Pabay History

The tiny diamond-shaped island of Pabay lies in Skye’s Inner Sound, just two and a half miles from the bustling village of Broadford.

One of five Hebridean islands of that name, it derives from the Norse papa-ey, meaning ‘island of the priests’.

Many visitors since the first holy men built their chapel there have felt that Pabay is a deeply spiritual place, and one of wonder. These include the great 19th – century geologists Hugh Miller and Archibald Geikie, for whom the island’s rocks and fossil-laden shales revealed much about the nature of Creation itself.

The Clan MacKinnon is one of the Siol Alpin family (see Appendix I) and is among Scotland’s most ancient clans. It’s associations have always been Hebridean.

The clan counts King Alpin as its founder, and its slogan or war-cry is ‘Cuimhnich bas Alpein’, meaning ‘Remember the death of Alpin’, who was beheaded in 841, in memory of which the MacKinnon chiefs have a second crest showing a severed head crowned with an antique crown.

It was Alpin’s great-grandson Findanus, the 4th MacKinnon chief, who gave the chiefs their Gaelic patronymic of MacFhionghuin, sons of Fingon of Findanus, which is now the clan surname. It was Findanus too who brought Dunakin into the clan around the year 900 by marrying a Norse princess nicknamed ‘Saucy Mary’. The castle, Dun Haakon, was an old broch or fortress commanding the narrow sound between Skye and the mainland, through which all ships had to pass or else attempt the stormy passage of the Minch. Findanus and his bride ran a heavy chain across the sound and levied a toll on all shipping passing up and down!

The Princess lies buried on Beinn-Caillaich in Skye, her face reputedly turned towards Norway. It was in the shadow of Dunakin that King Haakon IV’s war galleys mustered in 1263 before the Battle of Largs, at which their power was finally broken in Scotland.

Findanus, however, had his lands in Mull, and there were MacKinnons in Arran too who gave shelter to Robert Bruce. The clan did not receive its great Skye estate until after Bannockburn when Bruce rewarded them with it. It stretches from Kyleakin up to Broadford and then runs across Skye to Elgol and includes the islands of Pabay and Scalpay.

During the 1950’s the island was owned by the Whatley family, who remained there until 1969.

(Len and Margaret Whatley moved to Pabay from the Midlands and lived there from 1950 until 1970. Leaving a landlocked life in Birmingham for the emptiness of an uninhabited island was a brave and challenging move for which nothing could have prepared them.)

At first the British GPO agreed to make one delivery a week to the island from Broadford. Mr Whatley found this to be inadequate for his pottery and knitwear business and attempted to obtain two deliveries a week in line with most of the other islands in that vicinity.. This the GPO refused to do. Mr Whatley was unable to find anyone willing to undertake the task of collection and delivery of mail, and was forced to carry out the job himself, using a specially converted lifeboat. The resident population of the island at this time was in the region of 12 persons, rising in the summer to about 20. Mr.Whatley was therefore able to “export” knitwear, pottery, paintings, sculpture and farm produce, as well s gaining some income from tourism.

In 1962 Mr.Whatley issued a 2d stamp, somewhat crudely printed in sheets of four, in blue on white paper featuring the mailboat. The stamp was inscribed “ISLE OF PABAY SKYE MAIL SERVICE POSTCARD 2.” This is now quite rare. Later sets followed showing flowers (1962 and 1963) Birds (1964) and Crustaceans (1965). A number of overprints were produced for Europa, Churchill and Kennedy, pandering to the philatelic thematic interest in these subjects at the time. Most collectors of British and Scottsh island stamps lost interest, for over this period over 200 different issues were produced, many of them totally inappropriate subjects.

Christopher Whatley, their nephew, was a regular visitor to Pabay whilst they lived there. He wrote a book, “Pabay An Island Odyssey” based on archival research, oral interviews, memory and personal experience. In it he explores the history of this tiny island jewel, and the people for whom it has been home, to create a vivid picture of the trials, tribulations and joys of island life.

It is possible to purchase a copy of the book from the current owners. Read some book reviews here and here.

