The largest of the islands to the south of the Uists in the Outer Hebrides, Barra (Gael: Barraigh) is the homeland of the MacNeils whose ownership of the island dates from 1427 when Alexander, Lord of the Isles, granted Gilleonan MacNeil a charter. It is joined to Vatersay by a narrow causeway and has a total area of 6,835 ha (16,889 acres). Overlying ancient metamorphic gneiss rock, there is a landscape shaped by glaciation to give a rocky east coast and a west coast with fine sandy bays backed by machair. There are five hills, the largest being Heaval (383m / 1180 feet) on whose slopes stands the white Carrara marble statue of the Madonna and child. Castlebay is the chief settlement. Developed as a herring port by James Methuen in 1869, it looks out onto the picturesque Kisimul Castle, seat of the MacNeils of Barra.
The island of Barra is thought to be named after the 6th-century Irish missionary St. Barr or Finbar who was a disciple of St. Columba reputedly sent to the island to replace a priest who had been eaten by the inhabitants. The island remained the property of the MacNeils until 1840 when the 40th Chief was forced to sell due to bankruptcy. It was bought by the Gordons of Cluny and then passed by marriage to the Cathcart family.
There are ferry links to Lochboisdale (South Uist), Oban and Mallaig from Castlebay and to Eriskay and Ludag on South Uist from Eoligarry in the north. Flights from Glasgow land on the sandy Traigh Mhor or Cockle Strand at the north end of the island. The population was 1369 (1961), 1005 (1971), 1264 (1981), 1244 (1991) and 1078 (2001).