At Ostig, of which Mr. Macpherson is minister, we
were entertained for some days, then removed to Armidel, where we finished our
observations on the island of Sky.
As this Island lies in the
fifty-seventh degree, the air cannot be supposed to have much warmth. The long continuance
of the sun above the horizon, does indeed sometimes produce great heat in northern
latitudes; but this can only happen in sheltered places, where the atmosphere is to a
certain degree stagnant, and the same mass of air continues to receive for many hours the
rays of the sun, and the vapours of the earth. Sky lies open on the west and north to a
vast extent of ocean, and is cooled in the summer by perpetual ventilation, but by the
same blasts is kept warm in winter. Their weather is not pleasing. Half the year is
deluged with rain. From the autumnal to the vernal equinox, a dry day is hardly known,
except when the showers are suspended by a tempest.
Under such skies can be expected no great exuberance of vegetation.
Their winter overtakes their summer, and their harvest lies upon the ground drenched with
rain. The autumn struggles hard to produce some of our early fruits. I gathered
gooseberries in September; but they were small, and the husk was thick.
Their winter is seldom such as puts a full stop to the growth of
plants, or reduces the cattle to live wholly on the surplusage of the summer. In the year
Seventy-one they had a severe season, remembered by the name of the Black Spring, from
which the island has not yet recovered. The snow lay long upon the ground, a calamity
hardly known before. Part of their cattle died for want, part were unseasonably sold to
buy sustenance for the owners; and, what I have not read or heard of before, the kine that
survived were so emaciated and dispirited, that they did not require the male at the usual
time. Many of the roebucks perished.
The soil, as in other countries, has its diversities. In some parts
there is only a thin layer of earth spread upon a rock, which bears nothing but short
brown heath, and perhaps is not generally capable of any better product. There are many
bogs or mosses of greater or less extent, where the soil cannot be supposed to want depth,
though it is too wet for the plow. But we did not observe in these any aquatick plants.
The vallies and the mountains are alike darkened with heath. Some grass, however, grows
here and there, and some happier spots of earth are capable of tillage.
Their agriculture is laborious, and perhaps rather feeble than
unskilful. Their chief manure is seaweed, which, when they lay it to rot upon the field,
gives them a better crop than those of the Highlands. They heap sea shells upon the
dunghill, which in time moulder into a fertilising substance. When they find a vein of
earth where they cannot use it, they dig it up, and add it to the mould of a more
Their corn grounds often lie in such intricacies among the craggs,
that there is no room for the action of a team and plow. The soil is then turned up by
manual labour, with an instrument called a crooked spade, of a form and weight which to me
appeared very incommodious, and would perhaps be soon improved in a country where workmen
could be easily found and easily paid. It has a narrow blade of iron fixed to a long and
heavy piece of wood, which must have, about a foot and a half above the iron, a knee or
flexure with the angle downwards. When the farmer encounters a stone which is the great
impediment of his operations, he drives the blade under it, and bringing the knee or angle
to the ground, has in the long handle a very forcible lever.
According to the different mode of tillage, farms are distinguished
into long land and short land. Long land is that which affords room for a plow, and short
land is turned up by the spade.
The grain which they commit to the furrows thus tediously formed, is
either oats or barley. They do not sow barley without very copious manure, and then they
expect from it ten for one, an increase equal to that of better countries; but the culture
is so operose that they content themselves commonly with oats; and who can relate without
compassion, that after all their diligence they are to expect only a triple increase? It
is in vain to hope for plenty, when a third part of the harvest must be reserved for seed.
When their grain is arrived at the state which they must consider as
ripeness, they do not cut, but pull the barley: to the oats they apply the sickle. Wheel
carriages they have none, but make a frame of timber, which is drawn by one horse with the
two points behind pressing on the ground. On this they sometimes drag home their sheaves,
but often convey them home in a kind of open panier, or frame of sticks upon the horse's
Of that which is obtained with so much difficulty, nothing surely
ought to be wasted; yet their method of clearing their oats from the husk is by parching
them in the straw. Thus with the genuine improvidence of savages, they destroy that fodder
for want of which their cattle may perish. From this practice they have two petty
conveniences. They dry the grain so that it is easily reduced to meal, and they escape the
theft of the thresher. The taste contracted from the fire by the oats, as by every other
scorched substance, use must long ago have made grateful. The oats that are not parched
must be dried in a kiln.
The barns of Sky I never saw. That which Macleod of Raasay had
erected near his house was so contrived, because the harvest is seldom brought home dry,
as by perpetual perflation to prevent the mow from heating.
Of their gardens I can judge only from their tables. I did not
observe that the common greens were wanting, and suppose, that by choosing an advantageous
exposition, they can raise all the more hardy esculent plants. Of vegetable fragrance or
beauty they are not yet studious. Few vows are made to Flora in the Hebrides.
They gather a little hay, but the grass is mown late; and is so
often almost dry and again very wet, before it is housed, that it becomes a collection of
withered stalks without taste or fragrance; it must be eaten by cattle that have nothing
else, but by most English farmers would be thrown away.
In the Islands I have not heard that any subterraneous treasures
have been discovered, though where there are mountains, there are commonly minerals. One
of the rocks in Col has a black vein, imagined to consist of the ore of lead; but it was
never yet opened or essayed. In Sky a black mass was accidentally picked up, and brought
into the house of the owner of the land, who found himself strongly inclined to think it a
coal, but unhappily it did not burn in the chimney. Common ores would be here of no great
value; for what requires to be separated by fire, must, if it were found, be carried away
in its mineral state, here being no fewel for the smelting-house or forge. Perhaps by
diligent search in this world of stone, some valuable species of marble might be
discovered. But neither philosophical curiosity, nor commercial industry, have yet fixed
their abode here, where the importunity of immediate want supplied but for the day, and
craving on the morrow, has left little room for excursive knowledge or the pleasing
fancies of distant profit.
They have lately found a manufacture considerably lucrative. Their
rocks abound with kelp, a sea-plant, of which the ashes are melted into glass. They burn
kelp in great quantities, and then send it away in ships, which come regularly to purchase
them. This new source of riches has raised the rents of many maritime farms; but the
tenants pay, like all other tenants, the additional rent with great unwillingness; because
they consider the profits of the kelp as the mere product of personal labour, to which the
landlord contributes nothing. However, as any man may be said to give, what he gives the
power of gaining, he has certainly as much right to profit from the price of kelp as of
any thing else found or raised upon his ground.
This new trade has excited a long and eager litigation between
Macdonald and Macleod, for a ledge of rocks, which, till the value of kelp was known,
neither of them desired the reputation of possessing.
The cattle of Sky are not so small as is commonly believed. Since
they have sent their beeves in great numbers to southern marts, they have probably taken
more care of their breed. At stated times the annual growth of cattle is driven to a fair,
by a general drover, and with the money, which he returns to the farmer, the rents are
The price regularly expected, is from two to three pounds a head:
there was once one sold for five pounds. They go from the Islands very lean, and are not
offered to the butcher, till they have been long fatted in English pastures.
Of their black cattle, some are without horns, called by the Scots
humble cows, as we call a bee an humble bee, that wants a sting. Whether this difference
be specifick, or accidental, though we inquired with great diligence, we could not be
informed. We are not very sure that the bull is ever without horns, though we have been
told, that such bulls there are. What is produced by putting a horned and unhorned male
and female together, no man has ever tried, that thought the result worthy of observation.
Their horses are, like their cows, of a moderate size. I had no
difficulty to mount myself commodiously by the favour of the gentlemen. I heard of very
little cows in Barra, and very little horses in Rum, where perhaps no care is taken to
prevent that diminution of size, which must always happen, where the greater and the less
copulate promiscuously, and the young animal is restrained from growth by penury of
The goat is the general inhabitant of the earth, complying with
every difference of climate, and of soil. The goats of the Hebrides are like others: nor
did I hear any thing of their sheep, to be particularly remarked.
In the penury of these malignant regions, nothing is left that can
be converted to food. The goats and the sheep are milked like the cows. A single meal of a
goat is a quart, and of a sheep a pint.
Such at least was the account, which I could extract from those of
whom I am not sure that they ever had inquired.
The milk of goats is much thinner than that of cows, and that of
sheep is much thicker. Sheeps milk is never eaten before it is boiled: as it is thick, it
must be very liberal of curd, and the people of St. Kilda form it into small cheeses.
The stags of the mountains are less than those of our parks, or
forests, perhaps not bigger than our fallow deer. Their flesh has no rankness, nor is
inferiour in flavour to our common venison.
