THE OUTER HEBRIDES
The Long lsland—Start for Harris—St. Clement's
Market—North Uist—Machara—Shell-fish and Lobsters—Fords—Driftwood--Qornish
Blessings—Benbecula---South Uist—Disrnal Homes—Wild Fowl—Barra —Kisinnil
Castle—Eriskay—Wreckers---South Bernera Lighthouse - Mingalay.
HAVING as yet had but a distant view of the Outer
Hebrides, we determined that the next cruise of the Gannet should be in
their direction. The principal islands included under this head are Lewis
and Harris, which are in fact one island, being connected by a narrow neck
of land, bearing the significant name of Tarbert. Lewis and Harris are
generally known in the group as "The Long Island," and claim the dignity of
being the third in size of the British Isles. Its population in 1881 was
28,339 persons, of whom upwards of 26,000 speak their Gaelic mother tongue,
and comparatively few "have the English."
South of "The Lews," which is another name commonly
applied to the Long Island, and separated from it by the deep Sound of
Harris, stretches a long line of low, dull islands, which also are
practically one, being all so connected by fords, that at low tide you might
walk dry-footed from the northernmost to the southernmost point, whereas at
high tide they are divided by deep arms of the sea, several miles in width.
These are the Isles of :North Uist, Baleshare, Grimsay, Rona, Benbecula, and
South Uist, together with various intermediate islets. Sometimes the term
Long Island is applied collectively to all these, as well as to the Lews.
Still further south lie the group known as "The Barra
Isles,"— grand isolated masses of granitic rock, rising precipitously from
the wild open ocean.
If you glance at a map of the Isles, you cannot fail to
notice how very peculiar is the appearance of this great chain of islands,
which, from Barra Head on the extreme south, to the Butt of Lewis in the far
north, form a continuous line for about 120 miles. On the map they bear an
extraordinary resemblance to a skeleton fish or reptile, of which Lewis
forms the great head, while the other isles—.gradually diminishing in size,
and all intersected by fresh-water lochs and salt sea fiords—form the spine
Taking advantage of' a favouring gale, we started from
the green shores of Kilmuir, and had a glorious sail to Harris, a
picturesque isle, whose mountains rise to about 3000 feet. We anchored at
Rodel (or, as it used to be spelt, 'Rowadill), where once flourished a noted
monastery, one of twenty-eight which were established in Scotland by the
Canons Regular of St. Augustine, who, in later years, supplanted the more
ancient and simple establishment of the Culdees.
This monastery of Rowadil seems to have been the
ecclesiastical superior of the various religious houses and convents which
once were scattered over these isles—the sites of certain nunneries being
still pointed out as the "Teagh nan cailichan dhu," i. e. "the houses of the
black old women," in allusion to the black dress of their order.
The fine square tower of the old church—St. Clement's
Cathedral—at once drew us thither. It is a cruciform building—Early English
on Norman, foundations, with a fine east window and some quaint bits of
carving. The tower is said to be the oldest building in Scotland, except
part of St. Mungo's Cathedral at Glasgow, and those who doubt the antiquity
of the kilt as now worn, may here see a most unmistakable sculpture of the
garb of old Gaul. I suppose the use of tartan in remote ages was well
proven, even before the appearance of that quaint old metrical version-of
the Scriptures, still preserved at Glasgow, which told how
"Jacob made for his son Josey,
A tartan coat to keep
We had heard much of the beautiful stones in the old
churchyard, but sought for them in vain amid such a crop of nettles as I
never saw elsewhere. It is a picturesque spot notwithstanding; and when,
among the golden brackens and brambly tangles, we found a rich harvest of
ripe, delicious blackberries, we were content to feast like children, and
were comforted for the disappearance of the old gravestones beneath so
pleasant a wilderness.
This was the burial-place of certain old MacLeods of
Harris, whose monuments are inside the church. One, a knight in armour with
two-handed broadsword. Another sleeps in his shirt of mail and high-peaked
helmet, his feet resting on his dogs. We could not get the key of the
church, so failed to see the tombs of the isle and ocean lords. The tombs of
the Vikings are distinguished from those of the mighty hunters, by their
having a galley engraven near the hilt of the sword, whereas the latter
almost invariably have deer and hounds in full cry, careering round them.
One old gravestone here tells of a Sir Donald MacLeod of Berneray, who
married his fourth wife when he was past eighty, and left a numerous family
We had also wished to see certain old Picts' forts, or
duns, which we knew existed on various hill-tops in the neighbourhood. They
are simply circles of large stones piled up without cement, and always
placed within sight of one another, to act as alarm-posts. The people say
that a curious building of this form lies under deep water, within a few
yards of the shore—and on a clear day they can see it distinctly near the
village of Rodel. However, as the wind was favourable, we went on to Tarbert,
a name which applies to a strip of land between two waters.
It was nearly dark when we anchored, but at daybreak we
went ashore. Five minutes' walk took us across the narrow neck of land to
the other side of the coast, and we were duly edified by the primitive modes
of agriculture. Here and there, in the middle of morass or peat-moss, some
small scraps of amble land are carefully cultivated; wretched little patches
of potatoes, oats, or barley, struggling for existence wherever a possible
corner has been found, in the midst of rock and heather. It seems like
fighting against nature to try and force her to grow corn on land which she
has so distinctly set apart for pasture. In point of fact, Harris is almost
entirely resigned to deer.
Such morsels of ground as are under cultivation can
only yield their miserable crop if freely manured every year with sea-ware,
and even this supply is so scanty, that many of the poor crofters have to
face the danger of stormy seas, and go all the way to Skye to obtain a
In some of the humble turf huts hereabouts you may
still chance to see a specimen of the old quorn or handmill, consisting of
two hard gritty grindstones, laid horizontally one above the other; the
grain is poured between them, through a hole in the centre of the upper
stone, which is made to revolve rapidly by a wooden handle. I suppose this
was somewhat akin to the old English handmill or Tharnis, the wood of which
was wont to ignite in the hand of a swift worker, thus giving rise to the
saying, concerning an idler, that "he would never set the Thamis on fire," a
proverb often quoted with small thoughts of its origin.
It is strange to think that these poor little handmills
should ever have been an object of jealousy to our legislators. Yet in old
days various laws were passed advising the lairds to compel their tenants to
bring their grain to the water-mills; and also empowering the miller to
search out and break any querns he could find, as being machines that
defraud him of his toll. So far back as the thirteenth century, the laws of
Alexander IlI. provide that no man shall presume to grind quheit, maishlock,
or rye with handmill, except he be compelled by storm; and even in this case
he is bound to pay a certain tax to the miller!
The modern miller who cares to behold his ancient
rivals may see good specimens in our antiquarian museums, without a voyage
to those remote corners of the earth, but it is only here that he may still
see them in active work, and hear the wild plaintive songs with which "the
two women grinding at the mill" wile away the monotonous hours.
Wilder still are the songs sung by a whole troop of
lassies when waulking cloth; that is, when a dozen women sit on the ground,
in two rows, feet to feet, with a ribbed woollen board between them, whereon
is laid the newly-woven woollen web; then, with their bare feet, the women
work the cloth to and fro, till they have rolled it to a right consistency,
their song growing louder and louder as they warm to their work, so that a
casual observer is extremely apt to imagine that he has suddenly stumbled on
the inmates of some private lunatic asylum.
The excellence of "Harris tweed" and "Harris stockings"
is well known on the mainland, as, thanks to the fostering care of Lady
Dunmore and Mrs. Thomas, these manufactures have become an organized
industry, whereby most of the women of Harris earn their living. It is the
means of circulating several thousand pounds a year on the isle, and forms a
very important item in the support of the people, whose farming is by no
means sufficient for their needs;—no wonder when we learn that in one
district of Harris 620 families are now living on the tiny crofts held by
280 tenants! Here, as elsewhere, most of the men are chiefly dependent on
their precarious earnings at the cod, ling, or lobster fisheries, or the
herring fishery on the east coast; a considerable number also serve in the
Naval Reserve, or the Inverness Militia, and their pay, in many cases, is
invested in the purchase of wool, which the women spin and weave in their
To this industry, therefore, is due much of such
comfort as we may see by a peep into some of their little homes. Finding
that the inn owned a dog-cart (a wonderful old trap, mended at all points,
but still capable of carrying us without undue danger, we hired it, and
started on a long drive to the interior of the island.
We drove twelve miles through wild and most beautiful
scenery; past the dark waters of Bonaveneta Loch, and halting in Glen Mevig,
to secure a rapid sketch of a grand dark hill which stands up almost
precipitously from the valley. The road lay between wild moorland and
mountain on the one hand, and the sea on the other; all glorified by floods
of sunshine which gleamed on the yellow sands of Laskantyra, transforming
them to fields of gold. Scarcely a ripple disturbed the broad surface of the
calm ocean, which broke lazily in tiny wavelets, while the dark peat-moss
revealed tracts of golden brown, and green, and purple, such as no one could
deem possible who only saw such scenes on the dull monotonously grey days so
common to our northern skies.
In the wildest spot of all stands Fincastle, a grand
new building, placed in such a valley of rocks that a level spot had to be
blasted before the foundations could be laid. A rocky mountain rises
immediately behind the house—a rocky salmon river on one side, and a rocky
burn on the other, always rushing and tumbling with ceaseless noise; while
the terrace in front of the windows is a great sea wall, against which the
waves dash; and the "snorting sea-horses" and the river-kelpies together
make such a turmoil as would become wearisome to any ear but that of a keen
To the ear that rejoices in the stillness of a great
calm, as the very ideal of bliss, such ceaseless sounds of tumultuous waters
must, I think, be sorely trying. But it may be that what wearies the ear and
brain of one man is music to his neighbour, especially if that neighbour is
a whole-hearted fisherman, to whom the tumbling and tossing waters suggest
the silvery fish that play beneath their depths.
We thought it a graceful compliment to Morayshire that
the yellow freestone with which the house is faced had all been brought from
our own dear Covesea quarries. Not that there is any lack of good building
material in Harris. The grey whinstone is what masons describe as "a good
binding rock ;" and there is fine granite in abundance.
Attracted by the green beauty of the rich pasturage on
every side among these green hills, we made sure of a delicious bowl of new
milk, but not one drop was to be obtained, for love or money. So entirely
were the wild deer lords of the situation, that there was no grass to spare
for cows, and the people had just to do without milk. Even at Tarbert we
found a most insufficient allowance—a very sore privation to men, women, and
children, whose breakfast, dinner, and supper consist of porridge and
oat-cake. Sometimes they have potatoes instead of porridge, but rarely both
at the same meal, even in our cottages on the mainland.
Let any one who is inclined to think lightly of cutting
off milk from this meagre bill of fare, just try himself to live for even
one week on nothing but oatmeal, without milk, and see how much he enjoys
his "daily bread!"
But here we touch on the fringe of one of the burning
questions of the day—the right or wrong of the very existence of deer
forests —in other words, the maintenance on our northern isles of vast
tracts of land wholly devoted to the preservation of "wild beasts."
The Islanders and Highlanders look back to idyllic
days, when these wild mountain regions, wherein they dare not now set foot,
for fear of disturbing the deer, were the pastures where in the sweet summer
days they fed their flocks and herds—the little black cattle, and the small
Highland sheep, which were regarded almost as individual friends.