In 1971 the island gained new owners, Anne and Edward Gerrard, and in August 1972 three new Pabay stamps were issued-showing a map of the island enclosing profiles of birds–Corncrake (3p), Kestrel (10p) and Curlew (25p). Stamps of similar design featuring Seaweeds followed in 1978 Knotted Wrack (7p), Bladder Wrack (13p), and Saw Wrack (20p). In 1981 a further issue of stamps was made, featuring Fossil Shells: Pseudopecten (10p) Gryphea (15p) and Uptonia Ammonite (25p). Another 1981 issue of 10p and 25p stamps depicted the Great Northern Diver and White Fronted Goose.

The new owner decided that any future stamp issues would be of an appropriate design and the first very limited issue was the establishing of an Amateur Radio Station on the island: GM0PNS. This was in 1992. The next issue was in 1993. when a set of four stamps was produced showing the progress of the tree plantation. This coincided with the Year of the Tree (1993). This issue is a quality production and was printed by the House of Questa. Many new issues have now been produced.some

From notes and extracts kindly supplied by Rody Gorman-Librarian College of Further Education-Sleat-Isle of Skye.


The patron saint of Strath is St. Maelrubha or Maree as he came to be called later. The name signifies Maol ruadh, i.e., the red man of the bald forehead. For he was not of the ancient dark Pictish race, but red haired and like all monks of Iona he kept the fore part of his head shaven. His memory is still greatly venerated here as the first minister who brought tidings of the salvation of Jesus Christ to the Parish. Yet strange to say, it is long since the people gave up commemorating his day. Scarcely anyone here even knows that the August 27 used to be La Maolruidha: St. Marees’s day.

About 673 this great saint of the West Coast arrived at Applecross (called originally Appercrosan) which he made the base of his extensive missionary enterprise. Tradition says that he was in the habit of crossing from Appercrossan to that ancient burying place that is ever since called Ashaig Maol Ruaidha, St. Maree’s ferry. Legend has it that so great a favorite with Heaven was this soldier of the cross, that not only was special weather provided for him, but when he had no boat to cross to Skye he sat on a suitable stone in the water at the Applecross shore, which immediately floated, bearing its precious burden dolphin-like to Ashaig. This, Prof. Cooper remarks, probably rose out of a jest, for those saints could on occasion crack a lively joke. St. Maree would have told some astonished listeners that he crossed the sea on a stone without telling them that the stone formed part of the boat’s ballast.

At this ancient landing place of the saint (now called Cladh Ashaig) the foundations of an old church were discovered while a grave was being dug some years ago. For centuries before not even the walls could be seen. Before this church had been built the preacher’s pulpit was creag an hubhuir and possibly also when the church could not hold the congregation that gathered. The church was the first Christian meetinghouse ever built in Strath, and the first Christian sermon was probably preached at that rock. Ashaig means ferry and has no reference to St. Asaph. This is clearly shown by Rev. Macbane and others. The fact that every funeral called the people here together called to mind the ancient associations of the place and helped to keep traditions of St. Maree alive from generation to generation.

Ashaig was one of the early Christian sanctuaries that afforded protection to a criminal. He was allowed to remain here in safety for some time till the anger of his enemies cooled or till he might compound matters. The heaps of shells, which we sometimes turn up on digging graves, carry the mind back to the time when the lonely offender sat here in the shade of the old church munching shellfish which he had managed to gather unobserved. Such a man was called a cladhaire a word still in use (from “cladh”) a churchyard dweller, a coward, one who hides from his enemies.

In the old days a beautiful tree grew near this church-yard. And the story is well known of the bell that was suspended on it by St. Maree. Every Lord’s Day it tolled of its own accord the hour of service. It seems that Ashaig at that time was the centre of a large population, which later on somehow dwindled away. And then Cill a Chro became the central meeting place for the Parish. The old Ashaig church was left to fall into ruins. The bell was taken down from the tree by some practical modernist and hung at the new Parish Church. But in vain “says the legend” did the people of Strath await its blessed music. Like a newly caged bird it would not sing. Ashamed at this they returned it to the Ashaig tree, but the sacred spell was broken: it never tolled again. Another version of this story is slightly different.

