06 February 2016

Inch Kenneth (Island) in the Scottish Hebrides

The island of Inch Kenneth lies a short distance off the west coast of Mull, not far from Ulva. Note Mull, Arran, Kintyre, Jura and Islay on the map.

Inch Kenneth is has typical Hebridean setting complete with sea cliffs, but its fertile soil promotes flower-rich grassland. Less than 2 ks in length and 1 k at its widest, the island provides easy walking surr­ounded by some wonderful scenery on the Isle of Mull.

The island might be tiny, but it has had four events in history of note.

Firstly the arrival of Christianity. The island was named after Saint Kenneth (c525-600) who was Irish abbot & miss­ion­ary. A contemporary of Columba, the two men started converting the Picts together. Pictish king Brude Mac Maelchon was one of Saint Kenneth’s success stories; he and his kingdom were converted to Christianity, either voluntarily or otherwise. Kenneth was one of the most popular Celtic saints and he clearly loved Scotland, but I am not sure why he chose a minutely small northern island to found monastery on.

warrior chief Hector McLean’s grave stone
 Chapel ruins

Secondly the medieval era. What evidence has been found on the island noting a specific Viking presence? Not much! A Scandinavian silver hoard dating to the late 10th or early 11th centuries was recovered from Inch Kenneth. And one interesting gravestone with a weathered slate depiction of a Viking Longship.

However visitors can easily find the ruins of a C12th chapel on the island with its double lancet window on the east wall. Historic Scotland maintains the medieval chapel and the land around it. Clan MacLean owned Islay, much of Mull and many of the smaller is­lands. Most stones found around the chapel commemorate Clan MacLean, but it was said that Kings of Scotland were buried here if storms prevent­ed passage to their alternative resting place, Iona.

The C14th-16th stones are carved with var­ious intricate animals, plant scrolls, ring knots, galleys and swords. Beside the church within the graveyard grounds is the warrior chief Hector McLean’s grave stone. The sandstone slab showed an armed man in high relief, his head rested on a cushion and his feet against an animal. In his right hand he held a round ball, on his left arm a raised shield showed a coat of arms. He also carried a sword and a dirk.

Thirdly the island was visited in Oct 1773 by Samuel Johnson and James Boswell during their tour of the Hebrides; they were entertained there by Sir Allan MacLean, head of the Maclean clan, for two days and two nights. Both Johnson and Boswell loved their visit.

Johnson wrote in The Works of Samuel Johnson Vol 12: We all walked together to the mansion, where we found one cottage for Sir Allan, and two more for the domesticks and the offices. We entered, and wanted little that palaces afford. Our room was neatly floored, and well lighted; and our dinner, which was dressed in one of the other huts, was plentiful and delicate. Its only inhabitants were Sir Allan Maclean and two young ladies, his daughters, with their servants. The anchorage seems quite far out from the shore but is pretty good, even I should imagine in rough weather”.

Boswell wrote in  Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides: Being informed that there was nothing worthy of observation in Ulva, we took boat, and proceeded to Inchkenneth, where we were introduced by our friend Col to Sir Allan M'Lean, the chief of his clan, and to two young ladies, his daughters. Inchkenneth is a pretty little island, a mile long, and about half a mile broad, all good land. As we walked up from the shore, Dr Johnson's heart was cheered by the sight of a road marked with cart-wheels, as on the main land; a thing which we had not seen for a long time. It gave us a pleasure similar to that which a traveller feels, when, whilst wandering on what he fears is a desert island, he perceives the print of human feet.

Fourthly the modern era. Baron Harold Boulton had owned the island, living in a tall cream manor house originally built in the 1830s and modernised by him in the 1930s. Then the island was bought by David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale. The entire Mitford family loved holid­aying on Inch Ken­neth, living in the only house on the island.
Manor house, built in the 1830s
Bought and renovated by Baron Harold Boulton
Then bought by Baron Redesdale and the Mitford clan.

One of six Mitford sisters, Unity Mitford (1914-48) was a staunch supp­orter of the Fascist movement and an intimate of Adolf Hitler. When her sister Diana Mitford and Sir Oswald Mosley married in Goebbels’s drawing room in October 1936, Unity and Hitler were there to celebrate. But after five years in Hitler's inner circle, Unity’s love for the Fuhrer fell apart. In 1939 Hitler warned Unity and Diana that war with Britain was inevitable and imminent, and they should return to the UK. On the day war was declared, Unity shot herself in the head in Munich. She survived, returned to Britain and spent her last years on Inch Kenneth.

