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The Inner and Outer Hebrides
The MV Hebrides leaving Lochmaddy for Skye

The Hebrides (Gaelic: Innse Gall) are a widespread and diverse archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Great Britain, stretching from near Ulster in the south to Cape Wrath in the north. The islands are uncountable, each main island surrounded by numerous small islands, islets, rocks and skerries, and many islands becoming separate only at high tide, or disappearing at high tide. Even amongst the larger islands, there is such variety as Skye with its chain of 3,000-foot mountains, and Tiree, flat and green, Mull with broad beaches beside Staffa with vast sea cliffs, and Harris, with precipitous mountains and broad, sandy beaches, across the sound from North Uist, low-lying all over with with lochan-pocked peat bog.

There are two main groups:

The Outer Hebrides are divided between Ross-shire and Inverness-shire, while the Inner Hebrides fall within Ross-shire, Inverness-shire and Argyllshire. The isles of Buteshire are also some time classified amongst the 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 Pictish, Gaelic, Norse and English speaking peoples, which is reflected in the names given to the islands.[1]

Geology and geography

The Hebrides have a diverse geology ranging in age from Precambrian strata that are amongst the oldest rocks in Europe to Tertiary igneous intrusions.[2][3][4]

The Hebrides can be divided into two main groups, separated from one another by The Minch to the north and the Sea of the Hebrides to the south. The Inner Hebrides lie closer to mainland Great Britain and the largest islands here are Islay, Jura, Skye, Mull and Raasay. There are 36 inhabited islands in this group but countless other isles. The Outer Hebrides are a chain of more than 100 islands and small skerries located about 40 miles west of mainland Great Britain. There are 15 inhabited islands in this archipelago. The main islands include Barra, Benbecula, Berneray, Harris, Lewis, North Uist and South Uist, and the St Kilda group further west in the Atlantic.

Names and terminology

"Hebrides" describes all the islands off the west coast of Scotland, both Inner Hebrides and the Outer Hebrides. The Inner and Outer Hebrides are clearly separated. Ptolemy called the islands Αἱβοῦδαι (Haiboudai), Pomponius Mela gave the name Haemodae, while Pliny the Elder's 1st Century Naturalis Historia gives them as Hebudes, from which Roman names we take today's "Hebrides".

"Western Isles" is another name for the islands, once more common. The account of the journey of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell to the islands is "A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland". However the creation of the Western Isles parliamentary constituency in 1918 and of a council of that name in 1976 has been an influence on usage, since the council covers only the Outer Hebrides, hence the dropping of "Western isles" out of usage for them all.

The Norse called the islands Suðreyar, meaning "Southern Islands", and that name became "Sodor", now used only in the title of the Bishop of Sodor and Man (and as a fictional name for the Rev Awdry's railway stories).

What islands are encompassed in the broad name of "Hebrides" is not straightforward and many rival definitions jostle for prominence and no formal definitions exist.[5] For example, one may contend whether the definition includes islands just offshore of mainland Great Britain, or islands nestled in sea lochs: most definitions do include these. When King Magnus III of Norway ("Magnus Barefoot") forced a treaty on King Edgar confirming the Norse king's rights to Suðreyar, the treaty gave Magnus any island around which a boat may sail with a fixed rudder. (Magnus then had his skiff with fixed rudder drawn across the head of Kintyre so as to include that land in his Hebrides.)

  • The Collins Encyclopedia of Scotland describes the Inner Hebrides as lying "east of The Minch", which would include any and all offshore islands. There are various islands that lie in the sea lochs such as Eilean Bàn and Eilean Donan that might not ordinarily be described as "Hebridean"
  • Encyclopædia Britannica (1978) states: "Hebrides - group of islands of the west coast of Scotland extending in an arc between 55.35 and 58.30 N and 5.26 and 8.40 W." This includes Gigha, St Kilda and everything up to Cape Wrath, which accords with normal practice, although it seems to exclude far-flung North Rona.

The Outer Hebrides are often referred to especially locally as the Long Isle (Gaelic: An t-Eilean Fada).


Main article: Inner Hebrides

Main article: Outer Hebrides


Callanish stone circle

The Hebrides were settled during the Mesolithic era around 6500 BC, after the climatic conditions improved enough to sustain human settlement.[6] 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.[7] Cladh Hallan, a Bronze Age settlement on South Uist is the only site in the United Kingdom where prehistoric mummies have been found.[8][9]

Celtic era

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 AD 77 gives the name as Hebudes.[10] 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.[11] A traveller called Demetrius of Tarsus related to Plutarch the tale of an expedition to the west coast of Caledonia 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.[12]

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 saint who first brought Christianity to the islands in the 6th century, founding several churches.

