Ben Buxton,
Mingulay: An Island & its People
(Birlinn, 1995)

This is a fascinating and hugely readable book, chronicling life on Mingulay up to its final abandonment in 1912. Mingulay, often regarded as "the nearer St. Kilda," is the last but one island at the southern end of the Hebrides -- its population at its highest was 160. The island is part of the parish of Barra, and her people were devoutly Roman Catholic. Ben Buxton spent six years researching this book (clearly a labour of love), and his knowledge and affection for the island are striking. He attempts to cut through (and I feel succeeds in his aim) the romanticism and ignorance of some of the earlier chroniclers of Mingulay in an attempt to present a more honest and reliable portrayal of life on this beautiful but inaccessible island.

Imagine approaching Mingulay, your eyes to be assailed by the majestic sight of her sea cliffs -- the highest is Biulacraig (Eagle Cliff), towering above you at 753 feet (229 metres). These cliffs are host to nationally important collections of sea birds, and the island was granted "Site of Special Scientific Interest Status" in 1983 to acknowledge this, as well as the importance of its maritime vegetation, rocky shore and cliff habitats. The abandonment of the island was an inevitable event, exacerbated by the lack of proper boat landing or anchorage; Mingulay is an inhospitable island, surrounded by harsh seas and dangerous currents.

The documentary evidence that Buxton draws on is rich and plentiful (thanks, for example, to census records and archive material carefully preserved by the Barra History Society), and the book is illustrated with some evocative photographs. There's the earliest known photo of Mingulay village, taken in 1887, which perfectly captures the low crofts huddled together (as if for warmth) around the bay. There's a photograph of Michael MacNeil, the last islander to leave in 1912. Other photos show islanders perched precariously on the cliffs, catching birds with rod and noose; the inside of a croft, bannocks being baked; island girls cutting peat; and a poignant image of the island's graveyard.

Life on Mingulay was harsh, and the islanders lived by fishing, farming and fowling. Their oral culture was rich -- they were superb storytellers, and some beautiful Hebridean songs originated on this island -- Buxton describes the islanders' waulking (work) songs, spinning songs, milking songs, fishing songs and rowing songs. Records reveal that "the waulking women were the best singers in Mingulay!"

There's evidence of life on Mingulay from very early times; the flint workings unearthed on the island prove that man has lived there since at least 500 BC. Vikings also settled here, and place names help to prove this. The Scottish Clans emerged between the 12th and 14th centuries, only to crumble in the 18th century -- evidence has been found that Mingulay men served in the Jacobite uprisings of 1745. In the 1820s, some of the islanders emigrated to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. When the first Free Church schoolteacher arrived in Mingulay in 1859, he was asked to read some of the islanders' letters received years earlier from Canada.

The Napier Commission, established in 1883, undertook to "inquire into the condition of the crofters and cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland." The Mingulay residents were up to 10 years in arrears with their rents (but completely got away with it!) and the village was becoming overcrowded and unsanitary. This commission resulted in the passing of the Crofters Holdings Act of 1886, in theory giving crofters security of tenure of land and dwellings. However, in 1907, in an attempt to improve their families' conditions, the desperate Mingulay men followed the example of Barra men in grabbing land illegally on Vatersay. They were imprisoned for this, but won the land, and some islanders settled on Vatersay.

Islanders started to leave voluntarily in 1905.

Talk of evacuation from Mingulay was gradual; many of the island's men had begun to work in Glasgow during winters anyway. The lack of proper anchorage had long begun to mark the death knell for continued occupation of the island.

The islanders were healthy, despite poor diet and sanitation, and records show how well dressed they were. Their faith was fundamental to them; they were devout churchgoers and very hospitable to visitors. Anne MacNeil was the island's midwife -- "No wife or mother died there in childbirth while she was there." And the children were educated in the island's school "though the work was elementary."

Vatersay escaped the same fate at Mingulay when in the 1980s a causeway was built connecting the island to Barra. Scalpay thrives because of its good harbour. The only other "true" islands remaining unoccupied are Scalpay, Berneray and Eriskay.

Mingulay is now used for grazing (the island is rich in machair). The Chapel House, built to last forever, is now nothing more than a sad ruin. The only human visitors are ornithologists and botanists, and it's sad to note that not all visitors to the island have treated her with respect. Mingulay village is a crumbling ruin of crofts, with the sands encroaching on the remainder of the buildings. Only the graveyard stands as a lasting and poignant reminder of the people who lived and earned their living on this rugged and remote island.

This is a memorable and highly recommended book.

- Rambles
written by Debbie Koritsas
published 3 July 2004

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