Mingulay (Scottish Gaelic: Miughalaigh, ) is the second largest of the Bishop's Isles in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Located south of Barra, it is known for its important seabird populations, including puffins, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and razorbills, which nest in the sea-cliffs, amongst the highest in the British Isles.
There are iron age remains, and the culture of the island was influenced by early Christianity and the Vikings. Between the 15th and 19th centuries Mingulay was part of the lands of Clan MacNeil of Barra, but subsequently suffered at the hands of absentee landlords.
After two thousand years or more of continuous habitation, the island was abandoned by its residents in 1912 and has remained uninhabited since. It is currently used for grazing sheep. The island is also associated with the Mingulay Boat Song, although that was composed in 1938, following Mingulay's abandonment. The National Trust for Scotland has owned Mingulay since 2000.
Mingulay is now part of the small archipelago known as the Bishop or Barra Isles which are "composed of a cluster of islands surrounded by a boisterous sea, making the passage of one island to another a matter of very considerable hazard and which form the southern end of the larger Outer Hebrides group.
There is one large beach on the eastern side of the isle where the only settlement of note (‘The Village’) was located and a tiny cove at Skipsdale (Old Norse: ship valley). Bagh na h-Aioneig (Scots Gaelic: bay of the steep promontory) on the western side is a deep cleft in the sea-cliffs once thought to be the highest in the UK which rise to 213 m (699 ft) above sea level at Builacraig.
Mingulay boasts three large sea stacks: Arnamul (Old Norse: Erne mound), Lianamul (Old Norse: Flax mound) and Gunamul, which has a natural arch in 150 m (490 ft) cliffs through which boats can sail on rare days when the restless sea is calm. There are several outlying islets including the twin rocks of Sròn a Dùin to the south-west, Geirum Mòr and Geirum Beag to the south between Mingulay and the nearby island of Berneray, and Solon Mòr (Gaelic: Big Gannet), Solon Beag (Little Gannet), Sgeirean nan Uibhein, Barnacle Rock and a smaller stack called The Red Boy, all to the north between Mingulay and Pabbay.
The highest hills are Càrnan (273 m or 896 ft), Hecla (Old Norse: Hooded shroud) (219 m or 719 ft) and Macphee's Hill (224 m or 735 ft). The last was named when a relief ship sent by MacNeil of Barra was sent to discover why communications from the island had ceased. A crewman called Macphee was sent ashore and returned to report that the residents had all died of disease. Fearing the plague, his shipmates refused to allow him back on board. He survived for a year, and climbed the hill every day to look out for a rescue. When the island was re-settled The MacNeil granted him land there.
The south-western promontory of Dun Mingulay features the remains of an Iron Age fort and there is a pre-historic site at Crois an t-Suidheachain near the western landing place at Aneir at the southern end of Mingulay Bay, which may have been a stone circle. In 1971 a 2,000 year old Iron Age midden was found resting on sand near the ‘Village’ overlooking the Bay. A stone 'pebble hammer' was discovered nearby in 1975, but it has not been possible to date the find. Skipisdale may also contain Iron Age remains.
Murray (1973) states that the name “appropriately means Bird Island”.
From the 12th century onwards Norse power in the Western Isles weakened, and by 1266 they reverted to Scots' control under the tutelage of the Lords of the Isles. By 1427 Clan MacNeil of Barra had emerged as the dominant local power; they adopted the cliffs of Builacraig as part of their traditional crest and used the name as a war-cry.
The islanders' livelihood was based on fishing (for white fish, herring and lobster), crofting (with up to 55 ha (0.21 sq mi) of arable and pasture land fertilised by wrack on which sheep, cattle, ponies, pigs and poultry were kept) and very dependent on the bounty provided by sea-birds. For example, rent was payable to The MacNeil in fachaich or ‘fatlings’ - shearwater chicks.
