The Lost Islands
Over the last 150 years, tens of Hebridean islands have lost their populations, sometimes meaning the loss of unique and distinctive cultures which had developed largely in isolation over many centuries. The most recent two were Scarp and Taransay the latter now famous because of its use as the base for the BBC series Castaway 2000.
But from the far north beyond Lewis to the south beyond Barra populations have gradually withdrawn, sometimes racked by diseases brought from outside; left unable to cope after previous emigrations or losses of men at sea; or simply unwilling to put up with the effects of isolation for any longer. Some communities were destroyed by landlords clearing islands to allow for more sheep.
The completion of the Sound of Barra Integrated Transport Project means the linking by causeway, bridge or by vehicle ferry of all the Outer Hebridean islands which are still inhabited.
The underlying aim of the transport policy pursued on the Western Isles has been to prevent islands like Great Bernera,Vatersay, Scalpay, Berneray and Eriskay from the joining the roll-call of casualties.
Berneray: Lying to the south of Barra, (not to be confused with Berneray off North Uist), this is the base of the Barra Head lighthouse. The island is 54 miles off the mainland of Scotland and only 95 miles from Ireland.
This island had only three families in 1794, rising to 57 in 1881. By 1961 only the lighthousekeepers lived there and the light is now automatic.
Mingulay - this has Bronze Age remains and had a population of 52 in 1764. By 1881 it was 150, but the last two inhabitants left in 1934.
Pabbay (one of many islands of this name) - it had about 20 in 1794, peaking at only 26 in 1881. It has been deserted since 1911.
Sandray - this had nine farms in 1794 but was down to nine people by 1861, rising to 20 in 1930. It has been empty of people since 1934.
In the Sound of Barra, between Eriskay and Barra itself, there are:-
Hellisay - this had a population of 108 in 1841, probably as a result of people being evicted from nearby islands. Since 1891 it has been deserted.
Gighay - inhabitants noted in 1549 and still as late as the 18th century. Then deserted.
Fuday - deserted since 1901, its peak population is recorded only as seven.
Ronay - In 1826 there were more than 180 people but they were cleared off by the landlord. It ranged between four and nine inhabitants until the 1931 census by which time the last had left.
Wiay: Six inhabitants in 1861, it has been deserted since soon after 1901.
Monach Islands/Eilean Heisgeir: These five islands, about five miles off North Uist, supported at least 100 people in 1595, after a history of habitation going back more than 500 years. In 1810 the islands were abandoned after the complete failure of the soil following overgrazing. People were later able to return and population peaked at 135 in 1891. The last families left in 1943 after the closure of the lighthouse. There had been a tradition of ships' lights on the islands centuries earlier when monks cared for the lights. A family returned in 1945 but left after three years.
Boreray: Anciently inhabited with remains of standing stones and chapels, its population was 181 in 1841, falling to 63 in 1921. It was down to 7 in 1951 and was uninhabited by the time of the 1981 census.
Vallay: Its recorded population peaked at 59 in 1841. It was deserted by the 1981 census.
Pabbay: Formerly described as the granary of Harris, this around 100 people inn 1800 rising to 338 by 1841. Then it was cleared by the landlord, its people scattered to other islands and abroad. In 1858 only a shepherd and his family were left.
Ensay: This island in the Sound of Harris had a population of 15 in 1861 but since 1951 there have been merely two seasonal shepherds on the island.
Killegray: Also in the Sound of Harris, this seems to have been occupied by one family with between 3-5 people there from 1861-1931 but none since, although two people were temporarily on the island when the 1971 census was taken.
August 1930 saw the evacuation of St Kilda, which cost the British Government £1000. This was the end of many centuries of occupation, punctuated by disasters brought about by disease from visitors, shipwrecks and the deadly eight-days sickness which for decades in the 19th century killed two out of three babies born. The population hit 200 in about 1810 before starting to decline reaching 73 in 1921.
Taransay: Flourishing as far back as 1549, it had a population of 76 at its recorded peak in 1911. But by 1971 only one family of three people remained on the island. After 1974, the remaining people started to spend winters at Seilibost on the mainland and the last member of the last family died in 1994.
Scarp: Population peaked at 213 in 1881, falling to 74 by 1951, and then to zero in 1971. In 1934 the island hit the headlines twice, first on January 14 when Christina Maclennan gave birth to a baby on the island. The following day concern grew for her condition. There was no phone and the nearest doctor was 17 miles of winding road beyond the ferry. Finally she travelled by ferry boat, the floor of a bus and by car to Stornoway, many hours away giving birth to a twin baby in hospital two days after the first. So not only were they born on different days but in different counties the first in Inverness-shire and the second in Ross and Cromarty. In July 1934, the island was the setting for a trial of sending mail by rocket. It failed but the German inventor went on to help with Nazi Germany's V-rocket programme in World War Two.
Scotosay: In East Loch Tarbert, this island had 20 inhabitants in 1911, but no one has lived there permanently since before the 1931 census.
Shiant Isles: As many as 16 people lived on the islands at their known peak of population. The 1821 census shows six people; 1891 eight people; and 1901, also eight. But in 1901 the last family left for Harris, including a 21-year-old girl who had never been off the Shiants before. Since then they have been used for grazing.
Flannan Isles: These were never permanently inhabited in historical memory, although a chapel dedicated to St Flannan was built there more than 1000 years ago. However, in December 1900 they were the centre of a great mystery after the three lighthousekeepers vanished from the island without trace, a disappearance so sudden that a meal of cold meat, pickles and potatoes was left untouched on their table. Surviving notes showed they had just survived a storm so fierce that it had removed turf from the top of a cliff which normally stood 200ft above the surface of the sea. It is thought they were caught unawares by a huge follow-up wave in the inlet which led to the island's west landing.
North Rona: The most northerly island of the Outer Hebrides ever to have been regularly inhabited, North Rona was lived on for many centuries. It is 44 miles north of the Butt of Lewis, further offshore than St Kilda, and had a flourishing community in 1549. It seems to have been maintained at around 30 people with any excess moving to Lewis. But in 1680 the community was devastated by an invasion of rats and a raid by a passing ship which destroyed all the island foodstuffs. All the people died. A resettlement ended in disaster around 1695 in some sort of boating tragedy. After that it was only inhabited by a shepherd and family until 1844 when it was deserted.