Isle of Berneray
In the Sound of Harris in the Western Isle of Scotland lies the small and beautiful island of Berneray. It is one of 15 inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides. The island is only around 2 miles by 3 and has about 130 inhabitants. It may be small, but is full of wildlife and history and is famed for its rich and diverse landscape.
The island supports itself with an economy based on crofting, fishing and in more recent times, tourism and media services.
The population saw a decline over the 19th and 20th Century, but in recent years, as with many isolated or sedate places, this has begun to increase as people seek a more peaceful way of living. The land is extremely fertile and as a result it is believed the island has been inhabited for thousands of years by people eager to take advantage of the rich soil. Much evidence has been uncovered that points to Berneray having being inhabited since the Bronze Age and even before that period; There are ancient sacred sites along with stone circles such as Cnoc Na Gréine, or Hillock of The Sun, which is believed to have been the centre of a pre-Christian sun worshipping ceremony. A standing stone, 8 feet in height, also rises up from a Pagan site.
“Berneray” translates as “Bjorn’s Island” and comes from the Old Norse language. This language was spoken by Scandinavians and points to a Viking settlement having been established on the island. Traditionally Gaelic speakers call the Island Beàrnaraigh na Hearadn which means “Berneray of Harris”.
Berneray is a truly Gaelic island with many of the residents speaking the language, some as their first.
The famous, record breaking, “giant” Angus MacAskill was born here. He featured in the 1981 Guinness Book of World Records as “the tallest natural giant who ever lived.”
The island is hugged by sand dunes that lead down to idyllic, unspoilt and highly acclaimed beaches. The west beach is particularly lovely; stretching for three miles it is clean and often deserted. The east beach has some spectacular views on offer, and is good for picnicking. The Youth Hostel is situated at this beach so tends to be more populated than the west. The lichen that can be seen growing all over the rocks on the beaches was once used to dye wool at the famous Harris Tweed factory; it gives fabrics a rich brown hue.
As Berneray itself has escaped the fog and noise of industrialisation it is a peaceful place to visit. The only noises to be heard are those of birds and seals and the gentle chug of the ferry as it sails across the Sound of Harris. As there is only a limited number of flights to the Outer Hebrides the island remains uncrowded, even at peak tourist times.
One of the most exciting elements of the landscape is the machair. A machair is a grassy and fertile plain and Berneray’s is said to be one of the finest. Bernaray’s particular machair is made up of windblown shell sand. The traditional fertiliser used on Berneray during the summer consists of seaweed mixed with the dung of winter grazing animals. This substance, has over many years bound together and helps keep the land stable. To allow the soil to recover each year the machair is ploughed in rotation. This creates a patchwork of crops and fallow that shifts over the land. This diversity of crops and fallows allow a wide variety of flowers to thrive in the area. These beautiful species have been helped also by the tender care they receive from islanders, and the total absence of rabbits!
The crofting of the land over hundreds of years has also added to the appeal for nature to move in. many varied species of birds flock to the island and bird watchers can hope to spot snipe, corn crakes, along with barnacle, greylag and brent geese. The shoreline is home to numerous splendid wading birds including snaderlings, turnstones, red shanks, oyster cathcers and the spectacularly billed curlews. During the summer months you can sit and watch shags and cormorants fishing in the sea and the spellbinding sight of gannets diving head first for their supper. For those hoping for a more prized spot, buzzards, golden eagles and hen harriers have also been seen swooping through the skies! It is true to say that Berneray is a bird spotter’s paradise and binoculars and a good spotter’s guidebook are a must for any visitor.
Away from the skies is the sight of common seals lazily watching the world go by from the rocks on the bay. The best way to see them has to be by the taking a boat trip into the bay. You may be lucky and spot an otter on your travels as well, but be patient, the otter is a famously illusive species.
On 8th April 1999 Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales (known as the Duke of Rothesay in Scotland) made a visit to the island to open the newly established, 900m causeway that now links the island to North Uist.
Due to its location Berneray is blessed with very long and warm, summer days. The temperature on the island hardly ever dips below zero and you will be unlucky to visit on a snowy day. Records show it snows only 1 or 2 days a year. It truly is an all year round place to visit, in the summer you can while away your days on the warm and clean beaches and in the winter you can tilt your head skywards and take in the clear skies. Such clear skies are a rarity in towns flooded by street lights and a visit to Berneray will reward you with stars, meteors, comets and even the breath taking northern lights.
To get to Berneray visitors can fly into Barra at the south of the Outer Hebrides or into Benbeculan just 35 miles south of the island from Glasgow Airport or Stornoway Barr and Inverness if flying to Benbeculan.
Walking and cycling are very popular with visitors to the island, not only are they great ways of taking in the scenery, but as the island is so small there is no need for a car to get around, and two wheels of feet are all you need. The roads and paths are clearly signposted so even the most wary walker can feel at ease getting about. Following the shoreline around the whole island takes only about 5 hours, and with such beautiful beaches to wander across a picnic or two would be essential. But be advised, after rainfall some areas can become quite boggy so waterproofs are a must in such weather. If you are looking for more of a challenge there are many small hills to climb that take less than half an hour to complete. When the sky is clear the view from the hills take in 30 other islands in the area.
As an island, Berneray offers visitors many water sports such as windsurfing, canoeing, kayaking and more recently, surfing. Tourists can also take boat trips out to neighbouring islands and hope to spot a seal or otter along the way. On land you can lend a hand with traditional farming techniques such as sheep shearing, cattle herding, fishing and “tattie hawking” (potato collecting). If you fancy a dance check the community hall’s board, Ceilidhs are held here frequently and are a great way to let your hair down.
The island has all the amenities you would expect from a small, friendly village; there is a shop, tearoom post office, church and community hall, however there isn’t a pub and there is only one restaurant. But who needs to go to a restaurant when you can visit the harbour and buy fresh crabs, lobsters and prawns straight from the fisherman who has just caught them? But if a cooked meal and a pint is what you are looking for you can take a 10 mile bus trip to Lochmaddy, over the causeway to North Uist, that offers many exciting eateries.
Berneray is home to snipes, corncrakes, mute swans, greylag geese, brent geese, ravens, buzzards, golden eagles, hen harriers, herons, ringed plovers, whimbrels, curlews, oyster catchers, sanderlings, redshanks, turnstones, dunlin, cormorants, shags, common seals, grey seals, eiders, red-breasted mergansers, mallards, otters; and if that is not enough, Berneray is also home to the rare black-troated divers and great northern divers.
Berneray is perhaps most famous for its machair, and for its beautiful sandy beaches – especially the west beach of Berneray which looks over to the island of Pabbay.