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My Britain: Isle of Barra

BY Alice Gawthrop

29th Mar 2023 My Britain

My Britain: Isle of Barra

At first glance, Barra may seem like an unassuming Atlantic island, but on closer inspection you’ll find a vibrant community with a strong sense of history

The Isle of Barra is the most southerly inhabited island in the Outer Hebrides. It can be reached by sea or by air, and if you choose the latter you’ll be treated to one of the more unusual plane landings around the world.

The runway for the island’s only airport is on a beach, and vanishes under the waves during high tide. It was voted the world’s most scenic landing spot in 2011.

"The runway for the island’s only airport is on a beach, and vanishes under the waves during high tide"

Barra is home to a crofting culture that is particular to the Scottish Highlands and the islands of Scotland. The island has had human inhabitants since the Neolithic era, but it remains a place of raw natural beauty.

From the white sandy beaches on the north side of the island to the rocky inlets on the southeast side, it’s known as one of the most beautiful islands in Britain.

Margaret Anne Elder

Old black and white photo of herring girls from BarraHerring Girl Knitwear is inspired by the herring lassies who used to knit traditional guernseys for fishermen

Margaret is the owner of Herring Girl Knitwear, a knitwear brand inspired by the women who travelled along the coast of the United Kingdom following herring as they migrated throughout the year (herringgirlcollection.com)

I was brought up between Barra and Fort William. That happened quite a lot in my generation because there were fewer education opportunities here.

The majority of my family was born in the 1960s on Barra and then came back in the 1980s and 1990s, because it wasn’t as isolated as it used to be so we could bring our children up here.

I went to Fort William for school. Once I had my family I brought them back to Barra. It was possible for my husband and I to work on our croft, which is a small bit of land tenure that’s passed down through generations.

I always knew I would come back to Barra, it was just a matter of when the time was right.

I live in a village called Bruernish, and my grandparents came from here, too. The cultural heritage and family ties pulled me back. It’s a unique way of life with a rich history.

There’s a sense of legacy, too, as the crofts go from generation to generation, so I have to think about who I’m going to give it to next.

"Long before the suffragettes, herring girls were going out and following shoals of herring throughout the British Isles"

Crofters have a unique lifestyle and nobody else knows we exist. All the local businesses have a sense of community and most of us are based on our crofts. We’re moving with the times but still staying here and bringing up our families here.

We’re staying grounded in our natural environment and the skills that have been passed down through generations.

Herring Girl Knitwear was inspired by the herring girls, who long before the suffragettes were going out and following shoals of herring throughout the British Isles. In fact, my granny was a herring girl and she’d be travelling all around Britain, going up to the Shetlands and back down through Scotland.

While they were at sea, the herring girls would knit guernseys for the fishermen. These were really important because each port had its own pattern, so if a person was lost at sea, you’d know which port they came from.

I was really inspired by this history, and I came up with the idea of Herring Girl Knitwear because not everyone can afford these jumpers but everyone wants a little bit of home. I took the traditional patterns and developed smaller items, like hats and cowls.

When people order a piece, I ask what port they’re affiliated with and we’ll give them a little bit of history about the port, because each port has its own story. We tailor the design to the traditional pattern of the port. It really ties into the history of the island.

My favourite spot on the island is Eoligarry. It’s a village with lovely beaches that I love to visit for inspiration. I take a lot of the colours in my work from the sea, so Herring Girl Knitwear is really connected to the island, both in terms of the historical background and the connection to raw nature.

Mairi Voinot

View of Tangasdale beach and sea on Isle of BarraThe Isle of Barra is home to several beautiful beaches, including Tangasdale beach

Mairi is the tourism development officer at Bùth Bharraigh, a shop and visitor information centre in Castlebay, Barra (buthbharraigh.co.uk)

I moved to Barra with my family (husband, baby and dog) in March 2022 after getting a job at Bùth Bharraigh in November 2021. I am originally from Lochgilphead in Argyll.

I moved to Benbecula for university, where I met my husband. We moved to Glasgow to pursue our careers as musicians, however, just before COVID, I got my master's degree in International Tourism and Events Management.

When Covid hit and we lost our music work, we talked about how our pipeline dream was to move back to the islands. We saw this post advertised and applied thinking it would never happen, but I got the job and we managed to move back to the islands!

When we first came to Barra, we just loved it from the start. The beaches, the views and the community make this island so amazing to live on and raise our son.

There are so many reasons why working at Bùth Bharraigh is special. Bùth Bharraigh is a community retail and visitor hub in the heart of Castlebay.

We are a social enterprise that helps our community flourish by providing a range of goods and services. We act as a point of contact for many people on the island, especially through the winter months when other services on the island are closed. This helps to combat social isolation.

The community out here has been so welcoming to us moving up. Working at Bùth Bharraigh, many members of the community come in regularly to meet and talk to us and other locals.

Due to this, we have started offering free language cafés and craft ceilidhs, where people can come along and learn new skills. The warm community is a large aspect of why I love living on the island.

My favourite spot on the island is Tangasdale beach. It’s a short walk through the field, and over the dunes in the shelter before the wind and waves from the Atlantic hit you. This beach is a lovely place to come and feel the power of the sea.

Chris Denehy

Woman sea kayaking on turquoise water off coast of BarraThe Isle of Barra is the ideal spot for sea kayaking or surfing

Chris is the owner of Isle of Barra Surf and Coastal Adventures, offering a range of water sports including kayaking and paddleboarding (barrasurfadventures.co.uk)

I’ve lived on Barra Island since 2001. My wife is from the island, so we moved here together. I love summertime on the island; it’s absolutely stunning. Beautiful clear seas, beaches, islands, amazing wildlife. It keeps going. Especially for my business, summer is just absolutely amazing here.

There’s definitely a Barra Island spirit. It’s such a small island, there’s a really strong sense of community. Everyone knows everyone in some form. Being so remote creates a strong community spirit.

"For sea kayaking it’s stunning. The waters are really shallow and incredibly clear"

The island is perfect for Isle of Barra Surf and Coastal Adventures. There aren’t many better places for water sports! You can surf on the west coast, you’ve got sheltered kayaking on the east coast.

It’s very quiet—you can go to some islands and you won’t see anybody. For water sports it’s just unbelievable. Most of our visitors are from mainland Scotland or England, a few from the continent, too.

My favourite spot on the island is technically not actually on the island. It’s the Sound of Barra, which lies just to the north between Barra and South Uist.

For sea kayaking it’s stunning. The waters are really shallow and incredibly clear. And again, the wildlife is amazing. You have seals, eagles, dolphins, the list goes on. It's absolutely stunning.

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