Scotland and Islandness

Explorations in Community, Economy and Culture

by Kathryn Burnett (Volume editor) Ray Burnett (Volume editor) Michael Danson (Volume editor)
Monographs XIV, 262 Pages

Table Of Content

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This edited collection represents some of the network and research focus of the Scottish Centre for Island Studies. As editors we are most grateful to each of our contributors for their enthusiasm, commitment and patience throughout 2020 in bringing the collection together. We would like to thank the editorial team at Peter Lang, including Philip Dunshea for originally believing in the value of the collection, but most especially Lucy Melville who has championed this island studies focus, and been encouraging and accommodating throughout. Thank you to colleagues involved in the preparation for publication, most especially Ashita and Sasireka. We are grateful for the most helpful and supportive feedback and endorsement of this collection from scholars in island studies, Scottish and rural cultural economies, history and heritage but most especially Godfrey Baldacchino, Máiréad Nic Craith and Valentina Bold. We would like to say a very special thank you to Alasdair MacEachen, Chair of the Islands Book Trust for providing us with his foreword, and his own support and contributing expertise to aspects of the Scottish Centre for Island Studies activities and events over the years. References, in Alasdair’s foreword, to the poetry of the South Uist (Peninerine) bard Donald John MacDonald have been included with the kind permission of Donald’s John’s daughter Margaret Campbell.

Lastly, this book is dedicated to Magdalena Sagarzazu.

Magdalena Sagarzazu, from the Basque Country, was a lifelong friend of the Campbells of Canna -John Lorne and Margaret Fay Shaw - supporting and championing their research work. She organised their papers into the Canna Archive for public access and earned the gratitude of countless visitors and scholars to the islands. Magda’s family have agreed to this dedication and we thank especially Nerea Bello and Joaquin Gironza for their support.

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In dedicating this book to Magda, we express our thanks and recognition of the often quietly unsung but critically important contribution and passions of those colleagues working and volunteering in archives, museums, local historical societies, and arts and cultural organisations across Scotland but most especially in its northern and western island communities. Their generosity of spirit, cultural and historical expertise and enduring community advocacy facilitates, emboldens and secures the future of Scotland’s island studies scholarship and provides a legacy of riches for all.

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These opening words are taken from the Gaelic song Eilean Beag a’ Chuain (Little Island in the Ocean) composed by the South Uist bard Donald John MacDonald (Dòmhnall Iain Dhonnachaidh) almost eighty years ago, while he was a Prisoner of War in Germany.

What image springs to mind when one hears mention of an island or islands? I think it is true to say that one pictures an area of land, probably a small area, surrounded by a greater vastness of sea or ocean. In the mind’s eye, add a bit of colour to depict the lush green grass and the expanse of yellow, sandy beaches.

I often find that bàrdachd is a good starting point when one is looking for words of wisdom regarding island life – and death, for that matter. The bards give sound advice and express opinions on a wide range of subjects to do with island life, in good times and bad, thus playing an important role in island life, particularly where the Gaelic culture is strongest and rich in the oral tradition of tales and poetry.

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As you read this collection of chapters, you will sample a number of topics, ranging from ‘islands in the mind’ as expressed by the island bard as he thought of his native island from where he was imprisoned in Germany, to the debates of the present day where terms such as resilience and sustainability are discussed alongside policies and legislation from Land Reform to ‘island proofing’ as described in the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, through to statutory protection, and cultural policy, around our island food, heritage and craft products.

The chapters which follow highlight many of the challenges and issues which require particular attention in order to address the diverse situations that exist across such a wide, or rather long, range of Scottish island communities which extend from the island of Arran in the south west to the island of Unst in the north. A little over ten per cent of the nine hundred or so Scottish offshore islands, which are mainly off the western and northern coast of Scotland, are occupied by approximately 100,000 islanders.

As just one person in that statistic, my own upbringing was somewhat similar to that described by James Oliver (Seumas Chatriona Dhòmhnaill Aonghais Bhig) in the final chapter of this collection. My home is in Aird on the island of Benbecula, and I grew up as James describes ‘in the north western corner of a north western island in the middle of an archipelago’. I can define my islandness in a similar way to that of the author, as being on the ground and in the mind.

In terms of on the ground, if I can borrow a few words from the reference to Martin Martin in the introductory chapter of this commentary on islandness and Scotland’s inhabited islands, I would describe myself as a native islander, Gael and a member of a longstanding Hebridean family, able to give ‘an inside view of the community’ in which I have lived and worked and where I belong. Living and working in the community for over four decades has, therefore, brought me into contact with most of the issues and challenges which are met while driving forward key policies for the socio-economic well-being of viable island communities.

Returning again to the beginning, and the words of the bard Donald John MacDonald, supports the sentiment of Rosie Alexander’s chapter on ‘Young People and Out Migration’, where she states that the ‘homing desire is strong on the islands’ and home is always in the mind, regardless of perceived challenges, peripherality or marginality. These may only be in the mind.

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Key issues such as land, place, community and language inform much of the collection’s explorations. On language, Andrew Jennings’ chapter examines Shetlandic dialect, for example. Hugh Cheape’s discussion of Gaelic perspectives on ‘Island Cultural Heritage’ underpins the continuing debate about the current use and the future of language as the vernacular in the remaining Gaelic communities, most notably the island communities of the Outer Hebrides. Similarly, alongside the conclusions on ‘Community Land Ownership’ in Calum MacLeod’s chapter, the Land Reform debate continues, with requests for a closer look at bringing public interest to the fore and to the heart of a future programme of land reform, which better addresses many of the issues raised in this range of chapters and which include the reversal of depopulation, the creation of job opportunities, the building of affordable homes and the tackling of climate change.

The debates will continue beyond the views that bring each of these chapters to a conclusion. Reference is made to the current pandemic situation and its impact across the world although, fortunately, impacting less on our more isolated island communities.

I am pleased to say that the bard did make it home having survived five years in a German Prisoner of War camp and, in another of his compositions Tighinn Dhachaigh (Coming Home), he described the first sighting of his beloved island home.

O chì mi bhuam far an d’ fhuair mi m’ àrach,

‘S mi ‘n seo air bòrd sa Lochmor air sàile;

O chì mi bhuam e thar gual’ a’ bhàta

‘S a cùrsa tuath gu tìr uain’ a’ chrà-gheòidh.

Oh, I see yonder the land of my youth,

From here on board the Lochmor at sea;

I see it yonder over the ship’s bow

As she steers north to the green isle of the shelduck.

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Having endured those five difficult years away from his island home, Donald John had no desire to leave the island again; and in 1986, his final wish was fulfilled when he was buried, among his own people, in the earth of his island home. The bard’s sentiment is common to this day amongst island people who either choose to leave or must leave their island home but who cannot rest until they return there.

‘S gum bi mi ‘g iarraidh ‘s ag ùrnaigh

Gum faigh mi ‘ chriochnachadh m’ ùin’ ann

‘S gum bi mi tiodhlaict’ an ùir mo luchd-eòlais.

It is my wish and my prayer

That I can end my days there

And be buried in the earth of my kin.

(Moladh Uibhist (In Praise of Uist) Donald John MacDonald)

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1.Scotland and Islandness: Explorations in Community, Economy and Culture

Over almost two millennia, Scotland’s western and northern isles have had complex and conflicting relationships both with the kingdom of Scotland and with the ensuing stateless nation that has its own issue with its neighbour on the ‘fractured island’ (Burnett 2013) that is the contested terrain of Britain. A feature of the global pursuit of ‘island studies’ in all diversity and unresolved complexities (Shima Editorial Board 2007; Baldacchino 2008, 2018; Grydehøj 2013a 2013b) is its inter-disciplinarity, something which this contribution from Scotland reflects and celebrates. In offering comment on current and past research activity on island matters this collection of chapters speaks to the wider range of Scottish island related themes, topics and issues evolving from research legacies that are rich, varied and buoyant, and from which there is much to yet discover and to celebrate more fully.

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This edited collection of chapters offers a collective commentary on the islands of Scotland, or to be more precise Scotland’s inhabited islands. Contributors variously invite exploration and reflection on examples of island history, community and culture, from the past and today. The collection offers some examination of key policies for the socio-economic wellbeing of viable communities and how a prescient context of strategies for sustainability in the local and global context of small island communities remains a source of debate, research, innovation and inspiration throughout Scotland’s island communities. With this in mind, we have encouraged contributors to include sources and references that support claims but to also point readers towards further reading and critiques that may be of interest. We also hope that this small collection may add some value to the review and realisation of strategic interventions of both policymakers and practitioners working on and for small island communities locally, regionally and globally.

The ‘emergence’ of Scotland’s islands?

History offers a key frame of reference for the understanding of Scotland’s islands, both long past and recent. Interestingly the very idea of what constitutes ‘history’ in the context of researching and debating islands in social, cultural and economic contexts is worthy of further focus. As James Hunter (2007: 10) has written, speaking of the challenges of how marginality and peripherality have been attributed to the overall region of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, it is both a historical yet reversible condition:

What has marginalised the Highlands and Islands is not their location, but rather the way the world began to be organised in post-medieval times – when power, decision-making and, most of all, people were drained away from here and concentrated elsewhere. Today, thankfully, this process is reversible. In a way that has not been possible since the industrial revolution, new communications and other technologies enable us to envisage a more dispersed pattern both of economic activity and of settlement – a pattern reminiscent, incidentally, of the one familiar to Iona’s monks. (2007: 10)

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And as Hunter notes it was originally to Shetland that Scotland looked to see the opportunities for a new vision of development and confidence for the whole highlands and islands region. Individuals such as Robert (Bob) Storey of Zetland County Council1 were pivotal, speaking particularly to the concern of an ‘erosion’ of Shetland cultural heritage and ‘way of life’. Storey, with others drawn from across island and highland communities, and with academic and political champions, would lead the vanguard in Shetland on the underpinning of socio-economic development with a vision that would place a sense of culture and place identity at the heart of the region’s development strategy. In 1965 the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) was established, the precursory regional development body to the current Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and became a policy scaffold for the socio-economic revitalisation of the region.2 Decades later HIE would be ‘moved’ to reassert and revisit some of the underpinning ambitions of the area’s socio-cultural development with questions being asked over just how ‘culture’ and the integrity of local place histories and cultures were being sustained and developed: a reinvigorated (re-visioned) policy ensued (c.f. Brennan et al. 2016).3 Today, unquestionably, cultural enterprise, and the role of cultural capital in informing other sectoral development (via education, media, arts and advocacy), is a central flagship of the wider region’s success but ‘long views’ and depth afforded by discipline dissection and critique are crucial (c.f. Abrams (2005) on the gendered history of the material economies of Shetland, for example).

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The active countering of what has been long documented (and debated) the ‘Highland Problem’ (see Condry 1976; but more especially, Burnett 2011; Perchard and Mackenzie 2013; McCullough 2018), by policies and ambitions seeking development ‘solutions’ – arresting depopulation and ‘social decline’ – has fostered a steady and innovative expansion of highland and island enterprise, innovation, community activism and resolve. Today the highlands and islands exist, operate and compete as an invigorated, confident and empowered region. Challenges do remain, however: social inequalities, connectivity issues, ‘isolation’, fragility of demographics, higher costs of living, for example, continue to impact everyday life on islands. Furthermore, expectations of what constitutes ‘a good quality of life’ shift, and new or alternative visions of social, cultural, economic and environmental priorities, compete within and beyond highland and island contexts more broadly. Research, debate and critical review from ‘all quarters’ remain key to documenting and resolving ongoing challenges in this regard (see Grydehøj (2011) on Shetland or Ford (2019) on Orkney’s ‘ecologies’ and ‘entanglements’, for example). Agents and actors such as the education sector, not least the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), (the region’s multi-campus university), development agencies, local authorities, consultancies, think tanks and pressure groups, media and journalistic expertise, as well as the myriad of island (and highland)-related social, economic and cultural organisations, groups and individuals each offer expertise, share opinion, provoke and challenge through debate. There are advocates of island and highland cause – politicians at all levels – but also, as it was in the past, celebrities who amplify the ideas and issues of places, people and practices to wider audiences to mostly good effect although such celebrification can bring a reification of island particularities that is (not always) helpful.

Remoteness and peripherality: A good place for debate?

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We are ‘not remote’ here? What constitutes islands as peripheral or not remains a complex and contested terrain (Baldacchino 2005). The concept and framing of Scotland’s islands as beyond, at the edge or indeed marginal remains meaningful to use within academic critique not least to challenge the premises upon which both factual or more fictionalised narratives of Scotland’s islands and narratives of what might be termed ‘islandness’ are configured (c.f. Davis 2016; Reeploeg 2017b). One only has to peruse the ‘new book’ and bestsellers list, Sunday broadsheet property pages, ‘adventure’ tourism promotion, or the happy blogging of ‘outward bounders’, to realise that Scotland’s offshore islands remain culturally and powerfully configured from outwith as ‘remote’. VisitScotland promotes Scotland currently with ‘9 “must read” books about Scotland’ that includes no less than six that directly reference highland and especially island places, island going and island product.4 For those who work within the commodified economy of selling island place (product) experiences both off and on islands, remoteness is both real and imagined: articulated to position the experience of islandness as distinctive and different. The lure of the island ‘sell’ is well known, and it presents considerable economic leverage via tourism, via food and drink but also the arts, literature and film. In short, ‘remoteness’ as exotification persists but it also lends itself to creative responses that redefine, challenge and critique what is ‘known’ or assumed in the name of Scotland’s island places and people.

