The Hebridean islands were settled early in the population of Britain and may have been peopled as early as 8500-8250 BC, when the climate improved sufficiently to sustain them. The 5000 year old stone circles of Callanish, on Lewis, pre-date Stonehenge and confirm early civilisation of the Outer Hebrides.
Islands steeped in Scotland’s history
Being distant from the mainland, there was always (and to some extent, still is) an element of mystery to the islands and their people. Celts settled much of Scotland and the Hebrides were invaded by the Vikings between 700 and 900 AD – coming formally under the rule of the Norse in 1098.
Consequently, you’ll find influences of both cultures – perhaps most noticeably in the use of language. The islands are a stronghold for Gaelic (Gàidhlig) and policies to preserve the language are resulting in a population that is increasingly bi-lingual.
Key events in history, include:
About 6000BC – Destruction by fire of native woodland to provide grass and allow deer grazing.
About 3000BC – Permanent farms established. Construction of temples and communal burial cairns at places like Callanish (Calanais). There is evidence of a farm settlement close by the stones at Calanish and the small houses of these people have been found throughout the Western Isles, including Dalmor in Lewis. The more striking great monuments of this period are the temples and communal burial cairns at places like Calanais.
About 500 BC – larger, Iron Age, buildings, including circular dry-stone defensive towers which belonged to local chiefs. These brochs were also called Duns as at Carloway in Lewis, where considerable remains of a tower exist, and at Dun Sticir, Newtonferry, North Uist.
From 800 to 900 AD – Christianity became widespread through the islands.
9th Century AD – Vikings came to the islands, married local women and relinquished paganism. Lewis was part of the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles and officially part of Norway. The people were called the Gall-Ghaidheil,(Foreigner Gaels), referring to their mixed Scandinavian/Gaelic background. Today, the islands are still called Innse Gall in Gaelic, meaning islands of the foreigners.
1266 – Following the battle of Largs in 1263, defeat of the Vikings, lead to the islands being ceded to Scotland.
1300 onwards – The Lordship of the Isles became the most important power in north-western Scotland. Based on Islay, and descended from Somerled (Somhairle) Mac Gillibride,who had held the Hebrides and West Coast two hundred years earlier, they controlled all of the Hebrides.
1745 onwards – Following the rebellion, and Prince Charles Edward Stewart’s flight to France, Gaelic was discouraged, rents were demanded in cash and traditional dress became illegal. Many who could raise sufficient money emigrated to the Americas.
1800s – More people fled the country, as a result of the clearances by landlords. Several ‘land struggles’ have recently been commemorated by monuments in island villages.
1914-1918 – Many island men gave their lives during the Great War and more than 200 were lost when returning from service New Year’s Day 1919, when the Admiralty yacht HMY Iolaire, sank just outside Stornoway harbour.
1918 – Lord Leverhulme bought the Isle of Lewis for £150,000 and a little later, also the Isle of Harris. He unsuccessfully attempted to develop industrial and fishing industries on the islands. Between 1923 and his death in 1925, both islands were relinquished by Leverhulme and his heirs.
1939-1945 – The Second World War resulted in the loss of many island men, mainly serving in the Royal and Merchant Navy. Afterwards, a further exodus of more local people emigrated to Canada, USA and mainland Scotland.
1950 to present day – Sustaining a relatively small population, notable commercial and industrial development has included oil and wind power construction equipment, fish-farming and defence. Crofting (small farming) has become less important to families, as they have taken first jobs in the many businesses and organisations of the islands.
The post-war modernisation of the rest of Britain has also taken place in the Outer Hebrides. Full electrification, availability of television and some other projects requiring massive infrastructure took a little longer than in mainland locations, but today’s Hebridean is right up to date with latest technology and fashion. Contemporary architecture blends successfully with the traditional and sits well within the landscape.
Old-fashioned values persist, however, so care and consideration for others means that life may be enjoyed to the full – within a low crime environment. Consequently, tourism has become an important business of the islands, providing employment for local people and fabulous hospitality for visitors.