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Issue 16 - All the allure of Whisky Galore

Scotland Magazine Issue 16
September 2004


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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All the allure of Whisky Galore

Barra in the Outer Hebrides takes some getting to. But as Robin McKelvie reports, its mix of history and stunning nature make it worth the effort

Swooping in over the sea the airport appears amidst a rumble of hills overlooking the sweeping sands of Cockle Bay. There is a tiny terminal building, but no runway.

The ‘Twin Otter’ tugs around for its final approach, drops down on to the beach and then bounces along to the terminal.

The Barra service is the only one in the British Airways global timetable that includes the caveat ‘subject to tides’ and this is no ordinary airport.

Then again Barra is no ordinary island; more a compact haven that wraps up all of the best bits of the Outer Hebrides in one stunning package.

Tucked as it is on the southern end of the Outer Hebrides, getting to Barra is all part of the fun. Whether sweeping in for that thrilling landing or cruising into the only settlement of any real size, Castlebay, aboard the ferry from Oban, the island is instantly appealing.

It may only be eight miles long and five miles wide, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in diversity with the vaulting hulks of Ben Tangaval and Heaval giving way to rambling glens, bright machair flowers, moors, rolling hills and pristine white sand beaches.

John MacNeil, Barra born and bred, sums up the island’s appeal: “ Barra is a truly special place, with its breathtaking scenery, proud culture and real sense of community.”

Castlebay is a good place to start exploring the island as Kisimul Castle still stands as a testimony to the influence of the Clan MacNeil, the family who have ruled Barra for much of its history.

Clan chief Robert MacNeil, who trained as an architect, bought the island back in 1937 and made it his life’s work to rebuild one of Europe’s oldest castles. There is now a museum inside the ramparts with such intriguing artefacts as British army weapons that are a legacy of the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the brutal encounter that finally ended the Jacobite rebellions.

As it has its own freshwater spring the castle is able to stand alone in the water, casting a dramatic presence over the wide bay.

During the dark days of the ‘Clearances’ Barra suffered badly as many of its people were exiled to the likes of Nova Scotia and Australia, but these days the island’s spirit has returned and it is a lively place to be.

Gaelic culture is very much alive and well and the sound of folk music can often be heard wafting through the bars of the Isle of Barra Hotel in Castlebay on busy weekends and during the island’s annual festival.

There is no let up on Sundays either when its largely catholic population shuns the strict Presbyterianism Sabbatarianism of much of the Outer Hebrides.

Outside Castlebay much of the island is easily accessible on foot, though hiring a bike is also a good way of getting around.

The island abounds with spectacular scenery with highlights including the sandy stretch of Halaman Bay with its soaring Atlantic surf and the scattering of beaches that lead north from Halaman, all of them washed with the emerald waters of the Atlantic.

Above the hills demand attention and there are a number of half and full day hikes that open up the island. On a clear summer’s day there are few more aesthetically pleasing places to be in Scotland and even when the weather closes in the drama of an Atlantic storm, viewed, of course, from a cosy pub with a wee dram for company, has charms all of its own.

Perhaps the island’s most unusual attraction is the Barra Golf Club. This is a truly unique course that would stump the likes of Tiger Woods and Ernie Els.

It may only have nine holes, but it contains tricky hazards such as the ‘largest bunker in the world’ (a giant Atlantic beach) and fences built around the greens to keep out the cows, but has a similar effect on golf balls.

Fairways are little more than rock strewn hillsides and many players consider themselves lucky to lose only one ball a hole. Still, with sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean and seals bashing around in the surf, it has to be one of the most scenic courses in the world.

Elsewhere around the island the layers of history that make Barra so special reveal themselves. Man has lived on Barra since Neolithic times and traces of various earlier settlements emerge with the likes of the standing stones of Brevig Bay and the Dun Cuier complex. Then there is the Dun Bharpa cairn, where the dead were laid to rest in Neolithic times.

The Black House Museum in the centre of the island gives a vivid idea of how people lived in these sturdy traditional homes until the 1970s. Back in Castlebay the recently revamped Barra Heritage Centre awaits with its explorations of the local Gaelic culture and stories of the island’s people, as wellas what many locals reckon to be the finest tea and scones on the island. Around Barra there is plenty else of interest for visitors thinking of staying a bit longer.

The island of Mingulay to the south is a wildly beautiful escape that is no longer inhabited. Boats run out here when sea conditions allow. British Airways also sell tickets for the short trip up to Benbecula and back, which allows anyone entranced with the beach take off and landing a chance to experience both in a single day.

Between Barra and the Isle of Eriskay to the north is a stretch of water famous around the world. In 1941 the SS Politician ran aground here and her cargo of 24,000 bottles of whisky were ‘lost’.

The enterprising locals intervened to lend a hand and by the time customs officials arrived much of the whisky that had gone down with the ship had mysteriously disappeared.

Compton Mackenzie’s book Whisky Galore vividly recalled the tale and it was made into a film in 1949 (released as Tight Little Island in North America). There are firm plans for a new celluloid version so the waters around Barra may once again be appearing on cinema screens around the world.

Soon the locals may no longer have to wait for passing ships to flounder before they can get their hands on the ‘water of life’.

Rumours are rife that Barra may soon have its first whisky distillery - or at least the first legal one. This would complete the bountiful Hebridean package that Barra offers.

With its unspoilt beaches, impressive hills and tumbling ocean surf, not to mention the lively Gaelic culture and cosy pubs, Barra would really be the Scottish island with it all.

What to do

The island’s website is

Sea Kayaking
From £10 per person
+44 (0)1871 810 443

Fishing Charters
+44 (0)1871 890 384

Barra Golf Club
+44 (0)1871 810 240

Barra Cycle Hire
Daily hire from £5
+44 (0)1871 810 284

Where to stay

Castlebay Hotel
Cosy hotel in the heart of Castlebay
Tel: +44 (0)1871 810 223.

Isle of Barra Hotel
Stunning views of the ocean and windswept beach are the main draw cards of this modern hotel.
Tel: +44 (0)1871 810 383

Getting there:

British Airways ( fly regularly from Glasgow to Barra.
Caledonian MacBrayne ( run ferries from Oban and Eriskay.

More information:

Family History
Readers who think that they may have links to the Barra MacNeils can look at
Another useful website is