Castlebay, Barra Visitor Guide

By Craig Neil
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Table of Contents


Summary

Castlebay is the main settlement on the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.

The village is a popular tourist destination, but it is perhaps best known for the ferry terminal which provides links to Oban on the mainland and the isles of Tiree and South Uist.

Castlebay is a good base to explore Barra as it allows easy access to the A888 ring road and the Isle of Vatersay. The village also features a number of attractions including the famous Kisimul Castle.

Address:Castlebay,
Isle of Barra,
HS9 5XD
Opening Hours:Castlebay is accessible 24/7, 365 days a year.
Admission Price:N/A
Parking:There is free car parking in the centre of Castlebay at The Square, located at the junction of Pier Road and the A888 (postcode HS9 5YG).
Contact:N/A
Facilities:Gift shops, supermarket, grocery stores, cafes, petrol forecourt, bank with ATM, post office.

The highlights

1: Castlebay is a great location to base yourself for a tour of Barra. The A888 ring road runs through the village which allows easy access to all four corners of the island, and Vatersay is just a few minutes’ drive south.

2: As is to be expected for an island in the Outer Hebrides, facilities are few and far between on Barra so Castlebay is a must-visit if you’re planning on spending a few days on the island.

As well as the usual post office, bank, and supermarket, there are several gift shops in the village as well as cafes, bars and restaurants.

In addition, Castlebay’s ferry terminal allows visitors to hop over to the Isles of Tiree and South Uist and it’s the main departure point for ferry crossings back to the mainland.

3: For such a wee village there are quite a few attractions in Castlebay, including boat cruises and kayak excursions that operate from the harbour.

Kayak trips run around the island’s coastline while boat cruises take visitors on wildlife safaris to the islands of Sandray, Pabbay and Mingulay. Both are highly recommended as they’re a great way to explore this southernmost tip of the Outer Hebrides.

Visitors can also walk around Kisimul Castle (located on an islet at the harbour entrance), sample delicious handmade Scottish tablet from the Hebridean Toffee factory, and enjoy a wee dram at the Barra Distillery.

Castlebay

Visiting tips

1: Although the prices in the Castlebay Co-op are higher than on the mainland it’s still the cheapest place to buy food and drink on Barra.

That being said, if you don’t mind paying a little more and fancy treating yourself, I recommend popping into Buth Bharraigh located next to the Castlebay Hotel.

This shop is an Alladin’s cave of handmade arts and crafts and has a great selection of artisanal foods including vegan, vegetarian, whole food, and locally-made meals.

2: The petrol forecourt in Castlebay is the only one that I know of (and possibly the only one in the UK) that’s actually part of the local butcher’s shop! You’ll find the fuel pumps on Pier Road next to the RBS bank.

3: The highlight of Castlebay has to be Kisimul Castle which is located on a small rock outcrop in the middle of the harbour.

To get there, visitors must take a 5-minute boat ride from a jetty in the harbour. Be aware the boat only operates from April to September and does not run on Mondays. The last entry is 16.30.


Overview

The Outer Hebrides is famed for its numerous islands that feature dazzling white sand beaches, dramatic coastlines and superb walking and cycling routes.

While each island has its own features that make it unique, there’s one isle on the southern end of the chain that encompasses a little of everything, from beaches framed by turquoise waters to heather-covered hills with spectacular summit views.

The Isle of Barra is located south of the isles of Eriskay and South Uist, almost at the far end of the archipelago.

Though it’s undeniably a remote island, getting there is surprisingly easy thanks to regular flights that land on Traigh Mhor beach and ferries that sail into Ardmhor to the north and Castlebay to the south.

Castlebay

Castlebay is by far the largest settlement on Barra (there are around 300 permanent residents) and it’s also home to the main facilities on the island, meaning that at some point almost all visitors end up spending time in the village.

Facilities for tourists include a bank, post office, cafes, bars and restaurants, a petrol forecourt, gift shops and a supermarket, in addition to a number of tourist attractions in the immediate area that may tempt visitors to spend more time than they were expecting.

Arguably the main event is taking a boat trip to land on the rock outcrop of Kisimul Castle which is owned by Clan MacNeil but is under the management of Historic Environment Scotland.

This fascinating castle dates from the 16th century and is one of the most recognizable fortresses in Scotland thanks to its picturesque setting. Though access is only possible between April and September it’s a must-do for visitors to Barra in the summer months.

Elsewhere in the village, visitors can sample the spirits made by Scotland’s most westerly distillery.

Castlebay

Isle of Barra Distillers has gained quite a reputation for its superb gin, but the company has now branched into rum and liqueurs that are equally tasty.

Unfortunately, they don’t offer tours at the present time but the shop staff are ultra-friendly and will answer any questions you might have about the spirits they produce

If you’d rather treat yourself to something sugary then you might like to pop into the Hebridean Toffee Factory which sells mouth-watering gift boxes of Scottish tablet.

If you’re not familiar with this traditional sugary sweet it’s basically a type of crumbly fudge. I’ve included more information about tablet in this article: Traditional Scottish Food.

Tourist information

Castlebay

Castlebay is easy to get to no matter where you decide to stay on Barra as finding it simply involves setting off on the circular A888 and heading south.

There are two options for parking which are either the car park at the Co-op or a parking area at The Square (overlooking the petrol forecourt), but if they’re both full you’ll find more spaces in front of the Castlebay Hotel.

Continuing down Pier Road takes visitors past the Castle Slip ferry landing which is the departure point for the boat trip to Kisimul Castle. The small ferry is accessed by a steep jetty on the mainland and landing on the castle is only possible from small steps, so care must be taken.

