The Isle of Gigha (Gaelic: Giogha ()) is a small island off the west coast of Kintyre in Scotland. The island forms part of Argyll and Bute and has a population of about 150 people, many of whom speak Scottish Gaelic. The climate is mild with higher than average sunshine hours and the soils are fertile.
Gigha has a long history, having been inhabited continuously since prehistoric times. It may have had an important role during the Kingdom of Dalriada and is the ancestral home of Clan MacNeill. It fell under the control of the Norse and the Lords of the Isles before becoming incorporated into modern Scotland and saw a variety of conflicts during the medieval period.
The population of Gigha peaked at over 700 in the eighteenth century, but during the 20th century the island had numerous owners, which caused various problems in developing the island. By the beginning of the 21st century resident numbers had fallen to only 98. However a "community buy-out" in 2002 has transformed the island, which now has a growing population and a variety of new commercial activities to complement farming and tourism.
Attractions on the island include Achamore Gardens and the abundant wildlife, especially seabirds. There have been numerous shipwrecks on the surrounding rocks and skerries.
A Gigha resident is a Gioghach, also nicknamed a gamhainn ("stirk").
Gigha lies off the coast of Kintyre and is 9.5 km (6 miles) long in a roughly north-south direction and a maximum of 2.5 km (1.5 miles) wide.
The rocky central spine is composed of epidiorite, the total area is 1,395 ha (3,447 acres) and the highest elevation of Creag Bhàn reaches only .
The main settlement is Ardminish which is on the south east coast and offers a small anchorage in the sheltered Ardminish Bay. Further to the north is Druimyeon Bay and beyond that West and East Tarbert Bays which (as their names imply) lie astride a small isthmus.
The climate is mild with higher than average sunshine hours and minimum temperatures, and lower than average days of ground frost for Scotland. Annual rainfall is typically between and .
To the west and north west respectively, are the two large islands of Islay and Jura. South west are Rathlin Island and the north of Ireland, which can be seen from Gigha on clear days. Between Jura and Gigha are the rocks of Na Cuiltean and Skervuile Lighthouse. Between Gigha and Port Ellen on Islay is the Isle of Texa. Eilean Mòr, and the Isle of Danna are little further up the Argyll coast to the north.
There are also many small rocks and skerries in the seas around Gigha. Asked by a tourist if he knew where they all were, local resident Willie McSporran (see below) replied "No, but I know where they aren't and that's good enough for me".
In the Early Historic Period The domain of the Cenél nGabraín appears to have been centred on Kintyre and Knapdale and may have included Arran, Jura and Gigha. The title king of Kintyre is used of a number of presumed kings of the Cenél nGabrain. This would have made Gigha part of Dalriada.
There is some evidence to show that the island might have been the seat of power for Conall mac Comgall, King of Dalriada, in the mid to late 6th century. The Annals of Tigernach refer to a Battle of Delgon (later Cindeglen) in 574, and this has been identified as taking place on Gigha, then referred to as Eilean da Ghallagan, although other sources believe the battle took place in Kintyre.
Nearby Islay was a centre for Norse control over the Hebrides, and Gigha was later part of the Kingdom of the Isles. The island's name appears to be Norse in origin, although its meaning is disputed, and there are several other Norse placenames in the vicinity, such as "Gigalum" (i.e. "Gigha - holm") and Cnoc Haco (possibly "Haakon's hill").
In 1849, a Viking grave was found at East Tarbert Bay, which revealed a number of artefacts, including a bronze weighing balance dated to the 10th century.
Prior to the Battle of Largs, Haakon IV of Norway is said to have visited to the island. According to Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar ("The Saga of Haakon Haakonsson") by the Icelander Sturla Þórðarson in the 1260s -
- King Haco sailed afterwards south to Guðey before Kintyre where he anchored. There King John met him; he came in the ship with Bishop Thorgil. King Haco desired him to follow his banner as he should do. But King John excused himself. He said he had sworn an oath to the Scottish King, and held of him more lands than of the Norwegian Monarch; he therefore entreated King Haco to dispose of all those estates which he had conferred upon him. King Haco kept him with him some time, and endeavoured to incline his mind to fidelity. Many laid imputations to his charge. King Haco indeed had before received bad accounts of him from the Hebrides; for John Langlife-son came to the King, while he was sailing west from Shetland, and told him the news that John King of the Hebrides, breaking his faith, had turned to the Scottish Monarch. King Haco, however, would not believe this till he had found it so.
- During King Haco's stay at Guðey an Abbot of a monastery of Greyfriars waited on him, begging protection for their dwelling, and Holy Church: and this the King granted them in writing.
- Friar Simon had lain sick for some time. He died at Guðey. His corpse was afterwards carried up to Kintire where the Greyfriars interred him in their Church. They spread a fringed pall over his grave, and called him a Saint.
The origin of the McNeills of Taynish, Gigha and Colonsay is obscure. During the Middle Ages the McNeills held the island of Gigha on the coast of Knapdale, as well as Taynish on the mainland. The McNeills were hereditary keepers of Castle Sween under the Lords of the Isles during the 15th and 16th centuries. The McNeill of Gigha, Torkill McNeill (Torcuil MacNeill), was known as the "chief and principal of the clan and surname of Macnelis" in 1530. However, as the power of the Campbells grew and spread into the Inner Hebrides, the influence of the McNeills of Gigha decreased. At about this time the MacNeils on more remote island of Barra, far removed from Campbell power, began to grow in prominence and for a long time since have been regarded as Chief of the Clan and Name.
