Cara: the last island of the Lord of the Isles

It is a mile long stretch of land only inhabited by a herd of feral goats and, some believe, a supernatural sprite.
Isle of Cara. Pic: Wikicommons.Isle of Cara. Pic: Wikicommons.
Isle of Cara. Pic: Wikicommons.

But despite its solitariness, the island of Cara, off Kintyre, is a rich remnant of the powerful Lord of the Isles dynasty.

At one point, the kingly Clan Donald figures were the greatest landowners in Scotland after the Crown with their territory including the Hebrides and pockets of the west coast mainland.

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Now, Cara is believed to be the last island owned by direct descendants of the ancient rulers who independently governed from their Islay power base between the 12th and late 15th Century.

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Still owned by the MacDonalds of Largie, Cara has been uninhabited since the 1940s when its last resident left, the island no longer able to sustain itself.

The departure closed a chapter of hundreds of years of habitation.

During the late 1700s, a small community of 22 people lived on the island including 12 children, with three families calling it home.

The soil was said to be fertile, the vegetation quick and the air “salubrious”, according to the Old Statistical Account (1791 - 1799).

One crofter worked the land with three cottagers renting a small patch for potatoes. The crop was the main part of the diet along with fish and oatmeal and was served up to three times a day, according to the account.

The record, for the parish of Gigha and Cara, said: “The majority of them are of the names Galbreath and MacNeil.

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“The former are reckoned more ancient and said to have been a tall race of men.”

The ownership of Cara was hard fought during the 1600s as clan power struggles ensued.

Eight members of Clan Donald were reportedly hung in the grounds of Cara House - the islands’ only property - sometime around 1615.

The executions took place after Sir James MacDonald escaped from a Crown prison and set about seizing his lands back from his arch enemies, the Argyll Campbells.

MacDonald’s supporters set up base on Cara with hopes of first capturing Hector MacNeil of Taynish and Gigha.

MacNeil , however, sent a raiding party to Cara but the initial attack was thwarted after MacDonald servants on Kintyre sent a warning of the assault.

It wasn’t long before Cara was captured with tradition recording that a celebratory dinner was held in Cara House by the heads of the MacNeil and Campbell clans.

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Once dinner was over, eight MacDonalds were killed and later buried in the chapel, according to accounts.

Remains of the chapel - complete with a Gothic door - were recorded on Cara at the time the New Statistical Account (1834- 1845).

There has been some suggestion that monks used Cara as a place of retreat in the 1400s.

In 1669, Cara was handed back to the MacDonalds of Largie and passed by sassine from the Marquis of Argyll.

A brownie, a supernatural creature, is reported to inhabit the attic Cara House to protect against visiting Campbells, according to the MacDonald tradition, with the power to conjure storms to halt the enemy.

More broadly in Scottish folklore it attaches itself to a family and carries out duties around the house.

Today, visitors to the island, usually just curious kayakers and sailors, still pay great deference to the supernatural creature with guests advised to say “good evening Mr Brownie” on arrival on the islands shores.

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Failure to show due respect may result in kayaks inexplicably floating away, paddles being found in bushes and other unexplainable mishaps.

Visitors can also sit on Broonie’s Chair at the Mull of Cara, where some wishes are said to come true.