Travel: Barra, Scotland

If you ever head out to Scotland, it’s important to take a trip out to the Western Hebrides. It’s an excellent experience. The people are really nice and the non-touristy, authentic, small town vibe is everywhere. I have a particular soft spot for Barra, at the southern end of the island chain; not only does it have one of the most amazing castles in Scotland, it’s also the ancestral home of the MacNeils. Phoenetically the spelling of my name has become McNeill over time, but my roots are here.

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They have the world’s only scheduled commercial flights that land on a beach. The fee for the flight is set, so it’s always the same price, about $140 from Glasgow. It’s definitely worth it for the experience and the views that you get of the islands.

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View from the flight just prior to landing on the beach at the northern end of the island. Photo tip: Keep your camera ready at all times while flying out to the island
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After landing

But, if you’re going to be working your way up the island chain, I would recommend taking the car ferry over from the mainland because it’s a bit of a hassle trying to rent a car at each island that you stop on. And I highly recommend having your own car for touring, (unless you have a lot of time since the buses don’t run very often) and particularly if you’re trying to do some photography. If I recall, the last bus is at 5:30pm, not great for sunset photography excursions! If you’re just visiting Barra you can rent a car from Hugh MacNeil, awesome guy and great cars. Just ask for him in town or visit the tourist info shop, they’ll find him.

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Castlebay, the main town/village. There is a large hill behind me (I didn’t have time to climb the whole thing) and if you go to the top you can see the remaining southern islands in the chain. You can see some in this shot in the background, including their beautiful white sand beaches. Photo tip: This view is facing south, so it’s up to you if you want to do sunrise or sunset shooting.

 

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A shot of the main street with Kisimul Castle in the background

Be sure to try some seafood, and I had the best curry of my life at the Indian restaurant at the port. You can also find a restaurant at the airport at the northern end of the island, but everything else is pretty much at Castlebay on the southern end.

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Kisimul Castle. At high tide it looks like it’s floating out in the bay. Back in the 17th century one of the chiefs had a ship and he dabbled in a little piracy. Photo tip: This view allows for some sunset light to hit the castle (if you have clear skies; I had planned for some nice light to be hitting the side of the castle, but it didn’t happen, so I tried a long exposure to create interesting clouds instead.)
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During the day there are regular boats out to the castle, I think it’s about $5 to visit. The castle is much larger than it looks from the mainland, and there are several interesting hallways, rooms, and staircases to explore.

Don’t forget that it’s an island, with island weather, and be prepared for rain.

And don’t forget to explore the ruins on the island. This is stuff that’s thousands of years old. Find a map and be ready for some exploring since things are very well sign posted; actually, there basically aren’t any signs. This is something the tourist office there might want to look into. Some ruins are easy to see but some are only visible when you know they’re in the area and you really look for them. It’s really amazing to find an old hill fort ruin that you would have missed if weren’t for a map telling you it’s there. You’re really off the tourist trail when you find that stuff.

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A panorama of a well-hidden ancient hill fort.
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An ancient tomb near a more famous tomb named Dun Barpa. I never actually found Dun Barpa, so I was happy that this was in the area. Back to that lack of signs issue I mentioned. You’ll see this one if you’re out looking for the main tomb. Photo tip: this is the view looking west at sunset.
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This is one of the best preserved wheel houses in Scotland and it’s only a short drive from Castlebay. There were no tourist, just me and that sheep. Photo tip: this view is looking South, so if you want nice light you’d probably have to come around sunrise. There’s a big hill to the right, so sunset light wouldn’t work.

Don’t forget to check out the beautiful coast line and beaches. The feature image for the blog post is a hidden beach at the northern end of the island. Apparently, during the Whisky Galore event, the caves where they hid the whisky were there. Vatersay, the island to the south of Barra, has amazing beaches and is connected via a causeway, so it’s easy to drive out there.

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A beach on Vatersay island. There are uninhabited islands further south which have interesting rock arches, caves, wildlife, etc. But you should go in the summer when they are running trips out there. I was a bit too early and the weather wasn’t great. Photo tip: There was a shot that I wanted to get but didn’t due to weather; just to the right of this shot there is another beach on the other side. There’s a hill nearby that you could climb to get an amazing view down on to these two beaches on either side of the land bridge.
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Just a sunset shot along the south western coast.
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On the east side, an old cottage and some sheep. This is very common architecture from the past.

That’s about all I have to say for now. The seafood is great, the castle and ruins are amazing, the people are super friendly (if you have a car you’ll get tired of waving every time you pass someone), and the beaches are beautiful. It is a real hidden gem and well worth a visit if you want to get off the tourist trail. Here’s a shot of the northern beach to finish things off…

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An shot of the northern beach with some seaweed and a sea shell in the foreground. This is an HDR shot (where a dark, regular, and bright shot were put together to handle the extreme lighting situation). Photo tip: This is the view at sunrise. If you have a car, you can shoot the sunrise here, then drive back to Castlebay to get some shots of the sunlight hitting the castle (there is a hill near the town, so it takes about 15 minutes for the sunrise light to actually hit the castle). Or you can drive to the other side of the castle and get the sun coming over the hill behind the castle.
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