North Rona

Rona[6] (Scottish Gaelic: Rònaigh) is a remote Scottish island in the North Atlantic. Rona is often referred to as North Rona in order to distinguish it from South Rona (another small island, in the Inner Hebrides). It has an area of 109 hectares (270 acres) and a maximum elevation of 108 metres (354 ft).[2][4][lower-alpha 1] It is included within the county of Ross-shire (Ross and Cromarty).

Gaelic nameRònaigh
Pronunciation[ˈrˠɔːnaj] (listen)
Norse namehraun-øy?
Meaning of namepossibly "seal island"
Rona shown within Scotland
OS grid referenceHW811323
Coordinates59.12°N 5.82°W / 59.12; -5.82
Physical geography
Island groupNorth Atlantic
Area270 acres (109 hectares)
Area rank145[1]
Highest elevationTobha Rònaigh 354 ft (108 metres)[2]
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Council areaComhairle nan Eilean Siar
North Rona Lighthouse
North Rona
LocationOuter Hebrides, Outer Hebrides, United Kingdom
Coordinates59.121272°N 5.814784°W / 59.121272; -5.814784
Year first constructed1984
Constructionmasonry building
Tower shapeparallelepiped building with lantern on the roof
Markings / patternwhite building
Tower height13 metres (43 ft)
Focal height114 metres (374 ft)
Light sourcesolar power
CharacteristicFl (3) W 20s.
Admiralty numberA3869
NGA number3574
ARLHS numberSCO-153
Managing agentRona and Sula Sgeir National Nature Reserve[5]

The island lies 71 kilometres (44 mi) north-west of Cape Wrath, the same distance north north-east of the Butt of Lewis and 18 kilometres (11 mi) east of Sula Sgeir. More isolated than St Kilda, it is the most remote island in the British Isles to have ever been inhabited on a long-term basis. It is also the closest neighbour to the Faroe Islands. Because of the island's remote location and small area, it is omitted from many maps of the United Kingdom.


The name "Rona" may come from hraun-øy, Old Norse for "rough island", a combination of ròn and øy, Gaelic and Old Norse for "seal" and "island" respectively, or it may have been named after Saint Ronan.[4] The English language qualifier "North" is sometimes used to distinguish the island from Rona off Skye. In Gaelic it is also known as Rònaigh an Daimh which is literally "Rona of the stag" but may be derived from Rònaigh an Taibh, containing the Norse word tabh, meaning "ocean" and convey the meaning "Rona of the Atlantic".[8]


Rona is said to have been the residence of Saint Ronan in the eighth century. A tiny early Christian oratory which may be as early as this date, built of unmortared stone, survives virtually complete on the island – the best-preserved structure of this type in Scotland. A number of simple cross-slabs of early medieval date are preserved within the structure, probably the grave-markers of Dark Age monks or hermits from Scotland or Ireland. The island continued to be inhabited until the entire population of thirty died shortly after 1685 after an infestation by rats, probably the black rat (Rattus rattus), which reached the island after a shipwreck. The rats raided the food stocks of barley meal and it is possible the inhabitants starved to death, although plague may have been a contributory factor. This occurred in a year in which it is reported that no further ships reached the isolated island to supply or trade. The rats themselves eventually starved to death, the huge swells the island experiences preventing their hunting along the rocky shores.[9]

It was resettled, but again depopulated by around 1695 in some sort of boating tragedy, after which it remained home to a succession of shepherds and their families. It had a population of nine in 1764.[10]

"On one occasion ... a crew from Ness in Lewis had their boat wrecked in landing at Sula Sgeir in the month of June, and lived on the island for several weeks, sustaining themselves on the flesh of birds. Captain Oliver, who commanded the Revenue cruiser Prince of Wales, visited Sula Sgeir in the month of August to look for the lost boat. He found the wreck of it, also an oar on end with an old pair of canvas trousers on it, and over the remains of a fire a pot containing birds' flesh; but there being no trace of the men, it was thought they must have been picked up by a passing vessel. Nothing more was heard of them until the month of October following, when a Russian vessel on her homeward voyage met a Stornoway craft in the Orkneys, and informed the crew of the latter that they had taken the men off Sula Sgeir and landed them in Rona. Captain Oliver at once went to Rona, and found the crew consuming the last barrel of potatoes which the poor shepherd had. He took away the former, and left the latter sufficient provision for the winter."[11] Captain Benjamin Oliver commanded the above vessel from 1811 until 1847.[12]

"The last family which lived upon Rona was that of a shepherd named Donald M'Leod, otherwise the 'King of Rona,' who returned to Lewis in 1844."[13] Sir James Matheson, who bought Lewis in 1844, offered the island to the Government for use as a penal settlement. The offer was refused.