The Reformation never reached the south of the Outer Hebrides and Roman Catholicism held sway from the 12th century to the early 20th. The lack of a resident priest meant that services were often organised by the lay community, but the local culture and traditions of songs and story-telling were rich and varied. As Samuel Johnson observed when lamenting his failure to reach thus far on his 18th-century Hebridean journey:
Popery is favourable to ceremony; and among the ignorant nations ceremony is the only preservative of tradition. Since Protestantism was extended to the savage parts of Scotland, it has perhaps been one of the chief labours of the Ministers to abolish stated observances, because they continued the remembrance of the former religion.
Some of the local beliefs were perhaps less welcome to the practitioners of organised religion. An each-uisge was thought to live in a bottomless well near the summit of Macphee’s Hill, and faery sidhes and their associated music were taken for granted, if generally avoided. The curative powers of the seventh son of a seventh son were assumed to be sufficient for the treatment of diseases as serious as tuberculosis. Yet the old ways themselves were dying.
In 1764 the population of the island was 52. Later census records show that there were 113 residents in 1841, 150 in 1881, 142 in 1891 (occupying 28 houses, compared to the 1841 total of 19), and 135 in 1901. Families were often large, and ten or more children was not uncommon, three generations sometimes sharing a single small house. Life was co-operative with fishing, waulking, peat cutting and landing the boats all being communal activities. The island is remote but was by no means cut off. In the 19th century fishermen sold fish in Glasgow and Ireland, both men and women worked on the east coast herring fishing industry, and food was brought in from mainland Scotland on a regular basis.
At the height of Village life there was a mill, a chapel house consisting of a church and a priest's residence, and a school. However, despite there being a continuous population on Mingulay for at least two thousand years, evacuations began in 1907 and the island was completely abandoned by its residents in 1912.
There were numerous reasons for the evacuation. In 1897 a boat from Pabbay was lost off Barra Head with its crew of five, which amounted to more than half the neighbouring island’s male population, and this did not encourage confidence amongst the fishermen of Mingulay. The lack of a sheltered landing meant that the island could be unreachable for weeks at a time, and loading and unloading goods was at best strenuous and at worst hazardous. This may have meant less at a time when possessions were fewer, but no doubt the population was also increasingly aware of their relative isolation. Writing about the collapse of similar populations in the Hebrides, Neat (2000) suggests:
one common thread would appear to be the unwillingness of even the most stoical and historically-aware communities to continue an existence based upon endless physical hardship when the opportunity of an easier livelihood elsewhere is there to be taken.
Buxton (1995) tells the story of two men who left Mingulay together. One was visiting Barra, the other intended to emigrate to New York. They said their farewells in Castlebay but it did not work out for the latter and he returned from the United States three months later. To his great surprise he met his friend in Castlebay again, who explained that he had been unable to return to Mingulay since they had last met because of adverse sea conditions. Similar difficulties experienced by visiting priests or doctors bound for Mingulay were a constant source of concern to the islanders.
The ferocity of the weather should not be underestimated. In 1868 a huge wave washed over the top of Geirum Mor taking the sheep with it. The summit of the islet is 51 metres (170 ft) above sea level. Fraser Darling and Boyd (1969) also speculate about the "quiet failure" of the populations of small islands like Mingulay to husband their available natural resources. Certainly the population began to exceed the carrying capacity of the land. The Congested Districts Board installed a derrick to assist with the landings at Aneir at the south end of the Bay in 1901, but the design was flawed and its failure was a further disappointment.
In July 1906 grazing land on Vatersay was raided by landless cottars from Barra and its isles, including three families from Mingulay. They were followed in 1907 by eight more ‘raiders’ from Mingulay led by Micheal Neill Eachainn. Lady Gordon Cathcart took legal action but the visiting judge took the view that she had neglected her duties as a landowner and that "long indifference to the necessities of the cottars had gone far to drive them to exasperation". Vatersay has sheltered anchorages and was only 300 metres (330 yd) from Barra (until the construction of a causeway in 1990) and Neil MacPhee wrote “it is better a thousand times to die here than to go through the same hardships which were our lot” on Mingulay.
