There are many ways to look at the concept of ‘landscape’, from the underlying geology itself to the view you actually see today. A simple definition is that landscape is simply ‘what you see’ when visiting a beautiful country like
Scotland. But my view is that ‘landscape’ is more than that; it is the physical land, modified by many layers of history.
layers of history are many, dramatic, and fascinating. And they extend back at least 5000 years, in
the Hebrides closer to 10,000 years. As you read about that history you can see
the land today through new eyes; understanding the layers of history gives you
greater appreciation of what you’re actually seeing today. Maybe you can mentally place yourself on the
western seaboard during the heyday of St. Columba, the Kingdom of the Isles, the
glory days of the clans, or during the tragic Clearances.
In any case, understanding the ‘layers of history’ will help you understand and appreciate today’s landscape with new eyes.
Coral Beaches on the Isle of Skye, Inner Hebrides
The volcanic lava flow that forms the Old Man of Storr and the Quiraing on Skye
On this map of the Hebrides, the Outer Hebrides are on the upper left; the main islands are Lewis and Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, and Barra. The Inner Hebrides are scattered along the mainland from the large Skye in the north through Mull in the centre to Islay and Jura in the south before you reach the long Kintyre Peninsula.
The Outer Hebrides are the oldest rocks in
similar to the Canadian shield in North America,
perhaps 2-3 billion years old, and the foundation of a barren landscape, at
least in part. The western beaches
facing the Atlantic are known for their ‘machair’,
wide sandy plains extending inland, composed of ground up shells.
In addition, there are several ancient volcanoes and areas of lava flow, especially in the
Mull, Rhum and Skye are all in part volcanic, along with the tiny island of Staffa,
home to Fingal’s Cave, carved out of volcanic
basalt columns. Another ancient volcanic
caldera sits on the Adnamurchan Peninsula, just north of Mull. These volcanic features give rise to some of
today’s most spectacular scenery.
But you can’t complete this rocky picture until you consider the sea that surrounds all these islands, and its aquamarine beauty at the right season, if the sun is shining. In some views it seems like a tropical paradise!
Fingal's Cave in the basaltic columns of the Isle of Staffa
It is on top of this physical landscape that thousands of years of history have shaped what you see today. It starts with the stone age, when post ice-age peoples travelled this coast by boat, with the
having an important ancient quarry
for bloodstone, used in making stone tools by 6000 BCE. But the stone age brought much more than
this. island of Rhum
During the period starting about 3500 BCE, still mysterious sea-going kingdoms came into existence on the islands and along part of the mainland (as well, most spectacularly, on Orkney, off the north-east tip of
Scotland). These societies erected numerous stone
circles, of which the Standing Stones at Callinish on the Isle of Lewis is the
best known. These presumably served a
religious or ceremonial function, probably in connection with caring for the
dead. But some of these also show clear
astronomical alignments, suggesting a much more advanced society than we might
Standing Stones in Kilmartin Valley
There were also individual standing stones, lines of stones, and burial mounds at this time. This line of four stones is in the
, on the mainland opposite the
Isle of Mull. It’s part of a 5 kilometer
long prehistoric cemetery, and quite close to Dunadd (below), the first capital
of the ‘Scots’ when they arrived 3000 years later. The people of the stone age built some of the
longest lasting monuments you can see in Kilmartin Valley Scotland today!
Dunadd, the 'Scots' Capital of Dal Riata circa 500 A.D.
As the Stone Age evolved into the Bronze and then the Iron Age, the
evolved. By 500 A.D. it was at its
height, encompassing much of the southern Hebrides and adjacent mainland
(today’s Argyll and Lochaber), as well as the Kingdom of Dal Riata province
of Antrim in northern Ireland. These celtic ‘Scots’, the first such people
known as ‘Scots’, had moved north from Ireland,
expanding into western Scotland.
