Thursday 14 March 2019

What to do on the Isle of Barra and Vatersay - Scottish Outer Hebrides

With a couple of months left to go before the "fair weather" camping season starts it's almost time to dig out the tent and start planning for that first trip, but where to go? Well how about visiting the remote island of Barra and Vatersay, check out this guide for all the information you need to visit these incredible Scottish islands.

Traigh a Bhaigh beach in Vatersay by Cal McTravel of
(Traigh a Bhaigh Beach in Vatersay)

Island Hopping Travel Diary 

From Barra to North Uist and into Skye we visited eight Scottish islands during our island hoping camping trip last summer. Click here for the full post to see how we battled 50mph winds, got stranded in Barra and managed to get some incredible weather for hiking the Old Man of Storr in Skye.

Getting There

For the boat crossings, we used Cal Mac Ferries and although they offer island hopping tickets (where you can select groups of islands you would like to visit) we found it just as cheap to book each ferry individually. 

Much to Jess's delight our first boat set off from Oban, this meant a lovely 3-hour drive from Glasgow through some stomach churning narrow and bendy roads, just what you need before a 5 hour boat ride.

For anyone who can get a little sea sick, 5 hours on the boat can be hard work but if you sit outside at the back you won't notice the rocking so much and the views of Mull and Tire will keep your mind of  it.

There are various sailings every day but be warned that it can get very busy during the summer months so make sure you book a return ferry off the island unless you want to get suck there for a while. Sailings run from Oban (Mainland) to Castlebay (Barra) and also from Aird Mhor (Barra) to Erisky for access to Uist (this one is a much smaller boat so limited space for caravans).

You can also fly to Barra from Glasgow airport with Loganair who have 2 flights per day during the week landing on the worlds only scheduled beach runway.

Where are the Islands

Home to just over 1000 residents, the Islands of Barra and Vatersay are located around 100miles west of the Scottish mainland in the Atlantic Ocean and form part of the Outer Hebrides. From the south coast of Barra you will find the small Isle of Vatersay connected via a drivable causeway.

Where To Camp

The island doesn't offer a great deal of camp sites but given you can drive around the island in just 40 minutes it's not exactly a big place. Where the campsites lack in quantity they make up for in stunning views, friendly owners and pristine white beaches.

Scurrival Campsite in Barra by Cal McTravel of
Scurrival Campsite in Barra
We stayed at Scurrival Campsite which is run by local farmer Angus and his wife, the site has everything you would need where the owners have converted an old house into a toilet block, kitchen and lounge area which offers great refuge during the ever changing weather on the island.

Scurrival Campsite in Barra by Cal McTravel of
(Scurrival campsite to the right, Croft 2 campsite to the left)
The beach is only a 2 minute walk away from the campsite where you can set up a beach fire and watch the sun disappear behind you. Word of warning watch out for this cat, I accidentally petted him once and he took that as an invitation to move into our tent. I crapped myself one night when I left my test for a visit to the toilet only to find him sleeping at the foot off our tent.

Scurrival Campsite in Barra by Cal McTravel of
(Damn cat wouldn't leave us alone)

Visit a Castle 

In the capital, Castle Bay, you will find all the local attractions, including an old shop, a bank, a couple of hotels and a Castle set out in the middle of the bay. With tours running daily from the harbour you can take the very very short boat ride or take a cold swim to explore the castle hands on, find out more here

Castle Bay Castle in Barra  by Cal McTravel of
(Castle Bay) 

Play Some Golf

If you like Golf then the Island of Barra hosts the most Westerly Golf Course in the United Kingdom, with 9 very unique holes its worth a game even if you don't play much. You will never play anywhere else like it and being a fair-weather golfer myself I still had barrels of fun in the 40mph winds!

Barra Golf Course, Golfing in Barra  by Cal McTravel of
(Tee of at Barra golf course)
If you are looking for the club house to check-in and have your outfit analysed to ensure you are adhering to the strict golfing dress code then you will be bitterly disappointed. Instead located at the 1st Tee is a shipping container with an honesty box (£10 for a day pass) and some tee cards of the course to record your championship round.

The fairways are kept finely trimmed by an army of green keepers out during the day (sheep), although since there not quite fully trained an electric fence around each green keeps them out and allows for the more traditional approach.

