Isle of Muck History

Last Updated 7th July 2005

© Anne M White 2004-5

The island's early history can be only guessed at but there are some clues. A Mesolithic settlement has been found in Rum so it seems likely that Muck, which was a much more fertile island, would have been occupied then too. The earliest artefacts found on Muck are a thumbnail scraper and two flint blades probably Neolithic in date. The Bronze Age is represented by a dagger found while draining a bog in 1920. This was a valuable possession. Then there are a number of burial cairns which are also Bronze Age.
Caistel nan Duin Bhan from the north Caistel nan Duin Bhan at the mouth of Port is a fortified rock which has been used over a long period as there is a house site within the walled enclosure on top of it. It was probably originally Iron Age.
The early Christian period has yielded two crosses in the graveyard, the churchyard called Kiel or A’ Chill which seems to be associated with Finnan, a contemporary to Columba in Iona, as Dail Chill Fionain is the field beside the plantation which is now known as Lagabholla.cross found in the graveyardred is the outline of the cross, purple is the broken edge of the stone
Oral tradition says St Columba visited and blessed the people, by virtue of which neither they nor their descendants should perish by drowning. Glen Martin in the west of the island is meant to have got its name from a hermit who lived there. The Viking occupation of the island is remembered in a few names, such as Godag and Lamhraig, that have survived, though there are fewer than in the rest of the Small Isles probably because there were fewer conspicuous landmarks. Recently a possible Viking house has been identified on the North side of the island.

The earliest written account of Muck is by Donald Monro, High Dean of the Isles in 1549, although one wonders if it is a first hand account. "-- ane verie fertile fruitful Ile of cornis and girsing for all store, verie gude for fische, inhabite and manurit, with ane gude falcon nest, perteining to the Bischop of the Iles, with ane gude hieland heavin in it, the entrie at the west cheek of it." In this account Canna is described as pertaining to the Abbot of Colmkill so a distinction is being made. The lands of the Abbot of Iona and the Bishop of the Isles were combined in 1499. The Rental of the Bishopric in 1561 says that Muck was occupied by MacIan of Ardnamurchan. In c. 1593 "Description of the Isles of Scotland", a report compiled for the Crown, Muck is given as four merkland and the rent as "160 bolls of corn of which half goes to the Bishop and half to the Laird". All subsequent accounts give it as six merklands.

In 1588 the only massacre in the Small Isles affecting Muck took place. Lachlan MacLean of Duart who had been feuding with most of his neighbours, including the MacIans of Ardnamurchan, carried out a punitive expedition in the Small Isles helped by 100 soldiers from the Spanish Armada ship which had taken shelter in Tobermory. Allegedly everyone including women and children were killed but it seems unlikely that this really was the case. Lachlan ended up in Edinburgh in prison for using foreign nationals but was released on payment of a fine to the King. Muck was probably repopulated by people from Ardnamurchan. By now the Reformation had occurred and in 1617 the Bishop of the Isles gave a feu charter to Lachlan MacLean VII of Coll for Muck. Lachlan evicted the MacIans and in 1632 gave the island to his second son Hector. Hector was married to Julian MacLean of Artornish and had three sons (Hector (II), Hugh and Lachlan). Hector fought at the Battle of Kilsyth in 1645. He was killed by an marauding party of MacIans from Ardnamurchan, led by Mac Iain Gheir, who had come to steal cattle in approximately 1650. He was succeeded by his son Hector (II), and he by his son Lachlan (III) and little is known about them. Then in c. 1725 Hector (IV) was born. This was the MacLean of Muck whom Johnson and Boswell met in Skye at Talisker. He seems to have had a first marriage which resulted in a girl but his marriage to Isabel MacLeod of Talisker was childless.

