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The Hebrides

The Hebrides (HEB-ri-deez, Gaelic: Innse Gall) comprise a widespread and diverse archipelago off the west coast of Scotland. There are two main groups, the Inner and Outer Hebrides. These islands have a long history of occupation dating back to the Mesolithic and the culture of the residents has been affected by the successive influences of Celtic, Norse and English speaking peoples, which this is reflected in names given to the islands.

Geology and geography

The Hebrides have a diverse geology ranging in age from Precambrian strata that are amongst the oldest rocks in Europe to Tertiary igneous intrusions. They can be divided into two main groups:

  • Inner Hebrides, including Islay, Jura, Skye, Mull, Raasay, Staffa and the Small Isles
  • Outer Hebrides, including Barra, Berneray, Harris, Lewis, North Uist, South Uist, and St Kilda

The Hebrides as a whole are sometimes referred to as the Western Isles, but this term is more accurately applied just to the Outer Hebrides, which were once known as The Long Island.

The Hebrides are probably the best-known group of Scottish islands, but other groups include the islands of the Firth of Clyde, Islands of the Forth and the Northern Isles. The islands in the Clyde, especially Arran, are sometimes mistakenly called Hebrides too.

The Hebrides lie in the Sea of the Hebrides; see map .


The Hebrides contain the largest concentration of Scottish Gaelic speakers in Scotland. This is especially true of the Outer Hebrides, where the overall majority of people speak it. The Scottish Gaelic college, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, is based on Skye and Islay.


In English, until the 18th Century, people used to call only a part of the Hebrides with the common name Western Isles (i.e. "Outer Hebrides"). The Hebrides is an 18th Century rediscovery and misunderstanding of the classical Latin name Hebudes, where u was misread ri. The classical Latin forms Hebudes or Hæbudes were used by the Roman writers Pliny the Elder, Pomponius Mela and Solinus. In Ancient Greek the archipelago was called Αἱβοῦδαι = Haiboudai by Ptolemy.

The old Old Norse name, during the Viking occupation, was Suðreyjar, which means "Southern Isles" (see also Sodor). It was given in contradistinction to Norðreyjar, or the " Northern Isles", i. e. Orkney and Shetland.

Ironically, given the status of the Western Isles as the last Gàidhlig speaking stronghold in Scotland, the Gaelic language name for the islands - Innse Gall - means "Isles of the foreigners" which has roots in the time when they were under Norse occupation and colonisation, and in reference to the Norse-Gaels, known in Gaelic as the Gall Gaidhel (meaning Foreign Gaels).



The Hebrides were settled early on in the settlement of the British Isles, perhaps as early as the Mesolithic era, around 8500-8250 BC, after the climatic conditions improved enough to sustain human settlement. There are examples of structures possibly dating from up to 3000 BC, the finest example being the standing stones at Callanish, but some archaeologists date the site as Bronze Age. Little is known of the people who settled in the Hebrides but they were likely of the same Celtic stock that had settled Scotland. Settlements at Northton, Harris, have both Beaker & Neolithic dwelling houses, the oldest in The Western Isles, attesting to the settlement.

Celtic era

The earliest written mention of the Outer Hebrides was by Pomponius Mela, a Roman-Spanish geographer of the first century, who refers to a group of seven islands which he gave the name Haemodae. Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia of 77AD gives the name as Hebudes. Other ancient writers such as the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy, and Solinus (3rd Century AD) all seem to mention the Hebrides, attesting to some contact of the peoples there to the Roman world.

Little is known of the history of the peoples of the Hebrides before the 6th century as they, like the rest of Scotland, were in the depths of the Dark Ages. The first written records of the islands comes with the arrival of St. Columba in the 6th century AD. It was this Irish-Scottish saint who first brought Christianity to the islands in the 6th century, founding several churches.

Norwegian control

The Hebrides began to come under Norse control and settlement already before the 9th century, known as Suðreyar or southern islands in Old Norse. The Norwegian control of the Hebrides was formalised in 1098 when Edgar of Scotland recognised the claim of Magnus III of Norway. The Scottish acceptance of Magnus III as King of the Isles came after the Norwegian king had conquered the Orkney Islands, the Hebrides and the Isle of Man in a swift campaign earlier the same year, directed against the local Norwegian leaders of the various islands. By capturing the islands Magnus III subdued the Norsemen who had seized the islands centuries earlier and imposed a more direct royal control.

The Norwegian control of both the Inner and Outer Hebrides would see almost constant warfare until being ultimately resolved by the partitioning of the Western Isles in 1156. The Outer Hebrides would remain under the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles while the Inner Hebrides broke out under Somerled, the Norse-Gael kinsman of both Lulach and the Manx royal house.

After his victory of 1156 Somerled went on to two years later seize control over the Isle of Man itself and become the last King of Mann and the Isles to rule over all the islands the kingdom had once included. After Somerled's death in 1164 the rulers of Mann would no longer be in control of the Inner Hebrides.

Scottish control

In 1262 there was a Scottish raid on Skye and this caused Haakon IV, King of Norway, to set sail for Scotland to settle the issue. Late in 1263 Haakon headed for Scotland with a large invasion force consisting of 200 ships and 15,000 men. The storms around the coast of Scotland took their toll on the Norwegian fleet, which at one point meant dragging forty ships overland to Loch Lomond. In the end a minor skirmish took place at the Battle of Largs where the Norwegians and their Manx allies under Magnus III of the Isle of Man failed to achieve anything more than a minor tactical victory against the Scots led by Alexander III, King of Scots. After the battle the bad weather forced the Norwegian-Manx fleet to sail back to Orkney. After arriving in Kirkwall, Haakon decided to winter in Bishop's Palace before resuming his campaign the following summer. This failed to occur as the king was struck by illness and died in his palace in December of the same year. The death of Haakon left the crown to his son Magnus the Lawmaker, who considered peace with the Scots more important than holding on to the Norwegian possessions off western Scotland and in the Irish Sea. The Treaty of Perth of 1266 left the Hebrides and the Isle of Man to Scotland for 4000 marks and an annual payment of 100 marks. The treaty also confirmed Norwegian sovereignty over Shetland and Orkney. Still, Scottish rule over the Isle of Man was confirmed finally only after the Manx and their last Norse king, Godred VI Magnuson were decisively defeated in the 1275 Battle of Ronaldsway.

The arts

The The Hebrides, also known as Fingal's Cave, is a famous overture written by Felix Mendelssohn while residing on these islands, while Granville Bantock wrote the Hebridean Symphony. Contemporary musicians associated with the islands include Ian Anderson, Donovan and Runrig. The poet Sorley MacLean was born on Raasay, the setting for his best known poem, Hallaig. Iain Crichton Smith was brought up on Lewis and Derick Thomson was born there. The Hebrides are the setting of The Solitary Reaper, by William Wordsworth.

The novelist Compton Mackenzie lived on Barra and George Orwell wrote 1984 whilst living on Jura. J.M. Barrie's Marie Rose contains references to Harris inspired by a holiday visit to Amhuinnsuidhe Castle and he wrote a screenplay for the 1924 film adaptation of Peter Pan whilst on Eilean Shona.

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