Butt to Barra and beyond

Walkers and cyclists on a quest to travel the 150-mile length of the Outer Hebrides use the Butt of Lewis and the little island of Barra as endpoints. Butt to Barra is the Hebridean equivalent of John O’Groats to Lands End.


We didn’t come prepared for self-propelled long-distance travel, but we do have a car. On Saturday morning we checked out of our Callanish cottage and drove up to the Butt of Lewis to start our tour.


I put plenty of photos from around Lewis in my last post, so all these pictures are from the Butt. It was my first time to the far north of the island. It’s awfully pretty up here. The old lighthouse was designed by David Stevenson of the Stevenson lighthouse engineering family; the author Robert Louis Stevenson was his nephew.

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The Isle of Harris, as I have mentioned before, actually shares an island with the Isle of Lewis. On the map above, the unmarked border between them runs across just about where the “I.” is in “Seaforth I.” If you want to refer to the whole thing, it’s called Lewis and Harris. Anyway, in contrast to Lewis’s flat peat bogs, Harris has beautiful yellow beaches and an abundance of the flower-studded grassy coastal plains they call machair.

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The ferry from Tarbert in Harris takes you to Berneray.

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This island has been populated since the Bronze Age but remained obscure enough that in 1987 Prince Charles was able to come out here to live as a crofter for a week without the media finding out. These folks do things the old-fashioned way. For my folklorist friends and any serious Gaelophiles, here is a video about the residents celebrating the new year on January 12. They didn’t change with the rest of Britain in 1752. The video is in Gaelic with no subtitles, but you can get the idea.

We didn’t actually get a change to experience much of the interestingness of Berneray. We must have blinked when we got off the ferry because we suddenly found ourselves in…

North Uist

North Uist (pronounced you-ist) is mostly flat and marshy. We saw renovated blackhouse cottages, photogenic Highland cattle, and a Georgian folly that was built to give local men work to do following the potato blight of 1830.

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We stopped to watch a crofting family – a man with his adult sons and some grandsons – shearing sheep by the side of the road.

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Causeways link this little island to the Uists north and south. We blew through it pretty quickly. They say the locals killed a mermaid here in 1830, but they did give her a proper Christian burial.

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South Uist

We stayed two nights on South Uist. There’s plenty to do and see here: walks out to the beach and on paths through the machair; ruins of medieval chapels; the well-organized local history museum. We spent the better part of an afternoon looking for the site of the prehistoric roundhouses where archaeologists found mummies.

We also visited the childhood home of Flora MacDonald, the Scottish heroine who famously helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape over the sea to Skye in 1746. My friend Ronalee was on the archaeological team that excavated the house in 1990s and I enjoyed seeing the results of her work.

The Reformation skipped over this isolated pocket of Scotland, and the Catholic Clan Ranald rulers here offered sufficient protection that the people could worship openly. The population here, along with Benbecula and Barra, remains primarily mainly Roman Catholic.

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A causeway connects South Uist with Eriskay.

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Eriskay’s main claim to fame is that it was the scene of events that inspired Compton MacKenzie’s book Whisky Galore, which in turn became the classic 1949 Ealing Studies comedy film known in the US as Tight Little Island. In 1941 the cargo ship SS Politician, carrying 28,000 cases of malt whisky to Jamaica and New Orleans, sank off the coast of Eriskay; most of the whisky was salvaged by the islanders despite the vigorous efforts of the local customs officer. The Am Politician pub on Eriskay has memorabilia from the event, including two of the rescued bottles. They also do a nice fish lunch.

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Also of great interest to me was St. Michael’s church, which has an important role in the second book of the Lewis Trilogy by Peter May. I highly recommend this series for police procedural mystery readers. I won’t say any more about the church because I don’t want to spoil the book for anybody.

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The last link of Butt to Barra is made by ferry from the harbor next to Prince’s Beach on Eriskay. Prince’s Beach is where Bonnie Prince Charlie first arrived in Scotland.

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The main town on Barra is the aptly named Castlebay. On a tiny island in the protected bay is Kisimul Castle, the seat of the clan McNeil. The clan still owns the castle but since 2001 they have rented it to Historic Scotland on a 1000-year lease for the price of one British pound and one bottle of whisky per year. The building is mostly in its medieval state but the family keeps a few marginally modernized rooms for overnight visits and special events.

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The Whisky Galore! movie was filmed on Barra – I don’t know why they chose here rather than Eriskay, but they did – with local people in many of the roles. There is a hotel pub that has movie posters and memorabilia from the film and its making.

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Barra has the only airport in the world where regularly scheduled flights land on a sand beach. Landings are scheduled around the tides.

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We took the trip a step further and ventured down past Barra to Vatersay, which is connected to Barra by another causeway.

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We could have gone further still, but Sandray, Rosinish, Mingulay, and another Berneray will have to wait until next time. We had to get get back up to Barra to catch our ferry for the five-hour journey to Oban on the mainland.

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About lornaofarabia

I am a teacher from Medford, Oregon. I currently live and work in Cairo, Egypt.
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