Scotland’s island communities are extraordinarily varied. These distinct identities are defined by factors like their location, distance and connectivity to the mainland as well as economic, employment and social aspects that characterise each community.
Island areas receive more funding per head than other local authority areas, yet why? This blog explores ways we could reimagine policy to empower our island communities further.
Erraid Island near Iona provides the ideal setting to connect with nature and slow down. Offering week-long retreats designed to reconnect people to their land while living more harmoniously with seasons and tides, Erraid hosts spiritual community events as well as being home to stone cottages managed by Findhorn Foundation.
Erraid Island first came into habitation around 300 AD and subsequent archaeological evidence indicates its first inhabitants to have been Scottish Gaelic speaking peasants known as crofters who relied heavily on marine resources for sustenance, including fish, shellfish, nuts and berries as well as hunting opportunities along the coastline. Remnants of their tentated camps can be seen at sites known as shell middens on neighbouring Tiree and Colonsay islands.
Thomas Stevenson used the island as a shore station during 1867 to construct his lighthouse at Dubh Artach’s Torran Reefs off Dubh Artach about 15 miles out at sea. RLS visited frequently and may even have camped near its shore; being inspired by its wild landscape he wrote his novel ‘Kidnapped’ which features prominently within it.
Prior to recent years, Erraid Island could only be reached via boat; until mechanization of lighthouses made permanent keepers no longer necessary and it was sold off to a businessman as holiday home. Following its sale to Findhorn Foundation custodianship was assumed; later a group of intrepid members moved out and restored cottages before founding a spiritual community on Erraid.
The community strives to maintain self-sufficiency by working in harmony with nature as much as possible, by cultivating vegetables on their land and harvesting whatever the land provides for food, using algae as fertiliser. They form an intimate group and spend their days practicing meditation, discussing topics relevant to community living and practical tasks together – Philip Hetherington for instance provided services related to wood for fire.
Imagine an island, covered with golden bays and lapped by crystal blue waters – perhaps Crete? Majorca? Hawaii? No; Tiree is actually one of the Inner Hebridean islands located to its western side.
This island paradise offers the ideal destination for families, hikers and beach enthusiasts. Here, life slows down; finding peace on one of its many tranquil beaches or at the shadow of majestic dunes can be easy and peaceful.
Island homes 286 crofts and five farms, divided among 31 crofting townships managed by a grazing committee. Machair (buffalo grassland) provides year-round grazing while its central area, known as Sliabh (peaty ground), is used for planting grain and potatoes as well as providing wildlife refuge. Here you’ll also find rich environments teeming with birdsong as windblown shell-sand keeps soil moist while providing great places for exploring on foot.
Tiree is home to both lush vegetation and fauna, including an extraordinary natural phenomenon known as the Hebridean Ringing Stone – an unusual boulder composed of rock that when struck produces a distinctive metallic-sound when struck similar to striking metal. Legend has it that it was placed there by a giant while geologists suggest glaciers left it there instead.
As a visitor, you can take full advantage of all this natural beauty and history by renting a bike (available from various outlets around the island for as little as PS8 per day) and exploring on your own. One great way to see the sights is pedalling along the southern coastline from Gott and Crossapol bays through to Balevullin’s rocky hideaway.
Ben Hough at 119 metres offers you a panoramic view of Tiree Island that rivals that found at any other spot, providing one splendid sweep over all four corners of this wonderful isle. On clear days you may also spot nearby Ardnamurchan, Morvern, and Mull mountains!
Colonsay Island off of Argyll and Bute is an oasis for nature enthusiasts, featuring woodlands, moorland, peat bogs and coastal habitats providing homes to an abundance of fauna – with nesting places for seabirds such as Fulmars, Guillemots and Razorbills nesting on its cliffs while its shoreline hosts seal colonies as well as herds of wild goats grazing along its coastlines. Additionally its dramatic landscape boasts several ruined hill forts used defensive sites during Bronze and Iron Ages periods – an added layer of diversity!
Colonsay Island offers stunning walks with spectacular views and tranquil walks. There are also ancient sites such as Orchard’s broch and ring cairn, Clathryll Pictish Cross and Kilmuir Medieval Church to discover, as well as brewery tours on offer on Colonsay House Gardens which boast some of Scotland’s best Rhododendron collections.
One of the easiest and best ways to see the island is via boat from Oban, departing 5 days per week and taking approximately 2 hours. Scalasaig village houses its ferry terminal. You may also choose an island hopping tour as one way of seeing more.
Colonsay Island has a population of about 135 residents, connected to Oronsay by The Strand which can be crossed at low tide. Colonsay was previously its own settlement prior to the Clearances; once one reached Oronsay however, any fugitives from Colonsay who reached it would be exempt from punishment on Oronsay for one year and one day.
There are several activities on the island to keep visitors occupied such as visiting a brewery, birdwatching and historical research. You’ll also find fabulous beaches, forests and moorland trails perfect for walking; plus there’s also an RSPB wildlife reserve on site! Plus if you happen to visit during their annual Swan Race you will certainly be entertained by these graceful birds as they make their way down Loch Lomond!
Scalpay (Sgalpaigh) is a small island in the Sound of Harris, separated from the mainland by Loch na Cairidh and home to a herd of red deer, shooting estate and holiday cottages. Much of its land is covered with heather with some areas having conifer forestry plantations plantings.
Scalpay Island is home to approximately 300 residents. Following the installation of its bridge, this community now draws an annual stream of tourists who travel there for vacation.
Eilean Glas lighthouse, one of Scotland’s oldest lighthouses, stands proudly atop an steep, dramatic cliff-top and offers magnificent marine views – an opportunity for visitors to witness this island from another angle.
Scalpay Island’s breathtaking scenery is another draw for visitors, particularly on its western side where spectacular cliffs draw rock climbers to its shores. Additionally, this island is known to host an abundance of seabirds which can be found there.
Like other island communities, those residing here take great pride in their culture and traditions. Visitors often comment on how welcoming locals are – many speak fluent Gaelic! Additionally, traditional music and dance groups perform regularly throughout the year.
Scalpay is one of the few places left where most residents still attend church regularly on Sundays. Situated between its two large harbours, this village contains schools, a nurse, grocery stores, petrol pumps, council housing and sheltered accommodation – as well as picturesque walking trails in its surrounding countryside and many small beaches for exploration. Be mindful that heather provides ideal habitat for Lyme disease-carrying ticks so be vigilant in checking yourself and family regularly after outdoor adventures!