Behold the Hebrides
The Isle of the Pigmies Strange Evidence from an
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 Chamberss 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
Monros 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
Monros 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 Deans
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
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, wondring, from the hallowed ground.
Dean Monros 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
Monros 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 Blaeus 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. MacKenzies
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
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
MacCullochs 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 Monros 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 MacKenzies Book of the LewsThe 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 Gullivers 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 pigmiesa
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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