A JOURNEY TO THE WESTERN ISLANDS OF SCOTLAND by Samuel Johnson
CASTLE OF COL
From Grissipol, Mr. Maclean conducted us to his
father's seat; a neat new house, erected near the old castle, I think, by the last
proprietor. Here we were allowed to take our station, and lived very commodiously, while
we waited for moderate weather and a fair wind, which we did not so soon obtain, but we
had time to get some information of the present state of Col, partly by inquiry, and
partly by occasional excursions.
Col is computed to be
thirteen miles in length, and three in breadth. Both the ends are the property of the Duke
of Argyle, but the middle belongs to Maclean, who is called Col, as the only Laird.
Col is not properly rocky; it is rather one continued rock, of a
surface much diversified with protuberances, and covered with a thin layer of earth, which
is often broken, and discovers the stone. Such a soil is not for plants that strike deep
roots; and perhaps in the whole Island nothing has ever yet grown to the height of a
table. The uncultivated parts are clothed with heath, among which industry has
interspersed spots of grass and corn; but no attempt has yet been made to raise a tree.
Young Col, who has a very laudable desire of improving his patrimony, purposes some time
to plant an orchard; which, if it be sheltered by a wall, may perhaps succeed. He has
introduced the culture of turnips, of which he has a field, where the whole work was
performed by his own hand. His intention is to provide food for his cattle in the winter.
This innovation was considered by Mr. Macsweyn as the idle project of a young head, heated
with English fancies; but he has now found that turnips will really grow, and that hungry
sheep and cows will really eat them.
By such acquisitions as these, the Hebrides may in time rise above
their annual distress. Wherever heath will grow, there is reason to think something better
may draw nourishment; and by trying the production of other places, plants will be found
suitable to every soil.
Col has many lochs, some of which have trouts and eels, and others
have never yet been stocked; another proof of the negligence of the Islanders, who might
take fish in the inland waters, when they cannot go to sea.
Their quadrupeds are horses, cows, sheep, and goats. They have
neither deer, hares, nor rabbits. They have no vermin, except rats, which have been lately
brought thither by sea, as to other places; and are free from serpents, frogs, and toads.
The harvest in Col, and in Lewis, is ripe sooner than in Sky; and
the winter in Col is never cold, but very tempestuous. I know not that I ever heard the
wind so loud in any other place; and Mr. Boswell observed, that its noise was all its own,
for there were no trees to increase it.
Noise is not the worst effect of the tempests; for they have thrown
the sand from the shore over a considerable part of the land; and it is said still to
encroach and destroy more and more pasture; but I am not of opinion, that by any surveys
or landmarks, its limits have been ever fixed, or its progression ascertained. If one man
has confidence enough to say, that it advances, nobody can bring any proof to support him
in denying it. The reason why it is not spread to a greater extent, seems to be, that the
wind and rain come almost together, and that it is made close and heavy by the wet before
the storms can put it in motion. So thick is the bed, and so small the particles, that if
a traveller should be caught by a sudden gust in dry weather, he would find it very
difficult to escape with life.
For natural curiosities, I was shown only two great masses of stone,
which lie loose upon the ground; one on the top of a hill, and the other at a small
distance from the bottom. They certainly were never put into their present places by human
strength or skill; and though an earthquake might have broken off the lower stone, and
rolled it into the valley, no account can be given of the other, which lies on the hill,
unless, which I forgot to examine, there be still near it some higher rock, from which it
might be torn. All nations have a tradition, that their earliest ancestors were giants,
and these stones are said to have been thrown up and down by a giant and his mistress.
There are so many more important things, of which human knowledge can give no account,
that it may be forgiven us, if we speculate no longer on two stones in Col.
