Barra and Vatersay Historical Society

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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The logo for Dualchas is the symbol which appears on the Pabbay Stone.

Barra Islands

     

The islands to the south of Barra and Vatersay were once inhabited with hardy people now they are a haven for wild birds. 

 

These islands used to be known as ‘The Bishop's Isles’- Mingulay being the largest of the group.

 

Picture right: One of the blackhouse ruins on Mingulay

       

These four islands lost a lot of inhabitants through emigration to Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton and Ontario between 1790 -1850’s.

 

Sandray in particular was heavily affected; it was cleared of its residual inhabitants in the 1830’s. Thereafter Sandray was inhabited by families of shepherds and agricultural labourers. During the raids at Vatersay farm, in the first decade of the 20th Century, some Mingulay families settled at Siadar, before finally settling at Vatersay.

       
This page gives a brief introduction to each of the islands.
       
     
Berneray (back to top)
     

This is the most southerly point of the Outer Hebrides, with magnificent cliffs 190m (623ft) on the west side of Skate point, they take the full force of the gigantic seas. In early May, the hill side is a riot of colour with primroses, celandine, wild violets and yellow flag iris. The cove east of the landing place is much frequented by grey seal, kittiwake, guillemot and auk; puffins are found in large numbers on the cliffs.

 

Two duns or fortified mounds are situated near the summit, one is called Dun Briste (the broken fort), unfortunately the other a galleried dun of Iron Age, was largely destroyed when the light house was constructed. 

 

Barra Head Lighthouse was designed by Robert Stevenson and constructed in 1833.

     
Mingulay  (back to top)
(Now owned by the National Trust for Scotland)
     

Picture above: Chapel House

 

Picture above: Sea bird's nest

In 1908, many islanders claimed land on neighbouring islands, some becoming known as the ‘Vatersay Raiders,’ after this the remaining population dwindled rapidly.  The island was last inhabitated in 1912.

 

Boat trips to the island during the summer months are very popular, (weather permitting).

 

Sorrel and wild celery grow on the hill side it is a particular breeding station for guillemots and kittiwake. A boat trip around the awe-inspiring western cliffs, virtually inaccessible and covered in sea birds, is an unforgettable experience. In the breeding season, the granite stacks, and high cliffs are festooned with nesting kittiwake, razorbill and guillemot; there are also puffin to be found and black backed gull. 

     

One island story relates how, in the time of Mac Neil of Barra’s ownership, a rent collector, Mac Phee, was landed on the island and found everyone dead. He went back to the boat and called to the men, to take him off as there was a ‘plague’ on the island, on hearing this the men rowed away and left him to his fate.

 

Everyday he would climb the hill north of the village, and signal to passing ships; they would wave back and pass on. He survived and eventually after a whole year Mac Neil decided it was safe to resettle the island.  He made a special grant of land to Mac Phee in way of compensation.  Since then, the hill has always been known as Mac Phee’s hill.

 

Picture bottom right: Mingulay

Picture above: Chapel House, Mingulay (1995)

 

     
Pabbay (back to top)
     

Uninhabited since 1911, in early Christian times, Pabbay as its name would infer, had a hermitage or cell located on it. There is an ancient symbol stone and cross slabs on the slope above Bagh Ban.

 

In a fierce storm on the 1st of May 1887, all five men from Pabbay lost their lives at sea while out fishing. The Mingulay boat survived the same storm. The island never recovered from the disaster.  The population dwindled and  within a few years no one remained.

 
Sandray (back to top)
     

Picture above: Landing on Sandray

Uninhabited since 1931, Neolithic settlements and tombs were identified by Sheffield University Archaeologists in 1991. Faint traces of the old Chapel site Cille Bhride, were reported in 1915 to be partly covered. The Chapel served the nine crofts into which the island was divided in the early 19th century. The SS Maple Branch from Sunderland was wrecked on Sandray in 1882. In the Second World War, The Empire Homer and The Barron Ardrossan were also wrecked.  

   

A Gaelic tale recorded in 1859 told how the wife of a herdsman on Sandray had her kettle borrowed every day by a woman of peace (fairy). Before she would let go the kettle the wife would say: ‘a smith is able to make cold iron hot with coal. The due of the kettle is bones, so bring it back again whole.’ The kettle was returned every day with fresh meat and soup bones in it.

 

Picture Above: Approaching Sandray

One day, as the wife was leaving by boat to Castlebay on Barra, she warned   her husband to say the same words when the fairy came to borrow the kettle. But when the woman of peace came to the door the husband took fright and refused to open the door. The kettle started jumping; it jumped through the smoke hole in the roof. When the housewife returned the husband confessed that he had lost the kettle.

 

The housewife went to the fairy hill and found her kettle with flesh and bones in it. She had just picked it up when two vicious fairy dogs started chasing her. She started throwing them the contents of the kettle and managed to get home unharmed. The fairy never returned to borrow the kettle.

     

Picture above: Loch na Cuilce,

South West Sandray

This story is a fairly typical fire side tale, according to tradition, fairies always feared iron and it is of course particularly mentioned in the wife’s rhyme. Some scholars suppose that these fairy stories originated in the time when the new Iron Age immigrants met the wild and shy Neolithic settlers.

 

 

 

TIMELINE
     

 

   

Find out about the landmark events that shaped Barra and the southern islands.

© Comunn Eachdraidh Bharraidh agus Bhatarsaidh 2011

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Page Updated: 06/07/2011

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