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Parish # 108
This is a guide to the history and major genealogical records of Scotland as they pertain to the parish of Barra. To learn more about how to use these records to search for your ancestors, go to the Scotland: Research Strategies.
BARRA, a parish and island, in the county of Inverness; including the islands of Bernera, Fladda, Fuday, Helesay, Mingala, Pabba, Sandra, and Watersay. The word Barra is supposed by some to be formed of Bar, a point or top, and Ay or I, an island, and to have been applied to this place in reference to its position in the great group to which it belongs, it being the most southerly or head of the larger islands among the Hebrides. The parish consists of more than twenty islands, about half of them uninhabited, and serving only as grazing stations. The church is a plain structure, conveniently situated in the centre of the parish, about six miles from each extremity of the main island. There is a Roman Catholic chapel.
The name Barray, or Barra, was originally derived from its particular situation or bearing, namely from Ay or I, an island, and Bar, a point or top; Barray forming the point or top island of the Hebrides. The parish is formed of that cluster of islands lying at the south-west end of Lewis Islands, or the Western Hebrides. The principal headland is Berneray or Barry-head, from whence many ships steer their course for America. The names of the larger islands of which the parish of Barray is formed, and which are mostly inhabited, are as follows: Watersay, Sanderay, Pabbay, Mingalay, and Berneray to the south; Floday, Hellisay, Gighay, Uidhay, and several others of a smaller description not inhabited, to the east and north-east.
The family of the Macneils held possession of Barray for time immemorial [but had to sell it for payment of debts, about 1840, to Colonel Gordon of Cluny]. The Macneils of old were a great terror to their neighbors as, being expert seamen, they carried their depredations to every creek in the Western Islands.
Gaelic is the language universally spoken, and it is very pure and still unmixed with many English words. The English language has made little or no progress, because schools have been wanting. Dancing with music of the bagpipes is a favorite pastime. They are extremely addicted to the use of both spirits and tobacco-smoking. There are more spirits consumed in Barray than in any other place of its extent in the Western Islands.
The parish is better adapted for grazing than agriculture. By simplifying their agriculture, the people are now enabled to raise a sufficiency of corn and potatoes for their own consumption. They have crops of potatoes, barley and oats. Their ordinary food consists of barley-meal, potatoes, and milk, and at times fish. At present (1840), there are 278 families who possess lands, and 93 families who hold no lands whatever.
This account was written January 1840.
Source: T'he New Statistical Account of Scotland for Barra, FHL book 941 B4sa, series 2, vol. 14.
The New Statistical Account of Scotland (pub. 1834-45) offers uniquely rich and detailed parish reports for the whole of Scotland, covering a vast range of topics including history, agriculture, education, trades, religion and social customs. The reports, written by the parish ministers, are available online at edina.($) Click on ‘Browse scanned pages’ then search the parish you are interested in. Also available at the Family History Library.
A census is a count and description of the population, taken by the government, arranged by locality and by household. Read more about census records.
Here is a list of the Family History Library microfilm numbers for the census records of Barra, as well as the library numbers for any surname indexes available:
|Year||FHL Film Number||Surname Indexes|
|1841||1042640 Item 3||none|
|1851||1042067 Item 2||6344852 (3 fiche)|
|1881||0203425||6086593 (4 fiche)|
The 1901 census of Scotland is indexed on scotlandspeople.($) To use it, you must register and pay a small access fee. All available censuses, 1841-1901, are indexed on this website. It may be easier for you to pay to use the website rather than access the separate indexes through the library.
The Established Church of Scotland was Presbyterian. Read more about church records.
Here are the pre-1855 records that exist for this parish.
Established Church—Old Parochial Registers
|Record Type||Years Covered||FHL Film Number|
|Births:||1836-1854||0990718 item 1|
|Deaths:||1849-1854||0990718 item 1|
Condition of Original Registers
Index: For an index to these records, see Scotland’s People website, a pay-for-view website. The Scottish Church Records Index is also still available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Some of these records may be indexed and searchable on familysearch.org
Note: There are no records prior to 1836. The New Statistical Account of Scotland for Barra for 1840 states: “There is no parochial register kept in this parish, nor can we learn that any was ever kept”. This may be accounted for by the parishioners having been, until of late, almost all Roman Catholics, over whom the minister could exercise no control.
Established Church—Kirk Session Records
The Kirk session was the court of the parish. The session was made up of the minister and the land owners and business men of the parish, chosen to serve on the session. The Kirk session dealt with moral issues, minor criminal cases, matters of the poor and education, matters of discipline, and the general concerns of the parish. Kirk session records may also mention births, marriages, and deaths.