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Remoteness operates locally as an everyday signifier for island residents themselves, however. Island residents occasionally will position their lived experience as one of difference and a degree of distance to ‘the mainland’. Skye with its bridge is one celebrated example where for many decades the island was served (arguably quite successfully in contrast to other island experience) by two regular ferry routes from ‘the mainland’ and in this day to day sense Skye might not be considered ‘remote’. Yet, when overly pressured by tourism, or by second-home ownership demand, or by ferry and (notoriously) the initial (excessive) bridge crossing (toll) costs, an island’s sense of remoteness may be complexly configured as a code of pilgrimage and attraction for some and one of frustration, ‘defence’, and anger for others. Impacts of change, as well as of not enough change, are tracked and traced deeply throughout island community accounts and memories of development, confidence and success. Remoteness culturally and socially is, by virtue of its lived realities and perception, an embodied and emotional frame of experience (Boon et al. 2018). Everyday island experience is to live regularly with the mundane particularity of relationships, home, work, school, health, leisure, transport, politics and culture, in the island environment and so, of course, (it needs to be said) weather. Repeated weather constraints on transport, travel (including the roads and rail, as well as air and sea routes) and supplies, for example, is to know and live ‘remoteness’.5 Again, remoteness may not be best argued as a literal geography but rather a policy and agency one informed by the consciousness of the various positions of island residents to counter and combat feelings of isolation, distance, being ‘peripheral’ or marginal’ to things, or not (as the 2020 Covid (media) narratives pertaining to the islands have illuminated).

By 2020, more presciently within the theorising language of the ‘archipelagic’ (Stratford et al. 2011; Pugh 2013), what is of ‘everyday’ contention is where island residents are aware of and frustrated by (i.e. what often matters) the differing layers and modes of connectivity with other islands. Centralising governance and issues of misrepresentation, feelings of ‘remoteness’, ‘far away’ and ‘not being listened to’ occur regularly within islands as well as more broadly in reference to the ‘central’ powers of Westminster or indeed ‘devolved powers’ that reside in Edinburgh. Here we allude to the spatial slipperiness of (inter/intra) relationships where Inverness, Lochgilphead, Tobermory, Portree, Oban, Stornoway, Kirkwall and Lerwick, for example, are each in their own way ‘remote’ to other ‘further’ communities. Across Scotland her islands connections continue and are celebrated and embellished but these relations are also sometimes neglected, ‘forgotten’ or disowned. Each of Scotland’s islands has a myriad of relations with other regions (not least historical continuities within the North Atlantic). In this, we draw on Pugh (2013) and his valuable critique:

The key thrust of this ontology is therefore island movements; not a simple gathering of islands, but an emphasis upon how islands act in concert; or, as Deleuze and Guattari (1986) would say, through constellations; so that the framing of an island archipelago draws attention to fluid cultural processes, sites of abstract and material relations of movement and rest, dependent upon changing conditions of articulation or connection. (2013: 11)

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As Pugh (2013: 12) points out, following Stratford et al (2011) it is the tropes of the archipelago – ‘assemblages, networks, filaments, connective tissues, mobilities, and multiplicities’ – that offer a theorising framework for further investigation and reflection. In building on – and beyond – island studies we can appreciate what has been termed ‘archipelagic relations’ and a focus to better explore, understand and document the seeking out of ‘disjuncture, connection and entanglement between and among islands’ (Stratford et al. 2011: 124). In a Scottish context, then, we return again to James Hunter (2007) and the connectivity that history affords, namely that the Highlands and Islands past ‘cannot be understood in isolation’ and research and scholarship of the wider region can and should

utilise linkages between this area and others: taking advantage of the way our history overlaps with that of Ireland; stressing the extent to which the medieval Earldom of Orkney, indeed the Viking period generally, connects the Highlands and Islands with Scandinavia and with the broader North Atlantic rim; capitalising on the fact that our countless emigrants provide entries into histories other than our own. (Hunter 2007: 11)

The economic and policy context of current and future island ‘ways of life’ and viability are inextricably meshed with deep historical legacies of ownership, governance, trade links, migration, cultural expression, social cohesion via the institutions of connection as well as distinction. Conceiving of the islands of Scotland requires and evokes a sense of place – space, history, society and geography – and its representation. The visuality, mapping and narration of islands is powerful. Scotland has its own complex history in this regard: it is to this we turn to now.

Ways of seeing: A visuality, mapping and narration of Scotland’s islands

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The islands of Scotland vary in size, resource, environment and imagining; it is also fair to say that in this varied landscape of representation some islands arguably figure more prominently than others in broader public consciousness, and for differing reasons (e.g. Iona, Skye, Islay, St Kilda or Fair Isle).6 The role of culture in placing islands into a wider consciousness and indeed keeping them there is an ongoing (essential) project that shows little sign of abating. The ‘project’ has deep historical roots with a myriad of accounts (although much is lost) documenting and asserting island cultures, communities and environments, within Scotland as well as beyond.

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Taking a long view of history from observations based on several years of archaeological and historical enquiry across Scotland and its islands, Ewan Campbell (2019) has recently argued strongly against the persistence of an old academic orthodoxy that Scotland is as peripheral in its historical importance as it is in its geographical location. In this regard Campbell (2019: 17) argues that ‘to ignore or sideline Scotland runs the danger not just of bad scholarship, but also of missing important questions which are raised by comparing the achievements of a liminal society with those of an economic core’. A long view of history remains useful to reiterate the way of seeing Scotland’s islands not least in terms of cultural expression. The historical context Campbell refers to was Scotland in early medieval Europe, a setting in which Campbell surveyed the range of intellectual and artistic achievements across Scotland. With a particular focus on the island monastic communities of the seventh century, Campbell maintained that such was the imaginative and innovative depth and quality of the cultural output of the era, it could justifiably be termed the age of ‘the First Scottish Enlightenment’. Firmly rejecting the notion of Scotland’s peripherality Campbell (2019: 14–15) asserted that, not least in its largely island-based scholarship and artistry, Scotland was innovative precisely because it was in a liminal, non-mainstream situation. As a counter to the external tendency to dismiss or ignore Scotland, and its significance, Campbell framed his response as an advocacy of what he termed: ‘A view from the periphery, rather than a view of the periphery (2019: 1). Applying such a perspective to the multi-disciplinarity of island studies, is an approach which this collection seeks to implement and which it would warmly endorse.

It is not until the mid-seventeenth century that the first comprehensive accounts of all Scotland’s island communities appear together in an all-Scotland context. In 1654 Dutchman Johannes Blaeu publishes his Atlas of Scotland, volume V of his major Atlas novus project: included within are some 250 islands, from the Isle of Man to North Rona and Sule Skerry. Bleau’s Atlas is unrivalled in its detail. In addition to maps of Arran and Bute and the islands of the Firth of Clyde, it included no less than ten maps covering the whole of the Hebrides (Islay, Jura, Mull, the Small Isles, Skye, the Uists and Barra, Lewis and Harris). A further plate contained a map each of Orkney and Shetland. As noted in the background essays to the National Library of Scotland’s digitised Blaeu collection, these island maps and their accompanying texts are remarkable not only for the detailed naming of individual islands but also for the wealth of local knowledge they contain. Provided as accompanying text to the maps and produced by several contributors, each map includes a chorographic representation (‘regional description’) that contains ‘in one way or another, the essential features of the form: an interest in genealogy; the etymology of place names; summaries of the local economy; remarks upon natural features; qualitative judgements upon the airs and waters of places; poetic accounts and so on’.7

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The sense of drawing on in situ observed, ‘local’ knowledge and expertise was essential here. To the north, a range of sources were drawn on for the Northern Isles; the text accompanying the maps of Orkney and Shetland being augmented by more vivid and detailed models of chorography provided by an anonymous native of Orkney, for example (Bleau NLS). For the Hebrides, the primary source of regional description is George Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582), material which in turn derived from an earlier unpublished manuscript, Description of the Occidental i.e. Western Isles of Scotland, compiled by Donald Monro in 1549 (Martin and Monro 1999). Monro, a churchman, was the first writer to give a comprehensive description of the Western Isles known to have been based on personal observation. Furthermore, in their successful collaboration with Blaeu and Europe, the Scottish enthusiasts behind the project achieved both their intellectual and political purpose, namely that Scotland’s profile and identity as an ancient European country was asserted.

Only a few decades later, a similar intellectual and political impetus led Martin Martin (a native of Skye) to publish his own accounts of the distinctive history, natural attributes and customs of his own particular part of Scotland, the Gaelic-speaking islands of the Hebrides. He did so in two indispensable first-hand accounts of his travels: A Late Voyage to St Kilda in 1698 and A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland ca. 1695 in 1703 (Martin and Monro 1999). Martin’s works are significant, not just because as early traveller’s tales each is an absorbing read but because of the nature of their authorship and the timing of their publication. As a native islander, Gael and a member of a longstanding Hebridean family, Martin was able to give an inside view of the community in which he lived and to whom he belonged. At the same time, he also wrote from the perspective of a natural scientist and antiquarian, someone with the same wider connections to the intellectual world of Edinburgh and beyond that had sustained the Blaeu mapping of Scotland project. Crucially, Martin made his tours and recorded his observations on the eve of a phase in their history when the Western Isles would be socially and culturally transformed (consumed) by external and eclipsing forces. In documenting the islands at this time, it fell to Martin Martin to portray (a way of seeing) island society, particularly the practices, beliefs and customs of the ordinary people, to borrow a founding phrase of island studies: ‘On their own terms’ (McCall 1994).

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From the opening moment of the incorporating Union in 1707 through the ‘45 Jacobite Rising and its post-Culloden aftermath, to the profound intellectual and social engagement with Enlightenment ideas and Improvement practices in its final decades, the eighteenth century was a pivotal era for Scotland’s islands. The way in which wider moments, ideas and practices impacted varied across the Northern and Western Isles, including the imperial fashioning of the ‘old north’ of ‘North Britain’ (c.f. Andersson Burnett and Newby 2008; Reeploeg 2017a, e.g.). It was events and outcomes in the Hebrides, however, that had a particularly enduring significance, most especially in respect of Gaelic culture and society. From Skye, Martin Martin had given the wider world an idealised portrait of Gaelic society. Some sixty years later, James MacPherson, a central Highland Gael8 presented a similar portrait, not through description of the present but through the poetic voice of the bards of the ancient Gaelic social order from which the Highland society of the eighteenth century traced its descent.

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Scotland’s Gaelic culture included a rich oral tradition of tales and poetry9 relating the exploits of the legendary figures of an earlier heroic age whose presence was also inscribed and remembered on an appropriately ‘wild’ and emotive landscape of misty mountains and distant islands. MacPherson’s talent lay in presenting, or rather re-presenting the complex legacy of the Gaelic tradition through his own ‘translations’, claiming them to be the Homeric voice of Ossian, an old blind bard of the third century whose epic poems recalled the historical presence and passions of the Golden Age of Scotland’s early Gaels. MacPherson’s ‘translations’ also depicted the highland and islands landscape in verse, evocatively appealing to the fashionable literary tastes of Edinburgh, London and beyond. MacPherson’s Ossianic works were a huge success. They aroused feelings of national pride in Scotland, circulated widely across Europe and rankled not a few in England for their perceived challenge to the ‘natural order’ of an English cultural superiority. Later, and controversially, MacPherson was accused of forgery, his work acrimoniously dismissed as hoax. Subsequent scholarship has been less dismissive, recognising his work not as literal translations but as ‘creative interpretation’ where MacPherson’s own literary compositions sought to meet the tastes of his age and are best seen as neither Gaelic nor English works but rather an attempt to mediate between the two (Stafford 1988).

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Across Britain and Europe, the 1770s were a new age of exploration with ‘voyages of discovery’ already taking place to lands and peoples as distant as the Pacific and the Arctic. When the Ossianic controversy put the spotlight so firmly on Scotland’s Gaelic heartlands as the surviving living relic of an ancient society, a thirst for ‘discovery’ of the Hebrides through exploration and travel by curious observers from afar was unleashed. The earliest and most significant of these ‘tours’ was when Samuel Johnson, London’s leading man of letters, and his Scottish companion James Boswell, lawyer and author, made an extensive tour of several of the Western Isles in 1773 (Black 2011).10 In the impactful wake of MacPherson’s Ossian, both Johnson’s and Boswell’s accounts marked what became an accumulating library of narratives of voyages to the Hebrides by a steady stream of visitors (Cooper 1979; Bray 2001). Though few had the enquiring minds, perceptive observations or literary capabilities to match those of their predecessors what did emerge in the years that followed was the delineation of Scotland’s Hebrides as a distinct sub-set of the wider representational polity and an increasingly commodified entity of the Highlands; that is, as a distinctly island cultural landscape of place, practices and communities in its own right.

