Canna has been occupied from at least the Neolithic, and the possibility of settlement from the Mesolithic. The 1996 RCAHMS survey of Canna listed more than 1,000 individual structures disposed over almost 400 sites.
There are plentiful traces of Early Christianity from the sixth century, such as the stones at Keill and in the burial ground as well as others taken into Canna House for safekeeping. The arrival of the Vikings in the eighth centuries have left Canna with a name of Norse origin for virtually every significant feature of its shores.
Over the larger historical period, the perpetuation of the early religious community in dispersed secular communities throughout Canna and Sanday has left traces of field-systems, house sites, shielings and kelp kilns. Also preserved are the marks of continuous settlement and land-use through the Lordship of the Isles and the Clanranald era until the Clearances of the nineteenth century.
The development of agriculture, fisheries and crofting since the early-nineteenth century is a further phase easily corroborated in the evidence on the 1805 Clanranald Estate Map.
The Clearances instigated by Donald MacNeill, and his son did not prevent the latter from having to sell Canna due to bankruptcy. The island was then purchased in the early 1880s by Robert Thom, a successful shipbuilder, who carried out major investments on the island, constructing the first pier in 1892.
In 1938 the island was bought by John Lorne Campbell, a distinguished Celtic scholar, linguist and conservationist. Campbell and his wife dedicated their lives to preserving the Gaelic culture, and helped bring it to an international audience. Uniquely in the British Isles, the Campbells managed the island as both a working farm and a nature reserve. In 1981, the Campbells gifted the island to the National Trust for Scotland.
The earliest account of Muck is by Dean Munro who wrote of it in 1549: "very fertile and fruitful of cornes and grassing for all store and very good fishing, inhabit and manurit, a good falcon nest in it. It perteynes to the Bishope of the Iles, with one good highland haven in it".
From ownership by the Bishop of the Isles since medieval time, the island was taken over by the MacDonalds of Clan Ian of Ardnamuchan in the 17th century. It then passed on to the MacLeans of Coll, when in 1634, Donald Garve of Coll obtained a charter of the six merkland of Muck which he gave to his eldest son, Lachlan.
Five generations of MacLeans of Muck followed, with another Lachlan in the latter part of the 18th century. Lachlan greatly objected to being addressed as Muck, as was the custom of the day but insisted on Isle of Muck, as he was careful to explain to Dr. Johnston whom he met at Dunvegan in Skye in 1774. He looked after his 187 islanders well, having many of them vaccinated against smallpox at his own expense, but was forced to sell the Clanranalds when running into debt after becoming Deputy Lieutenant of the Tower of London. MacLean of Coll bought back Muck for the princely sum of £9,975 in 1816, no doubt expecting the price of kelp to remain high forever. It did not and by 1826, he too was in debt and cleared the Muck crofters for sheep. Many left but the remainder built the village whose ruins lie above Port Mor. Soon they too left, replaced by cattle, the island being let to Choirechoille, the well-known Lochaber drover.
In 1854 the island was sold to Captain Swinburne who invested in fishing, working the Rockall Banks and using Pier house as his salt store.The farm was then let to the Thorburns, border farmers who introduced Cheviot Sheep and paid a rent of £320 a year, a profitable venture owing to the high price of wool.In 1870, the Weirs from Ayrshire took over the tenancy and introduced cheese making. Acres of lazy beds were levelled and brought under the plough and two large byres housed the cattle.
In 1896, the island was bought together with the isle of Eigg by Robert Lawrie Thomson. Under his factors, Tormore and Glendinning, the farmhouse was enlarged and the present barns and farm cottages built. After his death in 1913, the island passed to his brother who let the farm to John MacDonald of Glenbrittle in Skye. Cheese making ceased in 1914 and cattle stock was reduced.
In 1922 Commander W.I.L. MacEwen inherited the island which passed to his son Lawrence. Today the island is in the hand of a family trust, with Lawrence's son Colin in charge of the island farm.
