A MERE speck in the enormity of the surging North Atlantic, North Rona is a truly remote island, lying some 72 kilometres north-east of the Butt of Lewis. It was an island destination that had eluded me for several years. Poor weather, even in summer, had prevented me from making the long sea journey to the cliff-girt island where there is no landing stage or safe anchorage. Eventually however, my chance came. In early dawn light on a morning of breathless calm, I climbed aboard the 440-horsepower boat Lochlann at Miavaig harbour, on Lewis. Neil the skipper was hopeful that the journey shouldn’t take much more than five hours. Roddy the mate grinned. “If the wind picks up, it could take a wee bit more.”

We were soon skimming across the glassy waters of Loch Roag, heading out to sea. As soon as we emerged into the open ocean, the Atlantic swell began to build. The boat rose to meet some waves, but smashed through others, showering the aft deck with spray. Millions of tiny droplets refracted the sunlight, creating a permanent rainbow which arched over our route towards invisible North Rona.

I was hoping a landfall on the island would be our gold at rainbow’s end. How did early people first know that North Rona even existed? It’s way below the horizon and must have been invisible from anywhere. George Geddes, an Edinburgh-based archaeologist and my companion on this voyage, told me, “On a day of rare clarity, it can just be made out from the highest hills on Lewis, or from the tops of the mountains of Sutherland.” Archaeologists believe that North Rona was first inhabited over 1700 years ago. As we continued to batter towards the still-invisible island, it was difficult to imagine what kind of boats the early settlers had used to cross the perilous seas to reach their new home.

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“See how green it looks!” George exclaimed when North Rona became visible through the haze after about five hours. “It’s such an unexpected and improbable sight in this vast ocean. It’s like an oasis!” The swell dashed hopes of landing at the first site, but after searching along the steep and rocky south coast, the rubber dinghy was launched and Roddy the mate steered us to the base of a low cliff. Timing the rise and fall of the swell, George and I leapt ashore: we had achieved the near impossible. We had landed on North Rona!

Before the last permanent residents left in the 1830s travellers had commented on inhabitants they met on North Rona. In the 17th century Martin Martin said that the people took their names from the colour of the sky, the rainbow and the clouds and that they were wonderfully hospitable, showering visitors with gifts of grain and sheepskins and blessing them by turning in circles, following the direction of the sun. How on earth did they make a living on this wild and lonely island? ‘It was always known for its good grass and excellent grazing for cattle and sheep,’ said George. ‘It was actually famous for its cheese, which was exported to Lewis.’ Livestock – sheep and even cattle – were transported from Lewis in open boats and then carried up the cliffs to the pasture above by men who risked death.

Close to the ruined village, which seemed almost invisible except for some scattered stones and a few mounds in the ground, we came to the first clearly recognisable building: the tiny chapel dedicated to St Ronan, one of the oldest Christian buildings in Scotland. Legend has it that St Ronan originally came to Lewis as a missionary of the Celtic Church. He established a place of prayer and contemplation there but, unfortunately, the local people disregarded his teachings. Even worse, he was annoyed by gossiping local women. In a vision, God spoke to him and commanded the saint to go down to the shore. There Ronan found a great sea creature, who carried him over the waves to the island now named after him.

The village was once home to a community of 30 people, with houses that were built almost underground to protect them from the elements. Climbing a low bank, I discovered the ruin of one of these semisubterranean dwellings on the other side. It must have been an utterly grim existence, I thought, contemplating the last occupied house on North Rona, imagining it filled with smoke and seabirds and fish hanging from the rafters. On at least two occasions the entire community was wiped out through starvation, disease and natural disaster. But every time this happened, the landlord, traditionally the chief of Clan MacLeod, recolonised the island with new people from Lewis. Effectively the people of North Rona were rent slaves in a feudal society. Perhaps to prevent their escape, MacLeod ensured that they didn’t have a boat of their own. However, he thoughtfully sent one every year to collect the rent – and sometimes to keep them supplied with life’s essentials. Occasionally a Rona man might need a wife. He’d ask for one to be sent out with the next boat the following year and waited with baited breath to see what she’d be like. Similarly, if the island was short of labour, a man would be sent out to live and work on the island. “The most important thing to understand about remote Scottish islands like North Rona is that they don’t work unless they are connected,” said George. “So, if a community like the one that existed out here really was isolated, it wouldn’t survive for long. North Rona was caught up in a bigger world. The people here were never just living an isolated life.’ North Rona is the loneliest Scottish island I have ever visited. Never before have I been to a place where I’ve felt isolation so acutely, in an almost physical way. And I’m not alone in feeling like this. Other visitors had a similar reaction. When the geologist John MacCulloch came here in the early 1800s he was impressed by both the people and the extreme isolation. At first he thought that life on the island must be similar to living on board a ship. Then on reflection he realised that nothing could compare with the loneliness of North Rona. A ship, he said, sets sail with the expectation of arrival. But North Rona is going nowhere, anchored forever in the restless Atlantic.

The Hebrides by Paul Murton is published in August by Birlinn, £14.99