In June 1912 a flotilla of small boats sailed away from the tiny island of Mingulay, the boats carried a handful of crofters and their families and marked the end of over a thousand years of island history.
The island of Mingulay forms part of the Bishop Islands, a small collection of islands that lie off the south coast of Barra at the bottom of the Hebrides chain. Its an island of incredible drama; some of the tallest sea cliffs in Europe, sea stacks and arches, one tiny sheltered sandy bay and spectacular views across to its sister islands such as Pabbay and Berneray. Just at the end of the last ice age when the massive European ice sheets retreated from the Western Isles Mingulay would have been connected to the rest of the outer Hebrides, but as sea levels rose it was eventually cut off. There are traces of settlements dating back to the Iron Age and until that day in 1912 the island had been almost continually inhabited.
The sea around the island is dangerous and unpredictable, sailing out from Mingulay could be a one way trip and it was not uncommon for the island to be completely unreachable for months on end. One story that illustrates this concerns two friends who had left the island, one on a trip to Barra and the other who was heading to America to seek his fortune. The friends said their goodbyes at the quayside at Castlebay on Barra. Many months later the one who had made his way to America returned after deciding the new world was no for him. He was surprised to bump into his friend back in Castlebay. The poor man had been stuck on Barra all that time still unable to return home.
Up until the Mid 13th century the islands were under Norse control and indeed the name Mingulay is derived from the old Norse ‘Mikil -ay’ which means ‘big island’. When the Norse invaders finally gave up control of the western isles around 1266 the islands passed to the Lords of the Isles and then to the MacNeils of Barra, in fact it is the rocks of Builacraig on Mingulay that are featured on the crest of Clan MacNeil of Barra.
Although the islands had been long converted to christianity it was a version tempered with a mix of many other older beliefs. Islanders firmly believed in the faery folk and in many other supernatural creatures. Their belief could it times prove disastrous; one example occured during the early tenure of The MacNeils. The chief had grown concerned having not heard from the residents of Mingulay for many months. He sent a ship over to the island and one man called MacPhee was sent ashore. he searched the island and discovered all the inhabitants had died of disease. His crewmates fearing an outbreak of plague left him on the island where he was exiled for a year, climbing the hill every day to look out for rescue. When the boat finally returned to repopulate the island he was granted land there and the lookout hill was named MacPhee’s hill in his honour.
Alas MacNeil sold the island in 1840 along with the other Barra islands to Colonel John Gordon of Aberdeenshire. Gordon had little concern or charity for the islanders and proceeded to clear his new property to make way for sheep though oddly during the height of the clearances the population actually increased as many islanders from nearby Barra fled to the more remote Mingulay rather than make the perilous journey to Nova Scotia. around this time the island population peaked at around 150 inhabitants.
Gradually though the population began to decline, one theory was that it was sparked by a disaster that befell the residents of nearby Pabbay. A boat from the neighbouring island had sunk loosing all 5 hands on board. On such a small island as Pabbay this equated to half the male population. For the residents of Mingulay this brought home the fragility of their own existence and as knowledge of the world beyond their island began to improve many began to realise there were altogether safer and more prosperous ways to make a living away from this tiny outcrop.
From the start if the 1900s islanders began to abandon Migulay, some headed to nearby Vatersay and Sandray where they illegally occupied land there. in 1910 there were only six families living on the island and in 1912 the decision was reached to abandon the island for good.
Since 1912 the island has passed through a few owners who had used it for grazing land until it was finally taken over by the National Trust for Scotland in 2000. The island is now a home to an impressive seabird population.
This weekend the NTS will mark the centenary of the final abandonment of Mingulay with a series of events. A time to reflect on the fragile communities that have existed along the Hebridean chain.