A JOURNEY TO THE WESTERN ISLANDS OF SCOTLAND by Samuel Johnson
In the morning, September the second, we found
ourselves on the edge of the sea. Having procured a boat, we dismissed our Highlanders,
whom I would recommend to the service of any future travellers, and were ferried over to
the Isle of Sky. We landed at Armidel, where we were met on the sands by Sir Alexander
Macdonald, who was at that time there with his lady, preparing to leave the island and
reside at Edinburgh.
Armidel is a neat house, built where the
Macdonalds had once a seat, which was burnt in the commotions that followed the
Revolution. The walled orchard, which belonged to the former house, still remains. It is
well shaded by tall ash trees, of a species, as Mr. Janes the fossilist informed me,
uncommonly valuable. This plantation is very properly mentioned by Dr.
Campbell, in his new account of the state of Britain, and deserves
attention; because it proves that the present nakedness of the Hebrides is not wholly the
fault of Nature.
As we sat at Sir Alexander's table, we were entertained, according
to the ancient usage of the North, with the melody of the bagpipe.
Everything in those countries has its history. As the bagpiper was
playing, an elderly Gentleman informed us, that in some remote time, the Macdonalds of
Glengary having been injured, or offended by the inhabitants of Culloden, and resolving to
have justice or vengeance, came to Culloden on a Sunday, where finding their enemies at
worship, they shut them up in the church, which they set on fire; and this, said he, is
the tune that the piper played while they were burning.
Narrations like this, however uncertain, deserve the notice of the
traveller, because they are the only records of a nation that has no historians, and
afford the most genuine representation of the life and character of the ancient
Under the denomination of Highlander are comprehended in Scotland
all that now speak the Erse language, or retain the primitive manners, whether they live
among the mountains or in the islands; and in that sense I use the name, when there is not
some apparent reason for making a distinction.
In Sky I first observed the use of Brogues, a kind of artless shoes,
stitched with thongs so loosely, that though they defend the foot from stones, they do not
exclude water. Brogues were formerly made of raw hides, with the hair inwards, and such
are perhaps still used in rude and remote parts; but they are said not to last above two
days. Where life is somewhat improved, they are now made of leather tanned with oak bark,
as in other places, or with the bark of birch, or roots of tormentil, a substance
recommended in defect of bark, about forty years ago, to the Irish tanners, by one to whom
the parliament of that kingdom voted a reward. The leather of Sky is not completely
penetrated by vegetable matter, and therefore cannot be very durable.
My inquiries about brogues, gave me an early specimen of Highland
information. One day I was told, that to make brogues was a domestick art, which every man
practised for himself, and that a pair of brogues was the work of an hour. I supposed that
the husband made brogues as the wife made an apron, till next day it was told me, that a
brogue-maker was a trade, and that a pair would cost half a crown. It will easily occur
that these representations may both be true, and that, in some places, men may buy them,
and in others, make them for themselves; but I had both the accounts in the same house
within two days.
Many of my subsequent inquiries upon more interesting topicks ended
in the like uncertainty. He that travels in the Highlands may easily saturate his soul
with intelligence, if he will acquiesce in the first account. The Highlander gives to
every question an answer so prompt and peremptory, that skepticism itself is dared into
silence, and the mind sinks before the bold reporter in unresisting credulity; but, if a
second question be ventured, it breaks the enchantment; for it is immediately discovered,
that what was told so confidently was told at hazard, and that such fearlessness of
assertion was either the sport of negligence, or the refuge of ignorance.
If individuals are thus at variance with themselves, it can be no
wonder that the accounts of different men are contradictory. The traditions of an ignorant
and savage people have been for ages negligently heard, and unskilfully related. Distant
events must have been mingled together, and the actions of one man given to another.
These, however, are deficiencies in story, for which no man is now to be censured. It were
enough, if what there is yet opportunity of examining were accurately inspected, and
justly represented; but such is the laxity of Highland conversation, that the inquirer is
kept in continual suspense, and by a kind of intellectual retrogradation, knows less as he
In the islands the plaid is rarely worn. The law by which the
Highlanders have been obliged to change the form of their dress, has, in all the places
that we have visited, been universally obeyed. I have seen only one gentleman completely
clothed in the ancient habit, and by him it was worn only occasionally and wantonly. The
common people do not think themselves under any legal necessity of having coats; for they
say that the law against plaids was made by Lord Hardwicke, and was in force only for his
life: but the same poverty that made it then difficult for them to change their clothing,
hinders them now from changing it again.
The fillibeg, or lower garment, is still very common, and the bonnet
almost universal; but their attire is such as produces, in a sufficient degree, the effect
intended by the law, of abolishing the dissimilitude of appearance between the Highlanders
and the other inhabitants of Britain; and, if dress be supposed to have much influence,
facilitates their coalition with their fellow-subjects.
What we have long used we naturally like, and therefore the
Highlanders were unwilling to lay aside their plaid, which yet to an unprejudiced
spectator must appear an incommodious and cumbersome dress; for hanging loose upon the
body, it must flutter in a quick motion, or require one of the hands to keep it close.
The Romans always laid aside the gown when they had anything to do.
It was a dress so unsuitable to war, that the same word which signified a gown signified
peace. The chief use of a plaid seems to be this, that they could commodiously wrap
themselves in it, when they were obliged to sleep without a better cover.
In our passage from Scotland to Sky, we were wet for the first time
with a shower. This was the beginning of the Highland winter, after which we were told
that a succession of three dry days was not to be expected for many months. The winter of
the Hebrides consists of little more than rain and wind. As they are surrounded by an
ocean never frozen, the blasts that come to them over the water are too much softened to
have the power of congelation. The salt loughs, or inlets of the sea, which shoot very far
into the island, never have any ice upon them, and the pools of fresh water will never
bear the walker. The snow that sometimes falls, is soon dissolved by the air, or the rain.
This is not the description of a cruel climate, yet the dark months
are here a time of great distress; because the summer can do little more than feed itself,
and winter comes with its cold and its scarcity upon families very slenderly provided.
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