The history of the Small Isles, to the south of Skye, is typical of the Hebrides: early Christianization, followed by Norwegian rule ending in 1266 when the islands fell into Scottish hands. Their support for the Jacobites resulted in hard times after the failed 1745 rebellion, but the biggest problems came with the introduction of the potato in the mid-eighteenth century, which prompted a population explosion. At first, the problem of overcrowding was lessened by the kelp boom, but the economic bubble burst with the end of the Napoleonic Wars and most owners eventually resorted to forced Clearances.
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Since then, each of the islands has been bought and sold several times, though only Muck is now privately owned by the benevolent laird, Lawrence MacEwen. Eigg was bought by the islanders themselves in 1997. The other islands were bequeathed to national agencies: Rùm, by far the largest and most-visited of the group, possessing a cluster of formidable volcanic peaks and the architecturally remarkable Kinloch Castle, belongs to Scottish Natural Heritage; while Canna, with its high basalt cliffs, is owned by the National Trust for Scotland.
Measuring just over four miles by one, and with a population of around twenty, Canna is run as a single farm and bird sanctuary by the National Trust for Scotland. For visitors, the chief pastime is walking: from the dock it’s about a mile across a grassy basalt plateau to the bony sea cliffs of the north shore, which rise to a peak around Compass Hill (458ft) – so called because its high metal content distorts compasses – in the northeastern corner of the island, from where you get great views across to Rùm and Skye. The cliffs of the buffeted western half of the island are a breeding ground for Manx shearwater, razorbill and puffin.
Smallest and most southerly of the Small Isles, Muck is low-lying, mostly treeless and extremely fertile. You’ll arrive at PORT MÓR, the village on the southeast corner of the island. A road, a little more than a mile long, connects Port Mór with the island’s main farm, Gallanach, which overlooks the rocky seal-strewn skerries on the north side of the island; to the east lies the nicest sandy beach, Camas na Cairidh. In the southwest corner of the island, it’s worth climbing Beinn Airein (452ft) for the 360-degree panoramic view; the return journey from Port Mór takes around two hours.
Like Skye, Rùm is dominated by its Cuillin, which, though only reaching a height of 2663ft at the summit of Askival, rises up with comparable drama straight up from the sea in the south of the island. The majority of the island’s twenty or so inhabitants now live in KINLOCH, the only village, overlooking the large bay on the sheltered east coast, and most are employed by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), which runs the island as a National Nature Reserve. Two gentle waymarked heritage trails start from Kinloch, both taking around two hours.
The island’s best beach is at KILMORY, to the north, though check with the reserve manager about public access. The hamlet of HARRIS on the southwest coast once housed a large crofting community; all that remains now are several ruined blackhouses and the extravagant Bullough Mausoleum, which was built in the style of a Greek Doric temple by Sir George to house the remains of his father, and overlooks the sea.
Rùm’s chief formal attraction is Kinloch Castle, a squat red sandstone edifice fronted by colonnades and topped by crenellations and turrets, that overshadows the village of Kinloch. From the galleried hall, with its tiger rugs, stags’ heads and giant Japanese incense-burners, to the “Extra Low Fast Cushion” of the Soho snooker table in the Billiard Room, the interior is packed with knick-knacks and technical gizmos accumulated by Sir George Bullough (1870–1939), the spendthrift son of self-made millionaire Sir John Bullough, who bought the island as a sporting estate in 1888. Look out for the orchestrion, an electrically driven barrel organ (originally destined for Balmoral) crammed in under the stairs. You can also spend the night here, and there’s a bistro and a bar.