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Issue 6 - The Hebrides – Hebridean Voyage

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 6
February 2003


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The Hebrides – Hebridean Voyage

Ian Mitchell, native islander and author, introduces the fascinating history and culture of the Hebrides

When Columba sailed his coracle north from Ireland to Iona in 563, he moved from a world of discipline into one of freedom. The church he founded in the Hebrides might have been Catholic in doctrine and belief, but it acknowledged no allegiance to Rome. It was an independent entity, based on an island smaller in area than Rome, yet it survived as a spiritual sanctuary until 802 when the Vikings descended on the island, butchering the monks, burning the cathedral and looting everything of value.

Surprisingly, Iona was not completely destroyed by the Vikings’ raids. By 1200 it had become a Benedictine Abbey. It did not, however, ultimately survive the creation of the Kingdom of Scotland in 848. Although it took another seven centuries to complete, the conquest of the Highlands and the Hebrides was the almost continual aim of the ruling clique in the capital. This imperial expansion was strenuously and, for six centuries, successfully, opposed, first by the Vikings who claimed overlordship of the west coast of Scotland until 1263, and after that bythe Lordship of the Isles – essentially clan MacDonald – which controlled most of the Hebrides from Finlaggan on Islay until 1493.

For nearly two centuries after the end of the Lordship there was what in my book, Isles of the West, I call “clanarchy” in the Highlands and Hebrides, a period during which Edinburgh claimed overlordship without having the military or naval power to rule the area effectively. Scotland destroyed the unity of the Lordship and thereafter prevented another clan rising to the status the MacDonalds had enjoyed. The policy was to set one clan against another to divide and destabilise. The result was a state of continual, low-level local warfare, which Edinburgh was able to use as an argument for moving in and ‘pacifying’ the area once it had acquired the power to do so.

The power required to rule the Hebrides and the coastal parts of the west Highlands was mainly naval. Apart from Norse place names, the Vikings also left behind a tradition of very sophisticated boat building. The result was that, over a surprisingly wide area, the Hebridean clans had been able to project power by transporting soldiers swiftly and in large numbers.

The traditional Viking longboat had been adapted for local waters in two main ways. First, the steering oar was replaced by a rudder and, secondly, the boats were made shorter and beamier. Those used for fighting were called galleys, while the even shorter and beamier craft used for trade and transportation were called birlinns.

The galleys gave the islanders the military independence that so infuriated autocratic Edinburgh, while the birlinns gave them the wealth on which that military independence depended. It is a myth, propagated by Gaelophobic historians like Macaulay, that the islands were poor, backward and weak until Scotland took control of them. In fact the Lordship of the Isles seems to have been a very wealthy society living under a well-established, though not written, legal system, with a thriving artistic community and a lavishly endowed church. On top of that, the whole of Scotland experienced several centuries of much warmer weather than is normal today. The Hebrides were more fertile than they are now and living conditions were easier. It was a golden age.

In addition to its apparent opulence – and perhaps partly because of it – the Lordship had considerable naval and military power at its disposal. The English recognised this after the Battle of Bannockburn, at which the MacDonalds’ 10,000 men played a major part. Thereafter, one of the main features of the long-term English attempt to subdue Scotland was the cultivation of insular separatism. They tried to do to Scotland what the Scots tried to do to the Highlands. The ambitious MacDonalds were happy to play ball.

When Edinburgh found out that the Lordship had made a deal with the English in 1462, the result was predictable: the autonomy of the Hebrides was ended by the formal forfeiture of the Lordship to the Scottish crown in 1493. By this time anyway, the power of the islanders was on the wane as naval technology had advanced beyond the capabilities of the Lordship. The fully-decked ships which were evolving in Europe at the time required so much timber for their construction that the almost treeless islands off the west of Scotland could not manufacture them.

By interfering in the long-running battle between the Scots and the English, the Lordship had gone in over its head, and the consequences were fatal.

The freedom of independent wealth and culture was destroyed and replaced during the period of the clanarchy by the freedom of gangsters which could never last indefinitely. It was not long before the gangsterism spilled over into the Lowlands in the form of cattle raids. Soon Edinburgh lost patience not just with the raiders themselves but with the whole way of life which permitted well-armed men to rove freely in the hills, living on huge roasted helpings of their neighbours’ tradable assets. The first practical steps taken by the Scottish authorities to destroy the alien and threatening culture of the Gaelic west involved the destruction of the local religion. In 1560, Protestant reformers succeeded where the Vikings had failed: they brought religious life on Iona to an end. These men of the Book descended on the island and proceeded to wreck the buildings, burn the library, and smash 360 crosses, dumping the rubble in the sea.

Having destroyed the Hebridean religion, Edinburgh next set out to undermine the local economy and culture. Under James VI – later also James I of England – Edinburgh initiated what might be called the ‘Scotticisation’ of the Hebrides. This involved trying to ban the production and use of birlinns – an economic sanction – and the forcible anglicisation of Gaelic society by the Statutes of Iona which King James forced nine kidnapped clan chieftains to sign in 1609. The practice of competitive feasting was banned, as was the sale of wine and whisky. The Statutes also attacked the military structure of the Highlands and islands by banning the carrying of firearms.

