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Behold the Hebrides
The Fife Adventurers
A Strange Story of the Lews


NO intrepid buccaneers in their proper senses would have selected the Western Isles as a place likely to yield gold and kindred riches, unless they had been deliberately misguided and misinformed by those who, for doubtful ulterior motives, sought to exaggerate the wealth of the islands.

But towards the close of the sixteenth century, about the time that a certain well-known Highland historian was spreading the wild rumour that in Uist and elsewhere the teeth of the sheep were dyed by reason of the plenteousness of gold among their pastures, a company of fortune-seeking ‘Gentlemen Adventurers,’ though less daring and dauntless navigators than those early Spanish pioneers who planted their culture in Central and South America, undertook an expedition to the Island of Lewis for reasons which we are about to examine.

We are told by contemporary annotators that the expedition was arranged in order to ‘civilise’ the Lewismen; although the object which James VI. had in view, when he promoted the scheme, was the collecting of dues and taxes from the lawless MacLeods of Lewis, and the suppression of disorder among the turbulent chiefs by means of an organised company of Lowland speculators.

The fact of the matter is, however, that the king seriously over-estimated the wealth of the island, and expected a handsome revenue from it when it became in reality a part of his dominions. He had been led to understand that Lewis was ‘inrychit with ane incredibill fertilitie of cornis and store of fischeingis and utheris necessaris, surpassing far the plenty of any pairt of the inland.’

At all events, the expedition set sail from the shores of Fife in the late autumn of 1598, with what were declared to be pure and disinterested humanitarian motives, because we read that the king was grieved that the Lewis people had ‘gevin thameselfis over to all kynd of barbaritie and inhumanitie,’ and were ‘voyd of ony knawledge of God or his religioun.’

On the contrary, there was nothing philanthropic about the undertaking at all, because the agreement between the king and these Fife gentlemen, who were entrusted with the colonisation of the ‘hitherto most barbarous Isle of Lewis,’ never made mention of any provision for the betterment of the Islesfolk. That the object of the expedition was entirely punitive and predatory is borne out by the preamble to the Act entitled ‘Anent the Lewis Adventurers.’

When the Fifers arrived in Lewis they did not find things so pleasing as they had anticipated, for they were able to effect a landing only after a prolonged struggle with the MacLeods. Well were they aware before embarking that they were sailing to a wild and mysterious land, peopled by barbarians who respected neither God nor man. But they were quickly disillusioned in their search for untold riches in Lewis; and the stubborn resistance they encountered on reaching the Island rather disheartened them, though, of course, it was an essential part of the romance of making an expedition into an unknown and unconquered country to meet with a certain measure of opposition from the savage inhabitants.

Gradually, however, these adventurers gained a footing in Lewis, and, with the aid of the mercenary troops they had brought with them, they were successful at length in establishing a colony in that part of the town of Stornoway known as South Beach.

Here they laboured earnestly, for we learn that, after they had fortified their camp against the sudden attacks of the Islanders, they constructed houses after the fashion of their homes in Fife. One can quite imagine that this architectural innovation was hardly received with enthusiasm in the Lews, where the people were accustomed to live in nothing grander than ancient and unpretentious ‘black houses.’

As time went on difficulties beset the colonists. They were cruelly harassed by the MacLeods, who made frequent desultory raids upon them; and, moreover, they were grievously disappointed that the economic possibilities of the island did not come up to expectations. Altogether they began to realise that Lewis was no El Dorado, and that the natives were as suspicious of them as they were jealous that a company of Lowlanders should settle in their territory, and, perforce, seek to exploit them by a form of commercial enterprise of which they lived in entire ignorance.

So the Fifers soon found that they had come to a land which was very far from offering the opportunities of trade that they had been deceived into thinking it possessed, and that the punitive methods they employed against the inhabitants only tended to make their presence all the more objectionable.

There was very little food in Lewis; and, indeed, the people saw to it that the poor colonists received nothing that they could successfully conceal from them. In fact, the Adventurers were practically faced with starvation, because they had omitted to bring with them anything in the nature of emergency rations; and they experienced the greatest difficulty in procuring supplies locally. In short, they were in an awkward predicament; they were as strangers in a strange land, and they could not possibly have selected a more inclement place than Stornoway as a base of operations. It soon became obvious to them that the ‘black rains’ were wetter, and the cold, biting winds of December harsher and stronger than anything to which they had been used in Fife.

The rigours of a Hebridean winter were, indeed, too much for them; and many of their number died from exposure and dysentery, as well as from want of food.

But the Fife Adventurers were more than mere strangers in a strange land; they were virtually prisoners, and saw no effective means of escape. It is true that they made one or two valiant endeavours to send forth emissaries to inform the civilised world of their plight, and to bring succour; but their emissaries were captured at sea by Neil MacLeod, who had taken every precaution that no such adventurer should cross the Minch to the mainland if he could possibly help it.

On one occasion they sent out one of their number named Stewart, who was, perhaps, their most accomplished strategist. But whenever MacLeod learnt that he had left the colony a sudden sally was made upon the Adventurers with a well-organised group of ‘bludie and wiket Hielandmen,’ who made off with as much booty in the nature of live-stock as they could conveniently manage.

Matters seemed now at their worse, and the colonists were on the verge of throwing up the sponge when, to their intense satisfaction, they were successful in making overtures to Neil MacLeod, their deadliest enemy, who now became their most loyal supporter. MacLeod turned on his clans-folk, and in fact on his very kin, for by his instructions many of them were executed. His own brother, Murdo, was seized at his command, and was despatched to Fife, where, after a summary trial, he was hanged at St Andrews.

But the understanding between MacLeod and the Lowlanders did not stand the test of time, because very soon the former changed his mind and again became the Adventurers’ fiercest opponent. All attempts to arrest him proved futile; and Neil in retaliation conducted a very profitable raid on their colony, in which several Fifers were slain and much spreagh was carried off.

In the interval certain chieftains on the mainland had been watching events in Lewis; and among them was MacKenzie of Kintail, who was naturally wrathful that any Lowlanders should have designs on an island on which he himself had an eye. It was in his interests, therefore, to do everything in his power to hamper the colonists in their already too arduous task, with the result that the Fifers were as eager to capture him as to capture Neil MacLeod.

To cut a long story short, the Adventurers found themselves quite unable to contend with any additional opposition, particularly in such inhospitable surroundings. Three bold endeavours to establish the colony firmly in Stornoway had failed pathetically. The second expedition, under Hay and Spens, was as little successful as the first; and the third attempt convinced the speculators that it was impossible to curb the ‘infamous byke of limmers.’

In the last expedition the Adventurers suffered so many casualties that all hopes of ever colonising Lewis were abandoned. The king and his Privy Council were utterly chagrined because the Lewismen had made it impossible for the Lowlanders to effect a settlement in their island, far less to establish a colony there for trading purposes.

They accused the Lewismen of ‘monstrous cruelties as hes not been hard amangis Turkis or Infidellis’; and in face of such stern opposition the expedition was withdrawn and the project abandoned.

But the net result of the whole adventure was that the MacKenzies of Kintail, who had played their cards carefully all this time, negotiated a settlement in their own interests whereby in 1610 they became the hereditary owners of the Long Island; and there they remained for nearly two hundred and fifty years.


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