Castlebay

In addition, the castle courtyard has a rough gravel surface and the castle interior has narrow flights of stairs, which means it’s not really suitable for people with mobility issues.

If the castle doesn’t float your boat then you might prefer taking a boat tour to the wild and windy islands of Sandray, Pabbay and Mingulay. These tiny isles are a haven for wildlife and though they’re desolate they’re fascinating places to visit.

If you do decide to book a cruise I recommend taking binoculars (link to my recommended pairs on Amazon) and booking with Hebridean Sea Tours which operates out of Castlebay harbour.

Tours last most of the day and cost around £50 per person, which is good value in my opinion as the experience is fantastic – especially if you love wildlife and bird watching.

Finally, no visit to Castlebay is complete without popping into the wee locally-run shops and cafes.

Castlebay

Buth Bharraigh (located in front of the Castlebay Hotel) is the pick of the bunch as it sells a variety of gifts and souvenirs as well as guidebooks and high-quality (albeit expensive) food.

A nice touch is the refill section where you’ll find jar upon jar of whole foods that can be decanted into your vessel of choice which reduces unnecessary waste packaging. A great idea!

As far as food goes I have to give a big thumbs up to Cafe Kisimul situated on Pier Road overlooking the castle.

This friendly restaurant serves a fantastic collection of Indian dishes as well as fish and chips at a very reasonable price, and they even sell ready-made meals to heat up at home. If the restaurant is closed then you’ll find some of their ready-made dishes for sale in the Buth Bharraigh shop.

Castlebay

Things to do

1: Kisimul Castle. Address: Castlebay, Isle of Barra, HS9 5UZ. Distance: 500 feet from the Castle Slip ferry landing.
Kisimul Castle is located on a small island within the harbour of Castlebay.

The castle is managed by Historic Environment Scotland which operates boat tours from the village jetty between April and September.

2: Barra Distillery. Address: Castlebay, Isle of Barra, HS9 5XF. Distance: 2 miles from the causeway.
Barra Distillery is the only distillery on the Isle of Barra and is the most westerly distillery in Scotland.

The independent whisky, gin, and rum producer has a small shop in Castlebay located next to the Co-op.

3: Hebridean Sea Tours. Email: info@hebrideanseatours.co.uk. Tel: 01871 817803.
This is the main boat tour operator in Castlebay which takes tourists south to the wildlife havens of Sandray, Pabbay and Mingulay.

These wild and uninhabited islands are regarded as having some of the finest coastal landscapes in Scotland, as well as being superb wildlife spotting sites.

Visitors to the islands can expect to see puffins, terns, guillemots and many other seabirds in addition to seals, dolphins, and minke whales.

4: Vatersay. Address: Isle of Barra, HS9 5XN. Distance: 2 miles.
Vatersay is joined to Barra by a short causeway that is located just a few minutes’ drive west of Castlebay.

Isle of Vatersay

Though small at 3.75 square miles, Vatersay is a must-visit for anyone exploring Barra as it features two exceptional white sand beaches – Traigh Shiar and Traigh a Bhaigh – that are both set within wide, shallow bays.

The island is also the starting point for the much-loved Hebridean Way touring route and it offers an enjoyable walk on the Vatersay Heritage Trail.

5: Heaval. Address: Isle of Barra, HS9 5UH. Distance: 1.6 miles.
Heaval is the highest point on Barra at 1,257 feet. This hill presents a moderately easy climb to the summit from Castlebay which shouldn’t take more than 3 hours to complete on a return hike.

While the ascent is short it’s also rather steep and boggy, so wearing a good pair of waterproof hiking boots (my recommended pairs) is advised.

Once at the summit, intrepid hill walkers can enjoy stunning views across Barra to Castlebay and Vatersay.


Accommodation

Booking.com

Map and directions

Castlebay,
Isle of Barra,
HS9 5XD

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Explore this area with a detailed paper map from Ordnance Survey:

Barra & Vatersay – 452 Explorer.

Barra & South Uist – 31 Landranger.

OS Explorer Maps: Best for walking, mountain biking, and finding footpaths. 1:25,000 scale (4cm = 1km in real world). Buy OS Explorer maps direct from Ordnance Survey.

OS Landranger Maps: Best for road cycling, touring by car, and finding attractions. 1:50 000 scale (2 cm = 1 km in real world). Buy OS Landranger maps direct from Ordnance Survey.


Frequently asked questions

What is the main town on Barra?

The main village on the island of Barra is Castlebay. This village is the largest settlement on the island and is home to Barra’s only supermarket as well as a distillery and a harbour.
In addition, Castlebay is the location of Kisimul Castle – one of the few castles in Scotland that can only be accessed by boat.

Who owns the Isle of Barra?

The Isle of Barra is owned by the Scottish government with a provision that the islanders can purchase it if they choose.
Ownership by the Scottish government was made in 2003.
Prior to this, Barra was on a 1,000-year lease to Historic Environment Scotland from Clan MacNeil for an annual rental fee of £1 and a bottle of whisky!

Can you walk around Barra?

The Isle of Barra is a superb destination for walkers, though care must be taken on the A888 ring road as it is single track. That being said, there are wide grass verges on the majority of the road that allow walkers to evade passing traffic.

Highlights of a walking tour on Barra include Heaval hill and the coastline around Eoligarry which includes Traigh Mhor beach.

Can you wild camp on Barra?

Wild camping on Barra (and the whole of Scotland) is permitted as long as campers stay away from privately-owned areas and follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

A recommended paid campsite is Wavecrest (Address: Borve, Isle of Barra, HS9 5XR) which is situated on the west side of the island and has wonderful views of the Atlantic Ocean.