Even at its peak in the early 19th century, the wild and windswept Isle of Gigha off the West Coast of Scotland supported a community of less than six hundred people. Today, some two centuries later, the population of this Inner Hebridian island has shrunk to around one hundred and sixty people. That’s an improvement from the early 21st century when the population dipped below one hundred, and the island’s future seemed to be in the balance.
The scattering of buildings that make up its main population centre, Ardminish, barely qualify as a village. Although it does have a hotel and pub. The rest of the inhabitants live scattered around the island in remote houses and farms. Although modernity has long arrived on the island, the sense of isolation and remoteness is overwhelming. The journey on the small Calmac ferry that connects the island with the mainland gives you a real sense of adventure.
Reaching Gigha involved a long drive from Glasgow, along the shores of Loch Lomond and down onto the Kintyre peninsular – made famous by Paul McCartney’s song ‘Mull of Kintyre’. We had time to admire the views across to Gigha before boarding the ferry. The dramatic-looking Paps of Jura loomed in the distance. The word ‘paps’ comes from the old Norse word meaning ‘breast’ and is, therefore, hilarious to British people. The breast-shaped hills dominate the skyline to the west.
If Gigha’s landscapes, golden beaches and surprisingly blue waters weren’t dramatic enough, its rollercoaster history is just as remarkable. Gigha is community owned these days. Its residents formed the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust to buy it from the previous owner in 2002. Like many Scottish islands, and vast swaths of the Highlands, Gigha has been inherited, bought and sold by wealthy landowners for centuries. The islanders had to pay £4 million for their independence.
It’s only a small island, 9.5 kilometers long and 2.5 kilometers wide, but Gigha has seen more than its fair share of history. Largely thanks to its location on a vital sea route, human history can be traced back over 5,000 years. It goes back so far that its origins are shrouded in myth, neolithic standing stones only add to the mystery. In the 6th and 7th centuries, it was part of the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata that covered parts of Scotland and Ireland, from which the Kings of Scotland claimed legitimacy well into the 18th century.
There is little recorded history until a few centuries later. One of the earliest records came in 1263 when the Norwegian King, Haakon, anchored his fleet here in an attempt to reassert control over his Scottish possessions. Scotland had been under Norwegian tutelage since the 11th century, but that ended in 1263 when the Scots defeated the Norse army at the Battle of Largs.
Between then and the purchase of the island by its inhabitants, came eight hundred years of turbulent and frequently violent history. Gigha was buffeted by the rival claims of different Scottish clans and the dizzying array of clan alliances that consumed Scotland in the medieval period and through to the Jacobite Rising of 1745. MacNeills, MacDonalds, Maclains, MacLeods, MacKinnons and MacQuarries all vied for control of the island.
We only had a short time on the island, to attend a wedding at the 19th century Achamore House. Famed for botanical gardens that thrive in the island’s mild micro-climate, the grounds of the house offer panoramic views west to the islands of Islay and Jura. In truth, had I not gone for the wedding, Gigha would still be shrouded in mystery. I’d heard of its bigger, whisky producing neighbours, but I’d never heard of Gigha before.
It was an eye-opening trip, one that has made me want to further explore the Hebrides, Inner and Outer – although I doubt the weather will be as accommodating as it was when we were on Gigha.