The roebuck I neither saw nor tasted. These are not countries for a
regular chase. The deer are not driven with horns and hounds. A sportsman, with his gun in
his hand, watches the animal, and when he has wounded him, traces him by the blood.
They have a race of brinded greyhounds, larger and stronger than
those with which we course hares, and those are the only dogs used by them for the chase.
Man is by the use of fire-arms made so much an overmatch for other
animals, that in all countries, where they are in use, the wild part of the creation
sensibly diminishes. There will probably not be long, either stags or roebucks in the
Islands. All the beasts of chase would have been lost long ago in countries well
inhabited, had they not been preserved by laws for the pleasure of the rich.
There are in Sky neither rats nor mice, but the weasel is so
frequent, that he is heard in houses rattling behind chests or beds, as rats in England.
They probably owe to his predominance that they have no other vermin; for since the great
rat took possession of this part of the world, scarce a ship can touch at any port, but
some of his race are left behind. They have within these few years began to infest the
isle of Col, where being left by some trading vessel, they have increased for want of
weasels to oppose them.
The inhabitants of Sky, and of the other Islands, which I have seen,
are commonly of the middle stature, with fewer among them very tall or very short, than
are seen in England, or perhaps, as their numbers are small, the chances of any deviation
from the common measure are necessarily few. The tallest men that I saw are among those of
higher rank. In regions of barrenness and scarcity, the human race is hindered in its
growth by the same causes as other animals.
The ladies have as much beauty here as in other places, but bloom
and softness are not to be expected among the lower classes, whose faces are exposed to
the rudeness of the climate, and whose features are sometimes contracted by want, and
sometimes hardened by the blasts. Supreme beauty is seldom found in cottages or
work-shops, even where no real hardships are suffered. To expand the human face to its
full perfection, it seems necessary that the mind should co-operate by placidness of
content, or consciousness of superiority.
Their strength is proportionate to their size, but they are
accustomed to run upon rough ground, and therefore can with great agility skip over the
bog, or clamber the mountain. For a campaign in the wastes of America, soldiers better
qualified could not have been found. Having little work to do, they are not willing, nor
perhaps able to endure a long continuance of manual labour, and are therefore considered
as habitually idle.
Having never been supplied with those accommodations, which life
extensively diversified with trades affords, they supply their wants by very insufficient
shifts, and endure many inconveniences, which a little attention would easily relieve. I
have seen a horse carrying home the harvest on a crate. Under his tail was a stick for a
crupper, held at the two ends by twists of straw. Hemp will grow in their islands, and
therefore ropes may be had. If they wanted hemp, they might make better cordage of rushes,
or perhaps of nettles, than of straw. Their method of life neither secures them perpetual
health, nor exposes them to any particular diseases. There are physicians in the Islands,
who, I believe, all practise chirurgery, and all compound their own medicines.
It is generally supposed, that life is longer in places where there
are few opportunities of luxury; but I found no instance here of extraordinary longevity.
A cottager grows old over his oaten cakes, like a citizen at a turtle feast. He is indeed
seldom incommoded by corpulence. Poverty preserves him from sinking under the burden of
himself, but he escapes no other injury of time.
Instances of long life are often related, which those who hear them
are more willing to credit than examine. To be told that any man has attained a hundred
years, gives hope and comfort to him who stands trembling on the brink of his own
Length of life is distributed impartially to very different modes of
life in very different climates; and the mountains have no greater examples of age and
health than the low lands, where I was introduced to two ladies of high quality; one of
whom, in her ninety-fourth year, presided at her table with the full exercise of all her
powers; and the other has attained her eighty-fourth, without any diminution of her
vivacity, and with little reason to accuse time of depredations on her beauty.
In the Islands, as in most other places, the inhabitants are of
different rank, and one does not encroach here upon another. Where there is no commerce
nor manufacture, he that is born poor can scarcely become rich; and if none are able to
buy estates, he that is born to land cannot annihilate his family by selling it. This was
once the state of these countries. Perhaps there is no example, till within a century and
half, of any family whose estate was alienated otherwise than by violence or forfeiture.
Since money has been brought amongst them, they have found, like others, the art of
spending more than they receive; and I saw with grief the chief of a very ancient clan,
whose Island was condemned by law to be sold for the satisfaction of his creditors.
The name of highest dignity is Laird, of which there are in the
extensive Isle of Sky only three, Macdonald, Macleod, and Mackinnon. The Laird is the
original owner of the land, whose natural power must be very great, where no man lives but
by agriculture; and where the produce of the land is not conveyed through the labyrinths
of traffick, but passes directly from the hand that gathers it to the mouth that eats it.
The Laird has all those in his power that live upon his farms. Kings can, for the most
part, only exalt or degrade. The Laird at pleasure can feed or starve, can give bread, or
withold it. This inherent power was yet strengthened by the kindness of consanguinity, and
the reverence of patriarchal authority. The Laird was the father of the Clan, and his
tenants commonly bore his name. And to these principles of original command was added, for
many ages, an exclusive right of legal jurisdiction.
This multifarious, and extensive obligation operated with force
scarcely credible. Every duty, moral or political, was absorbed in affection and adherence
to the Chief. Not many years have passed since the clans knew no law but the Laird's will.
He told them to whom they should be friends or enemies, what King they should obey, and
what religion they should profess.
When the Scots first rose in arms against the succession of the
house of Hanover, Lovat, the Chief of the Frasers, was in exile for a rape. The Frasers
were very numerous, and very zealous against the government. A pardon was sent to Lovat.
He came to the English camp, and the clan immediately deserted to him.
Next in dignity to the Laird is the Tacksman; a large taker or
lease-holder of land, of which he keeps part, as a domain, in his own hand, and lets part
to under tenants. The Tacksman is necessarily a man capable of securing to the Laird the
whole rent, and is commonly a collateral relation. These tacks, or subordinate
possessions, were long considered as hereditary, and the occupant was distinguished by the
name of the place at which he resided. He held a middle station, by which the highest and
the lowest orders were connected. He paid rent and reverence to the Laird, and received
them from the tenants. This tenure still subsists, with its original operation, but not
with the primitive stability.
Since the islanders, no longer content to live, have learned the
desire of growing rich, an ancient dependent is in danger of giving way to a higher
bidder, at the expense of domestick dignity and hereditary power. The stranger, whose
money buys him preference, considers himself as paying for all that he has, and is
indifferent about the Laird's honour or safety. The commodiousness of money is indeed
great; but there are some advantages which money cannot buy, and which therefore no wise
man will by the love of money be tempted to forego.
I have found in the hither parts of Scotland, men not defective in
judgment or general experience, who consider the Tacksman as a useless burden of the
ground, as a drone who lives upon the product of an estate, without the right of property,
or the merit of labour, and who impoverishes at once the landlord and the tenant.
The land, say they, is let to the Tacksman at six-pence an acre, and
by him to the tenant at ten-pence. Let the owner be the immediate landlord to all the
tenants; if he sets the ground at eight-pence, he will increase his revenue by a fourth
part, and the tenant's burthen will be diminished by a fifth.
Those who pursue this train of reasoning, seem not sufficiently to
inquire whither it will lead them, nor to know that it will equally shew the propriety of
suppressing all wholesale trade, of shutting up the shops of every man who sells what he
does not make, and of extruding all whose agency and profit intervene between the
manufacturer and the consumer. They may, by stretching their understandings a little
wider, comprehend, that all those who by undertaking large quantities of manufacture, and
affording employment to many labourers, make themselves considered as benefactors to the
publick, have only been robbing their workmen with one hand, and their customers with the
other. If Crowley had sold only what he could make, and all his smiths had wrought their
own iron with their own hammers, he would have lived on less, and they would have sold
their work for more. The salaries of superintendents and clerks would have been partly
saved, and partly shared, and nails been sometimes cheaper by a farthing in a hundred. But
then if the smith could not have found an immediate purchaser, he must have deserted his
anvil; if there had by accident at any time been more sellers than buyers, the workmen
must have reduced their profit to nothing, by underselling one another; and as no great
stock could have been in any hand, no sudden demand of large quantities could have been
answered and the builder must have stood still till the nailer could supply him.
According to these schemes, universal plenty is to begin and end in
universal misery. Hope and emulation will be utterly extinguished; and as all must obey
the call of immediate necessity, nothing that requires extensive views, or provides for
distant consequences will ever be performed.