The result was that the people of Gaeldom were reduced by the Stewart dynasty to the status of second-class citizens, without either local autonomy or any sort of rights. The subsequent irony was that so many of the further disasters suffered by Gaelic culture resulted from their trying to reinstate the Stewarts in the 18th century. By the early 19th century the Hebrideans had descended to a state of near serfdom in which they were bought and sold with the land and their property left largely undefended by a state which was nonetheless happy to call on them to defend it in times of trouble. Only in the late 19th century did they acquire any effective property rights, and only in the last 50 years or so has their culture ceased to be attacked by officialdom in London and Edinburgh.

At least one scholar has noted the obvious moral. The late Dr John Lorne Campbell, writing from the island of Canna, which has recently become a Gaelic culture centre for the newly-created University of the Highlands and Islands, said: “Many regret that the Lordship of the Isles did not survive under Norwegian protection in a form that could have led to the Hebrides now possessing the present liberties of the Isle of Man, which was associated with the Scottish isles in Norse times.”

But London and Edinburgh no longer have the relevance they once did. Today Brussels is the final authority. Many in the Hebrides used to say that they would rather be ruled by London then Edinburgh because it is better to be controlled by a group of people who don’t care about you than one that actively hates you. The same point, only more so, can be made about rule from Brussels. Being ignored by the centres of power has allowed the islands to recapture something of the feeling which undoubtedly brought Columba over from Ireland 16 centuries ago: freedom.

Today, the tourist industry in the Hebrides, the largest after distilling, farming and fishing, trades on the impression which greets almost every traveller as he or she alights from the ferry onto island soil: a people of independent character living in places of sublime beauty which are – and this is the important bit – cut off from the mainland at all times except that half-hour or so when the ferry is in port, or the aircraft bound for Glasgow is sitting on the tarmac by the tiny terminal building – in the case of Barra, sitting on the beach which serves as the runway. Though we have excellent mail and telephone services, there is nothing quite so important as the knowledge that you simply cannot pile into the car and head for the city. Likewise, no one can suddenly arrive and interrupt the quiet tenor of island life.

The impossibility of immediate escape means that everyone living on an island has to get on with everyone else. From this necessity evolves a kind of tolerance which is not always evident in life on the mainland. In part, this derives from the power of knowledge: everyone knows everyone else’s business. Many outsiders see this as intrusive, but it is not, since though your neighbour might know all your indiscretions, you also know those of your neighbour. It is equivalent to the mutual assured destruction (MAD) principle which guaranteed nuclear deterrence on the part of the two superpowers of the global village, and kept peace on the planet for nearly half a century.

But there are many who see the Hebrides as MAD in the more ordinary sense of the word. One such might have been the tourist on a remote island in the outer isles, where the ferry arrives only in the late afternoon. The tourist was rather sniffily asking the butcher who was filling his car up with petrol what other unexpected things he sold from his shop.

“I don’t suppose you sell newspapers?”
“Do you want today’s paper or yesterday’s?” the butcher said coolly.

“Today’s, of course.”
“Well, come back tomorrow then.”

Or the farmer on one of the more agriculturally active islands who sold most of a prize heifer for drink. He could not part with the whole beast since he needed the head and neck to take back for partial burial in a particularly heavily waterlogged part of his farm. His idea was that when his wife asked where the money from the sale had gone, he could say, with tears in his eyes, that no sale had been possible as the poor animal had drowned in the bog.

And then there was the incident, which took place less than a mile from where I am writing this, of the road sweeper’s goat which, having finished its early morning bowl of carrots and neeps, chewed through its tether on a Sunday morning outside the hotel where a group of Freemasons were staying after a Lodge meeting the night before.

They were killing time while waiting for the afternoon ferry to arrive, the only one on the Sabbath. It being Sunday morning all the pubs were shut. But it being Sunday morning, the necessity of a small refreshment was felt for several of the parched throats. They were a noisy group, so the now untethered goat, a sociable animal, wandered over the road to investigate, butting its head on the hotel door. Terrified that the police were onto them for illegal drinking, glasses were hastily emptied and then hidden. Imagine their shock when in walked a goat, keen to enjoy the company.

However, the group was not keen to enjoy that of the goat, and tried to chase it out.

In this they were unsuccessful, until help arrived in the shape of the local policeman. Being a wise policeman, he pointedly ignored the activities inside the hotel. But he was dressed in a florescent jacket not unlike that of the road sweeper, so the goat butted out of the bar and trotted off down the street after what he thought was his owner, hoping for another bowl of carrots and neeps.

In such unlikely ways does freedom survive in the islands. Columba would probably have fitted quite happily into the Hebridean way of life today, even if he might not have spent his Sunday mornings carousing in hotels while waiting for the afternoon coracle to arrive.