There is a beautiful spring, with a legendary origin, close to this churchyard. The saint, when grown old and decrepit one day on this spot: and trying to raise his feet, laid hold of a small tree. His weight however tore the tree from its roots, and immediately from the torn sod a spring started which has flowed copiously ever since. The well dedicated to the saint Tobar Maolruidh is near Alt Ashaig on the shore. From this well the patron saint first drank on landing in Strath. But Creag an leabhair, “the rock of the book,” is seen across the river, as one stands at the burying ground. That this rock was Maelrubha’s pulpit seems a genuine tradition: for the similarity between it and a pulpit is not such as would give rise to the tradition.

On a cliff of this rock pulpit we can imagine the saint standing with the old vellum book in his hand, his red hair mingled with grey, his broad forehead shaven in the Columban style. The congregation of Picts have gathered round him by woodland paths from the different hamlets. The reputation of his miracles and preaching has wrought something of awe in their countenances as they gaze on him. They tremble for the cherished religion of their fathers. They know that their neighbours of Lochalsh and Applecross have heard him gladly and yielded to the name of Jesus. And here in their very midst he stands, and one imagines him appealing with solemn gesture as a man sent of God to change the course of history: –

“And now, O ye dwellers in these forests, know assuredly that the God who made this earth under our feet and the great heavens above us is greater than the gods your fathers feared. For what is the ever-changing moon whom ye worship compared with him who changeth not, and what is this glorious sun shining on us today compared to the more glorious Creator of the sun, who could in a moment by one breath blow your sun out of being. I come to tell you that you have offended your Creator by neglecting Himself and worshipping his creatures that are no gods. Your offended God has sent me an ambassador of peace. I call upon you to give obedience and glory to Him. The blood of your sacrifices has not taken away your sin but only deepened your guilt. But Jesus, whose name has more power than all the gods of the Druids, has come to this world to give Himself a sacrifice, to atone for every one of you who will yield to Him. Why then will ye Druids make these woods howl with the cries of the dying, whose blood brings only more sin on your hands”.

“Look across yonder water to your fellow-countrymen of Appercrossan. They no more worship this hot lump of fire in the heavens but the true Son of Righteousness of whom we have much to tell you- this Jesus who is to come shortly from Heaven with an army of spirits to separate those who believe from His enemies.”

“I call upon you this day, ye old men and ye Druids and all who are here gathered about this rock, repent and be baptised every one of you. And whosoever among you shall obey, your souls shall have a home with Christ and never die, although your bodies be laid in yonder graveyard, where my boat landed today-this Ashaig where we shall continue to call you together in Christ’s name.”

Then St. Maree’s hands were raised to Heaven and a deep solemnity feel upon the assembly: and the saint’s voice was heard pleading that the Son of Righteousness might shine on these dark regions of the Caledonian forest.

How the names of Applecross came into usage.

Recently I was re-reading The Rev. D.A.D MacLeod’s treatise, “The Celtic Saint of the Sanctuary of Applecross.” Quoting loosely from it:- ‘The first mention of the name Applecross is to be found in Tighernac’s Annals (in Latin) and is:- AD 673 Maelrubha fundavit Ecclesiana Aporcrossan” translated as:- In 673 Maelrubha founded the church of Aporcrossan. He goes on:-“Apor” is clearly a form of ‘Aber’–an out-flowing or estuary, and is a Pictish prefix.” This is rather less than convincing if one considers the several hundred rivers that flow West into the sea between Cape Wrath and the Clyde and not one, as far as I can see from my map, starts Aber anything.

No, we must avoid another of professor Watson’s Red Herrings. The peninsula had a name long before–hundreds of years before Saint Maelrubha came here from Ireland and that name would have been contemporary with (in the same language) as other places of note up and down this coast. I don’t believe it was ever called Aber (the mouth of) Crossan, a river that flows down Strath Maolo Chaluim. So if it certainly was not called “Applecross” and I appeal to your readers to come up with a word or combination of words which could be corrupted to sound something like Applecross. For instance if one puts the hyphen after the “c” one gets “something” ros(s): one might start ABACHO- this could be translated as “The peninsula with the Holy place.” One cannot help but suspect that whatever worship was carried on, prior to St. Maelrubha bringing Christianity, it happened on the spot that FELT right. This spot had been identified on the site of the Clachan Kirk. St.Maelrubha homed in on it and used it. Then after two years he wrote back home to Bangor in Ireland saying that he had established a church at xxxx. What language did he use to write his message? What did the scribe who translated it into Latin to be entered in Tighernacs Annals read? Is one of your readers a scholar in Latin and Gaelic, or do I mean, Pictish. Perhaps there is a lead in that an orchard in Gaelic starts AVULL (abhail)- or again was not the old word for a clan chieftain APER?

