Devil’s Island, Robben Island, Asinara, Pianosa, Alcatraz – all prisons remote and with very little chance of escape... and little hope. But 150 years ago a small island in the Hebrides could have joined that list, its merit resting on the belief that it would “have all the terrors and none of the attractions of transportation to Australia”. Debbie Clarke looks at the case put in 1852 for turning North Rona into a penal colony on Stornoway’s doorstep.
The Western Isles has a colourful history and over the years one of its remote islands has been the home of shepherds, farmers, medieval monks and a saint.
But did you know that once upon a time, in the 19th century, North Rona was tipped to be the location for a new prison?
In 1852 Sir James Matheson MP, who bought the island in 1844, offered it as a gift to the Government to be used as a penal settlement.
In a newspaper article on April 16, 1852, his proposal was revealed, setting out the reasons why he believed North Rona would be the ideal place to keep 1000 convicts. This included the low costs involved.
It reported: “This island is situated in the Atlantic in lat 59 deg, 7 min. 15-48 sec., and lon. 5 deg, 48 min. 50-45 sec. west. It forms part of the Lewes property. It lies 38 miles NE of the butt of Lewes, forming a nearly equilateral triangle with it and Cape Wrath.
“Its highest point is 360 feet above the level of the sea. On a clear day Cape Wrath and the Lewes and Harris Hills can be seen without glasses.
“The island resembles a long necked decanter, with its neck towards the north. Its greatest length is nearly a mile and its greatest breadth the same.
“At its north end about half-a-mile of its length varies in breadth from 10 to 20 chains. Half of this portion is stratified rock, without a particle of vegetation. The eastern shore of this part slopes gently to the sea; the western, though rugged and broken is but 90 feet in height.
“The southern portion of the island is broader and more elevated, averaging three-quarters of a mile broad, and the two hills no less than 350 feet high. The seaward bases of these hills forms precipitous cliffs, inaccessible in many places. The rocks round Rona are few and small.
“Gouldig Beag and Gouldig Mohr are the only rocks, somewhat more than two chains from the shore. Another small rock, seen at low water, near the SW point, is dangerous to navigators anchoring in the neighbourhood. The soil of Rona is good and the pasture though not luxuriant, is beautifully green. Except about 50 acres, the whole island is arable, interspersed with a few small rocks. A small part of the south side had been cultivated, and produced excellent barley. It is now rented as a sheep farm. There are five or six ruinous huts upon it...
“There are neither rats nor mice, and but very few birds in the island. There is no peat moss, and not much seaweed. There is sufficient spring water on the south shore. Seals are numerous, but not easily killed and codfish are abundant. The tides rise from five to ten feet and the south wind prevails.
“The best landing places are Poul Houtham on the south, Skildiga on the west and Gevah Sthu on the east. So well sheltered is Gevah Sthu that three vessels anchored at its mouth six years ago and remained one night. But such a thing had not occurred before and has not been repeated since.
“The island contains 270 acres, three fourths of which are arable. Some years since it was inhabited by several families, who lived by fishing and on the produce of the soil but in attempting to land on a stormy day all the men were lost by the upsetting of their boat.”
The report suggested a few benefits to building a prison on North Rona:
“Should Government accept Sir James Matheson’s offer of this island as a convict prison and penal settlement, it will combine the advantages of Portland prison and a penal colony in New South Wales being near enough to be controlled by home authorities through Directors of Prisons for Scotland or through a separate board of commissioners; and from the small size of the island and its loneliness, it would have all the terrors and none of the attractions of transportation to Australia.
“The cost of maintaining a convict abroad is £40 a year. The cost of maintaining a convict in Rona would not exceed £15 a year and this on 1000 convicts for four years would save £100,000.”
It is suggested parts of the island could even be used if the climate and soil is ‘favourable’. The article continued: “The arable parts of Rona might be cultivated by the convicts as a garden farm. This would be a good training for such convicts as might afterwards emigrate and it would considerably diminish the expense of the establishment. All other kinds of labour, usual in prisons, could, of course, be done at Rona. As a prison made of galvanised iron may easily be removed from one place to another, a great difficulty is obviated as regards the expense of buildings, which, after serving their purpose in one locality, became useless, as now the transfer from one locality to another is provided for.”
However, Sir Matheson’s offer was declined and the proposal was shelved.
So North Rona never did become a home penal colony and apart from farmers from Lewis who continued to graze sheep on Rona since then, the island has more or less remained uninhabited.
Looking back at its history, the very first resident on the island appears to have been Saint Ronan in the eighth century. Today you can see the ruins of a small abandoned chapel which is reputed to have been built in his name. A couple of centuries later, the island was home to a number of monks, and what is thought to be their stone-marked graves are still visibale today.
It then went on to be occupied through the years until 1685 when the entire population of 30 died after an infestation by rats, which reached the island after a shipwreck. The rats reportedly raided the food stocks of barley meal and it is possible the inhabitants starved to death, although plague may have also played a role.
This occurred in a year in which it is reported that no further ships reached the isolated island to supply or trade. The rats themselves eventually starved to death with the huge swells the island experiences preventing them from hunting along the shores.
It was resettled, but again depopulated by around 1695 following a boating tragedy, after which it remained home to a succession of shepherds and their families. It was recorded that the island had a population of nine in 1764.
There are reports of a crew from Ness in Lewis who had their boat wrecked and lived on the nearby island of Sula Sgeir for several weeks, surviving on the flesh of birds.
Captain Oliver visited Sula Sgeir to look for the lost boat but could find no trace of the men. Nothing more was heard about them until two months later when a Russian vessel met a Stornoway craft in the Orkneys and was informed the men had been taken from Sula Sgeir and taken to Rona.
Captain Oliver at once went to Rona and found the crew eating their last barrel of potatoes.
According to reports the last person who stayed on Rona was a shepherd named Donald M’Leod.
Since then the island has remained unpopulated with the exception of a very brief and tragic period in 1884-85. In June 1884, two men from Lewis, Malcolm MacDonald and Murdo Mackay, having reportedly had a dispute with the minister of their local church, went to live on Rona to look after the sheep. In August, boatmen who had called at the island found the men to be well. However, in April 1885, the next people to visit Rona made a grim discovery: the bodies of the two men from Lewis, who, a post-mortem subsequently showed, had fallen ill and died during the winter.
Today North Rona is owned by Scottish Natural Heritage, and managed as a nature reserve, for its important grey seal and seabird colonies.