Mingulay: 100 years of abandonement.

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.

60905800_mingulay_nts_464-300x168The 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.

The Old School House on Mingulay

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.



About rodger moffet

Rodger is the owner of ScotClans.com.

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2 thoughts on “Mingulay: 100 years of abandonement.

  1. vacation scotland

    We are all very familiar with the story of St Kilda and the famous evacuation in 1930 that we tend to forget that there were many other islands that were abandoned in the early part of the 20th century. Thanks for posting a very illuminating history of a very enigmatic island


  2. Susan Fry

    Hi, I just stumbled onto this site and am enjoying it very much. An interestingly diverse range of topics — and a high standard of writing and information. Wonderful article — touching and bittersweet and factually informative. Reminds me of the Great Blasket Island off the west coast of Kerry, which was also evacuated, and which I visited in 1988. And I worked as an archaeological excavator the summer of 1993 on Omey Island, a tidal island off the Galway coast, about 7 miles north of Clifden, which still has a few habitable cottages used in the summer, though the population was also evacuated to the mainland by the government, as it was less expensive than running water and electricity out to the lovely low-lying island. The Great Blasket is famous as the home of Peig Sayers, whose autobiography “Peig” seems to be uniformly hated by every Irish person who was forced to study it to get their Gaelic leaving cert. I have also visited a few of the Hebridean islands over the years (Mull & Iona, Lewis (3x, starting in 1983), Gigha and Colonsay (paying homage to ancestral MacPhee roots — though God knows where they were actually living at the time they emigrated to Nova Scotia in the early 1800s or earlier). I was in Colonsay at the end of May some 24 years ago…and the flag was blooming everywhere and Kiloran Bay was so blue and its beach so Caribbean-perfect that I feared Donald Trump might swoop in at any moment and ruin it. I found it hard to imagine how anyone could ever have chosen to leave – -I didn’t want to! Perhaps my view would have been a bit different, had I been trying to feed 7 children there in the winter at the end of the 18th c. I can imagine that their hearts must have longed for it, though…


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