Crowlin Island Croft

by Sue McBean

Creative non-fiction after an overnight stay anchored between three tiny islands, off the West coast of Scotland, nestled between Skye and Lochcarron.  The Crowlin Islands are Eilean Beag, Eilean Meadhonach and Eilean Mór, meaning Little, Middle and Big Island.

Arriving by boat we anchored on a volcanic reef in the natural harbour, accessible at high-water.  Up steep slopes, on the largest island, we came to Loch of the Flagstones. A menacing skua called, diving to protect a high nest. Skirting the peak, we scrambled down through bracken to croft ruins: gable end and chimney. The view, elderflowers, and meadowsweet scent revealed no hardship.

A fine day in summer concealed a two-hundred-year-old story of Applecross clearances and forcibly evicted families fleeing to the Crowlin Islands. This brutal migration from mainland to small, infertile islands was bare survival. For just over 100 years, from 1810, people built drystone crofts on the only plateau. They fished, made landmarks still visible by satellite, and rowed in a sheltered Sound to barter on mainland, Scalpay, Raasay and Skye.  Forty lived on the largest island in 1840. With kelp harvesting, coffin ship migration and Scottish potato famine ended, and education mandatory in 1872, people drifted back to the mainland. Soon, only nine islanders remained.  Islanders had to be resourceful, but little is documented. The smallest island had most of the lazy beds and likely all grazing animals eliminated. The inhabited island had drystone walls reducing grazing of small trees and protecting the water supply from sheep liver fluke. Rowing between the islands gave access to lazy beds from shore. Flotsam supplied materials for cooking, winter heat, securing roofs and tools. Apart from what the sea tossed up any wood came from the mainland. There was heather for thatching and domestic burning, and seaweed for fertiliser.  Sheltered from prevailing westerlies, winter was frost-free and the summer cool with rain on fifty per cent of days.

Rock flakes and shellfish middens attest to several island caves and rock shelters being used from the Mesolithic to the 16th century, only possible because of the presence of fresh water. More recently the 19th century MacDonalds of Crowlin bequeathed faith to us that people rise above desperately adverse circumstances. The cultural legacy of this ruin lays in greater insight into Lairds seeking profit before people in clearing crofters from their land.

Born in 1867 on Crowlin Mór to An Righ (King) of Crowlin, Flora MacDonald left for education, staying with her uncle Rev. Kenneth MacDonald of Applecross. The official recording of names of Crowlin features by Kenneth suggests he knew the islands well. Flora (MacKenzie) settled in Lochcarron for some 60 years, near Slumbay Island. Murdo Murchison (60), wife Flora (62) and three fishermen sons moved back to Culduie, Applecross in the 1860s. Other links have not yet surfaced. Unidentified sailors are thought to be buried on the Crowlins. When Flora’s grandson, Alan MacGillivray, a Scottish literary figure and poet, visited the Crowlin Islands with his brother James (Procurator Fiscal in Lochaber), he wrote of the Crowlin Mór King*:

“The stones of his house are overgrown with bracken and brambles.

Through the door-space, I look over to the mainland glen.

From which a mercenary laird drove him”.

*Crowlin Mor, p.13 (first published in Kindly Clouds, 2005) reprinted in An Altitude Within, 2010, Kennedy & Boyd, Glasgow.

Sue McBean