Islay, though but little known to the travelling public, is full of varied interest and charm. Owing to its position in the path of the gulf stream, the climate is extremely mild, and vegetation is in consequence rich and beautiful. There are not many trees save in sheltered places, bu the growth of underwood, of ferns and of wild flowers is luxuriant and forms a marked feature of this delightful island.
The variety of scenery is great, along the coast especially, where bold headlands and reefs of volcanic rock alternate with stretches of sand-hills and turf. The great lochs which nearly cut the island in two have beauties of their own, Loch Indaal studded with villages which almost recall those of the Italian lakes, and Loch Gruinart with its sand flats stretching far away northward to where the tides of the Sound of Islay and the Atlantic waves meet in never-ending strife.
If the hills seem humble when compared to the neighbouring peaks of Jura, they are not without a certain grandeur, affording good walks and marvellous views; and as many of the lochs are well stocked with trout, Islay has attractions for the fisherman. In truth the traveller, whatever be his special pursuit, may do worse than spend a few summer days at one of other of the comfortable inns which the island boasts. But is is to the ever increasing class of persons who take an interest in the relics of early times that Islay offers the greatest attractions.
Her written history is fragmentary and the monuments of her past are no less so; but for all that, they extend over a lengthened period, from the days of hill forts and standing monoliths until later times when, in the great days of the Western Church, the island became covered with chapels, under whose protecting walls there are still to be seen many of the exquisite crosses and gravestones which form so peculiar and interesting feature of the Western Highlands.
There are about a hundred examples of carved work in this island alone. Many of these are so much worn and defaced that only indications of their designs can be traced, but the remainder are of the greatest interest, some indeed being works of art in the fullest sense of the term.
The stones belong to various periods. There are little crossed rudely cut on undressed slabs of stone, and these are probably the most ancient. Then in the crossed of Kildalton and Kilnave, and in the cross-bearing slab found at Doid Mhairi, now in the garden at Ardimersay, there are examples of a style which seems to have been directly derived from Ireland; but far the greater number belong to the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, when the art assumed and retained its special Argyllshire character, the plated work of the Irish monuments developing into the richly foliated scrolls which form one of the great beauties of the West Highland carving.
The Irish origin of the style is generally allowed. Probably it was modified or altered to some extent during the period of the Norwegian occupation, but before the art attained its highest development there seems to have come another influence which, accepting the beauty of the older patterns, avoided their angularities and enriched rather than changed them. Whence whis last influence came, if it did come, I do not know; but as many of the Argyllshire churches were built about the thirteenth century it seems conceivable that stone carvers were brought from the south to work at them, and that some may have remained in the country employed in the sculpture of crosses and monumental slabs, for which there must have been a great demand if we judge from those which, in spite of bad weather and worse neglect, still lie crumbling in the churchyards.
Besides the stones already mentioned there are a few bearing dates of the seventeenth century. In some cases they are old stones adapted, but others seem to have been carved at that time, and these show the decadence of the art, the designs being plainly the work of artificers who had lost the former skill, their productions only emphasising by contrast the beauty of the earlier specimens.
One marked feature of the Islay stones is the number of crosses which they include. There are the remains of no less than seventeen, of which are a few in excellent preservation, though the majority are more or less broken.
Many of these show exceptionally good work, indeed more care seems generally to have been bestowed upon crosses than upon tombstones, and those of Islay are no exception to the rule.
The iconoclastic spirit which followed the Reformation probably accounts for the rarity of crosses in the west, and for the mutilated condition in which they are commonly found. Stones which bear representations of the crucifixion are often found broken, while neighbouring monuments with subjects less calculated to arouse sectarian prejudice have escaped intact.
The condition of the Argyllshire stones becomes more and more lamentable. Some very hard ones seem to be little affected by time, but a great number are slowly though surely losing their sharpness and the designs are fading away. Little can be done to protect them as they should be protected. Lying as they often do in graveyards which are still in use, they are trodden upon and scratched by boot-nails, and they suffer from the umbrella points and pocket-knives of over-zealous tourists, anxious to make clear the earth-filled or lichen-covered scroll. A headstone insecurely set falls on one slab and breaks it across, another slab is purposely broken up and used for building. Two fragments, of which I secured casts or sketches not long ago, have now entirely disappeared, probably they have been thrown into newly made graves. It may be thought that such cases are exceptional, but it requires no argument to show that the stones are steadily deteriorating.
If we possessed in our libraries or museums satisfactory reproductions of the West Highland Carvings, we could contemplate with far less regret the conditions to which they are at present exposed, and to which they must before long succumb.
It is too much to hope that some day we may possess a complete collection of such reproductions, taken either directly from the originals of from casts, and alike in scale and treatment? Of the interest of such work there can be little doubt, and though it would involve some labour and expense, the monuments are well worthy of both.
Not only are there many chapels and graveyards to be found all over Islay, but as may be seen from the Ordnance Map, there are a great number of hill forts and sites of forts which can hardly now be traced. Some twenty-one of these are indicated, and they are nearly all found in three principal groups, each of which is contained in a circle of less than six miles diameter.
One of these groups, consisting of five forts, protects the pass which connects Port Askaig and its neighbouring roadstead in the Sound of Islay, with the head waters of Loch Indaal, a pass which must in ancient days have been of great strategic importance. There is another groups of forts, six in number, in the middle of the Kilchoman parish, the design of which may have been to guard the port of Kilchiaran on the west coast and the tracks diverging thence. A third group of forts, likewise six in number, is on the eastern side of the island near the ruined church of Kildalton; these are all within half-a-mile of each other, and may have served to protect a settlement which is known to have existed here in early days, when this was an important base of communication with the mainland. The few remaining forts are dotted around the headlands of Oa and the Rhinns.
Besides the hill forts there are remains of later fortifications, held at one time by the Lords of the Isles. These consist of a castle on Island Finlaggan, another on a little island on Loch Gorm, and the castle of Duniveg at the south of the island. These will be referred to in treating of the various parishes in which they are situated.
The place-names of Islay throw little, if any light on her history, except that the number of Scandinavian names points to the importance of the early Norwegian settlements.
Of the large number o fnames which Captain Thomas examined, one third could be traced to a Scandinavian source. He found that the most common termination was derived from Bolstaer, Icel, Homestead, and this appears in Islay under various forms, of which boll, bols and bus are the most frequent.
At times these names are descriptive of the place, such as Lurabus, the muddy farm, Icel. Leir; Risabus and Carrabus from the Icel. Hris and kjarr; both words signifying copse. Sometimes the termination is affixed to proper names and the farms of Kolli, Thoris, and Ali, appear as Coilabus, Torrabus, and Ealabus. Borg, castle; dalr, valley; and by, village, are also common terminations.
It is perhaps worthy of note that hardly any of the names connected with the churches are derived from the Norse: Persebus, the priests farm, near Kiells Church; Corsopol, the farm of the cross, between Bridgend and Loch Gruinart; and Crosprig, to the south of Kilchoman Church, are among the exceptions to the rule.
Before proceeding to describe the three parishes of Islay and their sculptured monuments, I have been tempted to introduce a few short notes on the early history of the island, and of the great chiefs who ruled over it for so long. In examining the crumbling remains of their strongholds, their churches and their tumbs, such a digression may not be out of place.