Here and there were the shielings—summer homes of the
very- simplest construction (mere huts of turf and stone, with beds of
fragrant heather), which, during those summer months, gave shelter to maids
and matrons, whose pleasant task it was to milk the kye and the little ewes,
and to prepare cheese and butter for the market, filling up idle moments by
spinning with distaff and spindle. Those were the days which gave rise to
such sweet old ballads as we still love, though the scenes which gave them
birth belong to a lamented.
Such songs as those wherein the blithe shepherd tells
the et of his bliss:
"Tis to woo a bonnie lassie, when the kye come hame."
What pretty pastoral pictures are suggested by
"Sae sweet the lassie sung i' the bucht, milking the
or by such invitations as,
"Ca' the ewes to the faulds, Jamie, wi' me";
"Will ye come to the ewe buchts, Marion?"
or, most melodious of all,
"Ca' the ewes to the knowes,
Ca' them where the heather grows,
Ca' them where
the burnie rows,
My winsome deane o."
Now, only a shapeless pile of grey stones, scattered
here and there on the high pastures, marks where stood those once joyous
shielings, and in the sweet valleys, whence once rose the blue smoke from
many a happy home, no aound is now heard save the bleating of the hateful
big Southern sheep, or the bark of the Lowland dog which tends them.
It is to the connection of the hated Lowland sheep with
the unhappy clearances, that allusion is made in the old sad song:
The flocks of a stranger the long glens are roaming,
Where a thousand fair homesteads smoked bonnie at
Our wee crofts run wild wi' the bracken and heather,
our gables stand ruinous, bare to the weather!"
For there came a time, not in the Isles alone, but
throughout the Highlands, when proprietors began to realize that big farms
were more lucrative than small ones, and that the new system of sheep-
farming would assuredly bring in far larger returns than any hitherto dreamt
of. So broad tracts of pasture-land were converted into sheep-runs, and the
small farmers were displaced to make room for fewer but wealthier men. Then
came the sad stories of evictions which drew tears of blood from many an
honest heart, and chiefly from those weak and aged ones, condemned to end
their lonely years in poor huts on the bleak sea-coast, or crowded together
in hated towns, while their able-bodied bread-winners went off to far
countries, there to establish new colonies, where, to this day, the memory
of the old home is cherished; and no tongue save Gaelic is spoken.'
So intimately were these sad compulsory clearances
associated in the minds of the people with the introduction of the strange
sheep, that on one occasion a minister in Skye, having exhausted rhetoric in
describing the joys of Heaven, crowned all by touching a deeply sympathetic
chord, when he declared that "as no evil thing could enter the Blessed
Kingdom, THERE WOULD ASSUREDLY BE NO BIG SHEEP THERE!"
The" tooth of the big sheep" was proverbial for all
evil. Nevertheless, throughout the Isles and Highlands, flocks and herds
such as were never dreamt of in the days of our ancestors, now fatten
peacefully on mountain pastures, covering millions of acres which heretofore
were of small account, but which now represent large sources of revenue to
There are, however, certain districts on the mainland,
notably in Kintail, in which it is affirmed that (whereas the cattle which
had heretofore pastured on the hills had helped to keep the land fertile)
the incessant close nibbling of the sheep has so utterly exhausted it, that
it is now deemed advisable to let the ground lie fallow for a term of years.
it is said that where sheep alone occupy the land, the grarings deteriorate
to such an extent (notwithstanding heather-burning and drainage) that farms
which in former years have supported, say, five thousand sheep, will now
barely yield pasture for four thousand.
To allow the land to recover from this exhaustion, is
the reason now assigned by one proprietor for a considerable extension of
his deer forest in part of Ross-shire, though it might well be thought that
these already occupied their full share of the land, inasmuch as the
twenty-five deer-forests of Ross-shire cover one third of the whole county.
(It is stated that deer-forests and sheep-runs together
occupy two-thirds of the Highlands. Of the former it has been recently said:
"They extend in an almost unbroken line from the southern borders of
Perthshire to the shores of the Pentland Firth, and embrace an area of over
two million acres of some of the best pasturage in the Highlands. Within
this vast space absolute silence reigns. Sheep and cattle are of course
rigidly excluded, and the only human occupants are a few glues." The writer
might have added that the artist, the poet, and he who would seek new bodily
and mental strength in those beautiful and health-giving mountain regions,
are all alike jealously excluded, lest their human presence should disturb
the wild deer, and spoil the sport of the few.)
But in listening to the tale of woe and of want which
has been poured into the ears of the Royal Commissioners, appointed to
inquire into the condition of the poor islanders in May 1883 (when we have
heard the pitiful stories of how, about thirty years ago, the inhabitants of
innumerable townships were evicted from the lands which they had brought
under cultivation, and which yielded fair returns—and of the people being
compelled to settle on worthless peat1-mo88, or to subdivide the small
crofts already in possession of other men, and to eke out a wretched living
by twice a day following the receding tide, in search of limpets and other
shell-fish), we cannot but sympathize with the speaker who, alluding to the
old blithe days in' the summer shielings, days of comparative abundance,
says: "it is unseemly that the big sheep should be dying of fatness
alongside of us, and we, the people, be driven from the land of our fathers
to seek to provide our living on the face of the sea," —a living which they
can scarcely contrive to procure, and which most men would deem well-nigh
Truly it is pitiful to hear the accusation of
"extravagance" which, in the course of this inquiry, some witnesses have
brought against their poorer neighbours, and then to learn that this refers
to their indulging in a little weak tea—possibly, if they can afford it,
with the addition of a little sugar as their only substitute for the milk of
which they and their children have been entirely deprived by the loss of the
pastures. This extravagant beverage—a little weak tea without milk—is all
they have to wash down their hardly-earned porridge; and so deleterious to
the little ones is this found to be, that the doctor-of one district
strongly recommends the adoption of cheap beer instead of tea—a lamentable,
sole alternative, while the tempting pasture-lands lie outspread on every
A hard struggle, in truth, have all these poor folk to
obtain their daily bread, and the evidence of one and all goes to prove that
their poor little crofts (with Boil exhausted by eighty or a hundred years
of incessant tillage) will no longer yield them sufficient food to keep
their families for more than perhaps a couple of months in the year; so it
is a matter of perpetual anxiety how to provide the oatmeal necessary for
the remaining months, either by precarious toil at the fisheries, or at any
other work that can be obtained.
Yet while all corners of the Isles are overshadowed by
this ever- deepening cloud of poverty, the actual market value of the land
has increased at a rate altogether astounding. This very district of Harris
(a tract of about twenty-four miles in length, by seven in breadth) was, in
the last century, sold by Macleod of Macleod for the sum of £15,000 to a son
of Sir Norman Macleod of Bernera. In the beginning of the present century it
was purchased by lord Dunmore for £60,000, and only a few years ago, half
the estate was bought by Sir Edward Scott of Ardvourlie as a deer-forcst,
for about £155,000, an investment which, while it shows a nominal rental of
£2200, in point of fact yields small pecuniary return, and, on the contrary,
calls for an annual outlay of large sums, amounting in one year to £6000! No
wonder that Sir Edward was described to the Royal Commissioners as "a
generous Englishman of the highest type 1" Few Highland proprietors could
emulate such an example, and yet, with all the assistance they have
received, the people of Harris are now in a state of as great distress as
any of their neighbours.
We deemed ourselves fortunate in having seen the
country in sunshine.
Ere we started to retrace our way to Tarbert, the scene
had utterly changed. Leaden-hued clouds rested on the summits of the dark
bills, and soon rolled down their sides, shutting out the last gleam of
sunlight. Then came the rain—no gentle summer showers, but pitiless sheets
of drenching rain, falling in torrents, and hiding from us every trace of
the beautiful scenery around. It poured without intermission till after
midnight, and we were all drenched.
A genuine Highlander will tell you that a thoroughly
wet plaid is the warmest thing in the world, as the swollen wool can keep
out the cold, and keep in the heat, twice as well as when dry; and if be has
the luck of an extra wrap to throw on outside of all, he asks no warmer
bedding! Happily for us, a good store of dry clothing awaited us in the
yacht, and the weeping of night was forgotten when, at dawn, we awoke to the
consciousness of another day of unclouded glory such as seems to me never to
shine so brightly as in these Isles.
We were much tempted to make our next expedition
northward to the Isle of Lewis, calling at Stornoway, there to see how art
and wealth combined have triumphed over bleak nature in producing such
wonderful gardens round the modern castle—gardens where every bit of rock is
turned to picturesque account; where roses are made to blossom in long glass
passages, and where figs and bananas and grapes ripen in profusion in stoves
In the year 1844 Sir James Matheson purchased this
naturally unattractive isle, which has been well compared to "a wet peat on
a stone," so wholly is it composed of peat-bogs and rock. Vast sums of money
have been devoted to the improvement of this very unpromising soil; 890
sores of peat-moss having been reclaimed and converted into amble land, and
on this one item (together with the building of farm-houses and offices) no
less than £100,000 have been expended.
And this is but one detail of the many schemes whereby
a wealthy proprietor sought to benefit his land and his people. He
established free schools in all parts of his property; and iii the first
twenty-six years he found that he had spent no less than £11,680 on
school-buildings and teachers' salaries. Twenty-five thousand pounds more
were expended on the construction of two hundred miles of roads and bridges;
and enormous sums on all manner of works for the improvement of Stornoway—building
curing-houses for their fisheries, introducing gas and water. Thirty-three
thousanÁl pounds went to starting great chemical works, £6000 to a patent
slip, £2225 to constructing a quay for the steamers, which Sir James first
chartered at his own expense, as, before his day, the Lews had been
dependent for all communication with the mainland on a sailing mail-packet.
Sir James's actual personal losses on these various steamboat transactions
are represented by sums of £15,000 and £167,000!
It has been so gravely asserted that all this vast
outlay has proved wholly unremunerative, that it is satisfactory to learn
that the total rental of the estate has increased from under £11,000 in A.D.
1844 to upwards of £18,000 in 1883. Of this sum, £12,700 is paid as
land-rent, and £3700 for shootings.
The special interest of these details lies in the fact
that this Isle of Lewis is the very centre of some of the most perplexing
problems of social economy in the present day. For while wealth has thus
been poured out like water on the thirsty land, the actual condition of the
people has gone on steadily deteriorating. Within the last century their
numbers have about trebled, and their poverty seems to have increased in the
same ratio, so that at the present time the people of Lewis are plunged in
deepest depths of destitution, and the rates of Stornoway are said to have
reached the astounding figure of 9s. 4d. in the pound!!
One of the most painful features in the recent inquiry
into the condition of these really poor people, was the loud assertion, by
those purporting to plead their cause, that "nothing has been done for them"
by the proprietors. It was then mentioned incidentally, that in addition to
the enormous sums which in the last forty years have been expended on the
isle by Sir James, Lady Matheson annually bestows £50 on private charity in
each of the many parishes, besides an annual gift of £100 worth of potatoes,
while this year she has contributed £1500 to the destitution fund and £1500
to the construction of Ness Harbour, for the express purpose of providing
work for the people. But these trifles are of small account in the eyes of
such popular orators as have recently busied themselves in stirring up
discontent and dissension throughout the North-Western Isles and Highlands.