The final years of the last Millennium were amongst the best in Eigg's history. Ownership passed to the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust on 12 June 1997, placing the islanders' destiny in their own hands for the first time ever. Another stakeholder in the Eigg Heritage Trust is the Scottish Wildlife Trust, who now manage the island as a nature reserve.
Inhabited at least since the Neolithic, Eigg's wealth of archeological remains and sites is impressive. Early Christianity saw the island placed at the edge of the Pictish Kingdonm, when St Donnan and 52 of his monks were murdered in 617. From the 8th century, Vikings plundered the island repeatedly before settling down to colonise it. The Lordship of the Isles offered some respite, but wtith its demise, warfare resumed, the islanders following the chief of Clanranld in his various feuds. Around 1520 some 395 MacDonalds, hiding from a MacLeod revenge raid in a cave on the southern side of the island, were suffocated when the MacLeods tried to smoke them out. The cave, since known as Massacre Cave, can still be visited. The following year the MacLeods took their revenge at Trumpan Church on Skye.
In 1588 Eigg was burnt and pillaged by MaclLean of Duart and 100 Spanish mercenaries; and in the aftermath of the 1745 rebellion the island was sacked again and its men deported in reprisal for supporting the losing side. And if all this were not enough, Eigg suffered greatly fom the Potato famine of 1847 which resulted in the Clearance of some of its impoverished population in 1853, followed by widespread emigration.
From ownership by the Clanranalds up to 1827 to community ownership in 1997, the island experienced no less than 8 changes of ownership, including 2 shipping mahnates and a cabinet minister in the early 20th century. Such changes have seen Eigg enjoy some prosperous periods of development; and suffer from periods of uncertainty and stagnation. Little wonder that the move to ownership of the island by the islanders in 1997 was seen as such a cause for celebration!
Rum's earliest inhabitants, the hunter-fishers of the Mesolithic, left little traces from their presence apart from feast remains and a few bloodstone shards. There was hardly more of human presence on the island in the 6th century, when a monk from Iona, Beccan the solitary, was said to have lived a life of contemplation at Papadil on Rum where an Early Christian stone cross was recovered a few years ago. More widespread signs were provided by the large variety of Old Norse names dating back from Viking occupation in the 8th century onwards, when the island was used as a raiding base for slaves to be sold on the Dublin markets. Medieval deertraps shows how people have sought to use deer as a resource, turning the island into a royal hunting reserve under the Lordship of the Isles.
Ownership by the Clanranalds was shortlived and Rum followed the MacLeans of Coll, becoming wholly protestant to comply with their religious persuasion. This did not stop Maclean of Duart to attack and pillage the island during his raid on the Small Isles in 1588 aided by soldiers of the Spanish Armada.
Spared from Jacobite turmoil, the island suffered wholesale clearances in the 19th century when the rising price of sheep make it more profitable to put sheep where men had been. Bankrupted MacLean owners finally sold to southerners like the Marquis of Salisbury who actually had to import people from surrounding islands to work on his construction programme, including the island’s first dam. Ownership by rich Lancashire industrialist George Bullough opened a new chapter in the island’s history, when the island was used once more as a playground.
In 1957, the sale of the island to the Nature Conservancy Council ushered a new era for the island’s natural environment, with the start of the longest deer study in the world and development of the island as National Nature Reserve. Finally in 2009, after decades of population instability, the residents of Rum obtained the right to run the village of Kinloch and surrounding areas independently of Scottish Natural Heritage, by transfer of the land assets to the Rum community Trust in 2009 and 2010.
Situated on the sea routes running up the west coast of Scotland, the Small Isles share a rich but troubled and often bloody history. Each offers great insights into Scotland's past, from its first inhabitants to the key moments of Highland history, from the Lordship of the Isles through to the Clearances and the rise of crofting and community
Bloodstone and early settlers
Rum was the home of Scotland's First Settlers when, around 7500 BC, Mesolithic man settled at the head of Loch Scresort on Rum to fashion bloodstone, a rare source of flint-like material, into arrow heads which were traded far and wide.
The attraction of fertile basalt land in Muck, Eigg and Canna and of impregnable peaks on Rum was strong. By the Iron age, in 500 BC, access to each island was defended by fortlets or duns, sixteen of which are to be found around the Small Isles.
