Location: Barra, Mingulay and St Kilda
fishing, lighthouses

Rags to Riches - the Island of Berneray

Berneray, sometimes knows as Barra Head, is the most southern island of the Outer Hebrides, located approximately 25km south of Barra. It is probably best known for its lighthouse, built in 1830’s by Robert Stevenson.

The island was abandoned by its indigenous population of approximately twenty people in 1910. A similar exodus occurred around the same time on the neighbouring islands of Mingulay and Pabbay to the north. The lighthouse keepers and their families remained on the island until 1980 when the last keepers left as the lighthouse had become fully automated.

One of the earliest written accounts of Berneray and its population was written by David Stevenson who was visiting the island during the construction of the lighthouse in 1830. In it he describes a people who had very little in the way of material belongings and who appeared to be surviving on a purely subsistence existence. Other visitors paint a very similar picture of life on the island.

However, by the time the people left Berneray and moved to Barra and Vatersay their fortunes appear to have changed dramatically. In the space of eighty years, they had gone from a subsistence existence to being relatively wealthy. When one family of three brothers, Michael, Neil and Allen MacNeil moved to Barra, Michael and Neil became merchants and fish curers. Neil built a house which later became the Craigard Hotel, another house and shop on the main street in Castlebay (today’s Bank) and left £800 in his will for the building of the Catholic church in Castlebay, Our Lady Star of the Sea. Castlebay was a major herring port by this time and the herring industry was a very important economic development for the islands.

So, how did the islanders’ fortunes change? It would have been partly due to the lighthouse on the island, with some job opportunities being presented. But probably, the development of the herring fishing would have been the main contributor. We know that fishermen stayed on Berneray as lodgers of the inhabitants and would have contributed to the economy. We also hear that Neil MacNeil had a curing station on the island and was already a merchant. There was also a fishing boat owned by another islander, Duncan Sinclair, which was kept in Castlebay because it was too big to haul ashore on Berneray. All these factors meant that the people of Berneray were more than prepared financially to start a new life once they left their island home.

Jonathan MacLean, who purchased Berneray, Mingulay and Pabbay, from the Barra estate around 1914 was the son-in-law of the above Neil MacNeil. Neil’s money had gone to his daughter...

Berneray (Norse for Bjorn’s island) Size 3km x 2km. Area 204ha. Population in 1900 was approximately 20.

Contributed by Jonathan Grant, NTS ranger for Mingulay, Pabbay and Berneray

More information on visiting the area can be found here.