Norwegian control

The Kingdom of Mann and the Isles about the year 1100

The Hebrides began to come under Norse control and settlement already before the 9th century. The Norse called the islands Suðreyar; the southern islands, and although the record is patchy, Norse Kings ruled the Hebrides from the 9th century. In 990, Sigurd the Stout, Earl of Orkney took control of the Hebrides, and placed a jarl named Gilli in charge. By 1004 the isles' independence had been re-asserted under Røgnvaldr Guðrøðsson.

In 1098 King Magnus III of Norway conquered Orkney, the Hebrides and the Isle of Man in a swift campaign against the local Norse leaders of the various islands, and in that year King Edgar of Scotland recognised Magnus's claim. By capturing the islands Magnus imposed a more direct royal control over land seized by his kinsmen centuries earlier.

In 1156, Somerled, a Norse-Gael prince, seized control of the Inner Hebrides. Somerled ('Norse Sumarlidi and later Gaelic Somhairle) was a kinsman of both Lulach of Scotland and the Norse royal house of the Isle of Man. The Outer Hebrides however remained under the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles. 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 no longer controlled of the Inner Hebrides.

Scottish control

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 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 4,000 marks and an annual payment of 100 marks. The treaty also confirmed Norwegian sovereignty over Shetland and Orkney.


The residents of the Hebrides have spoken a variety of different languages during the long period of human occupation.

It is assumed that Pictish must once have predominated in the northern Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides although the historical record is sparse. For example, Hunter (2000) states that in relation to King Bridei I of the Picts in the sixth century: "As for Shetland, Orkney, Skye and the Western Isles, their inhabitants, most of whom appear to have been Pictish in culture and speech at this time, are likely to have regarded Bridei as a fairly distant presence.”[13][14]

The Gaelic language arrived from Ireland possibly due to the growing influence of the kingdom of Dalriada from the 6th century onwards and became the dominant language of the southern Hebrides at that time. For a time the military might of the Norse and the Norse-Gaelic Gall-Ghaidhils meant that Old Norse language dominated the Hebrides and north of Ardnamurchan the place names that existed prior to the 9th century have been all but obliterated.[15]

South of Ardnamurchan Gaelic place names are the most common[16] and after the 13th century Gaelic became the main language of the entire Hebridean archipelago. The use of Scots and English became prominent in recent times but the Hebrides still contain the largest concentration of Gaelic speakers in Scotland. This is especially true of the Outer Hebrides, where the majority of people speak the language.[17] The Scottish Gaelic college, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, is based on Skye and Islay.

Ironically, given the status of the Outer Hebrides 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 colonised by the Norse. The Norse-Gaels are known in Gaelic as the Gall-Ghaidhils (meaning "foreign Gaels").

The arts

Entrance to Fingal's Cave on Staffa

The Hebrides, also known as Fingal's Cave, is a famous overture written by Felix Mendelssohn while staying amongst 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.[18] 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.[19][20]

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow mentioned the Hebrides in his poem Seaweed. Edgar Allan Poe references the Hebrides in his poem The Valley of Unrest and in his short story Silence. Enya's song "Ebudæ" from Shepherd Moons is named for the Inner Hebrides (see below). Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse is the story of a family's holiday house on Skye.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Hebrides)