From answers printed in An Carranach one that is most likely right will be awarded a prize commensurate with its proven veracity.
Yours faithfully,
Andrew Wills


Maol Ruibhe or Maol Rubha of Applecross who lived from 640 to 722 and whose feast day falls on the 27th of August has been described as next to Calum Cille the most famous saint of the ancient Scottish church. His name implies “Promontory Lad,” and like many other such names may have stuck to him as a result of some childhood habit or incident of his childhood. Perhaps he toddled too close to the edge of a cliff.

Dedications to Maol Rubha cover much the same area as Calum Cille’s, with a particular concentration in Skye and Ross-shire. He was the founder of the monastery of Applecross, which lay effectively an island between them.

Of course Applecross has nothing to do with apples: it is Apor Crosan “the estuary of the Crosses,” nowadays known in Gaelic as a’Chomraich, “the sanctuary.” The Applecross River, now Abhainn Mha’ Ruibhe, was once Abhain Crosan. Maol Rubha’s sanctuary was here, marked by crosses: it had a radius of six miles, and the last of the crosses was smashed as recently as the 1870s when the school was being built. The saint’s tombstone in Cladh Ma’ Ruibhe was broken up earlier during the building of the manse; the mason was warned to leave it alone, it was said, and subsequently fell from the scaffolding and fractured his skull on it.
There are churches called Cill ma’ Ruibhe (or variations of the name) in Skye (in the Aird of Strath, on Loch Eynort in Minginish, and at Sartle in Trotternish), at Maarung in Harris, and in Arisaig, Muckairn, Craignish, Islay (Cill Mha’ Rubha Kilarvow) Kintyre and Amuiree. In many cases anglicized forms of the name, such as Kilmarie have been mistaken for dedications to the Virgin Mary.

Applecross has Coill Mha’ Ruibhe (Maol Rubha’s Wood, Hartfield) and a little Loch Ma’Ruibhe. A much greater Loch Ma’ Ruibhe is Loch Maree in Gairloch, formerly Loch Iu (Loch Ewe), Loch Maree and Loch and Loch Shin have islands called Eilean (or Innis) Ma’ Ruibhe, Loch-carron has Clachan Ma’ Ruibhe, Maol Rubha’s Kirkton, where the parish church stands. The parishes Applecross, Lochcarron and Cairloch all have Suidhe Ma’ Ruibhe, Maol Rubha’s Seat, where passers-by used to leave an offering in his memory-anything would do a stone, a stick, a bit of rag.

In the east, the old burial-ground of the MacKenzies of Coul at Strathpeffer is Press Ma’Ruibhe, Maol Rubha’s Copse. Near Paithnick three miles north-east of Keith, Banffshire, was a piece of land called “Sanct Malrubus stryp.” Amulree in the Sma’Glen is Ath Maol Ruibhe, Maol Rubha’s Ford. And the parish church of Kinnell in Angus was granted an endowment in 1509 in the name of Virgin Mary, Saints Peter and Paul, and St. Mairubius the Confessor.

Close to the shore at Breakish in Strath, Skye is Ashig, short for Aiseag Maol Ruibhe: Aiseag Maol Ruibhe, aite iomallach an domhain “Maol Rubha’s Ferry, a place on the brink of the world.” This is where the saint landed from Applecross. With him he brought a bell which he hung in a tree growing out of the rock face above the gently-flowing Ashig River near Oitir Aisig, Ashig Sandspit. The bell remained there for centuries. It was silent all week until Sunday morning, when it rang as a thomadamh tamh, of its own accord, and continued to mark the hours of service all through the day until sunset. Close by is a pulpit-rock called Creagan an Leabhair, the Little Rock of the Book, from which the saint preached the gospel. In the greensward before it are Glac an Teampaill, the Hollow of the Temple (pre-reformation church), an old healing well called Tobar Maol Ruibhe an seann chladh Aiseig, the old cemetery of Ashig. The church was called Cille Chriosd (the Church of Christ), Cill ma’ Ruibhe being far away behind Loch Slapin amongst the rocky southern shores at the back of the parish. Ian Lom’s line Cill Ma’ Ruibhe fo sgeith a chuain–“Kilmaree under the ocean’s wing,” was singled out for praise by Professor Watson in the introduction to his “Bardachd Ghaidhlig,” and I can only say I agree with him.

