The Vikings and Early Settlers
Why begin with the Vikings? It was already 800AD when they turned up here. Others came much earlier but the Vikings are the first whose comment we can quote. A scout, sent ashore from the longboat is alleged to have reported, “Ullamhdha”, Viking for ‘Nobody Home’. They named the island ‘Ullfur’, their word for ‘Wolf Island’ then came ashore and built Glackindaline Castle on Dun Ban, a small rock-ribbed island connected by a causeway to the northwest shore of Ulva.
If the Vikings cared to look, they could have found evidence of much earlier inhabitants. The standing stones of Ulva stood then where they stand today, the mute and mysterious legacy of a pre-Celtic, megalithic people who lived on Ulva around 1,500 BC and vanished before the Vikings arrived.
The people who set up the stones were, in fact, newcomers compared to the first inhabitants of Livingston’s Cave. Archeologists from Edinburgh University have been studying the floor of this large cave. A shell midden, flint artifacts and fragments of bone from lemming, Arctic fox and human infant indicate people lived here from as far back as 5,650BC.
Ulva’s Kelp Industry
Seaweed plays an important role in the history of Ulva. It was burned to produce kelp, a product in great demand in the early 19th Century for making glass and soap. Being a labour intensive process ( it took 20 tons of seaweed to produce 1 ton of kelp) Ulva’s population grew to meet the demands of cutting, carrying and burning enough seaweed for an average output of 23 tons of kelp per year. In 1785 Ulva was purchased by a pioneer of the kelp burning industry and his son, Staffa MacDonald ws reputed to have ‘trebled his income and doubled his population by careful attention to his kelp shores’.
In 1835 Francis William Clark bought Ulva. By 1837 the population had grown to 604 people living in sixteen villages whose ruins you can see today. There were shoemakers, square-wrights, boat carpenters, tailors, weavers, blacksmiths, dry-stone masons and two merchants. Clark’s high hopes for this thriving community were shattered when the kelp market collapsed and he was left with a great surplus of tenants. Then, the potato blight struck Ulva. Like so many other estates in the West of Scotland, it ceased to be a crofting estate and the sad era of the clearances followed.
Some of the crofters who were cleared went to other parts of Scotland, some to north America and Australia. The abandoned villages are sad to see but the saddest is the row of small, low houses which stand at Starvation Terrace on Ardglass point. Here were the last evicted crofters for whom no place could be found.