To the southern inhabitants of Scotland, the state of the mountains
and the islands is equally unknown with that of Borneo or Sumatra: Of both they have only
heard a little, and guess the rest. They are strangers to the language and the manners, to
the advantages and wants of the people, whose life they would model, and whose evils they
Nothing is less difficult than to procure one convenience by the
forfeiture of another. A soldier may expedite his march by throwing away his arms. To
banish the Tacksman is easy, to make a country plentiful by diminishing the people, is an
expeditious mode of husbandry; but little abundance, which there is nobody to enjoy,
contributes little to human happiness.
As the mind must govern the hands, so in every society the man of
intelligence must direct the man of labour. If the Tacksmen be taken away, the Hebrides
must in their present state be given up to grossness and ignorance; the tenant, for want
of instruction, will be unskilful, and for want of admonition will be negligent. The Laird
in these wide estates, which often consist of islands remote from one another, cannot
extend his personal influence to all his tenants; and the steward having no dignity
annexed to his character, can have little authority among men taught to pay reverence only
to birth, and who regard the Tacksman as their hereditary superior; nor can the steward
have equal zeal for the prosperity of an estate profitable only to the Laird, with the
Tacksman, who has the Laird's income involved in his own.
The only gentlemen in the Islands are the Lairds, the Tacksmen, and
the Ministers, who frequently improve their livings by becoming farmers. If the Tacksmen
be banished, who will be left to impart knowledge, or impress civility? The Laird must
always be at a distance from the greater part of his lands; and if he resides at all upon
them, must drag his days in solitude, having no longer either a friend or a companion; he
will therefore depart to some more comfortable residence, and leave the tenants to the
wisdom and mercy of a factor.
Of tenants there are different orders, as they have greater or less
stock. Land is sometimes leased to a small fellowship, who live in a cluster of huts,
called a Tenants Town, and are bound jointly and separately for the payment of their rent.
These, I believe, employ in the care of their cattle, and the labour of tillage, a kind of
tenants yet lower; who having a hut with grass for a certain number of cows and sheep, pay
their rent by a stipulated quantity of labour.
The condition of domestick servants, or the price of occasional
labour, I do not know with certainty. I was told that the maids have sheep, and are
allowed to spin for their own clothing; perhaps they have no pecuniary wages, or none but
in very wealthy families.
The state of life, which has hitherto been purely pastoral, begins
now to be a little variegated with commerce; but novelties enter by degrees, and till one
mode has fully prevailed over the other, no settled notion can be formed.
Such is the system of insular subordination, which, having little
variety, cannot afford much delight in the view, nor long detain the mind in
contemplation. The inhabitants were for a long time perhaps not unhappy; but their content
was a muddy mixture of pride and ignorance, an indifference for pleasures which they did
not know, a blind veneration for their chiefs, and a strong conviction of their own
Their pride has been crushed by the heavy hand of a vindictive
conqueror, whose seventies have been followed by laws, which, though they cannot be called
cruel, have produced much discontent, because they operate upon the surface of life, and
make every eye bear witness to subjection. To be compelled to a new dress has always been
Their Chiefs being now deprived of their jurisdiction, have already
lost much of their influence; and as they gradually degenerate from patriarchal rulers to
rapacious landlords, they will divest themselves of the little that remains.
That dignity which they derived from an opinion of their military
importance, the law, which disarmed them, has abated. An old gentleman, delighting himself
with the recollection of better days, related, that forty years ago, a Chieftain walked
out attended by ten or twelve followers, with their arms rattling. That animating rabble
has now ceased. The Chief has lost his formidable retinue; and the Highlander walks his
heath unarmed and defenceless, with the peaceable submission of a French peasant or
Their ignorance grows every day less, but their knowledge is yet of
little other use than to shew them their wants. They are now in the period of education,
and feel the uneasiness of discipline, without yet perceiving the benefit of instruction.
The last law, by which the Highlanders are deprived of their arms,
has operated with efficacy beyond expectation. Of former statutes made with the same
design, the execution had been feeble, and the effect inconsiderable. Concealment was
undoubtedly practised, and perhaps often with connivance. There was tenderness, or
partiality, on one side, and obstinacy on the other. But the law, which followed the
victory of Culloden, found the whole nation dejected and intimidated; informations were
given without danger, and without fear, and the arms were collected with such rigour, that
every house was despoiled of its defence.
To disarm part of the Highlands, could give no reasonable occasion
of complaint. Every government must be allowed the power of taking away the weapon that is
lifted against it. But the loyal clans murmured, with some appearance of justice, that
after having defended the King, they were forbidden for the future to defend themselves;
and that the sword should be forfeited, which had been legally employed. Their case is
undoubtedly hard, but in political regulations, good cannot be complete, it can only be
Whether by disarming a people thus broken into several tribes, and
thus remote from the seat of power, more good than evil has been produced, may deserve
inquiry. The supreme power in every community has the right of debarring every individual,
and every subordinate society from self-defence, only because the supreme power is able to
defend them; and therefore where the governor cannot act, he must trust the subject to act
for himself. These Islands might be wasted with fire and sword before their sovereign
would know their distress. A gang of robbers, such as has been lately found confederating
themselves in the Highlands, might lay a wide region under contribution. The crew of a
petty privateer might land on the largest and most wealthy of the Islands, and riot
without control in cruelty and waste. It was observed by one of the Chiefs of Sky, that
fifty armed men might, without resistance ravage the country. Laws that place the subjects
in such a state, contravene the first principles of the compact of authority: they exact
obedience, and yield no protection.
It affords a generous and manly pleasure to conceive a little nation
gathering its fruits and tending its herds with fearless confidence, though it lies open
on every side to invasion, where, in contempt of walls and trenches, every man sleeps
securely with his sword beside him; where all on the first approach of hostility came
together at the call to battle, as at a summons to a festal show; and committing their
cattle to the care of those whom age or nature has disabled, engage the enemy with that
competition for hazard and for glory, which operate in men that fight under the eye of
those, whose dislike or kindness they have always considered as the greatest evil or the
This was, in the beginning of the present century, the state of the
Highlands. Every man was a soldier, who partook of national confidence, and interested
himself in national honour. To lose this spirit, is to lose what no small advantage will
It may likewise deserve to be inquired, whether a great nation ought
to be totally commercial? whether amidst the uncertainty of human affairs, too much
attention to one mode of happiness may not endanger others? whether the pride of riches
must not sometimes have recourse to the protection of courage? and whether, if it be
necessary to preserve in some part of the empire the military spirit, it can subsist more
commodiously in any place, than in remote and unprofitable provinces, where it can
commonly do little harm, and whence it may be called forth at any sudden exigence?
It must however be confessed, that a man, who places honour only in
successful violence, is a very troublesome and pernicious animal in time of peace; and
that the martial character cannot prevail in a whole people, but by the diminution of all
other virtues. He that is accustomed to resolve all right into conquest, will have very
little tenderness or equity. All the friendship in such a life can be only a confederacy
of invasion, or alliance of defence. The strong must flourish by force, and the weak
subsist by stratagem.
Till the Highlanders lost their ferocity, with their arms, they
suffered from each other all that malignity could dictate, or precipitance could act.
Every provocation was revenged with blood, and no man that ventured into a numerous
company, by whatever occasion brought together, was sure of returning without a wound.
If they are now exposed to foreign hostilities, they may talk of the
danger, but can seldom feel it. If they are no longer martial, they are no longer
quarrelsome. Misery is caused for the most part, not by a heavy crush of disaster, but by
the corrosion of less visible evils, which canker enjoyment, and undermine security. The
visit of an invader is necessarily rare, but domestick animosities allow no cessation.
The abolition of the local jurisdictions, which had for so many ages
been exercised by the chiefs, has likewise its evil and its good. The feudal constitution
naturally diffused itself into long ramifications of subordinate authority. To this
general temper of the government was added the peculiar form of the country, broken by
mountains into many subdivisions scarcely accessible but to the natives, and guarded by
passes, or perplexed with intricacies, through which national justice could not find its
The power of deciding controversies, and of punishing offences, as
some such power there must always be, was intrusted to the Lairds of the country, to those
whom the people considered as their natural judges. It cannot be supposed that a rugged
proprietor of the rocks, unprincipled and unenlightened, was a nice resolver of entangled
claims, or very exact in proportioning punishment to offences. But the more he indulged
his own will, the more he held his vassals in dependence. Prudence and innocence, without
the favour of the Chief, conferred no security; and crimes involved no danger, when the
judge was resolute to acquit.
When the chiefs were men of knowledge and virtue, the convenience of
a domestick judicature was great. No long journies were necessary, nor artificial delays
could be practised; the character, the alliances, and interests of the litigants were
known to the court, and all false pretences were easily detected. The sentence, when it
was past, could not be evaded; the power of the Laird superseded formalities, and justice
could not be defeated by interest or stratagem.