After the coming of the Norsemen Cille Chrlosd was rebuilt for its greater security a few miles up into Strath Swordale, called cro an t-Sratha or “the cowfold of Strath,” where it was popularly dubbed Cill a Chro: the bell was brought there on its branch, but it never rang again and the old tree at Ashig promptly withered away. That at least is one version of the story: I have just been reading a variation of it and much else of interesting the Rev.D Lamont’s: “Strath: In Isle of Skye.”

In Berneray, Harris is Aird Ma Ruibhe, Maol Rubha’s Headland. Maol Runha’s name is still used by many folk in Skye and Harris as a very mild sort of oath . Eil thu sgityh? Are you tired? Ma’ Ruibhe tha! Yes indeed! But it was once used in this way in Wester Ross,too, and the traditions which centered upon Eilean Ma’ Ruibhe in Loch Maree are interesting not to say notorious- in fact one mid-19th century writer Dr.Arthur Mitchel, even claimed that the people there spoke of “God Mourie,” but I have the feeling that what he heard was not Dia Ma’ Ruibhe but deagh Mha’Ruibhe “good Maol Rubha.” Wells and stones in the area generally were used for practicing divination. Lunatics were treated by being taken to the island, which is an old burial place, still in use till the end of the 18th century. They were made to drink from the sacred well there, then dipped three times in the loch or even towed around the island behind a boat. This procedure might be repeated every day for some weeks. The “Inverness Courier” reported on November 4, 1852, that an idiot girl had been brought to the island the previous Friday.

“On Reaching the spot , the unfortunate creature was dragged to the well, and having been compelled to drink of its water , was put through the ceremonial of ducking, after which she was towed the island after the boat, and after midnight bathed in the loch. The result of all this, it is lamentable to add, has been, that the hitherto quiet imbecile has become a raving maniac”.

As recently as 1896 lunatics were apparently still being towed three times round the island. Sacrifice was an integral part of the ritual: coins and rags were left on the island until the present century. In British Calandar Customs, Scotland, Vol 3. is a photograph of the trunk of an oak that grew beside the well. It bristles with hundreds of pennies and halfpennies driven edgeways into the wood. By 1892 the well was a wishing-well, the tree a wishing-tree. The oak is now dead , and most of the coins gone, but other trees remain to take its place. At one time, however, the offerings were more substantial-milk poured on hills, bulls ritually slaughtered and given to a class of privileged beggars called deoraidhean Ma’ Ruibhe, Maol Rubha’s dewars, Maol Rubha’s poor.

In September 1656 the Presbytery of Digwall was particularly exercised by these customs. Bull sacrifices, they declared, had taken place on August 25, and the main culprits were the men of Achnashellach. They announced comprehensive measures for stamping the practices out. (1) Culprits to be rebuked in sackcloth on successive Sundays in the church of Loch-carron, Applecross, Contin, Fodderty, Dingwall and Gairloch, in that order. (2) This failing: excommunication. (3) Deoraidhean to give evidence. (4) Informers called for. (5) Those who have boats on Loch Maree without legal authority to be summoned. (6) Culprits from outside the Presbytery bounds to be reported to the relevant authorities. “Miurie,” they declared “his his monuments and remembrances in several paroches within the province, but more particularly in the paroches of Lochcarron, Lochaish, Kintaile, Contan, Fottertie, and Lochbrome.”

These measures clearly did not have the desired effect for the minutes of August 6, 1678, contain a brief circumstantial account of yet another sacrifice: Hector MacKenzie, with two sons and a grandson, had sacrificed a bull “in a heathenish manner” on Eilean Ma’ Ruibhe for the sake of his wife’s health.

As the minutes describe her as “formerlie sick and valetudinaire,” however , it seems as if the sacrifice might just have worked!

