Saturday, August 18, 2012

Solam: legend of a plague village

In many parts of Islay there are the ruins of villages and homesteads, reminders of a time when the population was higher and more evenly spread across the island.  These buildings were abandoned for various reasons - evictions/clearances, migration, changes in farming and the drift of people towards the larger coastal villages.

But there is one deserted village that has a more intriguing story attached to it. In the hills north of Ardbeg, on the Callumkill Estate, lie the remains of Solam (sometimes spelt Solum or Solaum in official records). It is widely believed that it was abandoned as a result of an outbreak of the plague. The story is summarised on a plaque placed nearby: ‘Solam – in the glen about 500m to the southwest of this building lie the remains of a small crofting community that was wiped out by the plague in the 18th century. Local tradition has it that shipwrecked sailors may have brought the disease; in return for the kindness shown to them by the people of this small community, one left behind a mother-of-pearl necklace, which is thought to have harboured the germs that killed them all. The sick villagers were isolated, and neighbours brought food daily, leaving it a safe distance from the village. When the food was no longer eaten, the village was burned. Outlines of one or two buildings can be traced in the grassy slopes on the north side of the glen. Directly opposite, below a steep rock face, lies the village water supply, St Michael’s Well’.

photo by Becky Williamson at Geograph

I’ll come back to the Well at this site another time, but what of the ‘Plague Village’? The only written source I am aware of is the booklet 'Tales of Islay: fact and folklore' by Peggy Earl (Argyll Reproductions, 1980): 'In the late 18th century, high up in the hills in the Kildalton area of islay, was to be found a small community called Solum. It was here a plague broke out. A foreign ship of some kind had gone on the rocks near Ardbeg, and the women showed a great deal of kindness to the shipwrecked sailors and helped them all they could. Wishing to show their appreciation the mariners gave the women small presents. One lady was given a necklace of Mother-of-Pearl which evidently harboured the germs that caused the plague. Solum was burned to kill the germs, but after some time was rebuilt and the plague broke out again, but this time was kept in check".

Interestingly Earl makes no mention of Solum being wiped out, nor does she state that she believes that the story is factually correct. Her aim in that booklet is to record some of the stories people in Islay have told about the past, and versions of that story do seem to have been in circulation independently of her booklet. Over at Old Islay, Duncan MacNeill mentions 'It was Willie Campbell the then head maltman in Lagavulin who told me this story in the late sixties'.

But is this story true? Let’s consider a few issues.

Are the ruins of Solam we see now the leftovers of a place abandoned in the 18th century and not lived in since?

No. Official records show that families were living at Solam throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and indeed it may have been finally abandoned only a hundred years ago or so. 

For instance the Parochial Registers of Baptisms for Argyll for 1723-1762 and 1789-1819 both include children from Solam:

Father’s name            Children’s names (year of baptism)
Gilbert McArthour        Alexander (1725)
Donald Johnston Isobell (1725)
John McNabb Archibald (1725),  Patrick (1729), Alexander (1731)
William Calbreath Katherine (1733)
Donald Campbell Mary (1734), Charles (1736), Ann (1738)
Dougald McIntagart Jannet (1792)
Alex MacIntagart Cathrine (1803)
John MacFadean Mary (1807), Dun (1808), Finlay (1811), Nancy (1813)
Coll MacDougall           John (1810)

It is possible that there might have been a bit of a gap in occupation at Solam in the mid-19th century - there doesn't seem to have been anybody recorded there in the 1841 and 1851 Census, but there were people there again by the 1860s.

The last family I have found living there was the McKinnons. Lachlan and Jessie McKinnon had both come to Islay from the Argyll mainland, from Kilmore and Morvern respectively. The death register records the sad loss of their children John (aged 3) and Lachlan junior (aged 7) in Solam in the Winter of 1874/75. Both children died from Scarlatina (Scarlet Fever), a reminder of the precariousness of life before penicillin and the National Health Service, but sadly not that unusual at that time. Over that Winter at least ten children died from the disease on Islay.

In any event the scarlet fever was not the plague, and did not lead to the abandonment of Solam. At the time of the 1881 Census, Lachlan and Jessie McKinnon were still there, with their surviving and new children Jessie (aged 12), Peter (8), Maggie (6) and Archibald (4). Twenty years later in the 1901 Census Lachlan, now 60 and listed as a Shepherd, was still in Solam now seemingly now with just his wife. Were they the last people to live in Solam?

photo by Becky Williamson at Geograph
Was there an outbreak of plague in Islay in the 18th century?

Almost certainly not. The last major outbreak of bubonic plague in Scotland was in the 1640s. There were epidemics of other diseases that caused many deaths in Scotland before and after that, including smallpox epidemics (1823-31) and a typhus fever epidemic (1836-40) [George C. Kohn, 2010, Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Times to the Present], but as we have already seen there is no evidence of Solam being wiped out in that period. 

Does that mean the story is simply untrue?

It appears not to be true that the village was wiped out as late as the 18th century, nor is it true that the ruins have been empty since that time (though Peggy Earl doesn't say they were, some visitors to the site seem to think so and the plaque implies it).

But that doesn't mean there's nothing in the story.  Islay was no doubt devastated by plagues at various times in its history. It is possible that the legend as it has been passed down relates to something similar that happened in that area at an earlier time beyond the historical record. Perhaps there was an outbreak of the plague or some other infectious disease at Solam which led to the community isolating themselves, perhaps too it was believed to have been caused by contact with a visiting ship.

As the story was handed down, various elements might have been added to the story. Peggy Earl’s version includes elements that are reminiscent of fairy tales – the stranger on the shore, the gift that becomes a curse... There are also elements in versions of this story that recall similar stories from other places. For instance the story of the food being left on a stone outside the plague village is also told about Eyam in Derbyshire in the 17th century (though that story seems to be true - so who knows about Solam?). 

Or it could all just be a good story that was going around and somehow got attached to Solam at some point. There is something uncanny about being amongst remote lonely ruins which once teemed with life. It's almost easier to believe that some terrible catastrophe has occurred than to accept that the place has faded away through the slow grinding of economic and social change.

I guess we'll never really know...

See also: Armin Grewe has some photos of a walk to Solam

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