Unity used to hang the Nazi swastika from the flagpole in the hall; she was so passionate in her belief in the Nazi cause that her bedroom in the island house was covered in pictures of Hitler. Clearly brain damaged, she spent those nine years planning her own funeral. She died from meningitis in 1948 in nearby Oban.

When their mother Lady Redesdale died in 1963, the island was inherited by the surviving Mitford sisters. The Mitfords sold it in 1967 to Yvonne Barlow, an artist. If people want to visit now, Mull Charters conduct regular charter boat trips to Inch Kenneth from Easter to October. The piano is still there, along with Unity’s gramophone and the recordings of German marching songs with swastikas on the covers. The Mitford’s dining table and the four-poster beds are in place, as is the collection of books published by the Nazis.

Inch Kenneth marked in black off Mull.
Note Mull, Arran, Kintyre, Jura and Islay on the map.

This little spot in the Scottish Hebrides is still population-free, fertile, scenic and serene.


Andrew said...

Having read rather a lot by and about the Mitfords, the island received little mention and I did not even know that was where Unity went to live. Being on the west coast, I suppose the weather would be better than generally in the rest of Scotland.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, A fascinating little island, which packs in a lot of history, atmosphere and scenery. I guess the remoteness was part of the attraction to found the monastery there, yet I wonder whether at that time Inch Kenneth was considered more sequestered than the surrounding area in general. My interest somewhat declined when reading about the tenure of the Mitfords--I don't think I'd go out of my way to visit a shrine to those awful people.

Deb said...

We went on an amazing Royal Scotsman train tour and sampled lots of whiskey. Good times! But I have never heard of Inch Kenneth.

Hels said...


I am guessing that by the time Unity returned from Germany with a bullet in her head because Hitler wouldn't marry her, the rest of the Mitford family did not want to tell the world what was happening. Inch Kenneth had two great advantages. Firstly the Mitfords owned the island and already had everything there that they needed to make Unity's last years comfortable. Secondly Inch Kenneth was so remote and isolated, no-one in Britain would ever have gossiped or pried.

But the family would have been embarrassed by Unity's suicide attempt, not by her passion for Fascism. Her father Baron Redesdale, brother Tom and sister Diana Mosley seem to have been as committed to Fascism as Unity was.

Hels said...


A lot of money was spent building the new monastery since the Church had to import all builders, craftsmen and materials to the isolated coast of Mull. So we have to ask why choose to spend all that money on Inch Kenneth? The three possible motives that occur to me are:
1. To put the monks in an area where they could concentrate on their spiritual pursuits and avoid women or any other distraction - probable
2. To convert the local citizens to Christianity - improbable as there were no locals there.
3. To be so isolated, potential invaders would never find them - that wasn't ever going to be a successful strategy.

Hels said...


I have been on one of the Royal Scotsman train tours myself and also loved the royal connections, whiskey tasting and the stately homes. But not all of their trips go to the north-west coast and even then you only visit Kyle of Lochalsh and Plockton, not the islands.

Oh but that luxury travel.. and food *sighs happily*

Parnassus said...

Hi again, I have recently been reading some Gothic novels, and apparently another important reason for remote locations of monasteries was to provide future evil monks and abbesses a locale for their fell designs. (The Abbess in Ann Radcliffe's The Italian makes Mrs. Danvers look friendly by comparison.) In mainland Europe the main criterion other than remoteness seems to be lots of precipices, rendering escape unlikely.

Hels said...


hmmm... I think I am going to have to take your reading in hand :)

Discover Britain said...

Head towards Fort William on Scotland's west coast. From there, you can visit Ben Nevis Whisky Distillery. Hug the coastal road south until you reach Oban Distillery in the centre of town, with its rich aromas of honey, heather and smoke. A short walk from the distillery is the ferry port, if you wish to do some island-hopping. From Oban you can take a ferry to Mull, home to Tobermory Distillery. Our tour finishes in a world-famous destination for whisky fans: Islay.

Discover Britain
Feb/March 2016

Hels said...

Island hopping, whisky tasting and luxury train travel - perfect :)