The first evidence of human habitation on Lewis is found in peat samples which indicate that about 8,000 years ago, much of the native woodland was torched to make way for grassland to allow deer to graze. The earliest archaeological remains date from about 5,000 years ago. At that time, people began to settle in permanent farms rather than following their herds. The small houses of these people have been found throughout the Western Isles, in particular, at Dail Mhor, Carloway. The more striking great monuments of this period are the temples and communal burial cairns at places like Calanais.
About 500 BC, island society moved into the Iron Age. The buildings became larger and more prominent, culminating in the brochs – circular, dry-stone towers belonging to the local chieftains – testifying to the uncertain nature of life then. The best remaining example of a broch in Lewis is at Dun Charlabhaigh. The Scots are recorded as arriving from around 1AD, bringing the Gaelic language with them. As Christianity began to spread through the islands in the sixth and later centuries, following Columban missionaries, Lewis was inhabited by the Picts.
In the 9th century AD, the Vikings began to settle on Lewis, after years of raiding from the sea. The Norse invaders intermarried with local families and abandoned their pagan beliefs. At this time, most buildings changed their forms from being round to rectangular, following the Scandinavian style. At this time, Lewis was part of the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles and officially part of Norway. The Lewis chessmen, which were found on the island in 1831, date from the time of Viking rule. The people were called the Gall-Ghaidheil, the ‘Foreigner Gaels', reflecting their mixed Scandinavian/Gaelic background, and probably their bilingual speech. The Norse language persists in many island placenames and some personal names to this day, although the latter are fairly evenly spread across Scottish Gaeldom.
Lewis (and the rest of the Western Isles) became part of Scotland once more in 1266 following the Treaty of Perth when it was ceded by the Kingdom of Norway. Under Scottish rule, the Lordship of the Isles emerged as the most important power in north-western Scotland by the 14th century. The Lords of the Isles were based on Islay, but controlled all of the Hebrides. They were descended from Somerled (Somhairle) Mac Gillibride, a Gall-Gaidheil lord who had held the Hebrides and West Coast two hundred years earlier. Control of Lewis itself was initially exercised by the Macleod clan but after years of feuding and open warfare between and even within local clans, the lands of Clan MacLeod were forfeited to the crown in 1597 and were awarded by King James VI to a group of Lowland colonists known as the Fife adventurers in an attempt to anglicise the islands. However the adventurers were unsuccessful and possession eventually passed to the Mackenzies of Kintail in 1609 when Coinneach, Lord MacKenzie, bought out the lowlanders.
Following the 1745 rebellion, and Prince Charles Edward Stewart's flight to France, the use of Gaelic was discouraged, rents were demanded in cash rather than kind, and the wearing of folk dress was made illegal. Emigration to the New World increasingly became an escape for those who could afford it during the latter half of the century. In 1844 Lewis was bought by Sir James Matheson, co-founder of Jardine Matheson, but subsequent famine and changing land use forced vast numbers off their lands, and increased again the flood of emigrants. Paradoxically, those who remained became ever more congested and impoverished, as large tracts of arable land were set aside for sheep, deer-stalking or grouse shooting. Agitation for land re-settlement became acute on Lewis during the economic slump of the 1880s, with several land raids (in common with Skye, Uist and Tiree); this quietened down as the island economy recovered.
During the First World War, thousands of islanders served in the forces, many losing their lives, including 208 naval reservists from the island who were returning home after the war when the Admiralty yacht HMY Iolaire, sank within sight of Stornoway harbour. Many servicemen from Lewis served in the Royal and Merchant Navy during the Second World War and again, many lives were lost. Following the war, many more inhabitants emigrated to the Americas and mainland Scotland.
In 1917 the Isle of Lewis was bought by the soap magnate Lord Leverhulme who intended to make Stornoway an industrial town and build a fish cannery. His plans were initially popular, but his opposition to land re-settlement led to further land raids especially around the farms of Coll, Gress and Tong. These raids, commemorated in monuments in several villages, were ultimately successful, as the government was prepared to take legal action in support of land re-settlement. Faced with this, Leverhulme gave up on his plans for Lewis and concentrated his efforts on Harris, where the town of Leverburgh takes his name.
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