I doubt not but that since the regular judges have made their
circuits through the whole country, right has been every where more wisely, and more
equally distributed; the complaint is, that litigation is grown troublesome, and that the
magistrates are too few, and therefore often too remote for general convenience.
Many of the smaller Islands have no legal officer within them. I
once asked, If a crime should be committed, by what authority the offender could be
seized? and was told, that the Laird would exert his right; a right which he must now
usurp, but which surely necessity must vindicate, and which is therefore yet exercised in
lower degrees, by some of the proprietors, when legal processes cannot be obtained.
In all greater questions, however, there is now happily an end to
all fear or hope from malice or from favour. The roads are secure in those places through
which, forty years ago, no traveller could pass without a convoy. All trials of right by
the sword are forgotten, and the mean are in as little danger from the powerful as in
other places. No scheme of policy has, in any country, yet brought the rich and poor on
equal terms into courts of judicature.
Perhaps experience, improving on experience, may in time effect it.
Those who have long enjoyed dignity and power, ought not to lose it without some
equivalent. There was paid to the Chiefs by the publick, in exchange for their privileges,
perhaps a sum greater than most of them had ever possessed, which excited a thirst for
riches, of which it shewed them the use. When the power of birth and station ceases, no
hope remains but from the prevalence of money. Power and wealth supply the place of each
other. Power confers the ability of gratifying our desire without the consent of others.
Wealth enables us to obtain the consent of others to our gratification. Power, simply
considered, whatever it confers on one, must take from another. Wealth enables its owner
to give to others, by taking only from himself. Power pleases the violent and proud:
wealth delights the placid and the timorous. Youth therefore flies at power, and age
grovels after riches.
The Chiefs, divested of their prerogatives, necessarily turned their
thoughts to the improvement of their revenues, and expect more rent, as they have less
homage. The tenant, who is far from perceiving that his condition is made better in the
same proportion, as that of his landlord is made worse, does not immediately see why his
industry is to be taxed more heavily than before. He refuses to pay the demand, and is
ejected; the ground is then let to a stranger, who perhaps brings a larger stock, but who,
taking the land at its full price, treats with the Laird upon equal terms, and considers
him not as a Chief, but as a trafficker in land. Thus the estate perhaps is improved, but
the clan is broken.
It seems to be the general opinion, that the rents have been raised
with too much eagerness. Some regard must be paid to prejudice. Those who have hitherto
paid but little, will not suddenly be persuaded to pay much, though they can afford it. As
ground is gradually improved, and the value of money decreases, the rent may be raised
without any diminution of the farmer's profits: yet it is necessary in these countries,
where the ejection of a tenant is a greater evil, than in more populous places, to
consider not merely what the land will produce, but with what ability the inhabitant can
cultivate it. A certain stock can allow but a certain payment; for if the land be doubled,
and the stock remains the same, the tenant becomes no richer. The proprietors of the
Highlands might perhaps often increase their income, by subdividing the farms, and
allotting to every occupier only so many acres as he can profitably employ, but that they
There seems now, whatever be the cause, to be through a great part
of the Highlands a general discontent. That adherence, which was lately professed by every
man to the chief of his name, has now little prevalence; and he that cannot live as he
desires at home, listens to the tale of fortunate islands, and happy regions, where every
man may have land of his own, and eat the product of his labour without a superior.
Those who have obtained grants of American lands, have, as is well
known, invited settlers from all quarters of the globe; and among other places, where
oppression might produce a wish for new habitations, their emissaries would not fail to
try their persuasions in the Isles of Scotland, where at the time when the clans were
newly disunited from their Chiefs, and exasperated by unprecedented exactions, it is no
wonder that they prevailed.
Whether the mischiefs of emigration were immediately perceived, may
be justly questioned. They who went first, were probably such as could best be spared; but
the accounts sent by the earliest adventurers, whether true or false, inclined many to
follow them; and whole neighbourhoods formed parties for removal; so that departure from
their native country is no longer exile. He that goes thus accompanied, carries with him
all that makes life pleasant. He sits down in a better climate, surrounded by his kindred
and his friends: they carry with them their language, their opinions, their popular songs,
and hereditary merriment: they change nothing but the place of their abode; and of that
change they perceive the benefit. This is the real effect of emigration, if those that go
away together settle on the same spot, and preserve their ancient union.
But some relate that these adventurous visitants of unknown regions,
after a voyage passed in dreams of plenty and felicity, are dispersed at last upon a
Sylvan wilderness, where their first years must be spent in toil, to clear the ground
which is afterwards to be tilled, and that the whole effect of their undertakings is only
more fatigue and equal scarcity.
Both accounts may be suspected. Those who are gone will endeavour by
every art to draw others after them; for as their numbers are greater, they will provide
better for themselves. When Nova Scotia was first peopled, I remember a letter, published
under the character of a New Planter, who related how much the climate put him in mind of
Italy. Such intelligence the Hebridians probably receive from their transmarine
correspondents. But with equal temptations of interest, and perhaps with no greater
niceness of veracity, the owners of the Islands spread stories of American hardships to
keep their people content at home.
Some method to stop this epidemick desire of wandering, which
spreads its contagion from valley to valley, deserves to be sought with great diligence.
In more fruitful countries, the removal of one only makes room for the succession of
another: but in the Hebrides, the loss of an inhabitant leaves a lasting vacuity; for
nobody born in any other parts of the world will choose this country for his residence,
and an Island once depopulated will remain a desert, as long as the present facility of
travel gives every one, who is discontented and unsettled, the choice of his abode.
Let it be inquired, whether the first intention of those who are
fluttering on the wing, and collecting a flock that they may take their flight, be to
attain good, or to avoid evil. If they are dissatisfied with that part of the globe, which
their birth has allotted them, and resolve not to live without the pleasures of happier
climates; if they long for bright suns, and calm skies, and flowery fields, and fragrant
gardens, I know not by what eloquence they can be persuaded, or by what offers they can be
hired to stay.
But if they are driven from their native country by positive evils,
and disgusted by ill-treatment, real or imaginary, it were fit to remove their grievances,
and quiet their resentment; since, if they have been hitherto undutiful subjects, they
will not much mend their principles by American conversation.
To allure them into the army, it was thought proper to indulge them
in the continuance of their national dress. If this concession could have any effect, it
might easily be made. That dissimilitude of appearance, which was supposed to keep them
distinct from the rest of the nation, might disincline them from coalescing with the
Pensylvanians, or people of Connecticut. If the restitution of their arms will reconcile
them to their country, let them have again those weapons, which will not be more
mischievous at home than in the Colonies. That they may not fly from the increase of rent,
I know not whether the general good does not require that the landlords be, for a time,
restrained in their demands, and kept quiet by pensions proportionate to their loss.
To hinder insurrection, by driving away the people, and to govern
peaceably, by having no subjects, is an expedient that argues no great profundity of
politicks. To soften the obdurate, to convince the mistaken, to mollify the resentful, are
worthy of a statesman; but it affords a legislator little self-applause to consider, that
where there was formerly an insurrection, there is now a wilderness.
It has been a question often agitated without solution, why those
northern regions are now so thinly peopled, which formerly overwhelmed with their armies
the Roman empire. The question supposes what I believe is not true, that they had once
more inhabitants than they could maintain, and overflowed only because they were full.
This is to estimate the manners of all countries and ages by our
own. Migration, while the state of life was unsettled, and there was little communication
of intelligence between distant places, was among the wilder nations of Europe, capricious
and casual. An adventurous projector heard of a fertile coast unoccupied, and led out a
colony; a chief of renown for bravery, called the young men together, and led them out to
try what fortune would present. When Caesar was in Gaul, he found the Helvetians preparing
to go they knew not whither, and put a stop to their motions. They settled again in their
own country, where they were so far from wanting room, that they had accumulated three
years provision for their march.
The religion of the North was military; if they could not find
enemies, it was their duty to make them: they travelled in quest of danger, and willingly
took the chance of Empire or Death. If their troops were numerous, the countries from
which they were collected are of vast extent, and without much exuberance of people great
armies may be raised where every man is a soldier. But their true numbers were never
known. Those who were conquered by them are their historians, and shame may have excited
them to say, that they were overwhelmed with multitudes. To count is a modern practice,
the ancient method was to guess; and when numbers are guessed they are always magnified.
Thus England has for several years been filled with the atchievements of seventy thousand
Highlanders employed in America.
