Welcome, intrepid explorers, to your comprehensive guide to Heaval, the highest peak on the mesmerising Isle of Barra.
Standing at 1,256 feet (383 metres), Heaval’s summit offers panoramic views that are guaranteed to take your breath away. The climb up Heaval offers photo opportunities at every step, and as it’s so close to the village of Castlebay it’s easy to combine a visit to both tourist destinations in a single afternoon.
Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a novice adventurer, this guide will provide you with all the essential information you’ll need to conquer this iconic hill.
|Address:||Isle of Barra,|
Car Park: 1-mile east of Castlebay on the A888.
|Opening Hours:||Heaval is accessible 24/7, 365 days a year.|
|Parking:||Free car park on the A888 opposite the start of the Heaval walking trail.|
|Facilities:||Car park at Heaval. Cafes, shops, petrol station, post office & bank in Castlebay.|
Like most of Scotland’s Western Isles, the best activities on Barra are those that are located in the great outdoors.
The island features a superb ring road that’s ideal for cycling, a coastline that’s begging to be kayaked around, and several hills that are worthy of a hike whether you’re an old hand at hill walking or a first-timer.
There are only three hills on Barra that have a prominence of more than 500 feet, with Heaval on the southern side having the highest prominence, Ben Cliad (663 feet) to the north, and Ben Tangaval (1,090 feet) to the west.
Heaval is located one mile to the northeast of Barra’s largest settlement, Castlebay, which is perhaps best known for the dramatic castle positioned on an outcrop in the middle of the bay (hence the village’s name).
The hill is easily accessed from the village by the A888 ring road where you’ll find a small (free and signposted) car park that offers an easy start to the climb for those visitors with a car.
To get to the summit from the car park, it’s simply a case of crossing over the road and finding the well-worn path that threads its way up the hillside, and then forging ahead up the zig-zagging trail.
Due to its small size, it’s easy to find a suitable route up Heaval even if you deviate off the path due to the terrain being quite firm underfoot, comprising a mix of bare rock, heather, and low-lying grasses.
That being said, the lowest quarter of the hillside can be quite boggy due to rainwater run-off, so I recommend wearing waterproof walking boots (link to boot reviews) even in the height of summer.
With regard to climbing the hill, expect to take around 2 to 2 1/2 hours to complete the return route from the car park to the summit with lots of photo stops, and no more than 1 1/2 hours if you make a beeline straight for the top without stopping.
It’s not exactly a mammoth hike on the scale of Ben Nevis or anything, but it’s certainly tough enough to get the heart thumping once you near the upper section due to the slopes becoming rather steep in places.
On the other hand, when I climbed Heaval I was followed by a family with two five-year-olds and they managed it without a problem, so the majority of active adults should have no difficulties whatsoever.
Whichever route you take, try to include a small diversion 2/3 of the way up the southern side of Heaval to see the marble statue of the Madonna and Child which has the best viewpoint over Castlebay and one of the most scenic views in the entire Outer Hebrides.
The Our Lady of the Sea statue was installed in 1954 in association with the Catholic Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea in Castlebay, and both it and the church are undoubtedly worthy additions to any Hebrides photo collection.
A picture paints a thousand words so I’ve included a 360° virtual tour on this page that shows you exactly what to expect with regard to the terrain on Heaval as well as the views you can expect to see as you make your way from the foot of the hill to the concrete trig point on the summit.
Looking south, you’ll see Castlebay and the Isle of Vatersay sweeping away into the distance, and you can just about make out the Isle of Sandray behind it, while the islet of Muldoanich is clearly visible to the southeast.
If you have binoculars, I recommend whipping them out at the top as you’ll be able to make out the Small Isles (Canna, Rum, and Eigg) in the distance to the east, followed by the vast expanse of Skye to the northeast.
Look north and you’ll see the hilly interior of Barra and the Eoligarry peninsula, with Eriskay and South Uist across the water.
It’s possible to continue over the other side of Heaval and continue across the heart of the island to North Bay, but visitors should be aware that the path is pretty much non-existent so it’s essential to acquaint yourself with a map and a guidebook before setting off.
For the map, you won’t go far wrong with the OS Explorer mentioned further up this page, and for the guidebook, I personally recommend getting the one shown below.
1: Climbing to the summit of Heaval is one of the main attractions for visitors to the Isle of Barra, mainly for the stunning views on offer once you near the top. The trig point offers a fabulous 360° panorama where you can take in the scenery of Castlebay and Vatersay to the south and Eriskay and South Uist to the North.
