The hidden history of Scotland’s Small Isles

Grubbing cabbages on Muck by traditional farming methods in the early 1960s. The island was well known for producing high quality cabbages. � Scottish Life Archive, licensor Scran.

Grubbing cabbages on Muck by traditional farming methods in the early 1960s. The island was well known for producing high quality cabbages. � Scottish Life Archive, licensor Scran.

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They are “quiet-seeming” islands of Scotland which have long-hidden turbulent pasts.

Now, the lesser known histories of Rum, Eigg, Canna and Muck have been unearthed and brought together for the first time.

Photograph from an album from around 1880 showing visitors fishing on Loch Beinn Taighe, Eigg . Picture: HES.

Photograph from an album from around 1880 showing visitors fishing on Loch Beinn Taighe, Eigg . Picture: HES.


The Small Isles, by Professor John Hunter, reveals how the islands have been at the heart of key moments in Scottish history, from a 10,000-year-old human settlement established for trading ‘magical’ bloodstone to the murders of early Christian pilgrims.

He looks at how the social and economic devastation of the Clearances paused their human history and how the construction of elite Victorian sporting retreats turned them into a pleasure ground for a privileged few.

READ MORE: Six myths and legends from the Scottish isles

Professor John Hunter, an archaeologist, was commissioned by Historic Environment Scotland to write the book. He said: “These quiet-seeming landscapes hide centuries of hardship, intrigue, controversy and violence.

They are small islands with big histories. Yet, over the last two centuries, they had become islands without memories.

Professor John Hunter

“They are small islands with big histories. Yet, over the last two centuries, the traditions, customs, buildings and even place-names of these four islands had been depleted and erased. They had become islands without memories.”

Lying to the south of Skye and north of Mull and Ardnamurchan – the most westerly point of mainland Scotland – the islands have some 200 residents today, but were once home to over 1,600 people.

READ MORE: Nine abandoned islands of Scotland

In the early 19th century the Clearances and the introduction of sheep farming sent reluctant islanders to the Scottish mainland and across the Atlantic.

The natural harbour between Canna and Sanday brought the islands into consideration for industrial fishing in the 18th century, although the plan never achieved realisation. Picture HES.

The natural harbour between Canna and Sanday brought the islands into consideration for industrial fishing in the 18th century, although the plan never achieved realisation. Picture HES.

Hunter continued: “The islanders took their traditions and memories with them. They were economic migrants. All that remain are ruined townships, like Port Mor on Muck, where islanders, forced off the land, tried to make a living before leaving for the New World.”

Professor Hunter has travelled extensively across the islands, and has also drawn on 150 years of archaeological source material – including many never before published maps, drawings, and photographs from the collections of Historic Environment Scotland, and field surveys carried out by the organisation’s archaeologists – in an attempt to reveal for the first time the stories of past cultures in danger of being lost forever.

From rock shards that speak of prehistoric trading networks, and forts built by ancient warlords, to the chassis of a 1930s sports car dumped in the sea by its aristocrat owner, the stories of the islands are told through the objects and landscapes left behind by generations of islanders.

Professor Hunter said: “The Small Isles are fascinating in how they both display and hide their secrets within their modern landscapes. There are few places so geographically concentrated that provide such a vivid illustration of Scotland’s past from prehistory to the present day.”

Looking towards Scresort Bay, Rum. It is thought that this rock may have been rolled into its present position as a protest against the Clearances. Picture: Sylvia Beaton.

Looking towards Scresort Bay, Rum. It is thought that this rock may have been rolled into its present position as a protest against the Clearances. Picture: Sylvia Beaton.

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The approach to Kinloch Castle, Rum, around 1910 at the height of its opulence. Picture: HES.

The approach to Kinloch Castle, Rum, around 1910 at the height of its opulence. Picture: HES.

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