The Ossianic, romantic optic was not the only prism through which Scotland’s islands were viewed in the late eighteenth century (Womack 1989), however. Alongside ‘Romance’ there was ‘Improvement’ and the voyaging visitor literature also included the observations and proposals of those who saw a promising economic future for the islands in diverse schemes for ‘improved’ land use, fisheries, planned villages and industry. The subsequent shift in land use, leading to removal and out-migration, sheep farms and deer forests, also generated its own strand of visitor accounts, a prolonged debate in newspaper columns and pamphlets over destitution, congestion, and the future viability of island communities. Boswell and Johnson’s visit took place at a time when the Hebrides were undergoing a phase of voluntary mass migration, one that brought the experience of island exile to the fore in island culture and memory. Over the later nineteenth century this experience of exile and loss intensified as the Hebrides were afflicted by successive periods of removal and forced migrations when whole communities and sometimes whole islands were cleared of their population. Given this traumatic dislocation of people across almost the entirety of the Highlands, it is interesting to note that it was island poets, such as William Livingstone of Islay, whose verse most evocatively expressed the searing sense of loss, just as it was Mary MacPherson of Skye who emerged as the ‘voice’ of crofter resistance (MacLean 1985).

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To the north, while involved in both the Jacobite politics of 1745 and the social and economic promotion of ‘improved’ agricultural practices, fisheries and commerce of subsequent centuries, the Northern Isles did not attract anything like the level of attention given to the Hebrides. The Hebrides and Gaelic language and culture had become synonymous with reflecting broader representations and understandings of Scotland’s ‘island’ people and culture. This changed significantly in the nineteenth century with the ascription of a Norse identity to the people of the Northern Isles, as the living descendants of the Viking warriors of the Old Norse sagas (Smith 1988; Hall 2010). Once again literature and cultural ascription played a key role. In 1822 Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate, set in Shetland, raised an initial public awareness of this aspect of island history. An array of influential scholars followed, notably the Orcadian, Samuel Laing, vigorously advocating that the Orkney and Shetland islanders were essentially Norse /Teutonic as opposed to Scots /Celtic. In the context of early Victorian discourse around English superiority, this manufactured Nordic identity was promoted as a key contributory strand in the belief in Teutonic supremacy that underpinned the Anglo British imperial project.

From the 1880s and through the early part of the twentieth century, as the promotion of a Celtic and Gaelic profile of national identity emerged in Scottish politics and culture (Gifford and Riach 2004), a ‘Norse – Celtic’ debate developed with some unattractive racial undertones (D’Arcy 1996). Ironically, it polarised the Gaelic Hebrides against the Nordic Northern Isles at the very time that the idea of a joint archipelagic arc of creative practice and shared attributes was being mooted, based not least on the disproportionately high incidence of writers, artists and musicians resident in Scotland’s disparate island communities at that time (MacDiarmid 1939). Brannigan (2015: 147) reinforces the early twentieth-century connective, relational and material relations between islands (and nations) as important, detailing a ‘flurry of archipelagic literature’ characterised by ‘the circulation of people and ideas between islands, and is certainly marked by the perception that the islands on the western edge, be they the Blaskets, the Arans, or the Hebrides, represent peripheral extremes of mainland society’.

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It was against this now established backdrop of ‘far western edge’ that the cultural phenomenon of the ‘Celtic Twilight’ emerged; an aspect of a wider Celtic Renaissance movement (initiating in Ireland), and broadly mapped to the 1890s–1930s. Allied to a re-claiming of ‘pre-modern’ values and practices, the ‘Celtic Twilight led to a particular surge of interest in the Hebrides. Welded to ‘romantic’ expressions and re-imaginings of both Irish and Scottish Gaelic culture and by association with the mythological otherworld of joy and eternal youth of early Gaelic tradition the Celtic Twilight framed a particularly powerful (yet problematic) re-mediation of the Hebrides as ‘Celtic otherworld’ (Burnett and Burnett 2011). One example of how the ‘remote corners’ of the Hebrides was placed on a global stage was through singer and composer Marjory Kennedy-Fraser and the songs she collected on visits to the outer isles, particularly Eriskay and which she ‘translated’ for an urban bourgeois audience. Coupled with Kennedy-Fraser’s compatriot Rev Kenneth Macleod (of Eigg), famous for his own penned collection The Road to the Isles: Poetry, Lore, and Tradition of the Hebrides (1927), such examples are emblematic of a modern cultural industry of the ‘imagining’ of the remote and rural communities of Scotland’s islands (Blaikie 2010) and presents another layer in the cultural history that shaped the dominant vision of the Hebrides well into the twentieth century. Islanders themselves lived the remote modernity of things a little differently, perhaps. Ironically, while persistent motifs of Hebridean cultural alterity, that is as places and people ‘at distance’ and journeyed to via the literal and cultural ‘Road to the Isles’, were being presented as a retreat from advancing modernity, the island communities themselves were embracing the improvements to communications, croft work and domestic life that modernity offered with alacrity.

Islands as structural and sustainable: Agencies and ambitions

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Through the prism of cultural and creative practices and the signifying processes – of arts and of media, for example – the islands of Scotland each offer deep-rooted, embodied and embellished histories which are nevertheless also representative of future trends, nuanced responses, varying ambitions and complex responsibilities. Scotland’s islands are notable for the collective community efforts and energies to identify, protect and care for local histories, and tangible and intangible cultural heritage, and who is best placed to do it. Sustaining the islands’ rich cultural histories has not been without challenge. The cultural services sector remains precarious, subject to budgetary constraints, and much of the community arts and cultural activism energies are contingent on the continued support and engagement of wider community support and volunteerism. Arts and cultural activities, so many of which form the intrinsic backdrop to ‘island history and culture’, are integral to sustaining people and place in place yet the success and future capacity of island cultural heritage in still ‘small’ and often dispersed communities can suffer from a degree of over-burdening on a few, coupled with the strain and expectation of sustained ‘development planning’.

Rural (island and highland) communities in Scotland and elsewhere on the often imagined ‘Celtic fringe’ (c.f. Clancy 2015; Brennan et al. 2016) are still frequently framed as an ‘ancient’ and ‘artisan’ realm, and are well documented as sites of counter-urbanisation with its associated ‘local’ socio-cultural tensions and rural enterprise development politics. There is nonetheless a re-energised focus on the ‘natural’ resource futures that underpin social and private enterprise within remote areas such as the hills, coast and marine environments. The interface between the arts and island environments is an expressive and energised terrain in this regard. Poetry, literature, visual arts, music, performance and more are each variously meaningful, powerful and political frames of reference for all on and off islands.11 Furthermore, the connectivity of island spaces to the local/global nexus is brought into sharp relief in regard of the quickening realities and impactful narratives of climate change (Baldacchino and Kelman 2014; Grydehøj and Kelman 2017) and the critical appraisal offered by scholars, such as Chandler and Pugh (2020) on the ‘shifting stakes’ of sustainability and resilience in regard of the Anthropocene and climate change, are crucial.12

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So too are debates on ‘the commons’, a claim of rights and the relationality of identity and culture. Land – its use, ownership and representation – more generally remains a passionately debated topic in Scotland, not least as it informs narratives more broadly of Scotland’s rural assets as resource, as sites for development and for identity claims and validation. It has been a relatively short period of time in which the discoursing of Scotland highlands and islands, and rural and remote regions generally, have noticeably shifted from an overwhelming framing of people and practices (culture work, economic development, social enterprise and environmental interface) heavily defined by the past to what is now unequivocally a wider narrative shift to championing that which is mapped to the future.13 The diverse significance or acknowledgement of islandness in relation to the governance and public administration of Scotland’s island communities over the centuries aptly reflects the complexities and indeed the contradictions of the situation. This is particularly noticeable in the broader comparison between the Northern and the Western Isles and the paradoxical position of the majority of island communities within the ‘Western Isles’ or Hebrides, themselves. From medieval times through to the late nineteenth century, the combined entity of ‘Orkney and Zetland’ were a distinct island jurisdiction. In contrast, with one exception, all of the Hebrides were incorporated in the sheriffdoms or shires of Argyllshire, Inverness-shire and Ross-shire, respectively. In the west, only the Isle of Bute as Bute-shire (including the Cumbraes and Arran) was a separate and distinct island jurisdiction. In 1889 with the formation of County Councils, Bute remained the only distinct island council on the west but in the north Orkney and Zetland were separated into two distinct island county councils. All the other Hebrides remained part of Argyll CC, Inverness CC and Ross and Cromarty CC, that is effectively under a mainland locus of governance (Grimble 1968; Magnusson 1968). In 1975 a major restructuring of local government abolished county councils replacing them with regional and district councils each with a different level of functions. Orkney, Shetland ←17 | 18→ and the Comhairle nan Eilean (the Western Isles Islands Council) were each established as multi-purpose island authorities. All other Argyll islands, the islands of Skye and Raasay, and the Small Isles, each remained within their respective mainland authorities at regional and district level. Although larger more ‘unitary’ authorities were restored in 1994, there was no change in the position of the islands. Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles remain the only discrete island authorities and the majority of Scotland’s inhabited islands actually lie within the combined administrative structure of their respective mainland/island or island/mainland authorities. Recent developments in island governance are now more fully asserted (although perhaps less clearly impacted) in the form of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018.14 There is also the issue of ‘Europe’, Brexit and tensions around what constitutes ‘independence’ more broadly within these islands. Currently there is a resurfacing of the Northern Isles ‘independence’ narrative where geopolitics (as well as geopoetics) – political and cultural identity narratives and resource competition critiques – variously frame who ‘owns’, ‘speaks for’, or lays claim to boundaries.15

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The islands of Scotland vary in terms of both their actual and perceived isolation and distance from each other, and from the Scottish mainland, as well as Edinburgh, London or Bergen. Each island, certainly as they remain populated today, maps to a particular history of development and social policy. Notably Shetland’s relatively recent ‘living memory’ economic ‘turn of fortune’ regarding the discovery and subsequent development of oil in the early 1970s makes it distinctive from other island groups of both its ‘nearest neighbour’ Orkney and the Inner and Outer Hebrides. In an attempt to counter the ‘disruptive effects of rapid industrialization’ (Hill et al. 1998: 16) brought about by the potential of an ‘oil boom’, the Shetland communities and the local authority sought to safeguard Shetland’s ‘distinctive way of life’. Furthermore, it was contested that the oil industry potentially risked negatively impacting on the increasing prosperity and sustainability of growing island economics in fishing and tourism that had both been substantially supported and enhanced through the HIDB and other rural regeneration policy. The longer-view narratives of Scotland’s twentieth-century island communities as struggling to contend with modernisation pressures were key to how future policy and representational practice developed (as already discussed). Island communities variously sought to both counter the ideas of ‘peripheral’ and marginal whilst contending with the reality of geographic and socio-economic contexts that nevertheless embodied a lived experience of peripherality, inequities and dis-proportionate living costs.

Scotland’s islands have arguably undergone a marked acceleration of social transformation in the last decades of the twentieth century that are now consolidated as small island sustainability and successes, fuelled not least by significant underpinning of ‘local’ educational provision, where previously generations of children had to leave home and board to undertake required (and optional ‘stay-on’) schooling and training, improved digital connectivity, sustained transport provision albeit not without continual weather and other disruptive challenges, but also significant enhanced variation in employment opportunities and enterprise support. Such transition emerging from ‘late modernity’ as experienced in rural and remote Scotland is widespread yet variable and it nevertheless has offered an opportunity for both celebration and a countering of the processes and outcomes of change. As Duxbury and Campbell (2011: 112) have noted for rural and remote Canada, in ‘the midst of transition, many communities are recognizing that the ways the community understands itself, celebrates itself, and expresses itself are major contributing factors to its ability to withstand economic, political, and cultural winds of change and transition’.

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As with coastal communities worldwide, fishing and marine activity continues as key sectors for Scotland’s offshore island communities. Today inshore and offshore marine activity and related processes and production is a high-tech expanding portfolio of businesses and enterprise supported by key interface with research and development policy. In the Inner Hebrides, and on a hyper-local scale but no less impactful, Tiree recently reappraised its ‘Marine Resource’ and set out future plans that build on the local economy of fishing, with an expansion of related food processing and production, but also the sea and marine environment more broadly as a valuable and attractive leisure resource further enhancing Tiree’s reputation as an Atlantic water-sports destination. Islands, and Scotland is no small exception, must balance the demands of both production and consumption. The economies of small islands are often skewed to singular dominating industries and sectors, subjecting island economies, to a degree of boom/bust risk. In Scotland debates continue in terms of how economic development has impacted on island history and culture and vice-versa.16 Communities have long sought to counter aspects of actual and symbolic impoverishment and exploitation (exemplified by debates and reactions to indigenous and minority language rights, crofting sustainability, resource ‘extraction’ such as the ‘super-quarry’ proposal on Harris or oil development in Shetland, fishing and fish farming across the islands and Scotland’s north and west coastal communities, the protection of ecologies, and tourism).17 The region offers a rich and complex field of scholarship in this regard. What, where and who constitutes ‘remote’ or ‘too-close’, what has been classed as ‘margin’, or ‘periphery’ and further from things became interestingly rearticulated during the Spring months of 2020 as the pandemic lockdown became established and debates formulated on accessing places, in what number and on whose terms. ‘Remoteness’, as nearness or distance then, is very much back in the spotlight.

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The structure of the book

In addition to this introductory chapter, this collection of chapters offers a range of accounts, research and policy positions responding to and informing of Scotland’s island communities, social histories and cultural representation. The evolution and transformation of Scotland’s small island communities and its wider nexus is a rich and rewarding field of productive inquiry worthy of continued and expanding research, focus and debate that is deeply informing of Scottish cultural representation more broadly (see Brown et al. 2007). Scotland’s islands are championed and celebrated through arts, culture and media yet they continue in many regards as remote and fragile economies. The policies of centralised (urban) government so often applied without recognition of the different requirements and challenges faced in the rural, never mind the particularities of islands, was addressed more fully by the Scottish Government’s establishment of an Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. This collection offers a current review of these challenges and may help inform the strategic interventions of both policymakers and practitioners. The collection seeks to contextualise islandness for a range of readers drawing on the fields of history, social science, economy and the arts. The singular focus on Scotland is intended to offer readers a frame of reference by which key trends and debates pertaining to Scotland’s small island communities and spaces can be explored and critiqued more widely.

