Enjoy a car-free weekend getaway to the isles of Barra and Vatersay in the Outer Hebrides! Bask in the sun on the white sandy beaches of these paradise islands, taste the best local food & drink, and explore the rugged landscape of these magical islands by bike.

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Barra and Vatersay are the southernmost inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides. Their remote location and moderate size make them far less popular (and busy) than other islands in this archipelago, like Lewis and Harris. But they are by no means less beautiful or exciting to visit.

I first visited Barra and Vatersay in 2018 when I hiked the Hebridean Way. Barra is the larger of the two. It has an airport and ferry terminal, so visitors like me arrive there first. Vatersay is its smaller neighbour in the south and it is here that the Hebridean Way officially begins.

The islands are connected by a causeway, making it easy to travel between the two and explore both on a car-free weekend getaway in the Scottish Isles. Last time, I only saw what lies along the hiking trail, but this time with bikes, I managed to see a lot more of what the islands have to offer.

Barra and Vatersay are best known for their sandy beaches, Barra’s peculiar airport and its remote location. Let’s see what else awaits us in these islands!

A long journey to the Outer Hebrides

Not all Scottish islands lend themselves to car-free getaways. Not every island has public transport options, and while cycling is always a great option, some islands are just too big for leisurely cyclists who are looking for a relaxed getaway.

Barra and Vatersay though, are just the right size for a car-free holiday by bike – and you don’t even have to bring your own.

The journey begins in Glasgow with a train journey to Oban. Watch the scenery change as you leave the banks of the River Clyde behind and the mountains of the Highlands rise and fall. Enjoy the views of Loch Long and Loch Lomond, and rush through Highland villages like Tyndrum and Crianlarich until the train turns west towards the coast.

If you have time in Oban, grab lunch from the Oban Seafood Hut by the ferry pier, or browse the deli fridge at Food from Argyll, the cafe in the ferry terminal.

Before you know it, you’ll board the ferry to Castlebay. A 5-hour journey awaits, through the Sound of Mull, past the lighthouse at Ardnamurchan and the very top of Coll. These waters are bustling with wildlife and I was lucky enough to spot a minke whale dive up for air.

Beyond Coll, the Sea of the Hebrides offers endless sea views – if you’re lucky enough to get clear skies; which we were not… The ferry was surrounded by fog and so I let the back and forth of the sea lull me to sleep.

Top tip: The sea can get rough this far out, removed from the shelter of the islands. Pack seasickness remedies, if you’re prone to feel queasy.

After a long ferry crossing, the ferry arrives in the sheltered waters of Castlebay, the main village in Barra. Locals await their loved ones by the pier, taxis pick up travellers who are staying out of town, and motorhomes file off the car deck, one after the other.

A five-minute walk brings us to our accommodation for the next three nights, Dunard Hostel in the middle of Castlenbay.

I stayed here before when I hiked the Hebridean Way and remember fondly, meeting other hikers and cyclists who were taking on the route. The small, independent hostel has one dorm room for 4 people, and several private twin, double and family rooms – it’s a far cry from what you might imagine when you hear the word ‘hostel’.

We move into our generous twin room with views of the village, make our way to the local supermarket and pick up supplies for the next few days.

Over dinner, we got talking to fellow hostel guests. Some of them are cycling the Hebridean Way, and others – like us – are here to spend a few days in Barra. The hostel is a sociable space and with only a few options for things to do, it’s easy to feel connected to the others who are all on similar adventures.

☀️ Barra & Vatersay Travel Guide ☀️

Getting there: Loganair flight from Glasgow or Calmac ferry from Oban

Stay at Dunard Hostel & Lodge

Getting around: Barra Bike Hire, local bus

Eat at Cafe Kisimul (Castlebay), Ardmhòr Coffee (Ardmhòr), Greim at Grinn (northwest), The Croft Kitchen honesty box (Eoligarry), Fishbox Kitchen @ Croft 2 (Eoligarry), Vatersay Hall Cafe (Vatersay)

Shop local products at Bùth Bharraigh

Exploring Barra by Bike

The next morning, the fog has lifted and the sun is poking through. I walk to Bùth Bharraigh, the community shop in Castlebay to meet Tony from Barra Bike Hire, a small local business that hires out bicycles, e-bikes and touring bikes for people who want to cycle the Hebridean Way.

Just before I leave, I spot a poster for boat trips to Kisimul Castle, the small castle that sits on a rocky island in the bay off the village. The castle has been closed since 2019, but during the summer, Historic Scotland is offering free boat trips to the castle to get a closer look.

Top tip: Visit Bùth Bharraigh – not just to shop for locally made products, but also to check out up-to-date visitor information and to ask the staff for recommendations for things to do in the islands.

