A synopsis of the history, people and geology of Mull from 6500BC to the present day
Mull, much like many parts of the highlands, is made up of some truly ancient rocks. At one time, the hills which can be easily climbed today, would have been as big as the Swiss Alps or Himalayas. But the passage of time has eroded them to become the relative minnows we see today. The geology of the islands has been dynamic however. Fifty million years ago Mull was covered in lava flows. Today you can see some amazing examples of geology at work, such as Fingal’s cave on Staffa Island, the preserved outline of a fossil tree and stump (mostly gone) on the Burg and the packed beds of fossils on the beach at Carsaig.
People arrived on Mull pretty much as soon as last Ice Age ended; possibly as far back as as 6,500 to 3,500BC. At that time there was no farming and it would have been hunter-gathering for survival, living in natural formations such as Livingston’s cave on Ulva. But there’s evidence that farming got started in Neolithic times, around 2500 to 600 BC.
It’s now believed that Bronze Age people survived on Mull, with examples of burial cairns, cists, standing stones, stone circles, pottery and knife blades providing compelling evidence. By 600 BC to 400 AD Iron Age inhabitants were building protective forts, brochs, duns, and crannogs. The early Christian period began in the 5th Century, with 563AD being a pivotal point as it’s believed that Christianity was returned to mainland Britain by St Columba when he arrived from Ireland to set up a monastery on the Island of Iona..
A few hundred year later and a new threat arrived in the form of the Vikings. Iona was first attacked around 795AD, with raids continuing for hundreds of years. Vikings eventually swapped raids for settlements becoming part of the fabric of human activity. By the time of the Middle Ages castle construction was in full flow with Duart and Moy good examples. The island’s clans also became identifiable at this time. The names most closely associated with Mull and it’s islands are the Maclean’s, MacLaine’s, MacKinnon’s, Macquarie’s and the MacDonald’s. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, clan chiefs and other lairds enjoyed relative prosperity, whilst the majority of clan members lived in cramped little cottages in small communities.
Towards the end of this period the Highland Clearances began to affect many parts of Scotland, Mull included. Today some of these former communities still leave evidence by way of ruined settlements, where locals were forced from the land to make way for more profitable sheep farming.
According to available records, by 1831 Mull’s population was at a high of 10,638. However, the Potato Famine which also affected poor itinerant peoples in the Scottish islands, and then the clearing of the land for sheep, quickly culled these numbers. By the start of the modern age a big chunk of the population had left for better times in North America and New Zealand. At this time more sheep than people roamed on Mull’s hills and valleys.
Today’s Mull is much less populous than times past. Current estimates suggest a permanent local population of just 3,000 people. Much of the local industry is now concentrated around forests, fish and farms. Mull was an early participant in the development of aquaculture with large artificially maintained mussel and salmon farms. But tourism is now responsible for a big slice of the island’s economic well-being and, with changing patterns in travel, looks like it may do so for many years to come.
Many of today’s local population can still claim direct lineage to the island’s historical clans. However, the make-up of peoples is much more dynamic today, with many new names arriving from all over the UK to settle on Mull.