Scotland’s Outer Hebrides: Ancient Ruins and Crumbling Crofts

Image by colinjcampbell

Image by colinjcampbell

Scotland’s ancient islands, the Outer Hebrides, are a repository of history, mystery and enigma, from ancient man to the tough farming folk of more recent centuries.  The transition from paganism to Christianity is evident in the stone circles and ruined churches, while the combination of Norse and Celtic influences give the islands a unique feel.  This photo essay attempts to capture that feeling…

Image by savagecat

Image by savagecat

Sunset over Taransay, the largest island in Scotland to lack a permanent population.  The picturesque island has been uninhabited since 1974, although it does still accomodate holiday makers.  Prior to its abandonment it had been home to hardy island dwellers since at least 300 AD.  Celtic pagans were the first to set up shop, before Christianity took a hold about 650 AD.  The Isle of Taransay is famous for being the host of reality television show Castaway 2000.

Images by savagecat

Images by savagecat

There may not be many people left but there’s no shortage of sheep in the Outer Hebrides.  This one is enjoying the evening sunlight above Horgabost beach on the Isle of Harris.  The geography as seen from the summit of An Cliseam gives some indication of how tough life here must be – and this is a good day!  Serene one moment, stormy and exposed the next, so if you’re one of those people that enjoyes lying in bed at night listening to the howling wind, this could very well be the place for you!

Images by savagecat

Images by savagecat

Offerings of money (and a shell) are left at the top of the tower of St Clement’s Church at Rodel, Isle of Harris.  The carved deer are part of a scene crafted onto the tomb of Alisdair Crotach, the 8th Chief of the MacLeods of Dunvegan.

Image by jemasmith

Image by jemasmith

Kisimul Castle (above) dominates Castlebay on the Isle of Barra and is completely surrounded by water, making it as strong as strongholds get – at least until it was abandoned in 1838 with some of its impenetrable stone ending up in Glasgow’s roads.  Today it is owned by the chief of Clan McNeil and leased to Historic Scotland for the princely sum of £1 a year plus a bottle of whisky.  And that’s how they do business in Scotland!  The castle’s well defended location is probably more down to the meaning of it’s Gaelic name than fear of attack from enemies (the word “Kisimul”translates to: “The place where taxes are paid”).

Image by Evelyn and Robert Wirth

Image by Evelyn and Robert Wirth

(Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0)

The town of Castlebay on the Isle of Barra looks reasonably well sheltered by the surrounding hills.  Kisimul Castle can be seen sitting oddly alone out in the bay.  Barra is a predominantly Gaelic speaking island, but they’re certain to understand the word “whisky”. In fact the film Whisky Galore! was filmed there in 1949.

Images by Hermés

Images by Hermés

Two major forms of industry are depicted above – fishing and crofting.  Both are tough ways of life that have retained a foothold despite  dwindling prospects for all involved.  Crofts are tiny, self-sufficient farms, where crofters live off the land and pay a fee to the landowner.  Most fishing today will also be mainly for the consumption of those casting the nets.  The bizarre looking structure (first down on left) is the Aiginis Farm Raiders’ Monument, a recent installation commemorating an 1887 raid by crofters trying to kill some of the laird’s (lord of the manor) deer, to protest the amount of rent they had to pay for their crofts.  But if there’s one thing that did bind the islanders during days of yore, it was the Church (top and below).

Image via Morrismaciver

Image via Morrismaciver

(Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 Generic)

St Columba’s Uidh, or Eaglais na h-Aoidhe (Eye Church) is a 14th century ruin sitting within its own cemetery near the town of Stornaway, Isle of Lewis.  The church is believed to be built on the site of the cell of St Catan, a 6th century Irish monk and contemporary of St Columba.  It is also the burial ground for the chiefs of the MacLeod clan of Lewis.

Images by Bocian & Tusia

Images by Bocian & Tusia

Image by rumer279

Image by rumer279

One of the great paradoxes of island life, to outsiders, is that it represents a romantic and simple life.  But the tough and arduous nature of what accompanies such an existence in reality equates to a dwindling way of life.  The Blackhouse Village of Gearrannan is a restored crofting settlement on the Isle of Lewis.  Today holidaymakers can enjoy modern comforts within the age-old walls of these once derelict crofts.

Image by Bocian & Tusia

Images by Bocian & Tusia

Only seabirds that nest on the windswept, breaker-beaten cliffs are ideally suited to living here, along with seals of course.  Interestingly, the monuments built by ancient man are the ones that have best stood the test of time.  It brings a whole new meaning to the old adage: “They don’t build’em how they used to” – grandparents’ favourite!

Image via Netvor

Image via Netvor

(Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0)

The enigmatic Callanish Stones date to between 2900 and 2600 BC.  A tomb was later built into the site, but debris from its destruction suggests the circle was abandoned between 2000 and 1700 BC.  The circle’s layout resembles a distorted Celtic cross.  The stones, hewn from local rock, range from one to five metres in height, with four being the average.  Going by these figures, Callanish Stones is surpassed in height only by Stonehenge, while the circle itself may even be older, though there is an raging debate over the age and raison d’etre of the megalithic icon of Salisbury Plain.

Images by Hare Guizer

Images by Hare Guizer

As always, folklore plays a significant role in local interpretation.  Some say giants who once roamed the island refused to be converted to Christianity by Saint Kieran and were turned to stone as a punishment (funny looking giants!).  Others attest that on Midsummer’s Day the “shining one” walks along the stone avenue, “his arrival heralded by the cuckoo’s call.”  The “shining one” is presumably the sun, with its rays playing upon the stone avenue at that specific time of year.

Images by Bocian & Tusia

Images by Bocian & Tusia

As mentioned previously, two of the main industries in the Outer Hebrides are fishing and crofting, which still cling on today, as the images above suggest.  The lighthouses strewn across the various archipelagos have helped ships keep their distance and navigate a safe passage for decades, perhaps even centuries.  The pretty grass roofed holiday home above looks more like a hobbit hole than a traditional croft.  But with the Gaelic tones, the Norse influence, the angry seas and the craggy peaks, it’s not hard to image how Tolkein drew inspiration from these isolated and misty out-lands.

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  • Lizard

    “Barra is a predominantly Gaelic speaking island, but they’re certain to understand the word “whisky”.”

    I’d imagine they would understand it, considering the word is an anglicized version of an original Gaelic word anyway…

  • Tom

    Good point, Lizard!

  • Gerard Lemmens

    THE ST COLUMBA CHURCH UIDH
    My wife and I have just visted the islands Skye, Harris and Lewis and were very sadned indeed to see that NOTHING is being done to the resurrection or renovation of this beautiful church at this increadable spot near Stornoway called the church of St Columba or Eye church. This could be one of the main attractions to Lewis or Stornoway and used for marriage ceremonies in the Stornoway area. The only thing which has been done is to put some fancy gates to the entrance. Should that not have been the last part of the renovation work ??! My wife’s great grandfather Rev George Macleod and his family are buried there and we think it is  A GREAT SCANDAL THAT NOTHING IS BEING DONE TO SAVE THIS CHURCH
    Bill Lawson wrote years ago a book about this church and hoped then that action would be taken to save this church from ruin, but only fancy gates to the entrance have been put up and nothing else !
    It is tragic.
    Regards,
    Gerard Lemmens

 
 
 
 
 

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