North Rona and Sula Sgeir are some of the most remote of the Scottish Isles. North Rona, the larger of the two, lies about 40 miles north of the Isle of Lewis, while Sula Sgeir lies ten miles further west of North Rona. North Rona is no longer inhabited by humans, but it was populated for hundreds of years, making it the farthest island in the British Isles to have had permanent residents. It is said that Saint Ronan lived there in the 8th century, and visitors today can still see the Celtic ruins of St. Ronan’s chapel, as well as cross-shaped grave markers which date from as early as the 7th century. The population held steady around 30 for centuries, with excess people occasionally moving to the Isle of Lewis. In 1680, the introduction of rats and a raid by a passing ship wiped out the entire population. Others attempted to resettle the island, but were killed in 1895 in a boating accident. Until 1844, North Rona was inhabited only by a shepherd and his family. During a Scotland tour of North Rona today the only structures found on the island are a crumbling group of historic buildings, a lighthouse, and a hut that houses students doing research.
North Rona is owned by the Scottish Natural Heritage and is managed as a nature reserve. Its primary residents are sheep, grey seals, and seabirds such as storm petrels, Leach’s petrels, kittiwakes, fulmars, gannets, and guillemots. The sheep are tended by farmers from Lewis, while the seabirds and seals find the isle an ideally isolated breeding ground. North Rona boasts the third-largest breeding colony of grey seals, representing about five percent of all the pups born in the UK. During your tour of this Scotland island keep an eye out for the seals that can be found throughout much of the island, especially in the submerged sea caves along the coast. The isle has an area of less than two and a half square miles, with eighty percent of the land consisting of marine areas and sea inlets; the remaining 20% is comprised of salt marshes, sea cliffs, bogs, and dry grassland.
A few miles away the rock of Sula Sgeir juts up from the ocean. It, too, is famous for its seabird colonies—gannets, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, and puffins—which cover the small surface area in the summer months. Sula Sgeir is also the last isle in the UK where gannets are harvested annually. Each August men from Lewis come to harvest around 2,000 birds, taking the young gannets that have not yet fledged. These plump, young birds are considered a delicacy and are served throughout the world.