A SNAPSHOT OF THE SMALL ISLES HISTORY
Situated on the sea routes running up the west coast of Scotland, the Small Isles share a rich and troubled history. Whether explored singly or together, each of the four islands offer fascinating aspects of their shared heritage for a uniquely varied Highland History experience.
Rum was the home of Scotland’s First Settlers when, around 7500 BC, Mesolithic man settled at the head of Loch Scresort to fashion bloodstone, a rare source of flint-like material, into arrow heads which were traded far and wide.
The attraction of fertile basalt land in Muck, Eigg and Canna and of impregnable peaks on Rum was strong. By the Iron age, in 500 BC, access to each island was defended by fortlets or duns, sixteen of which are to be found around the Small Isles.
In the Dark ages, the islands were at the western frontier of the Pictish kingdom, where Early Christian saints ventured at their peril. St Donnan was martyred on Eigg in 617, but the Christian faith was there to stay with a monastery on Eigg, a nunnery on Canna, and holy hermits on Muck and Rum. When the Vikings took the Small Isles over as a base for their raiding enterprises in the 7th and 8th century AD, they left their mark in the islands’ place-names but it was on Eigg that some of their richest gravefinds and parts of their longship were found.
In medieval times, when each island had to provide a galley of sixteen oars for armed service to the Lords of the Isles in Islay, Rum provided deer hunting for the Lordship. Known in Gaelic as the Kingdom of the Royal Forest, it abounds with deer traps high in the hills. It was also in the Small Isles parish church situated on Eigg, that Ranald, the stewart of the Isles, gave the lordship to his half-brother Donald – the founder of Clan Donald in the presence of the Bishop of the Isles whose lands also included Muck.
The demise of the Lordship brought feuding and bloodshed to the islands, culminating in an act of grisly revenge by MacLeod of Dunvegan when the entire population of Eigg was suffocated to death in a coastal cave.
In the 17th century, dispossessed members of Clan Donald in Ardnamuchan took over Muck, amongst whom was the famous warrior Colkitto, whilst Eigg became the rallying point for two rebellious attempts to restore Gaeldom’s power, whilst on Canna, Clanranald showed his power by building a castle at Corroghon.
A century later the men of Canna and Eigg joined their Clanranald chief in the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745 with disastrous consequences for all involved.
On Muck and Rum, owned by the Protestant MacLeans of Coll, tenants had to give up the Catholic religion or leave. But in the turmoil that followed the defeat at Culloden, emigration to Canada and America equally affected all four islands, so much so that in 1826, Donald MacLean, the minister of the Small Isles, worried that no one would be left to defend the country!
FROM CLAN CHIEFS TO MAGNATES:
With no need of armed men, Clan chiefs found sheep farming and the harvesting of seaweed for kelp more profitable, so that the Clearances were the next hardship to befall the islands. The entire population of Rum was cleared for sheep by the MacLeans. On the other islands, kelping offered a brief reprieve, but when it collapsed at the end of the Napoleonic wars, impoverished crofters were cleared on Canna and Muck.
Poverty and disease were the crofters’ lot and when the potato blight struck in 1847, it caused widespread famine with more clearances following on Eigg. The fight for Crofters’ rights ensured better conditions by 1886, but for Rum it was too late: the island had already lost its native population.
From the Victorian era right through to WW1, the islands became attractive to rich individuals looking to bolster their industrial wealth with a landed estate. An ostentatious castle was built on Rum by Lancashire cotton barons, the Bullough family. On Eigg, Lord Runciman, a cabinet minister and shipping magnate erected a more sober holiday mansion. Shooting, fishing and yachting were the popular pastime of the rich elite.
THE RISE OF THE COMMUNITY
WW2 put an end to such extravagance and encouraged emigration to the city for young islanders. Dwindling population became a concern and on Canna, John Lorne Campbell, a young farming enthusiast with scholarly interests set about revitalising the island’s economy, with the help of his American wife, the photographer and folklore collector Margaret Fay Shaw. Together they built an outstanding folklore collection in Canna House and were at the centre of an intellectual network that almost span the globe!
Today, the islands are firmly in the hands of the people that live on the islands, whether through a Community Trust on Eigg, a family trust on Muck or a partnership between the islanders and a nationwide organisation such as the National Trust of Scotland on Canna or Scottish Natural Heritage on Rum, where a Community Trust is now running part of the island. Stewartship of the land and its rich natural and cultural heritage is now in the hands of the people who live there, not all of them native to the islands, but equally passionate about island life and island living.