The Inner Hebrides, unlike the Western Isles, is not a compact geographical unit. Rather, it is a collection of disparate islands lying off the Argyll coast and forming part of that county (apart from Skye, which is part of the Highlands). Each island has its own distinct character, with sizes ranging from the 87,535hectares of Mull (the third largest of Scotland’s islands) to the 33 hectares of Staffa and the 877 hectares of Iona.
Not all the islands are inhabited, and of those that are, most have seen a drop in population over the years. On some that were once inhabited, the remains of cottages and even old chapels are still to be found. The names trip off the tongue like a litany, and some, to English speakers, are decidedly unusual. Mull; Muck; Rum; Eigg; Coll; Canna; Tiree; Islay; Jura; Colonsay. Most have their origins in Gaelic, and in some cases Norse.
Each island is different. Lismore, for instance, is flat and fertile, while Jura is mountainous. Mull is easily accessible from the mainland, while Canna, beyond Rum, is remote. Islay (pronounced ‘Eyelah’) and Jura are the most southerly and lie off the western coast of the Mull of Kintyre, from where they are reached by ferry. Islay is where you will find, at Finlagan, the capital of the ancient also an island famous for its distilleries, which make a peaty, dark malt. Tiree is said to be the sunniest spot in Britain, though it is also one of the wettest and windiest. It is low lying, so much so that its name in Gaelic, Tir an Eorna actually means the land below the sea. It is now famous for its surfing beaches, and many championships are held here.
Even though most of the islands lie well away from the mainland, they have still been influenced by Lowland Scots and English sensibilities. Rum has changed its name three times since the 1880s. Originally it was Rum, then, when the Bullough family bought it in the late 19th century, they changed it to Rhum in deference to their teetotal beliefs. In 1957 the island was bought by Scottish Natural Heritage and the name changed back to Rum.
Places like Mull and Skye are proving to be popular retirement spots, with the local people having a name for the Lowland Scots and English who settle there - white settlers. Though there has been some grumbling in the past about incomers seeking to impose English values on what is essentially a Gaelic culture, they are generally welcomed.
The Inner Hebrides can also claim to have the most sacred place in Scotland, if not Britain. Iona, off the west coast of Mull, was where St Columba established his great monastery, and from where missionaries set out to convert the northern lands. St Columba wasn’t the first man to bring Christianity to Scotland - that honour goes to St Ninian - but he was the most influential, and we know a lot about his life, thanks to a biography written by St Adamnan, ninth abbot of Iona, almost one hundred years after he died. Though some of it is uncritical hagiography, there is enough to learn about the man behind the venerated saint that is Columba. He tells of a man who was all too human - vengeful yet forgiving, impetuous yet thoughtful, arrogant yet unassuming and boastful yet modest. Today Iona is still a place of pilgrimage, though most people now come as tourists to see and admire the later abbey buildings and experience that feeling of calm for which the island is famous.