In this guide we share the best things to do on Barra and Vatersay, along with practical tips like where to stay and how to get around. We also offer a detailed map, which you can download for offline use during your trip (and trust us, with very limited phone reception, you’re going to need it!).
Barra and Vatersay rank high among our all-time favourite Scottish islands. They offer a bit of everything there is to love about the Outer Hebrides in one small beach-fringed isle, or rather two, linked as they are by a short causeway. At the bottom of the chain of islands that make up the Western Isles, Barra and Vatersay are often included in a Hebridean island-hopping itinerary through Lewis and Harris, and Uist, but they also make great destinations in themselves.
Here you’ll find a relaxed island vibe, an attractive hilly interior, a scenic coastline dotted with bays and colourful fishing boats, and some of the best beaches in the Outer Hebrides. Barra is also the jumping off point for trips to the uninhabited islands of Mingulay and St Kilda, experiences not to be missed.
Watch our Instagram stories from the Outer Hebrides
Watch our Instagram stories
from the Outer Hebrides
We have created a detailed Barra and Vatersay map to accompany this guide, which can be used online or offline to navigate during your trip and quickly pinpoint all of the places mentioned here. This includes everywhere outlined in our ‘see and do’ section, along with walking and cycling routes, plus our recommended food stops, accommodation and campsites, and practical info such as shops, public toilets, and transport hubs. It is the perfect companion to this written guide.
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A pristine stretch of white sand backed by machair-covered dunes, Vatersay has one of the most beautiful beaches in the Outer Hebrides, the sight of which will linger long in your memory. While impressive beaches on Barra such as Traigh Eais are subject to the full force of the North Atlantic wind and waves, this beach’s position on the eastern side of an isthmus is welcomingly sheltered.
Azure water gently laps the shore, the perfect spot for a (chilly) dip, paddle board, or kayak. It’s the ideal place for a lazy day at the beach, and if you fancy lingering longer, camping and overnight stays in campervans are also possible – see our camping, campervans, and accommodation section below for more details.
The curving white sand beach on Vatersay, with Heaval (Barra’s highest hill) and Castlebay seen in the distance
The curving white sand beach on Vatersay,
with Heaval (Barra’s highest hill) and
Castlebay seen in the distance
There is parking, public toilets, coin-operated showers, and a water tap by the Vatersay Community Hall, just behind the beach. Donations are welcomed. The community hall cafe serves home baked goodies, soup, paninis, morning rolls, toasties, ice cream, tea, coffee, etc, with both indoor and outdoor tables. It’s open Monday to Saturday 11am – 4pm, and Sunday 12pm – 3pm. Cash only (as there is no internet signal for a card machine!).
While the idyllic Vatersay beach is reason enough to venture over the causeway from Barra, there is certainly more to explore on this lovely little island. Starting at the beach, a circular walking route leads towards the small hill of Am Meall, down to the hidden beaches and ruined village of Eorisdale, along to the beach at South Bay (Bagh A’Deas) – where the local cows like to roam – and back over the hillside to West Beach (Traigh Siar).
It’s a great walk with fantastic views, cultural points of interest, and the chance to find a quiet spot to yourself on the southernmost inhabited island of the Outer Hebrides.
A view of rocky Am Meall from the Vatersay coastal walking route
Looking across to uninhabited Sandray
Looking across to uninhabited Sandray
from the southern shores of Vatersay
There is an info board outlining the suggested route by the community hall, and you can read a detailed route description and download a GPX track here. This particular route is waymarked with wooden poles, but they aren’t always easy to follow, so be sure to have a map with you (an offline mapping app such as Maps.me or Gaia GPS (iOS/Android) is ideal.) There is no walking path most of the time, just open grassy hillside, grazing land, and coastline. Allow around 3 – 4 hours for the walk.
It’s not often that we include an airport as a must-see attraction in our travel guides, but then not every airport uses a tidal beach as its runway! The 19-seater Twin Otter Loganair plane, complete with Scottish saltire emblazoned on its tail wing, arrives from Glasgow twice a day and departs again soon after, with the schedule very much dependent on the ebb and flow of the tide. It really is quite the spectacle, the tiny aircraft whizzing across a sandy expanse with the odd spray of seawater flying into the air as it splashes through puddles before coming to a halt outside the passenger terminal.