Though no special beauty of scenery attracted us
northward, we would fain have sailed round the stormy Butt of Lewis, to
visit the primitive people of Barvas, whose rude home-made pottery we had
seen treasured in museums, and might very naturally have attributed to the
Ancient Britons I And from Barvas we would have passed on to Loch Bernera,
to see the Druidic remains at Callernish, where several concentric circles,
and also a semi-circular group of monoliths, with various tumuli and other
rude stone monuments, remain to puzzle antiquaries with suggestions of the
secrets of by-gone ages.
The solemn silent witnesses
Of ancient days—altars or graves.
But whatever temptations were offered by Lewis, a scene
of more animated interest invited us southward, to North Ijist, where a
great cattle-market was to be held on the low flat shores of Loch Maddy, a
strange sea-loch, to which the entrance is by a narrow opening, guarded, as
it were, by two great masses of basalt, which jut up from the sea, and are
remarkable as being the only basalt within many hours' sail. These are
called Maddies, or watch-dogs. Hence the name of the sea-loch, which extends
inland in every direction, its endless ramifications forming innumerable
fords, which intersect the land with the strangest network of channels.
In such a labyrinth of land and water, locomotion is
indeed a difficult matter, for he who starts on foot finds that at every
hundred yards he is stopped by a salt-water stream, while travelling by boat
is even more slow and wearisome. Here and there, however, the creeks narrow
so strangely that they are no wider than streams, and have accordingly been
spanned by roughly-constructed bridges.
It was no easy matter to find a piece of sufficiently
connected land to form a suitable site for the great cattle-market, and even
that selected was a strangely-blended bit of land and sea. I doubt if any
other spot could show so picturesque a cattle-fair. In the first place, all
the cattle had to be brought from neighbouring isles to this common centre,
and, as each boat arrived, with its rich brown sails and living cargo of
wild rough Highland cattle of all possible colours, the unloading was
summarily accomplished by just throwing them overboard and leaving them to
These island beasties take kindly to the salt water,
and seemed to rejoice in finding cool bathing-places on every side. All day
long there were groups of them standing in the water or on the shore that
made me long for the brush of a Rosa Bonheur—such attractive combinations of
rich warm colour—silvery-greys and reds, browns and blacks, rich sienna and
pale sand-colour, all reflected in the pale aquamarine water. In the whole
market there was not a beast that was not individually a study for an
artist, with its widespreading horns, and rough shaggy coat, and its large,
soft, heavily- fringed eyes, that seemed to look so wonderingly on the
unwonted assemblage round them.
Besides the fishers' brown-sailed boats, several tiny
white-winged yachts bad brought customers to the market and added to the
general stir—a stir which' must have so amazed the lone sea-birds, which are
wont to claim these waters as their own, for, as a general rule, a more
utterly lonely spot than this dull flat shore could scarcely be found.
Now, however, an incredible number of islanders had
assembled. It seemed a fair matter for wonder where they could all have come
from, but a tidier, more respectable lot of people I have never seen. These
people of North Uist—now, alas! like their neighbours, so sorely oppressed
by downright want—generally rank among the most prosperous of the Outer
Islesmen, their patient industry being proverbial.
Frugal as Chinamen, these careful folk deem no work too
trivial if they can by any means thereby turn an honest penny.
Thus while many of their neighbours are hopelessly in
arrears of rent (the majority of the crofters on Barra being five years, and
those on Mingalay ten years in arrears), the men of North Uist have kept
well up to the mark. It is also worthy of note, that notwithstanding great
hardships, consequent on evictions in bygone years, their houses, built by
themselves, are of an unusually good type, most of them having separate
outhouses for their cattle.
Most of the four thousand inhabitants of North Uist
live on the further side of the isle, and had come across in the rudest of
little carts, drawn by shaggy ponies, whose harness was the most primitive
combination of bits of old rope, connected by twists of the strong wiry
grass of the sand-hills (bent, we call it on the east coast). Now the carts
were tilted up, and watched over by wise collie-dogs, while the ponies were
turned loose to graze on the heather. Indeed, the number of these was a
noteworthy feature in the scene, for these rough little creatures find their
own living on the moor, whence their owners must cut, and the ponies must
carry, the peals which are the sole fuel of the isles. Hitherto they have
also helped the kelp-burners, in carrying the heavy wet sea-weed to a safe
drying ground, but that harvest of the sea is no longer to be garnered.
Most fortunately for us all, the weather was glorious;
indeed, the blazing sun, reflected by the still waters, made us long for
shelter, but not a rock or a bush was there to break the monotony of the
fiat shore. The only morsels of shade lay beneath the few white booths set
up by itinerant merchants, that lads and lasses might buy their fairings,
and that the drovers might get their dram —the latter being a very important
item in the day's pleasure, for the Blue Ribbon Army has not yet weaned the
islesmen from their love of mountain-dew; and of the only two manufactories
established in the Isles, one is a good woollen factory at Portree, but the
other is a distillery at Tallisker, in the Isle of Skye, which turns out
forty-five thousand gallons of whisky per annum, of which about twenty
thousand are consumed on the Isle of Skye itself.
Naturally, there was a liberal consumption of "the
barley bree" at the market, but, the consumers being all hardened vessels,
no one appeared any the worse, nor even any the livelier—and liveliness is
by no means a characteristic of these gentle quiet folk, most of whom seem
to be naturally of a somewhat melancholy temperament. Men and women alike
have a grave expression— not exactly careworn, for in truths they are
generally ready to accept their hardships with amazing philosophy, but a
far-away look, as those whose life-long teachers have been the winds and
waves,—solemn spiritual influences which have sunk deep into their souls. As
are the physical surroundings, so is the reflex, on the character of a race
strangely sensitive to all that can suggest dreamy visions of the unseen,—a
people whose cradle-songs have been the wild lays of Ossian, sung to eerie
Gaelic airs, pathetic and mournful as the mingled sounds in nature which
they so faithfully reproduce—the moaning of the winds, the wild cry of
seabirds, the deep booming of the waves, the thunder echoing amid the
Faithfully do these nature-taught islanders live in
harmony with her lessons. As the influences of nature in calm are ever
soothing, and those of storm are solemnizing, so the tendency of the people
is to quiet thoughtfulness, as though life were altogether grave and sad.
Yet at a pleasant word the whole face brightens with a beaming smile, just
as does the face of their native moorland, when glorified by a gleam of
radiant sunlight. But anything of the nature of boisterous mirth would seem
utterly out of keeping with the character of place or people—well-nigh as
jarring as a sound of laughter in a cathedral.
A whole-hearted son of the Isles has just told me that
I have misinterpreted his countrymen, and that the gravity is a quality of
modern growth, carefully fostered by "Free Kirk "influences. He maintains
that the true .nature is that which only peeps out occasionally, when the
barley-bree has shaken off the acquired gravity, and encouraged the singing
of rollicking songs and dancing in the energetic fashion of olden days,
compared with which our most inspiriting "Reels of Tulloch" are tame indeed.
I am bound to believe these words of a true Gael, but I
speak of the people as they seemed to me, and this great cattle-market
afforded a very fair opportunity for judging.
The only sensible folk who had made provision against
sun or rain were some wise old women, possessed of large bright blue
umbrellas, beneath the shadow of which they sat on the parched grass. They
were comfortably dressed in dark-blue homespun, with scarlet plaids and
white mutches, and near them grazed several sand-coloured ponies, forming a
pretty bit of colour.
Behind them groups of bright, healthy-looking lads and
lasses were assembled round the white booths, and all along the yellow shore
faint wreaths of white smoke from the kelp-fires seemed to blend the blues
of sea and sky; for the blessed boon of sunshine was too precious to be
wasted even in a holiday to Loch Maddy Fair, and the kelp-burners dared not
risk the loss of one sunny day, for here, in North Uist, the industry of
kelp-burning was continued till quite recently—that toiling harvest, whose
returns are now so small, and always so uncertain, that the men of Skye
have, for a good many years, altogether abandoned it. This is partly due to
the fact that the sea-weed of Skye contains a much smaller proportion of the
precious salts which give it value, than does the weed on some other isles,
consequently it fetched a lower price. Now even these industrious
kelp-burners of Uist have given up the work, though the loss of the pittance
they thus earned is most seriously felt.
Loch Maddy itself is a most extraordinary place—quite
unique, I should say—with the endless ramifications of its dreary
salt,-water belie, winding in and out in every direction in countless little
fiords, some of which run inland for nine miles, so that although the loch
only covers about ten square miles, its coast line actually exceeds three
hundred miles. It has been compared to the pattern of fairy frost on a
window-pane, or to an outspread branch of sea-weed, whose countless leaves
and stems represent the number of creeks and fords that spread in every
direction. On this occasion it looked its very best, bathed in a flood of
hot sunshine; but, on a dull misty day, or after prolonged rains, it must be
dreary beyond description, when the sad-coloured land, and the almost
motionless sea, seem so blended as to have no clear boundaries, but are
simply a sort of amphibious creation; where the monotonous creeks are all
discoloured by the mud washed down from the low dull shores— very desolate
and depressing. There are indeed ranges of moorland which attain to a height
of seven hundred feet, but they are so shapeless as to lend no feature of
beauty to the scene.
It is a strangely wild, eerie place, the haunt of all
manner of man-hating creatures. Even the shy seal ventures up these silent
creeks, and lies basking on the rocks which the tide has left bare; and as
to the sea-birds, they know every turn of the winding waters, and the quiet
nooks where they may rear their downy broods in perfect safety.
We lingered for several hours amid the mingled throng
of islanders and their cattle. Then we rowed away in a small boat to explore
some of the winding fords, never knowing how far inland we might penetrate.
Sometimes floating dreamily along, passing one moment through a channel as
narrow as it was shallow, then opening into a deep, wide, brackish lagoon;
an eerie place in rainy weather, but to-day all glorified by the light that
gilds each weed and broken bank! Overhead hovered a cloud of restless birds,
breaking the dreamy silence with the wild clamour of their querulous cries;
and along the reedy shore a mother eider duck was teaching her fluffy young
ones the art of swimming. But the seals had been driven far away by the stir
of the market, though no sound could reach these quiet havens, where no
tempestuous waves breathe exhilarating life and action, but all is still and
We paddled idly along, drinking in the perfect
stillness of the glad sunshine; watching its glancing rays reflected from
the water on the shadowy rock face, in rippling trickles of light. Here and
there long tendrils of honeysuckle trailed almost to the water's edge, and
ever and anon the quick motion of large white wings stirred the breathless
air, and honeyed fragrance of the woodbine came wafted towards us, like some
whisper of Heaven—some "sweet thought in a dream."
Then once more turning towards the more open sea, we
watched the sunlight playing on the opal waters, which, defying all vulgar
theories of colour, vary their tints according to some law of their own,
changing from deepest blue to clearest green, or richest purple, according
as the white sand or the golden sea-weed are the hidden treasures that lie
beneath their depths. The yellower the tangle, the deeper the purple; and
lest you should be tempted to doubt the secret of that strange rich
colouring, here and there some tall giant of that marine forest raises its
head to the upper world, and its glossy fronds float on the surface in lines
of quivering light.