2: Finding the statue of the Madonna and Child – known locally as Our Lady of the Sea – is a must-do. It’s actually located slightly off the trail that leads to the summit, around 2/3 of the way up on the southeast side of the hill.
1: The best way to climb to the top of Heaval is to drive to the small car park on the A888 (between a lone modern house and a small quarry) and then hike up the grass slope from the track that starts near the roadside.
This free car park only has space for around 6 cars so you’ll probably find it full if you arrive at midday on the weekend.
2: This relatively short hike can be extended by starting and finishing at the harbour in Castlebay. This longer route involves walking up the single-track A888 before veering off-road to the foot of Heaval around 1 mile from the village.
In total, expect this longer 3-mile return walk from Castlebay to the summit to take around 3 hours.
Things to do
Heaval Summit Trek: Get ready for some amazing sights as you embark on this moderately challenging hike to the Isle of Barra’s highest point. The trail rewards you with panoramic views of the island, its stunning coastline, and the islands of Eriskay and South Uist. This 1,256-foot climb, though demanding, is worth every step for the breathtaking vistas from the trig point at the summit.
Wildlife Observation: Heaval is a haven for wildlife enthusiasts and you’re likely to spot a variety of birds including rare golden eagles. Don’t forget your binoculars (link to binocular reviews), as sightings of lapwings and redshanks are common, and there’s a good chance of spotting guillemots and kittiwakes too.
Picnicking with a View: What’s better than a delicious picnic? How about a picnic with a stunning view?! Pack a lunch, perch yourself on one of the level grass areas on the hillside, and enjoy a tranquil afternoon with the sea and surrounding islands providing the perfect backdrop for a lunch to remember.
Photography: Heaval is a photographer’s dream location. The mix of rugged landscapes, the vibrant hues of flowering heather, and the ever-changing skies create a perfect canvas for shutterbugs. For the ultimate photography experience, though, wake up early for a mesmerising sunrise or end your day with a serene sunset.
Find the Our Lady of the Sea statue: Near the top of the hill you’ll find the famous white marble statue named Our Lady of the Sea. Paying homage to the island’s Catholic faith, this statue is not just a religious symbol but is also a testament to the resilience of the local community which has worked the sea – often in impossibly difficult conditions – for countless generations.
Things to do nearby
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 jetty between April and September.
2: Beinn Mhartainn. Distance: 2 miles.
Beinn Mahrtainn is an 800-foot hill on the northeast side of Barra, east of the settlement of Allasdale and north of Craigston.
Though not as famous as Heaval, it’s a popular destination for walkers thanks to the trail that runs around it past a Neolithic cairn and into a heather-covered wilderness that’s a haven for golden eagles.
3: Hebridean Sea Tours. Email: email@example.com. 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.
4: Vatersay. Address: Isle of Barra, HS9 5XN. Distance: 2 miles.
Just a few minutes’ drive west of Castlebay is the short causeway that connects Vatersay to Barra.
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.
5: Castlebay. Address: Isle of Barra, HS9 5XD. Distance: 1 mile.
Castlebay is the main settlement on Barra and is home to the island’s only supermarket as well as hotels, a cafe, a post office, and a number of small shops.
Castlebay features a number of walking routes such as the scenic walk around the coastline to Leideag and the more arduous walk to the start of the Heaval trail.
Frequently asked questions
How do you get to the Isle of Barra?
There are two travel routes to get to the Isle of Barra.
The first is to take a scheduled flight from Glasgow to Barra Airport with the carrier Loganair.
The second travel route is to take a Calmac ferry which operates from Castlebay on Barra to Oban (mainland), Tiree (Inner Hebrides), and South Uist (Outer Hebrides).
An alternative Calmac ferry operates between the Isle of Eriskay and Ardmhor on Barra.
How high is Heaval on Barra?
Barra, an island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, is home to Heaval which is the island’s tallest hill. Located about 1 mile northeast of the village of Castlebay, the hill rises 1,256 feet (383 metres) above sea level.
What is the Isle of Barra known for?
The Isle of Barra is best known for its largest beach – Traigh Mhor – which is the location of the world’s only commercial beach airfield.
Other notable features of Barra are Kisimul Castle which is situated on top of a small outcrop in the middle of the harbour, Heaval hill which offers stunning views from its 1,256-foot summit, and the Isle of Vatersay which joins Barra via a short causeway.
What is the main town on Barra?
The largest settlement on the island of Barra is Castlebay. The village is home to Barra’s only supermarket as well as a distillery, cafe, post office, harbour, and the famous Kisimul Castle.