The last of Maolrubha’s brood

SEASONS – Raghnall Mac Ile Dhuibh

On August 27 Latha Fheill Ma’ Ruibhe, St Maolrubha’s Day, comes around again. No doubt he will be remembered in some of the pulpits of Skye and Wester Ross, since it was he above all who brought Christianity to these two areas 1300 years ago (he lived from 640 to 722). Perhaps he will be remembered again at his stone pulpit at Ashaig, Broadford.

I will concentrate on the traditions which center upon this holy island, Eilean Ma’ Ruibhe in Loch Maree. It has an old burial place, still in use till the end of the 18th century; the site of St. Maolrubha’s chapel is still to be seen. Lunatics were treated by being taken to the island. They were made to drink from what then was a sacred well. Then they were dipped three times in the loch or even towed around the island behind a boat.

Our earliest description of Eilean Ma’ Ruibhe is by the Welsh traveler Thomas Pennant, who visited it in 1772. Of the sacred well he was told that if it was found to be full, St. Maolrubha was in a benign mood: if empty, “they proceed in their operations with fears and doubts.” Perhaps the last visitor to record finding it full was James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherrd, who came in 1803. Misunderstanding its name, he called it St Mary’s Isle, and assumed that the chapel was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

He wrote: “We landed on St. Mary’s Isle, and has the superstition to go and drink of the holy well so renowned in that country among the vulgar and superstitious, like me, for the cure of insanity in all its stages, and so well authenticated are the facts, the most stubborn of all proofs, that even people of the most polite and modern ways of thinking are obliged to allow of its efficacy in some instances. But mine was only an attack of poetical hydrophobia, including my tendency to knight errantry, which however ridiculous to some, I take pleasure in. I omitted, however the appendage of the ceremony, which in all probability is the most necessary and efficasious branch of it, namely that being plunged head over ears three times in the lake.”

I understand that lunatics were still being rowed three times round the island as recently as 1896, and even into the present century. Sacrifice was an integral part of the ritual, so in Pennant’s and Hogg’s day coins would have been thrown into the well. But at some point between 1803 and 1863 it dried up for good, supposedly because it was desecrated by the immersion of a mad dog in it, as an attempted cure (the dog died immediately, his owner soon after). So people took to hammering their coins into a guardian oak-tree that grew up above the damp patch that is all that now remains of the well. Not only coins but hooks, pins, tacks, nails-anything metal. It became a wishing-tree. Knock your coin, or whatever and make a wish.

In 1863 Dr. Arthur Mitchell wrote: “Countless pennies and halfpennies are driven edge-ways into the wood–over many the bark is closing over many it has already closed.” The belief grew up that if anyone removed an offering attached to the tree, some misfortune would befall him. Most likely, his house would go on fire. But in any case, the custom eventually killed the tree.

Eilean Ma’ Ruibhe today has a very special feel about it, There are holly trees as well as native conifers. In the center of the island, around the chapel site are some burial slabs, some medieval, some more recent. Traditionally the holy is a sacred tree; archaeologists at Iona once excavated an entire trench full of holly leaves, and the guess was hazarded that they were used by the monks in the manufacture of ink. Hogg, too, had sensed a special atmosphere. “I felt a kind of awe on my mind on wandering over the burying ground and the ruins of the Virgins chapel, held in such veneration by the devout, though illiterate fathers of the present generation. This I mentioned to Mr. Mackenzie who assured me that had I visited it before the wood was cut down, such was the effect, that would have been impossible not to be struck with a religious awe.”

The element of sacrifice has always been an important one in Maol-rubha’s rituals. In recent times it has been a coin in a tree. Two hundred years ago Pennant recorded that “if a traveler passes by any of his resting places, they never neglect to leave an offering; but the saint is so moderate as not to put him to any expense, a stone, a stick, a bit of rag contents him.” A century before that, however, in September 1656, it had been reported in alarm to the Presbytrey of Dingwall that on August 25, not only was milk poured on the hills, but a bull had been ritually slaughtered by the men of Achnashellach and others and given to Maolrobha’s “derilans.” And again in 1678 Hector MacKenzie and three others, his sons and grandson, sacrificed a bull “in ane haethenish manner” in Eilean Ma’ Ruibhe.