This Island is very populous. About nine-and-twenty years ago, the
fencible men of Col were reckoned one hundred and forty, which is the sixth of eight
hundred and forty; and probably some contrived to be left out of the list. The Minister
told us, that a few years ago the inhabitants were eight hundred, between the ages of
seven and of seventy. Round numbers are seldom exact. But in this case the authority is
good, and the errour likely to be little. If to the eight hundred be added what the laws
of computation require, they will be increased to at least a thousand; and if the
dimensions of the country have been accurately related, every mile maintains more than
This proportion of habitation is greater than the appearance of the
country seems to admit; for wherever the eye wanders, it sees much waste and little
cultivation. I am more inclined to extend the land, of which no measure has ever been
taken, than to diminish the people, who have been really numbered. Let it be supposed,
that a computed mile contains a mile and a half, as was commonly found true in the
mensuration of the English roads, and we shall then allot nearly twelve to a mile, which
agrees much better with ocular observation.
Here, as in Sky, and other Islands, are the Laird, the Tacksmen, and
the under tenants.
Mr. Maclean, the Laird, has very extensive possessions, being
proprietor, not only of far the greater part of Col, but of the extensive Island of Rum,
and a very considerable territory in Mull.
Rum is one of the larger Islands, almost square, and therefore of
great capacity in proportion to its sides. By the usual method of estimating computed
extent, it may contain more than a hundred and twenty square miles.
It originally belonged to Clanronald, and was purchased by Col; who,
in some dispute about the bargain, made Clanronald prisoner, and kept him nine months in
confinement. Its owner represents it as mountainous, rugged, and barren. In the hills
there are red deer. The horses are very small, but of a breed eminent for beauty. Col, not
long ago, bought one of them from a tenant; who told him, that as he was of a shape
uncommonly elegant, he could not sell him but at a high price; and that whoever had him
should pay a guinea and a half.
There are said to be in Barra a race of horses yet smaller, of which
the highest is not above thirty-six inches.
The rent of Rum is not great. Mr. Maclean declared, that he should
be very rich, if he could set his land at two-pence halfpenny an acre. The inhabitants are
fifty-eight families, who continued Papists for some time after the Laird became a
Protestant. Their adherence to their old religion was strengthened by the countenance of
the Laird's sister, a zealous Romanist, till one Sunday, as they were going to mass under
the conduct of their patroness, Maclean met them on the way, gave one of them a blow on
the head with a yellow stick, I suppose a cane, for which the Earse had no name, and drove
them to the kirk, from which they have never since departed. Since the use of this method
of conversion, the inhabitants of Egg and Canna, who continue Papists, call the
Protestantism of Rum, the religion of the Yellow Stick.
The only Popish Islands are Egg and Canna. Egg is the principal
Island of a parish, in which, though he has no congregation, the Protestant Minister
resides. I have heard of nothing curious in it, but the cave in which a former generation
of the Islanders were smothered by Macleod.
If we had travelled with more leisure, it had not been fit to have
neglected the Popish Islands. Popery is favourable to ceremony; and among ignorant
nations, ceremony is the only preservative of tradition. Since protestantism was extended
to the savage parts of Scotland, it has perhaps been one of the chief labours of the
Ministers to abolish stated observances, because they continued the remembrance of the
former religion. We therefore who came to hear old traditions, and see antiquated manners,
should probably have found them amongst the Papists.
Canna, the other Popish Island, belongs to Clanronald. It is said
not to comprise more than twelve miles of land, and yet maintains as many inhabitants as
We were at Col under the protection of the young Laird, without any
of the distresses, which Mr. Pennant, in a fit of simple credulity, seems to think almost
worthy of an elegy by Ossian. Wherever we roved, we were pleased to see the reverence with
which his subjects regarded him. He did not endeavour to dazzle them by any magnificence
of dress: his only distinction was a feather in his bonnet; but as soon as he appeared,
they forsook their work and clustered about him: he took them by the hand, and they seemed
mutually delighted. He has the proper disposition of a Chieftain, and seems desirous to
continue the customs of his house. The bagpiper played regularly, when dinner was served,
whose person and dress made a good appearance; and he brought no disgrace upon the family
of Rankin, which has long supplied the Lairds of Col with hereditary musick.
