Welcome to Isle of North Uist
The Island of North Uist, in Scotland's remote Outer Hebrides, measures 12 miles north to south and 18 miles east to west and covers an area of 118 square miles. Lochs and sea lochs cover half of this area and give the island a brilliant sparkle in the sunshine. The effects of the sea are inescapable; the fertility of the island has long been aided by large quantities of seaweed (used as fertiliser); isolated by the sea, bird life has flourished (there is a RSPB haven for birds at Balranald); during storms a natural water sprout sprays saltwater high into the air at Tigharry; the heaving seas abound with life, in particular seals, 9000 of which are born every year on the neighbouring Monach Islands. The sea is also crucial to understanding the history of North Uist: for many years more easily accessible by sea, the Outer Hebrides have been open to influence from seaborne Scandinavian empires and the islands' development in isolation from Scotland's political centres has allowed them to develop often independently from the rest of the kingdom. The result can be seen in North Uist's place names and language. Many of North Uist's places have Old Norse names, such as Uist itself (from 'I-vist' meaning 'a house') while the remainder come from Gaelic, which remains the island's first language.
Storm subsides at North Uist
North Uist is dotted with sites which provide us with an insight into the lives of the island's first settlers. The magnificent Barpa Langass cairn, reached from the Clachan - Lochmaddy road, is one fine example from this period and has been dated to around 4000 BC. It measures 25 meters in diameter with an accessible burial chamber 4 meters by 1.8 meters. In all Archaeologists have identified 19 stone circles most of which have a cairn or burial chamber nearby. Apart from cairns, tombs and stone circles, remains of round houses and early stone forts are seen in the North Uist landscape. Dun Torcuill is a good example of a broch, a fortified stone tower, dating from around 100 BC.
Such ruins tell of waves of settlement; first by early Celts, then by Beaker people and later by Picts. One chambered cairn, Dun na Cairnach, is said to be the tomb of Che son of King Cruthnie who is credited with founding the Pictish Kingdom. Remains of settlements from the early 4th century, at Coileagan an Udail in the north of the island, paint a picture of North Uist as being an early outpost in the migration of the Scotti tribe from the modern day counties of Antrim and Down, a tribe that would go on to gain ascendancy in the coming centuries and eventually lend their name to the kingdom that would emerge dominant.
Around 800 AD settlements on North Uist came under attack from the Vikings. These attacks were later followed by waves of migration from Scandinavia which in the end led to the emergence of a Celtic-Scandinavian population. In 1098 Scottish kings were forced to acknowledge Norse overlordship of the Outer Hebrides, which would continue for 168 years. In this time the Outer Hebrides would be ruled from the Isle of Man. With Alexander III's victory over the army of King Haakon IV of Norway at Largs the Outer Hebrides reverted, at least nominally, to the Kingdom of Scotland.
In reality the benefactors of this victory were to be the MacDonalds whose most important chieftains, known as the Lord of the Isles, ruled the Outer Hebrides as if it were an independent state, much like the Norse rulers they had displaced. The Norse legacy in the Western Isles was evident from a form of galleon, derived from the Viking longship, used by the Lords of the Isles for transport, communication and warfare. The island is covered in sites associated with the Lords of the Isles. One such site is Teampull na Trion aid (Trinity Temple) on the main road a few miles south of Clachan. Although it is believed to have been founded by the daughter of Somerled, a warrior who was pivotal in the events leading to the expulsion of the Norse from North Uist, it was largely constructed between 1350 and 1390 at he behest of Amie Nic Ruari, wife of John Lord of the Isles. Alas, the church is now in ruins having been partly destroyed during the Reformation. In 1493 the Lords of the Isles forfeited their lands to King James IV on charge of treason for having conspired with the English in an attempt to gain full independence for the islands. Since then the title of Lord of the Isles has been given to the heir to the Scottish, and now British, throne. Currently Charles, Prince of Wales, holds the title.
Like other Scottish islands the last two hundred years have seen a massive decline in population. Following the Jacobite uprisings the government unleashed an attack on Gaelic culture which it saw as a threat. The playing of bagpipes and the wearing of tartan was banned and the Gaelic language was suppressed. Simultaneously a new form of landlord emerged in place of clan chiefs. These ruthless landlords forced their tenants off the land and replaced them with the sheep they believed would yield a greater profit, a practice that only ended in the late 19th century when rioting and pitched battles on the islands forced the government to act. All of this, coupled by the effects of the potato famine, led many Gaels away from their ancestral homes to make new lives in the industrial cities and in the New World. By 1841 the population of North Uist was 3870, by 1991 it was just 1404.
The depopulation of the islands is a tragic fact which may be impossible to remedy. Nonetheless, it is clear that the economic benefits of tourism provide a source of revenue which is improving the situation, at least a little. Perhaps for tourists the fact that North Uist is sparsely populated is a benefit: its sandy beaches, sparkling waters and windswept spaces make the island an ideal place for contemplation. North Uist's remoteness also gives one the very real sensation that here the possibility of discovery still exists.