In the Dark ages, the islands were at the north-western frontier of the Pictish kingdom, where Early Christian saints ventured at their peril. St Donnan was martyred on Eigg in 617, but the Christian faith was there to stay with a monastery on Eigg, a nunnery on Canna, and holy hermits on Muck and Rum. When the Vikings took the Small Isles over as a base for their raiding enterprises in the 7th and 8th century AD, they left their mark in the islands' place-names but it was on Eigg that some of their richest gravefinds and parts of their longship were found.
Lordship of the Isles
In medieval times, when each island had to provide a galley of sixteen oars for armed service to the Lords of the Isles in Islay, Rum provided deer hunting for the Lordship. Known in Gaelic as the Kingdom of the Royal Forest, it abounds with deer traps high in the hills. It was also in the Small Isles parish church situated on Eigg, that Ranald, the stewart of the Isles, gave the lordship to his half-brother Donald – the founder of Clan Donald in the presence of the Bishop of the Isles whose lands also included Muck.
The demise of the Lordship brought feuding and bloodshed to the islands, culminating in an act of grisly revenge by MacLeod of Dunvegan when the entire population of Eigg was suffocated to death in a coastal cave.
In the 17th century, dispossessed members of Clan Donald in Ardnamuchan took over Muck, amongst whom was the famous warrior Colkitto, whilst Eigg became the rallying point for two rebellious attempts to restore Gaeldom's power, whilst on Canna,Clanranald showed his power by building a castle at Corroghon.
The Jacobite risings
A century later the men of Canna and Eigg joined their Clanranald chief in the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745 with disastrous consequences for all involved.
On Muck and Rum, owned by the Protestant MacLeans of Coll, tenants had to give up the Catholic religion or leave. But in the turmoil that followed the defeat at Culloden, emigration to Canada and America equally affected all four islands, so much so that in 1826, Donald MacLean, the minister of the Small Isles, worried that no one would be left to defend the country!
From clan chiefs to landlords
With no need of armed men, clan chiefs found sheep farming and the harvesting of seaweed for kelp more profitable, so that the Clearances were the next hardship to befall the islands. Clan loyalties were severed as chiefs or their factors sought to get rid of a population they saw as redundant. The entire population of Rum was cleared for sheep by the MacLeans. On the other islands, kelping offered a brief reprieve, but when it collapsed at the end of the Napoleonic wars, impoverished crofters were cleared on Canna and Muck.
Famine and emigration
Poverty and disease were the crofters' lot and when the potato blight struck in 1847, it caused widespread famine with more clearances following on Eigg. The fight for Crofters' rights ensured better conditions by 1886, but for Rum it was too late: the island had already lost its native population.
A rich man's playground
From the Victorian era right through to WW1, the islands became attractive to rich individuals looking to bolster their industrial wealth with a landed estate. An ostentatious castle was built on Rum by Lancashire cotton barons, the Bullough family. On Eigg, Lord Runciman, a cabinet minister and shipping magnate erected a more sober holiday mansion. Shooting, fishing and yachting were the popular pastime of the rich elite. But WW2 put an end to ostentatious life-styles. Farm wages finaly went up, but this was not enough to discourage emigration to the city for young islanders. Dwindling population became a concern and on Canna, John Lorne Campbell, a young farming enthusiast with scholarly interests set about revitalising the island's economy, with the help of his American wife, the photographer and folklore collector Margaret Fay Shaw. Together they built an outstanding folklore collection in Canna House and were at the centre of an intellectual network that almost span the globe!
The rise of the community
Today, the islands are firmly in the hands of the people that live on the islands, whether through a Community Trust on Eigg, a family trust on Muck or a partnership between the islanders and a nationwide organisation such as the National Trust of Scotland on Canna or Scottish Natural Heritage on Rum, where a Community Trust is now running part of the island. Stewartship of the land and its rich natural and cultural heritage is now in the hands of the people who live there, not all of them native to the islands, but equally passionate about island life and island living.