I have heard from an English officer, not much inclined to favour
them, that their behaviour deserved a very high degree of military praise; but their
number has been much exaggerated. One of the ministers told me, that seventy thousand men
could not have been found in all the Highlands, and that more than twelve thousand never
took the field. Those that went to the American war, went to destruction. Of the old
Highland regiment, consisting of twelve hundred, only seventy-six survived to see their
The Gothick swarms have at least been multiplied with equal
liberality. That they bore no great proportion to the inhabitants, in whose countries they
settled, is plain from the paucity of northern words now found in the provincial
languages. Their country was not deserted for want of room, because it was covered with
forests of vast extent; and the first effect of plenitude of inhabitants is the
destruction of wood. As the Europeans spread over America the lands are gradually laid
I would not be understood to say, that necessity had never any part
in their expeditions. A nation, whose agriculture is scanty or unskilful, may be driven
out by famine. A nation of hunters may have exhausted their game. I only affirm that the
northern regions were not, when their irruptions subdued the Romans, overpeopled with
regard to their real extent of territory, and power of fertility. In a country fully
inhabited, however afterward laid waste, evident marks will remain of its former
populousness. But of Scandinavia and Germany, nothing is known but that as we trace their
state upwards into antiquity, their woods were greater, and their cultivated ground was
That causes were different from want of room may produce a general
disposition to seek another country is apparent from the present conduct of the
Highlanders, who are in some places ready to threaten a total secession. The numbers which
have already gone, though like other numbers they may be magnified, are very great, and
such as if they had gone together and agreed upon any certain settlement, might have
founded an independent government in the depths of the western continent. Nor are they
only the lowest and most indigent; many men of considerable wealth have taken with them
their train of labourers and dependants; and if they continue the feudal scheme of polity,
may establish new clans in the other hemisphere.
That the immediate motives of their desertion must be imputed to
their landlords, may becontinent. Nor are they
only the lowest and most indigent; many men of considerable wealth have taken with them
their train of labourers and dependants; and if they continue the feudal scheme of polity,
may establish new clans in the other hemisphere.
That the immediate motives of their desertion must be imputed to
their landlords, may be reasonably concluded, because some Lairds of more prudence and
less rapacity have kept their vassals undiminished. From Raasa only one man had been
seduced, and at Col there was no wish to go away.
The traveller who comes hither from more opulent countries, to
speculate upon the remains of pastoral life, will not much wonder that a common Highlander
has no strong adherence to his native soil; for of animal enjoyments, or of physical good,
he leaves nothing that he may not find again wheresoever he may be thrown.
The habitations of men in the Hebrides may be distinguished into
huts and houses. By a house, I mean a building with one story over another; by a hut, a
dwelling with only one floor. The Laird, who formerly lived in a castle, now lives in a
house; sometimes sufficiently neat, but seldom very spacious or splendid. The Tacksmen and
the Ministers have commonly houses. Wherever there is a house, the stranger finds a
welcome, and to the other evils of exterminating Tacksmen may be added the unavoidable
cessation of hospitality, or the devolution of too heavy a burden on the Ministers.
Of the houses little can be said. They are small, and by the
necessity of accumulating stores, where there are so few opportunities of purchase, the
rooms are very heterogeneously filled. With want of cleanliness it were ingratitude to
reproach them. The servants having been bred upon the naked earth, think every floor
clean, and the quick succession of guests, perhaps not always over-elegant, does not allow
much time for adjusting their apartments.
Huts are of many gradations; from murky dens, to commodious
dwellings. The wall of a common hut is always built without mortar, by a skilful
adaptation of loose stones. Sometimes perhaps a double wall of stones is raised, and the
intermediate space filled with earth. The air is thus completely excluded. Some walls are,
I think, formed of turfs, held together by a wattle, or texture of twigs. Of the meanest
huts, the first room is lighted by the entrance, and the second by the smoke hole. The
fire is usually made in the middle. But there are huts, or dwellings of only one story,
inhabited by gentlemen, which have walls cemented with mortar, glass windows, and boarded
floors. Of these all have chimneys, and some chimneys have grates.
The house and the furniture are not always nicely suited. We were
driven once, by missing a passage, to the hut of a gentleman, where, after a very liberal
supper, when I was conducted to my chamber, I found an elegant bed of Indian cotton,
spread with fine sheets. The accommodation was flattering; I undressed myself, and felt my
feet in the mire. The bed stood upon the bare earth, which a long course of rain had
softened to a puddle.
In pastoral countries the condition of the lowest rank of people is
sufficiently wretched. Among manufacturers, men that have no property may have art and
industry, which make them necessary, and therefore valuable. But where flocks and corn are
the only wealth, there are always more hands than work, and of that work there is little
in which skill and dexterity can be much distinguished. He therefore who is born poor
never can be rich. The son merely occupies the place of the father, and life knows nothing
of progression or advancement.
The petty tenants, and labouring peasants, live in miserable cabins,
which afford them little more than shelter from the storms. The Boor of Norway is said to
make all his own utensils. In the Hebrides, whatever might be their ingenuity, the want of
wood leaves them no materials. They are probably content with such accommodations as
stones of different forms and sizes can afford them.
Their food is not better than their lodging. They seldom taste the
flesh of land animals; for here are no markets. What each man eats is from his own stock.
The great effect of money is to break property into small parts. In towns, he that has a
shilling may have a piece of meat; but where there is no commerce, no man can eat mutton
but by killing a sheep.
Fish in fair weather they need not want; but, I believe, man never
lives long on fish, but by constraint; he will rather feed upon roots and berries.
The only fewel of the Islands is peat. Their wood is all consumed,
and coal they have not yet found. Peat is dug out of the marshes, from the depth of one
foot to that of six. That is accounted the best which is nearest the surface. It appears
to be a mass of black earth held together by vegetable fibres. I know not whether the
earth be bituminous, or whether the fibres be not the only combustible part; which, by
heating the interposed earth red hot, make a burning mass. The heat is not very strong nor
lasting. The ashes are yellowish, and in a large quantity. When they dig peat, they cut it
into square pieces, and pile it up to dry beside the house. In some places it has an
offensive smell. It is like wood charked for the smith. The common method of making peat
fires, is by heaping it on the hearth; but it burns well in grates, and in the best houses
is so used.
The common opinion is, that peat grows again where it has been cut;
which, as it seems to be chiefly a vegetable substance, is not unlikely to be true,
whether known or not to those who relate it. There are water mills in Sky and Raasa; but
where they are too far distant, the house-wives grind their oats with a quern, or
hand-mill, which consists of two stones, about a foot and a half in diameter; the lower is
a little convex, to which the concavity of the upper must be fitted. In the middle of the
upper stone is a round hole, and on one side is a long handle. The grinder sheds the corn
gradually into the hole with one hand, and works the handle round with the other. The corn
slides down the convexity of the lower stone, and by the motion of the upper is ground in
its passage. These stones are found in Lochabar.
The Islands afford few pleasures, except to the hardy sportsman, who
can tread the moor and climb the mountain. The distance of one family from another, in a
country where travelling has so much difficulty, makes frequent intercourse impracticable.
Visits last several days, and are commonly paid by water; yet I never saw a boat furnished
with benches, or made commodious by any addition to the first fabric. Conveniences are not
missed where they never were enjoyed.
The solace which the bagpipe can give, they have long enjoyed; but
among other changes, which the last Revolution introduced, the use of the bagpipe begins
to be forgotten. Some of the chief families still entertain a piper, whose office was
Macrimmon was piper to Macleod, and Rankin to Maclean of Col. The
tunes of the bagpipe are traditional. There has been in Sky, beyond all time of memory, a
college of pipers, under the direction of Macrimmon, which is not quite extinct. There was
another in Mull, superintended by Rankin, which expired about sixteen years ago. To these
colleges, while the pipe retained its honour, the students of musick repaired for
education. I have had my dinner exhilarated by the bagpipe, at Armidale, at Dunvegan, and
in Col. The general conversation of the Islanders has nothing particular.
I did not meet with the inquisitiveness of which I have read, and
suspect the judgment to have been rashly made. A stranger of curiosity comes into a place
where a stranger is seldom seen: he importunes the people with questions, of which they
cannot guess the motive, and gazes with surprise on things which they, having had them
always before their eyes, do not suspect of any thing wonderful. He appears to them like
some being of another world, and then thinks it peculiar that they take their turn to
inquire whence he comes, and whither he is going.
