Islay and the Campbells
After the downfall of the MacDonalds in the late 16th century, the Campbells, who ruled much of Argyll, where the ones to benefit, filling the vacuum created by the suppression of the Lords of the Isles in 1493.
The Cawdor Campbells
In the early 17th century Sir John Campbell of Cawdor, a rich land owner in Argyll, and the Cawdor Campbells owned almost all the lands on Islay, but the ownership of the Cawdor Campbells wasn’t very successful. The Cawdor Campbells were quite unfortunate, had financial difficulties and were seldom actually seen on Islay. The Cawdors had only 6 lairds on Islay in 112 years and Sir Hugh, who ruled from 1660 to 1689, was the only laird that made some significant changes on Islay which can still be seen today.
John the Fiar, Sir John’s son, became the new owner of Islay in 1622 when Islay was given to him as a wedding gift. John however was pronounced insane in 1639 and the island’s management was given to his brother, Colin Campbell of Kilchoman, who in turn died in 1642 and another brother, George, took over. In 1654 Islay was passed to Hugh Campbell who was a son of Colin Campbell of Kilchoman but was still a minor. When Hugh came of age in 1660 he was knighted and two years later he married Lady Henrietta Stewart, sister of the 3rd earl of Moray. Sir Hugh Campbell and his son Alexander were among the few 17th century landlords in the Western Isles who took a keen interest in the general improvement of their island properties. It was Sir Hugh Campbell who ordered the construction of Islay House around 1677 together with his successor Alexander Campbell. In 1689 Sir Alexander Campbell took over the estates and Sir Hugh died in 1716.
Little is known about John Campbell and in fact he died earlier than Sir Alexander in 1697. His heir and second son John was only two years of age and the estate was run by Archibald Campbell of Clunes and of Kilchoman. Between 1697 and 1716 when John became of age things deteriorated further and Islay and Scotland were undergoing hard times. The year 1717 became a financial disaster for the Campbells on Islay and poverty ruled amongst the people. It was in this period that John Campbell, desperate for cash, met the smart business man Daniel Campbell of Shawfield who managed to acquire Islay.
The Shawfield Campbells
When, in the early 18th century, Daniel Campbell of Shawfield bought Islay and a part of Jura for £12,000, things started to get better on Islay and later proved to be a significant and important change in Islay’s history.
In 1726 the Campbells of Shawfield came to Islay and the first laird was Daniel Campbell of Shawfield. Daniel Campbell was born in 1670 and was a wealthy merchant as well as a member of parliament. He introduced the Flax industry to Islay and transformed the agricultural system on Islay. Daniel Campbell also expanded Islay House with the addition of the flanking wings. Daniel Campbell died in 1753. Because of all his achievements Daniel was often called Great Daniel.
Daniel Campbell was succeeded by his grandson Daniel Campbell the younger, totally different from his grand father and a well-informed man, who travelled a lot in Europe. He continued to implement and improve his grandfather’s ideas and introduced a ferry service to the mainland, established schools and developed fishing and linen industries. Daniel Campbell was also the one that started the village of Bowmore, based on a geometric plan, and the Round Church in the late 1760s. Daniel Campbell was very optimistic about expanding the fishing industry and in 1766 he declared in a letter for a committee:
The Shoars of this island abound with most kinds of Fish known in the Scotch Seas; There are Several Rivers abounding with Salmon, and in Lochindale…. Great quantities of Herrings have been taken. There are Cod banks on every side of the island, most of which were of late discovered by fishing vessels from Liverpool and other parts of England.
Around 1772 as many as 700 men were employed in mining and fishing on Islay. There were seven lead mines (Mulrees, Portnealon, Shenegart, North and South Ardachie, Ballygrant and Gartness) and one copper mine at Killslaven. After years of campaigning to obtain government aid for Islay, which would benefit the fishing industry and completing quays at Bowmore and Port Askaig, he finally succeeded in 1777 and tragically died soon afterwards.
It is obvious that Daniel Campbell and his grandson together improved the economic situation on Islay quite dramatically.
Walter Campbell of Skipness, born in 1741 and an advocate, succeeded Daniel until 1816 and during this period population on Islay raised from an estimated 5,300 in 1755 to 8,364 in Islay’s first official census of 1802. This means a growth of more than 50 percent in the last 40 years. Increases of population happened elsewhere in The Western Highlands as well. Reason for the increase was the spread of the potato as an easy to grow food, vaccination against smallpox and the existence of supplementary sources of income in linen manufacture, fishing, whisky distilling, mining and the manufacture of kelp from seaweed, although quite a few young men left Islay to work on the mainland. Walter Campbell had the task of completing some of Daniel’s plan’s, regarding the construction of roads from Port Askaig to Bridgend and to expand the village of Portnahaven. Walter Campbell died on 19 October 1816 at the age of 75. His monument can be found in the round church at Bowmore.
When in 1816 Walter Campbell’s grandson, Walter Frederick Campbell who just turned 18, became the successor. Walter Frederick Campbell initiated many of the changes in agriculture and settlement that have contributed to the present appearance of Islay. Walter Frederick Campbell established the village of Port Ellen in 1821, named after his first wife Eleanor. Later in 1828 Port Charlotte followed which was named after his mother and in 1829 he established the village of Keills which was named after the medieval church. Port Wemyss, another village started by Walter Frederick, got its name from Eleanor Campbell’s father who was the 8th Earl of Wemyss. Eleanor herself died in 1832 and was buried in a sarcophagus in Bowmore Church.
To commemorate his wife Eleanor, a plaque was placed above the entrance door of the Port Ellen lighthouse at Carraig Fhada with the following inscription:
YE WHO MID STORMS AND TEMPESTS STRAY IN
DANGERS MIDNIGHT HOUR.
BEHOLD WHERE SHINES THIS FRIENDLY RAY AND
HAIL ITS GUARDIAN TOWER.
TIS BUT FAINT EMBLEM OF HER LIGHT MY FOND
AND FAITHFUL GUIDE.
WHOSE SWEET EXAMPLE MEEKIN BRIGHT LED
THROUGH THIS WORLDS EVENTFUL TIDE MY HAPPY COURSE ARIGHT.
AND STILL MY GUIDING STAR SHE LIVES IN REALMS
OF BLISS ABOVE.
STILL TO MY HEART BLEST INFLUENCE GIVES AND
PROMPTS TO DEEDS OF LOVE.
TIS SHE THAT BIDS ME ON THE STEEP KINDLE THIS
TO LIGHT THE WANDERER O`ER THE DEEP WHO SAFE
SHALL BLESS HER NAME.
SO MAY SWEET VIRTUE LEAD YOUR WAY THAT
WHEN LIFE`S VOYAGE IS O`ER.
SECURE LIKE HER WITH HER YOU MAY ATTAIN THE
In 1837 Walter Frederick Campbell had recovered from the loss of his first wife Eleanor and married Catherine Coles. During his lairdship several additions were made to Islay House, including the rear extension of offices. The population on Islay was still growing rapidly, despite migration, and reached its peak in 1831 when Islay had 15,000 inhabitants. The pressure on the land became huge and after national decline in cattle and crop prices after the Napoleonic wars, lots of people weren’t able to pay their rents. Walter tried to persuade people to move to villages instead of encouraging migration, which was promoted by the Select Committee. The Campbells of Shawfield however were humane and realised that total clearance, to reduce the number of tenants on the land, was not an option but the situation with the overpopulation was still critical. When in the middle of the 1840s the potato disease spread from Northern Ireland to Islay, an alarming situation arised. Thousands of people were threatened by starvation and something needed to be done. Many people on Islay migrated and the population decreased rapidly.
1848 was the year of national financial crisis and the debt of Walter Frederick Campbell amounted over £800,000, which had partly been mounting for years. A meeting of editors in Edinburgh recommended that Walter Frederick Campbell’s affairs be handed over to a Trust. From 5 January 1848 until the end of August 1853, Islay was administered by the Edinburgh accountant James Brown. James Brown was also responsible for several clearances on Islay and had to make a good price for Islay. By then Walter Frederick’s affairs were in the hands of his son, John Francis Campbell and John Ramsay. Walter Frederick Campbell left for France where he died and was buried, sadly enough not next to his first wife Eleanor. In 1853 James Morrison, one of the richest commoners of the 19th century, bought Islay for £500,000 and the Shawfield link with the islands had been severed after 120 years.
John Francis Campbell was probably best remembered as folklorist and it was John Francis Campbell who was commemorated by the Glasgow Islay Association by means of the obelisk at Bridgend carrying the following inscription:
JOHN FRANCIS CAMPBELL OF ISLAY
AN EMINENT CELTIC SCHOLAR LINGUIST SCIENTIST AND TRAVELLER.
A TRUE AND PATRIOTIC HIGHLANDER.
LOVED ALIKE BY PEER AND PEASANT.
‘POPULAR TALES OF THE WEST HIGHLANDS’,
‘LEABHAR NA FEINNE’
AND OTHER LITERARY WORKS,
HE PRESERVED AND RENDERED CLASSIC THE
FOLK-LORE OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS
HE LIES BURIED IN CANNES IN FRANCE
HIS MEMORIES LIVES IN THE HEARTS OF HIS COUNTRYMEN
BORN 1821 – DIED 1885
Margaret Storrie - Biography of an Island
The information about the Campbells on Islay was for the bigger part obtained from Margaret Storrie's book, Biography of an island, in which she explains in great detail the life and achievements of the Campbells as well as a comprehensive account about the past and present of Islay. Anyone wishing to learn and understand the history of Islay will find this book fascinating. A must for those interested in the island's history and the best Islay book according to many.