Barra Golf Course, Golfing in Barra  by Cal McTravel of
(Digging holes at the course) 
Barra Golf Course, Golfing in Barra by Cal McTravel of
(Fairways are a little different to normal) 
Barra Golf Course, Golfing in Barra by Cal McTravel of
(Incredible backdrops at the course)

Barra Gin

If you are a gin drinker then you will know that Barra is the home to the well-known Barra Gin, their distillery and shop is located in Castle Bay which offers a selection of tonics and of course their gin (no tours but a nice little shop). While you're there it's probably best to pop next door to the Co-op and pick up seam ice and supplies since it's the only shop on the island!

Barra Gin  by Cal McTravel of
(Barra Gin)

Visit the Isle of Vatersay

To the south of Barra is the Island of Vatersay which is famous for it's stunning beaches and incredible surroundings. You can reach the island via a small causeway and I highly recommend visiting walk highlands to download the "beaches of vatersay" walk which allows you to explore the stunning beaches around this island. If you fancy some wild camping with toilets, then beside Traigh a Bhaigh Beach you will find some wild camping spots with a 24 hour toilet and shower block next door at the village hall.

Traigh a Bhaigh Beach in Vatersay, beaches in Barra and Vatersay  by Cal McTravel of
(Traigh a Bhaigh beach in Vatersay)
Traigh a Bhaigh Beach in Vatersay, beaches in Barra and Vatersay by Cal McTravel of
(Traigh a Bhaigh Beach in Vatersay)
Vatersay Beaches walk  by Cal McTravel of
(Vatersay beaches walk)

Go for a walk 

Barra has a good selection of walks, from hiking the highest peak Heaval (384m) to a short walk around the airport beaches and hills there is something for everyone. Head to Walk Highland to download maps and way points of the walks on both Barra & Vatersay. 

Barra Airport hill walk by Cal McTravel of
(Barra Airport hill walk) 

Visit the Airport for Fish & Chips

No visit to the island of Barra is complete without visiting the world-famous airport, being the world's only scheduled beach runway it's quite impressive to watch the 2 flight a day battling the wind to land on the white sandy beach. When the airport terminal is not dealing with the busy flying schedule they have one of the best coffee shops on the island and if you are lucky enough to be there at the weekend, one of the best fish and chip shops in the world. Serving up freshly caught fish on a Friday and Saturday night it's a must visit, with the added benefit of being a BYOB it also wont break the bank.

Barra Airport Runway by Cal McTravel of
(Barra Airport runway)

Go Kayaking 

Unfortunately due to weather conditions our tour was cancelled but if you are lucky enough to be on the islands during some calm weather then I highly recommend you head out for some kayaking where you can explore the sunning beaches and crystal clear waters by boat. You can book with Clearwater paddling here and they are located just beside the ferry terminal in Castle Bay.

Clearwater Paddeling in Barra  by Cal McTravel of
(Photo form Clear Water Paddling website) 
Clearwater Paddeling in Barra  by Cal McTravel of
(Photo form Clear Water Paddling website) 
Clearwater Paddeling in Barra  by Cal McTravel of
(Photo form Clear Water Paddling website) 

The Weather

The weather in Barra is very unpredictable, being located in such an isolated part of the world with nothing to break the Atlantic winds it can some times result in delays and cancellations of boats. We had planned to only stay on the Island for 2 nights but after waking up to some hurricane winds and 2 snapped guy ropes we were not so optimistic about the boats sailing. Sure enough all sailing was cancelled for the day and with torrential rain and 50mph winds it was easy to see why, thankfully at the Aird Mhor ferry terminal Caledonian MacBrayne have built a waiting area with seating and heating open 24 hours a day. After a long 7 hours sat between there and our car (thankfully we had plenty episodes of Friends on our iPad, thank you Netflix!) the weather began to clear up and we managed to get back to the campsite and set our tent up for another night on the island.

Scurrival campsite beach in Barra  by Cal McTravel of
(Beach beside Scurrival Campsite) 
Top tip, if your boat does get cancelled then make sure you are up early the next day to call the ferry company at exactly 7am to re-book as it is a first come first serve basis and if you leave it till later you might get stuck on the island for more than just an extra day. 

Local sheep playing in Barra by Cal McTravel of
(Local playpark for the sheep) 
If you liked reading this and want more island camping adventures then why not read out travel diary of the full island hopping camping trip here. 

Usefull Links

Scurival Campsite
Croft No 2 Campsite 
Borve Campsite 

Barra Golf Course
Barra Airport
Barra Gin
Barra & Vatersay Walks (Maps & GPS)


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