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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.


The Hebrides have been occupied by the speakers of at least four languages since the Iron Age , and many of the names of these islands have more than one possible meaning as a result. The name "Gigha" is probably derived from the Norse Guðey meaning either "Good Island" or "God Island". Keay and Keay (1994) suggest an alternative is from Gjáey, meaning "island of the geo" or "cleft". Czerkawaska (2006) also notes that the isles is called "Gug" in a charter of 1309 and speculates that a possible derivation is from the Gaelic Sheela na Gig, a female fertility symbol.

A Gigha resident is a Gioghach, also nicknamed a gamhainn ("stirk").

Geography and geology

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 .

Surrounding Islands

Cara Island lies just offshore to the south, the smaller Craro island lies to the west and Gigalum to the south east of Gigha. A sandy spit connects Gigha to Eilean Garbh in the north-west. To the north are the rocks called An Dubh Sgeir (a common name meaning "black rock") and Gamhna Giogha. The Sound of Gigha separates Gigha and its attendant isles from mainland Kintyre.

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".


Gigha has been inhabited continuously since prehistoric times, and there are several standing stones on the island. There are many other archaeological sites, including cairns, standing stones, duns and an ogham stone near to Kilchattan, which has not been deciphered.

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.

Norse period

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.

John of Islay

After Edward Balliol's coup against the Bruce regime in 1333, he attempted to court John of Islay, Lord of the Isles. In 1336, Edward confirmed the territories which the Islay lords had acquired in the days of Robert I and awarded John the lands of Kintyre, Knapdale, Gigha, Colonsay, Mull, Skye, Lewis, and Morvern, previously held by magnates still loyal to the Bruces. John, however, never provided Edward with real assistance. Although Balliol's deposition and the restoration of the House of Bruce meant that the grants made to John void, his pre-1336 possessions were confirmed by King David II in 1343. Moreover, in 1346, John inherited the great Lordship of Garmoran through his brother-in-law Raghnall MacRuaridh. This meant that John's dominions now included all of the Hebrides except Skye, and all of the western seaboard from Morvern to Loch Hourn.

Clan MacNeill

Gigha is the ancestral home of the Clan MacNeill, which possesses its own tartan and Clan badge, both distinctly different from those of the larger and better known Clan MacNeil of Barra (spelt with one "L" in English) who share the same Chief.

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.

Medieval conflict

By 1587, atrocities committed between warring West Highland clans had escalated to such an extent that Parliament devised what is known as the General Band in an effort to quell hostilities. Despite the Governments actions to secure the peace, about this time Lachlan Mor MacLean of Duart ravaged the MacDonald islands of Islay and Gigha, slaughtering 500—600 men. Maclean of Duart then besieged Angus MacDonald of Dunivaig and the Glens at his Castle Dunivaig.

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".

17th century

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.

Modern Period

In the eighteenth century the population of Gigha peaked at over 700, but had declined to just under 400 by the close of the 19th century. During the 20th century the island had numerous owners, which caused various problems in developing the area. Little new development took place except for the construction of some minor fortification and a fish farm. By the 1960s resident numbers had fallen to 163 and by the beginning of the 21st century it was down to only 98. Overview of population trends
Year Population
1755 514
1792 614
1801 556
1821 573
1841 550
1881 378
1891 398
Year Population
1911 326
1931 240
1951 190
1961 163
1981 153
1991 143
2001 110
Note: The figures for 1755–1841 include Cara.

Community buy-out

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.

Wind turbines

The Heritage Trust set up Gigha Renewable Energy Ltd. to buy and operate three Vestas V27 wind turbines, known locally as The Dancing Ladies or Creideas, Dòchas is Carthannas (Gaelic for Faith, Hope and Charity). They were commissioned on 21 January 2005 and are capable of generating up to 675 kW of power. Revenue is produced by selling the electricity to the grid via an intermediary called Green Energy UK. Gigha residents control the whole project and profits are reinvested in the community.

Transport and infrastucture

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.

A Caledonian MacBrayne ferry service links the island's only village, Ardminish, to Tayinloan on the Kintyre peninsula of the Scottish mainland. This in turn links to the A83 road.

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.


Attractions on the island include the Achamore Gardens, begun in 1945 by Sir James Horlick and known for its rhododendrons and azaleas, the many sandy beaches and the thirteenth century St Catan's Chapel ruins. There is also a nine-hole golf course.


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.


Gigha had a vigorous tradition of harping, represented mainly by the family called Mac an Bhreatnaigh (Galbraith), who were active in Gigha and Kintyre, and it is thought that their descendants were in Gigha until at least 1685.

Scottish Gaelic is still a major language on the island. Gigha Gaelic was studied extensively by N.M. Holmer in the 1930s, who noted features such as its weak svarabhakti.

Notable residents

  • Seamus McSporran who managed to do 14 jobs during the 31 years of his working life - at the same time.
  • Willie McSporran, MBE the first chairman of the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust and a driving force behind the island's community buy-out. He is the brother of Seamus.
  • Giolla Críost Brúilingeach, mid 15th century harper.


  • Baird, Bob (1995) Shipwrecks of the West of Scotland. Glasgow. Nekton Books. ISBN 1897995024
  • Czerkawaska, Catherine (2006) God's Islanders: A History of the People of Gigha. Edinburgh. Birlinn. ISBN 1841582972
  • Grimble, Ian (1985) Scottish Islands British Broadcasting Corporation (London) ISBN 0-563-20361-7
  • Haswell-Smith, Hamish (2004) The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh. Canongate. ISBN 1841954543
  • Keay, J. & Keay, J. (1994) Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland. London. HarperCollins. ISBN 0002550822
  • Martin, Martin (1703) " A Voyage to St. Kilda" in A Description of The Western Islands of Scotland, Appin Regiment/Appin Historical Society. Retrieved 16 September 2008.
  • Murray, W.H. (1966) The Hebrides. London. Heinemann.
  • Murray, W.H. (1973) The Islands of Western Scotland. London. Eyre Methuen.
  • Murray, W.H. (1977) The Companion Guide to the West Highlands of Scotland. London. Collins.
  • Thomson, Derick (ed.) (1994) The Companion to Gaelic Scotland. Glasgow. Gairm. ISBN 1-871901-31-6
  • Roberts (1999)


External links

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