Portal:Scottish Islands
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Portal:Scottish Islands

The Scottish Islands Portal
Welcome! -- Fàilte! -- Walcome!


Relief map of Scotland, showing some of the numerous offshore islands

Scotland has over 790 offshore islands, most of which are to be found in four main groups: Shetland, Orkney, and the Hebrides, sub-divided into the Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides. There are also clusters of islands in the Firth of Clyde, Firth of Forth, and Solway Firth, and numerous small islands within the many bodies of fresh water in Scotland including Loch Lomond and Loch Maree. The largest island is Lewis and Harris which extends to 2,179 square kilometres, and there are a further 200 islands which are greater than 40 hectares in area. Of the remainder, several such as Staffa and the Flannan Isles are well known despite their small size. Some 94 Scottish islands are permanently inhabited, of which 89 are offshore islands. Between 2001 and 2011 Scottish island populations as a whole grew by 4% to 103,702.

The geology and geomorphology of the islands is varied. Some, such as Skye and Mull are mountainous, while others like Tiree and Sanday are relatively low lying. Many have bedrock made from ancient Archaean Lewisian Gneiss which was formed 3 billion years ago; Shapinsay and other Orkney islands are formed from Old Red Sandstone, which is 400 million years old; and others such as Rùm from more recent Tertiary volcanoes. Many of the islands are swept by strong tides, and the Corryvreckan tide race between Scarba and Jura is one of the largest whirlpools in the world. Other strong tides are to be found in the Pentland Firth between mainland Scotland and Orkney, and another example is the "Grey Dog" between Scarba and Lunga. (More on Scottish islands...)

Selected landscape

Selected island group

Northern Isles topographic map.svg

The Northern Isles (Scots: Northren Isles; Scottish Gaelic: Na h-Eileanan a Tuath; Old Norse: Norðreyjar) are a pair of archipelagos off the north coast of mainland Scotland, comprising Orkney and Shetland. The climate is cool and temperate and much influenced by the surrounding seas. There are a total of 26 inhabited islands with landscapes of the fertile agricultural islands of Orkney contrasting with the more rugged Shetland islands to the north, where the economy is more dependent on fishing and the oil wealth of the surrounding seas. Both have a developing renewable energy industry. They also share a common Pictish and Norse history. Both island groups were absorbed into the Kingdom of Scotland in the 15th century and remained part of the country following the formation of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707, and later the United Kingdom after 1801. The islands played a significant naval role during the world wars of the 20th century.

Tourism is important to both archipelagos, with their distinctive prehistoric ruins playing a key part in their attraction, and there are regular ferry and air connections with mainland Scotland. The Scandinavian influence remains strong, especially in relation to local folklore, and both island chains have strong, although distinct, local cultures. The place-names of the islands are dominated by their Norse heritage, although some may retain pre-Celtic elements.

News

  • 13 June: Radiocarbon dating reveals that four crannogs - artificial islands on lochs - on the Isle of Lewis date from 3640-3360 BC during the Neolithic period, rather than the Iron Age as previously believed.
  • 11 June: The Scottish and Irish governments are engaged in talks over a dispute over fishing rights around Rockall.
  • 24 May: A fire seriously damages a pub-cum-restaurant on the harbour front of Tobermory, Mull.

Selected fauna

Two sheep on the shoreline of North Ronaldsay

The North Ronaldsay or Orkney is a breed of sheep from North Ronaldsay, the northernmost island of Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland. It belongs to the Northern European short-tailed sheep group of breeds, and has evolved without much cross-breeding with modern breeds. It is a smaller sheep than most, with the rams (males) horned and ewes (females) mostly hornless. It was formerly kept primarily for wool, but now the two largest flocks are feral, one on North Ronaldsay and another on the Orkney island of Linga Holm. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust lists the breed as "vulnerable", with fewer than 600 registered breeding females in the United Kingdom.

The semi-feral flock on North Ronaldsay is the original flock that evolved to subsist almost entirely on seaweed - they are one of few mammals to do this. They are confined to the shoreline by a 1.8 m (6 ft) tall drystane dyke, which completely encircles the island, forcing the sheep to evolve this unusual characteristic. The wall was built as kelping (the production of soda ash from seaweed) on the shore became uneconomical. Sheep were confined to the shore to protect the fields and crofts inside, and afterwards subsisted largely on seaweed.

This diet has caused a variety of adaptations in the sheep's digestive system. These sheep have to extract the trace element copper far more efficiently than other breeds as their diet has a limited supply of copper. This results in them being susceptible to copper toxicity, if fed on a grass diet, as copper is toxic to sheep in high quantities. Grazing habits have also changed to suit the sheep's environment. To reduce the chance of being stranded by an incoming tide, they graze at low tide and then ruminate at high tide.

A range of fleece colours are exhibited, including grey, brown and red. Meat from the North Ronaldsay has a distinctive flavour, described as "intense" and "gamey", due, in part, to the high iodine content in their diet of seaweed. The meat has Protected Geographical Status in European Union law, so only meat from North Ronaldsay sheep can be marketed as Orkney Lamb.