There are no known surviving Kirk Session records for this parish.
Nonconformist Church Records
A nonconformist church is any church that is not the Established church. Read more about nonconformity in Scotland in the article on the Scotland Church Records Union List. The inhabitants of Barra have always been staunchly Catholic.
Barra Catholic Church
A Catholic church has existed at Barra since long before the Reformation. There was a Catholic school here as early as 1675. The population of the island was nearly all Catholic at the time of the Bishop's visitation of 1700. The people were then generally poor and uneducated, as were those in most of rural Scotland of the time and many of them professed to have second sight. The Old Statistical Account pub. 1790's, (FHL British Book 941 B4sa vol. 20), states that the number of Protestants has always been so small that it was thought unnecessary to put the heritor to the expense of building a church. That work also gives the population of Barra then as 1604, of which only 80 were Protestants. It also states that upward of 200, being all Roman Catholics left this country within the last 2 years; some immigrated to the island of St. Johns, Nova Scotia, in North America. In 1987 the Catholic population of Barra numbered about 1000.
Sources: Developments in the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, 1789–1829, by Christine Johnson, Family History Library British Book 941 K2jc.
- Baptisms 1805–1919
- Marriages 1812–1944
- Deaths 1812–1826
Note: Available online for a fee, at scotlandspeople,($) Edinburgh, record MP/50.
The Catholic Community on the Isle of Barra
Barra & Vatersay lie at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. The resident community comprises around 1100 people. There is also a huge constituency of Barrafolk on the mainland who come home on regular visits and - importantly - for church-centred events such as Christmas, Easter, the Fishermen’s Mass, and Baptisms, Weddings & Funerals.
Kisimul Castle, the 16th century home of Clan MacNeil, proudly guards the bay at Castlebay - our only town. But there are other townships all around the island. Fishing-related industries and tourism support the local economy and many still work in North-Sea or have Merchant Navy employment.
The native language of Gaelic is still spoken by many people - young and old alike. There is a healthy interest in the traditional music and culture. This is reflected in our liturgy, which uses English and Gaelic, as well as Latin and Greek where appropriate.
Most of our supplies arrive by ferry from Oban. It takes five and a half hours to travel over the Minch but it can be a lovely sail on a good day. We also have a one-hour plane service from Glasgow.
Roman Catholic since the coming of the Celtic saints 1400 years ago, we are part of the Diocese of Argyll & the Isles and today exist in two parishes.
The Parish of Northbay, under the pastorship of Canon Angus MacQueen, serves the community to the north of Barra. Sunday Eucharist is celebrated in two churches in Northbay Parish: St Vincent’s at Eoligarry and St Barr’s at Northbay. Northbay Parish has an estimated Catholic population of 309. (St Barr’s, Bayherivagh, Northbay, Isle of Barra, Scotland, HS9 5YQ.)
Castlebay Parish, with Fr. John Paul MacKinnon, serves the community in the south of Barra, including the island of Vatersay. Sunday Eucharist is celebrated at St Brendan’s, Craigston and Our Lady, Star of the Sea, Castlebay. Also on the first Sunday of each month Mass is celebrated at 9.30am in Our Lady of the Waves & St. John in Vatersay.
There are weekday celebrations in these churches and also at St Brendan’s Home/Hospital on Monday afternoon. Castlebay Parish has an estimated Catholic population of 710. (Our Lady, Star of the Sea, Castlebay, Isle of Barra, Scotland, HS9 5XD.)
ST BRENDAN’S CHURCH CRAIGSTON
The present-day St. Brendan’s Church at Craigston, the “mother church of the island” was built in 1857 during the time of Father William MacDonnell (1856-1867) on the site of a much older church which dates back to the years pre-1800.
The church is charming, a very suitable place to go for quiet prayer. It is said to be on the site where St Brendan the Navigator made his settlement and St Brendan himself is honoured, along with St Barr, with Slate-scratch images by Canon Calum MacNeil (deceased) to the right and left above the altar.