Their capital was built around the rock at Dunadd, where archeological excavations have revealed jewelry, metal-working, and long distance trade goods from as far away as the Mediteranean. It is undoubtedly the most important archeological site of this era in
Iona Abbey, site of St. Columba's abbey in the late 500's, centre of 'a brilliant Christianity on the edge of the world'.
During the years when Dal Riata flourished, Columba, or ‘Colm Cille’, the ‘dove of the church’, an Irish Prince, arrived from
sent into exile in 563 A.D. after a dispute there. He sailed until he could no longer see Ireland, and
ended up establishing the Iona Abbey with his band of followers. He was a major influence on bringing
Christianity to all of Scotland,
and established what is now known as the Columban church. St. Columba is known to us through Adomnan’s ‘Vita Columba’, the Life of Columba.
Although the abbey on
Iona was descrated by the Vikings, and
later fell into ruin during the Reformation, it has been rebuilt in the past
century, and serves as the centre of a vibrant world-wide Iona Community
today. Iona is a one of the most popular
tourist destinations in the Hebrides, although it’s a tiny island off the
western tip of Mull that takes a little
travelling to get to! It was Columba who
inaugurated the practice of anointing kings, bringing a spiritual side to the
crowning of monarchs. It was also
Columba who reputedly had the first encounter with the Loch Ness monster!
Viking Grave Slab carved with a longship and sword
But in 794 the Vikings, roving bands of Scandinavian pirates, descended on Iona, and later the rest of the
Hebrides in their dragon boats. Driven out of Norway
by the lack of land in the narrow fjords for younger sons to inherit, they
murdered entire settlements throughout the Hebrides,
a favourite practice being to cut off their victims’ heads, and hang them up in
a row for display. Norse sagas record
the violence and destruction of the next 300 years.
Eventually Somerled, of both Norse and Gaelic ancestry, drove out the marauding Vikings, becoming ‘King of the Isles’, during the 12th Century and bringing a sort of peace to the islands, the beginning of the ‘Kingdom of the Isles’. Two of his surviving sons, Dougal, Ranald (Angus was the 3rd) are said to be the progenitors of the MacDougall and MacDonald clans, dominant clans in the
Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye, home of the Clan MacLeod,
residence of Hugh MacLeod of MacLeod, the 30th Clan Chief
residence of Hugh MacLeod of MacLeod, the 30th Clan Chief
For the next several centuries the ‘Kingdom of the Isles’, and after it the ‘Lordship of the Isles’ was a flourishing maritime community, with numerous castles and several important clans throughout the islands. Only a handful of castles remain in clan use; today most are ruins, but there were many throughout the islands. Following the Battle of Largs in 1263,
Norway gave up its formal control
of the islands, and the isles became subject to the King of Scots, though
functionally still very independent.
Eventually King James IV of Scotland took over the lordship in
These were the days of legend for many Scottish clans. Besides the MacDonalds and MacDougalls mentioned above, the Macleods, Mackenzies, MacNeills, Mackinnons, MacDonnells, and MacLeans were dominant clans in various parts of the
Hebrides. Clan chiefs were able to put thousands of men
in the field (or in galleys on the sea) as the clans feuded among themselves,
but in good times feasting and celebration built clan loyalty.
Kisimul Castle in Castlebay Harbour, Barra, home of the Clan MacNeill, and now leased to Historic Scotland for 1 pound and a bottle of whisky annually!
Over the next two centuries the situation in mainland
Ridge and Furrow patterns in fields on the Isle of Skye, still visible in sheep pasture but last used by clan members to grow crops in the Middle Ages
In 1688 the last of the Stewart Kings, James VII and II, was overthrown in London and a distant relative, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange arrived to take the throne. James was a Catholic sympathizer, but William and Mary were thoroughly Protestant. As William quickly sought to demand loyalty of the Scots, one small clan in the
did not swear
their loyalty quickly enough. The
Glencoe Massacre was the result. valley
of Glen Coe
Glencoe, site of the tragic Glencoe Massacre in 1692
In the Highlands and
Islands, this meant rebellion, or several
rebellions – the last in 1745 when Bonnie Prince Charlie, James VII’s grandson,
arrived to seek Scots followers who would restore him to the throne. After their terrible defeat at the Battle of
Culloden that year though, the Highlands and Islands, including the Hebrides,
were decimated by ‘Butcher’ Cumberland,
the British General. Bagpipes, kilts and
the Gaelic language themselves were banned, as the representatives of the king
in distant London
came down hard on the clans. It was the
beginning of the end for the formerly flourishing communities on the islands
and the clans themselves.
