Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Although the island of Mingulay in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides is long bereft of any inhabitants, it is still an evocative place. Laurence Mitchell, a regular contributor to hidden europe magazine, takes us on a tour of 'The Village' - the remnants of the once turf-roofed blackhouses that the islanders called home.

article summary —

In some parts of Scotland’s Western Isles the air itself seems to murmur tales of exile and loss. These storm-tossed islands scattered along Europe’s north-western edge have always been places on the brink: islands where life is lived at the margin and existence is precarious. Modern life may have banished such uncertainties now, with social security benefits, local development grants and the promise of jobs on the mainland, but there remain hardy souls who still savour life on Scotland’s Atlantic edge. Some things have changed, of course — tourism has largely replaced crofting these days — but a strong sense of identity and tradition still remains. Back in the nineteenth century there were more than twenty inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides; now barely a dozen support a permanent population. Most of the smaller islands have long been abandoned to the elements and now exist solely as wildlife reserves or as seasonal grazing for sheep.

The island of Mingulay (Gaelic: Miughalaigh, meaning ‘Big Island’) is one such place. At the southern tip of the Western Isles, this small island is one of several full stops at the bottom of the exclamation mark of islands that stretches south from Lewis and Harris. The small archipelago to the south of Barra was historically known as the Bishop Isles. Vatersay, now linked to Barra by a causeway, is the largest of the group, while Mingulay roughly 4km long and 2km wide is second in size. The island, characterised by vertiginous cliffs on its west side and beaches and rough grassland on the east, has long been visited by adventurous seafarers. Scattered Iron Age remains suggest an early colonisation more than two millennia ago, and Vikings, too, came here often enough for the island to be mentioned in their sagas. For long centuries, Mingulay was under the jurisdiction of the Clan MacNeil of Barra but absentee landlords did little to improve an already difficult existence and many islanders upped sticks for less demanding lives in the New World and Antipodes in the nineteenth century. Today, the only signs of human habitation that remain are the forlorn shells of abandoned blackhouses.

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Laurence Mitchell became a travel writer almost by default having squandered his youth travelling in North Africa and India. Following a stint teaching in Sudan, he went on to train as a geography teacher, which he pursued for a decade or so.

These days he concentrates on writing and photography and, while still drawn to transition zones and cultural frontiers like Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus region, is increasingly more content to explore closer to home. He loves ancient tracks, moss-covered ruins, graveyards and allotment gardens, and believes it is possible to find the extraordinary in even the most quotidian surroundings.

Despite a slight distrust of guidebooks, he has contributed several of his own to the world's literary stockpile – Bradt travel guides to Serbia and Kyrgyzstan, ‘slow’ guides to Norfolk and Suffolk (also Bradt), and walking guides to Norfolk and Suffolk for Cicerone. His travel memoir Westering, which describes a coast to coast walk across England and Wales that connects landscape, memory and spirit of place, will be published by Saraband in April 2021. Visit Laurence's blog.

This article was published in hidden europe 36.