Islay

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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Islay, an island in Argyllshire, the chief one of the southernmost group of the Hebrides. Its NE coast is ½ mile distant from Jura at Feolin Ferry; and its E coast is 13 ¼ miles distant from the nearest pint of Kintyre. Its utmost length, from N by E to S by W, is 25½ miles; its utmost breadth, in the opposite direction, is 19 miles; and its area is 235 square miles, or 150, 355 acres. Its southern part is cleft by Loch Indal into two peninsulas; and its northern part converges to a pint somewhat in the manner of two sides of an equilateral triangle, whose apex is Rudha Mhail, in the extreme N. The Sound of Islay, commencing opposite Rudha Mhail, and curving 14 ¼ miles south-south-eastward, separates all the NE coast from Jural contracts from 3 ¼ miles to ½ mile, and thence again broadens to 6; has abrupt shores, rarely exceeding 100 feet in height; and is swept by such rapid tidal currents, with short cross billows, as to be very dangerous to navigators. Acrescental curve, with convexity to the E, and slightly diversified by a series of small headlands and bays, defines the coast from the SE end of the Sound onward to the island's southern extremity, the Mull of Islay, or Mull na Ho, which rises in cliffs to the height of 750 feet, and contains a cavern. Loch Indal, opening with a width of 8 miles, penetrates 12 miles north-north-eastward; forms the expansion of Laggan Bay at the middle of its E side; narrows to a width of from 1½ to 3 miles in its upper part; and is all comparatively shallow. Rhynns Pint, with small islands adjacent to it, flanks the W side of the entrance of Loch Indal, and forms the extremity of the south-western peninsula. A line running 13 miles north-byeastward from Rhynns Pint, and then 15 miles north-eastward to Rudha Mhail, defines all the rest of the coast; is cut about midway by Loch Gruinnard, penetrating 4 ¼ miles southward to within 3 miles of Loch Indal; and has elsewhere very trivial diversity of either bay or headland. The entire coast, in a general view, is bounded either by low rocks or by flat shores and sandy beaches; but at the Mull of Islay, as already noticed, it soars in cliffs to a commanding height; and about Sanaig, on the NW side, it is pierced with several large caves, one of which ramifies into a labyrinth. A number of islets lie off the coast, particularly on the E, and on the middle of the W side. The interior differs much in character from most of the Hebrides and the Highlands, exhibiting no assemblage of mountain and glen, yet displaying considerable diversity of structure and of contour, and containing a fair amount of pleasing landscape. Chief elevations, from N to S, to the E of Lochs Gruinnard and Indal, are Scaribh Hill (1197 feet), Beinn Dubh (974), Sgorr na Faoileann (1444), and Sgorr Voucharan (1157); to the W, Rock Side Hill (575), and Beinn Tartabhaile (755).

Harbours, with quay or pier, are at Port Askaig, on the Sound of Islay; Port Ellen, on the SE coast; Bowmore, near the head of the E side of Loch Indal; Port Charlotte, on the W side of Loch Indal; and Portuahaven, to the N of Rhynns Pint. The small bays on the E coast are, for the most part, dangerous of approach, on account of sunken rocks; and Loch Gruinnard is almost the only place on the W coast which affords any anchorage. Numerous streamlets rise on the heights, run in all directions to the sea, afford plenty of water-power for any kind of machinery, and abound with trout and salmon. Of several small fresh-water lakes dotted over the interior, the largest are Loch Guirm (¾ x 1/3 mile), 7 miles WNW of Bridgend, and Loch Finlagan (2/3 x ¼ mile), 3 miles WSW of Port Askaig. Quartz rocks prevail in the principal hill ridge; a fine limestone prevails in the northern central district; and a strip of clay slate borders the W side of Loch Indal. Beds of excellent slate are plentiful, and have been largely worked; good marble has been quarried; beds of fine silicious sand, suitable for the manufacture of glass, are so extensive as to have furnished many cargoes for exportation; lime and shell sand, for mixture with neighbouring sea-weed and moss into composts, are inexhaustibly abundant; iron ore has been worked of prime quality; lead ore and silver are mined; and copper, manganese, graphite, and other metallic minerals have been discovered. The average rainfall in eight years ending with 1875 was 48½ inches, or 14 below that of Greenock; and the average temperature was very nearly the same as that of Edinburgh-the mean in Islay being 47.1o, in Edinburgh 47.40.