←21 | 22→

Drawing on social history and related scholarship, Ray Burnett’s chapter positions a longer view on ideas of how Scotland’s islandness has been configured. Scotland’s islands’ history is a complex layered palimpsest where early ideas of Scotland’s islands, and the identities and representations of ‘islandness’, circulated across Europe, and were variously configured within Scotland. The material and physical traces of people in place as expressive of their cultural and social condition is examined and offers a pivoting view to wider research legacies exploring key cultural and social expression. The next three chapters further expand on the cultural complexities of Scotland’s islands. Hugh Cheape provides a ‘deep dive’ expert insight to the material culture of Hebridean island life and a regional ethnological view with a particular focus on the rich store that is Gaelic material culture. This chapter poses questions as to the future of shared knowledge, identities and how memory of a Hebridean community and its conversation (seanchas) is integral to its ‘cosmos’ and local word-view. Language and literary heritage pertaining to islands is a well-travelled expert researched field that island studies scholars have sought to enhance and exchange more widely. Turning to a different northern cultural focus, Andrew Jennings offers an ‘ethnographic’ consideration of Shetland’s language and heritage to this end. Jennings adds wonderful illustrative weight to the research field on the nuanced distinctiveness of Shetlandic dialect and identity via notable legacies of Vikings and Victorians, and everyday Shetlandic onomastics. By way of further linking ideas of island cultural history, identity and heritage, Kathryn Burnett and Lynda Harling Stalker’s chapter examines how arts, craft, creative industries, and cultural work more generally, play a signature role in framing ideas of island places. Commentaries that celebrate and frame small islands as ‘special places’ to live and work are inter-twined with the powerful positioning of island production and consumption as an ‘enchanted’ space that should remain subject to scrutiny.

←22 |

As this introduction chapter has noted, in recent decades policy, research and planning with and from within island communities has become a central focus of Scotland’s broader ‘island-proofing’ agenda. Mike Danson speaks to these histories of peripherality and ‘margin’ in the broader macro-context of northern Europe regional economies and Scotland’s situated position to ‘Nordic’ and ‘Atlantic’ neighbours. Sharing good practice and the local particularities of small island economies and social contingencies has underpinned significant shifts in policy focus on aspects of remoteness, ‘margin’ and peripherality as well as the fragility of island and remote rural economies and social demographics. Danson’s chapter highlights these key shifts in policy and critique, and contributors throughout this volume further exemplify these ambitions in practice. Successful policy reframing within Scotland to better empower communities, and by this ensure a greater demographic sustainability, remains an arena of critical debate and research focus. In focusing on a perennial rural social concern, Rosie Alexander draws on some of the extensive research on this in Scotland to position current understandings of the shifting nature of island demographics and, in particular, the experience of young people.

As with regions elsewhere18, just what do Scottish islands’ futures hold, is a fascinating environmental, socio-cultural and geo-political stage set to further interest and engage scholars across disciplines. Ownership and access to rural resources is a central pillar of how Scotland’s island communities can and will underpin ‘futures’ and sustainable policy and practice. One of the most contested contexts of how Scotland’s islands, and ‘remote rural’ communities more generally, have countered longer economic pressures and political disenfranchisement has been in the name of land ownership and its reform. Calum MacLeod invites consideration on some of this long condition with specific reference to the case study of West Harris but the chapter speaks to the broader context of Scotland’s land reform and community ownership opportunities and challenges. Policy and practice have sought to respond to the similarities and its differences within island communities, to varying degrees of success. The complex and competing nature of socio-economic sectors within any resource space is noted here, as is the potential for growth and development synergies mindful of island particularities. The chapter by Mike Danson and Kathryn Burnett on island enterprise examines such synergies in more depth in regard of Scotland’s small island enterprise contexts where history and culture are deeply inscribed on the narratives of entrepreneurial conditions, confidences and complexities.

←23 | 24→

Wider contexts of policy have been significantly ramped up in recent years with the Scottish Government’s Islands (Scotland) Act (2018) and the wider policy focus on ‘island proofing’ and future proofing of all sectoral policy and ambitions. Francesco Sindico and Nicola Black contribute a useful commentary on this from their extensive fieldwork across the islands exploring how island residents view such an Act and the future it might hold. Finally, as a Sgitheanach, a Gael, with a strongly situated viewpoint of island emplacement, James Oliver provides this collection with a fascinating, concluding personal reflection on the relationality of islandness. In this final chapter Oliver offers readers a framing of islandness as an ‘interaction of dialogues and dialect(ics)’ that iterate and evolve between islandness ‘on the ground’ and islandness ‘in the mind’. In conclusion, we hope this collection offers, as Oliver suggests, some thoughts on thinking with islandness that moves ideas of Scotland’s islands beyond separation, or isolation. On reading we hope to invite further understandings of ‘ways of seeing’ all of Scotland’s islands as informed by and informing of an ethical imagining of the places and peoples of all Scotland’s islands and our collective sustainable futures.


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1Zetland County Council established in 1889 was replaced during local government restructuring by Shetland Islands Council in 1974.

2Highlands and Islands Enterprise ‘timeline’ of regional development, <http://time-line.hie.co.uk/stories/our-region/> accessed 10 December 2019.

3The links between language, culture and the economic rationale for the support for Gàidhlig in the region included advocates such as Willie Roe (2005) ‘Gaelic not only plays an essential and crucial part in this, but it also helps reinforce the culture of sustainable development across the region, which is at the heart of everything we do at HIE’.

4VisitScotland: ‘9 must read books about Scotland’ blogpost by Sarah Clark, 26 April 2020, <https://www.visitscotland.com/blog/scotland/must-read-books/> accessed 10 May 2020.

5In 2012 National Theatre of Scotland and Shetland Arts produced ‘Ignition’: a collaborative theatre performance with Shetland’s resident community exploring the role of the car, energy (oil and renewable) and transport in rural context. See <https://www.shetlandarts.org/our-work/past-projects/ignition> accessed 19 December 2019.

6The stock of islands in broader media imagining can certainly go down as it can go up. Taransay, for example, had been diminished in even local reference (no longer inhabited) but it drew national attention when it was featured on the BBC Castaway 2000 television series; Eigg had also lain (indeed been laid) low for some decades until ‘enough was enough’ and the community activism to secure a ‘buy-out’ of the island from its landowning legacy placed it centre stage as a cause célèbre of community empowerment, a profile further enhanced with its innovative ‘Green island’ policy; currently Unst is gaining considerable media interest as the potential site for a space port.

7See ‘A Vision of Scotland: Joan Blaeu and the Atlas novus’, by Charles W. J. Withers, <https://maps.nls.uk/atlas/blaeu/vision_of_scotland.html> accessed 10 December 2019.

8From a family and district heavily involved in the Jacobite Rising of 1745, MacPherson had first-hand experience of the brutal post-Culloden repression and the raft of government policies designed to eradicate the language, culture and way of life of Highland society. From his connections in Edinburgh literary circles MacPherson was also aware that several aspects of both the landscape and culture of the much-maligned Highlands contained the very features that the sensibilities and curiosity of the literati of Edinburgh found so appealing (Pittock 1999).

9Although Skye, the ‘Isle of Mist’ features as the home of the warrior hero Cuchullin, the tales of Ossian were primarily set not in the islands but around the seaboard approaches to the isles, notably the hills of Morven on the Sound of Mull. Yet, MacPherson’s project, his poems and the attached controversy were of considerable significance for the Hebrides. When collecting original material to work on, MacPherson had specifically gone to Skye, the Uists and Benbecula and to Mull because he felt that in these islands the surviving oral tradition was at its strongest, the language and content of the tales and heroic verse at its richest. The Hebrides, in short, were already being identified as the heartland of the culture. The evidence subsequently published after the Highland Society’s own enquiry into the situation confirmed this to be the case. MacPherson’s activities also ensured that a significant number of Gaelic manuscripts, not least from the islands, were saved for posterity.

10Johnson published his account in 1775, Boswell added his in 1785, a year after Johnson’s death. Subsequently the two accounts have been regularly published together and are widely regarded as classics of travel writing.

11See, for example, the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, for example, as a rich well of island related cultural expression, <http://www.geopoetics.org.uk/what-is-geopoetics/>, see also McFadyen (2018) ‘Finding Radical Hope in Geopoetics’, The Annual Tony McManus Lecture, <http://www.geopoetics.org.uk/mcmanus-geopoetics-lecture-mairimcfadyen/> accessed 10 April 2020.

12See, for example, the archaeology climate change focus within UHI led from Orkney <https://archaeologyorkney.com/category/climate-change/> accessed 10 March 2020; see also Ford (2019), already cited.

13Such a shift is not itself either ‘good’ or ‘bad and it is worthy of critical review. It is also notable that ‘islands’ in Scotland are explicitly recognised as significant in themselves and as contributors and integral to the nation. Part of our interest lies in the scale of change within a rural and remote realm that has overwhelmingly been construed as ontologically defined by its history. Celebrated iconography and narratives of the region are variously both singularly ‘homogenous’ whilst actively seeking to define the regional in its mosaic of difference; (cultural) history as both a framing device and as a socio-economic ‘truth’ underpins these narratives. Commentaries and opinion pieces on Scottish island related issues on language, land, arts, environment, economy and history, from various contributors, including comments and social media engagement, can be found at Bella Caledonia, <https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/all-articles/?all_keywords=islands>, for example.

14Scottish Government, <https://www.gov.scot/policies/community-empowerment/empowering-our-island-communities/> accessed 19 January 2020.

15See, for example, George Rosie’s (2013) discussion on issues of Shetland and Orcadian ‘independence’ in ‘The Shetland Card’, 12 December 2013, <https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2013/12/12/the-shetland-card/> accessed 19 January 2020.

16See, for example, UHI’s ‘The Edge’ seminar series <https://www.uhi.ac.uk/en/research-enterprise/res-themes/interdisciplinary-research-programmes/the-edge-call-for-contributions/seminar-series/>; see also Scottish Centre for Island Studies <https://scotcis.wordpress.com/about/>.

17Most notably visitor tourism has caused particular concern in Skye with a global media focus circulating on the problematics of ‘over-tourism’. Similar concerns over visitor pressures of cruise tourism in Orkney and remote communities more broadly, exacerbated not least by the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic and related ‘lockdown’ concerns and restrictions of 2020, speak to longer-term tensions over economy, community and environment priorities in the islands.

18See, for example, the Sustainable Island Futures research project at the University of Prince Edward Island, <https://projects.upei.ca/unescochair/sustainable-island-futures/> accessed 15 March 2020.


2.Little Islands on the Edge of the Ocean

This chapter undertakes to explore aspects of Scotland’s island culture and society in two overlapping periods –the late Iron Age (500 bc–ad 500) and the overlapping Early Christian era (ad 500–900). Using thematic frames, and with reference to recorded history and scholarship, observations are drawn on ideas of islandness and ‘ways of seeing’ islands through a prism of accounts of and emerging within the islands of the west.

The earliest layers of a Hebridean sense of place and identity were, from its inception, inextricably linked to that of Scotland. This was the age in which ‘the Hebrides’ and their occupants first emerged into early history; when early kinship alliances evolved into Pictland and Dal Riata; and when the foundations were laid of an Early Christian church that evolved to play a critical role in the emergence of the kingdom of Alba (Woolf 2007; Fraser 2009). The historical relationship of the Hebrides to the wider context of Scotland over time has been distinctively different to that of the Northern Isles. Furthermore, the wider premise that a variegated yet bonded grouping of islands with a singularly distinct islandscape richly textured over time by layered accretions of shifting notion of residual meaning as to islands, island living, islanders and islandness is not unique to the Hebrides is noted. Nonetheless a focus on ‘the Hebrides’ offers an opportunity to expand on the particular accretion of aspects of island meaning in the two early historical periods explored informed by both historical record and more current dialogue.

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In an early seminal island studies paper and its subsequent re-appraisal (Hay 2006, 2013), the case was made for an approach based on a phenomenology of place, an approach involving both the valorisation of the specificity of islands and what Hay called the ‘irreducible particularity’ of real islands (2013: 212). This involved the construction of island meanings in the unique terms of the ‘emotional dialogue’ between the individual island’s environment and its residents. Developing David Harvey’s theorisation of place as the locus of community and ‘the site of collective memory’ (1996: 310), Hay also made the important point as to the temporal axis of a particular island place: ‘In order that cultural place meanings can accrue […] there must also be a capacity to layer up stories, so that a potent vernacular culture (or cultures) can exist and persist, welding past to present and ensuring a seamless passage of time’ (Hay 2013: 32–33).

