At the first intermission of the stormy weather we
were informed, that the boat, which was to convey us to Raasay, attended us on the coast.
We had from this time our intelligence facilitated, and our conversation enlarged, by the
company of Mr. Macqueen, minister of a parish in Sky, whose knowledge and politeness give
him a title equally to kindness and respect, and who, from this time, never forsook us
till we were preparing to leave Sky, and the adjacent places.
boat was under the direction of Mr. Malcolm Macleod, a gentleman of Raasay. The water was
calm, and the rowers were vigorous; so that our passage was quick and pleasant. When we
came near the island, we saw the laird's house, a neat modern fabrick, and found Mr.
Macleod, the proprietor of the Island, with many gentlemen, expecting us on the beach. We
had, as at all other places, some difficulty in landing. The craggs were irregularly
broken, and a false step would have been very mischievous.
It seemed that the rocks might, with no great labour, have been hewn
almost into a regular flight of steps; and as there are no other landing places, I
considered this rugged ascent as the consequence of a form of life inured to hardships,
and therefore not studious of nice accommodations. But I know not whether, for many ages,
it was not considered as a part of military policy, to keep the country not easily
accessible. The rocks are natural fortifications, and an enemy climbing with difficulty,
was easily destroyed by those who stood high above him.
Our reception exceeded our expectations. We found nothing but
civility, elegance, and plenty. After the usual refreshments, and the usual conversation,
the evening came upon us. The carpet was then rolled off the floor; the musician was
called, and the whole company was invited to dance, nor did ever fairies trip with greater
alacrity. The general air of festivity, which predominated in this place, so far remote
from all those regions which the mind has been used to contemplate as the mansions of
pleasure, struck the imagination with a delightful surprise, analogous to that which is
felt at an unexpected emersion from darkness into light.
When it was time to sup, the dance ceased, and six and thirty
persons sat down to two tables in the same room. After supper the ladies sung Erse songs,
to which I listened as an English audience to an Italian opera, delighted with the sound
of words which I did not understand.
I inquired the subjects of the songs, and was told of one, that it
was a love song, and of another, that it was a farewell composed by one of the Islanders
that was going, in this epidemical fury of emigration, to seek his fortune in America.
What sentiments would arise, on such an occasion, in the heart of one who had not been
taught to lament by precedent, I should gladly have known; but the lady, by whom I sat,
thought herself not equal to the work of translating.
Mr. Macleod is the proprietor of the islands of Raasay, Rona, and
Fladda, and possesses an extensive district in Sky. The estate has not, during four
hundred years, gained or lost a single acre. He acknowledges Macleod of Dunvegan as his
chief, though his ancestors have formerly disputed the pre-eminence.
One of the old Highland alliances has continued for two hundred
years, and is still subsisting between Macleod of Raasay and Macdonald of Sky, in
consequence of which, the survivor always inherits the arms of the deceased; a natural
memorial of military friendship. At the death of the late Sir James Macdonald, his sword
was delivered to the present laird of Raasay.
The family of Raasay consists of the laird, the lady, three sons and
ten daughters. For the sons there is a tutor in the house, and the lady is said to be very
skilful and diligent in the education of her girls. More gentleness of manners, or a more
pleasing appearance of domestick society, is not found in the most polished countries.
Raasay is the only inhabited island in Mr. Macleod's possession.
Rona and Fladda afford only pasture for cattle, of which one hundred and sixty winter in
Rona, under the superintendence of a solitary herdsman.
The length of Raasay is, by computation, fifteen miles, and the
breadth two. These countries have never been measured, and the computation by miles is
negligent and arbitrary. We observed in travelling, that the nominal and real distance of
places had very little relation to each other. Raasay probably contains near a hundred
square miles. It affords not much ground, notwithstanding its extent, either for tillage,
or pasture; for it is rough, rocky, and barren. The cattle often perish by falling from
the precipices. It is like the other islands, I think, generally naked of shade, but it is
naked by neglect; for the laird has an orchard, and very large forest trees grow about his
house. Like other hilly countries it has many rivulets. One of the brooks turns a
corn-mill, and at least one produces trouts.
In the streams or fresh lakes of the Islands, I have never heard of
any other fish than trouts and eels. The trouts, which I have seen, are not large; the
colour of their flesh is tinged as in England. Of their eels I can give no account, having
never tasted them; for I believe they are not considered as wholesome food.
