Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Castlebay, Barra: far-off but amazing hebridean Thule

Barra Island is one of the Outer Hebrides in western Scotland. Its main settlement is Castlebay.

A sheltered bay provides a unique and astounding setting.

Kisimul Castle and Castlebay

The island of Barra is a predominantly Gaelic-speaking island.

Castlebay (Bagh a‘ Chaisteil), the main village on the island, got its name from Kisimul Castle, propriety of Historic Scotland. The History of Castlebay is deeply entwined with the story of the Clan MacNeil, owner of the castle for 411 years.

No wonder it inspired several movie sets, and won "best village in Britain" title some years ago.

Castlebay grew as a thriving herring port in the 19th century, with up to 400 boats in its harbour and curing and packing factories ashore.

In the end of the 19th century, some improvement came with new houses, shops, a school, a post office and a bank – and the new church built in 1888.

A mostly well-known church, thanks to a TV show

Castlebay, Barra

Coordinates: 56º 57' N, 7º 29' W
Population :  ~1000

The town centre: left the Post Office, then the Pier Road from the ferry pier up to The Square, at right.

Viewed from the castle. Tourism became the main source of income.

The Castlebay Hotel opened in 1894 !

The Hotel front overlooks the bay and the harbour:

Guest House 'Tigh Na Mara' is established in a traditional stone house; as its Gaelic name suggests it's also located by the sea.

The historic uptown: The Square and the Church.

The Square is an early 19th century, two-storey house with an unusual central gable. It was built for some kind of storing. Though it has been classified, its condition is very poor.

Castlebay's Pier Road, running down from The Square.

Pier road leads to the waterfront ferry jetty, right in front of the Castle.

A few Cafés can be found here:

Café Kisimul

But the best in town for tea is Macroon's Tearoom at the old Post Office:

With tea or coffee, this scone &al must taste delightful viewing the bay.

The Post Office, down by the harbour

Barra is quite recommended for learning Gaelic !

For such a small island it still has a surprisingly large number of children in school – around 80. And a surprisingly large offer of cultural activities!

The 'Screen Machine', a comfortable 80-seat digital mobile cinema, is brought by ferry to Castlebay.

The community now lives mainly of tourism, but farming (sheep) as much as its fishing activity are still active. Hotel occupation and smaller lodging facilities (as well as camping sites) as well as other services have been increasing. There is even (hard to believe) a little Cultural Centre - the ' Heritage Centre', featuring several exhibitions each year on local History, lifestyle and crafts.

The Dualchas opened in 1996 on main road. 

Situated towards the west end of the village, close to the school,  the Centre displays artefacts, documents and photographs, and has built up extensive archives and collections.

The RNLI lifeboat "Edna Windsor" and a small trawler.

Castlebay is the most westerly lifeboat station in Scotland.

As a port, Castlebay developed because of the plentiful herring that shoaled these waters; from 1869 Castlebay became the centre of a fishing industry, with the associated gutting, curing and preserving facilities. The harbour conditions had improved in the 1890s with the building of the pier.

Herring barrel.

Nowadays, the main sea traffic into the port comes from the CalMac ferries: (Caledonian MacBrayne)

The Castle

Kisimul Castle was built in the 1400s  as a three-storey tower house, in which the Macneil clan chief lived. The Macneils, of Viking origin, settled in Barra in the 11th century. They were a seafaring clan, and probably dedicated to piracy.

The castle is built on a rocky islet in the bay, just off the coast. It can only be reached by boat.

Writing in 1549, Dean Monro stated of Barra that
"Within the southwest end of this isle, ther enters a salt water loche, verey narrow in the entrey, and round and braide within. Into the middis of the saide loche there is ane ile, upon ane strenthey craige, callit Kiselnin, perteining to M’Kneil of Barray."

Probably the most relevant feature in the island, this 'Castle in the Sea' has been carefully restored and maintained as a precious Heritage from History in the Hebrides.

The walls enclose a small courtyard with its ancillary buildings.

In 2001 the castle was leased by the chief of Clan MacNeil to Historic Scotland for 1000 years for the symbolic annual sum of £1 and a bottle of whisky.

The Church of Our Lady Star of he Sea (Stella Maris)

The Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea, named for the patroness of those who sail the seas, sits on the south facing slopes that climb above Castlebay. The church opened on Christmas Eve 1888 when people from all over the islands gathered for Midnight Mass.

It's built in Gothic Revival style, with three aisles.

During the wars, the population of approx. 1100 people lost 125 men, killed in both World Wars. The side windows on the North facade are a homage to the Navy.

A beautiful stained glass work on the altar window, showing an angel descending towards what appears to be a warship.

Friday, 19 April 2019

Súðavík, remote in the remotest far North of... Iceland!

Now heading for the the remotest area in Iceland: Westfiords (Vestfirðir), a large Arctic peninsula with a coastline heavily indented by dozens of fjords surrounded by steep hills. Communications by land are difficult, roads are extremely winding and most of the time ice-covered.

Súðavík lies in Álftafjörður, one of many fjords subsidiary to the Ísafjarðardjúp, a larger fjord, almost a gulf.

Súðavík is one of several similar fishing villages on Iceland's northwest coast, in Westfjords. A main street (Aðalgata) with some two- or three-storey wooden houses, some painted white, others blue, a few red; a tiny white wooden church; and a fishing harbour. Two things matter the most about Suðavik: it lies at 66° N, just under the Arctic Circle, and is surrounded by a glorious scenery:


Coordinates: 66° 01′ N, 22° 60′ W
Population: ~220

One of the old residents house during the 'Blueberry Festival'.

The village's main activities currently are fishing, fish processing and tourism.

There are summerhouses and guest agents operating in Súðavík, such as a sea angling company and a tour guide business.

Swanfjord Guesthouse 

A modern holiday house in Túngata

The blue house of the Arctic Fox Centre, set in a magnificent scenery.

The highlight in town is the Arctic Fox Centre (Melrakkasetur), a museum and research centre devoted to the protection of the Arctic fox. It's housed in the oldest and best preserved wooden house in town.

Foxes are the only native mammal in Iceland. The Arctic Fox Centre was established in 2007, and is presently directed by Ester Rut Unnsteinsdóttir, one of the founders. The Environmental agency of Iceland is responsible for wildlife management.

A visiting school in Summer brings joviality to an usually gloomy place.

There is a nice café for the visitors' comfort.

At 66ºC, that really is luxury.

The Centre under Northern Lights

The church in Súðavík is a modest small wooden building from the 19th century.

The church was moved here from another location nearby in 1963.


Súðavík was sadly on the news in January 1995, when an avalanche fell on the village early in the morning and destroyed several buildings, most of them residents' houses. Fourteen people were killed and twelve were injured. Severe snow storms made the rescue work difficult and dangerous.

At a public meeting in 1995, it was decided that the village should be rebuilt at a safer location.

Over fifty new houses were built, the industries in the area were relocated with the exception of the freezing plant, which continues to operate.

New housing.

The Amma Habby, local restaurant and café. 

But it's Nature that reigns here, almost unchallenged.

The recently built road tunnel under Northern Lights: