... Ulva dark and Colonsay,
And all the group of islet gay
That guard famed Staffa round.
- Sir Walter Scott, The Lord of the Isles, canto iv, verse x
From the vast Australian continent to a small island off the western coast of Scotland is the measure of the contrast to be found in the story of Clan MacQuarrie, as it is usually known in Scotland, or Macquarie, as they usually spell it 'down under' after the fashion adopted by its greatest clansman.1 For although it spread far and wide, and reached its zenith with the 'Father of Australia', the clan began in that cluster of isles to the west of Mull, the little kingdom which Scott's lines serve well enough to delimit. Ulva itself, about five miles long and extending to nearly 5000 acres, rises in terraces to just over 1000 feet, with basaltic colonnades and other impressive rock formations along the southern coast; MacQuarrie's (or Little) Colonsay, about 200 acres, is about a mile off its southwest shore, with Staffa of the cliffs and caves about three miles beyond. Part of Mull, chiefly the farm of Laggan or Lagganulva, was included in the MacQuarrie territory from the first, and Ulva's neighbour Gometra was sometimes held by one of the clan.
The Norsemen ruled the Hebrides until the 13th century, and a man sent to spy out Ulva for his Viking chief is said to have found the island ready for him (ullamh dha), "there being no man thereon to contest it with him".2 The MacQuarries may have acquired Ulva at the Norsemen's expense, for their pedigree goes back to the late 12th or 13th century, the time when Norse rule in the Hebrides was being eroded by the Scots. The name at any rate appears to be Norse, Ulf eyr in that language signifying 'island of wolves'.3
This small community set amidst powerful neighbours was led by a family old enough to have a right of burial among the chiefs in Iona. The great man of Mull was MacLean, who followed the Lord of the Isles in war and peace, and had the keeping of the great castles of Cairn na Burgh More and Cairn na Burgh Beg in the Treshish Isles, with Gometra as part of his fee.4 The evidence suggests that MacQuarrie held his lands direct from the island prince, without any intermediate superior, and that MacLean and later the officials of the Scottish crown did not quarrel with that view.
From the roadstead at Ulva, mentioned in the 16th century as "gude for heiland galeis", the MacQuarries sailed forth to support their island lord and those who came after him. The chiefs home was at the eastern - more sheltered and fertile - end of Ulva, nearest to Mull at Ardnacaillich, where there is a good anchorage in the sound at a depth of seven fathoms.5
The earliest inhabitants may have used the old sea cave on the southeast slope of A'Chrannag, and the remains of a fort occupy the summit of a knoll not much further along the coast.6 Two standing stones at Cragaig, and a single stone now lying near Ulva House, are remains of an earlier age, remains of a kind in which the neighbouring Isle of Mull is also particularly rich.7
An estate road leads up from the low-lying eastern end of the island and continues along the north shore as far as Gometra. Soon after this emerges into the open from a wooded glen, a pathway or track strikes off to the left, and the sure-footed and energetic can begin a clockwise circuit of the island. Before long, from the higher slopes above the sea, on a sunny day a glorious view opens up of a shining ring of islands beyond the offshore rocks, of green Inchkenneth below the Gribun cliffs of Mull, and from Little Colonsay to Iona, Staffa of the cliffs and caves, and round to the Treshnish Isles. Below, the viewpoint, a castle-shaped rock near the shore marks the valley where David Livingstone's grandfather once lived - "the walls of the house remain, and the corn and potato patches are green, but no one lives there", he wrote in 1864;8 more recently, an exhausting search in head-high bracken was needed to locate the ruins.
From a knoll in Ormaig the remains of twelve houses can be counted. One, larger than the rest, with the gables still standing, is a reminder that this part of the island was at one time the home of the senior of the cadet branches of the MacQuarries. Here too lived a MacArthur family who provided the MacDonald laird with a piper, having learned the art from MacCrimmon himself.9
The ruins of a water-mill stand at the head of a narrow creek, then comes a succession of deserted townships. At Cragaig in the 1930s still lived a lobster fisherman who had been for forty years on Little Colonsay; though the sole inhabitant of Ulva's southern coast, he was not lonely, and did not pretend to pity those who had once lived here and tilled the scanty patches of old cultivation which he pointed out on the slopes and terraces behind his cottage.
Behind Cragaig the old track climbs along the hillside below frowning cliffs, and on a moorland terrace above the sea lies the site of the church and burying-ground of Cill mhic Eoghain or Kilvickewan. There are several MacQuarrie stones among the dozen or so inscriptions which are still legible.10 A whale cast ashore at Kilvickewan in 1722 provided a great haul of spermaceti, and nine MacQuarrie and 17 others from all parts of Ulva were hauled before the Admiralty court at Inveraray to answer for its theft.11
In the bleakest situation of any of the old-time habitations of Ulva is Eolasary, where a single tenant paid a rent of £60 in 1840. One of the last occupants moved to Gometra, and a descendant from Iowa, USA, landed there in a helicopter in the summer of 1971 to inquire about his ancestors.12 The township lay below great broken cliffs and among a mass of fallen boulders, from which the track strikes up the slope and through a narrow gully before dropping down to the shore at Glacgallon, beside the channel known as Am Bru which separates Ulva from Gometra.
