Evidence of settlements on Jura dating from the Mesolithic period was first uncovered by the English archaeologist John Mercer in the 1960s. There is evidence of Neolithic settlement at Poll a’ Cheo in the southwest of the island. The modern name “Jura” dates from the Norse-Gael era and is from the Old Norse Dyrøy meaning “beast [wild animal] island”.
In the sixth century, it is believed that Jura may have been the location of Hinba, the island to which the Irish founder of the Christian Church in Scotland Saint Columba retreated for prayer and contemplation from the monastic community which he founded on Iona.
The Viking occupation of the Hebrides began in the ninth century, and was formalised when sovereignty was secured in 1098. From this point, Norse rule continued until 1266, when the Hebrides, together with Kintyre and the Isle of Man, were ceded to Scotland in the Treaty of Perth. A key figure during the Norse period was the warlord Somerled, whose descendants, for around 150 years from the mid-fourteenth century, styled themselves Lords of the Isles.
The Lords of the Isles
The Lordship of the Isles was dominated by Clan Donald, whose seat was at Finlaggan on Islay. The Lordship came to an end in 1493, but Clan Donald continued to rule the southern part of Jura, through the MacDonalds of Dunnyveg. The north of the island, however, was owned by this time by Clan Maclean, whose seat was at Aros Castle in Glengarrisdale. In 1647, this was to be the site of a notable battle between the Macleans and the Campbells of Craignish. For many years in the twentieth century, a human skull stood on a ledge in a nearby cave, and it was traditionally said to have been the remains of a Maclean who had been killed in this battle. The skull is no longer there, but the latest editions of Ordnance Survey maps still mark the location as ‘Maclean’s Skull Cave’.
The demise of the Lords of the Isles at the end of the fifteenth century was shortly followed in 1506 by the Treaty of Camas an Staca, which removed MacDonald rights on Jura and gave them to the Campbells. Despite this, the sixteenth century was a period of skirmishing between the warring clans: McDonalds, Campbells, MacLeans and others. Then in 1607 the Campbells finally bought the island from the MacDonalds. This was the beginning of some three hundred years during which the island was ruled and largely owned by eleven successive Campbell lairds. The north of the island, however, remained in MacLean hands until 1737, when it was sold to Donald MacNeil of Colonsay.
From the mid-eighteenth century, long before the notorious Highland Clearances of the nineteenth century, there were a number of waves of emigration from Jura. In 1767, fifty people left Jura for Canada, and from that point the population gradually shrank from over a thousand to its twentieth century level of just a few hundred. Mercer notes  that although relatively few forced clearances were recorded as taking place on Jura, the emigrations were far from voluntary, and were the result of factors such as hunger and spiralling rents.