Small Isles of Scotland: A short history of Rum, Muck, Canna and Eigg

KNOWN as the Small Isles due to the name of their parish, these four islands lie in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland.

KNOWN as the Small Isles due to the name of their parish, these four islands lie in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland.

Muck, Eigg, Rum and Canna each boast their own rich history and are often named as some of the most beautiful parts of the country to visit.

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Muck is the smallest of four main islands in the Small Isles and part of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland.

Although boasting some of the most beautiful beaches Scotland has to offer, Muck can also take a real battering from gales blowing in from the Atlantic.

The history of the small island has its ups and downs.

In 1588 when a Spanish galleon was wrecked in Tobermory Bay, encouraged by the Campbells, Sir Lachlan Maclean of Mull employed Spanish sailers and mercenaries that survived and let them loose on islands belonging to the MacDonalds. Muck was burned, pillaged and destroyed.

But by In 1773, when Samuel Johnson and James Boswell passed by the islands it was enjoying a prosperous time in its history, which Johnson narrated in his book A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.

He wrote at the time: This little Island, however it be named, is of considerable value. It is two English miles long, and three quarters of a mile broad, and consequently contains only nine hundred and sixty English acres. It is chiefly arable. Half of this little dominion the Laird retains in his own hand, and on the other half, live one hundred and sixty persons, who pay their rent by exported corn. What rent they pay, we were not told, and could not decently inquire. The proportion of the people to the land is such, as the most fertile countries do not commonly maintain.

Unfortunately for the island, its riches soon came to an end, when in 1828 the kelp market collapsed and 150 islanders were shipped off to Nova Scotia during the clearances in Scotland.

The island was then purchased by Captain Thomas Swinburne RN, who started a fishing industry, as well as renting land for sheep farming.

Purchased by the MacEwans in 1896. The family is still the principle owners.

Electricity in the island is provided by two wind-powered generators installed in 2000 and schoolchildren from the island were taught in a corrugated iron shed until 1992, when the Highland Council agreed to fund a new school.

Over 80 species of sea birds nest on Muck.


Until the 16th century, Eigg was called Eilean Nimban More - island of the powerful women.

The island was part of the Norse empire, but seized by the MacDonalds. Robert the Bruce granted official title to MacDonald of Clanranauld in 1309.

The winter of 1577 is known as one of the most brutal in the islands history, if stories are to be believed. A fight broke out between rivals the MacDonalds and MacLeods resulting in nearly 400 MacDonalds hiding out St Francis Cave.

The MacLeods, who were from the Isle of Skye, eventually tried to smoke them out using brushwood fire and every MacDonald is said to have suffocated and died. The cave is still known to locals as ‘Massacre Cave’.

Later in its history, the MacDonalds of Eigg supported the Catholic Jacobites in the 1745 rebellion.

The islanders sold Eigg to Dr Hugh MacPherson in 1829 and were victim to minor clearances.

Scottish writer Hugh Miller visited the island in the 1840s and wrote in his book The Cruise of the Betsey published in 1858, the islanders of Eigg as “an active, middle-sized race, with well-developed heads, acute intellects, and singularly warm feelings”.

He described seeing the bones of adults and children in family groups with the charred remains of their straw mattresses and small household objects still in Massacre Cave.

Sir Walter Scott was so disgusted to hear that skulls and bones of the dead were still stacked there, that he started a fund for a Christian burial, which resulted in their removal.

In 1975, Keith Schellenberg, a Yorkshire farmer and sportsman and his wife bought Eigg for £265,000. Following their divorce the islands was put up for sale and Shellenberg re-bought the land for just under £1million. He sold it on to a German artist in 1995.

It was purchased by the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust in 1997.

Eigg now generates virtually 100 per cent of its electricity using renewable energy and boasts around 130 species of bird annually. The island has breeding populations of various raptors including golden eagles, buzzards and long-eared owls.

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Rum is the largest of the Small Isles, and the 15th largest Scottish island.

Despite being inhabited by only about thirty or so people, Rum was one of the earliest places of human settlement in Scotland.

Rum passed from the Norwegian to the Scottish crown in 1266 and was attacked and plundered by Sir Lachlan MacLean and his mercenaries in 1588 and 1695 and became part of the Macleans of Coll in 1695. Throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, the islands was owned by many Scottish clans.

James Boswell and Samuel Johnson met with MacLean of Coll at Talisker on Skye during their 1773 excursion to the Hebrides. Boswell reported that:

After dinner he and I walked to the top of Prieshwell, a very high rocky hill, from whence there is a view of Barra, the Long Island, Bernera, the Loch of Dunvegan, part of Rùm, part of Rasay, and a vast deal of the Isle of Skye. Col, though he had come into Skye with an intention to be at Dunvegan, and pass a considerable time in the island, most politely resolved first to conduct us to Mull, and then to return to Skye. This was a very fortunate circumstance; for he planned an expedition for us of more variety than merely going to Mull. He proposed we should see the islands of Egg, Muck, Col, and Tyr-yi. In all these islands he could shew us every thing worth seeing.

In a dark period of the island’s history, the beginning of the 19th century saw extreme poverty and overcrowding on Rum, which resulted in over 300 islands being cleared and out and ‘persuaded’ to move to Canada and America between 1826 and 1828 - leaving only 50 islanders behind.

By 1831 the population had risen to 134 thanks to the introduction of sheep farming and in 1845 owner McLean sold the island to the Marquis of Salisbury.

For much of the 20th century the name became Rhum, a spelling invented by the former owner, Sir George Bullough, because he did not relish the idea of having the title “Laird of Rum

Its economy is now entirely dependent on Scottish Natural Heritage, a public body that manages the island.


Tiny Canna currently has a population of just 12 and is the most westernly of all the Small Isles. It is owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

The islands became part of the Kingdom of Scotland in 1266 under the Treaty of Perth and power was passed to the Macdonalds of Clanranauld. Like other Small Isles Canna was victim to the destruction by Sir Lachlan Maclean’s mercenaries in 1588.

In the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745 a Royal Navy vessel arrived and the crew demanded 20 cows from the islanders,

Canna was sold to Donald McNeil in 1827 and several clearances followed his death in 1848.

The post-clearance population is recorded as 57 in 1881.

Since 1981, the island has been run by the National Trust for Scotland. There is virtually no crime on Canna, but the island suffered its first robbery in more than 50 years in July 2015 when sweets and woollen hats were taken from the community shop and no money left in its honesty box.