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About Eriskay

A Bit of Background on Eriskay

The Isle of Eriskay is a small island, (3 miles by 2 miles) situated between the Isle of Barra and the Isle of South Uist which are part of the chain of islands known as the Outer Hebrides (Western Isles) of Scotland.

 

The Outer Hebrides have a population of approximately 23,000 and Eriskay has a population of 134 (2021)

 

Gaelic is still spoken naturally as a first language amongst the older generation. There was a reluctance amongst the following generations to speak Gaelic for several years, but we are pleased that our younger islanders have taken a more positive approach, mainly due to the Gaelic Medium education in schools.

Eriskay has a phenomenal amount of heritage for such a small island. The name Eriskay itself derives from an old Norse name, Eiriksey which translates as “Eric’s Isle” named after the King?Clan Chief (Eric the Red) suggesting a Viking influence.

Bonnie Prince Charlie, SS Politician, ??? the Eriskay Love Lilt, the well-known Hebridean song, Fr Allan attracted Amy Murray, Goodrich, John Lorne etc  look at what I wrote for Fr. Allan book, Eriskay Pony

 

as such has provided much inspiration to the arts,

the famous Hebridean song, the Eriskay Love Lilt

Whisky Galore

It was off the shores of Eriskay that the ship the S.S Politician foundered in 1941 – and from here that the local seafaring community set sail to salvage her precious cargo of whisky – which was in short supply on the islands during the war years. Island fishermen used their boats to reach the wreck, reportedly bringing thousands of the bottles ashore, which they distributed across the island using the indigenous Eriskay ponies – a hardy Hebridean breed of which there are only around 400 left on earth.

To prevent staining their fishing clothes with oil from their vessel, they dressed in their wives garments for the murky mission - something of a risk for sailors who reputedly each usually wore a traditional seamless Eriskay jersey knitted to their own unique pattern to facilitate identification in the event of an accident.

The incident became the basis of Compton Mackenzie’s book Whisky Galore, which was later brought to the big screen by the world famous Ealing Studios, and visitors to Eriskay today can see an original bottle of the whisky brought ashore from the stricken ship displayed behind the bar at the Am Politician Lounge in Balla.

Of course, contraband is not the only famous thing to have come ashore on Eriskay’s stunning white sands – the island is where Bonnie prince Charlie first set foot on Scottish soil and it is said that the pink flowers that bloom here in the machair grasses grew from seeds he dropped from his handkerchief on his arrival before heading off to the mainland to lead the Jacobite Rebellion. You can follow his footsteps through Eriskay, South Uist and Benbecula on the Bonnie Prince Charlie Trail.

Fr Allan MacDonald

 

The Rare Eriskay Ponies

The Eriskay Pony is the last remnant of the Western Isles type pony and are now categorised as “Priority” on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust Watchlist as there are fewer than 300 left in the world with fewer than 50 pure bred mares. They roam freely across the island during the winter months and spends the summer months on Ben Scrien which has always been the tradition and now a crofting regulation. This allowed crofters the chance to grow crops without the risk of ponies, sheep and cows sabotaging their hard work. Traditionally, the Eriskay Pony was a very much needed part of island survival as they helped the islanders with a lot of the heavy manual work such as taking home seaweed from the shores to be used as fertiliser; taking home the peat from the hill…. Comann Each nan Eilean- The Original Eriskay Pony Society

 

Known in Gaelic as ‘Each Beag nan Eilean’ (Small Island Horse), the Eriskay Ponies, the last surviving native Hebridean pony breed, are generally grey in colour, with dense waterproof coats to protect them from the harsh island weather. The ponies played a cruical role in 1941 when the SS Politician ran aground off the Eriskay coast, to help the islanders “rescue” the cargo of 250,000 bottles of whisky.

With ancient Celtic and Norse roots, they are akin to other northern breeds, such as the Faroe pony and the Icelandic horse. They are also similar to drawings and sketches of ponies on the ancient Pictish stones which can be found in north and west Scotland.

Until the mid 19th century, the ponies had quite a large population and were used for general crofting work and light draught but with increased intensification of farming numbers began to fall due to crossbreeding with larger breeds such as Arabs and Clydesdales to produce ponies that could cope with heavier tasks.

By the early 1970’s, the population had declined to around 20, and although their status remains critical, work by the Eriskay Pony Society and others, involving preservation of the original genetic material and careful breeding programmes, mean there are around 300 breeding females registered in the world. At the dawn of the millennium Eriskay entered a new era, when a causeway connecting it to South Uist by road was finally opened – making it easier than ever to discover the delights of this island.

VIKINGS

The Island of Eiriksey

When was Eriskay first inhabited?

This is a difficult question to answer as there aren’t many records going back to give us the answer.

We know that the Vikings invaded the Outer Hebrides (the Long Islands) as they were known at that time and then Innse Gall ‘The Island of Foreigners’ after the Norsemen invasion when they became part of the kingdom of Norway in 888. They then became part of Scotland once again after the Norsemen were defeated at the battle of Largs in 1263. The Norsemen left very little evidence of their time here on the Islands as they did most of their building with wood.

A sculptured stone was discovered in 1865 in the burial grounds of Kilbar Church in Barra this was the only ruin-inscribed stone known to exist in the Outer Hebrides in their four and a half centuries living here. The stone is a relic of the Norsemen after they had become Christian. According to tradition after the battle of Largs, the island of Fuday which is between Eriskay & Barra was believed to be where the last remaining of the Norsemen were Slain. There is a broch (Dùnan Ruadh) or red fort on the island of Fuday.

Although there is very little evidence of the Vikings presence on the long islands, there are a considerable amount of place names with old Norse names. Several of them are on Eriskay including the name Eriskay itself. Eiriksey which in old Norse means Erics Island.

Eriskay Vikings
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