A temporal axis is not without its challenges, such is the palimpsest of island place. This chapter begins with a time frame of an Atlantic Iron Age with a brief foray into accounts of early classical writers describing the furthest reaches of the Roman empire, the northern fringe of the known world, for it is here in these sources that the islands lying to the west of Scotland first emerge in the historical record as a handful of names for individual islands and the collective name ‘Ebudae’, the ‘Hebrides’ (Breeze 2002). Split over two key time frames, aspects of settlement, place inscription imbrication and mythology, followed by the later voyaging tales (the immrama), accounts of Hebridean monasticism, and the scholarship of early Christianity, are all explored. These aspects examine and inform the cultural connectivity of the islands of the west to ‘the known world’ and the chapter concludes with some reflections on islandness as both ‘real’ and ‘imaginative’ and how ideas of the Hebrides circulate and inform our understanding of islands in Scotland and beyond today.

The Atlantic Iron Age

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The late Iron Age (c.500 bc–ad c.500) is an important period in the history of the Hebrides. These are centuries of island past that emphatically shaped the island present. Behind the written classical references, the most important ‘texts’ to be read, interpreted and understood are not to be found in manuscripts but in the monumental stone legacy of each individual island, the archaeology of each discrete island landscape. Later, in this period the islands emerge in expressive cultural literary texts, in the recorded tales and traditions of Gaelic mythology and early history and the oral transmission of a collective memory of past associations and meaning. What follows is some commentary on these differing yet interrelated temporal frames.

Archaeological evidence of a human presence across the Hebrides has been traced back some 8,500 years, a protracted past that left its own residual legacy on the island landscape (Wickham-Jones 1994: 75–88). But not until c.320 bc do the ‘Ebudae’ emerge in Pytheas of Marseille’s On the Ocean, a now lost text that was heavily drawn on by later classical writers. Cunliffe (2001) has painstakingly shown how On the Ocean was based on an actual fourth-century bc voyage made by Pytheas up the Brittanic isle west coast to the Outer Hebrides and, with the aid of local maritime skills and knowledge, on by Shetland to ‘Ultima Thule’ (Iceland). He also demonstrates how the passage to the mythical ‘Ultima Thule’ was firmly based on an actual voyage well within the ambit and seafaring reach of the western and northern islanders of Scotland. A further insight into how a later generation of islanders perceived their island landscape comes from an account of a meeting at Delphi in ad 83/84 when the scholar Plutarch was involved in a discussion about islands, the oracles and the gods. His friend Demetrius, who had recently returned from Britain, reports

many of the islands off Britain were uninhabited and widely scattered, some of them being named after gods and demigods. He himself had sailed, for the sake of learning and observation, to the island nearest to the uninhabited ones, on an official mission. This island had a few inhabitants, who were holy men, and all held exempt from raiding. (Burn 1969: 3)

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Assessing the evidence available in presenting this extract from Plutarch’s essays, Burn concluded that Demetrius had been sent out on an intelligence-gathering mission as part of Agricola’s campaign in Roman Britain, and that the islands he had visited were somewhere in the Inner Hebrides. According to Demetrius it was the belief of the resident islanders that several of the uninhabited islands in the locality had once been the home of supernatural beings. If one of them died, their death was marked by storms and pestilence. It was their belief that these islands were sacred to the gods or to the mighty dead. One island in particular was where an old king of the gods still lay sleeping, guarded by a sea-monster and with many lesser deities in attendance around him. Other islands were described as the abodes of ‘holy men’, left to live alone and in peace. Burn equated these with the ‘Druids as found in Celtic communities elsewhere: a learned order of ‘wise men’ with a knowledge ranged across astronomy, cosmology, theology, divination, magic and medical skills. Uninhabited island were ideal places for such learned men to retreat, contemplate and exercise the mind. More significantly, Demetrius had also observed that the islanders thought of these as numinous places, that is, islands that had a spiritual quality, marked by the presence of a divinity (Burn 1969: 5).

The classical accounts came from the early and middle decades of the late Iron Age era (500 bc–ad 500). Although they are scant, it is from these classical sources that we can begin to trace the earliest names of people and places along the western and northern seaboard of what would emerge as Scotland. It is, however, from the hallmark archaeological legacy of forts, duns, crannogs, wheelhouses and brochs across the evidently inter-linked Northern and Western Isles that we can begin to trace the social and cultural pattern of life across Scotland’s island communities.

For all of Scotland’s Western and Northern Isles, an excellent guide to the archaeological features of individual sites, including a guide to terms and definitions as well as a mapping facility to give location and context to each of these sites in its local island settings, is provided by Historic Environment Scotland’s ‘Canmore’ portal (https://canmore.org.uk/). Substantial literature has also accumulated on both the dwelling structures in each of the principal island groupings and in the protracted debates as to classification, interpretation and chronology (Armit 1990, 1996; Nieke 1990; Harding 1997, 2000; Ballin Smith and Banks 2002; Mackie 2007).

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What the evidence for the late Iron Age and Early History period underlines is the remarkable extent to which islands of various sizes and topologies are the sites of several distinct forms of island dwelling. There are large (Lewis, Skye, Mull, Islay), small (Harris, the Uists, Raasay, Lismore, Tiree, Jura) and smaller (the Barra Isles, Colonsay, Gigha) islands, each with a variety of distinct dwelling types. There are lochs within these islands with crannogs, island duns, or island brochs and there are tidal or deep-water islets or stacks wholly occupied by an island dun or fort. Each of these diverse locations raise the same fundamental question, as to why these specific sites were chosen at any particular time and how, if at all, did these sites of human settlement relate to each other? Developments within Scotland’s archaeological circles increasingly help to provide a pertinent context in which these questions can be posed and addressed. Scotland’s Archaeological Research Framework (ScARF) has drawn up national research agendas on each archaeological period including one on the Iron Age (2012). In a move away from seeing the environment as no more than background, the ScARF framework puts the focus on landscape as ‘the arena in which every local aspect of human settlement and life takes place’ (2012: 12). It invites a ‘way of seeing’ island settings from the perspective of their occupants, a landscape ‘that exists by virtue of it being perceived, contextualised and experienced by people (Ashmore and Knapp 1999).

The Uists, Barra and the Barra Isles

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Recent excavations and surveys on South Uist (Parker Pearson et al. 2004: 83–123) and on Barra and the Barra Isles (Branigan and Foster 2000) are good examples of the value of this approach. On South Uist the focus was on brochs and wheelhouses, with a line of enquiry that sought to address a series of questions as to occupancy, functionality, the pattern of locations and social relationships within the wider island community and beyond. Although left undeveloped, the findings as to the pattern of locations is of particular interest in relation to the issue of ‘islandness’. Across all the principal islands with the exception of Barra, an inshore island in a freshwater loch was a favoured location and on South Uist, all twelve of the surviving broch sites are on such locations. Further north, North Uist provides even more intriguing evidence, not only of freshwater loch island broch sites, but of various brochs, duns and wheelhouses on tidal island sites (Lenfert 2011: 26–27; Canmore ID 10439). The reasons behind the choice of these island sites have yet to be determined although one recent survey has suggested that one of the most compelling reasons would have been to escape the Hebridean midges (Lenfert 2011: 12).

Further south the pattern of location is one of diversity. On Barra, in contrast to the Uists, for example, the locations of the island’s six broch towers and other probable broch sites could hardly be more varied, from headlands, interior hillsides, to islands in freshwater lochs and offshore tidal islets (Branigan 2000a: 334–345). And on the Barra Isles, where there are the remains of a full array of Iron Age dry-stone dwellings, any assumption that ascribed group identity reflects a uniformity of settlement is not born out by the evidence. Indeed, the opposite is the case with each island’s remains reflecting a marked degree of diversity in form, distribution and possible patterns of relationships. On Vatersay, the monumental landscape is broadly the same as on Barra, although in terms of its much smaller size Vatersay is actually more densely populated in each category. Smaller still is Sandray and it is also similar but with small roundhouses more numerous than large. South of Sandray, however, the picture seems very different. Pabbay has only one imposing broch and a few possible small roundhouses. Mingulay is the largest of the group yet is the only one with no broch or galleried dun, or small roundhouses, only five large ones, (two of which may be wheelhouses). Berneray, like Pabbay has only a solitary broch, perched on its spectacular Barra Head site, along with one small possible roundhouse. The only common feature extending across the islands are the promontory forts on Berneray, Mingulay and Biruaslum (off Vatersay). On Pabbay, and perhaps Sandray, there is important evidence that gives a ‘brief glimpse’ of late Iron Age Pictish occupation (Branigan 2000b: 347–348).

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In short, as the most recent archaeological survey underlined, even in this distinct outlying island group there are noticeable distinctions in the Iron Age/Early History settlement patterns between the islands. These variations appear to reflect highly localised adaptations that were developed partly in response to the environment, and partly as statements of identity by small close-knit communities. And from this, Branigan (2000b: 346) concluded: ‘All of us who have worked in these islands believe each island has its own distinctive character that is sometimes reflected in its archaeology’. Recent archaeological work from a specifically phenomenological perspective (Rennell 2010), primarily on North Uist, has concluded that Iron Age island living led not to isolation but connection, suggesting a degree of shared identity and/or cultural contact across the area:

For Iron Age people then, being ‘islanders’ was potentially central to their society and social identity. It was the fact that these people lived on islands that brought these places together –facilitating the sharing of material culture. (2010: 51)

Paradoxically, within an individual island such as North Uist, the archaeological evidence in relation to settlement location was taken to suggest an inward-looking society with local rather than wider concerns. On North Uist, inland loch islets, mostly on hemmed in locations offered a very different experience of island life to that of dwellings on open coastal machair sites. This was taken to suggest that strongly localised, ‘perhaps even island specific’ identity may have existed alongside an Outer Hebrides or even an Atlantic province social identity (Rennell 2010: 53).

Gaelic mythology

How the islanders of the Iron Age/Early History settlements of island Dal Riata and maritime Pictland perceived the cultural and social associations of their inherited and lived landscape is not known. Only the early manuscripts and oral traditions of the ‘sea-divided Gael’ of Ireland and Scotland give us some degree of insight into how this landscape was peopled in the imagination. In this ‘way of seeing’, whether in the text or in the recitation, the islands are re-inhabited with the great mythical figures and legendary stories of an inherited past. On Islay, or Sanda and Gigha, we are with the Children of Lir turned into swans; on Dun Mhic Uisneachan, Loch Etive, we are in exile with Deirdre and the Sons of Uisnech; on Dun Scathaich, Skye, we are with Sgathaich as she trains CúChulainn; and across the islands, wherever the storytellers gather their audience, we are with Fionn mac Cumhaill and the exploits of the Fianna. A ninth-century tale graphically details the splendour in which the ruling kinships of island society were imagined to have lived:

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Gartnán lived in Inis Mac Chéin (Skye). That island was covered with the best buildings in the western part of the world … He had fifty nets for deer, and out from the island were fifty nets for fishing. The fifty fish-nets had ropes from them over the windows of the kitchen. There was a bell on the end of each rope, on the rail in front of the steward. Four men used to throw (?) the first-run salmon up to him. He himself in the meantime drank mead upon his couch. (Murphy 1961: 14)

As the voyage of enquiry of Pytheas confirms, by the fourth century bc the inhabitants of the Hebrides had already accumulated considerable maritime knowledge and navigational skills. These were communities in which island-going, of an extensive and far-reaching nature, was an integral part of social and communal life. The Hebrides may have been ‘on the edge of the known world’, but they were well-connected. And even from a cursory survey it is clear that over this era, islands, of various types, were a significant element in the choice of location for a range of dwellings. It may well be that our understanding of island settlement over this period would benefit by having the ‘islandscape’ being given the same consideration as the ‘housescape’ that already features as one of the prisms through which the archaeological evidence from this era is considered (ScARF 2012: 48). The value of an ‘islandscape’ approach is further underlined by the first-century ad evidence of Demetrius, the Greek grammatikos, as to Hebridean islands that were homes of the pre-Christian gods, places with spiritual or numinous qualities, or retreats for learned and holy ‘wise men’ and this inherited ‘way of seeing’ has a particular relevance in the context of the overlapping Early Christian era.

The Early Christian era

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As with the Atlantic Iron Age, discussion of the sixth to eighth centuries Early Christian era in the Hebrides also benefits from an awareness of the significant paradigm shifts within the relevant fields of scholarship. The most important of these is the sharp turn away from an established historiography firmly underpinned by the notion of a small, independent ‘Celtic church’, encapsulated then eclipsed by the greater institutional power of Rome. In reality, as Donald Meek (2000) has neatly summarised, the ‘Celtic’ saints whose presence was manifest across the islands of Dal Riata and of maritime Pictland were all part of the one universal Catholic church: a European mainstream presented and practised through a Gaelic and Pictish prism. At the same time, in relation to the turn of the century popular interest in notions of ‘Celtic spirituality’ and ‘Celtic nature’, Meek also expressed the general concern within Celtic and early medieval studies that the early Christian era was best understood through the beliefs of the era rather than the imposed constructs of the present (Meek 2014).

The other pertinent and more recent shift concerns what Fraser has termed: ‘The revolution that has transformed early Insular history’ (2009: 1). While this relates to the whole of Scotland, it is a ‘revolution’ that has particular significance in relation to the Hebrides. In essence it means that the context in which events such as the Christianisation of the Hebrides are understood and interpreted is no longer based on the traditional ‘gaelocentric conceptions of this phase of Scotland’s past’ (Fraser 2009: 10). Instead a wider framework is put forward, one that is based on ‘the emergence of a poly-ethnic and multicultural kingdom of the Picts’ (2009: xi). For the interpretation of the early history of maritime Pictland, not least in relation to early monastic settlements in the islands and seaboard north of Ardnamurchan, it represents a major shift in context and approach (Fraser 2009: 94–115).