The siege was only lifted when MacDonald of Dunivaig agreed with MacLean of Duart to surrender half of his lands on Islay. However, despite his agreement with the MacLeans, MacDonald of Dunivaig then invaded the MacLean islands of Mull, Tiree, Coll and Luing. Angus MacDonald of Dunivaig was aided in the action by Donald Gorm Mor MacDonald of Sleat and the MacDonalds of Clanranald, MacIains of Ardnamurchan, MacLeods of Lewis, MacNeills of Gigha, MacAlisters of Loup and the Macfies of Colonsay. Supporting MacLean of Duart were the MacLeods of Harris and Dunvegan, MacNeils of Barra, MacKinnons of Strathrodle and the MacQuarries of Ulva.
In 1591, Campbell of Cawdor, a junior cousin of the Earl of Argyll tried unsuccessfully to buy lands in Gigha. He was a rival of Angus of Islay. The church at Kilchattan that dates from this period has some "intricately carved medieval grave slabs".
Visiting in the late 17th century Martin Martin wrote:
This isle is for the most part arable, but rocky in other parts; the mould is brown and clayey, inclining to red; it is good for pasturage and cultivation. The corn growing here is oats and barley. The cattle bred here are cows, horses, and sheep. There is a church in this island called Kilchattan, it has an altar in the east end, and upon it a font of stone which is very large, and hath a small hole in the middle which goes quite through it. There are several tombstones in and about this church; the family of the Macneils, the principal possessors of this isle, are buried under the tombstones on the east side the church, where there is a plot of ground set apart for them. Most of all the tombs have a two-handed sword engraven on them, and there is one that has the representation of a man upon it... This isle affords no wood of any kind, but a few bushes of juniper on the little hills.
The challenges created by private landlords came to an end in March 2002 when the islanders managed, with help from grants and loans from the National Lottery and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, to purchase the island for £4 million. They now own it through a development trust called the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust. As a result 15 March, the day when the purchase went through, is celebrated as the island's "independence day". £1 million of the financial support was in the form of a short-term loan. The money to pay this loan back was largely raised by selling Achamore House (but not the gardens) to Don Dennis, a businessman from California. Dennis now operates a flower essences importing business and a boat tours company from the house, which is also rented out as a Bed and Breakfast business. An additional £200,000 was raised by the islanders through various fundraising ventures, allowing the loan to be paid back to the Scottish Land Fund on 15th March 2004.. Since the community buy out several other private businesses have sprung up on Gigha giving rise to a real boost in local economy, not least the multi-award winning Boathouse Café Bar run by two local entrepreneurs, Joseph Teale and Lindsay Sheriff. The island's population and economy has begun to recover as a result of these activities.
Gigha's economy is largely dependent on livestock farming, tourism and some limited fishing. There have been some moves to diversify the economy since the community buy-out. There is also a fish farm on the island, and small scale fishing. of arable land are farmed and relative to its size it is the most fertile and productive island in Scotland. Ayrshire cattle are kept on the island and goat's cheese is also produced. The Achamore creamery was closed during the 1980s, but has been successively revived.
In October 2006 it was announced that the population had reached 150 - a rise of more than 50 per cent since the 2002 buy-out. Willie McSporran, chairman of the Heritage Trust, was quoted as saying: "The trust turned 300 years of population decline on its head by encouraging new development and the growth of the local economy. A sign of the surge of people wanting to relocate to Gigha is that we are struggling to meet the demand for housing despite building 18 new homes."
The issues of island ownership are not unique to Gigha and consequently the island has been highlighted in an edition of the BBC series, Countryfile, which is the principal television forum for countryside issues in the United Kingdom.
There is an unmanned grass landing strip running east/west near the southern end of the island, requiring prior permission for landing. It is one of the closest airstrips to Glasgow International Airport, typically a 20–30 minute flight away for small aircraft.
There is a primary school on the island, but secondary pupils must go to the Mainland for education. Ardminish has the pier, post office and shop. The island's postcode is PA41.
Because it is set on the eastern shores of the Atlantic Ocean, Gigha attracts a wide variety of sea birds such as Guillemot and Eider, which breed on Eilean Garbh. Inland, ducks such as Mallard, Teal, Wigeon and Pochard can be found along with Heron, Snipe, Pheasant and Red Grouse. The Hooded Crow and Jackdaw are present in considerable numbers, but geese are only occasional visitors. Mammals are under-represented, with Red Deer, Stoat, Weasel, Red Fox and Hare all being absent. In the mid-20th century Gigha had eight boats engaged in fishing for Cod and Lobster, but commercial activity ceased some time ago.
Gigha's coasts have seen numerous wrecks. In August 1886 the Staffa ran aground on Cath Sgier west of Craro. The ship remained on the reef in calm overnight conditions and all crew and 21 passengers were rescued the following morning. On 8th April 1894 the steamship Udea was lost on the same rocks with a cargo of coal and iron. Owned by David MacBrayne, she was en route from Glasgow to Lewis at the time. On 16th September 1940 the British steam liner Aska was bombed by a German aircraft south of Gigha whilst carrying French troops from Gambia. Twelve crewmen died in the attack and 75 survivors were successfully picked up by trawlers. On fire, the Aska drifted onto Cara and was wrecked there. Four years later the Mon Cousu was deliberately sunk in the Sound of Gigha and used for bombing practice. In 1966 the Russian factory ship Kartli was hit by two freak waves off Islay and ran aground at Port Ban after the crew were evacuated. Forty seven crew members were air-lifted to safety but four men were killed in the accident.