Strangers sometimes speak pityingly of the wearisome
monotony of a life lived in these Isles. I cannot myself think that any life
so encompassed by the ceaseless varieties of ocean can compare with the dull
depressing sameness of existence in any agricultural or mining district on
the mainland, where, from one year's end to another, all goes on in regular
mechanical order, each day recalling the last, and the ugliness of all
around, knowing no change.
Here, even the black peat-moss (which, when sodden by
prolonged rains, is so unutterably dreary) changes as if by magic in the
clear shining that comes after the rain, revealing a wealth of rich colour,
of purple heather and golden lichens, silken-tufted grasses and delicate
moorland flowers, dear to the busy, humming bees, but dearer still to the
human children who, all unconsciously, drink in these sweet influences,
which tend to mould their character for life. He who knows the delight of
roaming alone in such wild regions, of watching the tremulous white mists
float upward from the dark peat bog, to enfold and spiritualize the great
sleepy hills, can perhaps realize why it is that these Children of the Mist
are so dreamy and unpractical as compared with their Anglo-Saxon neighbours.
But of all influences which combine to produce the
Hebridean as he is, none approaches the ever-present power of the ocean,
which, as a living inspiration, is for ever and for ever whispering its
messages to man, woman, and child, from their cradle till the hour when they
are laid beneath the green turf within sound of its ceaseless dirges. It
claims its right to keep watch over the islanders in death as in life, and
steals quietly inland that it may leave none unsought.
As though the salt sea did not monopolize enough of the
land, there are also numerous brackish lochs of so-called fresh water. Many,
however, are really fresh, being in fact just chronic pools formed by the
ever-renewed rains, which drain through the peat-moss, and so acquire that
rich clear-brown hue, varying from the colour of treacle to that of London
porter. Strange to say, these dark-brown pools abound in trout—hermit
colonies. One marvels how they came there, inasmuch as few of these lochs
have any inlet.
Some of them are studded with small islets, on which
are the remains of Pictish duns. It is said there are about twenty of these
in North Uist alone. They are circular, and of the rudest construction,
being connected with the land by stone causeways, which are still visible
above the water level.
These lochs have sedgy shores, and are covered with
white and yellow water-lilies, amid whose fairy blossoms skim radiant
dragonflies of every hue.
The lilies are very precious to the islanders, who use
their roots for dyeing wool Another rich brown dye is obtained from some of
the dark mosses and lichens that make such kindly coverings for the cold
rocks. Heather yields a yellow colour, and a warm red is extracted from the
But the most beautiful dye of all is procured from a
kind of rue, with golden blossoms, which grows on the sandy shores. Its long
tough roots when powdered and boiled, produce an excellent red dye, but they
are also so valuable for binding the said sand, that it is illegal to uproot
this plant. The people, however, tell of one vain woman who, in her longing
to procure this rich red dye, went out by night to gather it, in defiance of
her husband's prohibition. She was never seen again, but soon afterwards the
northern sky was red with such flashing lights as had never been heard of,
and all the islanders believe assuredly that the spirit of the woman had
good cause to rue that red dye! The Hebrideans are by no means the only race
who watch the fluttering of those eerie spirit-fires with something of awe.
The Greenlanders believe the northern lights to be the spirits of their
forefathers going forth to battle. And to all dwellers on the west coast the
aurora brings a certain warning of much rain and storm approaching. So
surely as "the sable skirts of night" are fringed with that celestial light,
and the dark midnight wears her luminous crown of flashing rays, so surely
is foul weather in store, and the wise among the people make provision
The island of North Uist is now the property of Sir
John Campbell Orde, having been purchased from Lord Macdonald's trustees
about thirty years ago. it is about sixteen miles in length, by seven in
All the east coast of North Uist is the same sort of
dreary, boggy, mossy, peaty soil, with weary, uninteresting, low creeks and
inlets. The west coast, however, is far more smiling, and offers
possibilities of cultivation on a small scale, so there all the inhabitants
are to be found. All along the shore are wide white sands, beautiful on a
calm day, but liable to drift over the cultivated lands. The aim of the
people is, therefore, to cultivate the wiry bent grass, which spreads its
long clinging roots, and makes such a mat as binds the sand and keeps it in
its place. After awhile a thin crust of soil forms over these roots, and
eventually finer grasses find a livelihood on these rnaekans, as this sandy
soil is called. The tussac grass i.e one which is said to take kindly to the
double task of feeding the flocks and binding the sands. Nevertheless the
machans are dangerous neighbours, and there is always danger lest, in years
of scarcity, the flocks may nibble these grasses too closely, and so break
this protecting surface, forming a little rent, which the winds are certain
to discover, and very quickly enlarge, and one stormy night may produce such
wild drifts as will leave promising fields sown with more sand than the poor
farmer need ever hope to get rid of.
This is said to have been the cause of that
overwhelming sand- drift which converted the fertile lands of Culbyn, in
Morayshire, into that vast chain of sand-hills which now extends along the
coast. Seven disastrous years of famine had reduced the people to such
extremity of poverty, that they were driven to collect fuel where and how
they could. Thus the broom and bent grass which had hitherto bound the shore
were all torn up, and the wind catching the sand, blew it in thick clouds
upwards of twenty-five miles along the coast, burying thousands of acres
beneath this deep, ever-shifting sand desert.
Happily for the islanders, the sand thus carried is not
all destructive. The whitest sands are formed entirely of shells, ground to
the finest powder by the pitiless action of the waves. These, of course, are
pure lime, and act as a very useful manure, enriching all manner of crops.
You can generally tell the little islands where the shell-sand is most
abundant by the richness of the grass, and the fragrance of the sweet white
clover which scents the air.
On some islands protected from the fury of the
Atlantic, the shells lie unbroken in countless myriads. On one such we
landed, near the coast of Roes-shire (the Saint's Island, protected by the
Isles of Raasay and Skye), where, to the depth of many feet, the little
shells lie heaped up, each quite perfect, a quarry of shell- gravel. There
are no pebbles, no sand, nothing but shells closely packed together in
inexhaustible store; little shells which were once silvery, or bright yellow
and brown, but are now bleached by perhaps centuries of exposure to pitiless
rains and blazing sun. Only a silvery sparkle remains to tell of the pearly
things they once were. Above them is a light crust of earth, on which the
greenest of verdant pasture shows how well the shell-lime acts.
The cultivation of the machar8 is not the sole means
taken to prevent the encroachments of the sea. In some places, more
especially in the Lews, tracts of land have actually been reclaimed, and the
tide shut out by flood-gates, in Dutch fashion.
On the other hand, it is quite certain that the sea now
covers various shores where villages and even forests have stood. For
instance, on the green island of Vallay, lying north of Uist, there are
traces of very fine timber and mossy ground lying below high- water mark.
Now there is neither moor nor moss on the island, only rich green pasture
lands, and shallow fresh-water lochs, on whose gleaming surface float myriad
white and golden water-lilies; creamy blossoms, resting on their own glossy
leaves, with young buds nestling around; buds that even in the depths of the
"dim water world" have been all unconsciously seeking the glorious light
above them; mysteriously drawn upward to do it homage, and never swerving to
the right hand or the left till they have found it, and their pure hearth
silently expand toward the great calm heaven, which broods on every side,
and lies reflected in the clear surface of the waters. Truly an image of
On one of these quiet lochs there is a tiny green
island which is the favourite haunt of the deer; they swim across in the
moonlight, to this, their chosen sanctuary, where they are rarely molested.
One solitary farm-house represents human life on this
isolated shore, which is connected with North Uist by one of those strange
fords that link together so many of these islands, affording a secure road
on terra firma at certain hours of the day, while a little sooner or later,
a strong tide rushes along in foaming currents, covering the ford to the
depth of eight or ten feet with salt waves—and bringing with it a vast store
of all manner of shell-fish, which forms a very important item in the
harvest of the islanders. As soon as the tide recedes, a great number of
people betake themselves to the shore, with their creels, and their rough
little ponies—knowing that a good tide will bring them far more than they
can carry, of cookies and mussels, periwinkles and limpets, razor-fish and
clams, and all manner of odds and ends besides.
The abundance of cockles and periwinkles is almost
inconceivable. Of the latter from twenty to thirty tons are despatched to
London every week, by the steamers, via Glasgow; and go to replenish the
stalls of the old wives at the street corners. Oysters from Scalpa and Loch
Snizort also find their way there—and vast numbers of lobsters, dragged from
their rocky homes on the wild coast of Harris, are likewise carried off
alive. Poor prisoners, their claws are tied up to prevent their fighting by
the way—and they are packed together in one great compact black and blue
mass of twisting, struggling life, and thus they are transported to the
boiling- houses near Billingsgate, where they meet with a vast army of their
Norwegian brethren, and all share the same sad fate. Perhaps twenty thousand
arrive from Norway in one night, while the Western Isles furnish an average
of fifteen thousand per week, and in some instances, more than double that
Shades of lobster salads! what food for nightmares
rises before us, at the thought of so terrible an array of vengeful, cold-blobded
monsters, clad in panoply of blue-grey armour, standing over us with those
awful claws uplifted, ready, at the bidding of Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, to
plunge us into those horrible boilers, and avenge their luckless parents and
The lobster fisheries are more profitable now than in
the last century, when about seventy thousand were annually sent from the
coast of Montrose to London, and there sold at prices varying from three
halfpence to twopence halfpenny! Almost as cheap diet as salmon, which
varied from three halfpence to twopence a pound! Those were the days when
Scotch servants stipulated that they should not be obliged to dine on salmon
more than three days in the week. Now the fishers receive from 9s. to 16s. a
dozen, for lobsters, and the boats engaged in these fisheries can clear from
£4 to £10 in a season.
Another large item in the contributions of the Isles to
the mainland, is a vast supply of eggs—not for human food, but to be used in
the Glasgow callandering works, to produce the glaze on chintz. It seems
that freshness is no object, so every old wife lets her eggs accumulate till
she has enough to be worth carrying to the "merchant." Her unpleasant store
reminds me of our old Skye henwife, who said she always gave the nest-eggs
to her own bairns. When we suggested that they must be slightly
objectionable, she replied, "Wed, maybe they're just some snuffy!" I suppose
that nest- eggs, like some other dainties, require an educated taste. So we
also thought, when tasting the razor-fish or "spout-fish," which the
fisher-folk consider so nutritious. Not all the art of a French cook could
make those leathery lumps palatable!
The said razor-fish, so called from his inhabiting the
long brown razor shells that strew our shores, but which is more correctly
called "solen," is, however, a very valuable bait, and as such, is sought
even more eagerly than for human consumption. He lies safely hidden beneath
the sands, and so soon as he hears a step approaching, he digs a deeper
hiding-place, and burrows his way lower and lower. But at the first alarm he
spouts a jet of water in the air, like a tiny whale, and thus betrays his
presence to the watchful bait-gatherer, who, from this custom, calls his
hidden treasure the spout-fish. Plunging a barbed iron rod into the moist
sand, he fishes up his victim; should be fail to strike him, he knows he
need not try a second time, as the creature will have burrowed far beyond
his reach; but, if bait is scarce, he will perhaps sprinkle salt on the
bole, and then wait patiently till the solen rises to the surface, and is
captured, to prove an irresistible dainty to all manner of fish.
The fords on all sides give a very curious character to
this coast. It seems so strange to be for ever calculating tides—high-tide
and low-tide—spring-tide and neap; with the knowledge that sometimes the
safe ford 8hift.s, and that you may find yourself in trouble before you
dream of it. Hence the state of the fords becomes the marked topic of
conversation; and every person you meet, instead of making the usual comment
on the weather, gives you the last news of the tide—or wishes you a dry
ford—and a good ford—or hopes you may get a ford at all—a very serious
matter, as to miss the ford, and have to stay all night on the wrong side of
it, would involve an amount of "roughing it" scarcely desirable.
The fords differ much one from another. That which
connects Vallay with North Uist is an unbroken beach of hard, white sand,
extending the whole two miles from isle to isle, a lonely level shore on
which generally no sign of life is visible, save a few white-winged
sea-birds, that float on the breeze like flecks of spray from the white
The next ford lies between North Uist and Benbecula,
and is known as the Big Ford, being about four miles across. Half of this
lies over sand, by no means sound—and the rest of the way is so intricate,
that a stranger must take a fisher-laddie for his guide, along a track
twisting and turning in and out between low reefs of black rocks, skirting
quicksands, and dangerous holes— splashing through water ankle-deep or
sometimes deeper still, through beds of sea-weed and tangle; altogether a
very labyrinth. The track is marked by black beacons, but many of these have
been washed away, and altogether a more dismal road to have to travel on a
stormy day, with a dubious ford perhaps, and dreary grey rain, could hardly
be imagined; you cannot help picturing the horrors of sudden illness, or
overpowering weariness, detaining some lonely woman or child in that
melancholy channel, till the waters return in their might, whirling along in
the strong swift current which here pours from the Atlantic to the Minch.
Having passed this dismal ford, you find yourself in
bleak Benbecula, a dreary level of dark peat-moss and sodden morass, only
diversified by more of the shallow lakes which are so numerous in these
isles, all abounding in trout, which the oft-times hungry people would fain
capture for their own use, but which here, as elsewhere, are strictly
Strangely enough, the ford marks a distinct
ecclesiastical boundary, the inhabitants of North Uist being almost. all
Protestants (there are only three or four Roman Catholic families on the
isle), whereas the majority of the people of Benbecula, South IJist, and
Barra have adhered to their hereditary faith, uninfluenced by the
Reformation, a circumstance attributed to the fact that while Clan Ranald
and the MacNeils (who ruled in the Southern Isles) continued faithful to the
Church of Rome, the Macdonalds encouraged their people to embrace the
About sixteen hundred human beings contrive to exist on
Benbecula, and, with all its drawbacks, hold these five miles of dull
peat-moss dearer than any "large land" that could be bestowed upon them in
foreign parts. Like most of its neighbours, it has a belt of white sand and
"machar land" on the western coast, and yields a tolerable supply of
potatoes and barley.
But the casual visitor sees only one point of relief to
the dreary monotony of the scene, namely, the ruins of Borve Castle,—a fine
massive keep commanding the whole isle, but now most desolate,— the haunt of
croaking "hoodie craus."
There is small temptation to linger here, so you hurry
on to try and save the next ford, and so reach South Uist. This ford is only
one mile across; it may, however, happen that you reach it only in time to
see the waves pouring in, rapidly changing the ford to a sound, which no
boat will cross, so there is nothing for it but to wait in Benbecula till
the next day; and a very dreary wait it is, as two of my friends' proved to
their cost, and thankful they were to get a night's rest in a house, which
at that time was, and perhaps still is, the only apology for an inn. They
noted with interest the wood-work of their room, which was all built of
worm-eaten drift-wood, with here and there rusty nails still marking its
descent from some good ship which had gone to pieces on the rocks. All the
furniture in the room was of the same sort.
It is curious to think of these treeless islands, where
every atom of wood for every household purpose must be imported from afar,
where a good wreck must necessarily be looked upon as a god-send, and where
day by day the tide line is eagerly scanned, to see what treasures may have
drifted in from far countries.
For the wrecks are not the sole timber supply. Good
logs of hardwood and felled trees, as well as chance branches and spars, are
washed ashore from West Indian and Mexican forests, drifting along with the
warm Gulf Stream. Bales of cotton, and bags of coffee, Molucca beans, or
fairy eggs as the people call them, and all manner of quaint treasures, are
among the spoil which rewards the patient seekers. Sometimes they find
foreign shells; sometimes such bamboos and fragments of carved wood as
encouraged Columbus to seek for an unknown world, far away to the west; and
sometimes—most precious prize—some drowned lady's raiment, which will set
the fashion, no matter of what country, for many a long day.
On one occasion my kinsman, Campbell of Islay, found a
number of the graceful marine creatures known as "Portuguese men-of- war"
stranded on a tidal rock in the sound of Barra. They were still alive, and
he extemporized a tiny aquarium, in which these tropical guests survived for
a little while. He described them as "blue transparent things like a leaf,
about the size of a half-crown, with a membrane like a lateen sail raised
out of water, and lots of coloured tentacles below."
I have sailed in many tropical seas, but have looked in
vain for these elegant little creatures, which floated so peacefully along
on the Gulf Stream, till they reached the rocky shores of Barra.
Live tortoises occasionally drift ashore, not much the
worse for their long voyage; and once there came floating in, the mast of a
man-o'-war, the Tilbury, which had been burnt off Jamaica.
Sometimes the wrecks yield stores, the use of which
sorely puzzles the simple islanders, as when a vessel laden with tea met her
doom off Dalebeg in Lewis, and the people could devise no better use for the
precious cargo than to use it as manure, and to this day a field is there
known as the tea-field. The large seeds of western forest trees, which are
thus found, are esteemed great treasures, and are worn as charms, especially
by women whose progeny is not so numerous as they might wish. One of these
was recently presented to a friend of mine, with the assurance, given quite
in earnest, that a similar one having been worn by another member of the
family, had been the undoubted cause of the safe arrival of a son and heir!
The commoner seeds are of two sorts, a large purplish-brown bean with a
black band, and a round grey one, both of which I have found in great
abundance on the shores of Ceylon, washed down by the great rivers which
flow through the forests, collecting contributions on their seaward way.
But precious to the islanders as are these charms, no
gift of the sea can compare in value with the timber, whether it comes in
forin of logs or of wrecks. it is not many years since the factor of one of
the largest proprietors wrote to acquaint his employer with the joyful fact
that, thanks to Providence, there had been three wrecks in the early part of
the winter, so that the island was well supplied with wood!
It does sound curious to the unaccustomed ear to hear
the quaint phrases of piety with which these spoils of the deep are
sometimes welcomed, and the ill-concealed regret of some of the old folk at
the building of lighthouses, which have tended to warn vessels from these
shores. They certainly have a practical belief in the proverb, "It's an
ill-wind that blows no one good "—a creed which my great-grandfather 1 must
assuredly have held when, in the middle of the last century, he wrote to an
uncle in Morayshire, giving an account of his wife's estate of Penrose, near
Helstone, in Cornwall.
He says: "In my last, I sent you enclosed a rent-roll
of this estate, but I forgot to mention one thing, which is a very
considerable appurtenance belonging to it, viz., a royalty on the sea-coast,
which generally keeps my cellars well stock't with wine, brandy, and many
other valuable comoditys. These things are called God's blessings in this
country / I had one of them last year that brought me in eight hundred
gallons of French brandy; another brought me ten hogsheads of good claret
and frontiniack, which your friend Bruce seems to like very well; and this
very winter I have had two of these blessings, one of which brought me a
noble stock of flour, wine, and bale goods; the other brought me only a
parcel of hides, log-wood, and some other trifles that may be converted into
cash. These things are very convenient in a large family in these hard
times, for corn of all kinds is very dear in this country at present, and I
suppose not much cheaper in Moray. I would therefore advise you to come and
partake of our Cornish blessings!"
The writer might have added that he himself was among
the "blessings" thus drifted to the Cornish shores. For having sailed for
India, his ship was compelled by stress of weather to run into Falmouth,
where he arrived in time for a grand ball, at which the young heiress of
Penrose was present She expressed her willingness to dance with any of the
officers "except that ugly Scotch- man I" who, nevertheless, wooed and won
her with amazing velocity; and we have good reason to believe that she was
well content with her share of" Cornish blessings!"'
Old ocean pays tribute of all sorts. Sometimes,
together with rich merchandise from the ships she has swallowed up, she
brings the bodies of drowned sailors, and lays them gently down on the white
sands; and the sea-faring folk give them such a decent burial as they
themselves hope to receive, should they meet the like fate.
One of their oldest burial-grounds is in South Uist, on
the grassy top of a sand-hill overlooking the sea. The centre is marked by a
cross of worm-eaten drift-wood, round which are clustered the dead of many
centuries. The people of the island are for the most part Roman Catholics,
and for them the central ground is reserved. Protestants are buried in an
outer circle; while in a third circle are laid all strangers, and all the
unknown dead who are cast up by the sea. Some of these tombs are marked by
memorial-stones ---one or two richly carved; but for the most part only a
grassy mound, with a few wild flowers, marks where the sleepers lie waiting
so quietly. And when the wind whispers and rustles among the bent, or rushes
with swift swirl over sea and land, the islesmen listen reverently, for they
have still a lingering belief that that swift rushing sound is caused by the
great army of the dead passing hither and thither on their ghostly missions.
So eerie and awesome are the effects of mist, storm,
and tempest, and of wild meteoric lights, flashing blood-red, as they often
do on these northern skies, that it is small wonder if these people cling to
their faith in the legends of olden days, and still think that sometimes the
strange spirit-world which lies so near to them may mix itself with their
daily life, and the wan grey ghosts of their fathers become visible to their
Dreary and desolate as are the low shores of Benbecula,
South Uist is more dreary and more desolate still. It is an island about
twenty-five miles in length by five in width, rough and hilly on the east
side, which is entirely given over to sheep (the isle supports 2612 sheep,
2292 head of cattle, and 916 horses). As on all these isles, such amble land
as there is lies on the western shore, which is a dead flat, intersected by
fresh-water lochs abounding in trout. Here of course live most of the 4000
inhabitants, and here too is Lochdar, the island-home of Lady Gordon
Cathcart, who owns the whole isle, and several of those adjacent, including
Benbecula. Good fields of fine rye-grass immediately around the house tell
of successful reclamation from the moorland, but the general condition of
the country is not suggestive of much satisfaction to the small struggling
As you cross the ford, from Benbecula, you find your
path overshadowed by the dark inoantain mass of Heels. Then, as far as the
eye can reach, stretches the endless brown morass, with more and more
shallow lakes, only a few feet deep, dark and pitch-like. Of course, in
sunshine, all the rich colours of mosses and lichens and skyey reflections
lend beauty enough to any bit of uncultivated land and water, but when the
whole is saturated with continuous rains, and reduced to one vast bog, the
aspect of such a country must be depressing indeed.
