The history of Islay is such a mixture of fact, fiction and folklore, that it is very difficult to determine where fancy ends and truth begins.
The earliest references are in The Irish Chronicles. The meaning of the word is a matter for debate. It could mean I-leithe, the island cut in half (almost), or I-lagh, the island of law. This is quite a good explanation, for in the 8th or 9th century, near where the Laggan and Duich rivers meet, stood the law-house of St. Ceallach. Tradition has it that in the days of the Macdonalds of Islay this law-house was the highest court of appeal in the Isles.
Another story is that it took its name from a Danish Princess called Tula or Eila (or Ile), whose body is buried near Port Ellen. Two large stones mark the spot and these are called “Da Chlach Ile”. It was not until the 19th century that its present spelling became fairly constant.
It has been proved that Islay was fairly thickly populated in pre-historic times, and quite recently there have been discoveries, which bear this out.
The first recorded tribe to people Islay were the Albanaich (thought to be the Picts), though when they actually took over is not known. Then came the Scots (or Dalriads) from Ireland. Four centuries later came the Scandinavians, who for a time at least had their headquarters in Islay. In between these times little is known except scrappy pieces of information and folklore,
One definite event, which is recorded, was an earthquake, which troubled the island in 740 A.D.
The Norse occupation took place about 870 A.D. The Norsemen and the islanders seem to have lived amicably together, and many tales are told of their exploits during their occupation. They have left their mark in many of the place names of the homesteads, etc. where they lived.
That in a nutshell is the early history of Islay. The rest had to do with warring clans and people, the struggles between the Campbells, Macdonalds and Macleans. Many are the shady dealings and bloody massacres that culminated in the Battle of Traigh Ghruinart in 1598.
There are four parishes in Islay – Kildalton, Kilmeny, Killarrow and Kilchoman, with Portnahaven as quoad sacra.
Kilchoman includes the whole of the western section of Islay. It takes its name from St. Comman, 855 A.D. Brother of the Abbot of Iona, he went to Iona and took up the monastic life. ” He was sent to plant the Gospel in Islay, and being buried here, gave the parish its name.”
The present church at Kilchoman was built in 1825 on the site of a former church, which was pulled down to make way for it. Of this older church nothing seems to be known.
Five chapels, all in ruins, are in the parish, and all have burial grounds. Near the present Kilchoman Church and incorporated in a stone and turf dyke is a very ancient sanctuary cross which is said to be pure Irish. It is known that Kilchoman, just before the Reformation, was the centre of artistic work in Islay.
There are many hill forts in this area. Loch Gorm is one of the largest lochs. In it are several small islands, on one of which stood a massive stronghold of which today practically nothing is left. To this fort Macdonald of Islay betook himself in his difficulties, and Sir Lauchlan Maclean came here before the battle at Gruinart.
At one time this loch was well stocked with trout, but at present they do not seem to be so plentiful. On the shore of Loch Gorm used to stand the classic domain of Balinaby, the townland of the Abbot. Who the abbot was is unknown, but we know that the Beatons (McBeaths) held lands in Islay from time immemorial. Apart from the many privileges, which belonged to his office, the chief physician of the Isles (Beaton) possessed the lands of “Ballenabe, Areset, Howe and Saligo.”. Fergus McBeath, in 1609, obtained from James VI a crown charter, which confirmed him in his office and in the lands and perquisites pertaining to it. He was supposed, so tradition says, to have cured the king of scrofula (“King’s Evil”).
When the House of Islay fell and Campbell of Cawdor took over, Fergus McBeath (An tamh Ileach) was holder of this office. John, his son, sold this privilege to Lord Lorne in 1629.
Near Balinaby is an unsculptured monolith and when part of the sand knoll round about was dug up in 1800 two swords and many human bones were found.
In 1878 Mr William Campbell of Balinaby found two Viking graves. In one were two axes, an adze, a hammer, forge tongs, an iron sword in its sheath, the iron boss of a shield with bronze handle, an iron spearhead and the handle of an iron pot. In the other was a pair of bowl-shaped brooches, beautifully ornamented, silver wire, a thin pin, a silver hairpin, a silver chain of pleated wire and a lump of glass for smoothing linen. It looks as if these were the graves of a man and woman, perhaps husband and wife.
At Kilchiaran is another ancient chapel dedicated to Ciaran Mac an t-Saoir. It stands on a height near the beautiful bay of Kilchiaran. The chapel itself, now in ruins, has several interesting features including a font in a good state of preservation. It is said that with great difficulty this font was once removed to Nerebus and as long as it remained there the people of Nerebus had neither peace of mind nor health of body till it was returned. Though it took many horses to take it away, one old white horse dragged it back.
