One of the fascinating aspects of the Southern Hebridean islands of the west of Scotland is the long and remarkable history of the people who have lived here.
While driving around Argyll’s coastline or, better still, visiting the islands of the Southern Hebrides by sea crossing, travellers may be surprised to notice on maps that almost every kilometre of shoreline and every island and skerry (sgeir, sea rock) has a name; often in Gaelic or in a mixture of Gaelic and Norse languages. A place-name may describe the physical features of the location to identify it; such as Knock Don, the brown hill, or ‘Caol Ìle, the Sound of Islay. Some place-name such as Kilchiaran, the chapel of Ciaran, are reminders of an event or person of importance, often from a distant past, remembered in the oral traditions of island people.
While several of the Southern Hebridean islands support thriving communities, other small islands and islets may seem to be only distant, inhospitable outcrops of rock where today only seals, sea birds and a few grazing sheep can be seen. In the course of time, some of the smaller islands such as the Garvellachs and Scarba have been unable to sustain their communities and were, probably with great reluctance, abandoned by those who had once lived there.
Dunyvaig Castle Islay – Stronghold of the MacDonalds
So it is even more incredible to remember that the strong, resilient people who lived and worked on the islands of the Southern Hebrides have had far-reaching influence over Scotland and the world. Hard though it may be to believe, these seemingly insignificant islands were the locations where much of Scotland’s history was set in motion. The ideas and events which Irish travellers and Viking adventurers and settlers brought to Argyll’s Sea Kingdom have reached forward and echoed through the many centuries, still influencing Scotland’s culture today.
Over the centuries, Hebridean islands have been used for religious retreats, war bases and last-ditch places of safety, as well as for the ordinary lives of working communities. Island life has always taken more effort than mainland life. Often it is not easy even to reach or leave islands, and voyagers must always take weather and sea conditions into account. The Southern Hebrides have for centuries been a series of stepping stones up and down the coast of western Scotland, providing stopping-places for seafarers.
Kildalton Cross Islay
The area’s very long history reveals human migration to and between the islands since earliest times, following the gradual retreat of glaciers in the last Ice Age. Archaeologists have not yet discovered the origins of the prehistoric hunter-gatherers who first arrived on the islands. However, the archaeological record shows that groups of people re-visited islands where there were plentiful food supplies, or made temporary hunting camps. Few traces of human activity is found at these early sites, and these are mainly the worked flint tools from Mesolithic times, about 9000 years ago. Important Mesolithic sites have been found in Islay, Colonsay, Oronsay, Mull, Tiree and Coll. Later, Neolithic standing stones and chambered cairns, Bronze Age houses, pottery and burial cists, and the hill forts, duns and crannogs of the Iron Age show us that early peoples lived in the islands over long periods of time.
It is believed that Gaels from Ireland migrated from the Antrim Glens of Ireland before 500 AD, travelling to the islands and establishing the kingdom of Dalriada based at Dunadd in mainland Argyll. In the 9th century, Norsemen sailed to Hebridean shores; groups of mainly Norwegian Vikings who voyaged to the Southern Hebrides, perhaps from their base in Dublin, Ireland. Besides plundering the rich monastery of Iona in 795. again in 802 and 806, seeking treasure in the form of jeweled covers of illuminated manuscripts, gold crucifixes and silver chalices, Norse people settled on island areas of good farmland. Many Hebridean farms have Norse-influenced names to this day. While the Norse were farmers, they were famed for their abilities as seamen and ship-builders. Vikings fought for control of the Scottish islands and coastal lands in sea battles, leading the power struggle from Islay.
Finlaggan Islay – Centre of the Lords of the Isles
In 1156, a great sea battle was fought off the west coast of Islay. Somerled, himself of Celtic-Norse descent, fought Viking forces to gain control of Islay and the Inner Hebrides. He begin to establish the kingdom later known as the Lordship of the Isles. By kinship and marriages, the Lordship of the Isles expanded to secure power over much of the west coast, led for almost four hundred years from its seat on Eilean Mòr, Finlaggan. The Lords of the Isles supervised their extensive kingdom from their ships, Viking-style longship, as their only means of overseeing such a large territory. Somerled’s grandson, Donald I, built Dunyvaig fort overlooking Lagavulin Bay to protect his fleet, and the ruins can be seen there today.
Natural resources available on islands influence the lives which can be lived there, either easily or with much hard work. Some islands have plentiful fertile land for growing food and grazing animals, or native wild animals to hunt for food. In these places, self-sufficiency is not too difficult. Other islands have only stony or peaty land which can only support life with very hard labour. When early Irish holy men established monasteries on Hebridean islands, from their writings it seems that, to them, the very hardness of their island life on inhospitable rocks was a virtue. To maintain island life, it has always been necessary to find resources elsewhere and transport them to islands, often involving trade, or war. And so, history !