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Outer Hebrides, Scotland

North Rona Island

This remote Scottish isle is only inhabited by seals, birds, and the memory of a tragic settlement. 

Once home to a 6th century saint, medieval monks, plague-infested rats, sailors, shepherds and farmers, North Rona now hosts just some ruins, sea caves, sea calfs, sea birds, a lot of sea spray, and even a few sheep.

Add to that the salt marshes, salt pastures, and salt steppes and you get the picture – salt and sea. Pretty much what you’d expect to find when you’re miles away from any other land mass in the North Atlantic. North Rona may be 45 miles north of the Outer Hebrides, but this tiny island has a remarkable history for its size – a remarkable history for just about any size.

The island is possibly named for its first legendary visitor, Saint Ronan, an Irish pilgrim and hermit monk who lived in the 6th century. There is very little documented about the life of Saint Ronan, but on the island are the ruins of a small abandoned chapel which dates to probably the 8th century – and is reputed to have been built in his name. A couple of centuries later, the island was home to a collection of monks, and what are likely their stone-marked graves are still visible today.

There continued to be enclaves of inhabitants through the middle ages, and eventually – sometime around the year 1685 – the entire population of the island (granted, that was only 30 people) was wiped out. It seems that there was a ship wreck near enough to the island’s coast that rats from the ship made it ashore. They quickly devoured all the crops, and without another ship due for a year or two, those 30-odd souls died of starvation (and maybe a little bubonic plague). When a ship did finally come along, they found the entire population – and all of the rats – dead. It seems that after the rats made a feast of the crops, they couldn’t manage the rugged coastline to get to any reliable food source, so they starved to death just like the island’s inhabitants.

For the next few centuries, there were attempts at repopulating the island, some of which lasted and some of which didn’t. But over fits and starts, there remained on the island at least small groups of tenant farmers, right up until 1844. That was the last time anyone actually lived on the island (except for the occasional wildlife preservationist doing research). Grey seals, on the other hand, find their way back there every year.

North Rona is an important stop-over for the grey seal (or sea calf), who use the labyrinth of sea caves along the coast for breeding and shelter. As tiny as the island is, it is the third largest breeding ground for grey seals in the United Kingdom. It is also important to the local populations of some pretty amazing sea birds – like black-billed gulls, puffins, kittiwakes, and guillemots. The island is so important as a way-station for sea life that the UK’s Joint Nature Conservation Committee has designated it a Special Area of Conservation. 

Know Before You Go

Accessible only by boat and chartered excursion