Just four miles wide and eight miles long, Barra (Barraigh; Web: www.isleofbarra.com ) is like the Western Isles in miniature. It has sandy beaches, backed by machair, glacial mountains, prehistoric ruins, Gaelic culture, and a welcoming Catholic population of just over 1300. The only settlement of any size is CASTLEBAY (Bàgh a Chaisteil), which curves around the barren rocky hills of a wide bay on the south side of the island. It's difficult to imagine it now, but Castlebay was a herring port of some significance back in the nineteenth century, with up to four hundred boats in the harbour, and curing and packing factories ashore. Barra's religious allegiance is immediately announced by the large Catholic church, Our Lady, Star of the Sea, which overlooks the bay; to underline the point, there's a Madonna and Child on the slopes of Sheabhal (1260ft), the largest peak on Barra, and a fairly easy hike from the bay.
As its name suggests, Castlebay has a castle in its bay, the medieval islet-fortress of Caisteal Chiosmuil or Kisimul Castle (April– Sept daily 9.30am–5.30pm; £4.50; Web: www.historic-scotland.gov.uk ), ancestral home of the MacNeil clan. The castle burnt down in the eighteenth century, but in 1937 the 45th MacNeil chief bought the island back and set about restoring Kisimul. There's nothing much to see inside, but the whole experience is fun – head down to the slipway at the bottom of Main Street, where the ferryman will take you over (weather permitting; Tel:01871/810313). To learn more about the history of the island, and about the postal system of the Western Isles, it's worth paying a visit to Barra Heritage Centre, known as Dualchas (March, April & Sept Mon, Wed & Fri 11am–4pm; May– Aug Mon– Sat 11am–4pm; £2; Web: www.barraheritage.com ), on the road that leads west out of town; the museum also has a handy café serving soup, toasties and cakes.