The origins of the island’s initial colonisation are still obscure. The most common and basic version relates how two fishermen lost in fog, landed on an enchanted island and lita fire. The flames broke the spell and the mist lifted to reveal an old woman driving a white cow along a shingle beach, which ran between a lake and the sea. She was observed to strike the cow, whereupon it turned to stone. Another tradition has that the old women and the cow emerge from the lake every seven years or alternatively to forewarn of some impending disaster. The lake in question is Loch Bo Finne (Lake of the White Cow) in West Quarter village.
Whatever the truth of the legend, it is clear that the islands have drawn fishermen, farmers, monks, soldiers and adventurers for over 6,000 years. The population has fluctuated widely over the millennia surging to a peak of sixteen hundred people prior to the great famine in the mid-nineteenth century. It has fallen steadily ever since. In 1991 there was a slight increase again to the present figure of 212 persons.
It is not yet clear when settlement on these islands commenced. In contrast to the Connemara mainland the island has yet to produce diagnostic evidence of a Mesolithic presence and until now displayed only circumstancial evidence for a significant Neolithic presence. There is a marked absence of typical Neolithic and Bronze Age ritual and burial monuments, such as megalithic tombs, stone alignments or standing stones. It would appear that the social, economic and religious conditions may have been different from those pertaining on the adjacent mainland where these monuments were abundant.
These islands possess an abundance of natural resources, large fish stocks, fertile soils, a plentiful supply of fresh water and a superb and easily defended mile long harbour. In addition substantial deposits of valuable soapstone or steatite are present. In times past this would have been a invaluable non-food resource for trade and exchange. This malleable, easily worked rock was a highly prized substance and is commonly found in Early Christian and Viking age sites. An old soapstone quarry is still pointed out on the shore in West Quarter and until recently island fishermen used soapstone to make weights for their nets.
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