Although farmers from Lewis have continued to graze sheep on Rona ever since, the island has remained uninhabited, apart from one brief and tragic episode in 1884–85. In June 1884, two men from Lewis, Malcolm MacDonald and Murdo Mackay, having reportedly had a dispute with the minister of their local church, went to stay on Rona to look after the sheep. In August, boatmen who had called at the island reported that the men were well and in good spirits, and had refused offers to take them back to Lewis. In April 1885, the next people to visit Rona found the two men had died during the winter.

During World War I, the commander of German U-boat U-90, Walter Remy, stopped his submarine at North Rona during each of his wartime patrols, weather permitting, and sent crewmen onto the island to shoot sheep to obtain mutton for on-board consumption.[14]

The island was occupied temporarily in 1938–39 by author and conservationist Frank Fraser Darling with his wife Bobbie and their son Alasdair, while they studied the grey seals and the breeding seabirds.

North Rona, with Sula Sgeir, historically formed part of the Barvas estate on Lewis, but a community buy-out of the estate in 2016 did not include the two islands, which would apparently have increased the purchase price by £80,000.[15]

The island still boasts the Celtic ruins of St Ronan's Chapel. Together with Sula Sgeir, the island was formerly managed by Scottish Natural Heritage as a nature reserve, for its important grey seal and seabird colonies. These include the European storm-petrel and the larger Leach's storm-petrel, for which North Rona is an important breeding locality. It remains a protected area for nature and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area.

In "Island at the edge of the world", the poet Kathleen Jamie describes a visit to the island,[16] as well as in an essay in her collection Sightlines.

The island hosts an automatic light beacon, remotely monitored by the Northern Lighthouse Board.[2]

See also


  1. Boyd (1986) gives the height as 116 metres (381 feet) and the area as 120 acres (48.56 hectares).[7]


  1. Area and population ranks: there are c.300 islands over 20ha in extent and 93 permanently inhabited islands were listed in the 2011 census.
  2. Gittings 2012.
  3. General Register Office for Scotland (28 November 2003) Scotland's Census 2001 Occasional Paper No 10: Statistics for Inhabited Islands. Retrieved 26 February 2012.
  4. Haswell-Smith 2004, pp. 326-329.
  5. Rona (Toa Rona, Rònaigh, North Rona) The Lighthouse Directory. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved 16 May 2016
  6. "Rona/Rтnaidh". Ordnance Survey. Retrieved 19 October 2019.
  7. Boyd 1986, p. 119.
  8. Mac an Tàilleir 2003, p. 92.
  9. Fraser Darling & Boyd 1969, pp. 73–74.
  10. Walker, John, An economical history of the Hebrides and highlands of Scotland 1812, Vol I, page 23
  11. Swinburne 1883, p. 55.
  12. Stornoway Historical Society - Captain Benjamin Oliver
  13. Swinburne 1883, p. 63.
  14. Gleaves 1921, p. 219.
  15. David Kerr, Community buy £700,000 Western Isles estate, Press and Journal, 17 April 2016
  16. Island at the edge of the world
  17. Harvie-Brown, J. A. & Buckley, T. E. (1889), A Vertebrate Fauna of the Outer Hebrides. Pub. David Douiglas, Edinburgh. Facing P. XXXVI.

Modern sources

  • Nisbet, HC; Gailey, RA (1962). "A survey of the antiquities of North Rona" (PDF). Archaeological Journal. Royal Archaeological Institute. 117: 88–115. Retrieved 2 April 2016.
  • Robson, Michael (1991). Rona, the Distant Island. Acair. ISBN 9780861528233.
  • Robson, Michael (2006). A Sad Tale of the Sea: The Story of Malcolm MacDonald and Murdo MacKay on the Island of Rona. Isle of Lewis. ISBN 9780953401543.

Pre-1900 sources

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