The Islands were long unfurnished with instruction for youth, and
none but the sons of gentlemen could have any literature. There are now parochial schools,
to which the lord of every manor pays a certain stipend. Here the children are taught to
read; but by the rule of their institution, they teach only English, so that the natives
read a language which they may never use or understand. If a parish, which often happens,
contains several Islands, the school being but in one, cannot assist the rest. This is the
state of Col, which, however, is more enlightened than some other places; for the
deficiency is supplied by a young gentleman, who, for his own improvement, travels every
year on foot over the Highlands to the session at Aberdeen; and at his return, during the
vacation, teaches to read and write in his native Island.
In Sky there are two grammar schools, where boarders are taken to be
regularly educated. The price of board is from three pounds, to four pounds ten shillings
a year, and that of instruction is half a crown a quarter. But the scholars are birds of
passage, who live at school only in the summer; for in winter provisions cannot be made
for any considerable number in one place. This periodical dispersion impresses strongly
the scarcity of these countries.
Having heard of no boarding-school for ladies nearer than Inverness,
I suppose their education is generally domestick. The elder daughters of the higher
families are sent into the world, and may contribute by their acquisitions to the
improvement of the rest.
Women must here study to be either pleasing or useful. Their
deficiencies are seldom supplied by very liberal fortunes. A hundred pounds is a portion
beyond the hope of any but the Laird's daughter. They do not indeed often give money with
their daughters; the question is, How many cows a young lady will bring her husband. A
rich maiden has from ten to forty; but two cows are a decent fortune for one who pretends
to no distinction.
The religion of the Islands is that of the Kirk of Scotland. The
gentlemen with whom I conversed are all inclined to the English liturgy; but they are
obliged to maintain the established Minister, and the country is too poor to afford
payment to another, who must live wholly on the contribution of his audience.
They therefore all attend the worship of the Kirk, as often as a
visit from their Minister, or the practicability of travelling gives them opportunity; nor
have they any reason to complain of insufficient pastors; for I saw not one in the
Islands, whom I had reason to think either deficient in learning, or irregular in life:
but found several with whom I could not converse without wishing, as my respect increased,
that they had not been Presbyterians. The ancient rigour of puritanism is now very much
relaxed, though all are not yet equally enlightened. I sometimes met with prejudices
sufficiently malignant, but they were prejudices of ignorance. The Ministers in the
Islands had attained such knowledge as may justly be admired in men, who have no motive to
study, but generous curiosity, or, what is still better, desire of usefulness; with such
politeness as so narrow a circle of converse could not have supplied, but to minds
naturally disposed to elegance.
Reason and truth will prevail at last. The most learned of the
Scottish Doctors would now gladly admit a form of prayer, if the people would endure it.
The zeal or rage of congregations has its different degrees. In some parishes the Lord's
Prayer is suffered: in others it is still rejected as a form; and he that should make it
part of his supplication would be suspected of heretical pravity.
The principle upon which extemporary prayer was originally
introduced, is no longer admitted. The Minister formerly, in the effusion of his prayer,
expected immediate, and perhaps perceptible inspiration, and therefore thought it his duty
not to think before what he should say. It is now universally confessed, that men pray as
they speak on other occasions, according to the general measure of their abilities and
attainments. Whatever each may think of a form prescribed by another, he cannot but
believe that he can himself compose by study and meditation a better prayer than will rise
in his mind at a sudden call; and if he has any hope of supernatural help, why may he not
as well receive it when he writes as when he speaks?
In the variety of mental powers, some must perform extemporary
prayer with much imperfection; and in the eagerness and rashness of contradictory
opinions, if publick liturgy be left to the private judgment of every Minister, the
congregation may often be offended or misled.
There is in Scotland, as among ourselves, a restless suspicion of
popish machinations, and a clamour of numerous converts to the Romish religion. The report
is, I believe, in both parts of the Island equally false. The Romish religion is professed
only in Egg and Canna, two small islands, into which the Reformation never made its way.
If any missionaries are busy in the Highlands, their zeal entitles them to respect, even
from those who cannot think favourably of their doctrine.
The political tenets of the Islanders I was not curious to
investigate, and they were not eager to obtrude. Their conversation is decent and
inoffensive. They disdain to drink for their principles, and there is no disaffection at
their tables. I never heard a health offered by a Highlander that might not have
circulated with propriety within the precincts of the King's palace.
Legal government has yet something of novelty to which they cannot
perfectly conform. The ancient spirit, that appealed only to the sword, is yet among them.
The tenant of Scalpa, an island belonging to Macdonald, took no care to bring his rent;
when the landlord talked of exacting payment, he declared his resolution to keep his
ground, and drive all intruders from the Island, and continued to feed his cattle as on
his own land, till it became necessary for the Sheriff to dislodge him by violence.
The various kinds of superstition which prevailed here, as in all
other regions of ignorance, are by the diligence of the Ministers almost extirpated.
Of Browny, mentioned by Martin, nothing has been heard for many
years. Browny was a sturdy Fairy; who, if he was fed, and kindly treated, would, as they
said, do a great deal of work. They now pay him no wages, and are content to labour for
In Troda, within these three-and-thirty years, milk was put every
Saturday for Greogach, or 'the Old Man with the Long Beard.'
Whether Greogach was courted as kind, or dreaded as terrible,
whether they meant, by giving him the milk, to obtain good, or avert evil, I was not
informed. The Minister is now living by whom the practice was abolished.
They have still among them a great number of charms for the cure of
different diseases; they are all invocations, perhaps transmitted to them from the times
of popery, which increasing knowledge will bring into disuse.
They have opinions, which cannot be ranked with superstition,
because they regard only natural effects. They expect better crops of grain, by sowing
their seed in the moon's increase. The moon has great influence in vulgar philosophy. In
my memory it was a precept annually given in one of the English Almanacks, 'to kill hogs
when the moon was increasing, and the bacon would prove the better in boiling.'
We should have had little claim to the praise of curiosity, if we
had not endeavoured with particular attention to examine the question of the Second Sight.
Of an opinion received for centuries by a whole nation, and supposed to be confirmed
through its whole descent, by a series of successive facts, it is desirable that the truth
should be established, or the fallacy detected.
The Second Sight is an impression made either by the mind upon the
eye, or by the eye upon the mind, by which things distant or future are perceived, and
seen as if they were present. A man on a journey far from home falls from his horse,
another, who is perhaps at work about the house, sees him bleeding on the ground, commonly
with a landscape of the place where the accident befalls him.
Another seer, driving home his cattle, or wandering in idleness, or
musing in the sunshine, is suddenly surprised by the appearance of a bridal ceremony, or
funeral procession, and counts the mourners or attendants, of whom, if he knows them, he
relates the names, if he knows them not, he can describe the dresses. Things distant are
seen at the instant when they happen. Of things future I know not that there is any rule
for determining the time between the Sight and the event.
This receptive faculty, for power it cannot be called, is neither
voluntary nor constant. The appearances have no dependence upon choice: they cannot be
summoned, detained, or recalled. The impression is sudden, and the effect often painful.
By the term Second Sight, seems to be meant a mode of seeing,
superadded to that which Nature generally bestows. In the Earse it is called Taisch; which
signifies likewise a spectre, or a vision.
I know not, nor is it likely that the Highlanders ever examined,
whether by Taisch, used for Second Sight, they mean the power of seeing, or the thing
I do not find it to be true, as it is reported, that to the Second
Sight nothing is presented but phantoms of evil. Good seems to have the same proportions
in those visionary scenes, as it obtains in real life: almost all remarkable events have
evil for their basis; and are either miseries incurred, or miseries escaped. Our sense is
so much stronger of what we suffer, than of what we enjoy, that the ideas of pain
predominate in almost every mind. What is recollection but a revival of vexations, or
history but a record of wars, treasons, and calamities? Death, which is considered as the
greatest evil, happens to all. The greatest good, be it what it will, is the lot but of a
That they should often see death is to be expected; because death is
an event frequent and important. But they see likewise more pleasing incidents. A
gentleman told me, that when he had once gone far from his own Island, one of his
labouring servants predicted his return, and described the livery of his attendant, which
he had never worn at home; and which had been, without any previous design, occasionally
Our desire of information was keen, and our inquiry frequent. Mr.
Boswell's frankness and gaiety made every body communicative; and we heard many tales of
these airy shows, with more or less evidence and distinctness.
It is the common talk of the Lowland Scots, that the notion of the
Second Sight is wearing away with other superstitions; and that its reality is no longer
supposed, but by the grossest people. How far its prevalence ever extended, or what ground
it has lost, I know not. The Islanders of all degrees, whether of rank or understanding,
universally admit it, except the Ministers, who universally deny it, and are suspected to
deny it, in consequence of a system, against conviction. One of them honestly told me,
that he came to Sky with a resolution not to believe it.