Lachlan MacLean of Coll was a Protestant so probably all the MacLeans of Muck were, though Hector (IV) is the only one we know was, from the Catechist's List of 1764. Muck still had a significant number of Catholics in 1764 but Mrs Hector MacLean is reputed to have incarcerated the visiting priest Kennedy in 1770 so was positively anti-Catholic. Unfortunately Johnson did not manage to visit Muck or we would know much more about this time. Johnson says that Maclean had half Muck in his own hands and the rest was tenanted and the rent was paid from exported corn. MacLean had vaccinated 80 of the islanders for smallpox at half-a-crown a head. This was quite early. Johnson thought the island very densely populated but he did under-calculate its size as about 960 acres. Hector (IV) was the last MacLean of Muck to live on the island. He was succeeded by his brother Donald (V) who at that time was a tenant of the Duke of Argyll in Coll. Johnson met him too as “MacLean of Corneck“ (Cornaig is on the Isle of Coll). He promptly passed the island to his son Lachlan (VI) who had fought in the War of Independence in America, and married an American, Hannah Barbara Cottnam or Cottingham in Halifax, and had 12 children. He became a Lieutenant Colonel in the Breadalbane Fencibles when they were formed in 1793. He promptly used Muck as security for loans. By 1798 a Trustee for the Creditors was appointed and in 1799 R. G. MacDonald of Clanranald or in fact his Trustees, as he was a minor, bought the island. The price of kelp was rising and Muck must have seemed a good speculation even though the Estates were already heavily in debt.

In Hector's (IV) marriage contract in 1750 the island is described as Gallanach, Balmeanoch and Kirkton or Kiel. In the Statistical Account written in 1794 the rental of the island is stated as £252. This included the equivalent rent for the third of the island run directly by the proprietor, but not the kelp. There were 24 tenants running the two joint farms and Gallanach was in the proprietor‘s hands. When Clanranald bought Muck Gallanach was also leased to a tenant. In 1809 the island was surveyed and a scheme was drawn up dividing the island into 47 holdings. The population had been rising steadily all through the 18th century largely because of the arrival of the potato in addition to corn. In 1813 the island was sold to Alexander of Coll in life-rent and Hugh his son as Fee-er under burden of £9975 which the MacLeans paid over three years. The price of kelp peaked in 1811 and the rent was £420 which accounts for the very high asking price. By 1821 the population had reached 320 and, as cattle prices had fallen at the end of the War, the tenants were probably in arrears. Kelp was probably still made until the clearance in 1828 as, although the landlord was making much less profit, the kelpers got the same and the landlord clawed it back in rent. The MacLeans were in debt and in bad years like 1816 were having to provide meal in Rum and possibly in Muck too as the population was now so high. A number of people emigrated from Muck in 1822 on the ship “Commerce” with people from Rum and possibly Canna. The MacLeans evicted Rum in 1826 on the “Highland Lad” and “Dove of Harmony”, and Muck in 1828 when 150 people emigrated to Ship Harbour, Cape Breton from Tobermory on the "St Lawrence" with the last of the people from Rum. James MacLean from Rum got the lease of Gallanach in 1826 and then was evicted in 1836 and then emigrated to Australia. In 1836 the island was cleared of small tenants (some of whom ended up in Keil) and a farm manager was brought in from Hawick who introduced sheep for the first time to Muck. He left in 1845 and the island was let to James Thorburn, originally from Dumfries-shire, who brought his family, and other workers from Ardnamurchan. Despite the potato famine he installed a threshing mill and probably extended the farm buildings at Gallanach. He reputedly ploughed the whole island, built the stone dykes and drained the land. The big pier at Port Mor was also built and the road made.