Reference is made to this building in a document entitled Mission of St. Patrick, Grand River West, Prince Edward Island, Canada by Rev. Burke 1881, which states;
“This mission was first settled in 1790 by twenty eight people from Barra in the Hebrides or Western Isles of Scotland. These men were tenants of Mc Neil of Barra a Colonist who after vainly endeavouring to inoculate his tenantry with the tenets of his new religion ,became so arbitrary and despotic that he forbade their erecting a new church not withstanding the fact that their old one was insufficient to accommodate the congregation. Four men who were delegated to choose a site for the proposed church ,whilst proceeding with their duty met the laird going his rounds .An argument ensued which terminated in a decided quarrel. This was on the 9March 1790 and on the following day all Mc Neil’s Catholic tenants gave him notice that they had decided to give up their holdings and leave the country”
In 1805 Father Angus MacDonald became Parish Priest of St. Brendan’s Church and he remained there until 1825. His time there is considered of being of great importance as he was instrumental in introducing a book for recording births, deaths and marriages. As St. Brendan’s Church was the sole Catholic church the book is most valuable as so much information was recorded in it. This was the period of emigration to Cape Breton Island and the births of the many who left were recorded there.
Fr. MacDonald also kept an Account Book where he recorded many transactions and likewise this is also a very informative and interesting document.
During his time there he also had the Presbytery House ” Taigh a’ Ghearraidh Mhoir” built. In the Account Book we read that in 1819 Iain MacPherson and his father, Angus ,both joiners, arrived from South Uist to work at the priest’s house at Craigston. This is the ruined house that can still be seen beyond the present-day farm buildings beyond Craigston Church. This house was in use till fairly recent times and older parishioners remember the buidling being used for daily Mass.
However it is evident from correspondence to Rome written by Fr. MacDonald’s successor, Father Neil MacDonald in 1830 that the church building hadn’t been renovated at the same time as the house.
“No change took place as to the chapel- the people seem to be pretty keen for the measure already proposed, after hearing of the great edifice already built and finished at Iochar in South Uist by Mr. MacGregor”
In the following year he wrote;
“The poverty of the people is beyond description and the chapel requires an immediate repair for there is a rent in the south west corner from the foundation stones to the slates”
However a new church was finally built in 1857. Dr. Donald Buchanan captures the importance of the occasion in his book ” Reflections of the Isle of Barra”.
“However in spite of the grander scale of the Castlebay foundation, it probably did not arouse as much sentimental interest in Barra as the rebuilding of Craigstone church during the reign of Father William MacDonnell.( 1856-1867)
This was a labour of love and enkindled the interest of all Barra ,as it was an “all Barra ” church .It was a replacement of an older church on the same site ,and I remember the elders of my boyhood times relating the scenes at the building; everyone lent a helping hand .Timber was collected from the jetsam on the shore and stone was conveyed from wherever it could be procured ,as far away as Sandray ,whence it was transported by boat to the Craigston beaches. Cockle shells for incineration into lime were conveyed by pony panniers from the Eoligarry shores.”
Up until the opening of Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in 1888 St. Brendan’s remained Barra’s sole Catholic church and young and old made their way there on Sunday mornings.
On 18 May 2005 the people of Barra celebrated the occasion of the bicentenary of the establishment of the parish of St. Brendan’s. Mass was said close to the ruins of old St. Brendan’s Chapel at Borve Point which dates back to early Christian times. The people then processed from this early church site to the present St. Brendan’s Church, a fitting reminder of the continuity of their faith.
Article by Mary Ceit MacKinnon.
Civil Registration Records
Government or civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths (also called statutory records) began on January 1, 1855 in Scotland. Each parish has a registrar's office and large cities have several. The records are created by the registrars and copies are sent to the General Register Office in Edinburgh. Annual indexes are then created for the records for the whole country.
See the article on Scotland Civil Registration for more information and to access the records.
Barra was under the probate jurisdiction of the Commissary Court of The Isles until 1823, and since then has been under the Sheriff's Court of Inverness. Probate records for 1513- 1901 are indexed online at scotlandspeople.($) You must register on the website but use of the index to probate records, called 'Wills & Testaments,' is free. You may then purchase a copy of the document or, if the document is before 1823, it will be on microfilm at the Family History Library. To find the microfilm numbers, search in the library catalog for the 'Place-names' of Inverness-shire and the subject of 'Probate records.' Then click on the link to the records of the Commissariat of The Isles.
The library also has some post-1823 probate records for Inverness-shire. Look in the library catalog for the 'Place-names' of Inverness-shire and the subjects of 'Probate Records' and 'Probate Records - Indexes.'
Read more about Scotland Probate Records.
- Lewis, Samuel A., A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland (1846), pp. 499-514. Adapted. Date accessed: 3 July 2014.
Return to Inverness-shire parish list.