Strong reasons for incredulity will readily occur. This faculty of
seeing things out of sight is local, and commonly useless. It is a breach of the common
order of things, without any visible reason or perceptible benefit. It is ascribed only to
a people very little enlightened; and among them, for the most part, to the mean and the
To the confidence of these objections it may be replied, that by
presuming to determine what is fit, and what is beneficial, they presuppose more knowledge
of the universal system than man has attained; and therefore depend upon principles too
complicated and extensive for our comprehension; and that there can be no security in the
consequence, when the premises are not understood; that the Second Sight is only wonderful
because it is rare, for, considered in itself, it involves no more difficulty than dreams,
or perhaps than the regular exercise of the cogitative faculty; that a general opinion of
communicative impulses, or visionary representations, has prevailed in all ages and all
nations; that particular instances have been given, with such evidence, as neither Bacon
nor Bayle has been able to resist; that sudden impressions, which the event has verified,
have been felt by more than own or publish them; that the Second Sight of the Hebrides
implies only the local frequency of a power, which is nowhere totally unknown; and that
where we are unable to decide by antecedent reason, we must be content to yield to the
force of testimony.
By pretension to Second Sight, no profit was ever sought or gained.
It is an involuntary affection, in which neither hope nor fear are known to have any part.
Those who profess to feel it, do not boast of it as a privilege, nor are considered by
others as advantageously distinguished. They have no temptation to feign; and their
hearers have no motive to encourage the imposture.
To talk with any of these seers is not easy. There is one living in
Sky, with whom we would have gladly conversed; but he was very gross and ignorant, and
knew no English. The proportion in these countries of the poor to the rich is such, that
if we suppose the quality to be accidental, it can very rarely happen to a man of
education; and yet on such men it has sometimes fallen. There is now a Second Sighted
gentleman in the Highlands, who complains of the terrors to which he is exposed.
The foresight of the Seers is not always prescience; they are
impressed with images, of which the event only shews them the meaning. They tell what they
have seen to others, who are at that time not more knowing than themselves, but may become
at last very adequate witnesses, by comparing the narrative with its verification.
To collect sufficient testimonies for the satisfaction of the
publick, or of ourselves, would have required more time than we could bestow. There is,
against it, the seeming analogy of things confusedly seen, and little understood, and for
it, the indistinct cry of national persuasion, which may be perhaps resolved at last into
prejudice and tradition. I never could advance my curiosity to conviction; but came away
at last only willing to believe.
As there subsists no longer in the Islands much of that peculiar and
discriminative form of life, of which the idea had delighted our imagination, we were
willing to listen to such accounts of past times as would be given us. But we soon found
what memorials were to be expected from an illiterate people, whose whole time is a series
of distress; where every morning is labouring with expedients for the evening; and where
all mental pains or pleasure arose from the dread of winter, the expectation of spring,
the caprices of their Chiefs, and the motions of the neighbouring clans; where there was
neither shame from ignorance, nor pride in knowledge; neither curiosity to inquire, nor
vanity to communicate.
The Chiefs indeed were exempt from urgent penury, and daily
difficulties; and in their houses were preserved what accounts remained of past ages. But
the Chiefs were sometimes ignorant and careless, and sometimes kept busy by turbulence and
contention; and one generation of ignorance effaces the whole series of unwritten history.
Books are faithful repositories, which may be a while neglected or forgotten; but when
they are opened again, will again impart their instruction: memory, once interrupted, is
not to be recalled. Written learning is a fixed luminary, which, after the cloud that had
hidden it has past away, is again bright in its proper station. Tradition is but a meteor,
which, if once it falls, cannot be rekindled.
It seems to be universally supposed, that much of the local history
was preserved by the Bards, of whom one is said to have been retained by every great
family. After these Bards were some of my first inquiries; and I received such answers as,
for a while, made me please myself with my increase of knowledge; for I had not then
learned how to estimate the narration of a Highlander.
They said that a great family had a Bard and a Senachi, who were the
poet and historian of the house; and an old gentleman told me that he remembered one of
each. Here was a dawn of intelligence. Of men that had lived within memory, some certain
knowledge might be attained. Though the office had ceased, its effects might continue; the
poems might be found, though there was no poet.
Another conversation indeed informed me, that the same man was both
Bard and Senachi. This variation discouraged me; but as the practice might be different in
different times, or at the same time in different families, there was yet no reason for
supposing that I must necessarily sit down in total ignorance.
Soon after I was told by a gentleman, who is generally acknowledged
the greatest master of Hebridian antiquities, that there had indeed once been both Bards
and Senachies; and that Senachi signified 'the man of talk,' or of conversation; but that
neither Bard nor Senachi had existed for some centuries. I have no reason to suppose it
exactly known at what time the custom ceased, nor did it probably cease in all houses at
once. But whenever the practice of recitation was disused, the works, whether poetical or
historical, perished with the authors; for in those times nothing had been written in the
Whether the 'Man of talk' was a historian, whose office was to tell
truth, or a story-teller, like those which were in the last century, and perhaps are now
among the Irish, whose trade was only to amuse, it now would be vain to inquire.
Most of the domestick offices were, I believe, hereditary; and
probably the laureat of a clan was always the son of the last laureat. The history of the
race could no otherwise be communicated, or retained; but what genius could be expected in
a poet by inheritance?
The nation was wholly illiterate. Neither bards nor Senachies could
write or read; but if they were ignorant, there was no danger of detection; they were
believed by those whose vanity they flattered.
The recital of genealogies, which has been considered as very
efficacious to the preservation of a true series of ancestry, was anciently made, when the
heir of the family came to manly age.
This practice has never subsisted within time of memory, nor was
much credit due to such rehearsers, who might obtrude fictitious pedigrees, either to
please their masters, or to hide the deficiency of their own memories.
Where the Chiefs of the Highlands have found the histories of their
descent is difficult to tell; for no Earse genealogy was ever written. In general this
only is evident, that the principal house of a clan must be very ancient, and that those
must have lived long in a place, of whom it is not known when they came thither. Thus
hopeless are all attempts to find any traces of Highland learning. Nor are their primitive
customs and ancient manner of life otherwise than very faintly and uncertainly remembered
by the present race.
The peculiarities which strike the native of a commercial country,
proceeded in a great measure from the want of money. To the servants and dependents that
were not domesticks, and if an estimate be made from the capacity of any of their old
houses which I have seen, their domesticks could have been but few, were appropriated
certain portions of land for their support. Macdonald has a piece of ground yet, called
the Bards or Senachies field.
When a beef was killed for the house, particular parts were claimed
as fees by the several officers, or workmen. What was the right of each I have not
learned. The head belonged to the smith, and the udder of a cow to the piper: the weaver
had likewise his particular part; and so many pieces followed these prescriptive claims,
that the Laird's was at last but little.
The payment of rent in kind has been so long disused in England,
that it is totally forgotten. It was practised very lately in the Hebrides, and probably
still continues, not only in St. Kilda, where money is not yet known, but in others of the
smaller and remoter Islands. It were perhaps to be desired, that no change in this
particular should have been made. When the Laird could only eat the produce of his lands,
he was under the necessity of residing upon them; and when the tenant could not convert
his stock into more portable riches, he could never be tempted away from his farm, from
the only place where he could be wealthy. Money confounds subordination, by overpowering
the distinctions of rank and birth, and weakens authority by supplying power of
resistance, or expedients for escape. The feudal system is formed for a nation employed in
agriculture, and has never long kept its hold where gold and silver have become common.
Their arms were anciently the Glaymore, or great two-handed sword,
and afterwards the two-edged sword and target, or buckler, which was sustained on the left
arm. In the midst of the target, which was made of wood, covered with leather, and studded
with nails, a slender lance, about two feet long, was sometimes fixed; it was heavy and
cumberous, and accordingly has for some time past been gradually laid aside. Very few
targets were at Culloden. The dirk, or broad dagger, I am afraid, was of more use in
private quarrels than in battles. The Lochaber-ax is only a slight alteration of the old
After all that has been said of the force and terrour of the
Highland sword, I could not find that the art of defence was any part of common education.
The gentlemen were perhaps sometimes skilful gladiators, but the common men had no other
powers than those of violence and courage. Yet it is well known, that the onset of the
Highlanders was very formidable. As an army cannot consist of philosophers, a panick is
easily excited by any unwonted mode of annoyance. New dangers are naturally magnified; and
men accustomed only to exchange bullets at a distance, and rather to hear their enemies
than see them, are discouraged and amazed when they find themselves encountered hand to
hand, and catch the gleam of steel flashing in their faces.
