The original Celtic inhabitants, converted to Christianity by St. Columba (6th cent.), were conquered by the Norwegians (starting in the 8th cent.). They held the Southern Islands, as they called them, until 1266. From that time the islands were formally held by the Scottish crown but were in fact ruled by various Scottish chieftains, with the Macdonalds asserting absolute rule after 1346 as lords of the isles. In the mid-18th cent. the Hebrides were incorporated into Scotland. The tales of Sir Walter Scott did much to make the islands famous. Emigration from the overpopulated islands occurred in the 20th cent., especially to Canada.
The Hebrides ("HEB-ri-deez", Gaelic: Innse Gall) comprise a widespread and diverse archipelago off the west coast of Scotland. There are two main groups, the Inner and Outer Hebrides. These islands have a long history of occupation dating back to the Mesolithic and the culture of the residents has been affected by the successive influences of Celtic, Norse and English speaking peoples, which is reflected in the names given to the islands.
The Hebrides as a whole lie in the Sea of the Hebrides and are sometimes referred to as the "Western Isles", although this term is more accurately applied just to the Outer Hebrides, which were once known as "The Long Island".
The Hebrides are probably the best-known group of Scottish islands, but other groups include the islands of the Firth of Clyde, Islands of the Forth and the Northern Isles. The islands in the Clyde, especially Arran, are sometimes mistakenly called "Hebrides" too.
The old Old Norse name, during the Viking occupation, was Suðreyjar, which means "Southern Isles" (see also Sodor). It was given in contradistinction to Norðreyjar, or the "Northern Isles", i. e. Orkney and Shetland.
Ironically, given the status of the Western Isles as the last Gàidhlig speaking stronghold in Scotland, the Gaelic language name for the islands - Innse Gall - means "isles of the foreigners" which has roots in the time when they were under Norse occupation and colonisation, and in reference to the Norse-Gaels, known in Gaelic as the Gall Gaidhel (meaning Foreign Gaels).
The Hebrides were settled during the Mesolithic era around 6500 BC, after the climatic conditions improved enough to sustain human settlement. There are many examples of structures from the Neolithic period, the finest example being the standing stones at Callanish, dating to the 3rd millennium BC. Cladh Hallan, a Bronze Age settlement on South Uist is the only site in the UK where prehistoric mummies have been found.
The earliest written mention of the Outer Hebrides was by Pomponius Mela, a Roman-Spanish geographer of the first century, who refers to a group of seven islands which he gave the name Haemodae. Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia of 77AD gives the name as Hebudes. Other ancient writers such as the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy mention the Hebrides, attesting to some contact of the peoples there to the Roman world. In 55 BC the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that there was an island called Hyperborea (which means "far to the north") where a round temple stood from which the moon appeared only a little distance above the earth every 19 years. This may have been a reference to the stone circle at Callanish. A traveller called Demetrius of Tarsus related to Plutarch the tale of an expedition to the west coast of Scotland in or shortly before AD 83. He stated that it was a gloomy journey amongst uninhabited islands, but that he had visited one which was the retreat of holy men. He mentioned neither the druids nor the name of the island.
Little is known of the history of the peoples of the Hebrides before the 6th century. The first detailed records of the islands comes with the arrival of St. Columba on Iona in the 6th century AD. It was this Irish-Scottish saint who first brought Christianity to the islands in the 6th century, founding several churches.
The Hebrides began to come under Norse control and settlement already before the 9th century. Norwegian rule of the Hebrides was formalised in 1098 when Edgar of Scotland recognised the claim of Magnus III of Norway. The Scottish acceptance of Magnus as King of the Isles came after the Norwegian king had conquered the Orkney Islands, the Hebrides and the Isle of Man in a swift campaign earlier the same year, directed against the local Norse leaders of the various islands. By capturing the islands Magnus imposed a more direct royal control over land seized by his kinsmen centuries earlier.
The Norwegian control of both the Inner and Outer Hebrides would see almost constant warfare until the partitioning of the Western Isles in 1156. The Outer Hebrides remained under the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles while the Inner Hebrides broke out under Somerled, the Norse-Gael kinsman of both Lulach and the Manx royal house.
After his victory of 1156 Somerled went on to seize control over the Isle of Man itself two years later and become the last King of Mann and the Isles to rule over all the islands the kingdom had once included. After Somerled's death in 1164 the rulers of Mann were no longer in control of the Inner Hebrides.
In 1262 there was a Scottish raid on Skye and this caused Haakon IV, King of Norway, to set sail for Scotland to settle the issue. Late in 1263 Haakon headed for Scotland with a large invasion force consisting of 200 ships and 15,000 men. The storms around the coast of Scotland took their toll on the Norwegian fleet, which at one point meant dragging forty ships overland to Loch Lomond. In the end a minor skirmish took place at the Battle of Largs where the Norwegians and their Manx allies under Magnus III of the Isle of Man failed to achieve anything more than a minor tactical victory against the Scots led by Alexander III, King of Scots. After the battle the bad weather forced the Norwegian-Manx fleet to sail back to Orkney. After arriving in Kirkwall, Haakon decided to winter in Bishop's Palace before resuming his campaign the following summer. This failed to occur as the king was struck by illness and died in his palace in December of the same year. The death of Haakon left the crown to his son Magnus the Lawmaker, who considered peace with the Scots more important than holding on to the Norwegian possessions off western Scotland and in the Irish Sea. The Treaty of Perth of 1266 left the Hebrides and the Isle of Man to Scotland for 4000 marks and an annual payment of 100 marks. The treaty also confirmed Norwegian sovereignty over Shetland and Orkney. Still, Scottish rule over the Isle of Man was confirmed finally only after the Manx and their last Norse king, Godred VI Magnuson were decisively defeated by the Scots in the 1275 Battle of Ronaldsway.
The The Hebrides, also known as Fingal's Cave, is a famous overture written by Felix Mendelssohn while residing on these islands, while Granville Bantock wrote the Hebridean Symphony. Contemporary musicians associated with the islands include Ian Anderson, Donovan and Runrig. The poet Sorley MacLean was born on Raasay, the setting for his best known poem, Hallaig. Iain Crichton Smith was brought up on Lewis and Derick Thomson was born there. The Hebrides are the setting of The Solitary Reaper, by William Wordsworth.
The novelist Compton Mackenzie lived on Barra and George Orwell wrote 1984 whilst living on Jura. J.M. Barrie's Marie Rose contains references to Harris inspired by a holiday visit to Amhuinnsuidhe Castle and he wrote a screenplay for the 1924 film adaptation of Peter Pan whilst on Eilean Shona.