Selected history & culture article

Tammas flees the nuckelavee
The nuckelavee chasing an islander, painting by James Torrance (1859-1916)

The nuckelavee or nuckalavee is a horse-like demon from Orcadian mythology that combines equine and human elements. It has its origins in Norse mythology, and British folklorist Katharine Briggs called it "the nastiest" of all the demons of Scotland's Northern Isles. The nuckelavee's breath was thought to wilt crops and sicken livestock, and the creature was held responsible for droughts and epidemics on land despite being predominantly a sea-dweller.

A graphic description of the nuckelavee as it appears on land was given by an islander who claimed to have had a confrontation with it, but accounts describing the details of the creature's appearance are inconsistent. In common with many other sea monsters it is unable to tolerate fresh water, therefore those it is pursuing have only to cross a river or stream to be rid of it. The nuckelavee is kept in confinement during the summer months by the Mither o' the Sea, an ancient Orcadian spirit, and the only one able to control it.

Orcadian folklore had a strong Scandinavian influence, and it may be that the nuckelavee is a composite of a water horse from Celtic mythology and a creature imported by the Norsemen. As with similar malevolent entities such as the kelpie, it possibly offered an explanation for incidents that islanders in ancient times could not otherwise understand.

Selected biography

The Beach, Largo, at Low Tide, date unknown, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums

George Leslie Hunter (7 August 1877 - 7 December 1931) was a Scottish painter, regarded as one of the four artists of the Scottish Colourists group of painters. Christened simply George Hunter, he adopted the name Leslie in San Francisco, and Leslie Hunter became his professional name. Showing an aptitude for drawing at an early age, he was largely self-taught, receiving only elementary painting lessons from a family acquaintance. He spent fifteen formative years from the age of fifteen in the USA, mainly in California. He then returned to Scotland, painting and drawing there and in Paris. Subsequently, he travelled widely in Europe, especially in the South of France, but also in the Netherlands, the Pas de Calais and Italy.

Hunter painted a variety of still-lifes, landscapes and portraits, and his paintings are critically acclaimed for their treatment of light and the effects of light. They became popular with more progressive critics and collectors during his lifetime and have grown to command high prices since his death, becoming among the most popular in Scotland.

Selected island

Raasay (Scottish Gaelic: Ratharsair) or the Isle of Raasay is an island between the Isle of Skye and the mainland of Scotland. It is separated from Skye by the Sound of Raasay and from Applecross by the Inner Sound. It is most famous for being the birthplace of Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean, an important figure in the Scottish Renaissance.

Traditionally the home of Clan MacSween, the island was ruled by the MacLeods from the 15th to the 19th century. Subsequently, a series of private landlords held title to the island, which is now largely in public ownership. Raasay House, which was visited by James Boswell and Samuel Johnson in 1773, is now a hotel, restaurant, bar and outdoor activity centre. Raasay means "Isle of the Roe Deer" and is home to an endemic subspecies of bank vole. The current Chief of the Island is Roderick John Macleod of Raasay.

Did you know?

Landing on Stac Lee (from 'St Kilda')

Selected portrait

Selected human geography article

Threave Castle seen across the River Dee

Threave Castle is situated on an island in the River Dee, 2.5 kilometres (1.6 mi) west of Castle Douglas in the historical county of Kirkcudbrightshire in the Dumfries and Galloway region of Scotland.

Built in the 1370s by Archibald the Grim, it was a stronghold of the "Black Douglases", Earls of Douglas and Lords of Galloway, until their fall in 1455. For part of this time, the castle and the lordship of Galloway were controlled by Princess Margaret, daughter of King Robert III and widow of the 4th Earl. In 1449 Threave was regained by the 8th earl, Scotland's most powerful magnate, who controlled extensive lands and numerous castles. He fortified Threave with an "artillery house", a sophisticated defence for its time. The excessive power of the Black Douglas lords led to their overthrow by King James II in 1455, after which Threave was besieged and captured by the King's men.

It became a royal castle, and in the 16th century hereditary responsibility for Threave was given to the Lords Maxwell. It was briefly held by the English in the 1540s, but did not see serious action until the Bishops' Wars, when in 1640 a royalist garrison was besieged by a force of Covenanters. Partially dismantled, the castle remained largely unused until given into state care in 1913. The ruins, comprising the substantially complete tower house and the L-shaped artillery house, are today maintained by Historic Environment Scotland as a scheduled monument.

The castle complex is open to the public.

Selected natural feature

The Old Man of Hoy from the north

The Old Man of Hoy is a 449-foot (137m) sea stack on Hoy, part of the Orkney archipelago off the north coast of Scotland. Formed from Old Red Sandstone, it is one of the tallest stacks in the United Kingdom. The Old Man is popular with climbers, and was first climbed in 1966. Created by the erosion of a cliff through hydraulic action some time after 1750, the stack is no more than a few hundred years old, but may soon collapse into the sea.

Selected panorama

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