There are one or two sculptured stones inside the chapel and outside are part of the broken shaft of a Cross and a cup-marked stone. Two of the hollows go right through the stone.
Not far away, and on the road to Portnahaven, can be seen the remains of a stone circle, where no doubt in ancient times the Beltane fires were lit.
Portnahaven (Port of the River) is a neat, tidy little village perched round an arm of the sea. There the current is so strong that it is dangerous to venture out except at certain times of the tide. It is protected from the Atlantic by two islands called Orsay and MacKenzie.
The very picturesque village has long been an attraction to artists and one of them, Miss Barbara Price-Hughes, was for a time a well known figure in Portnahaven and round about. She once had an exhibition of her pictures in the local village hall. While bathing with Colonel George Campbell and his wife, she and Colonel Campbell were tragically swept to their deaths by the current.
On Orsay is a very ancient chapel in a corner of which MacKay of the Rhinns, the Island Seer, is buried. His tomb is enclosed by a wall and an attempt is said to have been made to use it as a lamb fold, but the lambs were found with their heads mysteriously cut off.
MacKay prophesied, among other things, that the whole of the Rhinns of Islay would one day be in the hands of the MacNeills.
Before the Commissioners of Northern Lights built the lighthouse on Orsay in 1826, the MacNeills of Ellister had it for grazing. The cattle used to swim across that dangerous channel to the island. It must have been a very risky business.
MacKay was Macdonald’s lieutenant in the Rhinns of Islay. It is interesting that the Claim MacKay has one of the oldest targes (1623), now in the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow University. The MacKays of the Rhinns also have the oldest Gaelic charter. This was a grant by Donald, Lord of the Isles, to Brian Vicar MacKay of “certain lands in Islay.” All trace of this charter was lost for many years till, quite recently, a clansman bought it in Ireland for two shillings. It is now safely preserved in the Register House in Edinburgh.
Portnahaven has always been famous for seafaring men. With the sea in their blood it was only natural that it should have provided many sea captains and engineers.
Coming round by the edge of Lochindaal we arrive at Nerebus, where there is an ancient chapel and burial grounds. Some of the finest carved stones in Islay are here and many other interesting things are to be found in this district by anyone keen on archaeology.
Further round we enter Port Charlotte. Today it is a tidy, trim little village, with its houses bright and well cared for. One unique feature of this village is that its street names are in Gaelic. The original name of the village was Sgiba and at that time it was little more than a hamlet, its little cottages dotted on the higher ground round about. The present village was projected about 1828 and was named after Lady Charlotte Campbell, mother of Walter Campbell of Islay, and one of the beauties of the court of George IV.
Outside the village, in the football field, is what is left of a Viking burial ground, and between it and Bruichladdich in a field at the roadside are the remains of an old chapel, long forgotten. In a glen, on the road leading from Port Charlotte to Kilchiaran, is the Toothache Stone. It was said to be an infallible cure for toothache, if the sufferer walked the distance to the stone and hammered a nail into it.
The next village is Bruichladdich, which means “the edge of the shore “. Near here, at Conisby, Godred Crovan, immortalised by Duncan Johnston in song, had a residence.
Port Charlotte and Bruichladdich have distilleries, though the one at Port Charlotte is no longer a working distillery. Bruichladdich can be bought by the bottle and is quite a fine whisky.
Many were the struggles, shady dealings and massacres, which took place in this parish owing to the quarrels of Macleans, Macdonalds and Campbells. They culminated in the Battle of Gruinart, which was fought between Sir James Macdonald and his uncle Sir Lauchlan Maclean of Duart in 1598.
There was a great feud between them regarding the possession of the Rhinns of Islay and Maclean was invited to come by his nephew. Tradition say that before he left Mull he consulted the oracle, and was told not to land on a Thursday, not to drink of the water of a certain well, and not to fight on the shore of Loch Gruinart. These three things he inadvertently did and so lost the battle.
Though Maclean seems to have been a cruel, ruthless man who thought to take advantage of his nephew’s inexperience, the sympathy of the people of Islay seems to have been with him. His death is said to have been caused by a twisted hunchback called Dubh Sith, who practised Black Art. He was a skilful archer, famous up and down Kintyre side, who offered his services to Maclean. Maclean spurned him, but Macdonald welcomed him. He took his revenge by shooting the fatal arrow at Maclean.
Thomas Patterson, an Islay poet, wrote a very sentimental poem about the death of Maclean, who is said to be buried in Kilchoman churchyard, though this is a question for debate.