Coming in to land over the dunes
The 19 seater plane parked in front of the Barra Airport terminal
The 19 seater plane parked on the sand
in front of the Barra Airport terminal
Coming in to land over the dunes
You can check the flight arrival and departure schedule on the airport website. Flights can be early, so it’s best to be there at least 30 minutes before the scheduled arrival time. There is a public car park next to the airport. You can line up along the grass by the car park for the best views of the planes landing and taking off. When the orange windsocks are flying, the airport is in use and the beach is out of bounds, but when the windsocks are down, you’re free to walk on the beach. There are toilets in the terminal building. The airport cafe is closed at the time of writing, but vending machines are available.
One of the best beaches on Barra can be found just a short walk over the dunes from Barra Airport. The broad golden sand beach of Traigh Eais stretches for a couple of kilometres along the western side of the Eoligarry peninsula. Backed by tall dunes and tucked between hills north and south, it feels secluded, a spot where you can witness the full force of the North Atlantic on a wild day, or find yourself a quiet spot to picnic in calmer weather.
The broad golden sands of Traigh Eais on a calm day
The golden sands of Traigh Eais on a calm day
On the northeastern side of the Eoligarry peninsula is another fine stretch of sand, looking across the Sound of Barra to the uninhabited island of Fuday and the prominent hills of South Uist beyond. Eoligarry jetty, complete with rows of colourful creels, buoys, and nets, is a good place to start a walk. From here, wander along the attractive beach, following as it bends left to reach the broad expanse of sand on the peninsula’s northern shore. The scenery is most impressive at mid-low tide, when a swathe of white sand is exposed and striking black rocks are revealed.
The beaches and houses along the northeastern side of the Eoligarry Peninsula
The beaches and houses stretching along the
northeastern side of the Eoligarry Peninsula
For Traigh Eais park at the car park next to the airport and follow the path up and over the dunes to the west. For the Eoligarry beach walk, park at the jetty (57.04160, -7.42160). For a longer walk combining these two areas, follow the suggested Eoligarry Explorer route outlined here, and marked on an info board at the jetty.
A number of scenic beaches can be found on the western side of Barra, each with their own unique character. Tucked beneath the steep slopes of Ben Cliad and far from the main road that loops around the island, Cleat Beach is a very peaceful spot. Allasdale Beach on the other hand, is conveniently located right next to the main road, with three different laybys dotted along this stretch of the A888 – perfect for pulling in for a quick view or parking up for a longer walk. A little to the south, just beyond the Isle of Barra Hotel, is a short walking trail to Tangasdale Beach, a broad stretch of sand with small dunes and rock pools.
Cleat Beach, tucked beneath the craggy slopes of Ben Cliad on the west coast of Barra
Cleat Beach, tucked beneath the craggy slopes
of Ben Cliad on the west coast of Barra
For Cleat Beach park on the grass verge near the residential caravan (57.014150, -7.492419). Parking for Allasdale Beach can be found along the main road at these three locations: 56.99177, -7.50857, 56.98958, -7.50993, and 56.98739, -7.50837. For Tangasdale Beach park at the small grassy layby in Tangasdale village (56.97043, -7.51671) and walk through the gate, heading 5 minutes or so northeast to the beach.
What better way to take in the sights, sounds, and fresh Hebridean air than walking or cycling around the islands? Vatersay Beach is the official start point of The Hebridean Way, which has both walking (156 miles) and cycling (185 miles) routes connecting Vatersay, Barra, Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, Grimsay, North Uist, Harris, and Lewis. Having cycled the route in 2017, we can tell you that it’s a fantastic ride, and the section around Barra and Vatersay is one of our favourites.
Of course, there’s no need to commit to walking or cycling the entire Outer Hebrides route, but why not tackle the Vatersay and Barra sections? The official walking and cycling routes diverge at various points, taking advantage of the best scenery and trail experience, so combining them is a great way of seeing all different sides of the islands.
The official cycling route starts at Vatersay Beach, follows the coastal road around Vatersay and over the causeway to Barra, then up the western side of the island to the ferry terminal at Ardmhor. For the complete Barra experience, we’d recommend tagging on a side trip to Traigh Mhor (the airport beach), then returning to Castlebay via the scenic eastern side of the island, a total of approximately 21 miles (34 km).