Early monastic settlements

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When, in the sixth century, Christianity first presented itself in the Hebrides it did so in a particular form within Catholic Europe’s own history and practice. Monasticism was a practice whose roots and route can be traced back through Ireland and Gaul to the Mediterranean and the vast deserts between the Nile and the Red Sea and the early Desert Fathers of Egypt (such as Anthony and Pachomius). As introduced to the Hebrides it was a combination and adaptation of the cenobitic (community) monasticism represented by Pachomius, and the eremitic (solitary) as exemplified by Anthony (Chitty 1966; Lawrence 2015). While firmly located within the doctrinal ‘mainstream’ of Western Latin rite Christendom, in effect it was the desert monasticism of the East that would develop through the Hebridean and essentially Gaelic prism of the West.

The role of the monastic foundations and in particular that of Iona, in maintaining the ecclesiastical and secular chronicles of the era has ensured that events within the Hebrides and the wider world were invariably presented in a predominantly monastic context. Over the sixth to eighth centuries, a dimly discernible but no less important diocesan and parochial structure also came into being, providing pastoral care to an increasingly Christianised island lay population. At the same time, the powerful kinship connections of Columba and several of his followers and abbatial successors, ensured that Iona soon emerged as the most pre-eminent of the early foundations, even although, as an island monastic settlement, Columba’s Iona was neither first nor alone. Brendan of Clonfert established foundation on both Eileach na Naoimh (Garvellachs) and Tiree; Comgall of Bangor did likewise on Tiree while his pupil, Moluag, established a community further south on Lismore (Smyth 1984; Sharpe 1995). Whether due to its fertility, its location, or both, Tiree was unique in hosting a multiplicity of settlements. As well as the foundations of Brendan and Comgall, there was also ‘Mag Luinge, founded by Columba as a daughter house of Iona. Adomnán, in his Life of the latter, also refers to the ‘other monasteries of Tiree’, but sadly further details have not survived (Sharpe 1995). Eigg was the site of a further monastic settlement although the annals detail its abrupt end on 17 April 617 with ‘an attack and the killing of Donnán of Eigg with 150 martyrs’ (Smyth 1984: 107–108). Eigg is seen as important for it was soon re-established and it has been suggested that the spread of subsequent dedications suggests that the cult of the martyred Donnan played an important part in the subsequent spread of Christianity into northern and maritime Pictland. This included the establishing of a community in Applecross by Maolrubha in 673 which has been described as part of the first real breakthrough of a Christian presence into maritime Pictland (Smyth 1984: 109–112).

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The mapping out of the extent of this early monastic presence across the islands is most usefully traced through the meticulous field survey of simple incised crosses on the smallest and most insignificant of stones and other stone sculpture across a wide range of sites by Fisher (2001). The crosses had a crucial purpose and potency not least in their many small island locations. Found across a wide network of ‘archipelago monasteries’ the ‘extreme simplicity’ in which the symbol of the cross was displayed was a singularly apt testimony to the austere asceticism of the life of self-denial and exile chosen by those whose island monastic practice they both marked and defended. As Fisher (2001:1) observes this sense of the incised cross slab ‘consciously protecting Christendom against the dark forces of the ocean’ is a powerful feeling imbricated on the islandscape of every setting in which they appear, from Sanda to North Rona, Lismore to St Kilda. On some there is no more than a place name, or a ruined cell(s) with associated oral tradition while a few have more substantial remains, such as those of an early chapel, often with an attached burial ground. In the case of the Shiant Isles (the ‘Holy Isles’), for example, it is a combination of such evidence that indicates some form of Early Christian monastic presence on all three of the Shiants island group (Foster 2001, 2004).

It would appear that the monastic life practised in the Hebrides followed that as developed in southern Gaul by John Cassian of Marseilles and Martin of Tours: a daily schedule of communal prayer, communal work, private study, private contemplation and the eremitic practice of retreat, solitude, ascetic self-denial and penance. The location for the latter could be on the same island but at a distance from the defined monastic policies, or in a separate daughter house on another island, under the guidance of an appointed prior (Clancy and Márkus 1995). Iona, for example, had a series of outlying penitential outposts on other islands, the most important being Mag Luinge on Tiree and the enigmatic Hinba. The identification of Hinba remains a subject of ongoing debate, with Jura, Colonsay and Canna being the most prominent contenders (MacQuarrie 1997: 91–102).

The monastic and eremitic ‘way of seeing’

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The spread and nature of these early monastic settlements suggests that the relocation of the practices and precepts of the desert to a Hebridean setting was distinctive and imaginative (Dumville 2002). In their presentation of the poetic output of Iona and the Columban familia, Clancy and Márkus (1995) have ably revealed the emotional intensity of the monastic and eremitic life as a felt experience. Their outline of the intellectual milieu of Iona also underlines the achievement of Hebridean monasticism in transforming the ‘way of seeing’ the natural and cultural environment of the population at large (Clancy and Márkus 1995). For those within these monastic communities there a prism through which not just the islandscape of Iona and its associated islands could be viewed but also the wider world. Márkus (1999) has observed how the stories told in Adomnán’s Life of Columba, reveal how ‘a kind of mental map’ was developed through which the lands and islands north and south of Iona were seen. Dal Riata, the territory of Columba’s own Christian people, was a social space of amicable cultural and personal relationships. Pictland, and maritime Pictland to the north, however, was replete with tales of danger, hostility and the exercise of power while Iona itself was ‘a little paradise, a centre of harmony in a world of conflict’ where the stories were all of peace and a marked absence of conflict (Márkus 1999: 116–119).

Surveying Iona’s archaeological remains, Macdonald has illustrated how the members of the community viewed their own particular monastic islandscape, one defined by a triple frame of boundaries: that of the shoreline defining the island, the vallum marking the community enclosure and the inner sancta sanctorum of the chapel, the house of devotion and prayer (1997: 29–30). The island and the monastery effectively seen as one and the same, a sacred island: an ‘earthly (here monastic) paradise restored as a foreshadowing of the earthly paradise and realisable as long as the community perseveres in the monastic life and in the quest for Christian perfection’ (Macdonald 1997: 26).

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While self-denial and personal asceticism were integral elements in the daily life of all the community, for many the path to perfection also involved an additional element of individual retreat and reflective solitude. It had been an important part of Columba’s life, some of his abbatial successors were actually remembered as both abbot and anchorite, and several of his followers were specifically noted for their distinctive pursuit of the eremitic life. One such follower, a seventh-century saint known as Beccan eremita, or Beccán of Rum, is of particular interest. While of the Iona community, Beccán lived the life of an anchorite on the isle of Rum. He was also a poet and a scholar. In Beccán’s surviving praise poems commemorating Columba we gain a unique insight into the eremitic ‘way of seeing’ Columba’s qualities as a seafaring saint in the islandscape of Iona and the Hebrides (Clancy and Márkus 1995: 129–163). Columba is profiled not just as a saint and scholar (Meek 2014) but also as a man who fully lived and experienced the elemental world of the seas of the Atlantic west. As Clancy and Márkus (1995: 131) observe Beccán the poet had himself ‘the air of a man acquainted with sea journeys’ –that is an elemental, emotional and experiential voyaging knowledge –such that when Beccán writes of Columba’s voyage of self-exile from his Irish kin and homeland it is vividly presented: as ‘a bold man over the sea’s ridge’. From Beccán’s account, it is as an intrepid island-going seafarer that Columba crosses ‘the wave-strewn wild region’, ‘in scores of curraghs with an army of wretches’ (Clancy and Márkus 1995: 147), to finally make landfall on Iona, the island from which the inspirational and powerful monastic community of the Hebrides will duly emerge.

For Beccán eremita, however, Columba is not eulogised, honoured and remembered for being a powerful abbot-scholar. In the eye of a committed follower of the ascetic and eremitic life Columba’s greatest attribute is considered his commitment to penance and self-denial. And just as Adomnán’s writings call to mind the community life of the Pachomian tradition, so Beccán’s poetry evokes the life of Anthony and the ascetic call of the desert. It also foregrounds one other defining dimension of Hebridean monasticism –the quests of the voyagers.

The islands of the voyagers: The edge of the Ocean

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From the sources they consulted in their libraries, the monastic communities on Iona and elsewhere in the Hebrides, were well aware that the seaways they regularly sailed were very different from those of the Mediterranean. In the Hebrides, of the early medieval mind, they were on the very edge of ‘the Ocean’, the limitless mass of water that was believed to have surrounded the whole land mass of the earth, the primeval abyss and ‘the very limit of inhabitable reality’, the home of Leviathan, the abode of demons, and Satan and the place where the apocalyptic beast would arise to bring destruction to mankind at the end of time (O’Loughlin 1997: 12–14).

From its initial roots in the desert, the monastic life had always involved an endless struggle with the Devil and his demons. For the monks of Iona these same deadly foes were no less distant on ‘the trackless wastes of the Ocean’ than they had been to any of their monastic forebears who had first answered the earlier call of the desert (O’Loughlin 1997: 13). This was the final challenge that those who were seen as the ‘voyagers’ sought out, well beyond the western horizon, out on the wastes of the Ocean itself. One such voyager, of the early Iona community of Columba, was Cormac Ua Liatháin. Very little is known of Cormac beyond what Adomnán relates in his Life of Columba which is important in itself as the first recorded reference to the ‘voyaging’ practice of the early seafaring saints to find their ultimate place of retreat, their terra deserta out on the western Ocean. Adomnán notes that three times Cormac set out to find his goal (Sharpe 1995: 118). Undeterred by initial failure, Cormac once more ‘set sail over the boundless ocean with his sails full’ and on this occasion Columba was absent from Iona, passing through the Great Glen and Loch Ness to visit king Bridei of Pictland. Aware of the latter’s authority over maritime Pictland, Columba advised Bridei that some ‘of our people have sailed off hoping to find a place of retreat somewhere on the trackless sea’ (Sharpe 1995: 196). Bridei was therefore asked to instruct the sub-king of Orkney to give an assurance that no harm would befall them ‘if by chance their long wanderings should bring them to Orkney’, which is exactly what happened. On his third attempt Cormac and his band were driven north and west of the Outer Isles onto the open waters south of Iceland. For fourteen summer days and nights, a prevailing and constant southerly wind drove them north to a point where: ‘They reckoned that they had passed beyond the range of human exploration, and had reached a place from which they might not be able to return’ (Sharpe 1995: 196).

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Here they encountered ‘a source of terror’ as a swarm of ‘deadly loathsome little creatures’ covered the sea and proceeded to attack and pierce the skin of their boat. Fortunately for them, although far away on Iona in person, ‘St Columba was there in spirit, in the boat with Cormac’ and foreseeing their unendurable danger, he called all the Iona community together to pray for their safe return. Columba’s supplication for a favourable north wind was successful and they were returned safely to Iona (Sharpe 1995: 197–198). Despite Cormac’s prominence in the Columba story as told by Adomnán and given the far-reaching nature of his voyaging exploits, it is perhaps surprising that there appears to be only one possible dedication to the persistent voyager saint anywhere in the Hebrides, and even that –‘St Cormac’s Chapel’ on Eilean Mòr –is in the inshore waters of the Sound of Jura, and probably commemorates someone else (Canmore ID 38634; SSPNP).

By the time Adomnán was writing of Cormac, it would appear that, notwithstanding its perilous nature, ‘voyaging’ was a well-established practice. For the most part those involved were anonymous, although significantly perhaps, three of the prominent named practitioners –Cormac Ua Liatháin, Brendan of Clonfert and Abban Mac hUí Chormaic (the voyager saint most probably commemorated on Eilean Mor) –were all associated by Adomnán with Columba and Iona. The numbers of voyagers involved appear to have been high. Notwithstanding poetic licence, a ninth/tenth–century ‘Irish Litany of the Pilgrim Saints’ refers to: ‘Thrice fifty men of orders … who went on pilgrimage in one company with Abban Mac hUí Chormaic’ (Plummer 1925: 61). It also evokes the dangers they faced and the price many paid. It ends with a commemoration of Brendan, those who had gone before him and the many others who did not return: ‘All the saints who have perished in the isles of the ocean’ (Thrall 2000: 20–21).

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The extent of the presence of any of the voyager saints or their followers in the Hebrides is difficult to determine. Primarily it relies on the mapping out of dedications and traditions and in this respect the spread, density and locations are striking. With Abban and Cormac there is one possible commemoration each, on Sanda and Eilean Mor respectively. With Brendan, however, the dedications are unambiguous, extensive and in highly pertinent locations, ranging from Kilbrannan Sound off Arran, to Seil, the Garvellachs and Mull, then on across the Sea of the Hebrides to Barra, South Uist and, most significantly, to the remote outlier of St Kilda (Barrett 1919: 79–81). Such was the predominance of the practice that it gave rise to a distinct genre of early Gaelic island-going voyager tales known as the immrama. Only a handful have survived, including the ‘Voyage of Snédgusa and Maic Riagla’, two of Columba’s familia (Stokes 1888; Murray 2000). As tales of Christian allegory, primarily composed to serve a spiritual guidance purpose, the immrama are emphatically not to be regarded as historical accounts of actual voyages. They do, however, draw on a range of sources, including pre-Christian Gaelic notions of the ‘marvellous otherworld’ and the traveller’s tales of a seafaring people (Clancy 2000). As Gaelic texts, the immrama, inevitably had a confined and limited audience. The tale of ‘Brendan the Navigator’ was different. Being in Latin, the Navigatio Sancti Brendani attracted a remarkable and enduring degree of interest across medieval Europe (Strijbosch 2000). For centuries it was taken to be the record of an actual sixth-century voyage. By the late nineteenth century, this was being presented as the earliest European transatlantic sea-crossing, an interpretation that has been comprehensively rejected by contemporary scholarship. As with the immrama, the Navigatio, is a work of Christian and monastic allegory (Carney 2000). At the same time, however, it is readily acknowledged that, as with the immrama, the compiler of the Navigatio would have been well aware of the seafaring exploits of the voyagers of the era. As a result, as Wooding (2000: 227) notes: ‘It is likely that some geographical data derived from actual voyages did find their way into the setting of the tale’.