The Highland weapons gave opportunity for many exertions of personal
courage, and sometimes for single combats in the field; like those which occur so
frequently in fabulous wars. At Falkirk, a gentleman now living, was, I suppose after the
retreat of the King's troops, engaged at a distance from the rest with an Irish dragoon.
They were both skilful swordsmen, and the contest was not easily decided: the dragoon at
last had the advantage, and the Highlander called for quarter; but quarter was refused
him, and the fight continued till he was reduced to defend himself upon his knee. At that
instant one of the Macleods came to his rescue; who, as it is said, offered quarter to the
dragoon, but he thought himself obliged to reject what he had before refused, and, as
battle gives little time to deliberate, was immediately killed.
Funerals were formerly solemnized by calling multitudes together,
and entertaining them at great expence. This emulation of useless cost has been for some
time discouraged, and at last in the Isle of Sky is almost suppressed.
Of the Earse language, as I understand nothing, I cannot say more
than I have been told. It is the rude speech of a barbarous people, who had few thoughts
to express, and were content, as they conceived grossly, to be grossly understood. After
what has been lately talked of Highland Bards, and Highland genius, many will startle when
they are told, that the Earse never was a written language; that there is not in the world
an Earse manuscript a hundred years old; and that the sounds of the Highlanders were never
expressed by letters, till some little books of piety were translated, and a metrical
version of the Psalms was made by the Synod of Argyle. Whoever therefore now writes in
this language, spells according to his own perception of the sound, and his own idea of
the power of the letters. The Welsh and the Irish are cultivated tongues. The Welsh, two
hundred years ago, insulted their English neighbours for the instability of their
Orthography; while the Earse merely floated in the breath of the people, and could
therefore receive little improvement.
When a language begins to teem with books, it is tending to
refinement; as those who undertake to teach others must have undergone some labour in
improving themselves, they set a proportionate value on their own thoughts, and wish to
enforce them by efficacious expressions; speech becomes embodied and permanent; different
modes and phrases are compared, and the best obtains an establishment. By degrees one age
improves upon another.
Exactness is first obtained, and afterwards elegance. But diction,
merely vocal, is always in its childhood. As no man leaves his eloquence behind him, the
new generations have all to learn. There may possibly be books without a polished
language, but there can be no polished language without books.
That the Bards could not read more than the rest of their
countrymen, it is reasonable to suppose; because, if they had read, they could probably
have written; and how high their compositions may reasonably be rated, an inquirer may
best judge by considering what stores of imagery, what principles of ratiocination, what
comprehension of knowledge, and what delicacy of elocution he has known any man attain who
cannot read. The state of the Bards was yet more hopeless. He that cannot read, may now
converse with those that can; but the Bard was a barbarian among barbarians, who, knowing
nothing himself, lived with others that knew no more.
There has lately been in the Islands one of these illiterate poets,
who hearing the Bible read at church, is said to have turned the sacred history into
verse. I heard part of a dialogue, composed by him, translated by a young lady in Mull,
and thought it had more meaning than I expected from a man totally uneducated; but he had
some opportunities of knowledge; he lived among a learned people.
After all that has been done for the instruction of the Highlanders,
the antipathy between their language and literature still continues; and no man that has
learned only Earse is, at this time, able to read.
The Earse has many dialects, and the words used in some Islands are
not always known in others. In literate nations, though the pronunciation, and sometimes
the words of common speech may differ, as now in England, compared with the South of
Scotland, yet there is a written diction, which pervades all dialects, and is understood
in every province. But where the whole language is colloquial, he that has only one part,
never gets the rest, as he cannot get it but by change of residence.
In an unwritten speech, nothing that is not very short is
transmitted from one generation to another. Few have opportunities of hearing a long
composition often enough to learn it, or have inclination to repeat it so often as is
necessary to retain it; and what is once forgotten is lost for ever. I believe there
cannot be recovered, in the whole Earse language, five hundred lines of which there is any
evidence to prove them a hundred years old. Yet I hear that the father of Ossian boasts of
two chests more of ancient poetry, which he suppresses, because they are too good for the
He that goes into the Highlands with a mind naturally acquiescent,
and a credulity eager for wonders, may come back with an opinion very different from mine;
for the inhabitants knowing the ignorance of all strangers in their language and
antiquities, perhaps are not very scrupulous adherents to truth; yet I do not say that
they deliberately speak studied falsehood, or have a settled purpose to deceive. They have
inquired and considered little, and do not always feel their own ignorance. They are not
much accustomed to be interrogated by others; and seem never to have thought upon
interrogating themselves; so that if they do not know what they tell to be true, they
likewise do not distinctly perceive it to be false.
Mr. Boswell was very diligent in his inquiries; and the result of
his investigations was, that the answer to the second question was commonly such as
nullified the answer to the first.
We were a while told, that they had an old translation of the
scriptures; and told it till it would appear obstinacy to inquire again. Yet by continued
accumulation of questions we found, that the translation meant, if any meaning there were,
was nothing else than the Irish Bible.
We heard of manuscripts that were, or that had been in the hands of
somebody's father, or grandfather; but at last we had no reason to believe they were other
than Irish. Martin mentions Irish, but never any Earse manuscripts, to be found in the
Islands in his time.
I suppose my opinion of the poems of Ossian is already discovered. I
believe they never existed in any other form than that which we have seen. The editor, or
author, never could shew the original; nor can it be shewn by any other; to revenge
reasonable incredulity, by refusing evidence, is a degree of insolence, with which the
world is not yet acquainted; and stubborn audacity is the last refuge of guilt. It would
be easy to shew it if he had it; but whence could it be had? It is too long to be
remembered, and the language formerly had nothing written. He has doubtless inserted names
that circulate in popular stories, and may have translated some wandering ballads, if any
can be found; and the names, and some of the images being recollected, make an inaccurate
auditor imagine, by the help of Caledonian bigotry, that he has formerly heard the whole.
I asked a very learned Minister in Sky, who had used all arts to
make me believe the genuineness of the book, whether at last he believed it himself? but
he would not answer. He wished me to be deceived, for the honour of his country; but would
not directly and formally deceive me. Yet has this man's testimony been publickly
produced, as of one that held Fingal to be the work of Ossian.
It is said, that some men of integrity profess to have heard parts
of it, but they all heard them when they were boys; and it was never said that any of them
could recite six lines. They remember names, and perhaps some proverbial sentiments; and,
having no distinct ideas, coin a resemblance without an original. The persuasion of the
Scots, however, is far from universal; and in a question so capable of proof, why should
doubt be suffered to continue? The editor has been heard to say, that part of the poem was
received by him, in the Saxon character. He has then found, by some peculiar fortune, an
unwritten language, written in a character which the natives probably never beheld.
I have yet supposed no imposture but in the publisher, yet I am far
from certainty, that some translations have not been lately made, that may now be obtruded
as parts of the original work. Credulity on one part is a strong temptation to deceit on
the other, especially to deceit of which no personal injury is the consequence, and which
flatters the author with his own ingenuity. The Scots have something to plead for their
easy reception of an improbable fiction; they are seduced by their fondness for their
supposed ancestors. A Scotchman must be a very sturdy moralist, who does not love Scotland
better than truth: he will always love it better than inquiry; and if falsehood flatters
his vanity, will not be very diligent to detect it. Neither ought the English to be much
influenced by Scotch authority; for of the past and present state of the whole Earse
nation, the Lowlanders are at least as ignorant as ourselves. To be ignorant is painful;
but it is dangerous to quiet our uneasiness by the delusive opiate of hasty persuasion.
But this is the age, in which those who could not read, have been
supposed to write; in which the giants of antiquated romance have been exhibited as
realities. If we know little of the ancient Highlanders, let us not fill the vacuity with
Ossian. If we had not searched the Magellanick regions, let us however forbear to people
them with Patagons.
Having waited some days at Armidel, we were flattered at last with a
wind that promised to convey us to Mull. We went on board a boat that was taking in kelp,
and left the Isle of Sky behind us. We were doomed to experience, like others, the danger
of trusting to the wind, which blew against us, in a short time, with such violence, that
we, being no seasoned sailors, were willing to call it a tempest. I was sea-sick and lay
down. Mr. Boswell kept the deck. The master knew not well whither to go; and our
difficulties might perhaps have filled a very pathetick page, had not Mr. Maclean of Col,
who, with every other qualification which insular life requires, is a very active and
skilful mariner, piloted us safe into his own harbour.