Cycling a section of the Hebridean Way route is a great way to see Barra and Vatersay
Cycling a section of the Hebridean Way route
is a great way to see Barra and Vatersay
If walking the Heb Way, we’d suggest skipping the road sections on Vatersay, focusing instead on the hillwalking sections on Barra. Start near the Barra/Vatersay causeway, climbing the slopes of Ben Tangaval before descending to Tangasdale Beach, a little over 3 miles. From here there is about 1 mile of walking on the main road between the Isle of Barra Hotel and the turn off for Craigston, then a 6 mile route over the hills to Traigh Mhor (by the airport). Tackle it all in one day, or over a couple of different days and have plenty of time to enjoy the beaches at either end.
We’ve marked the suggested walking and cycling routes on our accompanying map. It’s possible to hire bikes from Barra Bike Hire, including e-bikes and bikes for cycling the full Hebridean Way route to Lewis. The Barra bus service can be used to get you to/from the start/end points of the walking routes should you be travelling by public transport or need to return to where you’ve parked your car.
To be fair, any drive around ‘Barradise’ could be considered a scenic drive. If you’ve already checked out the best things to do on Barra previously suggested in this guide, then you’ve no doubt been impressed. But there’s one last spot we’d like to give special mention to, and that’s the lovely little stretch of picture-perfect bays around Earsairidh.
Lacking the gorgeous sweeps of white sand beaches that punctuate the Atlantic coastline of Barra, the eastern side of the island is often overlooked. But this scenic spot, about halfway between Castlebay and Northbay, makes driving (or cycling!) a complete circuit of the Barra ring road a must. Colourful fishing boats bob around in turquoise water, the odd creel lines the grassy shore, and tiny rocky islands dot the picturesque bays. It makes for a classic island scene.
A classic coastal scene on the eastern side of Barra
A classic coastal scene on the eastern side of Barra
There are limited laybys around Earsairidh, so please take care to only park in safe spots and avoid blocking the road or passing places.
An uninhabited island 12 miles south of Barra, Mingulay is a special place. Home to vast numbers of breeding seabirds (including a large puffin colony!), a spectacular golden sand beach, towering sea cliffs, and the remains of a former village, Mingulay is like a little St Kilda, but with fewer tourists and no MoD infrastructure. It also costs a lot less to visit, and takes much less time to get there.
Aquamarine water meets golden sand on the shores of Mingulay, with two day trip boats anchored in the bay
Aquamarine water meets golden sand on the
shores of Mingulay, with two day trip boats
anchored out in the bay
There are two companies operating day trips to Mingulay from Barra, each departing Castlebay at 10am and returning around 4pm. The journey takes you south past Vatersay, Sandray, and Pabbay, a scenic trip of around 40 – 60 minutes. You might see basking sharks, whales, and dolphins along the way. You’ll have about 3 hours on the island before getting back on the boat for a fantastic 1 hour trip around the impressive cliffs and sea stacks, popular with climbers and seabirds alike. As there is no jetty on Mingulay, when you arrive, your island adventure will start with a scramble up the rocks, or perhaps a beach landing, whichever is considered safest on the day.
On arrival, puffin lovers will want to head to the grassy slopes on the northern side of the beach. Here you’ll find the burrows of a large puffin colony, dotted around the hillside above a narrow inlet. Sit quietly, wait patiently, and you’ll be rewarded with the incredible sight of puffins zooming all around, popping in and out of their burrows to survey the land. The views from this spot are fantastic, looking out over turquoise water to the huge expanse of beach, backed by the ruined buildings of the former village. On a calm day, seals frolicking in the crystal clear water below are easy to spot.
The puffin colony burrows into the grassy hillside on the northern side of the bay
A puffin on the hillside above the sea
The puffin colony on Mingulay burrows into the
grassy hillside on the northern side of the bay
A puffin on the hillside above the sea
Another highlight is a walk through the village, abandoned since 1912 when the final residents left the island for a better life elsewhere. The sands of Mingulay Bay are creeping inland, already covering some of the houses in the old village, but there are still some interesting sites to see. The former chapel sits on the hillside overlooking the bay, the walls all that remain of this two-floored building dating from 1898. The other significant ruins are that of John MacKinnon’s house, by the stream down the hillside from the chapel. John MacKinnon ran the only mill on Mingulay, situated further upstream.
