The late 18th century marked the start of a period of great transition in Argyll and Bute. Much of its built landscape dates from this time.

The ‘planned settlement movement’ created new villages throughout Argyll around a surge of industry, while improving landlords worked to change the small scale arable farming into large sheep walks or simply more productive land. Tenants were variously cleared from the land, or given incentives to work with the land change.

Bute has a relatively settled farming history but Islay suffered some enforced clearance. As in most places it was patchy and sometimes ambiguous.

On Islay, the parish of Oa was cleared and is bitterly remembered, while in neighbouring Kildalton tenants were ‘encouraged’, but not forced, to move to the new settlement of Port Ellen, a town built around herring fishing by landlord Campbell of Shawcross.

Everywhere, there was widespread voluntary emigration of people fleeing over-crowding and famine, but there was also active migration. People gravitated to new opportunities offered by the industries of the central belt. Thousands emigrated overseas to the New World.

Some settlements survived intact but in decline into the 20th century. Many of these were abandoned under the disruption of the wars, but those that endured benefitted from new investment and mechanisation in the 1950’s. Such settlements went on to make up the farming landscape we see today. Virtually all modern farms have their roots in centuries of occupation.


Bute avoided the clearances felt elsewhere in Argyll, with farms remaining more or less intact during the 19th century and tenancies staying in families.

The names of Fisher, McKay, Gordon, McArthur and McFie linked to Balnakailly are still found on the island today. The island population was still rising steadily when the settlement was abandoned. There was emigration overseas and to the new industrial central belt, but that was more about attraction and opportunity than pressure on the island. Who knows why the people finally left Balnakailly? For all the political and social factors, sometimes it is just that there is no longer any reason to live there.


Loss, leaving, love and war are major themes in Highland culture, sometimes devastatingly sad, but often simply reflecting events. They run through the work of Islay bard Duncan Johnstone who lived for a time in a tiny cottage above Lagavulin.

‘Good at making songs’ as a young man, he won the Bardic crown at the 1929 National Mod, and published his music in 1939.

His work is very much alive: songs such as Sine Bhan are sung at home and in the diaspora communities. The Mod still holds a choir competition in his name, and in recent years Coisir Ghaidhlig Ile, the Islay Gaelic Choir, has opted to focus solely on Johnstone’s repertoire.


Audio links courtesy of Tobar an Dualchais.

Willie Mathieson sings of harvest above Rothesay Bay, recorded in 1952.

Image of old farming equipment

The Clearances in Oa in South Islay, and continuing land issues, 1969.

Image of door way to old crofting hut


The children from Apple Tree Nursery on Bute helped make this film about Balnakailly

Morag MacDougall on the importance of Duncan Johnstone, the Islay Bard.

Eleanor McNab talks about land change at Torradale.