Right across the island the road is built upon a narrow
stone causeway, which is carried in a straight line over moor and moss, bog
and loch, and which grows worse and worse year by year. Such miserable human
beings as have been compelled to settle in this dreary district, having been
evicted from comparatively good crofts, are probably poorer and more
wretched—their hovels more squalid, their filth more unavoidable, than any
others in the isles— the huts clustering together in the middle of the
sodden morass, from which are dug the damp turfs which form both walls, and
roof, and through these the rain oozes, falling with dull drip upon the
earthen floor, where the half-naked children crawl about among the puddles,
which form even around the hearth—if such a word may be used to describe a
mere hollow in the centre of the floor, where the sodden peats smoulder as
though they had not energy to burn. Outside of each threshold lie black
quagmires, crossed by stepping-stones—drainage being apparently deemed
impossible. Yet with all this abundance of misplaced muddy water, some of
the townships have to complain of the difficulty of procuring a supply of
pure water, that which has drained through the peat-moss being altogether
unfit for drinking or cooking.
\Small wonder that the children born and reared in such
surroundings should be puny and sickly, and their elders listless and
dispirited, with no heart left to battle against such circumstances.
Existence in such hovels must be almost unendurable to the strong and
healthy, but what must it be in times of sickness The medical officer
of this district states officially that much fever prevails here, distinctly
due to under-feeding. He says two families often live in the same house, and
that he has attended eight persons in one room, all ill with fever, and
seven or eight other persons were obliged to sleep in the same room!
The misery of those homes suggests a parallel with some
in Ireland, which reminds me that it was to this isle of South Uist that the
Emerald Isle first gave the precious boon of potatoes. They were imported by
Clan Ranald in the year 1743. At first the people strongly objected to them,
and nine years elapsed era they found their way to Barra. Ten years later we
hear that they were the main food of the people for at least three months in
the year. Thence they soon spread all over the Highlands.
However unattractive to the poor cottars may be their
dwellings in South Uist, to a sportsman the island must indeed be a paradise
—by reason of the vast tribes of wild duck, snipe, teal, woodcocks, and all
manner of aquatic birds which haunt the fresh-water lochs The grey geese
breed here, and the poor farmers have trouble enough to defend their little
crops from these marauders, who assemble in flocks of five or six hundred,
and attack the fields. The barnacle-geese winter here in almost incredible
numbers. Tribes of wild swans pay an annual visit to the coast. In short,
all manner of feathered fowl here find a favourite refuge.
Six miles of sea separate South Uist from Barra, which
is the southernmost of the larger isles in the Outer Hebrides. it is about
twelve miles in length--a wild and rugged 1isle, girt with dark rocks and
caves, but with deep bays gleaming with the finest white
shell-sand—well-nigh as white as the sea-foam which breaks upon the shore.
Yet though its granite ribs crop out in all directions, it is emphatically a
green isle, and its pasturage and that of the Isle of Vatersay, which lies
immediately to the south, is said to be richer than that of any other isles
in the group. On Vatersay 1200 sheep and 400 head of cattle find luxuriant
grazing. One might fancy that whatever other hardships these islanders had
to endure, they might at least be secure of good dairy produce, but the
great want of milk for themselves and their children is one of their sorest
In days of old, Barra belonged to the Macdonalds of
Clanranald, and McNeill Barra. But about the year 1838, it was purchased by
Colonel Gordon of Cluny, together with South Uist, Benbecula, Vatersay, and
the small adjacent isles, at a cost of upwards of £1,731,000. It may
certainly be described as "a fancy property," quite unique, and affording
its proprietor an abundant field for unremunerative outlay. Fortunately for
the inhabitants, these isles are now the property of Lady Gordon Cathcart,
who not only takes the keenest interest in their welfare, but is blessed
with such abutdant means as have already enabled her to carry out many wise
and philanthropic measures, with a view to teaching her people how best to
help themselves. Her position, as proprietrix of most flourishing fishing
villages on the east coast of Scotland (whence, year after year, scores of
energetic fishers sail to these Hebridean waters and reap rich harvests from
the herring shoals—often ere the Islesmen have realized that the herring
have come, and perhaps gone again), gives her exceptional knowledge of
fisher folk, and how best to enable them to help themselves, and to this
most difficult problem she has applied both heart and mind.
Here, as elsewhere in the isles, the problem is
rendered doubly difficult by the necessity which compels all the people to
combine the professions of fishing and farming, instead of doing either
thoroughly, so the valuable cod, ling, lobster, and even herring fisheries,
remain only partially developed, because the fishers must needs bestow half
their time and energy on tilling rocky and exhausted land which can no
longer yield them her increase.
Nature has endowed Barra with one priceless boon, in
the excellent harbour of Kisimul, or Castle Bay, which affords secure
anchorage in deep water, in all conditions of the tide. It is landlocked by
the green Isle of Vatersay, and being accessible from either the Atlantic on
the one side, or the Minch on the other, affords a secure harbour of refuge
for ships of heavy tonnage, when overtaken by sudden storms.
Here in the
spring the herring fleets congregate from all quarters, east and west coast,
and from three to four hundred boats (averaging from fifteen to twenty-five
tons burden) bring a temporary stir to its quiet waters. At this season
perhaps a couple of thousand people connected with the fisheries assemble on
the shores of Castle Bay and Vatersay, all in the employment of a small
regiment of fish-curers, who run up temporary huts and bothies, surrounded
by piles of barrels, destined to convey the captured herring shoals to the
continental markets of St. Petersburg, Konigsberg, Dantzic, Hamburg, and
On a rocky islet in a corner of the bay, stand the
massive ruins of Kisimul Castle, to which the harbour owes its name—the old
dwelling of the McNeills of Barra—and perhaps the most picturesque thing in
the Hebrides, having a strong likeness to Chillon, as it rises from the
waters with its fine hilly background. Drawing near to the stately old keep,
it seems to be thickly covered with the greenest ivy, which, on closer
inspection, proves to be a clinging drapery of the Asplenium marinum.
For those who love wild flowers, these islands offer
various treasures. For instance, in the rocky Isle of Eriskay, in Barra
Sound, a lovely blue flower, something like a convolvulus, with waxy leaf,
blooms in July and August. As it is unknown elsewhere, the people account
for its presence by saying that Prince Charlie brought some seeds from
Normandy, and sowed them here in some idle moment, in those summer days
which he spent here, when, in July 1745, he arrived with one small frigate
of sixteen guns, with a little handful of faithful adherents, to reclaim the
crown of Britain.
The castle of Kisimul is about seven hundred years old.
When Martin visited it two hundred years ago, he found guards and sentries
still posted, on the watch for possible surprise. Over the gate, a "goekman"
spent the night thus pleasantly watching for the foe who never came,
repeating warlike rhymes to keep himself awake, and hurling stones at
possible invaders. In the rocks below, a dock was cut, wherein McNeil's
galley might lie in perfect safety, with the additional defence of a strong
sea-wail. Thence he was wont to sally forth, and carry terror through the
isles, as his Danish predecessors had done before him; for old as is this
wave-washed, weather-beaten fortress, it was built on the site of one very
much older, called by the Danes Tur Leoid, under the walls of which lay a
fleet of Danish galleys always ready for action.
McNeill kept up the warlike character of his ancestry,
and in the hour of need could count on two hundred fighting men ready to fly
to arms at the summons of their chief, his estates extending as far as
The ancient burial-place of the McNeills was at Kilbar,
now ruinous, and overgrown with nettles and rank weeds. Two small chapels
remain, dedicated to St. Barr—one of those dubious early Christians not
recognized by the Romish calendar, whose memory, however, is still honoured
by the people who come here annually to perform the Dei.sid, and go thrice
round the ruins, following the course of the sun.
The population of Barra, numbering nearly 2000 persons,
are nearly all Roman Catholics, not more than about twenty children of
Protestant parents being in attendance at the four parish schools. The
people are generally a cheerful race—very different from the saddened
dwellers in the bogs of South 'Uist, though their homes are much the same,
with only one hole in the thatch to admit light, and emit smoke. The fire
burns in a hollow in the middle of the floor, and round it gather all the
picturesque details of such an interior—the cattle on one aide, the human
beings on the other; the big black pot, the heaps of fishing-nets, or tarry
wool, and the blue peat smoke veiling all.
Barra, like the neighbouring isles, is rich in ruined
forts and duns. It has sundry little lochs swarming with trout, and on
several of these, now quiet tars, a fortified island reminds this peaceful
generation of their turbulent ancestors.
There were, however, certain curious statistics
published not many years ago, which tend to show that however kindly these
good folk may be among themselves, some of them recently retained curious
laws of morality as regards the strangers whom ocean casts on their
hospitality; like the Ishmaelites of old, their hand is said to be against
every man; but unlike them, these Sea-Arabs have small regard for the rights
of their guests, in the matter of wrecked property. The stories of grasping
and dishonesty connected with the securing of such heaven-sent cargoes sound
rather like legends of the days when the men of Barra were notorious
pirates, than like true narratives of the nineteenth century. We hear how
the survivors of such wrecks have been pitilessly plundered of what little
they had contrived to save; while heavy bills for service rendered, were
sent in to the authorities.
Such was the case of the Bermuda, which was driven
ashore some years ago in a wild wintry gale. The captain related how after
long tossing in a fierce tempest his ship was cast upon the sands of Barra.
All lives were saved—but the scene of lawlessness at the wreck was something
indescribable. Everybody began to rifle, rob, and plunder—and such was the
effect on the crew of the vessel, that, notwithstanding their recent escapes
from peril, they joined in and plundered too. Meanwhile the captain's wife
and little daughter were left to shiver on the beach, while the driving snow
fell fast. Benumbed, bewildered, half dead with fright and cold, they were
surely fit objects for mercy; but the tender mercies of the wreckers were
cruel indeed, for taking the boots and plaids of the helpless woman and
child, they departed leaving them half dead. The captain, who had been a
powerless spectator of the scene, had no redress, save the recounting of his
woes to the nominal authorities. Yet these harpies of the shore consider
themselves most zealous Christians, and will on no account put to sea
without the blessing of the priest and the safeguard of holy water.
Sixteen miles to the south of Barra lies South Bernera,
about a mile long by half a mile broad; the uttermost isle, a bold mass of
dark gneiss sloping down gradually towards the east, but presenting to the
western waves a grand rocky rampart crowned with such a lighthouse of iron
and granite, as may defy the wildest tempest, and warn all mariners to keep
well away from this deadly coast. In clear weather this light is visible at
a distance of thirty-three miles, but it 18 said that the height of the
tower itself (fifty feet), and the fact of its being perched on a cliff
nearly seven hundred feet above the sea, actually diminishes its value, as
its light is often shrouded in mist, when all is clear below. It is a
strange life of exile, which falls to the lot of the lighthouse men, living
on so remote an isle, with only one possible landing-place; a shelving ledge
of rock, on to which, if you are expert, you may jump, as your boat rises on
the crest of a wave, and thence scramble up a slippery shelving rock, and
then up a steep ravine, to the summit of the isle. it is only in the summer
months that even this is possible. During the long winter, with its nights
of sixteen dark hours, no vessel ventures within miles of the island, and a
distant glimpse of a sail on the horizon is a noteworthy event.
For two hours in April, and two hours in June, a
steamboat devotes its attention to the lighthouse stores; and once a year, a
priest from Barra visits his little flock; otherwise the forty islanders are
happily independent of all outer influences, and a fine, hardy, self-reliant
race they seem to be. This sad year, alas! the wail of want and suffering
rises from each one of these far isles, where the pressure of dire poverty
is making itself felt as sorely as on the larger isles; only, as inhabitants
are fewer, the task of relief seems less hopeless.
