My flight touches down on the sands of Barra's Traigh Mhor two days later than planned thanks to Storm Isha.

It is starting to look doubtful the trip will go ahead at all when Jocelyn later makes herself known but aside from a couple of sweaty-palm-inducing drops on the ascent, it is a very smooth Loganair flight to the island known as the Garden of the Hebrides.

Weather-related transport disruption is part and parcel of island life but this week is testing the patience of locals.

By the time I leave, they will have been waiting eight days for a food delivery, due to heavily criticised scheduling that results in an extra CalMac ferry running on the Thursday and the next day's service, which delivers essential items, being cancelled.

“Go and look at the Co-op,” says one local, which has near empty shelves. 

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It's perhaps to early to say if the ongoing ferry disruption has affected the desirability Hebridean isles like Barra and Vatersay, which was connected by a causeway in 1991.

The Western Isles is forecast to lose 6% of its population by 2028, but in recent years the two islands have been bucking the trend.

'I have concerns about the island's future - I can see ripples and it's going to be a storm.'

Around 667 people live in the north of Barra and the population grew by 1.7% from 2011-2021 while the area stretching from Vatersay to Castlebay, with 641 people, has risen by 2.7%.

This compares to a drop of 5.1% in South Harris and 7.3% in Central Stornoway. 

"We are one of three areas in the Western Isles that has a population that's increasing and this is despite having a completely dilapidated school and condemned hospital and lack of key services on the island," says Katie Denehy, whose jobs include working as a youth and community worker for the council.

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"There is something really special here on this tiny wee island that is holding folk here and bringing folk back," she says.

"I imagine it's the strong sense of community and sense of belonging that attract people and also the can-do attitude that we have to get on and do things ourselves to get things done." 

She says further population growth - like many areas in the Highlands and Islands - is being held back by housing shortages.

Around 30 people are waiting for homes on Barra and Vatersay who could be filling current job vacancies for teachers, fire fighters and care home workers, she says.

Before boarding my flight to Barra I chat to a man,who was brought up in Uist, the group of six islands that are part of the Outer Hebridean Archipelago, but now lives in Ireland.

He says the island has has been trying to build ten houses for two years but planning and land ownership issues are holding plans back. Depopulation is a "huge concern" there, he says.

Marion MacNeil, who owns the Heathbank Hotel in Northbay, believes changes are long-overdue in crofting laws which could free up more land for housing.

"On an island our solid infrastructure is housing and right now it's not there," she says.

The Herald: 'I have concerns about Barra's future, there are ripples' 'I have concerns about Barra's future, there are ripples' (Image: Duncan MacKinnon)

"Do we have the right to tell people they are not allowed to buy a second home? There are people with several crofts while there are people who are looking for a bit of land.

"The Crofting Commission needs to acknowledge that they are part of the problem."

She has two children still living on Barra and two who have moved away and says it was an "automatic assumption" that once you finished school you would leave the island and move on to college and university.


She says taking on the business eight years ago was the best thing she's ever done but said hoteliers are bearing the brunt of long-running ferry disruption and rising costs.

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"What they [guests] don't see is that we have additional costs over and above what mainland businesses have so naturally it should be more expensive," she says. "I pay delivery for all my kegs and that is free on the mainland." 

Asked about the challenges of life on Barra she said health services were high up on the list.

Islanders were told last year that plans to build a new hospital, promised by 2008, have been shelved due to costs. 

She said the link between transport and the NHS is "very disjointed" and is very concerned about proposals being bounced around by the SNP government which could see health boards merged and the Western Isles amalgamated with Highland.

"I have concerns about the future for Barra - I can see ripples and it's going to be a storm," says the hotelier.

"It would be horrific for the southern isles. There will be an erosion of services and that's encouraging depopulation.

"A lot of decisions are made by people who don't understand and don't live here," she added.

As a mother she says "freedom and safety" is what she values most about her life on Barra.

"People look out for each other, it's a very relaxed way of living. When things don't go right here, it's just...whatever."

The Herald: Herald reporter Caroline Wilson in Castlebay Herald reporter Caroline Wilson in Castlebay (Image: Duncan MacKinnon)

Roddy MacInnes moved to Glasgow at 15 to learn furniture construction and design and then returned ten years ago with his wife to raise a family - the couple have twin five-year-old boys.

He owns a successful business that builds modular units indoors that can be transported anywhere.

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Current projects include a departure lounge for Glasgow Airport and homes for the Prince of Wales' housing trust in London.

"All the islands have the same issue - they don't have tradesmen locally," he says.

"Sea became the big thing - a good 50% of young men were going to sea. It's maybe not as lucrative as it was."

The company, Modular West, now has 11 employees and three apprentices taken straight from school and he says this will grow as the factory expands.

He says it is inevitable that some of them will leave Barra but is optimistic that many will return like him  "when their clubbing days are over".

Andrew James Elder, 17, has already decided he is moving to Glasgow when he leaves school and has applied for a number of different apprenticeships.

"Everybody sees the mainland as the place to go," he says. 

The Herald: 'Everyone sees the mainland as the place to go''Everyone sees the mainland as the place to go' (Image: Duncan MacKinnon)

"There is a lack of things to do here, I think that's one of the main reasons why people want to go away. I'm focused on school right now and getting the qualifications I can."

Sarah MacLean is the manager of Bùth Bharraigh Ltd, a community-owned shop and tourist information centre. She moved to the island ten years ago from Peebles.

"It's grown really, really well," she says. "We get a lot of tourists but we also do a lot for local people too.  The amount of money we bring into the community is really vast.

"Through our tourist information, we brought in over £49,000 in accommodation bookings last year." 

Born and raised in Barra, Brian Currie runs the Craigard Hotel which looks directly onto Kisimul Castle, the medieval stronghold of the MacNeils that was abandoned in 1838 when the island was sold.

He said the eight-day ferry delay for supplies was "not a good advert for anyone who wants to visit Barra.

He said: "I'm a massive believer that there are certain things you can't avoid. Six out of the last eight days have been unavoidable but there are things we need to be looking at.

"The Scottish Government, CalMac and Transport Scotland are ticking boxes for community engagement but there is no community engagement.

"That ferry that came last Thursday - you will never hear me say that an additional ferry isn't welcome - but what you will hear me say is what benefit the additional ferry bring to us. It wasn't a delivery day.

"As a hotelier I'm very quick to remind people that there has to be a reset with these ferries.  

"We need to remember why these ferries are here. That ferry [which was cancelled] was not put in place to run tourists to Barra and that's a really damaging thing for me to say but I'm also a community member.

"It was there as a lifeline service.”

Alasdair Allan, SNP MSP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar said the long-term population trends for the Western Isles at present are “deeply concerning.”

He said: “Without sufficient numbers of working-age people, our health service, for example, will simply be unable to function. Already, there is a huge shortage of social care workers across the Western Isles.


“This is why it is so vital that young people and families in the Western Isles can access good quality, affordable housing, as at present this represents a significant barrier to allowing islanders who want to stay in their communities to do so.”