Scottish islands: Prisons, mermaids and mysterious deaths

Next week sees the end of a year-long celebration of Scotland’s watery history, as the Year of Scotland’s Islands comes to a close. Throughout the year, events have been held on 42 of our inhabited islands, covering everything from piping to the sound of big bands.

But besides the many inhabited islands off Scotland’s coast, there are numerous uninhabited gems, with histories as rich as anything on the mainland. So join us here at The Caledonian Mercury as we introduce a mini event of our own, celebrating some of our less accessible and altogether less civilised islands.

Eynhallow, with Rousay beyond <em>Picture: Ian Balcombe</em>
Eynhallow, with Rousay beyond Picture: Ian Balcombe

Eynhallow, between Orkney Mainland and Rousay
The fair people of Orkney have long agreed that finned people and mermaids live among them. The sightings – and there have been many – centre on the now-deserted island of Eynhallow. These fishy people are described as being dark and swarthy, with long fins which act as cloaks to disguise their rather obvious absence of legs. And just like most Scottish towns, the merpeople have twinned their home of Eynhallow with Finfolkhaheen, a mysterious underwater city where they spend the winter.

If you see a merperson, the best advice is to run, as the finmen are known to abduct locals to marry their finwomen. It is small wonder mortal men are favoured by the mermaids, as marriage to a finman saps them of their youth, and turns them from beauty into beast.

Flannan Isles, 20 miles west of Lewis

Flannan Isles lighthouse <em>Picture: JJM</em>
Flannan Isles lighthouse Picture: JJM

On Boxing Day 1900, the Hesperusarrived at Eilean Mor on the Flannan Isles, having battled the Atlantic for days in order to bring relief to the lighthouse-keepers on the isolated island. The ship’s crew found the fires out, the beds unmade and the clock stopped. The three keepers – James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and Donald McArthur – were nowhere to be found.

A rigorous search failed to turn up the missing men. An inspection of the lighthouse log showed it was written up until 13 December. The rescue team noted that on 15 December, a great storm had warped the jetty and twisted the railings. The ship’s crew concluded that a strong wind or a freak wave had cast the men into the water and certain death.

But a poem by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson succeeded in making a mystery out of what was undoubtedly a tragedy. Flannan Isle described the accident in terms of such foreboding that many concluded an altogether more complex conclusion was possible. People wanting a mystery did not have to look very far for their proof.

Superintendent Muirhead’s words on the state of the “twisted” railings were deemed to indicate some diabolical presence. There were oddities in the story such as the discovery of a set of oilskins, which indicated that one of the men went out of the lighthouse in a storm without protective clothing. Finally, any “natural” explanation for the disaster ran contrary to the rigid lighthouse-keeping rule that insisted one man stay in the lighthouse to guard the lamp, come what may.

Incredible theories sprang up: one of the men went insane and killed his colleagues before throwing himself off the island; a sea-monster dragged the keepers to a watery grave; and, finally, a much later theory claimed that the men were abducted by aliens.

North Rona <em>Picture: Roddy MacDonald</em>
North Rona Picture: Roddy MacDonald

North Rona, 44 miles north of the Butt of Lewis
While not home to mystery or mermaids, you probably wouldn’t like to pack up and take off to North Rona. The most northerly of the Hebrides, it is thought to have been inhabited since the eighth century until, in 1685, a shipwreck off the coast led to an invasion of the black rat.

It is not known whether the rats ate all the food and the islanders starved, or whether the rats brought plague. What is known is that the rats got their comeuppance, as the wild weather meant that they themselves starved to death.

The island was repopulated, but this proved short-lived, as an unexplained boating tragedy in 1695 once more resulted in the whole population being wiped out. After this, it was decided that North Rona might be an inauspicious place to live.

A spooky epilogue to the island’s history recounts a tragic time in 1884, when two Lewis men, Malcolm MacDonald and Murdo Mackay, went to stay on Rona to look after sheep. Two months after their arrival, a passing boat found them in good spirits, but by April of the following year the two men were dead: a final grim toll from this most inhospitable of Scottish islands.

Ailsa Craig, seen from Ballantrae beach <em>Picture: Harriet Ellis</em>
Ailsa Craig, seen from Ballantrae beach Picture: Harriet Ellis

Ailsa Craig, 10 miles west of Girvan
Known affectionately as Paddy’s Milestone for its position halfway between Belfast and Glasgow, this volcanic plugoff the Ayrshire coast could have been yours – if, that is, you had the £2.5 million asking price and could have seen a reason for buying a rocky island that hosts the UK’s third-largest gannet population. Presumably not many people either had the will or cash, as this month the island was taken off the market by its owner, the Eighth Marquess of Ailsa.

The island has had a colourful past and many uses. In the 16th century it was a place of refuge for Roman Catholics during the Scottish Reformation, and the Spanish Armada had hoped to use it as a stopping-off point during its proposed invasion of Britain.

It was briefly used as a prison during the 18th and 19th centuries, then found itself reborn as a quarry, providing a rare form of granite to make curling stones. Eventually, nearly 80 per cent of all curling stones were made from this rock, including those used by the British ladies’ curling team who triumphed in the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Rockall <em>Picture: Andy Strangeway</em>
Rockall Picture: Andy Strangeway

Rockall, somewhere in the North Atlantic
Rockall might be a small island, but it punches well above its weight in terms of importance and conflict. Though worthless in itself, the waters that surround it could potentially net billions, either through fishing or, more importantly, if oil and gas were discovered under the seabed. It is for that reason that the ownership of this tiny island is disputed.

In 1955, three Royal Marines landed on Rockall and promptly hoisted a Union Jack, claiming the island with a rousing: “In the name of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, I hereby take possession of this Island of Rockall”. The Island of Rockall Act 1972 declared the island to be part of Inverness-shire, a claim subsequently reiterated by the secretary for rural affairs, Richard Lochhead, in 2011.

However, despite this rather old-fashioned method of claiming land, our European cousins have not released their claim – with Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Ireland still arguing for ownership rights. The issue is now with the United Nations, which is expected to decide this year who gets to keep this knobbly outcrop of potentially fantastically lucrative rock.

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