On the occasion of Captain Otter's surveying expedition
here, so soon as the Shamrock anchored off South Bernera, one man dived like
a South-sea Islander, and came on board, but the sight of the black cook was
a very great shock to his nerves, as it subsequently was to those of his
fellows; being almost entirely in accordance with their satanic theories.
They made much of their rare guests, for whose entertainment they produced
bowls of rich cream. The ladies' dresses were examined with great interest
by the lassies, who had only once before seen a lady. They were themselves
dressed in good striped wrnceys of their own spinning.
They had only two petitions to make to their visitors.
The first and most earnest, was that a teacher might be sent them for their
children; they would willingly do all in their power for his maintenance, if
only he were sent. The other request was for any extra spars which they
could use as bird poles. Bits of rope or sail would also have been precious.
The abundance of ordinary driftwood was suggested by the amount of furniture
in the houses.
Of course the people are dependent on the sea-fowl,
whose flesh they salt and eat, and whose feathers not only supply their
bedding, but, together with dried fish, enable them to buy tea and tobacco
from the outer world. Their most successful times and seasons for capturing
these wild beautiful birds, are the storms, when mad hurricanes are raging,
and tossing the sea-spray over the land. Then the very birds are bewildered,
and instead of flying straight to their nests in the cliff, are swept beyond
their mark, and the islander (who is patiently lying on his back on the very
verge of the cliff, with his head to the sea, armed with a long pole)
strikes the bird with swift, dexterous hand, and rarely misses his aim. It
is curious, in thinking how our luxuries come from other men's toils, to
trace even our warm downy feather-beds to such battling with bitter cold and
tempest as falls to the lot of these fowlers!
One trace of olden days remains on South Bernera, to
puzzle antiquarians. it is a wall about thirty feet high and two feet in
thickness, stretching right across the precipitous end of the island just
beyond the lighthouse, for what purpose no one can imagine. The stones of
which it is built, are described as being ten inches long, wedge-shaped at
both ends, and fitting into each other with extreme regularity and nicety.
One mile from South Bernera lies the Isle of Mingalay
(likewise a mighty mass of Laurentian gneiss). Its black crags and
precipices are even grander than those of its neighbours, rising a thousand
feet from the sea. These also are, in summer, literally white with the
myriads of sea-fowl of every species, while the whole air seems to quiver
with the soft fluttering cloud of white and grey wings- The account of their
proceedings is very curious. The orderly manner in which each tribe keeps
possession of its own allotted space; and the regularity with which in the
first week of February all the birds arrive, devote some hours to
house-cleaning, then vanish again, only returning at intervals till May,
when they lay their eggs.
Then come the cares of their vast nursery and the
education of the young birds, and when that is completed, the whole legion
departs, no one knows whither, but the islanders sadly watch the last
quivering cloud vanish on the horizon, while a melancholy silence reigns on
the great cliffs, and for seven months the mad tossing waves have it all to
themselves, and are the only signs of life and motion, as the snowy surges
dash through every cleft and fissure of the dark rocks. And in truth here
rocks reign supreme, for all round the isle there is not even the tiniest
belt of soft sea-sand, where the little bairns may play in safety and gather
treasures of the tide.
As a matter of course, a traveller sees only the
picturesque side of life in these wild regions. It may perhaps be well to
glance at some phases of real life in the nineteenth century as suggested by
the evidence given before the Royal Commission in June 1883.
Here are a few extracts. At Loch Eport, in North Uist,
the crofters told how "repeated evictions from other districts were the
cause of so many townships being overcrowded." These commenced about sixty
years ago, and continued till 1850, by which time all the inhabitants of a
large district had been ruthlessly evicted. The lands which they had held
were fertile, and there they had lived prosperously "in ease and plenty."
They were allowed no voice whatever in their future
destination. "Many were compelled to emigrate to the colonies, and in one
ship conveying them, fever broke out, to which many succumbed. Others who
remained in the island got corners in other places, while the remainder were
supplied with labour by the Highland Committee, until finally sent to Loch
Eport where they still struggled to exist.
"The hardships to which these latter were exposed
between their eviction and their settlement in Loch Eport were beyond
description. The houses were knocked down about their ears, and they got no
compensation for anything on the ground. They got no assistance in building
their new houses. It was towards the end of the year, in winter, that they
were building their temporary houses.
"The seventies of the winter, living in rude turf huts,
and without fuel, except what they had to carry twelve mile., told on the
health of many. The inferiority of the soil they now lived on, and its
unsuitableness for human existence, was indescribable. Notwithstanding that,
they had laboured to improve it for thirty years. The crofts would not yield
them as much food on an average as would support their families for two
months of the year. The ground was of such a nature that it could scarcely
be improved, and the soil was so much reduced by continual cropping, that it
was almost useless. The place, too, was over-crowded, there being thirty
croft., on which forty families lived, where formerly there were only three.
"The common pasture, if it could be called by that
name, was extremely bad, so much so, that in winter those of the people who
had cattle, had to keep constant watch, else they would stick in the bogs.
Human beings could not travel over portions of their crofts in winter. The
people.were at present in poverty, and suffering privations and
inconveniences of a nature to which the bulk of their countrymen were
strangers. They earnestly prayed that the Commission would recommend their
removal to some other place where they could live by the productions of
their labours on the soil."
Very similar are the accounts given of the clearances
of whole districts in various parts of the group. For example, a witness
from Ferrinlea says.—" The clearances commenced about seventy years ago.
M'Caskill had only Rhudunan in his possession at that time, and (lien.
brittle was occupied by crofters in comfortable circumstance., ,and he
cleared it and made a sheep run of it. There was then a church in Gleniner,
and there is nobody there now to use it. The church 1s in ruins, and the
manse is converted into a Bhepherd's house. About a dozen families, all in
comfortable circumstances, were removed from Tusdale. Some went abroad, and
others went to various parts of the country.
"There used to be sixteen families in Crickernish, and
there is nobody there now but a shepherd from other townships. The big
township of Ferrinlea, which was occupied by thirty families, was cleared. A
township in Minginish, with twelve families, was removed, and a place called
Locachierish was cleared, and the people scattered throughout the world.
When the present tackaman of Talisker got the tack thirty-three years ago,
he deprived the cottars of the grazings which they had, and for twenty years
they could not get any. He also took from us our peat-moss, and gave us a
bog which neither man nor beast had used uptothat time. He measured it out
tousby the yard. The cottars who had been left by M'Caskill at Fiscavaig
were also deprived of their peat-moss. They got for it a piece of bad land,
which could not be called earth or moss. They had to cut it for fuel. Then
he removed ten cottar families who had been left by M'Caskill at Tortenan,
Fhirich, and ten or eleven from Fiscavaig, and put them in Ferrinlea,
dividing the existing holdings to do so. We were obliged to work for the
tacksman of Talisker whenever he required us. The strongest man, though he
be as strong as Samson, only gets 11d day, and the women 6d. We have often
to walk nine or ten miles to attend to his work"
The evidence of a representative fisherman and crofter
of Coillemore, Sconser, in the Isle of Skye, suggests that the joy of the
deer-stalker may mean grief to his poor brethren. He tells how they have
some arable ground and pasture, and each crofter is allowed a cow and a cats
but no dog. They are not allowed to graze any sheep on their pasture in case
they should stray on the deer forest. Nevertheless, sheep from adjoining
large farms come down upon their grazings, and their crops are eaten up by
the deer. "There were four townships cleared thirteen years ago to make room
for the deer, and a large number of those evicted were brought down to our
village, in which there were thirteen bigger and fourteen smaller crofts. My
great-grandfather and four others once occupied the whole of Coillemore. We
cannot keep the strange sheep off our grazings, because our herd is not
allowed to keep a dog."
Another witness says—"In our township we are very much
troubled by the doer. I had a dog to protect my crops, but a gamekeeper,
named Robert M'C}regor, came down to my lot and shot it in presence of my
wife and myself I complained to the Fiscal about it.
"Did he prosecute the case?
"The answer I got from the Fiscal was that the factor
was saying that we had no right to keep a dog. Nothing was done in the case.
We have been making complaints for years about the deer. When we complained
to the factor, he said that if we were not satisfied we could throw our
"The deer forest marches with our hill pasture, and the
deer come across it and trespass upon us. Neither we nor our sheep are
allowed on our own pasture at the shooting season when the huntsman comes
round, and our sheep then are not allowed on the hill.
"What do you do when the deer come on your amble
"We have to watch them at night.
"Did anybody ever kill a deer that came on his arabic
"We dare not.
"What would happen to you if you did?
"I would be evicted from the place. The deer are eating
our oats. We need to be protected from them. We have been promised
compensation, but we never got any. We have to stand the loss ourselves,
though the land is refusing to yield crop, and the seed of one year will not
yield sufficient to sow the next. But we must pay rent to the uttermost
penny. For the same land, less the grazings we had, the rent is now more
than a hundred pounds higher than it was.
"The Sconsor houses are worse than any in Skye. The
gamekeepers prevent the people taking thatch from the forest. There is
nowhere else to get it. They also object to the people taking heather for
A neighbonr'of mine
went out to out heather on our pasture for ropes, and the huntsmen came upon
him, and threatened to shoot him if they found him there again. They were
afraid we would disturb the muirfowl.
A crofter from Milovaig says—
"We have very miserable dwellings, and never get aid to
build better houses. They are thatched with straw, and as our crofts do not
produce the amount of straw necessary for fodder and thatch for our houses,
and we are prohibited from cutting rashes or pulling heather, the condition
of our dwelling-houses in rainy weather is most deplorable. Above our beds
comes down pattering rain, rendered dirty and black by the soot in the
ceiling above, and, in consequence, the inmates of the beds have to look for
shelter from the rain in some dry place on the leeside of the house. Out of
twenty crofters' houses there are only two in which the cattle are not under
the same roof with the family."
Dr. Fraser of Edinbane in Skye is asked—
"Are you aware of any cases of disease which can be
distinctly traced to the habits and food of the people?
"I have seen a good deal of scrofulous disease, a good
deal of lung disease, and a large proportion of eye disease, due to the
houses, feeding, and want of clothing. I think the diet of the people much
too limited, even in a good year—potatoes, fish, and meal. I do not we any
permanent remedy. There are too many people on the land, and I do not see
how you are to get rid of them. I am quite satisfied that the crofts are too
small. As a general rule, the people au wish to be crofters.
"Do you think the want of food is the cause of the
people remaining comparatively idle during the winter months? The people in
this country do not display great energy in cultivating their crofts in the
"They do not. I am sure they feel very much loss
inclined to work when they are not well fed. I believe so from what I feel
"Were their food better, do you consider they would
display more energy?
"I am sure they would. There are no better navvies, as
an average, than the Skye men; but then they are having beef three times a
I may quote some passages from the evidence of men who,
when evicted from their crofts on the mainland, were compelled to seek for
quarters on the wretched Isle of Soa.