For an appreciation of just how much ‘geographical data’ there was to draw on it is necessary to turn to the work of Dicuil, another of the remarkable monk-scholars from Iona. In the late eighth century, doubtless as a result of the outbreak of violent Norse raids on the Hebrides, Dicuil sought refuge in Europe. He became a resident scholar at the Carolingian palace school in Aachen where, in 825, he wrote a treatise on the geography of the known earth. Referring to the islands lying to the west of Scotland, he stated: ‘Among these I have lived in some, and have visited others; some I have only glimpsed, while others I have read about’ (Tierney 1967: 75–76). It is a passage that led his modern editor to surmise that Dicuil ‘was perhaps born there’ (Tierney 1967: 12), that is, in the islands to the west of Scotland.

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In his treatise Dicuil also referred to the first-hand accounts he had been given by clerics who had made passages to Orkney, Shetland and beyond. Dicuil gave the earliest recorded account of the Faroes, revealing that eremitic monks had been living there for nearly a hundred years but because of raiding Norsemen, the islands were now ‘emptied of anchorites’ and filled with only sheep and sea-birds (Tierney 1967: 77). Referring to Pytheas and the island of ‘Ultima Thule’ (Iceland), he also confirmed a monastic presence, stating unambiguously that it was now thirty years since clerics ‘who had lived on the island’ had described it to him, including their memorable depiction of the summer solstice: ‘There was no darkness in that very small space of time, and a man could do whatever he wished as though the sun were there, even remove lice from his shirt’ (Tierney 1967: 75).

Dicuil’s work belongs to the eighth-to ninth-century era which has been described as the zenith of Hebridean monasticism’s fame and achievement in Europe (Clancy and Márkus 1995: 16–18). In addition to his Life of St Columba, Adomnán’s account Of the Holy Places had given the West its earliest map of Jerusalem (Meehan 1958). His Law of the Innocents was one of the earliest international treaties on the conduct of war and the protection of non-combatants (Márkus 1997). As knowledge of his work spread across Europe, Adomnán achieved the honour of a title bestowed on only a select few theological scholars and teachers when he became ‘Adomnán the Illustrious’ (O’Loughlin 2007: 198). In Iona and across the Hebrides, monastic and secular artists produced illuminated manuscripts, poetry and carved crosses of the highest order. And recent finds from the monastic site on Inchmarnock in the Firth of Clyde provides unique evidence as to the training of novices in literacy and artistic design (Lowe 2008).

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Exile monk-scholars from the Hebrides also constituted a small but significant presence amongst the peregrini Scottii, the ‘wandering Gaels’ who formed such a distinct feature in the intellectual life of early medieval Europe. Cú Chuimne of Iona co-authored a comprehensive collection of canon law and early penitential codes that had an impact on church practice for centuries (Kelly 1995; Flechner 2019). Iona-trained Virgil, bishop of Salzburg, ‘Apostle of Carinthia’ and a scholar ahead of his time, played a key role in the introducing of anointment to the induction of Carolingian kings, a pivotal moment in the history of Europe (Enright 1985; Carney 2000). Adomnán had concluded his Life of Columba by noting how wondrous it was that the reputation of Columba, ‘one who dwelt in this little island on the edge of the ocean’ should have spread out across Europe, reaching even Rome itself, ‘the chief of all cities’(Sharpe 1995: 233). By the early ninth century, the names of the departed abbots of Iona were remembered in the regular prayers for the dead in Salzburg and the martyrs of Iona at the hands of the Norsemen were being commemorated in verse at Reichenau in the heart of Europe (Carney 1964; Carey 2000).

An interim conclusion

Even a brief survey of this early period of recorded Hebridean history, limited in scope and necessarily confined in depth, particularly one in which an experiential perspective is deployed, teases out a range of contexts in which the tenuous notion of islandness emerges to contribute to the everyday practice of island life, island-going and island identity. Some are superceded and discarded but others evolved and were transformed as they passed through the subsequent eras of Hebridean history. They remain discernible strands in the layered palimpsest of residual culture that is our own twenty-first-century inheritance and experience.

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The most visible, thanks to judicious, informed archaeological enquiry, is the evident pattern of settlement, dwelling forms and monumental structures related in some specific way to their island environment. They evoke a clear sense of spatial knowledge in both domestic living and in the collective exercise of power and authority within and across individual or combined groups of islands and the wider seaways. The patterns suggest a pragmatic and applied functional sense of islandness reflecting a stability in social relations combined with the capability for collective defensive or aggressive military capacity as deemed necessary. Another aspect of this are the clear signs of a sense of intimacy and identification with local place, reflective of an attachment to a familiar environment and a sense of home in relation to both locality and individual dwelling. In a specific island way, graphically illustrated by the island dun household on an inshore island lochan of the pre-Christian period, or the solitary monk’s individual anchoritic retreat in the Christian era, such material legacies underline that every ‘real’ island should be seen as ‘a place of singular distinctiveness and identity’ (Hay 2006), one imbued with a particular felt experience of ‘islandness’.

A noted feature of the Early Christian era was the extent to which the sacral attributes of pre-Christian places, notably ‘holy isles’ or sacred locations on an island were not suppressed but transformed into Christianised sacred places. The sense of numinosity attached to individual islands was something that endured and was sustained across the cultural transition from one era to another. Accumulated layers of local secular knowledge as to island space were also retained and transmitted. In relation to the navigation of inter-island seaways and seafaring passages –an inherited experience –it has been suggested, was consciously drawn on in the Christian monastic era to inform and create a mental islandscape of ‘spiritually memorized topographies’ (Widell 2018). Even within its own time, practices and qualities associated with islandness of the Early Christian era were exported across space and time. Evidence from the excavation of a major Pictish monastic site far removed from Iona reveals how ‘islandness’ was an elastic and transferable concept. At Portmahomack, the layout of Columba’s Hebridean foundation was effectively drawn on to delineate the boundaries of an ‘island’ monastic community not on an insular site but on the Tarbat peninsula of Easter Ross (Carver 2008, 2009).

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What is perhaps most striking is the extent to which certain imputed attributes of ‘islandness’, vigorously promoted as part of the twenty-first century ‘island experience’, can be traced back to having roots in the late Iron Age/Early Christian period. This was the era in which monk-scholars made the first collections of Gaelic mythology with its location of the ‘immortal isles; of the Otherworld in the Atlantic west; where Greek scholars also located the idyllic ‘Isles of the Blest’ of their own mythology. It is the era in which the roots of key tropes of commodified islandness, specifically Western Isles islandness are to be found. It was from this era that the notion of the Hebrides as distant places, remote island locations of timelessness entered the Western imagination. The eremitic practice of Hebridean monasticism confirmed islands as special places for solitary retreat and personal reflection; the association of the islands of the West with Idyllic utopias, lands of eternal youth, comfort and well-being took root.

This is the point at which the actuality of the ‘real’ island experience of island life comes up against the recreated constructs of an imagined islandness. For complex reasons of power, culture, politics and subalternity, it has been a mutated misrepresentation of aspects of island culture and practice that is still actively perpetuated rather than a promotion of cultural, social and intellectual achievement. The contribution of Hebridean monk-scholars to the intellectual and spiritual life of Carolingian Europe has been touched on. What space precludes is an addition of the extraordinary achievements of the subsequent era of a Norse Christian presence, one that led to a Norse and Gaelic presence across the North Atlantic, from the Faroes and Iceland to Greenland and ‘Vinland’ (Newfoundland). Taken alone or together, these contributions to the history of both Europe and the North Atlantic only serve to underline that, to borrow the seventh-century words of Adomnán: even the littlest of little islands on the outer Ocean, at the edge of the known world can have an enduring national and transnational significance.


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3.Cha ghabhadh na b’ fheàrr fhaighinn (‘It couldn’t be better’). Gaelic Perspectives on Island Cultural Heritage in Scotland’s Hebrides

Island life offers opportunities and challenges which many have embraced in recent years. The urge to move or retire to Scotland’s islands comes on strongly on occasions and must be part-responsible for a steadying of Hebridean population decline or even its reversal demonstrated in recent censuses; the districts of Skye and Lochalsh, for example, have turned the corner of continuous decline since the late nineteenth century and the population of Skye is now over 10,000. Living ‘on the edge’, it might be said, needs special gifts of resilience and inner strength which may not be a priori part of the expectations of the outside world or of the impression of ‘islandness’. In circumstances where the individual is not a Hebridean by birth and might not have lived the island life over an extended period, it should be said that a need for special gifts is uppermost in the face of winter darkness and protracted seasonal North Atlantic weather patterns.

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The exploration of islands is of compelling interest. A modern scholarly trend serves this well; and the assembling of a ‘cultural biography’ of an island may perhaps be slightly more compelling than the scrutiny of a mainland site, parish or ‘estate’ (e.g. Macdonald 1976; Storrie 1981; Burnett 1986; Caldwell 2018). Even where this is questioned in the promotion of an identity or ‘character’ of an island whose cultural landscape or cultural biography is being explored, description or scrutiny may fail to penetrate the human ecology to any significant depth or get ‘under the skin’. Whatever treatment is adopted however, it tends to a more monolithic understanding of ‘islandness’. This short study aims to open up the subject with a necessarily limited selection of points which are intended to challenge the expectations of an outside world. A Hebridean colloquialism as title, translating literally as ‘a better couldn’t be got’, is adopted to symbolise this approach (see NicNèill 2000: 360). The study looks briefly at aspects of the culture and history of the Western Isles in order to offer substantive insights into their cultural heritage against a background of assumed stereotypes and expectations. Care is taken to respect the integrity of this heritage by leading with sealladh a’ Ghàidheil or a Gaelic view in exploring concepts such as identity. This offers a premise to counterbalance or confront stereotypes or expectations that are nursed in the outside world. The ways in which Hebrideans occupy and comprehend their world within a world disinclines them to challenge the world outside islands. The following observations and descriptions might explain why this is the case.

The annals of islands: A Scottish Hebridean context

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Mention of islands in a Scottish context often summons up exceptional examples; St Kilda beyond the Outer Hebrides is an intriguing subject and offers an extreme example for the annals of islands. The ‘ecology’ of St Kilda continues to offer a rich field of research for scientists and, mutatis mutandis, keeps the island archipelago in the public eye. If, in the wider literature, St Kilda is taken to represent Scottish ‘islandness’ –and it is abundantly recorded for us by the outside world –we might respond that, for a complex of reasons, this was a community, an economy and a culture that ‘failed’, the islanders having appealed to the Scottish Office for their evacuation in 1930. Many other Hebridean islands, once inhabited, are now deserted although ‘failure’ barely explains the process of abandonment. In many cases islands were populated or re-populated in recent times under pressure of resources or clearance (Murchison 1959: 283–344; Duncan 1995; Buxton 2016). The extent to which island sites are traded in media terms suggests that failure or survival are not the first points of interest. ‘Castaway’, one of the first reality television programmes, followed the fortunes of individuals spending the year 2000 on Taransay. The views of ‘real’ islanders were rarely sought on this charade although the justifiably weary cynicism of Hebrideans in the face of ‘Castaway’ is well known. Island studies in the past (and into our own day) have too often played to stereotypes whereby the expectations of the outside world were more readily fulfilled, such is the impression of ‘islandness’ on the popular, cosmopolitan and ‘continental’ mind.

Language and dialect: Island cultural identity

The phrase ‘cultural heritage’ is widely used and readily traded. In the background is an understanding that the cultural heritage of the Western Isles is somehow different from that of Scotland as a whole and, for ease of definition, may draw its essence from the Gaelic language and an acceptance of a distinctive cultural identity that is deep-rooted. It is a given that Scottish Gaelic has suffered language attrition under the weight of English and it is a commonplace that English has come to dominate. Scottish Gaelic has moved in the Highlands and Islands from being a majority to a minority language and bilingualism has gone against the minority. Gaelic may be considered as ‘old-fashioned’ or thought of as a conservative language and, therefore, it is inferred that linguistically Gaelic may not have the resources to deal with ease and precision with certain subjects, for example, technological ones. A perceived conservatism (or ‘failure to adapt’) may have been coloured by the decline of high-register Gaelic and its literary language, and the view of Gaels themselves. It has been said that Gaelic suffices in its native context: ‘Tha a’ Ghàidhlig math gu leòr na h-àite fhèin –‘s e sin ri ràdh, air latha fainge, no air a’ chroit, no aig an iasgac’ (‘Gaelic is okay in its own proper place –that’s to say, on a gathering day, on the croft or at the fishing’).

