Posts tagged ‘North Atlantic’

Nov 29, 2020

Rona, Scotland’s lost island

‘Far on old Ocean’s utmost region cast,

One lonely isle o’erlooks the boundless waste;

Dropt like a rock amid’ the Herrid’ train;

Around it swells the wind, and roars the main.’

John Ogilvie, Rona a Poem   (1777)

The natural world permeated every aspect of the lives of the island people who took their names from the sky, rainbows and clouds.

Rona – an island so remote it has been largely absent from maps of the British Isles. There are more than 900 islands in Scotland so one more or less doesn’t make much difference to the total but that’s no reason to pretend it doesn’t exist – especially as it was the farthest off part of the British Isles ever inhabited.  

A speck in the Atlantic Ocean, the island of Rona (Rònaigh in Gaelic, hraun-øy in Old Norse) all of a mile long and half-mile broad at its widest point lies 71 kilometres (44 miles) northwest of Cape Wrath and similar distance north northeast of the Butt of Lewis is best known for its vast seal population and varied bird life inhabiting the island’s cliffs that soar up to 500 feet.

I don’t know why people chose to live on Rona. Probably most didn’t. We do know that in recent centuries Rona, a lump of grassy rock surrounded by thunderous seas and treacherous to land on from boat, formed part of the glebe belonging to church ministers of Barvas on the Isle of Lewis; bet that cheered him knowing part of the land that was to provide his food was the distant and mysterious island accessible only by good fortune during brief favourable conditions for a human foot beneath the lofty and slippery  cliffs.

When game minister Daniel Morison risked all to visit his distant holding he encountered a warm welcome from the natives:

‘God save you, pilgrim, you are heartily welcome here; for we have had repeated apparitions of your person among us (as in Highlanders’ second sight) and we heartily congratulate your arrival in this out remote country’

– all spoken in Gaelic, this being the language of the west of Scotland. The minister was persuaded to turn to the sun so he might receive the peoples’ blessing for devout as they were they venerated the powerful influences of nature – as those at the mercy of the elements tend to do. Demonstrating their reputation for hospitality each of the five island families killed and flayed a sheep; the skins so expertly removed they formed sacks into which was poured generous amounts of the unique white barley meal grown on Rona for the minister to take home with him.

The Reverend Morison was shown the chapel dedicated to St Ronan, an eighth century Irish missionary turned hermit who had settled on the island. His little Christian oratory disintegrated over time but a chapel next to it was built by later islanders and this well cared-for chapel was used for the natives’ own religious services. A ten-foot plank of wood which formed a rustic altar was punched with holes every foot or so and into each hole was placed a stone which symbolised matters of importance to the community such as the safety of women during childbirth. According to legend whenever a man of the island died his spade and shovel were placed in the chapel and overnight a location for his grave would be marked out on the lush grass on top of the island.

There is not a great deal known about the isolated people of Rona and the little that has emerged is mostly vague over the timing of events but some details have been recorded. For instance we know there were times when life was strictly organised – down to determining the maximum size of the population. In such a precarious environments it is hardly surprising to find controls of this kind to preserve the collective. We know that in the 1600s the community comprised five families each consisting of six members so that once the maximum number of 30 islanders was reached any additional children born that could not make up losses among the other families were removed by boat in summertime and taken to Lewis to live. Each family was allotted a piece of land to farm by lazy-beds (ridge and furrow method of crop production), a barn, cattle-house and storehouse as well as a dwelling-house.

Buildings were built of gathered stone and dug into the ground to resist prevailing storm-force winds so that roofs protruded only about two feet above ground level. On these went a layer of turf and over this thatch, possibly tied down and secured with boulders to prevent the lot being blown away by the frequent gale force winds. Exposed walls were protected with more turf, packed tightly about them. Being mainly underground buildings were entered by crawling or stooping along low, dark and narrow passages which led into low and smoky chambers where turf fires burned (smoke finding its way out through holes in the turf roof.) The subterranean houses would have resembled fish smoke houses with even fish present – being strung between walls to dry and preserve them with birds possibly dried this way too although being surrounded by salty sea water brine was used to preserve the likes of puffin flesh for periods when fresh food supplies were scant.

