The Landscape of the Hebrides - Layers of History in Scotland

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.

In Scotland, those 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

Scotland’s Hebrides provide a perfect place to illustrate how the layers of history contribute to appreciating today’s landscape.  The Hebrides are the islands extending all the way up the west coast of Scotland.  They’re often divided into the Inner and Outer Hebrides.  The Outer Hebrides are also called the Western Isles, and sometimes that term simply applies to the entire area.  While there are 9 larger islands, there are nearly as many moderate sized but settled islands, and hundreds of smaller islands, down to the tiny rock skerries.

The volcanic lava flow that forms the Old Man of Storr and the Quiraing on Skye

The first layer of the Hebrides landscape is the rock itself, and the west coast of Scotland is very rocky!  The major geological zones of Scotland all run from south-west to north-east, and most of these extend out to form the westerly islands.  Islay and Jura in the south have a gentler landscape; the smooth rounded mountains on Jura reflect the Grampian mountains in the eastern Highlands.  Skye and the central western coast are the most mountainous part of Scotland, a very rugged landscape indeed, including the mountains of Glencoe, Ben Nevis, and the famous Cuillins on Skye itself.

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 Scotland, 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 Inner Hebrides.  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 island of Rhum having an important ancient quarry for bloodstone, used in making stone tools by 6000 BCE.  But the stone age brought much more than this.

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 expect.

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 Kilmartin Valley, 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 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 Kingdom of Dal Riata 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 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 Scotland.

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 Ireland, 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 Hebrides ever since.

Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye, home of the Clan MacLeod, 
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 1493. 

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 Scotland changed dramatically.  The Reformation arrived, diminishing the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the Lowlands, while the Highlands and Islands remained primarily Catholic.  King James VI inherited the throne of England after Queen Elizabeth I died childless, and the entire Scottish court moved to London.  And clan chiefs gradually evolved into landlords, demanding payment of leases instead of simply their share of crops and livestock grown by their clan members.

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 valley of Glen Coe did not swear their loyalty quickly enough.  The Glencoe Massacre was the result. 

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 England during 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 Hebrides 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 depopulated.
Stone foundations of a home 'cleared' during the Clearances, Isle of Skye

It is one of the great ironies of history in Scotland 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?

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.

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