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