It is not very easy to fix the principles upon which mankind have
agreed to eat some animals, and reject others; and as the principle is not evident, it is
not uniform. That which is selected as delicate in one country, is by its neighbours
abhorred as loathsome. The Neapolitans lately refused to eat potatoes in a famine. An
Englishman is not easily persuaded to dine on snails with an Italian, on frogs with a
Frenchman, or on horseflesh with a Tartar. The vulgar inhabitants of Sky, I know not
whether of the other islands, have not only eels, but pork and bacon in abhorrence, and
accordingly I never saw a hog in the Hebrides, except one at Dunvegan.
Raasay has wild fowl in abundance, but neither deer, hares, nor
rabbits. Why it has them not, might be asked, but that of such questions there is no end.
Why does any nation want what it might have? Why are not spices transplanted to America?
Why does tea continue to be brought from China? Life improves but by slow degrees, and
much in every place is yet to do. Attempts have been made to raise roebucks in Raasay, but
without effect. The young ones it is extremely difficult to rear, and the old can very
seldom be taken alive.
Hares and rabbits might be more easily obtained. That they have few
or none of either in Sky, they impute to the ravage of the foxes, and have therefore set,
for some years past, a price upon their heads, which, as the number was diminished, has
been gradually raised, from three shillings and sixpence to a guinea, a sum so great in
this part of the world, that, in a short time, Sky may be as free from foxes, as England
from wolves. The fund for these rewards is a tax of sixpence in the pound, imposed by the
farmers on themselves, and said to be paid with great willingness.
The beasts of prey in the Islands are foxes, otters, and weasels.
The foxes are bigger than those of England; but the otters exceed ours in a far greater
proportion. I saw one at Armidel, of a size much beyond that which I supposed them ever to
attain; and Mr. Maclean, the heir of Col, a man of middle stature, informed me that he
once shot an otter, of which the tail reached the ground, when he held up the head to a
level with his own. I expected the otter to have a foot particularly formed for the art of
swimming; but upon examination, I did not find it differing much from that of a spaniel.
As he preys in the sea, he does little visible mischief, and is killed only for his fur.
White otters are sometimes seen.
In Raasay they might have hares and rabbits, for they have no foxes.
Some depredations, such as were never made before, have caused a suspicion that a fox has
been lately landed in the Island by spite or wantonness. This imaginary stranger has never
yet been seen, and therefore, perhaps, the mischief was done by some other animal. It is
not likely that a creature so ungentle, whose head could have been sold in Sky for a
guinea, should be kept alive only to gratify the malice of sending him to prey upon a
neighbour: and the passage from Sky is wider than a fox would venture to swim, unless he
were chased by dogs into the sea, and perhaps than his strength would enable him to cross.
How beasts of prey came into any islands is not easy to guess. In cold countries they take
advantage of hard winters, and travel over the ice: but this is a very scanty solution;
for they are found where they have no discoverable means of coming.
The corn of this island is but little. I saw the harvest of a small
field. The women reaped the Corn, and the men bound up the sheaves. The strokes of the
sickle were timed by the modulation of the harvest song, in which all their voices were
united. They accompany in the Highlands every action, which can be done in equal time,
with an appropriated strain, which has, they say, not much meaning; but its effects are
regularity and cheerfulness. The ancient proceleusmatick song, by which the rowers of
gallies were animated, may be supposed to have been of this kind. There is now an oar-song
used by the Hebridians.
The ground of Raasay seems fitter for cattle than for corn, and of
black cattle I suppose the number is very great. The Laird himself keeps a herd of four
hundred, one hundred of which are annually sold. Of an extensive domain, which he holds in
his own hands, he considers the sale of cattle as repaying him the rent, and supports the
plenty of a very liberal table with the remaining product.
Raasay is supposed to have been very long inhabited. On one side of
it they show caves, into which the rude nations of the first ages retreated from the
weather. These dreary vaults might have had other uses. There is still a cavity near the
house called the oar-cave, in which the seamen, after one of those piratical expeditions,
which in rougher times were very frequent, used, as tradition tells, to hide their oars.
This hollow was near the sea, that nothing so necessary might be far to be fetched; and it
was secret, that enemies, if they landed, could find nothing. Yet it is not very evident
of what use it was to hide their oars from those, who, if they were masters of the coast,
could take away their boats.
A proof much stronger of the distance at which the first possessors
of this island lived from the present time, is afforded by the stone heads of arrows which
are very frequently picked up. The people call them Elf-bolts, and believe that the
fairies shoot them at the cattle. They nearly resemble those which Mr. Banks has lately
brought from the savage countries in the Pacifick Ocean, and must have been made by a
nation to which the use of metals was unknown.