Castle Eilean Donan – destroyed during the era of the Jacobite Rebellions, but rebuilt in the 20th Century, and said to be one of the most picturesque castles in Scotland
As landlords, the former clan chiefs who previously had felt responsibility for their clan members fell into simply demanding higher and higher rents. Then as demand for wool rose in
the Napoleonic Wars, they found they could make more money raising sheep than trying to get rent payments out of poverty-stricken clan members, many of whom
still weren’t members of a monetary economy in any real sense and had little
money with which to pay rent.
The result was the dreaded ‘Clearances’. Clan members living on scattered holdings throughout the
were ‘cleared’, or driven off the land, their homes burned behind them, and
either loaded on ships as emigrants, or allocated tiny ‘croft’ holdings along
the shoreline, where they could work for the landlord gathering kelp, a
horrible hardship. Agents of the
landlords (who were now spending most of their time in London), brought in
breeds of sheep that could withstand the winters on the moors, and shepherds to
care for them, and the entire Hebrides (and much of the Highlands) were
Stone foundations of a home 'cleared' during the Clearances, Isle of Skye
It is one of the great ironies of history in
and the Hebrides that the ‘cleared’ clan members, leaving the islands
downtrodden and discouraged, became the pioneers in North
America and elsewhere, whose efforts to establish themselves is
such a positive contribution to our history here.
Remains of a church from the Clearances, near Lusta, Waternish Peninsula, Isle of Skye
Clan chiefs often went bankrupt spending beyond their means to maintain their lavish
London lifestyle, and estates were sold to investors from England
or the Scottish lowlands. These new
landlords often felt even less loyalty to the clan members remaining on the
huge estates. Colonel Gordon of Cluny, from Aberdeenshire for example purchased North and
South Uist, Benbecula and Barra in the Outer Hebrides, and drove 3000 people
off their land to emigrate to Canada.
Kisimul Castle on Barra, symbolic of Colonel Gordon of Cluny, who 'cleared' the island in 1851, sending the islanders to fend for themselves in Canada
The 150 years since the Clearances ended saw continuing depopulation on the islands. Those left behind struggled to make a living off ‘croft’ properties along the shoreline that were simply too small to support a family. Other employment became essential, but often wasn’t available. Many of the smaller islands were abandoned entirely.
In the 20th Century government efforts have stimulated the local economy to the point where today population is slowly rising, at least in some areas of the
Hebrides, and tourism is growing. The internet enables home-based employment
where available, and some are choosing the isolation of the islands over the
crowds of the cities. Still, it will take a long time (if ever) to return to pre-clearances population levels.
Small 100 passenger 'adventure' cruise ship we sailed on in 2010, visiting many of the islands -
a sign of things to come?
a sign of things to come?
It is probably the scenery that attracts the tourists today, along with all these ‘layers of history’, or perhaps the clan history for visitors whose families came from Scotland. Tourists visit Islay for whiskey tours, Iona to see Columba's Abbey, Skye to go mountain climbing, or any of the islands for their remote beauty. But what you see when you are there is the culmination of at least 5 millenia of history, from the Stone Age through to modern Scotland.
Layers of history - from medieval castles and earlier, to modern tourism
In any given spot in the Hebrides you can be seeing ancient stone circles, medieval castles, a rugged land formerly home to the Scottish clans, or the rather bleak landscape of 'cleared' valleys and hills. Awareness of these many layers of history underlies understanding the landscape of the Hebrides today.