Buildings deteriorate fast once they have been abandoned. It takes around 25 years for a roof to collapse, and sometimes roofs were deliberately removed to avoid paying tax on a dwelling, creating instant ruins.

Compared to the thousands of people who left Argyll in the 19th century, there are relatively few abandoned settlements to be seen. This is partly due to the types of buildings. Many were little more than huts, or were built of peat on top of stone foundations, while better stone houses provided valuable building material for new building projects.

Lumpy outlines of foundations are more common than standing ruins, and some dwellings survive only in stories.

The buildings themselves evolved over long periods of time, but as ruins they can seem static and historically adrift. A new inquisitiveness within local communities is beginning to unravel these timelines, both structurally and as centres of family life.


Balnakailly is one of over 200 deserted settlements rediscovered during surveys by the Buteshire Natural History Society in the 1980’s and 1990’s, recently revisited through RCAHMS and the Discover Bute Landscape Partnership Scheme.

Using plane tabling techniques, the surveys created a record of the standing ruins, while the timeline of the settlement emerged through documents and maps. For example: a mid 18th century estate map shows three buildings and an enclosure, while the 1st edition OS map of 1869 shows one roofed and three unroofed buildings plus enclosures just after it was abandoned. Every home is altered to meet the needs of the occupants, and there are 300 years of change to uncover at Balnakailly.


Community memory is sometimes the only record that exists for a site. The Field of Blood at Ballyneil near Ardbeg in Islay is named for a brutal story surrounding the collection of rent.

Real or imagined, the curse associated with the Field of Blood is linked in local legend to the ground remaining untilled, but the reality may have been that it was simply too stony for cultivation. The field bears no physical traces of its history but is one of the most powerfully imagined sites in Kildalton, demonstrating that stones, maps and records are not the whole story.

Furthermore, oral tradition can create connections between places. The Field of Blood was linked to MacArthur’s Head in the Sound of Islay as the story unfolded into escape and emigration.


Audio links courtesy of Tobar an Dualchais.


Legends surrounding place names on Islay, 1969.

Image of ruins


Ghosts, lost places and changelings on Islay, 1969.


Florrie MacAllister tells the story of the Field of Blood

Alex Mack tells the story of Balnakailly in a film made by Argyll College students