Scarba is separated from Jura in the south by the famous Gulf of Corryvreckan with its whirlpool and to the north by Bealach a’ choin Ghlais, a narrow strait between Scarba and Lunga, the southermost island of the Slate Islands group. This northern narrow tidal race is also referred to as the Grey Dogs. Although the barren island is uninhabited nowadays, that wasn’t always the case. In the year 1794 14 families inhabited the island but since the 1960s it’s largely uninhabited. The island is owned by Lord Richard Sandys and so is Kilmory Lodge on the north-eastern flank of the island. The lodge, together with a bothy in the south, are the only permanent buildings on the island. There are some ruins to be found of crofts and a chapel, mainly on the eastern sheltered part of the island.
Cruach Scarba, the mountain top rising from the seabed, reaches a peak at a height of 449 metres and dominates the island. The island is barren with heathery hill slopes, some trees however can be found in the eastern part while caves and cliffs dominate the south and west. Barren as it is, the island supports a lot of wildlife. There are many red deer, a few wild goats and otters live near the coastline. (song)birds are mainly found in the natural oak woodland, planted conifers patches and scrub on the east coast while the sea birds like shags and guillemots prefer the western rocky habitats. Domestic sheep and the famous breed of Luing cattle are grazed here. Scarba is part of the Firth of Lorn Special Area of Conservation which includes the western parts of the Slate Islands, the north part of Jura, the Garvellachs and all the islands and skerries in between.
Kilmory Lodge Scarba
Below Kilmory lodge by the eastern shore is an ancient chapel ruin, Cille Mhoire an Caibel. According to the site record at RCAHMS the name ‘Cill Mhoire’, recorded by the Ordnance Survey in the 1870s, confirms the dedication to the Virgin Mary. There is no evidence that the chapel was maintained in the post-Reformation period, and the burial-ground appears to have gone out of use by the middle of the 19th century. Hamish Haswell Smith mentions in his book the possibility that this chapel was almost certainly the “chapel of the blessed virgin, where many miracles occur” – according to John Fordun in 1380. He also writes that there are reports of nearby beehive cells which could mean that Scarba has been a retreat for the monks of Iona.
Its interesting to read what early explorers wrote about Scarba. Martin Martin, one of the early explorers of the western part of Scotland, published his classic book in 1703 called: A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland. In his book he writes about a woman of the Isle of Scarba, near the north end of the isle, who lived for 140 years, and enjoyed the free use of her senses and understanding all her days; it is now two years since she died. Similar stories are told from other parts of the Hebridean Isles where people seemed to live for quite some time although evidence was never found!
Descending from Cruach Scarba looking towards the Slate Islands
Another interesting account from Martin Martin was his description of the Corryvreckan whirlpool: “Between the north end of Jura, and the isle Scarba, lies the famous and dangerous gulf, called Cory Vrekan, about a mile in breadth; it yields an impetuous current, not to be matched anywhere about the isle of Britain. The sea begins to boil and ferment with the tide of flood, and resembles the boiling of a pot; and then increases gradually, until it appears in many whirlpools, which form themselves in sort of pyramids, and immediately after spout up as high as the mast of a little vessel, and at the same time make a loud report. These white waves run two leagues with the wind before they break; the sea continues to repeat these various motions from the beginning of the tide of flood, until it is more than half-flood, and then it decreases gradually until it hath ebbed about half an hour, and continues to boil till it is within an hour of low water. This boiling of the sea is not above a pistol-shot distant from the coast of Scarba Isle, where the white waves meet and spout up: they call it the Kaillach, i.e., an old hag; and they say that when she puts on her kerchief, i.e., the whitest waves, it is then reckoned fatal to approach her. Notwithstanding this great ferment of the sea, which brings up the least shell from the ground, the smallest fisher-boat may venture to cross this gulf at the last hour of the tide of flood, and at the last hour of the tide of ebb.
From the Kilmory lodge is a footpath that encircles part of the mountains and starts at the sheep fank near the lodge. The easiest way to climb to the top of Cruach Scarba is over this footpath which traverses the east side of the mountain. The isle of Scarba has no regular ferry service and access is possible by a chartered boat or yacht, there are several anchorages possible, mainly on the east and south-eastern sheltered parts of the island.
Storm beaten beech tree on Scarba