"Donald M'Queen, catechist, said--I do not know exactly
how old I am, but toy age is more than ninety years at any rate. When I was
young, I went as a teacher to the island of Soa—to the first English school
there. I remember that when I was young, it was the custom for the people to
have sheep, horses, and cattle upon the hill, and to live in shielings.
"The Chairman—From your recollection, do you think that
the people in those days were better off and happier than they are now?
A.—Is it not likely that they would be better off and more contented when
they had cattle, sheep, and horses of their own in plenty, which they have
"Alex. Mackaskill, cottar and boatman, Isle of Sea,
said—My great- grandfather served with the army. My grandfather was forced
to go to the army, and his bones are bleaching in a West India island. My
father was in the militia; my brother was in Her Majesty's navy till the
time of his death, and now the grandson of my grandfather is on a rocky
island that is not fit to be inhabited. In Soa we pay £3 of rent. At first
the agreement was that we were to have four milk goats, a cow, and ten
sheep. The farmer by degrees reduced the number of our cows. He did not
reduce the rent a farthing. There are twenty-three families on the island.
The crofts are on bogs and rocks. When you put your foot on some parts the
ground shifts so much that you would think you were standing at the foot of
"John M'Rae, 35, cottar and fisherman, Boa, said— I
heard the former delegate's statement regarding ,the condition of the people
of Boa, and I agree with it. I could not put down potatoes or oats this
year, because the ground was so soft It is nothing but pits or rocks. I have
been getting bits of land from my neighbours to plant my potatoes, and my
father was that way before me. I have no place on which to build a house. My
present house is built on the sea-shore, and the tide rises to it every
stormy night that comes. I have to watch and put out all my furniture, such
as it is. A sister of mine was employed last winter putting out the
furniture, and she was sickly, and died in consequence. rtief, by carrying
some peat soil on my back, to make a bit of land, but it defied me. The
ground is so soft about me that I had to pave a way with stones for my cow
to get to thehill. I never saw a place in Scotland, Ireland, or Prance so
bad for man to live in.
By the Chairman—I have been a yachtsman.
"I quite agree that the only remedy for us is to be
removed from the island altogether. I have to pay 5s. a boll for meal, bring
it to Loch Slapin, and, after that, I have to bring it eighteen miles
further, to Boa, in a boat. It may happen that I have to spend 15s. to 20s
in lodgings when the weather is stormy, and I cannot get to the island, and
those at home starving. My brother also had a house near my place, and the
tide destroyed it.
"By Sheriff Nicolson—We are all fishermen in Boa. There
are at present upwards of 100 people in Boa.
"By the Chairman—I just manage to keep soul and body
together. I was forty years roaming at sea, and my reason for staying on the
island was just to keep my aged parents out of the poor-house.
"Sixty years ago, before the evictions took place,
there was only a herd on Son. It was in consequence of the clearing out of
the people on the mainland that they were glad to go therefor a home.
"Sheriff Nicolson—Is there not a good deal of arable
land in Ullinish and Ebost, where fine crops were grown forty years ago, and
where heather and ferns are growing now? A.—There is plenty of that.
"Donald M'Innes crofter, Duisdale, aged 75, said—I
remember very well the removal of the people from Borreraig twenty-six years
ago, and the hardships they had to endure when put out of their houses. It
was in time of snow when they were evicted. One man perished. I was in a
comfortable position before people were put in among US by the clearing of
"The man who perished belonged to Snisiinish. He was
found dead at his own door, after he had been evicted. His name was Alexr.
Matheson. There was great hardship connected with that eviction. The fires
were extinguished, the houses knocked down, and the people forced out much
against their will. The officers compelled them."
With regard to the evidence given at South Uist, one of
the Royal Commissioners remarked—"There is a serious charge in the paper
which requires a little explanation. It is said in reference to the
emigration of the people that 'they were compelled to emigrate to America;
some of them had been tied before our eyes; others hid themselves in caves
and crevices for fear of being caught by authorized officers.' Did you we
any of these operations?
"A.—Yes; he heard of them, and saw them. He saw a
policeman chasing a lad named Donald Smith down the road towards Askernish
with the view of catching him, in order to send him aboard the emigrant ship
lying at Lochboisdale, and he saw a man who lay down on his face and knees
on a little island to hide himself from the policeman, who had dogs
searching for him in order to get him aboard the emigrant ship. The man's
name was Lauchlan M'Donald. The dogs did not find this unfortunate youth,
but he was discovered all the same in a trench, and was taken off.
"Q.—Do you rosily say that those people were caught and
sent to America, just like an animal going to market?
"A. —Just the same way. There was another case of a man
named Angus Johnston. He had a dead child in the house, and his wife gave
birth to three children, all of whom died. Notwithstanding this, he was
seized, and tied on the pier at Lochboisdale, and kicked on board. The old
priest interfered, and said, 'What are you doing to this man? let him alone;
it is against the law,' There were many hardships and cruelties endured in
consequence of these evictions. He himself had charge of a squad of men on
the road when Lachlan Chisholm and Malcolm M'Lean asked him to go to Loch
Eynort to bring people out of their homes to emigrate. He refused, and
constables were sent for them.
"The young man Smith he mentioned did not belong to any
family going away. He was twenty years of age, and his father and mother
were dead at the time.
"The wife of the man who was tied and put aboard
afterwards went to the vessel. The four dead children would be buried by
These things happened in the year 1850 or 1851. The
people were hiding themselves in caves and dens for fear of being sent away
from the island.
"He remembered seeing the people forced into the
emigrant ships at Lochboisdale by policemen and others. He saw a man named
William Macpherson forced by four men to the water-side and put into the
ship. Every one of the family was sent away, including the blind father.
There was another case of a man named Donald M'Lellan, who, with his wife
and family, was taken from his house and put into a cart until they could be
sent off. There were many such cases at the time. It was about forty years
ago. Seventeen hundred persona were, he believed, sent off, all of them
belonging to the Gordon estate. So many people were wanting the land which
these persons occupied that they were soon filled up."
One of the witnesses at Tarbert in Harris gave a number
of reminiscences of the estate in the olden time, and mentioned that when
one of the Macleeds came home with his young wife the people were delighted
to see him; twenty young women went out and danced a reel before him.
"Before the year was out, these twenty women were weeping and wailing for
their houses, which were unroofed, and their fires quenched. One hundred and
fifty families were so treated at that time by order of the estate, and were
Another instance I cannot refrain from quoting comes to
us from near Dunvegan in Skye.
"John Macfie, 74, crofter, ifarlosh, said—I have been
forty-six years in my present croft. The people began to fall into arrears
when the kelp industry ceased. In 1840 there were seventeen families removed
from Feorlick by Mr. Gibbon, the tackeman, who took the land and the people
on. They were placed, some by the sea and some on peat land which had never
been cultivated. Some of them did not get a place on earth on which to put a
foot. I myself saw them living under a sail, spread on three poles, below
high-water mark. One of the crofters—Donald Campbell—was warned by the
ground officer for giving refuge to a poor man who had no house. The ground
officer came and pulled down the house, and took a pail of water and threw
it on the fire By the noise made by the extinguishing of the fire, and the
denseness of the steam, the wife went out of her sensee. We were then told
that if we took her out to sea, and pulled her after a boat, she would get
better. We took her out to sea, but she would not sink deeper than her
breast. I NEVES SAW ONE WHO WAS 80 MAD. When Campbell was put out of his
house, not a tenant was allowed to give him shelter. He had nine of a
family, and they had to remain on the hillside on a wet night. The tackaman
took our hill pasture which we had for fifty or sixty years, and settled
crofters upon it. We are still paying for that bill pasture. We have no
road, and should any of our people die in the winter, they have to be buried
in the sea or in the peat-moss."
Anyone interested in this aubjectwill find minute
details ma pamphlet on 'The Highland Clearances,' by Alex. Mackenzie,
Inverness, in which are recorded well-nigh incredible statistics of events
in the Isles and Highlands within the last hundred years. It tells of the
wholesale clearances of wide districts in Sutherland and in parts of Ross
and Inverness; of how 6390 people were forcibly driven out from the glens of
Knoydart and Strathglass. It gives details of the inconceivable cruelties
incident on the Glengarry evictions in 1863, when the whole population were
suddenly swept from the land, which was then converted into great
It tells how in 1849 about seven hundred people were
evicted from Solas, in North Uist; and how in 1862 the districts of Boreraig
and Suisinish, in the Isle of Skye, were likewise cleared, no mercy being
shown to age or sex. Every home was barbarously destroyed ;the poor
possessions of the innocent inmates were thrown out and broken, the
half-woven webs cut from the loom; helpless women on the eve of their
confinement, wailing children, tottering grand-parents, all were alike
thrust out from their loved homes, without food, fire, or shelter, or the
means of procuring any. Many died of consumption, induced by sleeping
shelterless for many nights on the cold ground (damp peat- moss).
A considerable number were evicted at Christmas, their
fires extinguished, their houses pulled down, and they themselves forced out
into the drifting snow, to find what shelter they could among the rocks.
Happy those who could find a corner in some dilapidated barn, or even rig up
a blanket-tent in some ruined church. Even from such shelters as these they
were again and again ejected, without any substitute being provided or any
provision whatever for their support.
When some particulars of this reckless cruelty became
known, and called forth an expression of public opinion, the factor actually
published a circular, declaring that these evictions were "prompted by
motives of piety and benevolence, because the people were too far from
In 1849 and 1851 upwards of two thousand persons were
forcibly shipped from South Ui8t and Barra, and conveyed to Quebec. Some
were induced to embark voluntarily under promise that they were to be
conveyed free of all expense to Upper Canada, where, on arrival, the
Government agents would give them work and grant them land. These conditions
were not fulfilled. They were turned adrift at Quebec, and thence compelled
to beg their way to Upper Canada, and the Canadian papers teemed with
accounts of the miseries endured by these unfortunate Highland emigrants,
whose misery was aggravated by understanding only Gaelic, so that they were
practically strangers in a foreign land. These, and thousands of emigrants
from Lewis, arrived as paupers, dependent for daily bread on the charity of
the Canadian settlers.
After these sad stories of how the bitter pill of
compulsory emigration was sweetened thirty years ago, I must add a few words
to show how differently such matters are now conducted in South Uist.
I am told that each poor family which has resolved to
emigrate from the estates of the large-hearted proprietrix, have not only
received all manner of compensations, but have also been presented with £100
to start them fair in their new colony. A correspondent of 'The Scotsman'
(May 1883) thus announces the arrival in the Great North West of the first
"The first batch of emigrants sent out from Scotland
under the auspices of Lady Gordon Cathcart, numbering forty-five souls, and
of whom eighteen, being adults, are entitled to free homesteads, arrived in
Manitoba last week, and proceeded to Brandon, where the majority of them
remain under the protection of the Government immigration agent at that
point, whilst two of the party are out prospecting with a land guide for a
suitable section of country in which to locate their colony. The country in
the Vicinity of Moosomin has been offered to them, and being well wooded,
and possessing abundance of water, is probably about as good a selection as
they can make.
"The system Lady Cathcart has adopted to assist these
small tenant. farmers of hers is not in the ordinary way of paying their
paseago out, and then leaving them to the care of strangers; but she places
a sum of money to their credit in a Winnipeg bank, under the control of an
accredited Government agent, to be distributed amongst them in the purchase
of agricultural implements."