`Of late years,' writes Mr Duncan Clerk, `the lands have passed into new hands, the new proprietors being Morrison of Islay (67, 000 acres, valued at £16, 440 per annum), Ramsay of Kildalton (54, 250 acres, £8226), Finlay of Dunlossit (17,676 acres, £2882), and Campbell of Ballinaby (1800 acres, £378). The larger portion of the old native race tenantry has also passed away, and their holdings are now mostly occupied by tenants from Ayrshire and the Lowland districts, who turn their attention principally to dairy-farming, and find that Ayrshire stocks thrive exceedingly well. They also rear a considerable number of cross lambs, which are sent fat to Glasgow early in the season. The hill districts, which were formerly only partially stocked, are now covered with thriving flocks of black-faced and Cheviot sheep, which help to supply the Glasgow market. West Highland cattle are still reared to a large extent, and the number is likely to increase under the stimulus of the high price of beef, which Islay supplies in perfection.. The area of arable land, though considerably increased, has not been so rapidly extended as might have been anticipated. However, the cultivation of land has been very much improved, so that the production of food for cattle and sheep is very much larger per acre than it was thirty years ago. Many fields carry heavier crops of turnips, potatoes, and corn than are usual even in the Lowlands. The improved culture, and the general rise in the value of farm produce, stimulated by the landlords' large expenditure on houses, fences, etc., has caused the rental of the island to be nearly doubled within the last thirty years. So much room for improvements still remains, however, that, with a judicious outlay of capital, it might be doubled again in the same number of years. The principal exports from Islay are horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, and poultry, cheese, butter, eggs, and, sine years, a large quantity of potatoes. Whisky is largely produced; and the seven distilleries afford a valuable help in the supply of manure, while they also assist in maintaining prices of stock in the local markets, many cattle being fattened off in connection with them ' (Trans. Highl. and Ag. Soc., 1878). The arable soils are very various, but generally fertile and well cultivated. More than one-half of all the island's surface might be advantageously subjected to regular tillage; and much that was formerly heathy, pastoral, or badly cultivated is now reclaimed, well-worked, and very productive. Enclosing, draining, judicious manuring, skilful cropping, and good roadmaking were commenced not long after the era of general agricultural improvement in Great Britain, and went on with such steadiness as to render great part of the island, many years ago, as well dressed as many an equal extent of country in the Scottish Lowlands. The roads are everywhere excellent, and have good bridges; and a very important one, 15 miles long, from Bridgend to Port Ellen, opening up a district of previously little value, was begun to be formed so late as 1841. Drainage operations were facilitated by a very large grant under the Government Drainage Act, and by the produce of a local brick and tile work. Farming traffic is facilitated by abundance of local meal mills, by regular markets and fairs at Bowmore, Port Ellen, Bridgend, and Ballygrant, and by steamboat communication with Glasgow daily during summer, and twice a week in the winter. The spinning of yarn was formerly carried on to the value of £10,000 a-year, but suffered extinction through the action of the Glasgow factories. Telegraphic communication with the mainland was established in the autumn of 1871.

The island comprises the parishes of Kilchoman, Kildalton, and Killarrow, with the quoad sacra parishes of Kilmeny, Oa, and Portnahaven; and contains the villages of Bowmore, Bridgend, Port Charlotte, Portnahaven, Port Ellen, and Port Askaig, all twelve of which are noticed separately. A sheriff small debt court sits at Bowmore four times a year; and a justice of peace small debt court is held on the first Wednesday of every month. Islay has a combination poorhouse at Bowmore, with accommodation for 48 inmates, a branch of the National Bank at Bridgend, a branch of the Royal Bank at Port Ellen, 6 Established churches, 5 Free churches, an Episcopal mission chapel at Ballygrant, a Baptist chapel at Bowmore, and 16 schools, with total accommodation for 1650 children. Valuation (1860) £20, 805, (1883) £38, 270. Pop. (1801) 6821, (1831) 14, 982, (1851) 12, 334, (1861) 10,345, (1871) 8143, (1881) 7559, of whom 3766 were males, and 6673 were Gaelic-speaking.

Islay was early and long in the possession of the Scandinavians; and it retains memorials of their sway in the remains of many duns and castles, and in such topographical names as Kennibus, Assibus, Torribolse, and Torrisdale. It passed from them to the kings of Man, or sovereigns of the Hebrides; and it is said to have been, while in their possession, the place of their receiving rents and dues from large portions of their dominions. Two rocks lying near each other, in a harbour on the S side of the island, are called respectively Craig-a-neone and Craig-a-nairgid, signifying the ' Rock of the silver rent ' and the ` Rock of the rent in kind; ' and these are supposed to have got their names from being the payment-scene of the Scandinavian royal rents. The island next became the residence of the Macdonalds, Lords of the Isles, the seat of their court, the sphere of their pompous rule over their insular dominion; and it retains the ruin of their castle on an islet in Loch Finlagan, the ruin of one of their fortalices at the SE entrance of the Sound of Islay, the vestiges of another of their fortalices on an islet in Loch Guirm, and the ruin of a famous church of their period, surrounded with an extensive cemetery, containing curious ancient gravestones, on Island-Nave, adjacent to the NW coast. The lands of Islay, along with those of Jura, Scarba, and Muckairn, continued to be held, for several generations, by the descendants of the Macdonalds; but they were transferred, in the reign of James VI., to Sir John Campbell of Calder for an annual feu-duty, the proportion of which for Islay was £500; and they all were afterwards sold to Campbell of Shawfield for £12,000. The emigrant ship, the Exmouth, in May 1847 struck on an iron-bound part of the NW coast of Islay, and went almost instantly to pieces, when 220 persons were drowned.

The six parishes of Islay, the parish of Jura, and that of Colonsay and Oronsay, constitute the presbytery of Islay and Jura in the synod of Argyll, which meets at Bridgend on the last Wednesday of each month. Pop. (1871) 9564, (1881) 8917, of whom 655 were communicants of the Church of Scotland in 1878.-A Free Church presbytery of Islay comprises the 5 charges of Bowmore, Kilchoman, Kildalton and Oa, Killarrow and Kilmeny, and Portnahaven, with the mission station of Jura, which together had 931 members and adherents in 1883.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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