay.

Made with selected botanicals from the land and carrageen seaweed collected from the sea, their Barra Atlantic Gin is, quite literally, Barra in a bottle.

The beautiful Barra Atlantic Gin bottle reminds me of the rippling waters that surround the island- clear and clean, and so crisp you feel tempted to cup your hands together and take a long drink.

They also sell a range of gin liqueurs, including Rhubarb and Heather, Strawberry and Ginger, and an island dark rum. I heard a rumour they have a whisky coming too!

You can visit their shop in Castlebay and pick up a bottle or two for yourself.

Tangasdale Beach

things to do on barra scotland
Tangasdale Beach

A beautiful wide sweep of white sand and azure waters, Tangasdale Beach is one of my favourite beaches on Barra. The Isle of Barra Beach Hotel, built in the shape of an upside-down ship, is the place to stay if you want to wake up with views of this idyllic beach.

Explore the rockpool that sits on the rocky coastline next to the hotel, or the walk to Dùn Ban and Halaman Bay.

The hotel offers tea, coffee and cake to visitors between 12.30-3.30 pm. They also have a pub that is open from 6 pm.

Go on a wildlife boat trip

seal spotted on wildlife boat tour
A seal resting on the rocks

Hebridean Sea Tours has a trip around Barra and Vatersay called the Bays Explorer Tour. On this wildlife boat trip, you have the opportunity to spot dolphins, basking sharks, seals and plenty of sea birds with frequent sightings of Golden and Sea eagles.

You can also venture further afield on their tour to the uninhabited islands of Mingulay, Pabbay and Berneray that lay south of Barra.

A day trip to Vatersay

Left: Traigh a Bhaigh beach; Right: The Piece of Cake Honesty Box

Vatersay is another island in the Outer Hebrides that is connected to Barra via a causeway. It is home to some of the most stunning beaches in Scotland, where you’ll sometimes find cows relaxing on the white sands!

There are enough things to do on Vatersay to last an entire day, so give yourself ample time to explore this island gem. I recommend hiking the Vatersay Circuit followed by a meal at the cafe in the Community Hall. Be sure to call in at the Piece of Cake honesty box in the village for the best Malteeser slice I’ve ever tasted!

What does a trip to Barra cost?

To give you a general idea of what a trip to Barra costs, I’ve included what we paid for flights, accommodation, transport, dinner and shopping. Please note I did not include any tips in the following estimations, and I did not include the cost of breakfast as we purchased breakfast from the Co-op and enjoyed it at our accommodation.

  • 4 nights accommodation at The Annexe – £585
  • Return flights for 2 adults from Glasgow to Barra – £340
  • Taxi services around the island – £70
  • Dinner at the Craigard Hotel for 2 people – £90
  • Dinner at Cafe Kisimul for 2 people – £70
  • Average cost of lunch per day for 2 people at a cafe – £15
  • Shopping – £200

Total cost: £1430

More tips for visiting Barra

  • Carry cash. There are still some places on the island where you will need cash- for example, the honesty boxes and when tipping taxi drivers or servers. We carried £200 and this lasted us 4 days.
  • The signal is not great on the island. Most cafes and restaurants have free Wi-fi you can use. Take screenshots of any website information you may need (such as online hiking guides) and be sure to carry a map and compass with you if you venture out hiking.
  • Pack sunscreen. You’ll need it if you experience the Barrabados weather!
  • Pack layers. Even on a sunny day if there is a breeze it can get a little chilly.
  • Pack your hiking boots. We definitely needed our hiking boots for the walk around Vatersay, which was very boggy in parts! The surface of the island is quite rocky and uneven inland, so you definitely need to pack proper hiking footwear.
  • Book your restaurants in advance- especially if you want to nab a seat at Cafe Kisimul. I booked our table just over a week in advance, and the restaurant was full the night we dined.
  • If driving around the island, be sure to wave to any locals you pass. They’re very friendly!

Helpful books to read

Before I visit a location in Scotland I love to read books or watch films about the area. Here are some of my recommendations to read and watch before you visit:

  • The Barra Boy – an intriguing thriller set in Barra in the eighties and present day.
  • Whisky Galore (the book and the film) by Sir Compton Mackenzie – a Scottish classic about a boat carrying whisky that sank off the coast of Barra.
  • The Boy Who Lived Before (documentary) – a documentary of a boy from Glasgow who has memories of a past life living in Barra.
  • Barra & Vatersay by Iain Kirk Campbell – a beautiful photography book with descriptions of the main attractions on Barra and Vatersay.
  • Walking on Uist and Barra by Mike Townsend – a Cicerone guidebook with route maps and walking descriptions for a number of walks and hiking on Barra.

Are you planning a trip to the Isle of Barra? If you have a question, leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer!

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Fiona

Friday 1st of March 2024

Visiting is on my “bucket list”. Is there any single older person accommodation with no car? Don’t mind self catering. As per previous Q & A, I would walk/bus/taxi.

Nicole

Sunday 24th of September 2023

Can you base yourself at one accommodation on the island for the 4-5 days and explore the entire island by foot, hitting different areas each day? I like to walk/hike and you stated that the island is 8x5 miles. Is there a more central area for lodging so it is easier to walk in all directions to get around the island on foot?

Yvette Webster

Tuesday 26th of September 2023

Yes, definitely! I would base yourself at Castlebay and you can start some walks from there, or you can catch the bus to other parts of the island. Taxi's are reasonably priced as well