Kilchoman and the Rhinns are rich in story and legend. One of these refers to Columba. When the holy man was in Islay one day, he saw a man fishing in the Saligo burn and asked him for the first fish he caught. Soon the man hooked a salmon, but, being greedy, kept it for himself. He caught a second salmon and put it in his basket. The third time he caught a frog and offered it to Columba. “From now on,” said the saint,” let there be no salmon in this brook.” From that time no salmon has been caught in Saligo river.
Another legend concerns a hazel wand to which Highland people attributed magical properties. Gilleadha Beaton, brother of Fergus Beaton (The Islay Physician), had been on holiday in Islay at Balinaby and he took back with him a hazel wand. He was the herbalist and was engaged by his brother to gather herbs and prepare them for use. His brother asked him where he had found the wand, as he suspected that a white serpent was there. Back they went to Balinaby and, sure enough, found a serpent among the roots of the hazel tree. The doctor carried it back in triumph and the white serpent was added to a cauldron of herbs and put on to boil. While it was boiling it spattered on to the hand of Gilleadha and he licked it off. At once he was endowed with all wisdom and all knowledge, so he became unrivalled in his profession.
Another story concerns the famous sword called The Islay Hilt, or Claidheamh Ceann-Ileach. The McEacherns were the hereditary swordmakers to the Macdonalds and one of these celebrated smiths lived and had his smithy in a place called Caonis gall not far from the parish church of Kilchoman.
He had a son who turned out to be a “changeling”. When he discovered this, the boy was about thirteen years old and quite a long ritual had to be gone through before he could get rid of the changeling. With an awful yell, the changeling flew through the hole in the roof, which let the smoke out.
Next he had to get his son back from the fairies. On a night when the fairy knoll was open, and that was usually Halloween, he took a Bible, a dirk and a crowing cock with him. A bright light shone from the hill. Sounds of piping, dancing and joyous merriment were heard and finally he managed to get his son out, much to the resentment of the fairies.
For a year and a day the boy spoke not a word, then suddenly one day he showed his father how to make the fine and well-tempered sword, which became known as The Islay Hilt. This gave them both constant employment, and made them famous far and wide.
To the archaeologist Kilchoman is a happy hunting ground. Many hill forts (duns) are scattered on the higher ground, and standing stones and Neolithic burial grounds abound. One of these, above Port Charlotte, is made of huge stones and may date from at least 1000 B.C. It is known locally (in Gaelic) as The Giant Warrior’s Grave). Stone implements and weapons have been unearthed, and many flints. Now and again the peat bog gives up something interesting, quite often wooden objects, the peat seems to act as a preservative.
The naturalist too can find much to interest him in flowers, ferns, rocks and animals. Geese, mostly grey lag and barnacle, come in thousands and sojourn here from May till the urge to be on the move again takes them in November. They arrive and depart as regular as clockwork. Choughs, which are becoming a rarity, are to be found at the rocks at Sanaig, and there are many other birds of great interest to the ornithologist.
In days gone by corn, barley, flax and potatoes were grown in abundance. For manure they used seaweed and shell sand. Potatoes and fish formed their chief diet for most of the year, and they made up their rents from the export of flax. They were more or less self-supporting in those days. The land was ploughed with the broad Scots plough and four horses.
Black cattle reared by the “gentlemen” were its greatest source of wealth. These were taken annually for sale to the markets at Dumbarton and Falkirk, and sometimes to England. Fishing was a major occupation and Portnahaven was especially noted for cod.
The peat was or excellent quality and there was plenty of it, so the cottages were warm and cosy, though perhaps a trifle smoky. Fish oil was burned in lamps to give light.
Today Kilchoman and the Rhinns are nearer to the old Highland way of life than the other parishes of Islay. It may be that, until recent years, when transport and communications developed, they were more isolated. At one time they had more comings and goings with Ireland than with the rest of their own island. This was, of course, by sea.
Fishing has deteriorated and flax is no longer grown, but peat is still largely the chief fuel, though electricity has taken the place of fish-oil lamps. Gaelic is more commonly spoken than in other parts of Islay, perhaps because there are fewer “incomers” here.
Distilleries provide a certain amount of work, and at Port Charlotte is a very modern creamery where excellent cheese is made. This is exported all over the country.
The farms are of the larger types, and there is not so much crofting, the crofts being incorporated in the large farms.
Many of the crofters’ cottages now lie in ruins, as do the workmen’s houses on the farms. Because of so much mechanisation the farmer and his family are able to do themselves what they had to hire workers to do before. This is a pity.
On the whole this parish is prosperous and the villages mirror this prosperity. Progress and modernisation go on and will continue progressing as in other parts of the island.