Clothing was scarce in the hand-to-mouth existence on Rona and visitors to the island noted a lack of blankets for bedding although they were seen used as body coverings for women and children – virtually all they had for this purpose. Beds were equally spartan. No heather or straw beds here only a layer of ashes from the turf fires spread on the floor of dwellings. You might imagine feathers were used for comfort and insulation but I haven’t found any mention they were. Feathers might have been too important as goods to barter with mariners or pay rent to the chief on Lewis. Under the clan system, the chief’s tacksman from Barvas collected feathers as well as wool from the folk of Rona – 8 stone of feathers was provided annually to him by each of the island’s families; mainly plucked from the island’s gannet population. While wool was a valuable asset to the chief, the flesh of the sheep, its mutton, was left for the natives to eat. There is no doubt the folk of Rona lived at the extreme end of impoverishment with money playing no part in their existence.

Following a tragedy, more of this later, the island became temporarily depopulated before a shepherd and his family were put there to live and work – he as an indentured servant to spend 8 years on Rona. Similar to the lot of earlier inhabitants the family were fairly well fed, surrounded as they were by fish and fowl and sheep, of course, but again they had virtually no clothing to speak of (certainly not his wife and young child.) The shepherd received no money payment during his indentured years only cloth and this not sufficient for all the family. Neither was the shepherd allowed a boat to fish off the island, possibly in case he tried to escape or as the Scottish doctor, geologist and commentator John MacCulloch (the man who introduced the word malaria into the English language) suggested, tongue in cheek, ‘it could only offer the poor man a temptation to drown himself.’ Our shepherd was permitted to fish for coal fish from the rocks for its oil was used to fuel simple lamps.  As there was no peat on Rona turf was burned in fires for heating houses and cooking. Without matches the house fire had to be kept going or else Rona’s populations were in big trouble.

Poor as they were, and few places in the world could demonstrate people poorer, the natives of Rona did in the main appear to have reasonable amounts of food to eat – oats, barley, mutton, milk, cheese and occasional meat as well as fish, birds and eggs. Water came out of pools dug to collect rain water.

All that said Rona’s population were vulnerable – to the weather certainly but at least it was usually possible to develop ways of coping with extreme weather. Invasion was a whole other problem. About the year 1686 black rats scuttled ashore from a ship wrecked on Rona’s rocks. The native islanders had no means of defending themselves against a voracious fast-breeding rat population and soon their stores of food were consumed by them. One by one the islanders died of starvation and eventually so, too, did the rats.

It was not only four-legged rats that invaded and helped themselves to the peoples’ food supplies. Mariners on vessels sailing the Atlantic were prone to take advantage of the peaceful folk and steal their provisions. On one recorded occasion the island’s only bull was removed by a group of sailors to provide them with meat on their voyage causing the island’s cows to stop giving milk and once again the people stranded on their island became vulnerable to hunger and starvation, especially when no supplies were forthcoming from Lewis.

Before the days of indentured slavery when Rona’s population was largely determined by its own rules men from the five families would take to the sea to fish. But the waters around Rona are seldom benign and about ten years after the rat invasion most or all the men from a new community on the island were lost when their fishing boat capsized. This led to their families eventually abandoning Rona because of the difficulties of sustaining life there without their menfolk and the island was later used for sheep grazing and inhabitants restricted to shepherds and their families.

The last of these shepherds to live on Rona was Donald Macleod in the mid-19th century but two other men, Malcolm MacDonald and Murdo Mackay, turned up there from Lewis – whether as a punishment or to escape censure in their own community I don’t know but they both died there before the next Lewis boat sailed to the island a few months later. During the Great War German sailors were sent ashore to shoot Rona’s sheep and carry the carcasses back to their U-boat for food.

On the eve of the next world war English ecologist F. Fraser Darling and his wife, Bobbie, spent time on this speck in the North Atlantic and his book Island Years is how I learnt about Rona. In it is a reminder to those not familiar with the west of Scotland that the weather here is not always malevolent but summers can be hot and dry, as he and Bobbie experienced on Rona in 1938. His book is mainly concerned with the seal and bird populations but he does refer to Rona’s earlier settlers  who lived in harmony with the natural world and who experienced life at its harshest, marooned as they were in the middle of an ocean on an island expunged by the compilers of maps and largely unheard-of by the rest of the world.

John MacCulloch, The Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland, 1824.

John Ogilvie, Rona a Poem, 1777.

F. Fraser Darling, Island Years, 1940.