In November 1907 six more families consisting of twenty-seven individuals from Mingulay squatted on Sandray, which has a sheltered beach. Meanwhile the plight of the Vatsersay raiders had been raised in Westminster. Despite considerable public sympathy they were eventually sentenced to two months in prison. Shortly thereafter the Congested Districts Board made an arrangement to purchase the entire island of Vatersay with the aim of providing new crofts. By the next summer there were fourteen Mingulay families living there. Only six families remained on Mingulay itself, and all of them planned to leave.
By 1910 there were but a dozen fishermen in six families living there and in the summer of 1912 the island was finally abandoned. Some may have wished to stay, but by now the population had been reduced below a viable number and the lack of a school, which closed in April 1910, would have been a factor. There is also no doubt that the parish priest, Donald Martin, encouraged the desertion. It is claimed that he neither liked travelling there and nor did the church receive much in the collection box on his visits.
Mingulay bears similarities to the island of Hirta, which was also evacuated in 1930, the former sometimes being referred to as the “near St Kilda”. Mingulay is less than a third of the distance from ‘The Long Island’ than Hirta, yet a nineteenth century visitor commented that the former was "much more primitive than St Kilda, especially as regards the cottars’ and crofters’ houses, suggesting that the lack of a permanent landing was of greater import than sheer distance.
In 2000 Mingulay was acquired by The National Trust for Scotland through a bequest by J. M. Fawcitt “to provide an area of natural beauty in memory of her parents and the courage of her late brother, Bernard.”
Only two buildings survive on the island: the schoolhouse and the chapel house, although the latter has recently lost its roof and front wall.
Mingulay has a large seabird population, and is an important breeding ground for razorbills (9,514 pairs, 6.3% of the European population), guillemots (11,063 pairs) and Black-legged Kittiwakes (2,939 pairs). Shags (694 individuals), fulmar (11,626 pairs), puffins (2,072 pairs), storm petrel, common terns, arctic terns, bonxies and various species of gull also nest in the sea-cliffs. Manx shearwaters nested on Lianamul stack until the late 18th century, when they were driven away by puffins, and tysties have also been recorded there.
Sheep graze the island’s rough pastures and there is a population of rabbits, introduced by shepherds after the 1912 evacuation. Grey seals are abundant, numbers having grown substantially since the departure of human residents. Although they do not breed, up to 1,000 make use of the beach in winter.
The flora of the island is typical of the Outer Hebrides with heather, sphagnum moss, sedges, grass and bracken predominating. There is but a single tree – a 2-metre high poplar on a cliff overlooking Mingulay Bay. Sea holly, otherwise rare in the Western Isles, has grown on Mingulay since at least the late nineteenth century, and sea milkwort, normally only found at sea level is able to grow on the high cliff tops due to the ocean spray and seagull manure. In spring and summer there are profusions of wild flowers around the deserted Village.
There is an ‘occasional’ anchorage in Mingulay Bay sheltered from westerly winds. Landing on the beach may be difficult as there is a regular heavy swell and approaching the old landing place at Aneir may be easier. There is also a landing place at Skipisdale.
It has been recorded by numerous artists including Robin Hall and Jimmy MacGregor in 1971, The Idlers and Richard Thompson in 2006. The lyrics have also been variously interpreted. For example Hall and MacGregor's 1961 version has a female vocalist (Shirley Bland) rendering the third stanza as:
Although the fame of the song means that it is one of the few things popularly associated with the island and it is evocative of island life, it was never sung by its residents, having been composed long after the evacuation.
Other songs composed by or about residents of the island survive. These include Oran do dh'Eilean Mhiulaidh (Song to the Isle of Mingulay) written by Neil MacPhee the Vatsersay raider (see above), after the abandonment of the island, and Turas Neill a Mhiughlaigh (Neil's Trip to Mingulay) written by Father Allan MacLean (known locally as the "Curate of Spain" having attended the Scots College in Valladolid), possibly during the period 1837–40 when he lived on Barra.