Story of the last 300 Years on Islay

The story of the last three hundred years on Islay has been one of dramatic changes, perhaps best reflected in the extraordinary changes in population.

Carl Reavey, Editor of the Ileach Newspaper: As our modern globalised world stares apprehensively at a scary economic future, it is timely to take a look at the effects of past economic upheavals here on Islay. Largely hidden away in the hills and valleys, away from our comfortable roads and villages is the stark, rather depressing evidence of past economic failure. We like to look at the past through rose-tinted spectacles, hoping to see a golden age, but the ruined villages that are gradually crumbling away all over Islay show that for many thousands of people who used to call this island home conditions of life here once became so bad, they left. They abandoned homes and fields that had been dug and built with their own hands and waved goodbye to family members who they knew they were likely never to see, or even hear from again. They were so desperate that they were prepared to risk everything in going to a place half a world away, a place they knew next to nothing about. To embark on a journey that they must have known would be hard, profoundly uncomfortable and probably dangerous. On Islay however, unlike many other places in the Highlands and Islands, the vast majority were not forced to leave by brutal landlords, they left of their own free will. Continue reading....The story of the last three hundred years on Islay has been one of dramatic changes, perhaps best reflected in the extraordinary changes in population. When the ‘Great’ Daniel Campbell bought the island in 1726 it is estimated there were only around 4,000 people living here. A hundred years later this had almost quadrupled as the 1831 census recorded 14,992. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but they are probably very similar to the reasons why the populations of modern third world countries have risen even faster today. People in 18th century Islay had access to cheap, poor quality food (largely potatoes) and extremely basic healthcare that concentrated on keeping individuals alive while ignoring their quality of life. The population rose and rose, but became poorer and poorer. Mortality dropped even faster when a vaccine for the killer disease smallpox was found. A very similar pattern has emerged in, for example, modern Ethiopia which was thrust into public consciousness when famine resulted in the Live Aid concerts in 1985. The economically impoverished population of Ethiopia was then about 44 million, with an average annual income of just $130 per person. By 2005, food aid and very basic health care had resulted in a rise in population to 69 million, but average income had fallen to just $90 a year. The average Ethiopian woman today has six children, but is more impoverished than ever.

Abandonded village on the Oa peninsula

Something similar must have happened in 18th century Islay, but 18th century food aid Islay style came not in the form of sacks of grain, but as ‘agricultural improvements’, although the situation was complicated. Tenants, under pressure from poor harvests and facing arrears in their pitiful rents to landlords who were themselves seeing the value of their holdings ebb away, moved “off the land” into villages. Many would have been encouraged to move initially to the poor traditional villages that now show up as sad piles of stones but a lucky few would have found accommodation in the fancy new metropoli of Bowmore, Port Charlotte and Port Ellen. Many will have emigrated to the brave new worlds of the Americas, many more would have left for the growing industrial centre of Glasgow. Significant though the emigration was, it was not enough to stem the rise in population.

The Islay landlords, motivated mostly by personal gain, but also demonstrating a social awareness which was unusual for the time, tried all sorts of things to boost prosperity. Many of our green fields were cleared of stone and drained, but the value of agricultural products fluctuated wildly. Kelp was gathered and burnt in lime kilns to produce soda ash for a variety of industrial processes and fertiliser, but cheaper foreign sources of alkalis were found and the value of kelp collapsed. The production of linen from flax was to be the great saviour for a while, but the linen industry could not compete with cheap cotton, produced by slaves and imported for processing into the industrial cities of northern England.

Through all these changes, the population kept growing, but living conditions became worse and worse. Life expectancy was low, standards of sanitation were very poor. There were outbreaks of cholera and typhoid. And then in the late 1840’s, blight destroyed the potato crop and poverty on Islay became abject. The effects of the potato famine were actually nearly as devastating on Islay as they were in neighbouring Ireland but higher levels of poor relief, basic provisions aimed at keeping people alive, meant that nobody actually died here, although conditions became untenable. Landlords, faced with tenants who were simply unable to pay their rent, actively encouraged people to leave, and the population started its dramatic decline. Dozens of villages, with names like Grimsay, Olistadh, Torony, Fornisaig, Tockmal and Risabus were abandoned as the population steadily ebbed away. There are now probably fewer people resident on Islay today than there were in 1726.

Further reading: - The Clearances on Islay

Tag: clearances history population famine

This story was published with kind permission of the Ileach local newspaper.

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