Portal:Scottish islands

The Scottish Islands Portal
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Relief map of Scotland, showing some of the numerous offshore islands

Scotland has around 900 offshore islands, most of which are to be found in four main groups: Shetland, Orkney, and the Hebrides, sub-divided into the Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides. There are also clusters of islands in the Firth of Clyde, Firth of Forth, and Solway Firth, and numerous small islands within the many bodies of fresh water in Scotland including Loch Lomond and Loch Maree. The largest island is Lewis and Harris which extends to 2,179 square kilometres, and there are a further 200 islands which are greater than 40 hectares in area. Of the remainder, several such as Staffa and the Flannan Isles are well known despite their small size. Some 94 Scottish islands are permanently inhabited, of which 89 are offshore islands. Between 2001 and 2011 Scottish island populations as a whole grew by 4% to 103,702.

The geology and geomorphology of the islands is varied. Some, such as Skye and Mull, are mountainous, while others like Tiree and Sanday are relatively low lying. Many have bedrock made from ancient Archaean Lewisian Gneiss which was formed 3 billion years ago; Shapinsay and other Orkney islands are formed from Old Red Sandstone, which is 400 million years old; and others such as Rùm from more recent Tertiary volcanoes. Many of the islands are swept by strong tides, and the Corryvreckan tide race between Scarba and Jura is one of the largest whirlpools in the world. Other strong tides are to be found in the Pentland Firth between mainland Scotland and Orkney, and another example is the "Grey Dog" between Scarba and Lunga. (More on Scottish islands...)

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Overview of Village Bay, St Kilda

St Kilda (Scottish Gaelic: Hiort) is an isolated archipelago situated 64 kilometres (40 mi) west-northwest of North Uist in the North Atlantic Ocean. It contains the westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The largest island is Hirta, whose sea cliffs are the highest in the United Kingdom; three other islands (Dùn, Soay and Boreray) were also used for grazing and seabird hunting. The islands are administratively a part of the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar local authority area.

The origin of the name St Kilda is a matter of conjecture. The islands' human heritage includes numerous unique architectural features from the historic and prehistoric periods, although the earliest written records of island life date from the Late Middle Ages. The medieval village on Hirta was rebuilt in the 19th century, but illnesses brought by increased external contacts through tourism, and the upheaval of the First World War contributed to the island's evacuation in 1930. The story of St Kilda has attracted artistic interpretations, including Michael Powell's film The Edge of the World and an opera.

Permanent habitation on the islands possibly extends back two millennia, the population probably never exceeding 180; its peak was in the late 17th century. The population was 112 in 1851. According to the 1861 census, there were 71 inhabitants at that time; over subsequent years, the population ebbed and waned, eventually dropping to 36 as of May 1930. Virtually all of the population lived on Hirta. The entire remaining population was evacuated from Hirta, the only inhabited island, in 1930.

The islands house a unique form of stone structure known as cleitean. A cleit is a stone storage hut or bothy; while many still exist, they are slowly falling into disrepair. There are known to be 1,260 cleitean on Hirta and a further 170 on the other group islands. Currently, the only year-round residents are military personnel; a variety of conservation workers, volunteers and scientists spend time there in the summer months. (Full article...)


Proposed spaceport site at Lamma Ness, Unst
Proposed spaceport site at Lamma Ness, Unst

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The St Kilda field mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus hirtensis) is a subspecies of the wood mouse that is endemic to the Scottish archipelago of St Kilda, the island 40 miles (64 km) west of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides, and 100 miles (160 km) from mainland Scotland. Unique to the islands, the mouse is believed to have arrived on the boats of Viking settlers more than a millennium ago. It is not to be confused with the St Kilda house mouse (Mus musculus muralis), a subspecies of the house mouse which is now extinct.

The last remaining human inhabitants of St Kilda abandoned the islands on 29 August 1930. Thereafter the mice that survived, even those occupying houses abandoned by the St Kildans, were field mice that had moved into the houses from the hills. The islands' house mice could not survive the harsh conditions for more than two years after the archipelago was abandoned by its human population. The islands currently have temporary human habitations. While field mice are widespread on Hirta, their concentration is more pronounced in the old village areas where holes provide access into buildings. Though rarely observed by casual visitors, the mouse is common and is present in every part of the habitat, from the harbour to the high point. (Full article...)

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Red and yellow sandstone Cathedral pictured in 2014
Most witch trials in Orkney were held in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall

Witchcraft in Orkney possibly has its roots in the settlement of Norsemen on the archipelago from the eighth century onwards. Until the early modern period magical powers were accepted as part of the general lifestyle, but witch-hunts began on the mainland of Scotland in about 1550, and the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 made witchcraft or consultation with witches a crime punishable by death. One of the first Orcadians tried and executed for witchcraft was Allison Balfour, in 1594. Balfour, her elderly husband and two young children, were subjected to severe torture for two days to elicit a confession from her.

