Monday, 7 August 2006

Pabbay: my favourite Hebridean island

For a change, some pictures from me. These are of Pabbay, an island off the northwest coast of Berneray. We visited it on September 15th 2005, as part of my plan to spend every birthday on a different Hebridean island or beach.

We sailed out in Donald's boat. Him, me, SWMBO, and Ursina the potter. Getting ashore involved Donald paddling madly in a dinghy while SWMBO kept a lookout.


Pabbay is quite a spectacular island. It's roughly oval, and has one hill that is an almost perfect cone, rising near the middle of the island. There are no permanent residents, though the owners and their friends and family come over and stay in one of the two restored/new buildings.

The only thing you'll usually notice moving are the deer. There's a large group of them on the island, which provide hunting/sustenance for the owners. They'll spend more time watching you than you spend watching them:


There are many ruined buildings on Pabbay. The island was populated up to 1846, when (as legend goes) it was cleared under the excuse of illegal alcohol distillation being discovered. Some of the people who were cleared moved to Berneray, North Uist, Harris and to Australia; many moved to Cape Breton in Canada. Residents of that area who have ancestors with the surnames MacKinnon, MacLeod, Morrison, MacAskill, or MacKay may have a Pabbay connection.

The remnants of many houses scatter the sides of the hill:



Quite incredibly, at the time of the 1841 census, there were 65 households on the island, with a total resident population of 323. The island and it's inhabitants had close connections with Berneray, using the church on that island - one door was used by Berneray residents, the other by Pabbay residents.

The view from the top is excellent, whatever the weather. You can see all round the island, and so can follow the progress of the deer. To the west you can see Shillay, a smaller island where seals come to bask:


There are several streams and springs on Pabbay, which flow past some of the ruined buildings. Other sustenance for residents would have come from sheep and fishing, and trading with residents and relatives on other nearby islands. Martin Martin (yes, that's a real name), one of the earliest travel writers to wander these islands, wrote:

"...the soil is sandy and fruitful in corn and grass, and the natives have lately discovered here a white marle. The west end of this island which looks to St. Kilda is called the wooden harbour, because the sands at low water discover several trees that have formerly grown here."

It certainly wasn't an easy life, with weather periodically damaging even the sturdy stone houses. The storm of 1697 is particularly remembered for destroying most of the houses, as well as burying a village under sand on Berneray.



All the pictures by me; there's more on the Flickr photoset.


  1. Gym routine, Berneray style at Silversprite26 March 2007 at 22:22

    [...] Turn right and head north. Advise at this point putting some suntan lotion on the back of your neck, as it is a heck of a long walk along the beach and around one of the headlands. Keep going. On your left, a few miles offshore, you’ll see Pabbay. [...]

  2. I was absolutely fascinated to your story and photos as my mother's ancestors (McLeods) came from the Island of Pabbay. They were "cleared" from the island in the mid-19th century and my mother (who is now 92) was told that the Laird's men came at night, forced the inhabitants into their boats and burned and destroyed their homes behind them. My mother's family settled in Scalpay. Another family member kept on travelling and ended up in Australia and we are still in contact with his descendents after all these years.I understand that Pabbay was, in ancient times, the stronghold of the Harris McLeods. As it was difficult to land on the island unobserved, it was easily defended. There are also links with the original inhabitants of St Kilda.The family memory of Pabbay is that it was a land of 'milk and honey'. My mother's people were called 'the pipers' and her grandfather wore a 'chieftain's belt'. He had a magnificent set of bagpipes covered in silver chains. As a small child my mother pulled a chain off the instrument and we still have it!

  3. I loved your story and photos.My ancestors , Norman and Julia MacLeod and their two young children ,Donald and Margeret ,left Pabbay in 1841.They came to Cape Breton.I hope to visit Pabbay and area some day.

  4. My Grandfather Angus MacAskill was wondering how to find out if our ancestors are from this island. We live in Cape Breton. Let us know if you have any information. We are going to Scotland in October so it would be a great thing to know.

  5. Richard McLeod24 July 2009 at 04:30

    Do you know of any MacLeod genealogy posted from Pabbay? My ancestor is a Norman MacLeod (one of many) who came from the Skye vicinity in the mid 1700s.