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Behold the Hebrides
The Isle of the Pigmies
Strange Evidence from an Ultima Thule


THE passing in the person of David MacRitchie of an old friend, whose affability and kindliness made him the esteemed of all with whom he came in contact, reminds me that my very earliest interest in folklore resulted from a casual statement he once uttered to me concerning elves and fairies. Our discussion turned to that vexed question of pigmies— those tiny creatures on whom our late antiquarian was an authority. In this connection, I take the following quotation from the definition of the word, pigmy, given in Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary: ‘One of the ancient diminutive dwellers in underground houses, &c., in whom David MacRitchie sees the historical originals of the fairies and elves of folklore.’

The Isle of the Pigmies is an isle in an Ultima Thule; and, as a rule, one can visit it dryshod, when the tide is low. The theory regarding the pigmies, however, has been discredited by some writers, notably by Dr John MacCulloch, who doubted the accuracy of Dean Monro’s statements, and even went the length of suggesting that, if the venerable Dean were not thinking of one of the Flannan Isles, he was either dreaming, or experimenting on his readers.

MacCulloch, who was a great friend of Scott, and addressed to that man of extraordinary genius in the form of letters a series of scenic and antiquarian descriptions of his wanderings in the west, which were published about 1824, refers at some length to Dean Monro’s averment that at the north of Lewis there exists a Pigmies’ Isle; and he adds in parenthesis ‘there is no island of any kind there now.’ Continuing, MacCulloch says: ‘It would be uncivil to doubt the Dean’s veracity, as Collins did not, since he has introduced this story into his celebrated Ode on the Superstitions of the Highlands; so that all, which remains for us to do, is to add these specimens of organic remains to the giants of former philosophers.’

The reference of Collins, a writer of odes, of whom Johnson (that hater of everything and everyone Scottish, except Boswell) wrote, ‘he loved fairies, genii, giants, and monsters,’ occurs towards the end of the Ode already mentioned, which was composed in 1749. I quote the passage:

Unbounded is thy range; with varied skill
Thy muse may, like those feathery tribes that spring
From their rude rocks, extend her skirting wing
Round the moist margin of each cold Hebrid Isle
To that hoar pile which still Its ruins shows,
In whose small vaults a pigmy folk is found,
Whose bones the delver with his spade upthrows,
And culls them, wond’ring, from the hallowed ground.

Dean Monro’s sixteenth-century version of the Isle of the Pigmies was written when on one of his pastoral visits to the outlandish parts of the Western Isles; and it is sufficiently interesting and unique to justify my quoting it here in full: ‘At the north poynt of Lewis there is a little ile, callit Pigmies ile, with ane little kirk in it of ther awn handey wark. Within this kirk the ancients of that countrey of the Lewis says, that the saids pigmies has been eirded (buried) thair. Maney men of divers countreys has delvit up dieplie the flure of the little kirk, and I myselve amangis the leave (rest), and hes found in it, deepe under the erthe, certaine baines and round heads of wonderful little quantity, allegit to be the baines of the said pigmies, quhilk may be lykely, according to sundrie historys that we reid of the Pigmies; but I leave this far of it to the ancients of Lewis. This ile pertains to McCloyd of the Lewis.’

In his History of Scotland Buchanan cites Monro’s remarks, and was apparently of the opinion that his description was not altogether without historical foundation. In his observations on the northern part of Lewis he writes of the Island of the Pigmies: ‘In this last (island) is a church, where the people of the neighbourhood believe a diminutive race to have been buried, and many strangers, on digging deep into the earth, have found, and still find, small and round skulls, and little bones belonging to different parts of the human body, which coincide with the ancient report.’ Of Donald Monro, the Dean of the Isles, Buchanan says ‘he was a pious and well-informed man.’

Then, William Cook MacKenzie has discovered elsewhere references to the celebrated Isle of the Pigmies. Mention of it is made, for example, in an official report of Lewis drafted about 1580, in which it is recorded that, besides the existence of the little kirk aforesaid, there were a number of pigmies’ bones measuring less than two inches; and just a century later (1680) a certain native of Lewis named John Morrison (‘An Indweller’) drew up an account of his mother-island in which he ridiculed the theory of the pigmies at Ness, and suggested that the little bones were those of ‘small fowls.’ A shrewd guess!

The actual island, however, occurs on Blaeu’s and other seventeenth-century maps, where it is called Ylen Dunibeg— The Island of the Little Men. (Gaelic: Eilean na Daoine Beag). On an old and beautifully engraved ordnance map, which bears the date 1853, I find that Captain Burnaby, whose surveying and contouring are of real historical interest, refers to this island as Luchruban, the name under which it appears in most modern maps of the northern Hebrides. MacKenzie’s belief that Luchruban is a metathesised form of the Irish word Luchrupain, or Luchorpain, a term signifying the diminutive race of Irish legend, is probably well founded, because it is an established fact that at some time or other the Butt of Lewis was visited by bands of settlers from Ireland. The stress is laid on the first syllable of this Irish word; and the allusion to the Irish, who had visited Luchruban at one time, may mean Gaelic-speakers, and not necessarily Irishmen.