Now I have mentioned these sacrifices in this series before. However I misunderstood the term “derilan.” The relevant words of the Presbytery records, in modernized spelling are “The brethern … refer to the diligence of the minister … that such as are his elders be particularly posed concerning … what they know of those poor ones who are called Maolrubha’s derilans and own those titles, who receive sacrifices and offerings upon the account of “Maolrubha’s poor ones”; and that at least some of these be summoned to appear before the Presbytery…”

Previously I assumed that “derilan” represented Gaelic deoraidhean, dewars, pilgrims, a term used of the hereditary custodians of certain saints relics. I have now discovered that it is really deirilean otherwise deirbhlean or deireadhlinn. It seems to mean literally the last of a brood, hence the one different from the rest, a weakling, orphan or pauper.
Deirbhlein Mha’ Ruibhe then were Maolrubha’s orphans, Maolrubha’s poor ones, just as the Presbytery translated it themselves. I would like to think that they were simply deserving poor of the parish of Gairloch. But I think the Presbyterey suspected that they were a closed sect, or cast, of privileged beggars.

They may well have been right!

During 1844 Hugh Miller was on his way home after a holiday in the Hebrides with an old friend, the Rev. Mr. Swanson, Minister of the Small Isles. Mr. Swanson had left the church and had taken up floating quarters on the small yacht Betsey, “beyond the reach of man’s intolerance.” Miller writes at length of the geological formations of Skye and in this extract we find him in Broadford Bay.

“Friday made amends for the rains and fogs of its disagreeable predecessor: the morning rose bright and beautiful, with thus wind enough to fill, and barely fill, the sail, hoisted high, with miser economy, that not a breath might be lost; and, weighing anchor, and shaking out all out canvass, we bore down on Pabba (Pabay) to explore. This island, so soft in outline and colour, is formidably fenced around by dangerous reefs; and, leaving the Betsey in charge of John Stewart and his companion, to dodge on in the offing, I set out with the minister in our little boat, and landed on the north-eastern shore of the island, beside a trap-dyke that served us as a pier. He would be a happy geologist who, with a few thousands to spare, could call Pabba his own. It contains less than a square mile of surface; and a walk of little more than three miles and a half among the line where the waves break at high water brings the traveller back to his starting point; and yet, though thus limited in area, the petrication’s of its shores might themselves fill a museum. They rise by thousands and tens of thousands on the exposed planes of its sea-washed strata, standing out in bold relief, like sculpturing on ancient tombstones, at once mummies and monuments, –the sea, and the carved memorials of the dead. Every rock is a tablet of hieroglyphics, with an ascertained alphabet; every rolled pebble a casket, with old pictorial records locked up within. Trap-dykes, beyond comparison finer than those of the Water of Leigh, which first suggested to Hutton his theory, stand up like fences over the sedimentary strata, or run out like moles far into the sea. The entire island, too, so green, rich, and level, is itself a specimen illustrative of the effect of geologic formation on scenery.”

Miller then goes on to examine the seashore at Kyle Akin. He ends the passage with another fine piece of Victorian prose.

“There was now the low rush of tides all around, and the distant voices from the shore, but no other sounds; and, dim in the moonshine, we could see behind us several spectral-looking sails threading their silent way through the narrows, like twilight ghosts traversing some haunted corridor.”

The Island of Pabay has been a home and refuge for humans throughout the ages.

Scotland’s First Settlers is a project set up to examine the early post glacial human occupation of the area around the Inner Sound, from northern Skye to Redpoint, Torridan. During this period of time, from around 9500 – 5000 before the present, Scotland was home to nomadic hunter gatherers who had no permanent buildings. Their sites are often indicated initially by nothing more than a scatter of stone tools, however more substantial sites can be found in the form of large shell middens, often inside caves or rockshelters. As part of the Scotland’s First Settlers project, the coastline of Pabay has been surveyed and two sites have been found.

Click here for more archaeological information.

Click here to read Scotland’s First Settlers Newsletter For more information please contact:

Centre for Field Archaeology The University of Edinburgh, Old High School, 12 Infirmary Road, Edinburgh EH1 1LT.

Telephone: 0131 650 8197/ Fax: 0131 662 4094


57.16°N 05 51.5°W | NGR675270
“There’s the ceaseless churning of the sea, gurgling round rocks and through rocky channels, or swashing over occasional patches of sand, shells and shingle." - Christopher Whatley