British Isles - Western Isles
Western Isles
A potted history of the Outer Hebrides.
The name Hebrides comes from the Norse Havbrødøy meaning island on the edge of the sea.

The background
Situated on the Atlantic seaways the Western Isles were probably first visited by man from about 5000BC, with more organised settlement from abround 4000BC. The stones at Callanish (3000BC, about the same time as Stonehenge) show this was an advanced civilisation. However climate change from around 1500BC led to major vegetation change with the loss of trees and encroachment of peat. Apart from the problems this created to agriculture it means that many remains were lost under the peat; also, and particularly in the west, blown sand covered others.

Celtic settlement by Pictish people is particularly marked by remains of brochs, like the classic example at Dun Carloway built around 50BC, remained virtually complete for 1500 years and was still inhabited within the last century. Christianity arrived early with monks from Iona and significant chapels were being established by 900.

The Norse began to appear, mainly as raiders, from about 800 and settled from about 850. The kingdom of Man and the Isles came into being and regarded itself as virtually independent of Norway. However King Magnus Barelegs of Norway eventually reimposed his rule in 1098 in what was apparently a typically Viking way. There are relatively few physical remains from Norse times, however the typical black house is based on their long house and 'Norse' mills remained in use until relatively recently.

Norwegian rule was recognised, albeit grudgingly, by the Scottish crown until the Battle of Largs in 1263 after which Norway ceded the islands to Scotland via the Treaty of Perth in 1266. However central rule from Scotland appears to have become nominal and effective control seems to have been in local hands under the Lordship of the Isles from about 1350 - 1500. The Scottish parliament tried to restrain this but it wasn't until Oliver Cromwell's Parliament that central control was firmly established.

The last two centuries
To understand the Western Isles today it is necessary to recognise the impact of more recent history. This is complex, but characterised by most, though not all, estate owners having little or no consideration for their tenants (who had virtually no rights) with clearances, establishment of large, enclosed farms, evictions and enforced emigration being the order of the time. Understandably there was a degree of unrest with such events as the Land Riots. The Crofters Act of 1886 established rights for crofters (the system of land tenure today seems complicated to the outsider). There was even conflict over kelp (seaweed) which crofters wanted for fertiliser and owners wanted to burn for alkali for industry.

Lord Leverhulme bought Lewis and attempted to create his own vision of a new economic order in the island. Although he invested considerable sums of money most of his schemes failed to establish themselves, possibly due to his approach being misguided albeit altruistic, possibly because of the conservatism of the islanders. He eventually sold Lewis but retained Harris, where there was more acceptance of his ideas.

Both World Wars hit the islands hard. Not only did men volunteer early and willingly they suffered heavy casualties. In WW1 of serving men 17% were killed - double the ratio of death to population in the rest of Britain. The cruellest twist was when the yacht Iolaire sank entering Stornoway Harbour whilst carrying troops returning home after the war - 205 lives were lost.

A quick comment about religion is appropriate. There is a marked religious divide (geographically speaking) between north and south. Lewis, Harris and North Uist are staunchly Protestant and Presbyterian. South Uist and Barra are predominantly Roman Catholic. There appears to be no conflict between the two major denominations (although it appears the same cannot always be said for intra-Protestant relations). There is strong observance of the Sabbath, especially in the north, and the islands are effectively shut on a Sunday. One of the busiest periods we observed on the roads was at church time on a Sunday.

Of a total population of about 27,000 only 10,000 are in full time employment and a third of these are employed by the Islands Council. Stornoway (6,000) is the only town. Of the islands Lewis has a population of 18,000, Harris and Scalpay 2,500 and South Uist 2,300. Benbecula and North Uist each have about 1,800 and Barra 1,300.

The Western Isles has perhaps never had a strong economy. Whilst they appear to have been extremely conservative in economic terms they appear to have actively embraced IT. The 'dotcom revolution' has helped to overcome their peripheral location. Agriculture is more important in the Uists than Harris and Lewis but has never been strong, many crofters now farm for secondary income. Harris Tweed remains significant. Fishing, especially for shellfish, and processing is now significant. Tourism is beginning to grow and offers scope for employment and trade but this is serously threatened by the wind power proposals which will radically and irrevocably alter the environment.

There is a brief note on Gaelic and place names in the Western Isles.

More information
There are a number of worthwhile web sites shown on our external links page.



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