Trials were generally held in St Magnus Cathedral where the accused were also incarcerated while being interrogated. Once convicted, witches were taken to Gallow Ha to be executed by strangulation and then their bodies were burned. Early laws also allowed the seizure of any property or belongings of those guilty of any crimes associated with witchcraft; this was manipulated to suit whatever purpose the ruling Earls such as Patrick Stewart, 2nd Earl of Orkney had in mind, and left much of the island's population destitute. These laws were overturned in 1611 but were replaced by Scottish law, causing a shift from the exploitation by the Earls to the administration of justice by the Bishop's court of James Law, a fervent minister from West Lothian. The reforms instituted by the restoration of the Bishops had a significant impact but failed to introduce any neutrality into the proceedings against those accused of witchcraft during the most intensive period of witch-hunting on the island from 1615 until 1645.

The new court regime produced varying results regarding punishments passed down: the first trial held on 7 June 1615 was against two women from Westray, both were deemed guilty but one was sentenced to be banished after a severe public flogging while the other was tied to a stake, strangled and burned. Charges in cases varied but the slightest misdemeanour could lead to charges of witchcraft and devilry being brought and upheld. If confessions of associations with the Devil were not forthcoming, convictions were obtained on the basis of consorting with fairies. In 1616 Elspeth Reoch was found guilty and executed after she admitted having sexual intercourse with a fairy man.

Mirroring the time span of witch persecution on the mainland of Scotland, the trials in Orkney drew to an end in 1708; most took place prior to 1650. Sixty-eight people had been accused, the majority – around ninety percent – were women, a higher ratio than that recorded in the rest of the country. (Full article...)

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Yell (Scots: Yell) is one of the North Isles of Shetland, Scotland. In the 2011 census it had a usually resident population of 966. It is the second largest island in Shetland after the Mainland with an area of 82 square miles (212 km2), and is the third most populous in the archipelago (fifteenth out of the islands in Scotland), after the Mainland and Whalsay.

The island's bedrock is largely composed of Moine schist with a north–south grain, which was uplifted during the Caledonian mountain building period. Peat covers two-thirds of the island to an average depth of 1.5 metres (4.9 feet).

Yell has been inhabited since the Neolithic times, and a dozen broch sites have been identified from the pre-Norse period. Norse rule lasted from the 9th to 14th centuries until Scottish control was asserted. The modern economy of the island is based on crofting, fishing, transport and tourism. The island claims to be the "Otter Capital of Britain" and has a diverse bird life including breeding populations of great and Arctic skuas. At times, whales and dolphins also appear off the coast.

Notable buildings on the island include the 17th-century Old Haa of Brough in Burravoe, a merchant's house now converted to a museum and visitor centre. There are various folk tales and modern literary references to island life. (Full article...)

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Victorian depiction of a MacCrimmon piper

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The Norse mill and kiln at Shawbost

Shawbost (Scottish Gaelic: Siabost) is a large village in the West Side of the Isle of Lewis. The village of Shawbost has a population of around 500 and lies around 20 miles (30 kilometres) west of Lewis's capital Stornoway. Shawbost is within the parish of Barvas. A recent development in the village was the renovation of the old school into the new community centre. The scattered settlement is split into three sections: North Shawbost (Siabost bho Thuath), South Shawbost (Siabost bho Dheas) and New Shawbost (Pàirc Shiaboist). There is a small museum of folk life and nearby is a small stone circle. The village is overlooked by a small hill named Beinn Bhragair, 261 m high. Shawbost is a prominent village on the Isle of Lewis, due to the school, community centre, beach and Harris Tweed mill.

In the 2001 United Kingdom Census, 72% of people in Shawbost reported being able to speak Scottish Gaelic. (Full article...)

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white flowers
The melefour herb was considered to have many magical properties, including curing illnesses and conferring second sight; Reoch plucked petals from it while chanting to create magic spells.

Elspeth Reoch (died Kirkwall 1616) was an alleged Scottish witch. She was born in Caithness but as a child spent time with relatives on an island in Lochaber prior to travelling to the mainland of Orkney.

The implementation of the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563, made witchcraft a capital offence in Scotland, therefore punishable by death.

The early years of the 17th century were a time of political turmoil on the islands as the transition of power between Patrick Stewart, 2nd Earl of Orkney and the staunch episcopalian Bishop James Law took place. Once in control, Bishop Law instigated court reforms in 1614 that academics considered had a significant impact on witchcraft trials in Orkney. Any references to a fairy in statements given to interrogators by alleged witches were routinely changed to read devil or demon.

At her trial in Kirkwall on 12 March 1616 Reoch confessed to charges of witchcraft and deceiving islanders by pretending she was mute. Asserting she had received instructions on how to acquire magical powers when she was twelve years old while she was staying with an aunt in Lochaber, she claimed to have clairvoyance abilities. She also professed to being able to induce or cure illness by reciting chants while plucking petals from the melefour herb. Her lifestyle was that of a wanderer or vagabond who used her magic to support herself. (Full article...)

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Castle Stalker, Loch Laich
Castle Stalker, Loch Laich

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