Island of the week: Vatersay

The coast of Vatersay
The coast of Vatersay
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THIS week we explore Vatersay, an island lying to the south of Barra in the Outer Hebrides that has a tumultuous and tragic history

Location: Vatersay is the westernmost populated island in Scotland, and has been so since the abandonment of Mingulay in 1912. It is linked by a causeway to the neighbouring Isle of Barra, facing Castlebay. The island has an unusual sideways ‘H’ shape, with only a slender strip of land keeping the island together.

Population: 94

Gaelic name: Bhatarsaigh, meaning ‘water island’.

History: Vatersay was the flashpoint of an incident that proved key in shaping land reform in Scotland in the early 20th century. The island lay largely uninhabited until 1906, when men from Barra arrived on the island and attempted to invoke an ancient law in order to claim the rights to the land.

Lady Gordon Catchart, owner of the island at that point, then took the settlers to court, but her case found little favour with a general public sympathetic to islanders whose need for fertile land had become desperate in the face of thinning resources and, in the case of nearby island Mingulay, treachorous conditions at sea which meant the island was inaccessible for months on end. Despite a mass of public opinion on the side of the settlers, the men were sentenced to two months in prison. These men came to be known as the Vatersay Raiders.

The island was sold in 1909 to the Congested Districts Board, which allocated crofts to prospective settlers.

Vatersay has been the site of several shipwrecks, the most tragic of which was the Annie Jane, an immigrant ship bound for Montreal, Canada in 1853 that struck rocks. Most of the crew and passengers, which numbered 450, died. A cairn and small monument near the shore commemorates the incident.

The wreckage of a Catalina sea plane from 1944, in which three of nine crew members died, is also present.

It is also believed that the island was once the site of several beheadings in the 15th century, on the behest of a woman who came to be known as Marion of the Heads (or Mor na Ceann in Gaelic).

What to do: If there’s one thing that the island of Vatersay has in abundance, it’s wildlife. Otters and seals are a common site in coastal areas, as are herons, though to a lesser degree. Golden eagles, terns, guillemots and black-headed gulls are among other species to entice birdwatchers to the island.

Vatersay is one of only two places in Scotland where the Calystegia soldanella, or Bonnie Prince Charlie flower, is found.

Vatersay’s wildlife has the good fortune to be surrounded by largely unspoilt scenery, including a beautiful stretch of coast on the tidal island of Uinessan on Uidh.

How to get there: The construction of a causeway linking Vatersay to Barra in 1991 has made reaching the island a good deal easier; regular ferry services arrive in Castlebay from Oban. Flights to Barra also leave from Benbecula and Glasgow.