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The Hebrides comprise a widespread and diverse archipelago off the west coast of Scotland. There are two main groups: the Inner and Outer Hebrides. These islands have a long history of occupation dating back to the Mesolithic and the culture of the residents has been affected by the successive influences of Celtic, Norse and English speaking peoples, which is reflected in the names given to the islands.
The Hebrides have a diverse geology ranging in age from Precambrian strata that are amongst the oldest rocks in Europe to Tertiary igneous intrusions. They can be divided into two main groups:
Inner Hebrides, including Islay, Jura, Skye, Mull, Raasay, Staffa and the Small Isles
Outer Hebrides, including Barra, Benbecula, Berneray, Harris, Lewis, North Uist, South Uist, and St Kilda
The Hebrides as a whole lie in the Sea of the Hebrides and are sometimes referred to as the "Western Isles", although this term is more accurately applied just to the Outer Hebrides, which were once known as "The Long Island".
The Hebrides are probably the best-known group of Scottish islands, but other groups include the islands of the Firth of Clyde, Islands of the Forth and the Northern Isles. The islands in the Clyde, especially Arran, are sometimes mistakenly called "Hebrides" too.
The Hebrides were settled during the Mesolithic era around 6500 BC, after the climatic conditions improved enough to sustain human settlement. There are many examples of structures from the Neolithic period, the finest example being the standing stones at Callanish, dating to the 3rd millennium BC. Cladh Hallan, a Bronze Age settlement on South Uist is the only site in the UK where prehistoric mummies have been found.
The earliest written mention of the Outer Hebrides was by Pomponius Mela, a Roman-Spanish geographer of the first century, who refers to a group of seven islands which he gave the name Haemodae. Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia of 77AD gives the name as Hebudes. Other ancient writers such as the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy mention the Hebrides, attesting to some contact of the peoples there to the Roman world. In 55 BC the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that there was an island called Hyperborea (which means "far to the north") where a round temple stood from which the moon appeared only a little distance above the earth every 19 years. This may have been a reference to the stone circle at Callanish. A traveller called Demetrius of Tarsus related to Plutarch the tale of an expedition to the west coast of Scotland in or shortly before AD 83. He stated that it was a gloomy journey amongst uninhabited islands, but that he had visited one which was the retreat of holy men. He mentioned neither the druids nor the name of the island.
Little is known of the history of the peoples of the Hebrides before the 6th century. The first detailed records of the islands comes with the arrival of St. Columba on Iona in the 6th century AD. It was this Irish-Scottish saint who first brought Christianity to the islands in the 6th century, founding several churches.
The Hebrides began to come under Norse control and settlement already before the 9th century. Norwegian rule of the Hebrides was formalised in 1098 when Edgar of Scotland recognised the claim of Magnus III of Norway. The Scottish acceptance of Magnus as King of the Isles came after the Norwegian king had conquered the Orkney Islands, the Hebrides and the Isle of Man in a swift campaign earlier the same year, directed against the local Norse leaders of the various islands. By capturing the islands Magnus imposed a more direct royal control over land seized by his kinsmen centuries earlier.
The Norwegian control of both the Inner and Outer Hebrides would see almost constant warfare until the partitioning of the Western Isles in 1156. The Outer Hebrides remained under the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles while the Inner Hebrides broke out under Somerled, the Norse-Gael kinsman of both Lulach and the Manx royal house.