Just north of the bridge across the channel stands Dun Ban, like a Bass Rock in miniature, connected to the Ulva shore at low tide by a causeway. On its summit, reached through a narrow gully, dry-stone wall footings and two entrance gaps can still be traced among the turf.13 One might assume that this had at one time been a MacQuarrie stronghold, but MacLean tradition points to it having been a stronghold of the family which held the lands of Treshnish and part of Gometra as hereditary captains of the garrison of the castle of Caimburgh in the Treshnish Isles; the Lord of the Isles, and MacLean of Duart under him, were constables here for the king of Scots in the 14th century.14 In a small bay below Dun Ban are two boat-noosts or shelters, a reminder that in such a place sea communication was all-important.
From this point the road now leads back along the north side of the island along the shore of Loch Tuath, the 'North Loch' of Ulva (tuath = north, in Gaelic), facing the part of Mull once known as Leitir Baile Neil or Lehire Torloisk.15 The first settlement met with here is Baligortan or Ballighartan, which gave its name to another MacQuarrie family, consisting of two groups of houses at either end of a promontory just north of Dun Ban. Between here and Bearnis - the last place to be inhabited on the north shore of Ulva - runs the burn Allt Una, a name known among the MacQuarries of Ulva, but here perhaps named after the wife of Robert Lamont a Baligortan merchant robbed and murdered on a Clyde steamer in 1828.16 (A song 'Una of Ulva', about another of the name, was printed in Albyn's Anthology by Alexander Campbell in 1818, and later David Macbeath Moir wrote a poem called 'The Maid of Ulva'.)17
Next the road passes between two groups of houses, all that is left of the township of Soriby, which had the advantage of good holding ground in Soriby Bay, the only safe anchorage in Loch Tuath in all winds.18 Culinish, now a few ruins on the edge of some level ground, gave a designation to the last chief's tutor, Alan MacQuarrie. As one comes back in sight of the eastern end of Ulva, down near the shore can be seen 'Starvation Terrace', a grim row of cottages on Ardglass Point built like a village street; these are reputed to have been the homes of crofters doomed to emigration, at the time when the island was stripped within four years of 350 of its people.19
Where did they come from, and where did they go? The story of this book will tell how the MacQuarries emerged from the dark days of the end of Norse rule in the Western Isles, to occupy a position of honour within the Lordship of the Isles, and to suffer the fate of distress, dispersal and obscurity; but also it will tell how members of the clan were numbered among the pioneers in new lands across the seas, and how a new lustre was shed on the surname when the clan's most famous son became the 'Father of Australia'; finally it will describe the modern revival of interest in the name and family, until the day in the summer of 1985 when some groups of returning MacQuarries and their families came back to visit the island which they cherished as the home of their ancestors.
Notes and references - Chapter 1, The Isle of Ulva
1. This chap. adapted from 'Clan MacQuarrie', in Scotland's Magazine, Dec 1971, 39-44.
2. G.Henderson, Norse Influence on Celtic Scotland (1910), 178.
3. Wolves abounded in Ulva up to the 17th century, according to the story given to Sir John Carr in 1807 by John Macquarrie, then aged nearly 90, speaking of his grandfather's time, to explain why so many stones were placed on the graves at Cille mhic Eoghain; Carr, Caledonian Sketches (1809), 293.
4. See note 14 below.
5. D. Monro, Western Isles of Scotland, 1549, ed R.W. Munro (1961), 64; West Coast of Scotland Pilot (1934 edn), 174-5.
6. RCAHMS, Argyll Inventory, iii 85.
7. Ibid., 66, 72.
8. W.G.Blaike, Personal Life of David Livingstone (1880), 342; see chap. 3.
9. For MacArthur pipers see chapter 4.
10. A list of these inscriptions by RWM has been lodged with the Scottish genealogy Society, which has collected & published many volumes of MIs.
11. From Admiralty Court records in D.C.Mactavish, Inveraray Papers (1939), 23-4.
12. Scotland's Magazine (Dec 1971), 43
13. RCAHMS, Argyll Inventory, iii 202.
14. Ibid.; RMS, ii, no 2264; Acts of the Lords of the Isles, ed. J.&R.W.Munro, (SHS, 1986), no 12(orp 16);
15. Exchequer Rolls, xiii 215-6; Acts of Lords of the Isles, 193; Gaelic leitir = slope, side of a hill. According to Senachie, Clan Maclean, 296, Neil Maclean of Lehire was murdered in his house at Torloisk by Ailean nan Sop; see chapter 2.
16. H.McKechnie, The Lamont Clan (1938), 356.
17. Information from John Macgillivray, Gribun, (see chap. 6, note 7); the burn (or stream) Allt Una is not shown on any map known to me. A.Campbell, Albyn's Anthology (1818), D.M.Moir ('Delta'), Poetical Works, ed T.Aird (1852), ii 109-10.
18. West Coast Pilot (1934), 276.
19. See chapter 6 below. For meaning of Ulva place names, see Appendix I below.
The Isle of Ulva (center) from top of Ben More