We show up at the pier half an hour later, are equipped with life jackets and board a small open boat. The trip takes just 15 minutes but is very informative. Kisimul Castle was first built a thousand years ago and has been a stronghold of power in these islands for centuries. Up to 200 people lived there, with supplies being brought in from the island.

After this quick detour, we jumped on our bikes and headed north. Barra’s roads are reasonably flat, apart from the roads leading out of Castlebay. We pushed our bikes uphill as the village grew smaller below us. From the top, it was smooth sailing and we enjoyed the views of sandy beaches, red-roofed houses by the sea and the rugged mountain landscape.

Our first stop was the cafe at the ferry pier in Ardhmòr. From here, the small ferry leaves for Eriskay – a journey I did when I hiked the Hebridean Way. This time, a scone with clotted cream and jam would suffice.

Back on the road, we made our way to Barra Airport (check arrival times here). Barra is the only place in the world where regularly scheduled passenger flights land on the beach. They do so at low tide, when the exposed sands offer plenty of space for the aircraft to maneuver. We got to the airport just in time to see the flight from Glasgow touch down on the “runway” and waited a while to see it take off again. What a bizarre and beautiful experience.

The north of the Barra is a mosaic of white sandy beaches and turquoise coves – from Traigh Mhòr where the planes land to Traigh Eais on the other side of the narrows and the beaches in the far north. It’s well worth a detour, even if it adds a few miles to your cycle journey. We saw a windsurfer, heard corncrakes calling from the nettle beds and watched as the tide slowly crept back to cover up the exposed sandbank.

To complete our round of Barra, we returned to the main road and continued to the west coast of the island. A pit stop at Greim at Grinn for excellent seafood gave us the energy we needed. The final stretch to Castlebay was uphill again – although not as steep as the road in the morning.

Overall, we cycled about 29 miles around the Isle of Barra, out to Ardhmòr and up to the northern end of the island. What an achievement!

Night Sky Miracle: Northern Lights in Scotland

But our day was not over yet. We had heard the chatter online about a potential solar storm setting off the northern lights. And so, we patiently waited for darkness to set in – not an easy feat in mid-May! it was well after 11 pm when the last sunlight cleared from the sky.

We wrapped up and headed out into the dark night, bringing some distance between us and the glaring lights of the ferry that was docked in the village overnight.

It didn’t take long for the show to begin. How lucky are we to witness one of the strongest solar storms in decades on the beautiful Isle of Barra? We watched the lights dance across the sky for hours and returned to our beds tired and inspired by the beauty of nature.

Top tip: Install the Aurora Watch UK app for accurate forecasts and resources.

Northern lights in Barra

Day Trip to Vatersay by Bike

Our second day of cycling around Barra and Vatersay began with yet another steep hill, but this time, going south. The descent on the other side was quick and before we knew it, we had reached the causeway across to Vatersay.

The causeway is 250 metres long and was finished in 1991. Before its construction, people from Vatersay could only reach Barra by boat, and cattle often had to swim across the narrow gap to be taken by ferry to market on the mainland. It’s incredible that Vatersay remained inhabited despite the lack of a direct ferry connection. Today, the crossing to Barra is a lot easier.

As we cycled south, we quickly realised why most people cycle the Hebridean Way from south to north. With prevailing southerly winds, it would simply be too hard to cycle into a headwind constantly. But we managed and arrived at the Vatersay Hall Cafe for coffee and cake.

A little further on, we ditch our bikes by a fence and continue on foot to visit the south-facing beach, Bagh A’Deas. Eager walkers can follow the signposted circular walk around Vatersay which takes in all the beaches and viewpoints of southern Vatersay.

Intrigued by the blinding white sands of Traigh a Bhaigh, we follow a path through the dunes. This beach faces east and is usually the most sheltered one among the beaches here. Despite being made up of billions of crushed seashells, the sand is soft.

Changed into our swimsuits, we walked to the edge of the water. It’s cold, but so clear, we can see all the life on the ground. After a bit of hesitation, we’re in, enjoying the shallow water and almost empty beach. There are just 3 or 4 other people sitting in the sand.

With the wind in our backs, our cycle back to Castlebay was much easier. One last push up the steep hill outside the village and we’re back at the hostel. 18 miles is all we did that day.

For dinner, we booked a table at Cafe Kisimul which serves excellent authentic Indian cuisine – just what you need after two intense days on two wheels.

The next day, we rise early to catch the ferry back to Oban. We bid farewell to Barra and Vatersay as the sun rises across the ocean. So long – I hope to be back soon!

I hope you too feel inspired to plan a car-free weekend getaway to Barra and Vatersay.

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