It is only fitting that in passing some notice should be taken of Martin Martin, who has left behind him a contemporary account of the islands which, in its clarity, simplicity, and in its painstaking details of the conditions and habits of the people of his own time, is unsurpassed. Referring to the Isle of the Pigmies Martin writes that the natives spoke of the island of the Little Men, and that the many bones, which had been dug out of the ground here, gave ground to the tradition of a low - statured folk called Lusbirdan or Pigmies. The nearest approach I can find to ‘Lusbirdan,’ a word still used in Scots dialect, is the Gaelic word, luspardan, which, according to MacAlpine, denotes a dwarf or pigmy.

When we examine the evidence of W. C. MacKenzie, to whose scrutinous investigation we are indebted for all the really reliable information we possess regarding the Isle of the Pigmies, we discover that MacCulloch’s repudiation of Monro was altogether unjustified and ill-considered. ‘Early in the nineteenth century,’ writes MacKenzie, ‘the voice of a sceptic was heard in the land. Dr MacCulloch roundly denied the very existence of this isle, and, moreover, based an unworthy attack on Dean Monro’s veracity, generally, upon his account of it.’

While engaged in digging out historical data for his History of the Outer Hebrides, MacKenzie accidentally came upon the MS. of a certain Captain Dymes, wherein the latter alludes to the island as the ‘Isle of the Pigmies,’ adding that the inhabitants of Ness at that time designated it the ‘Island of Little Men.’ Dymes went to Lewis in 1630, and declared that he, himself, had actually disinterred a number of bones which, he felt confident, were not of human origin. His MS. is now to be seen at the British Museum.

Without a vestige of doubt, the account of the Isle of the Pigmies given by MacKenzie is by far the most reliable, comprehensive, and instructive. It can be referred to in the proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries (1904-5), where the writer informs us that, if for no other reason than that of restoring the reliability as a historian of Dean Monro, he is glad to have ‘re-discovered the Pigmies’ Isle.’ Exhaustive investigations of the site were carried out by his brother and cousin; and, although the discoveries did not come up to expectations, they actually came upon pieces of unglazed hand-made pottery (which are now in the museum in Edinburgh), some fragments of peat-ash, a quantity of bones, and, lastly, but by no means the least interesting and important, the extant part of an ancient stone structure. This structure consists of two unroofed chambers, one oblong and the other circular, which are connected by a passage six and a half feet in length, and twenty-one inches in width. It is thought that the former chamber, which is constructed of flat, firmly laid stones, is the ‘kirk’ of which Dean Monro speaks. The circular. apartment measures about ten feet in diameter; its wall is some four feet in height, and in it is a recess whose dimensions are approximately seventeen inches in each direction.

Into the many remaining structural details we need not herein enter, except so far as to state that the entire construction is circumvallated by what appears to have been a sod-covered wall of stone. Probably, the whole ruin was originally the cell of some religious hermit.

Fourteen specimens of the bones discovered at Luchruban were sent by MacKenzie to the Natural History Museum at South Kensington for classification, where it was ascertained that seven were the bones of birds and seven the bones of mammals. So far as folklore is concerned, however, ‘this does not finally dispose of the pigmies’; and it is competent to aver that the pigmy tradition may have originated before the discovery of little bones, though folklore sometimes builds up strange stories on matter-of-fact foundations. It is quite reasonable to argue that pigmies have an ethnological significance and tradition in no way connected with the finding of small organic remains. In the same way giants have a place in legend and folklore quite distinct from the evidence of ossific discoveries.

As illustrating the tradition current at the present day in Lewis as to the origin of the Pigmies of Luchruban, I find the following statements in MacKenzie’s Book of the Lews—The pigmies were ‘Spaniards’ who originally came to Lewis 500 years B.C. They lived on ‘buffaloes,’ which they killed by throwing sharp-pointed knives at them. Their descendants were contemporary with St Frangus, an outlaw, who lived on the sands of Lionel at Ness. He was unkind to the pigmies, who hanged him on a hill, which is still called Bruich Frangus. In the year 1 A.D. ‘big men from Argyll’ drove the pigmies from Cunndal (a cave near Luchruban) to the Pigmies’ Isle. When they became too numerous to be accommodated there, they migrated to Eoropie and Knockaird in the same vicinity. This tradition was told to W. C. MacKenzie by the late Dr Ross of Ness, who had it from an old man of the district.

Of course, allusions to dwarfish peoples go back to very ancient times. The word, pigmy, or more correctly, pygmy, is used by Homer to denote a race of small stature which is supposed to have dwelt in Ethiopia. In the Grecian legend we are told that each spring the cranes waged war on the pigmies, and devoured them; and, then, we read that by means of ladders the pigmies succeeded in climbing up the goblet of Hercules and drank of it. No doubt, from this legend Swift borrowed his material for Gulliver’s Travels.

The term, pigmy, is to-day applied to a number of low-statured peoples in Central Africa: and David MacRitchie speaks of Na h-Amhuisgean as meaning dwarfs or pigmies—a phrase which, he thinks, came originally from Tiree.

Northern mythology is, of course, full of stories of elves and pigmies who are scarcely to be distinguished from one another.

And, in conclusion, as demonstrating the persistence of old beliefs, and the maxim that superstition dies hard, a friend of mine, who is an illustrious graduate of Edinburgh University, swears that, when he lived as a boy near the Butt of Lewis, he frequently visited the Isle of the Pigmies, and actually ‘handled their little chairs and tables.’


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