Welcome to Isle of South Uist
Measuring about eight miles east to west and 22 miles north to south, South Uist is the second largest island in the Outer Hebrides. The west coast is famed for powder white sand beaches, which run virtually unbroken the length of the island, while the east coast is marked by a number of sea lochs which penetrate deep into the land. South Uist also has over 190 fresh water lochs. The many lochs make views from any of the island's vantage points alive with the sparkle of water.
Like other Scottish islands, South Uist has been a home to man for over 8,000 years. However, it is from the Neolithic period onwards that we begin to see evidence of settlement on South Uist. South Uist has an abundance of prehistoric sites. Burial cairns, 'Beaker People' sites, brochs and roundhouses are all dotted about the island and provide a fascinating insight into the lives of some of Scotland's earliest settlers. To the south east of the island Kildonan Museum, at Milton, is an essential part of any visit and provides the background which allows you to put South Uist's prehistoric past into perspective.
By the end of the first millennium AD the rising power in the region was the Vikings, who at first came as raiders and later as settlers. In 1098 the Scots' king was forced to cede the Western Isles to the Norwegians. The Norse established an empire in Scotland's western seaboard, whose capital was the Isle of Man. While Alexander III of Scotland managed to wrest the lands back after the battle of Largs in 1263, the powerful clan chieftains of the MacDonalds, the Lords of the Isles, who became the benefactors of the victory, were to rule the Western Isles with near complete independence until 1493, when they forfeited their lands to James IV on charge of treason. Until this time Scandinavian heritage was demonstrated by the Lords of the Isles use of a form of galleon, developed from the Viking longship, which was utilised for communication, transportation and warfare. The Scandinavian heritage still lives on in many of South Uist's place names.
The Scottish Reformation in the 16th century was a troubled time in South Uist. In the town of Howmore lie the remains of five chapels, which date from the first Christian missionaries to the islands in the 7th century, destroyed during rioting by reformers. Despite the turmoil South Uist remained Catholic.
This may have been an additional factor inspiring the islanders' continued loyalty to the House of Stuart after James VII (and II of England) was ousted in 1689 by the Protestant King William of Orange. After the defeat of the Jacobite armies of Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie, the young pretender to the throne) at the battle of Culloden in 1746, the prince fled to the islands, keenly pursued by government forces. On South Uist Flora MacDonald, a native of the island, came across Charles Stuart in hiding. She offered to row the prince, who was disguised as an Irish farm girl, over to the Isle of Skye to help him escape his pursuers. The prince gave her a locket with his picture inside as thanks, but his failure to contact her again afterwards angered many local people, especially as Flora was made to spend a year in the Tower of London as punishment for the assistance she had lent him. Flora remains a local hero: across the main road from Kildonan Museum a statue marks her birthplace.
The years that followed the defeat of the Jacobites were marked by government persecution in the Highlands and Islands; a policy which sought to wipe out the culture which had played host to the new regime's enemies. Playing the bagpipes and wearing tartan were outlawed and the Gaelic language and Catholic religion were repressed. Until 1889 only Protestant English speaking teachers were employed to teach the island's Catholic, Gaelic speaking schoolchildren. The Gaelic language continued to be prohibited in school well into the 20th century. Those clan chieftains who survived persecution, displacement and murder in the aftermath of the Jacobite uprising's failure did so due to their willingness to abandon their role as representatives for their people and kowtow to the government. With the full support of the law these ruthless landlords forced their tenants off the land and replaced them with the sheep they considered more profitable. So began The Clearances: the forced depopulation of the Highlands and Islands. In 1838 when Colonel John Gordon of Cluny bought the island, one of his first acts as landlord was to call a public meeting where hired thugs grabbed over 1,000 people from the crowd and forced them onto a ship anchored in Lochboisdale bay, which then set sail for the Americas. Today the population of South Uist is around 2,200 - but a fraction of the 7,300 who lived here before The Clearances.
South Uist's first language is still Gaelic and the religion is still Catholic: people have hung on here against all odds. Certainly, things are better now than they have been; there has been resurgence in the Gaelic language and fishing, agriculture and tourism have brought new wealth. Still, South Uist's people have often had to dig deep to find the resilience to remain here in the face of such adversity. Some of that resilience has perhaps come from the knowledge that leaving this sparkling island breaks the heart.