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
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.
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.