On the north-west of the UK you will find a mosaic of islands, communities and seascapes known as the Hebrides. This little corner of the world is incredibly special, a place where cultural and natural heritage are interwoven. There are few more beautiful places on Earth, the Hebrides are a true wilderness as the remoteness and low population means that wildlife thrives here.
The Hebridean Islands are a diverse group, and are often split into two main groups: The Inner and Outer Hebrides. The Inner and Outer Hebrides are separated by the Sea of the Hebrides and the Minch; bodies of water teeming with wondrous creatures.
The culture of these islands have been heavily influenced by the succession of Celtic, Norse, and English-speaking inhabitants. The names of the islands, villages and features reflect this cultural diversity, with many place names derived from Norse or Gàdhlig – Scottish Gaelic. The Outer Hebrides are known as Innse Gall, which means ‘Islands of Strangers’ in Gaelic and refers to the Norse settlers.
There is no name in Gaelic for the Hebrides collectively, but they are often referred to as na h-eileanan meaning ‘The Islands’. The Hebrides today are a stronghold of Scottish Gaelic culture and language, with many Hebridean children learning Gaelic as their first language. Gaelic medium primary schools are becoming increasingly popular and there is even a thriving Gaelic university on the Isle of Skye.
and the sea
The people of the Hebrides have always had a strong connection to the sea, as do all island communities. From providing food and livelihoods to cultural traditions and myths, the Hebridean seas and the wondrous creatures that inhabit them play an important role in the lives of local communities.
People have lived on these islands since as far back as the Mesolithic, and an archaeological site on the island of Rum has some of the earliest evidence of human occupation in Scotland (7700-7500 BC). The magnificent standing stones at Callanish on the Isle of Lewis date almost as far back as 3000 years BC, and the mysterious Bronze Age settlement of Cladh Hallan on South Uist is the only place in the UK where prehistoric mummies have been found!
Whales and dolphins have been culturally significant here since at least the Iron Age, appearing on stone carvings and in oral histories, myths and legends.
Whales and dolphins appear in old records of these islands; in descriptions written by visitors throughout the ages, form the origins of place names, and in traditional songs and poems. Tales of St Columba from the 6th century describe his monks encountering “a whale of extraordinary size, which rose like a mountain above the water, its jaws open to show and array of teeth” between Iona and Tiree. Perhaps this was an encounter with a killer whale?
Whale bone artefacts have been found at ancient sites across Scotland’s west coast, with the earliest inhabitants of these isles utilising bones from whales and dolphins washing ashore. The hearths of the buildings of Cladh Hallan were full of burnt whale bone, as whale bone is full of fats and oils and were more readily available on these windy islands than trees.
The Nordic occupation in the middle ages saw increased consumption of whales, from both those washing ashore but also likely actively hunted. This small-scale subsistence diet of whales and dolphins carried on in the Hebrides, and was noted by Martin Martin in his ‘Description of the Western Isles of Scotland’ in 1716 in this memorable quote:
“…about one hundred and sixty little whales ran themselves ashore on the island of Tiree, and the natives did eat them all”
Industrial whaling in the Hebrides became established with the construction of a whaling station on the Isle of Harris in 1904. One of the big chimneys can still be seen today amongst the ruins at Bunavoneader on the way out to the Hebridean Whale Trail site at Huisinis. The station finally closed in 1952, bringing an end to this dark time in our history that sadly reduced the populations of many whale species in Scotland, and saw the local extinction of the Northern right whale.
Whales and dolphins still support jobs and the Hebridean economy today, through whale-watching and wildlife tourism. The Hebridean Whale Trail aims to support local communities and sustainable livelihoods by promoting accessible, land-based marine tourism and celebrating the wondrous creatures that can be seen here.
The craggy coastline and patchwork of islands that make up the Hebrides are a rich source of natural and cultural heritage; of traditions, of folklore and of legends. The powerful connection between the Hebridean people and the sea is evident in the history and stories that make this area so special. Tales of mermaids, selkies and other sea monsters could be imagined around fires on the long winter nights, inspired by a wee dram of whisky, or perhaps have their origins in the very same sea beasties we see from our shores today…
Scotland’s most famous water monster is undoubtedly Nessie, the prehistoric denizen of the depths rumoured to live deep within Loch Ness. However, if you are hoping to spot a mythical monster, then the Hebrides are a great destination. Here you could maybe catch a glimpse of sea serpents off the coast of Lewis, Kelpies (horses found in the sea) in the Corryvrecken, or the tricksome Blue Men of the Minch that prey on boats in troubled waters.
These descriptions may seem to come straight from a fairy-tale but mermaids, unicorns and monsters might just be our way of capturing the mystery and awe you feel if you encounter one of the wondrous creatures in our seas.
Not typically thought of as a sea creature, the noble unicorn is the national animal of Scotland. The Biasd na Srogaig (beast of the lowering horn) or sea unicorn of Skye bares uncanny resemblance to a modern day narwhal.
These shapeshifting waterhorses take the form of handsome men that lure unsuspecting maidens down to their watery tomb beneath the Corryvrecken whirlpool.
These mythical seal creatures can shed their furred seal-skins to reveal their beautiful human form beneath. By capturing her pelt men can claim them as brides but the selkie will always long for the sea, and should she find her stolen seal skin she will abandon her family to return to the waves.
Shy and gentle, the maighdean na tuinne or ‘maid of the waves’ is said to be the most beautiful creature ever beheld. Clad head to toe in shimmering silver scales and silk she sings amid the mist with pearls flowing through her wild red hair.
Translated as ‘Old Woman’ the Cailleach is a giantess and a Scottish Goddess of winter. She summons snows as she washes her plaid kilt in the Corryvrecken whirlpool, creating great storms and swirling waves.
The Blue Men of the Minch
With shimmering blue skin these fearsome seamen terrorise ships, screaming and chasing with anger in the waves, and can only be appeased by poem or song.