The tiny island of Coll - 13 miles long by up to 4 miles wide - is prized as a totally unspoilt, tranquil place for a holiday. However, the island has not always been so peaceful. The history of the highlands and islands is peppered with accounts of clan warfare, mostly involving one clan pitted against another, but on Coll a particularly bloodthirsty battle took place in 1590 between two branches of the same clan when the MacLeans from Duart invaded Coll in a bid to take possession of the island from the Coll branch of the MacLeans. The battle took place at Breachacha Castle (a private home and therefore not open to the public), where there is a stream which is still know as the "stream of the heads", a gruesome reminder of the fate of the Duart MacLeans whose cousins decapitated them and threw their heads in the stream. There are actually two Breachacha Castles on Coll: the old 14th century castle where the battle took place, and a newer 18th century residence nearby. Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell visited the newer castle during their tour of the Hebrides in 1773, at a time when it was the family seat of the Laird of Coll. In his account* of the visit, Boswell was quite charitable about the castle, describing it as "a neat new-built gentleman's house". However, Johnson's take on the castle was somewhat different, as he remarked to Boswell that "there was nothing becoming a chief about it: it was a mere tradesman's box".
Coll has been inhabited since mesolithic times. Prior to the MacLeans taking over, the island was ruled by Vikings. Legend has it that there was a fortress on a crannog, or artificial island, called Dun Amhlaidh which was held by a Norse chieftain. The chieftain was defeated in battle by the MacLeans. The current population is around 200, but it peaked at 1,500 before the Highland Clearances, which resulted in the dispersal of islanders to countries such as Canada. For visitors to the island there is little to do other than walking and wildlife watching. There is an RSPB reserve in the west part of the island whose inhabitants include the rare and elusive corncrake, along with lapwings, redshanks, barnacle geese and white-fronted geese.
* Journal Of A Tour To The Hebrides, by James Boswell, first published in 1785.
Map of the island.
The Breachacha Castles © 2008 Gordon Brown, via Wikimedia Commons
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