However you arrive in Barra it is an island that makes an instant impression, whether it is scooping in low over the hills to bounce down on the sands on the world’s only scheduled beach runway, or eking in by ferry from Oban or Eriskay under the watchful eye of the glowering mountains. It’s quite the arrival. And quite the warm community welcome that awaits, thanks to the cheery, dynamic folks at the ever impressive Bùth Bharraigh Community and Visitor Hub in Castlebay.
I’ve been lucky enough to arrive in Barra over the years a couple of times by plane, on both ferries, on a small cruise ship and even by sea kayak. No two trips are the same on an island I sometimes hear called the ‘Jewel of the Hebrides’. I think the ‘Outer Hebrides in Miniature’ is more accurate. If you can only get out to one island in this 130-mile long archipelago there is a strong case for making it Barra as it has got it all, from those hills and sweeping Atlantic beaches that knock the Caribbean for six, through to boat-fresh seafood, historic sights and a lively cultural scene deeply distinct from the mainland.
On my visits you would think I was on a different island each time, such has been the diversity of my experiences. It’s hard to believe this Tardis-like isle is only 11 miles by six miles. One day I paddled over to a wee islet with Chris from Clearwater Paddling, another hiked to the top of a seriously windy Heaval, then another I managed only half of the nine holes at one of the most bizarre - and one of the most thoroughly beautiful - golf courses I’ve played anywhere in the world – one bunker is an ocean-lashed Atlantic beach. I’ve shared garlic cockles with the captain of my plane at the airport and feasted on king scallop pakora twice in one day at Café Kisimul – yes they are that good!
Sarah MacLean, manager of Bùth Bharraigh Ltd, agrees that it makes no sense to do what some poor souls do and plan to only breeze through Barra from the Oban ferry on route to all points north. “People come off ferry at 1830 and plan to drive round island before leaving the next day,” says Maclean. “They don’t realise what we have here in such a compact, easy to get around space. We meet quite a few of them who simply change their plans and decide to spend more time on Barra. And then come back again next year. We get a lot of repeat visitors to our island.”
Whether you planned to stay here or not Bùth Bharraigh is an essential stop. It has stepped in to replace and go beyond what the Visit Scotland tourist information centre offered until it closed in Castlebay in 2017. Maclean explains: “For the past five years we have been providing tourist information and accommodation finding service for Barra and Vatersay. We also have a laundry service, bike hire, free wifi with tea and coffee and printing and copying services. Our service is vital to provide people with information and also to help them make the most of their time in Barra signposting them to activities and community events.”
This is no ordinary tourist office on many levels. For a start they don’t know the meaning of opening hours, only helping people in need. “When the ferry is late it’s an issue for people,” says MacLean. “They might be a single traveller coming to an island for the first time and feel a little daunted. We will stay open to welcome them with a smile and help them sort everything out.”
Yes Bùth Bharraigh helps people out with information, but also it’s a popular shop that visitors – who Maclean says are welcomed as ‘temporary locals’ – and locals alike use year round: “We are a route to market for around 100 local producers. We source as many things as possible from Barra and Vatersay like vegetables from our community garden, arts and crafts, seafood, jams and chutneys, and home baking. Beyond that we try to stay as local as possible with beef and venison from the Uists and tea from Tiree. The shop is so good that it won an award of ‘Highlands and Islands Independent Retailer of the Year’ in 2022.
The shop and their accommodation booking service have a strong community benefit. As well as a market place for goods, they signpost businesses and events. They also help visitors understand about Barra and Vatersay and suggest ways in which they can spend their time rather than going to all the hotspots, which helps with dispersal. They also host community events such as a language cafe and craft ceilidhs. They help retain money in the community, as Maclean points out: “In 2022 producer sales in the shop totalled £58,000, with £50,000 generated by accommodation bookings. And this does not even include extra visitor spend. Maclean tells me that for every £1 spent in Bùth Bharraigh it equates to £2.58 for the local economy (Local multiplier factor).”
Money is one thing, but the centre provides jobs and opportunities too. It provides four full-time jobs and one seasonal job, as well as over 20 roles for volunteers. And these volunteers are not just from one demographic, explains Maclean, “We get young people coming through from the community. We work with programmes like the Duke of Edinburgh Award and the Saltire Awards. We help them towards the workforce, giving them transferable skills and the confidence that comes from working in a shop and information centre, speaking to people who they won’t always know yet.”
This forward-looking vision continues with their approach to the environment. The shop has a ‘Refillery’. You bring in your own bag or container, or they give you one. Then you fill it up with nuts, dried fruits, herbs, spices and pulses – in total over 200 items await within their shop.
This green drive stretches into future plans. MacLean is hoping that they will be able to buy their premises this year and then either revamp it next winter or the one after: “It will be to give us more space and be more suited to our needs of being a shop, information centre and café where people come to meet. It will also have a green side too with renewable energy, better insulation and other sustainable aspects in the community-led mix. Barra as a community has signed up to be one of the pioneering Scottish islands aiming to accelerate its journey to become carbon neutral.”