The Tacksmen of Col seem to live with less dignity and convenience
than those of Sky; where they had good houses, and tables not only plentiful, but
delicate. In Col only two houses pay the window tax; for only two have six windows, which,
I suppose, are the Laird's and Mr. Macsweyn's.
The rents have, till within seven years, been paid in kind, but the
tenants finding that cattle and corn varied in their price, desired for the future to give
their landlord money; which, not having yet arrived at the philosophy of commerce, they
consider as being every year of the same value.
We were told of a particular mode of under-tenure. The Tacksman
admits some of his inferior neighbours to the cultivation of his grounds, on condition
that performing all the work, and giving a third part of the seed, they shall keep a
certain number of cows, sheep, and goats, and reap a third part of the harvest. Thus by
less than the tillage of two acres they pay the rent of one. There are tenants below the
rank of Tacksmen, that have got smaller tenants under them; for in every place, where
money is not the general equivalent, there must be some whose labour is immediately paid
by daily food.
A country that has no money, is by no means convenient for beggars,
both because such countries are commonly poor, and because charity requires some trouble
and some thought. A penny is easily given upon the first impulse of compassion, or
impatience of importunity; but few will deliberately search their cupboards or their
granaries to find out something to give. A penny is likewise easily spent, but victuals,
if they are unprepared, require houseroom, and fire, and utensils, which the beggar knows
not where to find. Yet beggars there sometimes are, who wander from Island to Island.
We had, in our passage to Mull, the company of a woman and her
child, who had exhausted the charity of Col. The arrival of a beggar on an Island is
accounted a sinistrous event. Every body considers that he shall have the less for what he
gives away. Their alms, I believe, is generally oatmeal.
Near to Col is another Island called Tireye, eminent for its
fertility. Though it has but half the extent of Rum, it is so well peopled, that there
have appeared, not long ago, nine hundred and fourteen at a funeral. The plenty of this
Island enticed beggars to it, who seemed so burdensome to the inhabitants, that a formal
compact was drawn up, by which they obliged themselves to grant no more relief to casual
wanderers, because they had among them an indigent woman of high birth, whom they
considered as entitled to all that they could spare. I have read the stipulation, which
was indited with juridical formality, but was never made valid by regular subscription.
If the inhabitants of Col have nothing to give, it is not that they
are oppressed by their landlord: their leases seem to be very profitable. One farmer, who
pays only seven pounds a year, has maintained seven daughters and three sons, of whom the
eldest is educated at Aberdeen for the ministry; and now, at every vacation, opens a
school in Col.
Life is here, in some respects, improved beyond the condition of
some other Islands. In Sky what is wanted can only be bought, as the arrival of some
wandering pedlar may afford an opportunity; but in Col there is a standing shop, and in
Mull there are two. A shop in the Islands, as in other places of little frequentation, is
a repository of every thing requisite for common use. Mr. Boswell's journal was filled,
and he bought some paper in Col. To a man that ranges the streets of London, where he is
tempted to contrive wants, for the pleasure of supplying them, a shop affords no image
worthy of attention; but in an Island, it turns the balance of existence between good and
evil. To live in perpetual want of little things, is a state not indeed of torture, but of
constant vexation. I have in Sky had some difficulty to find ink for a letter; and if a
woman breaks her needle, the work is at a stop. As it is, the Islanders are obliged to
content themselves with succedaneous means for many common purposes. I have seen the chief
man of a very wide district riding with a halter for a bridle, and governing his hobby
with a wooden curb.
The people of Col, however, do not want dexterity to supply some of
their necessities. Several arts which make trades, and demand apprenticeships in great
cities, are here the practices of daily economy. In every house candles are made, both
moulded and dipped. Their wicks are small shreds of linen cloth. They all know how to
extract from the Cuddy, oil for their lamps. They all tan skins, and make brogues.
