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Barra, Inverness-shire

Historical Description

BARRA, a parish, in the county of Inverness; including the islands of Barra, Bernera, Fladda, Fuday, Helesay, Mingala, Pabba, Sandra, and Watersay; and containing 2363 inhabitants, of whom 1977 are in the island of Barra. The word Barra is supposed by some to be formed of Bar, a point or top, and Ay or I, an island, and to have been applied to this place in reference to its position in the great group to which it belongs, it being the most southern or head of the larger islands among the Hebrides. But its etymology is more generally traced to St. Barr, the tutelary saint to whom the principal place of worship, called Killbar, was dedicated, and whose reputation was here so great, that his anniversary has been celebrated for ages, on the 25th of September, and is still regularly observed with morning ceremonies at the chapel, and afternoon festivities at Killbar, by the inhabitants, most of whom are Roman Catholics. The island of Barra, and the islands surrounding it, have been from time immemorial the property of the Macneils, who are said to have had possession of them before the Danish invasion, and to have been the first of that name who came from Ireland. This family, by their great power, and particularly their skill in maritime affairs, gave great annoyance to all their neighbours, carrying their depredations into every part of the Western Islands; and one them, called Ruaridh an Tartair, or "the noisy or troublesome Roderick", signalized himself especially by his piracies. He was at length captured for an attack on one of Queen Elizabeth's ships; great skill and ingenuity, in consequence of a reward offered, having been employed to effect his apprehension. The seat of the family was Kismull Castle, still in good preservation, situated in the centre of a bay, and on a small rock which is covered at high water. The structure is of irregular figure, about sixty feet high, with a square tower at one corner, the whole strongly built, and surrounded by spots for the anchorage of small vessels. It was the residence of the lairds of Barra till the beginning of the last century, about which time it ceased to be inhabited.

The PARISH consists of more than twenty islands, about half of them uninhabited, and serving only as grazing stations. It was disjoined from that of South Uist in 1733. The parish is situated at the south-western extremity of the Hebrides, and measures in length, from Scirrival, the most northern point of the main island, to Bernera, the most southern island, about twenty-eight miles, including the several intervening channels. The area is about 22,000 acres, of which 3922 are under cultivation, 1540 sandy waste, 16,139 hill pasture, and the remainder moss. The currents run with great rapidity and violence through the channels, of which that on the north is six miles across, separating Barra from South Uist. On the east are the islands of Canna and Rum, distant twenty-six miles; those of Coll and Tiree, on the south, are thirty miles off, and on the west is the Atlantic Ocean, which, at the blowing of the south-west wind, rolls its waves with such impetuosity and fury that they not only drive large quantities of sand over the islands, but render intercourse between them quite impossible.

The shore is indented with numerous fissures and creeks, and pierced with many arms of the sea. Upon the west, with the exception of two or three sandy inlets and bays, it is thickly set with rocks, a huge barrier of which, broken in several parts into frightful chasms by the constant action of the sea, rises majestically against the tremendous waves, and supplies a powerful rampart to check their fury. On the east, the coast is in general rocky, with some intervening portions of heath, moss, and sand; and in this part are the principal bays, which form excellent and safe harbours, and among which are those of Bayhierava, Uilevay, Castlebay, Watersaybay, Fladda Sound, and Ottirvore. The chief headland is Barra Head, on the island of Bernera, where a very superior lighthouse has lately been erected. This island, and the contiguous one of Mingala, are particularly distinguished for the height of their rocks, and for their grand and romantic scenery, increased in its effect by the numberless sea-fowl that frequent them throughout the summer. Barra, the largest island, is about twelve miles long, from three to six miles broad, and is broken, especially on the eastern side, by many bays and arms of the sea. It has a rocky barren aspect at a distance, but upon a nearer approach its appearance is more interesting, and its lower grounds, containing some rich meadows and fertile valleys, contrast well with its lofty hills, covered to the summits with verdant pasture. There are many springs of good fresh water, and four fresh-water lakes abounding in black trout and eels, and varying in length from half a mile to a mile.

The SOIL comprises light black, and sandy earth, moss, and meadow; and the crops, consisting of barley, oats, and potatoes, grown merely for home consumption, ripen very early on the sandy soils, of which there is a considerable extent. Agriculture here takes its prevailing character from that of the population; it is unformed and rugged, and the district is more suited to grazing than tillage. The lands are let principally to small tenants, and the habitations in general are of the very lowest kind, as well as the resources and manner of life of the tenants. The cattle are of a good description, and a new and improved breed of sheep has been recently introduced; the horses are small, but hardy and well shaped, and are numerous in the parish, being found useful in transporting sea-weed for manure, and for the preparation of kelp. The annual value of real property in the parish is £2470. The rocks consist chiefly of coarse granite; but in the island of Bernera a quarry has been opened of granite of a very superior kind, of which the lighthouse was built. At Eoligary is the house of Barra, a commodious residence, well sheltered, and surrounded by good fields: it was built by the late proprietor, who transplanted some trees, of which the parish is remarkably bare, to the grounds of his mansion; but though they had thriven tolerably well in their former situation, they soon pined away after their removal. A few of the inhabitants are engaged in fishing, and four vessels used for this purpose belong to the place; but the poverty of the people operates not only to straiten their agricultural efforts, and to keep the capabilities of the soil in a great degree in abeyance, but also to confine their fishing within very narrow limits, although Barra is one of the best stations on the west coast. Besides lobsters, crabs, whelks, limpets, mussels, and cockles, the last of which are very abundant, and often supply a principal article of food, the neighbouring seas abound with ling, cod, tusk, hake, turbot, and flounders; and immense shoals of herrings also come up, which the inhabitants are unable to take for want of suitable tackle. About twenty or thirty boats are sometimes employed, with five men in each; and if successful, and the weather permits, they carry the ling and cod to Glasgow and Greenock in their own boats. Many cearbans, or sail-fish, were formerly taken by means of the harpoon, and large quantities of oil extracted; but this branch has now failed, through the inability of the fishermen to provide the tackle.

Ecclesiastically the parish is in the presbytery of Uist, synod of Glenelg, and in the patronage of the Crown: the minister's stipend is £165. 10. 5., of which a portion is received from the exchequer; with a manse, and a glebe valued at £17. 10. per annum. The church is a plain structure, built a few years since, and conveniently situated in the centre of the parish, about six miles from each extremity of the main island. There is a Roman Catholic chapel. The parochial school affords instruction in English and writing, and the master is qualified to teach the classics, book-keeping, and geography; he has a salary of £26: the school has been only lately opened, and education is at present quite in its infancy, the inhabitants being mostly unable to read or write. The poor enjoy the benefit of a bequest of £400, left by two persons, natives of the parish. At Killbar are several ruins of ancient chapels dedicated to St. Barr, some of which have an altar of rough stones at one end, and the pedestal of a cross at a short distance: a wooden figure of the saint was formerly fixed up for the adoration of the people, and was dressed in superior attire on the celebration of the anniversary. Watchtowers are to be seen in every direction; and upon the lakes are "duns", supposed to be of Scandinavian origin. There are also many of the circles usually called Druidical. A few years since, a gold medal was found in digging the clergyman's garden, about the size of a half-crown piece, cast for the coronation of Augustus II., King of Poland, and which is said to have belonged to some passenger on board of a Dutch ship wrecked here in the early part of the last century.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, 1851 by Samuel Lewis