The number of this little community has never been counted by its
ruler, nor have I obtained any positive account, consistent with the result of political
computation. Not many years ago, the late Laird led out one hundred men upon a military
expedition. The sixth part of a people is supposed capable of bearing arms: Raasay had
therefore six hundred inhabitants. But because it is not likely, that every man able to
serve in the field would follow the summons, or that the chief would leave his lands
totally defenceless, or take away all the hands qualified for labour, let it be supposed,
that half as many might be permitted to stay at home. The whole number will then be nine
hundred, or nine to a square mile; a degree of populousness greater than those tracts of
desolation can often show. They are content with their country, and faithful to their
chiefs, and yet uninfected with the fever of migration.
Near the house, at Raasay, is a chapel unroofed and ruinous, which
has long been used only as a place of burial. About the churches, in the Islands, are
small squares inclosed with stone, which belong to particular families, as repositories
for the dead. At Raasay there is one, I think, for the proprietor, and one for some
It is told by Martin, that at the death of the Lady of the Island,
it has been here the custom to erect a cross. This we found not to be true. The stones
that stand about the chapel at a small distance, some of which perhaps have crosses cut
upon them, are believed to have been not funeral monuments, but the ancient boundaries of
the sanctuary or consecrated ground.
Martin was a man not illiterate: he was an inhabitant of Sky, and
therefore was within reach of intelligence, and with no great difficulty might have
visited the places which he undertakes to describe; yet with all his opportunities, he has
often suffered himself to be deceived. He lived in the last century, when the chiefs of
the clans had lost little of their original influence.
The mountains were yet unpenetrated, no inlet was opened to foreign
novelties, and the feudal institution operated upon life with their full force. He might
therefore have displayed a series of subordination and a form of government, which, in
more luminous and improved regions, have been long forgotten, and have delighted his
readers with many uncouth customs that are now disused, and wild opinions that prevail no
longer. But he probably had not knowledge of the world sufficient to qualify him for
judging what would deserve or gain the attention of mankind. The mode of life which was
familiar to himself, he did not suppose unknown to others, nor imagined that he could give
pleasure by telling that of which it was, in his little country, impossible to be
What he has neglected cannot now be performed. In nations, where
there is hardly the use of letters, what is once out of sight is lost for ever. They think
but little, and of their few thoughts, none are wasted on the past, in which they are
neither interested by fear nor hope. Their only registers are stated observances and
practical representations. For this reason an age of ignorance is an age of ceremony.
Pageants, and processions, and commemorations, gradually shrink away, as better methods
come into use of recording events, and preserving rights.
It is not only in Raasay that the chapel is unroofed and useless;
through the few islands which we visited, we neither saw nor heard of any house of prayer,
except in Sky, that was not in ruins. The malignant influence of Calvinism has blasted
ceremony and decency together; and if the remembrance of papal superstition is
obliterated, the monuments of papal piety are likewise effaced.
It has been, for many years, popular to talk of the lazy devotion of
the Romish clergy; over the sleepy laziness of men that erected churches, we may indulge
our superiority with a new triumph, by comparing it with the fervid activity of those who
suffer them to fall.
Of the destruction of churches, the decay of religion must in time
be the consequence; for while the publick acts of the ministry are now performed in
houses, a very small number can be present; and as the greater part of the Islanders make
no use of books, all must necessarily live in total ignorance who want the opportunity of
From these remains of ancient sanctity, which are every where to be
found, it has been conjectured, that, for the last two centuries, the inhabitants of the
Islands have decreased in number. This argument, which supposes that the churches have
been suffered to fall, only because they were no longer necessary, would have some force,
if the houses of worship still remaining were sufficient for the people. But since they
have now no churches at all, these venerable fragments do not prove the people of former
times to have been more numerous, but to have been more devout. If the inhabitants were
doubled with their present principles, it appears not that any provision for publick
worship would be made. Where the religion of a country enforces consecrated buildings, the
number of those buildings may be supposed to afford some indication, however uncertain, of
the populousness of the place; but where by a change of manners a nation is contented to
live without them, their decay implies no diminution of inhabitants.
Some of these dilapidations are said to be found in islands now
uninhabited; but I doubt whether we can thence infer that they were ever peopled. The
religion of the middle age, is well known to have placed too much hope in lonely
austerities. Voluntary solitude was the great act of propitiation, by which crimes were
effaced, and conscience was appeased; it is therefore not unlikely, that oratories were
often built in places where retirement was sure to have no disturbance.
Raasay has little that can detain a traveller, except the Laird and
his family; but their power wants no auxiliaries. Such a seat of hospitality, amidst the
winds and waters, fills the imagination with a delightful contrariety of images. Without
is the rough ocean and the rocky land, the beating billows and the howling storm: within
is plenty and elegance, beauty and gaiety, the song and the dance. In Raasay, if I could
have found an Ulysses, I had fancied a Phoeacia.