Berneray (North Uist)

Berneray (Scottish Gaelic: Beàrnaraigh na Hearadh) is an island and community in the Sound of Harris, Scotland. It is one of fifteen inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides. It is famed for its rich and colourful history which has attracted much tourism. It lies within the South Lewis, Harris and North Uist National Scenic Area,[6] one of 40 such areas in Scotland which are defined so as to identify areas of exceptional scenery and to ensure its protection from inappropriate development.[7]

Gaelic nameBeàrnaraigh
Meaning of nameFrom Old Norse Bjorn's island
Berneray shown within the Outer Hebrides
OS grid referenceNF912817
Coordinates57.72°N 7.19°W / 57.72; -7.19
Physical geography
Island groupUists and Barra
Area1,010 ha (2,496 acres)
Area rank50[1]
Highest elevationBeinn Shleibhe (Moor Hill) 93 m (305 ft)
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Council areaOuter Hebrides
Population rank41[1]
Population density13.6 people/km2[2][3]
Largest settlementBorve and Rushgarry

With an area of 10.1 square kilometres (2496 acres), Berneray rises to a height of 305 feet (93 m) at Beinn Shlèibhe (Moor Hill) and 278 feet (85 m) at Borve Hill. There is strong evidence that points to Berneray being inhabited since the Bronze Age, and possibly before. The island is scattered with ancient sacred sites, stone circles, signs of Viking inhabitation and historical buildings, some several centuries old.


The name "Berneray" is from the Old Norse Bjarnar-øy and means either "Bjorn's island" or possibly "bear island".[3] Traditionally this island was known by Gaelic speakers as Beàrnaraigh na Hearadh, meaning "Berneray of Harris" to distinguish it from Beàrnaraigh Cheann Bharraigh, literally "Berneray of Barra Head ", now usually known in English simply as Barra Head. More recently Gaelic speakers have also used Beàrnaraigh Uibhist, i.e. "Berneray of Uist" to refer to the northern Berneray.[5]


In common with most islands in the Outer Hebrides, the population declined during the 19th and 20th centuries. However, the past few years has seen a stabilisation. The island's population was 138 as recorded by the 2011 census[2] a small rise since 2001 when there were 136 usual residents.[8] During the same period Scottish island populations as a whole grew by 4% to 103,702.[9]

Most people on Berneray speak Scottish Gaelic, many as a first language. Berneray is known as the birthplace of the giant Angus MacAskill and for its sandy beaches backed with sand dunes. The west beach, a three-mile stretch of wide, clean and often deserted sand, is widely acclaimed.[10]

Commerce and transport

Caledonian MacBrayne
Berneray, N. Uist
Leverburgh, Harris
Lochmaddy, N. Uist
Tarbert, Harris
Uig, Skye
Lochboisdale, S. Uist
Sconser, Skye Raasay
Armadale, Skye
Tarbet, Loch Nevis
Inverie, Knoydart
Caledonian MacBrayne ferries
Bruce Watt ferry
Bus connections

The main industries are fishing, crofting (small-scale individual farming), media/IT and tourism. Broadband internet provision became available in January 2006, giving an incentive to people wishing to relocate to Berneray and helping sustain the population and community.

A key feature of Berneray is its machair. The machair is a coastal plain made up of windblown shell sand. Traditional crofting practice, which involves summer agriculture using seaweed together with dung from winter grazing animals as natural fertiliser, has, over time, bound together and stabilised the land. The machair is ploughed in rotation, giving a patchwork of crops and fallow of different ages which supports a wide range of flowers. Berneray has a particularly fine machair, a result of careful husbandry by the island's crofters, helped by the absence of rabbits.

The youth hostel on Berneray is part of the Gatliff Hebridean Hostels Trust. The hostel consists of two restored black houses and is located at a magnificent setting overlooking the sound of Harris.

Possibly the greatest change in modern times occurred in 1999 when the causeway opened between Berneray and Otternish on North Uist. This has eased travelling on and off the island, improving employment prospects and accelerating the carriage of produce (notably, crabs and lobster). The causeway contains culverts that allow the easy passage of otters and fish from one side of the structure to the other. The causeway was formally opened by Prince Charles in April 1999.[11]

Berneray is served by regular local bus services from Lochmaddy on North Uist, many of which form part of the "Spine Route" from Eriskay. Most services are operated by Grenitote Travel, with funding from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. Berneray is also linked to Harris, Scotland via Leverburgh by the ferry MV Loch Portain, operated by Caledonian MacBrayne.

