A JOURNEY TO THE WESTERN ISLANDS OF SCOTLAND by Samuel Johnson
CORIATACHAN IN SKY
The third or fourth day after our arrival at
Armidel, brought us an invitation to the isle of Raasay, which lies east of Sky. It is
incredible how soon the account of any event is propagated in these narrow countries by
the love of talk, which much leisure produces, and the relief given to the mind in the
penury of insular conversation by a new topick. The arrival of strangers at a place so
rarely visited, excites rumour, and quickens curiosity. I know not whether we touched at
any corner, where Fame had not already prepared us a reception.
To gain a commodious passage to Raasay, it was necessary to pass over a large
part of Sky. We were furnished therefore with horses and a guide. In the Islands there are
no roads, nor any marks by which a stranger may find his way. The horseman has always at
his side a native of the place, who, by pursuing game, or tending cattle, or being often
employed in messages or conduct, has learned where the ridge of the hill has breadth
sufficient to allow a horse and his rider a passage, and where the moss or bog is hard
enough to bear them. The bogs are avoided as toilsome at least, if not unsafe, and
therefore the journey is made generally from precipice to precipice; from which if the eye
ventures to look down, it sees below a gloomy cavity, whence the rush of water is
But there seems to be in all this more alarm than danger. The
Highlander walks carefully before, and the horse, accustomed to the ground, follows him
with little deviation. Sometimes the hill is too steep for the horseman to keep his seat,
and sometimes the moss is too tremulous to bear the double weight of horse and man. The
rider then dismounts, and all shift as they can.
Journies made in this manner are rather tedious than long. A very
few miles require several hours. From Armidel we came at night to Coriatachan, a house
very pleasantly situated between two brooks, with one of the highest hills of the island
behind it. It is the residence of Mr. Mackinnon, by whom we were treated with very liberal
hospitality, among a more numerous and elegant company than it could have been supposed
easy to collect.
The hill behind the house we did not climb. The weather was rough,
and the height and steepness discouraged us. We were told that there is a cairne upon it.
A cairne is a heap of stones thrown upon the grave of one eminent for dignity of birth, or
splendour of atchievements. It is said that by digging, an urn is always found under these
cairnes: they must therefore have been thus piled by a people whose custom was to burn the
dead. To pile stones is, I believe, a northern custom, and to burn the body was the Roman
practice; nor do I know when it was that these two acts of sepulture were united.
The weather was next day too violent for the continuation of our
journey; but we had no reason to complain of the interruption. We saw in every place, what
we chiefly desired to know, the manners of the people. We had company, and, if we had
chosen retirement, we might have had books.
I never was in any house of the Islands, where I did not find books
in more languages than one, if I staid long enough to want them, except one from which the
family was removed. Literature is not neglected by the higher rank of the Hebridians.
It need not, I suppose, be mentioned, that in countries so little
frequented as the Islands, there are no houses where travellers are entertained for money.
He that wanders about these wilds, either procures recommendations to those whose
habitations lie near his way, or, when night and weariness come upon him, takes the chance
of general hospitality. If he finds only a cottage, he can expect little more than
shelter; for the cottagers have little more for themselves: but if his good fortune brings
him to the residence of a gentleman, he will be glad of a storm to prolong his stay. There
is, however, one inn by the sea-side at Sconsor, in Sky, where the post-office is kept.
At the tables where a stranger is received, neither plenty nor
delicacy is wanting. A tract of land so thinly inhabited, must have much wild-fowl; and I
scarcely remember to have seen a dinner without them. The moorgame is every where to be
had. That the sea abounds with fish, needs not be told, for it supplies a great part of
Europe. The Isle of Sky has stags and roebucks, but no hares.
They sell very numerous droves of oxen yearly to England, and
therefore cannot be supposed to want beef at home. Sheep and goats are in great numbers,
and they have the common domestick fowls.
But as here is nothing to be bought, every family must kill its own
meat, and roast part of it somewhat sooner than Apicius would prescribe. Every kind of
flesh is undoubtedly excelled by the variety and emulation of English markets; but that
which is not best may be yet very far from bad, and he that shall complain of his fare in
the Hebrides, has improved his delicacy more than his manhood.
Their fowls are not like those plumped for sale by the poulterers of
London, but they are as good as other places commonly afford, except that the geese, by
feeding in the sea, have universally a fishy rankness.
