In some parts of Scotland’s Western Isles the air itself seems to murmur tales of exile and loss. These storm-tossed islands scattered along Europe’s north-western edge have always been places on the brink: islands where life is lived at the margin and existence is precarious. Modern life may have banished such uncertainties now, with social security benefits, local development grants and the promise of jobs on the mainland, but there remain hardy souls who still savour life on Scotland’s Atlantic edge. Some things have changed, of course — tourism has largely replaced crofting these days — but a strong sense of identity and tradition still remains. Back in the nineteenth century there were more than twenty inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides; now barely a dozen support a permanent population. Most of the smaller islands have long been abandoned to the elements and now exist solely as wildlife reserves or as seasonal grazing for sheep.
The island of Mingulay (Gaelic: Miughalaigh, meaning ‘Big Island’) is one such place. At the southern tip of the Western Isles, this small island is one of several full stops at the bottom of the exclamation mark of islands that stretches south from Lewis and Harris. The small archipelago to the south of Barra was historically known as the Bishop Isles. Vatersay, now linked to Barra by a causeway, is the largest of the group, while Mingulay roughly 4km long and 2km wide is second in size. The island, characterised by vertiginous cliffs on its west side and beaches and rough grassland on the east, has long been visited by adventurous seafarers. Scattered Iron Age remains suggest an early colonisation more than two millennia ago, and Vikings, too, came here often enough for the island to be mentioned in their sagas. For long centuries, Mingulay was under the jurisdiction of the Clan MacNeil of Barra but absentee landlords did little to improve an already difficult existence and many islanders upped sticks for less demanding lives in the New World and Antipodes in the nineteenth century. Today, the only signs of human habitation that remain are the forlorn shells of abandoned blackhouses.