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This is a problem of linguistic attainment and diversity for a language that has been weakening in the face of an adjacent linguistic dominance. It has given rise to a field of scholarship in the sociology of language and an ideology of language planning under the leadership of Professor Joshua Fishman (1926–2015). With his interest in language contact and identity, Fishman devised programmes of intervention to soften the effects of acculturation and assimilation by ‘reversing language shift’. There is now another side to the coin in so far as Gaelic-medium education is much better established and our younger generations are competent and eager to initiate and sustain conversations in the language. If you choose regularly to tune into Radio nan Gàidheal, you will be aware of a convincingly complete and far-reaching Gaelic cultural environment –dialects and all. This national radio station pursues the art of communication in proactive fashion and rapidly disposes of suggestions that Scottish Gaelic may not have a lexis to deal with, for example, modern and electronic technology. Gaelic, in common with other minority languages, offers a language for the digital age.

Island identities take strength and character from their dialects and Gaelic speakers are keenly aware of dialect differences at local and wider levels. Scottish Gaelic dialect studies evolved in greater depth when the ‘Linguistic Survey of Scotland’ began collecting dialect material in the 1950s (Ó Dochartaigh 1997). Initiatives in dialect research had come from Scandinavia, most notably in the study of Hebridean dialects (Borgstrøm 1937: 71–242; Borgstrøm 1940) and a study of the Gaelic of Lewis (Oftedal 1956). Research was then concentrated on phonology but has now broadened out to consider and collect idiom and terminology. The concepts of ‘material culture’ and ‘Regional Ethnology’ have usefully informed this as demonstrated by the current Faclair na Gàidhlig project; in this respect the dialects of the Outer Hebrides and Skye and dialects of the Inner Hebrides (as well as the mainland) display distinctive features of lexis (MacAskill 1963: 64–88; Cheape 2017: 16–20). Both dialects and material culture vary in proportion and remind us that islands and groupings of islands such as ‘The Outer Hebrides’ are far from homogeneous, most obviously with different land structures but more subtly with different regimes of ownership and religious affiliations (see Meek 2000: 28–47).

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In spite of the decline in the number of speakers by the 1950s, Gaelic was still a community language in the Hebrides and parts of the Mainland, and sustained also by emigrant communities in cities such as Glasgow and overseas in Nova Scotia. Perversely, the serious contraction of the Gàidhealtachd or Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland in the twentieth century has given greater prominence to the dialects of the Hebrides. These are the voices, for example, heard in broadcasting. The Gaelic of Skye and the Outer Hebrides, therefore, has come to dominate in language use and has become a sort of standard dialect. Within this, the phonology and intonation in the Gaelic of Lewis is distinctive. While this is immediately recognised among most Gaelic speakers, they will cite individual items of vocabulary to describe the distinctive features of dialect. Distinctions in core vocabulary will be mentioned such as bùrn in Lewis and uisge in islands to the south for ‘fresh water’. Dialects further to the south such as Tiree and Islay do not necessarily draw strength from this situation and their Gaelic may be regarded as ‘peripheral’ and somehow not meeting standards. Running counter to this is the recognition of differences and a need to sustain them, and a burgeoning pride building on this as a feature of a ‘Gaelic revival’. Other distinctive features of dialect reside in tasks and tools, especially in an age before mechanisation while seasonal work was still a communal effort. Words and expressions illustrating every aspect of island life in Eriskay and South Uist were collected by Rev Fr Allan McDonald (1859–1905); the collection demonstrates the visual, concrete and epigrammatic speech of nineteenth-century Hebrideans speaking of their work, customs, strong religious sense and keen observation of animals and plants around them (Campbell 1958: 3; see also MacDonald 1936: 1–54).

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If we move closer to our sources, and also draw on a different range of sources as typified by a cross-disciplinary ‘Regional Ethnology’, a more nuanced and deeper-seated understanding of the cultural heritage of islands can be demonstrated (see Fenton 1985: 43–54). In terms of the material culture (on which Regional Ethnology is predicated), most details emerging from research into locality challenge stereotypes. At a simple level, accounts of the Highlands and Islands will offer us a standard historical or sub-recent model of a population living in thatched houses of dry-stone construction, cultivating the ground with a cas-chrom and burning peat for fuel; as we move round the region these features can too often be challenged. There is evidence too that what might be perceived as hopelessly out-dated element of material culture in the cas-chrom earned plaudits as a ‘modern’ and relatively efficient tool (see below). Whether based on accounts of land-based economies or on the sea and fisheries, further dimensions can be added to the material culture through language, dialect and literature. Even where these are rooted in Scottish Gaelic, it is evident that a different kind of stereotype is addressed that fulfils more of a ‘Gaelic world view’.

Regional ethnology

The Outer Hebrides are an island chain stretching over 130 miles from the Butt of Lewis to Barra Head, with some 119 islands named and used for agricultural purposes though only sixteen are now permanently inhabited. The Inner Hebrides form a second island chain stretching about 153 miles from the north end of Skye south to the Mull of Oa in Islay. The population totals 46,632, distributed between the more highly populated islands of Skye, Mull and Islay, small towns such as Tobermory and Portree, and with a population of 8,100 in the town of Stornoway. Characteristically the population of the Hebrides lives in ‘townships’ or crofting settlements, generally positioned near the sea. The course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw an ‘abandonment’ of the islands, perceived by many as lacking the essential services of a modern industrial economy and a welfare state. The nineteenth century itself so changed the face of the Hebrides, following the notorious era of the ‘Highland Clearances’ approximately between 1780 and 1880, that what went before is now hard to conceive – or to describe in a short chapter. An optimistic view would hold that we have relatively self-sufficient Hebridean agricultural economies today, a culture of self-employment, public sector employment, tourism and a well-worn tradition of working away. The statutory agricultural smallholdings created in the seven crofting counties are frequently questioned as to their viability and future, a by-product of the influence of growing administrative intervention regulating nature and environment.

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In terms of ‘islandness’, the Hebrides seem to reach into a legendary past – a ‘golden age’ in our imagination. Grounding a ‘golden age’ in some sort of reality, our imagination may be fired by Martin Martin and his Description of the Western Isles of 1703 and his Late Voyage to St Kilda of 1698 (published in a single volume in MacLeod 1934). These were the beginnings of an historical record in the conventional and extended sense. ‘Origins’, often fallaciously conceived, continue to entice. There is a wealth of prehistoric remains and an extraordinary record of human occupation in the Hebrides, opening with a ‘crannog’ site on Loch Olabhat in North Uist constructed around 3,200 bce. Among many prehistoric monuments, the most celebrated are the Stones of Callanish [Calanais] above Loch Roag on the west coast of Lewis and a complex archaeological landscape of standing stones, stone circles and stone alignments; modern scholarship has assigned a construction date of around 2,900 bce and construction in several phases and uses until about 1,500 bc (Ritchie 1991: 185). It is an intriguing thought that this duration can be compared approximately with the veneration of Iona as a Christian site since its consecration by Calum Chille (HES Calanais Standing Stones). Less prominent but nonetheless significant are a scatter of sites identified with Mesolithic hunter-fishermen, their fireplaces and stone artefacts, offering a datum of c. 7,500 bce. In generalised terms the hunting culture of the Mesolithic was succeeded by the farming culture of the Neolithic, probably occupying some of the same sites and districts, mixing farming with hunting and fishing and moving settlement more or less frequently in search of fresh stocks of wildlife, soil and pasture. The identity of these people, forbye their material culture and landscape, is beyond our reach and so Gaelic offers no insights apart from folk tales and legends about ‘aboriginal’ peoples or tùsanaich.

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Closer to and opening up a sense of identity and contributing elements of a community memory, place-names and island names in the Hebrides have mixed Gaelic and Norse origins. The Hebrides were part of the Norse kingdoms for over 400 years until sovereignty was transferred to Scotland in 1266 under the terms of the Treaty of Perth. Beginning with waves of looting and settlement at the end of the eighth century, the Norse pioneers were generally vassals of the kings of Norway. A new factor recorded in Gaelic sources was a grouping referred to as Gall-Ghàidheil (literally ‘foreigner-Gaels’), we assume a people of mixed Norse and Gaelic ancestry in Scotland and Ireland. The very extended northern commonwealth of islands between Norway and Iceland, with sub-kingdoms such as the Kingdom of Man and the Isles, favoured the emergence of local leaders such as Somerled, Somhairle Mac Ghille Brìghde, in the twelfth century, exploiting a power vacuum left by the shrinking of Norse power. The Gaelic kingdom of the ‘Lordship of the Isles’ predominated in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries under the leadership of Clan Donald who traced their descent from Somerled. A Gaelic status quo came under severe pressure and attack from a growing state under the Stewart dynasty and a feudal structure was imposed on the Highlands and Islands at the turn of the sixteenth century. The kings of Scots made expropriation into an art form and, with promises of rewards, set the leading families and kindreds against each other. Tensions and internecine warfare ensued, building towards stock definitions of Highlanders and Hebrideans as being unruly and barbarous. These coloured the literature and have contributed to stereotypes of clan history which were further defined in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and in the rosy glow of Romanticism.

The historian draws on the Archdeacon of the Isles, Donald Monro’s description of the islands of about 1549, the accounts of travellers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and details in the Statistical Account of 1791–1799 and New Statistical Account of 1845 (Munro 1961). With the notable exception of many of the authors of the ‘Statistical Accounts’, the Hebrides are rarely described by any writer who was a native of them. Available to modern readership and scholarship, a great body of knowledge and statistical data dwarfs the literature of preceding generations but still often lacks the virtue of first-hand account. Early examples are rare but a ‘Description of the Lewis’ of about 1683 by an ‘Indweller’ is a happy exception. The tacksman of Bragar,’Iain ‘ac Mhurchaidh ‘ic Ailein or John Morison, describes the use of gibean or grease from the gannet’s stomach as form of poultice to heal the inflamed leg of a young friend: ‘Yet in three weeks’ time, being in my house, was perfectly whole by applying the said Oyle’. Personal observation is at a premium and his ‘Description’ includes a wide-ranging survey of all aspects of living in Lewis (Mitchell 1907: 210–215).

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The history (and prehistory) of the Hebrides is predicated on the exploitation of the natural resources of land and sea, where fishing supplied a food protein to supplement the main food staples of oats and barley. The sea is naturally and powerfully part of Scotland’s islands’ identity. Much has been written about this and much remains to be written. The West Coast and Hebrides were rich in supplies of fish. We learn about domestic and individual use of fishing in the late eighteenth century in the island ‘Statistical Accounts’. We see that inshore fishing provided additional fresh food for the home and family, and a complement to the resources of the land. A Lewis saying was dh’iarr am muir a thadhal (‘the sea wants to be visited’) (Macdonald 1990: 92). Deeply ingrained in the island psyche is the awareness of the dangers and uncertainties of living by the sea. Loss of life by drowning was a constant threat that from time to time shattered communities. Storms and drownings such as in 1889 and 1895 are still recalled (Macdonald 1990: 99). The lives of fishing communities and of fisherfolks’ families were riven with anxiety. The people of South Uist, for example, disliked fishing and avoided it; there was a practical reason that the population was settled on the western side with no natural harbours and a notoriously exposed coastline. Agriculture was perceived as a safer and more reliable livelihood.

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Different kinds of fishing evolved to match the different fishing levels of the sea and the different habits of fish. ‘White fish’, such as saithe, cod, haddock and whiting, have always been an important source of food in the coastal zone, being taken with nets and lines baited with hooks. ‘Small lines’, na lìn beaga, were used mainly for winter work; and ‘great lines’, na lìn mòra, were for the spring and summer and in deeper waters. Tha an sgadan fhèin os cionn nan uile or ‘the herring tops them all’ was the mantra (Dòmhnallach agus Davenport 1987: 9). In terms of North Atlantic fisheries and of European trade, the herring has been of long-term importance. The herring were in the Minch in May and June and migrated round the coast to provide an autumn herring season as far south as East Anglia. For some decades in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Scottish herring industry was the biggest fishery in the world, dominating the main international market in Germany, Poland and Russia to the extent that Scottish herring had become a staple diet in the region. The shoals of herring were pursued farther offshore and larger boats such as the ‘Fifie’ and the ‘Zulu’ were built to meet this challenge. The boats needed bigger crews and the seasonal migration of the herring made for a longer season. The industry employed, it was estimated, about 100,000 people by the end of the century and a migrating workforce of men and women as crews, gutters and packers followed the herring round the coast from the Minch to Great Yarmouth. Women formed a landward side to this industry and followed the fisheries to gut and pack the herring into barrels. A significant economic and social role developed, still sealed into the communal memory as Clann-Nighean an Sgadain, although under-represented in the literature (Dòmhnallach agus Davenport 1987; De Fresnes 2010).


XIV, 262
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (April)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XIV, 262 pp., 2 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Kathryn Burnett (Volume editor) Ray Burnett (Volume editor) Michael Danson (Volume editor)

Kathryn A. Burnett is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Cultural Studies, University of the West of Scotland. Ray Burnett is a writer/researcher living and working in the Outer Hebrides. Michael Danson is Professor Emeritus of Enterprise Policy, Heriot-Watt University. The editorial team are co-founders of the Scottish Centre for Island Studies and have worked nationally and internationally with community partners and research and policy experts across a range of island-related projects including cultural heritage curation, small island remote enterprise, and island community assets.


Title: Scotland and Islandness