These geese seem to be of a middle race, between the wild and
domestick kinds. They are so tame as to own a home, and so wild as sometimes to fly quite
Their native bread is made of oats, or barley. Of oatmeal they
spread very thin cakes, coarse and hard, to which unaccustomed palates are not easily
reconciled. The barley cakes are thicker and softer; I began to eat them without
unwillingness; the blackness of their colour raises some dislike, but the taste is not
disagreeable. In most houses there is wheat flower, with which we were sure to be treated,
if we staid long enough to have it kneaded and baked. As neither yeast nor leaven are used
among them, their bread of every kind is unfermented. They make only cakes, and never
mould a loaf.
A man of the Hebrides, for of the women's diet I can give no
account, as soon as he appears in the morning, swallows a glass of whisky; yet they are
not a drunken race, at least I never was present at much intemperance; but no man is so
abstemious as to refuse the morning dram, which they call a skalk.
The word whisky signifies water, and is applied by way of eminence
to strong water, or distilled liquor. The spirit drunk in the North is drawn from barley.
I never tasted it, except once for experiment at the inn in Inverary, when I thought it
preferable to any English malt brandy. It was strong, but not pungent, and was free from
the empyreumatick taste or smell. What was the process I had no opportunity of inquiring,
nor do I wish to improve the art of making poison pleasant.
Not long after the dram, may be expected the breakfast, a meal in
which the Scots, whether of the lowlands or mountains, must be confessed to excel us. The
tea and coffee are accompanied not only with butter, but with honey, conserves, and
marmalades. If an epicure could remove by a wish, in quest of sensual gratifications,
wherever he had supped he would breakfast in Scotland.
In the islands however, they do what I found it not very easy to
endure. They pollute the tea-table by plates piled with large slices of cheshire cheese,
which mingles its less grateful odours with the fragrance of the tea.
Where many questions are to be asked, some will be omitted. I forgot
to inquire how they were supplied with so much exotic luxury. Perhaps the French may bring
them wine for wool, and the Dutch give them tea and coffee at the fishing season, in
exchange for fresh provision. Their trade is unconstrained; they pay no customs, for there
is no officer to demand them; whatever therefore is made dear only by impost, is obtained
here at an easy rate.
A dinner in the Western Islands differs very little from a dinner in
England, except that in the place of tarts, there are always set different preparations of
milk. This part of their diet will admit some improvement. Though they have milk, and
eggs, and sugar, few of them know how to compound them in a custard. Their gardens afford
them no great variety, but they have always some vegetables on the table. Potatoes at
least are never wanting, which, though they have not known them long, are now one of the
principal parts of their food. They are not of the mealy, but the viscous kind.
Their more elaborate cookery, or made dishes, an Englishman at the
first taste is not likely to approve, but the culinary compositions of every country are
often such as become grateful to other nations only by degrees; though I have read a
French author, who, in the elation of his heart, says, that French cookery pleases all
foreigners, but foreign cookery never satisfies a Frenchman.
Their suppers are, like their dinners, various and plentiful. The
table is always covered with elegant linen. Their plates for common use are often of that
kind of manufacture which is called cream coloured, or queen's ware. They use silver on
all occasions where it is common in England, nor did I ever find the spoon of horn, but in
The knives are not often either very bright, or very sharp. They are
indeed instruments of which the Highlanders have not been long acquainted with the general
use. They were not regularly laid on the table, before the prohibition of arms, and the
change of dress.
Thirty years ago the Highlander wore his knife as a companion to his
dirk or dagger, and when the company sat down to meat, the men who had knives, cut the
flesh into small pieces for the women, who with their fingers conveyed it to their mouths.
There was perhaps never any change of national manners so quick, so
great, and so general, as that which has operated in the Highlands, by the last conquest,
and the subsequent laws. We came thither too late to see what we expected, a people of
peculiar appearance, and a system of antiquated life. The clans retain little now of their
original character, their ferocity of temper is softened, their military ardour is
extinguished, their dignity of independence is depressed, their contempt of government
subdued, and the reverence for their chiefs abated. Of what they had before the late
conquest of their country, there remain only their language and their poverty. Their
language is attacked on every side. Schools are erected, in which English only is taught,
and there were lately some who thought it reasonable to refuse them a version of the holy
scriptures, that they might have no monument of their mother-tongue.
That their poverty is gradually abated, cannot be mentioned among
the unpleasing consequences of subjection. They are now acquainted with money, and the
possibility of gain will by degrees make them industrious. Such is the effect of the late
regulations, that a longer journey than to the Highlands must be taken by him whose
curiosity pants for savage virtues and barbarous grandeur.
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