Nine abandoned islands of Scotland

The old school house on the island of Mingulay. Picture: Contributed

The old school house on the island of Mingulay. Picture: Contributed

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Many of Scotland’s islands now lie uninhabited - save for birds, seals and the odd herd of goats - but many were once thriving communities.

Here we look at nine islands that were left behind.

MINGULAY

Now that the island is desolate and its surviving natives getting fewer, I feared that soon there would be no-one left to recall the old days. The thought grieved me.

The late John George Mackay, former resident of Eilean Nan Ron

Sitting at the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides is Mingulay, which was abandoned by its inhabitants in 1912. It is now home to more than 100 species of seabird and is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, which was able to buy it and neighbouring Pabbay and Berneray - the three known as the Bishops Isles - due to a sizeable donation from an American benefactor in 2000.

Around 30 families who had survived on crofting, fishing and fowling left the island when conditions got too challenging but Mingulay had once thrived with its own school and church.

A school log released on the 100th anniversary of its abandonment detailed children being unable to attend class due to a storm and a teacher running out of coal for the fire.

READ MORE: Population of Scotland’s islands on the rise

CARA

Less than a mile south of Gigha, Cara was last farmed by Angus McGuigan in 1932 and the island has been uninhabited since the 1940s. The last person to be born there was Charlotte McAllister, who was eventually moved with the remaining islanders to neighbouring Gigha as Cara stopped being able to sustain itself.

It’s is thought that only four families ever called it home during the 19th and 20th centuries.

For generations, it had been part of the MacDonald estate of Largie on the Kintyre peninsula and is thought to be the only island still in possession of a direct descendant of the Lord of the Isles.

It is now only home to a herd of feral goats.

SCARBA

Scarba is separated from Jura by the Corryvechan whirlpool with passage to the island described as “hazardous” at the best of times.

There are no public ferries to this isle, a single mountain which rises 1456 feet, but a boatman from Craobh Haven or Crinan Harbour may take you there, if you are lucky.

No one has lived on Scarba since the 1960s but it is said the island was known for its hardy and healthy residents.

In the 17th Century, one woman is said to have lived on Scarba until she was 140.

Other reports suggest that school children were taken here for lessons in self sufficiency before being dispatched to neighbouring islands,

The island was owned by Richard Hill, Conservative MP for Shropshire, but is now only used for grazing. However, shooting parties can sometimes found at his former home Kilmory Lodge.

READ MORE: Six forgotten communities of Scotland

HANDA

This island off the Sutherland coast was where mainlanders used to bury bodies as it was safe from the wolves resident in the north of Scotland that were prone to dig up graves.

At one time 65 people lived on on Handa with 12 houses registered but the failure of a potato crop in 1846 led to widespread famine and sufferng, according to Scots island travel-site lonelyisles.com. 
This was despite islanders having a relatively varied diet, including oats and seabirds

Handa also had its own parliament, with the oldest widow on the island appointed the Queen.

Puffins, razorbills, kittiwakes and guillemots all now breed at Handa, which is owned by land management expert Dr Jean Balfour and managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

INCH KENNETH

This island sits just a short row from Mull.

Its idyllic setting sits at odds with its back story, when the island became a hideout for a Nazi supporting aristocrat who shot herself in the head after war was declared against Germany in 1939.

The island was bought by Lord Redesdale just before WWII. He had one son and six daughters and one, Diana, married Oswald Mosley while another, Unity, became besotted with Hitler and pursued the Fuhrer.

While living in Germany, Unity tried to kill herself after the declaration of war but the bullet lodged in her head.

Hitler is said to have been in touch to check on her wellbeing and arranged for her return to England.

Her parents then decided to send her to Inch Kenneth for the remainder of the war and she took refuge from an outraged public and press. She lived there for the rest of her life.

She had a personality change from brain damage and lived on the island until meningitis brought on by the wound ended her life in Oban Hospital in 1948.

The house is much as the Mitfords left it and the island welcomed visitors for the first time in 30 years in 2011. It is now owned by a Cambridge academic.

FARA

The last couple left the Orkney isle of Fara in 1965 for Stromness, when their old age made farming difficult.

But the two-mile long isle had a vibrant past, with the census of 1841 listing 49 residents, from master mariner’s wife, to boat carpenter, a school teacher and a knitter.

Fifty years later and a population rise was noted with 76 residents listed - all crofters. In 1805 in the History of Orkney, the island was “noted chiefly for its excellent sheep pasture.”

It had its own school but the population fell at such a rate that it became uneconomical to hire a teacher, with not enough people to even properly man a boat.

By 1957 there were only five people left.

It is said that the first settlement was first recorded in Lord Sinclair’s Rental Book of Orkney 1497-1503 when the island was valued at three pennylands - a measurement of Norse origin.

THE MONACHS

Blessed by beautiful white sandy beaches and sparking seas, no one has lived here since 1948 and visitors are few and far between. Now a national nature reserve, you need permission from Scottish Natural Heritage to land.

Sitting just to the west of North Uist, the group of five islands also known as Heisker were once connected to North Uist by a sandbank. It is said that that a great storm swept the sandbank away leaving the low lying isles to the mercy of the Atlantic.

The Monachs are made up of Deasker Island, Stockay Island, Shillay Island, Ceann Iar Island, Shivinish Island and Ceann Ear Island, which was once home to a nunnery with a lighthouse later constructed and operated by monks.

The nuns were said to be so strong that they were able to row boats across the Sound of Monach to Uist to return with peat for fuel.

In 1764 the population was recorded as 70.

Up to 10,000 seals now call The Monachs home with over 200 different types of flowers and grasses to be found here.

EILEAN NAN RON

Nine Mackays were on the evacuation list of Eilean nan Ron - Gaelic for Island of Seals - when it was abandoned in 1938 but during the late 1800s more than 70 people lived on this island off Skerray in Sutherland.

The ruined island settlement can be seen from the mainland, with a scattering of abandoned houses sitting between Pebble Beach of the Candles and Big Pebble Beach. High cliffs surround the island in the north and east.

In 1962, former resident John George Mackay wrote an account of island life. He said he had done so “to help to preserve the memory of this once prosperous and happy little island.”

He added: “Now that the island is desolate and its surviving natives getting fewer, I feared that soon there would be no-one left to recall the old days. The thought grieved me.”

Mr Mackay dedicated his book to the islanders, who he described as “industrious and God fearing people.”

NORTH RONA

According to lonelyisles.com the community of North Rona was devastated by an invasion of rats and a raid by a passing ship which destroyed all the island’s food supplies.

All the residents died with a fresh population succumbing to a boating tragedy around 1695. Only a shepherd and his family lived on North Rona after that with the island finally deserted for good in in 1884.

North Rona is the most northerly island of the Outer Hebrides and was inhabited for several centuries. It sits 44 miles north of the Butt of Lewis, further away from the mainland than St Kilda.

Around 30 people are said to have called it home.

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