Location: Barra, Mingulay and St Kilda
fishing, travel by sea, distilling, shipwrecks

Tragedy on the island of Pabbay

Pabbay (south of Barra) is the third most southerly island in the Outer Hebrides.

It was abandoned in 1911 when its population moved north to Barra. It had a population of under 20 at the time. This was thought to be around the number of people that the island could support and early records from the 1700s show a similar population figure.

Like it’s neighbouring islands to the south, Mingulay and Berneray, it was very much a subsistence existence that the people here lived. However, by the early 1900s it was no longer viable to live on any of the three islands and they were all abandoned and given over to sheep farming. Unlike its neighbours, Pabbay does not have large seabird colonies on its cliffs and so wouldn’t have that resource for food and commerce. The population would therefore have been more dependent on agricultural and fishing activities. One of the ways they reputedly supplemented the island’s income was from the produce of an illegal distillery.

Perhaps one of the most surprising things about the community on Pabbay was just how long they managed to continue living on the island. The survival of any small community must then have been hugely dependent on the number of able-bodied men within the population. Thirteen years before the final abandonment there was a terrible tragedy which claimed the lives of four of the Pabbay menfolk.

In May of 1888, a fishing boat, the ‘Lizzie’, belonging to Pabbay and crewed by brothers Ranald and Alexander Morrison, Donald MacNeil, Ronald Campbell (all from Pabbay) and John Gillies (from Barra, brother-in-law to Alexander Morrison) was caught in a storm about 8km south of Barra Head. It had been fishing alongside a boat from Mingulay when a south westerly gale developed. Both boats made for home, but while the Mingulay boat survived the storm the ‘Lizzie’ was never seen again.

The devastating effect that this loss must have had on the community is unimaginable. The fact that it was another thirteen years before they finally left the island shows just how resilient the islanders must have been.

Pabbay (Norse for Priest’s island) Size 2.5km x 1.8km. Area 250ha. Population in 1900 was approximately 20.

Contributed by Jonathan Grant, NTS ranger for Mingulay, Pabbay and Berneray The big house pictured belonged to the Morrison family. The other dwelling to the front and left were later altered for use as sheep fanks.

More information on visiting the area can be found here.