References and footnotes

  1. Haswell-Smith, Hamish. (2004) The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh. Canongate. ISBN 1-84195-454-3
  2. Rollinson, Hugh (September 1997) " Britain's oldest rocks" Geology Today. 13 no.5 pp. 185-190.
  3. Gillen, Con (2003) Geology and landscapes of Scotland. Harpenden. Terra Publishing. Pages 44 and 142.
  4. Rollinson (1997) states that the oldest rocks in Europe have been found "near Gruinard Bay" on the Scottish mainland. Gillen (2003) p. 44 indicates the oldest rocks in Europe are found "in the Northwest Highlands and Outer Hebrides". McKirdy, Alan Gordon, John & Crofts, Roger (2007) Land of Mountain and Flood: The Geology and Landforms of Scotland. Edinburgh. Birlinn. p. 93 state of the Lewisian gneiss bedrock of much of the Outer Hebrides that "these rocks are amongst the oldest to be found anywhere on the planet". Other non-geological sources sometimes claim the rocks of Lewis and Harris are "the oldest in Britain", meaning that they are the oldest deposits of large bedrock. As Rollinson makes clear they are not the location of the oldest small outcrop.
  5. Keay & Keay (1994) p. 507.
  6. Occupation at a site on Rùm is dated to 8590+/-95 uncorrected radiocarbon years BP. Edwards, Kevin J., and Mithen, Steven (Feb., 1995) "The Colonization of the Hebridean Islands of Western Scotland: Evidence from the Palynological and Archaeological Records," World Archaeology. 26. No. 3. p. 348. Retrieved 20 April 2008.
  7. Li, Martin (2005): Adventure Guide to Scotland]. Hunter Publishing. p. 509.
  8. "Mummification in Bronze Age Britain" BBC History. Retrieved 11 February 2008.
  9. "The Prehistoric Village at Cladh Hallan". University of Sheffield. Retrieved 21 February 2008.
  10. [1] Scottish Gazetteer from the University of Edinburgh's Department of Geography.
  11. See for example Haycock, David Boyd. "Much Greater, Than Commonly Imagined." The Newton Project. Retrieved 14 March 2008.
  12. Moffat, Alistair (2005) Before Scotland: The Story of Scotland Before History. London. Thames & Hudson. pp. 239-40.
  13. Hunter (2000) pp. 44, 49
  14. Watson (1994) p. 65
  15. Brown, James (1892) "Place-names of Scotland" p. 4 ebooksread.com. Retrieved 13 Feb 2011.
  16. Woolf, Alex "The Age of the Sea-Kings: 900-1300" in Omand (2006) p. 95
  17. Mac an Tàilleir, Iain (2004) 1901-2001 Gaelic in the Census (PowerPoint ) Linguae Celticae. Retrieved 1 June 2008.
  18. Text of the poem in Gaelic, with Sorley Maclean's own translation into English Retrieved 2 June 2007.
  19. "Famous Visitors to the Islands - Luchd-tadhail Ainmeil" Culture Hebrides. Retrieved 26 July 2008.
  20. Birkin, Andrew, The Lost Boys. Yale University Press.
General references
  • Ballin Smith, Beverley; Taylor, Simon; and Williams, Gareth (2007) West over Sea: Studies in Scandinavian Sea-Borne Expansion and Settlement Before 1300. Leiden. Brill.
  • Buxton, Ben. (1995) Mingulay: An Island and Its People. Edinburgh. Birlinn. ISBN 1874744246
  • Gammeltoft, Peder (2010) "Shetland and Orkney Island-Names – A Dynamic Group". Northern Lights, Northern Words. Selected Papers from the FRLSU Conference, Kirkwall 2009, edited by Robert McColl Millar.
  • Haswell-Smith, Hamish (2004). The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh: Canongate. ISBN 1841954543. 
  • Hunter, James (2000) Last of the Free: A History of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Edinburgh. Mainstream. ISBN 1840183764
  • Keay, J. & Keay, J. (1994) Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland. London. HarperCollins.
  • Maclean, Charles (1977) Island on the Edge of the World: the Story of St. Kilda. Edinburgh. Canongate ISBN 0903937417
  • Monro, Sir Donald (1549) A Description Of The Western Isles of Scotland. Appin Regiment/Appin Historical Society. Retrieved 3 March 2007. First published in 1774.
  • Murray, W H (1966) The Hebrides. London. Heinemann.
  • Murray, W.H. (1973) The Islands of Western Scotland. London. Eyre Methuen. ISBN 0413303802
  • Omand, Donald (ed.) (2006) The Argyll Book. Edinburgh. Birlinn. ISBN 1841584800
  • Ordnance Survey (2009) "Get-a-map". Retrieved 1–15 August 2009.
  • Steel, Tom (1988) The Life and Death of St. Kilda. London. Fontana. ISBN 0006373402
  • Stevenson, Robert Louis (1995) The New Lighthouse on the Dhu Heartach Rock, Argyllshire. California. Silverado Museum. Based on an 1872 manuscript and edited by Swearingen, R.G.
  • Thompson, Francis (1968) Harris and Lewis, Outer Hebrides. Newton Abbot. David & Charles. ISBN 0715342606
  • Watson, W J (1994) The Celtic Place-Names of Scotland. Edinburgh. Birlinn. ISBN 1841583235. First published 1926.