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Barra & associated islands

Western Isles of Scotland

Maddona & child - Barra

Barra  and the islands to the south were known as the  "Priest Isles" as for centuries they were under the auspices of the Catholic church, unlike the Uists and the islands further north which were divided up between the ruling clans. To this day all the southern islands including Eriskay are still predominantly catholic.

Sited on the hill above Castlebay, the main town of Barra, is the white marble statue of the Madonna and child (above) looking down protectively over the houses and out to sea where so many of the people of the island make their living.

 

 

The famous Kisimul castle, home to the MacNeils of Barra, sits on an island in the bay.

 The ferry terminal can be seen below the houses.

 

 

dolphins at Castlebay

 

 

There is a resident group of bottle nosed dolphins in the Sound of Barra, and occasionally they come around to visit Castlebay as you can see here.

 

 


 

Vatersay causeway

 

Barra is connected to another of the islands Vatersay by a causeway.  The people of Vatersay had asked for the connection for many years and been refused but after an accident when the bull belonging to the Department of Agriculture was drowned swimming the passage, then the causeway was built!

Cows on Vatersay beach

Vatersay has a small community, some working as fishermen others in local Castlebay. 

In times gone past it was more heavily populated and the ruins of substantial houses remain.  Cows have taken over from sheep as a main source of crofting income in Scotland, here seen resting on the beautiful shell sand beach

Minke off Vatersay beach

Four years ago, this young minke came into Vatersay bay.  At the time there was a NATO naval exercise being held in the Minch and we speculated that the juvenile had come into shelter away from the insidious noise of naval sonar.

Looking down on Vatersay beach

You can see in this image, the whole of east Vatersay bay, the island in the distance is Sandray.


 

View from Sandray

Sandray is divided by a spine of Lewissian gneiss, an incredibly old and hard rock.  It forms the basis of most of the Western Isles and some of the inner Hebrides too - Canna and Tiree for instance.

The sand dunes of Sandray

Julie with Brian & Gill Fuller on Sandray

On Sandray, this hilly mass has allowed the formation of several huge sand dunes which can be seen from the only really acceptable anchorage on the south east of the island.


 

Anchorage on Pabbay

The anchorage on the next island to the south - Pabbay is totally exposed to the south and east so it is quite rare to be able to land and fully explore the "island of the priest".

 

fort remains on PabbayCrucifix stone on Pabbay

 

 

This is an ancient fortified dwelling which is on an exposed point on the north shore. Close by is a standing stone engraved with several images including a crucifix

 

 


Village bay on MIngulay

Mingulay is some times known as "little Kilda" as it shares many facts in common with those islands.  The people mainly eked out an existence from rough crofting supplementing this by taking eggs and birds from the massive cliffs which form the west coast of the island.  Mingulay was evacuated when it became obvious that it could not provide a living for the inhabitants.

 

Julie on theMingulay cliffs

 

The cliifs are very high - up to 900ft and support a large collection of nesting birds in season. Fulmars, kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots nest on the cliffs and their is a puffin colony on the north side of village bay.

Ruined village & kirk Mingulay

Just like St Kilda there is an abandoned village but here  no attempt has been made to preserve the place.  The Kirk, seen above the village, seems to become rapidly more derelict with every visit, and by 2015 the roof and walls had all collapsed.

Atlantic seals at Mingulay

In the quieter times of the year there is a local population of grey atlantic seals, but disturbance is increasing as the islands become more popular with visitors.


Barra head lighthouse

Finally, the most southerly of the group of islands - Berneray or Barra Head.  The lighthouse seen her was built at a height of 600ft above sea level, which means in times of low cloud (about 60%) it is not visible from the sea!

view from Barrahead lighthouse

View from Barrahead lighthouseHowever some years ago I was lucky enough to be on the island when the engineers from the Northern Lighthouse board came to update the light and they were kind enough to let me go up to the top and get some photographs.

Stone age fort Barrahead

When the lighthouse was constructed, it was combined with the remains of an ancient iron age fort - I wonder what today's archaeologists would think of that!

Here you can see a guest walking through a door in the old wall.

Cemetary on Barrahead

The lighthouse keepers and their families used to be isolated by bad weather for many weeks sometimes in both winter and summer.  Illness was obviously hard to deal with and sadly many young children succumbed, as in this case, to croup.  The small cemetery at the top of the cliffs shelters the remains of many of these children.

Grave marker Barrahead

Cliffs of BarraheadBarrahead cliffs

The cliffs are

very high and support a large population of puffins, guillemots and razorbills, while on the heath above are several pairs of great skuas which predate on them. It is quite common to see Golden Eagles on all the Priest islands - there is a resident pair, as well as visiting White tailed sea eagles.

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    Website 2016 David Leaver Northern Wanderer.   Images David Leaver