The school, built in 1881, is the best preserved building on the island. It was restored by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) who took ownership of Mingulay in 2000. The prominent building sits on a hillside to the south of the beach.
The ruins of John Mackinnon’s house on the hillside behind Mingulay bay
The ruins of John Mackinnon’s house
For those looking for a longer walk, take your pick from any of the hills on the island. Cnoc Mhic-a-Phi (MacPhee’s Hill) (224 m) rises above the puffin colony in the northeast. Heading upstream from the village will lead you to the sheer cliffs of Biulacraig (Eagle Cliff), with Carnan (273 m) and Hecla (219 m) in the south of the island.
You can visit Mingulay with Mingulay Boat Trips or Hebridean Sea Tours from Castlebay on Barra. Tours cost between £50 and £60 per person, with a maximum capacity of 12 people per boat. Advance booking is recommended, especially during the peak season of July and August. All tours are weather dependent. The puffin season is approximately late April till early August.
There are no toilets or other facilities on Mingulay. There is a natural water source, which should be boiled or treated before drinking. The terrain is uneven, and sturdy walking shoes are recommended. The weather can be very changeable, so you should pack waterproofs and warm clothing, as well as a hat, sunglasses, etc. Don’t forget to pack food and water, too. There is no phone reception or data connection on the island.
Wild camping is possible on Mingulay. Contact NTS for more details, and arrange your outbound and inbound journey with one of the above tour operators (paying double the fare).
Most people think that you can only get to St Kilda on a day trip from Skye or Harris, but it’s also possible to visit St Kilda from Barra once a week with Hebridean Sea Tours. A dual UNESCO World Heritage site, St Kilda possesses fascinating social history and visual spectacle in equal measure. The islands are a haven for seabirds, supporting the largest colony in the Northeast Atlantic, with tens of thousands of gannets, guillemots, puffins, fulmars, razorbills, and more.
Watching the birds from the catamaran operated by Hebridean Sea Tours
Birds swarm around rocky Boreray
By the turn of the 20th century, as on Mingulay and so many other Hebridean islands, life for the small community on this isolated archipelago (about 50 miles west of Barra) was no longer sustainable. The last 36 St Kildans were voluntarily evacuated in 1930. Today the island is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and the Ministry of Defence (who have had a radar installation on the main island of Hirta since the 1950s) maintain a year-round presence.
Village Bay on Hirta, home to the remains of the original village and the modern Ministry of Defence buildings
Village Bay on Hirta, home to the remains of the
original village, the modern Ministry of Defence
buildings, and the radar station on the hill
A trip to St Kilda is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most who visit, and while you’re already on Barra, it’s well worth considering making the journey there yourself.
We have written a lot more about the history and significance of St Kilda, and include everything you need to know about visiting the islands, in our dedicated St Kilda Travel Guide.
Shops and public facilities on Barra are centred around Castlebay in the south of the island. There is a Co-op supermarket, as well as a community shop, Buth Bharraigh, and a small grocery shop next to Cafe Kisimul. There is also a bank and ATM, a fuel station, and hospital.
Public toilets are available in the community hall in Castlebay (opening hours only), Castlebay ferry terminal (opening hours only), at the community hall on Vatersay (24 hours), and at the Ardmhor ferry terminal (24 hours). Two coin operated showers are also available 24 hours at Vatersay community hall, along with a drinking water tap. See the camping section below for more details.
Phone signal is currently not great on Barra and practically non-existent on Vatersay. With a Vodafone SIM we managed to get reliable service outside the Co-op in Castlebay, and nowhere else. You can connect to the free Calmac WIFI at Ardmhor ferry terminal (waiting room open 24 hours, signal in the car park too).
Many of the roads on Barra and Vatersay are single track, with regular passing places allowing you to pass oncoming traffic or let cars behind you safely overtake. Be sure to read up on how to drive on single track roads in advance, and watch this short animation video for a great visual overview.
Options for eating out are limited on Barra and Vatersay, and they are primarily centred around Castlebay. Advance bookings for restaurants are usually required. Opening times can vary throughout the year, so calling ahead or checking updates on the relevant Facebook page is recommended.