THE TRESHNISH ISLES – HUMAN AND ORNITHOLOGICAL HISTORY
The presence of the hill-fort of Dun Cruit on Harp Rock, and early monastic remains on the Carn a
Burgs (Norse Kiarnaborg), show that the islands, relatively fertile and sheltered, were occupied by
humans from early times. Indeed it would have been strange if that were not so, since the sea
passage among the sheltered inner islands of the Hebrides was for long a far more practical
means of communication than the wild, trackless land routes. During the lengthy period of the Clan
Donald Lordship of the Isles, the headland of Ardnamurchan, within sight of Treshnish, was a
pivotal point between the North and Southern components of the lordship and galley traffic
between Skye, Mull, Islay and Tiree would have passed this way. The ecclesiastical pre-eminence
of Iona must also be borne in mind.
With the fall from power of the Macdonalds, who had themselves taken advantage of the fall of the
senior branch of Somerled’s descendants, the MacDougalls, the main part of Mull was held by the
two branches of the Macleans (Duart) and Maclaines (Lochbuy). Duart was keeper of Cairnburg
Castle on Treshnish. Relations between the two branches were not good, and at one stage a
Lochbuy chief was imprisoned in Carnburgh with (allegedly) the ugliest woman in Mull as a
companion, but fathered a son with her who eventually escaped with his father, to continue the
Around the time of the Civil Wars, the Duart Macleans, though Protestant, refused to join the
Covenanters, and in retaliation the Campbell Earl of Argyll bought up all Maclean’s debts and
mortgages, and in 1674 forcibly occupied their Mull strongholds. In 1680 the Macleans retreated to
Treshnish and held out for long before being forced to surrender. The satellite fort on Carn a Burgh
Beg was used in the 1715 rebellion.
We conjecture that the rather sketchy remains of domestic buildings and walls which exist on Bac
Mor (Dutchmans’) on the relatively sheltered eastern side of the summit hill, and on Lunga on the
grassy level between the south slopes of the Cruachan and the Tarbert (Dorlinn), were probably
abandoned before the clearance of the main village, and latterly were probably used only as
In 1822, Treshnish lands (on mainland Mull?), in ownership of 6
Duke of Argyll, were sold as part
of Mornish estate to Capt. Allan MacAskill, retired sea-captain, who died 1828. His nephew Hugh
inherited, and began clearances in early 1830s. It is not evident if this affected the Treshnish,
either mainland or islands; the islands may well have been unpeopled already.
It is difficult to say exactly when the Lunga village was abandoned. Fraser Darling stated in 1940
that the villagers left “eighty years ago”, and H. Haswell-Smith, in “The Scottish Islands” says that
“year-round occupation ended in1824” when one Donald Campbell and his dependents left, but
regular summer occupation continued until 1857.
A hut on Fladda was in use relatively recently, but as this island was, at least in the 20
much less suited to cultivation than Lunga, being very ill-drained, tussocky and with coarser
vegetation, it seems likely that this was used more for the periodic convenience of fishermen and
visiting shepherds than for residence.
The absence of resident humans, apart from periodic visits to tend grazing stock or take fish,
seafowl or seals, must have been advantageous to the wildlife of the islands. At any rate,
Treshnish was well known to the early pioneer naturalists.
Seton Gordon made photographic visits in the 1920s, studying puffins, storm petrels and
Blackback gulls, under considerable inconvenience from weather, shortages of food and the
destructive habits of the grazing cattle. In the same period there was pioneer bird-ringing activity –
significant numbers of Shag recoveries date from that time.
Dr. Frank Fraser Darling and his family had an extended stay on the island in the autumn of 1937,
doing significant work on seal and other populations. Col. Niall Rankin, naturalist and explorer,
bought the islands some time around the start of World War II, and Gavin Maxwell and his cousin,
John Lorne Campbell of Canna, were later visitors.
After the war the growth of modern ecological studies grew apace, and from that point onward
Treshnish was never lost to ornithological history. It remained in the Rankin family until the 1990s,
when it was put up for sale, and passed in 2000 into the hands of the Hebridean Trust.