The CalMac ferry MV Loch Bhrusda is named after the largest loch on Berneray. It can occasionally be seen relieving for MV Loch Portain.


The crofting practices also encourage a wide array of wildlife on Berneray. On early summer evenings you can sometimes hear snipe drumming, and even the rasp of a corncrake. Mute swans can be seen on Loch Brusda, and greylag geese are common. In the winter they are joined by barnacle, and a few brent geese. Ravens and buzzards are often to be seen. Golden eagles and hen harriers are rarer sights, usually in the winter. Wading birds on the shore include redshanks, sanderlings, turnstones, oyster catchers, dunlin, curlews, whimbrels, ringed plovers and herons.

Further out, around the shores of Berneray, are mallards, eiders, red-breasted mergansers, and, more rarely, black-throated and great northern divers. Shags and cormorants fish in the seas around Berneray throughout the year, and in summer you can see gannets diving. Common seals often congregate at low tide on the rocks in Bays Loch, and can often be seen from the parking area a little way beyond the Post Office or by taking a boat trip out into the bay. Grey seals, which are larger and can be distinguished by the long "Roman" noses, also haul out there occasionally, but are more common off the West Beach. Though the otters of Berneray are out during the day more often than on the mainland, they are still elusive, and it takes patience and luck to see one.

Media and the arts

A documentary entitled Shepherds of Berneray was aired on UK television in 1981.

Berneray was in world news in 1987 when it was found that Charles, Prince of Wales had visited the island to live a normal Berneray life as a crofter.[12] He lived and worked with a crofter for one week and his visit spawned the later television documentary, A Prince Among Islands in 1991.

In 2007 a DVD called The Old New Year – a living tradition on the Isle of Berneray - was released about the island's Oidhche Challainn ("New Year's Eve", literally "Night of the Calends) celebration of New Year on 12 January in line the former Highland tradition of following the Julian Calendar.[13]

In 2009 it was reported that Berneray's west beach had been used to advertise Kae Bae beach in Trat Province, Thailand. A VisitScotland spokeswoman said that "I'm sure it is a compliment in disguise."[14]

The songwriter and poet Donald MacKillop (1926 - 2015) was from Berneray.

The traditional Gaelic song 'Fagail Bhearnaraigh' (Leaving Berneray) later became the American folk song "O, Waly, Waly' The Water is Wide" with new lyrics added in English.

See also


  1. Area and population ranks: there are c.300 islands over 20ha in extent and 93 permanently inhabited islands were listed in the 2011 census.
  2. National Records of Scotland (15 August 2013) (pdf) Statistical Bulletin: 2011 Census: First Results on Population and Household Estimates for Scotland - Release 1C (Part Two). "Appendix 2: Population and households on Scotland’s inhabited islands". Retrieved 17 August 2013.
  3. Haswell-Smith, Hamish (2004). The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh: Canongate. ISBN 978-1-84195-454-7.
  4. Ordnance Survey. OS Maps Online (Map). 1:25,000. Leisure.
  5. Mac an Tàilleir, Iain (2003) Ainmean-àite/Placenames. (pdf) Pàrlamaid na h-Alba. Retrieved 26 August 2012. p. 19
  6. "South Lewis, Harris & North Uist NSA 1:50,000 map" (PDF). Scottish Natural Heritage. 2010-12-20. Retrieved 2018-06-07.
  7. "National Scenic Areas". Scottish Natural Heritage. Retrieved 2018-06-07.
  8. General Register Office for Scotland (28 November 2003) Scotland's Census 2001 Occasional Paper No 10: Statistics for Inhabited Islands. Retrieved 26 February 2012.
  9. "Scotland's 2011 census: Island living on the rise". BBC News. Retrieved 18 August 2013.
  10. "In praise of... Scottish islands". The Guardian. 2006-11-11. Retrieved 2009-01-10.
  11. "Otternish". Ports and Harbours of the UK. Retrieved 13 September 2009.
  12. "Berneray crofter who hosted prince on secret visit dies at 78". The Scotsman. 31 July 2009. Retrieved 2009-08-29.
  13. "Oidhche Challuinn DVD now available" (21 November 2007) Hi-Arts. Retrieved 25 June 2009.
  14. "Scots beach in Thai tourist guide". BBC. Retrieved 20 December 2009.

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