In 1857, Hugh Maclean, who had disentailed his lands, sold Muck to Lieutenant T.A. Swinburne who had bought Eilean Shona in 1853. At that point the island was still let to James and David (James’ son) Thorburn. In 1859 James retired and moved to Tobermory. David also went to Mull and the farm was let to Ebenezer Thorburn, the youngest son of James. Swinburne was very keen on promoting fishing on the West Coast and had fishing smacks which fished as far out as the Rockall Banks crewed by islanders and he probably helped people to have their own boats. The cottage at the head of the pier was built as a store for salt and gear for the boats. Lobster fishing was also carried out now that there were steamers running regularily from Glasgow. By 1883 Captain Swinburne was worried that the Muck lobsters had been fished out. He extended Gallanach House, adding the "Captain's room" and the living room below. He too got into debt and used Muck as security for loans. In 1873 Ebenezer Thorburn gave up the lease of Muck and died of tuberculosis in Oban in 1875. A manager ran the farm until 1877, when it was let to David Hardie about whom we have no information. Sheep were no longer as profitable and the farm was next let in 1878, as a dairy farm making cheese, to William Weir who farmed Gllanach Farm on the Isle of Coll and the farm was run by his sons David and Alec, who later took over the tenancy. When David married he became the sole tenant. The byres, dairy, 'state of the art' midden and bothy beside Gallanach House were built then. He was drowned in a boating accident off Horse Island in 1895 and the memorial in the graveyard records this tragic accident.

Swinburne had died in 1893 and his son sold Muck to Robert Lawrie Thomson in 1896. Thomson already owned Eigg and went on to purchase Strathaird estate in Skye in 1897. He had made his money as an agent for Armstrong's the shipbuilders and armaments manufacturer in, initially, Chile and then Siam, China and Japan. He was also an agent for Cammells and for Jardine, Matheson and Co in the Far East. From 1890-1894 he was special correspondent for "The Times". His brother, W. C. MacEwen, handled the buying of his properties for him and supervised the running of them while he was abroad.

Muck was still run as a dairy and sheep farm. The big barns at Gallanach and half way to Port were built around 1906. The shed below the road at Port must have been built earlier as one end of the shed was converted into a house for John MacDonald when he married in 1903 and a schoolroom was created in the centre of the same shed after the school had to be shifted from Pier House due to an expanding family there. The family of MacKinnons who lived in the house which is now the craft shop were re-housed in the corrugated iron house next door which cost £150 to build. More draining was done and the pier improved by the addition of the back wall.

Thomson had two factors: Donald MacDonald of Tormore and then Andrew Glendinning in 1904. They lived in Eigg.

Thomson was an enthusiastic collector and accumulated Chinese bronzes and china, Japanese pictures, some jade and a variety of pictures and a valuable library of rare books. These were acquired mostly through agents. However, one photograph remembered at Gallanach was of a Highland stallion and the story behind it has been recorded. Mr Thomson, travelling between Portree and Kyle by steamer, noticed an outstanding stallion among a consignment of ponies being taken south by a dealer. He bought Rory o' the Hills from the dealer and took him to Strathaird where he sired Claymore the stallion in the photograph, who won a first at the Highland Show, and went on to be one of the most famous stallions in the breed.

Thomson developed diabetes, which was very debilitating, and he died on 22nd Dec. 1913 and was buried in the grave in Castle Island which he had had built a number of years earlier and from which all his properties were visible. Muck was left to his elder brother John who leased it to John MacDonald, Glen Brittle who never lived in Muck and ran it as a sheepfarm. John MacEwen died in December 1916 and left it to his nephew, Lieutenant W.I.L. MacEwen R.N.. John's Trustees handed the island over to him in late 1917.

W.I.L MacEwen left the Navy and trained at the East of Scotland Agricultural College and took over the farm in 1922 as John MacDonald wished to give up the lease two years early. He was keen to have trees on the island and consulted Osgood MacKenzie who had created Inverewe Gardens, who advised acclimatising the young trees prior to planting. He set up a tree nursery and started planting the three oldest woods on the island before he took over the lease.

Until 1937 and his marriage Lt.-Cmdr. MacEwen was not resident during the four winter months. The farm was managed by Lachlan MacDonald, great uncle of Sandra Mathers, who was not resident at all and farmed at Portinnisherrich on Lochawe and visited Muck monthly. The farm was run as a livestock farm and an important activity during this period was the rearing of Highland bulls and the breeding of Blackface and Cheviot rams. Most of these were purchased by the Department of Agriculture, who leased them in turn to crofters. Many were delivered direct in the island launch.