As we travelled through Sky, we saw many cottages, but they very
frequently stood single on the naked ground. In Col, where the hills opened a place
convenient for habitation, we found a petty village, of which every hut had a little
garden adjoining; thus they made an appearance of social commerce and mutual offices, and
of some attention to convenience and future supply. There is not in the Western Islands
any collection of buildings that can make pretensions to be called a town, except in the
Isle of Lewis, which I have not seen.
If Lewis is distinguished by a town, Col has also something
peculiar. The young Laird has attempted what no Islander perhaps ever thought on. He has
begun a road capable of a wheel-carriage. He has carried it about a mile, and will
continue it by annual elongation from his house to the harbour.
Of taxes here is no reason for complaining; they are paid by a very
easy composition. The malt-tax for Col is twenty shillings.
Whisky is very plentiful: there are several stills in the Island,
and more is made than the inhabitants consume.
The great business of insular policy is now to keep the people in
their own country. As the world has been let in upon them, they have heard of happier
climates, and less arbitrary government; and if they are disgusted, have emissaries among
them ready to offer them land and houses, as a reward for deserting their Chief and clan.
Many have departed both from the main of Scotland, and from the Islands; and all that go
may be considered as subjects lost to the British crown; for a nation scattered in the
boundless regions of America resembles rays diverging from a focus. All the rays remain,
but the heat is gone. Their power consisted in their concentration: when they are
dispersed, they have no effect.
It may be thought that they are happier by the change; but they are
not happy as a nation, for they are a nation no longer. As they contribute not to the
prosperity of any community, they must want that security, that dignity, that happiness,
whatever it be, which a prosperous community throws back upon individuals.
The inhabitants of Col have not yet learned to be weary of their
heath and rocks, but attend their agriculture and their dairies, without listening to
There are some however who think that this emigration has raised
terrour disproportionate to its real evil; and that it is only a new mode of doing what
was always done. The Highlands, they say, never maintained their natural inhabitants; but
the people, when they found themselves too numerous, instead of extending cultivation,
provided for themselves by a more compendious method, and sought better fortune in other
countries. They did not indeed go away in collective bodies, but withdrew invisibly, a few
at a time; but the whole number of fugitives was not less, and the difference between
other times and this, is only the same as between evaporation and effusion.
This is plausible, but I am afraid it is not true. Those who went
before, if they were not sensibly missed, as the argument supposes, must have gone either
in less number, or in a manner less detrimental, than at present; because formerly there
was no complaint. Those who then left the country were generally the idle dependants on
overburdened families, or men who had no property; and therefore carried away only
themselves. In the present eagerness of emigration, families, and almost communities, go
away together. Those who were considered as prosperous and wealthy sell their stock and
carry away the money. Once none went away but the useless and poor; in some parts there is
now reason to fear, that none will stay but those who are too poor to remove themselves,
and too useless to be removed at the cost of others.
Of antiquity there is not more knowledge in Col than in other
places; but every where something may be gleaned.
How ladies were portioned, when there was no money, it would be
difficult for an Englishman to guess. In 1649, Maclean of Dronart in Mull married his
sister Fingala to Maclean of Coll, with a hundred and eighty kine; and stipulated, that if
she became a widow, her jointure should be three hundred and sixty. I suppose some
proportionate tract of land was appropriated to their pasturage.
The disposition to pompous and expensive funerals, which has at one
time or other prevailed in most parts of the civilized world, is not yet suppressed in the
Islands, though some of the ancient solemnities are worn away, and singers are no longer
hired to attend the procession. Nineteen years ago, at the burial of the Laird of Col,
were killed thirty cows, and about fifty sheep. The number of the cows is positively told,
and we must suppose other victuals in like proportion.
Mr. Maclean informed us of an odd game, of which he did not tell the
original, but which may perhaps be used in other places, where the reason of it is not yet
forgot. At New-year's eve, in the hall or castle of the Laird, where, at festal seasons,
there may be supposed a very numerous company, one man dresses himself in a cow's hide,
upon which other men beat with sticks. He runs with all this noise round the house, which
all the company quits in a counterfeited fright: the door is then shut. At New-year's eve
there is no great pleasure to be had out of doors in the Hebrides.
They are sure soon to recover from their terrour enough to solicit
for re-admission; which, for the honour of poetry, is not to be obtained but by repeating
a verse, with which those that are knowing and provident take care to be furnished.
Very near the house of Maclean stands the castle of Col, which was
the mansion of the Laird, till the house was built. It is built upon a rock, as Mr.
Boswell remarked, that it might not be mined.
It is very strong, and having been not long uninhabited, is yet in
repair. On the wall was, not long ago, a stone with an inscription, importing, that 'if
any man of the clan of Maclonich shall appear before this castle, though he come at
midnight, with a man's head in his hand, he shall there find safety and protection against
all but the King.'
This is an old Highland treaty made upon a very memorable occasion.
Maclean, the son of John Gerves, who recovered Col, and conquered Barra, had obtained, it
is said, from James the Second, a grant of the lands of Lochiel, forfeited, I suppose, by
some offence against the state.
Forfeited estates were not in those days quietly resigned; Maclean,
therefore, went with an armed force to seize his new possessions, and, I know not for what
reason, took his wife with him. The Camerons rose in defence of their Chief, and a battle
was fought at the head of Loch Ness, near the place where Fort Augustus now stands, in
which Lochiel obtained the victory, and Maclean, with his followers, was defeated and
The lady fell into the hands of the conquerours, and being found
pregnant was placed in the custody of Maclonich, one of a tribe or family branched from
Cameron, with orders, if she brought a boy, to destroy him, if a girl, to spare her.
Maclonich's wife, who was with child likewise, had a girl about the
same time at which lady Maclean brought a boy, and Maclonich with more generosity to his
captive, than fidelity to his trust, contrived that the children should be changed.
Maclean being thus preserved from death, in time recovered his
original patrimony; and in gratitude to his friend, made his castle a place of refuge to
any of the clan that should think himself in danger; and, as a proof of reciprocal
confidence, Maclean took upon himself and his posterity the care of educating the heir of
This story, like all other traditions of the Highlands, is variously
related, but though some circumstances are uncertain, the principal fact is true. Maclean
undoubtedly owed his preservation to Maclonich; for the treaty between the two families
has been strictly observed: it did not sink into disuse and oblivion, but continued in its
full force while the chieftains retained their power. I have read a demand of protection,
made not more than thirty-seven years ago, for one of the Maclonichs, named Ewen Cameron,
who had been accessory to the death of Macmartin, and had been banished by Lochiel, his
lord, for a certain term; at the expiration of which he returned married from France, but
the Macmartins, not satisfied with the punishment, when he attempted to settle, still
threatened him with vengeance. He therefore asked, and obtained shelter in the Isle of
The power of protection subsists no longer, but what the law permits
is yet continued, and Maclean of Col now educates the heir of Maclonich.
There still remains in the Islands, though it is passing fast away,
the custom of fosterage. A Laird, a man of wealth and eminence, sends his child, either
male or female, to a tacksman, or tenant, to be fostered. It is not always his own tenant,
but some distant friend that obtains this honour; for an honour such a trust is very
reasonably thought. The terms of fosterage seem to vary in different islands. In Mull, the
father sends with his child a certain number of cows, to which the same number is added by
the fosterer. The father appropriates a proportionable extent of ground, without rent, for
their pasturage. If every cow brings a calf, half belongs to the fosterer, and half to the
child; but if there be only one calf between two cows, it is the child's, and when the
child returns to the parent, it is accompanied by all the cows given, both by the father
and by the fosterer, with half of the increase of the stock by propagation. These beasts
are considered as a portion, and called Macalive cattle, of which the father has the
produce, but is supposed not to have the full property, but to owe the same number to the
child, as a portion to the daughter, or a stock for the son.
Children continue with the fosterer perhaps six years, and cannot,
where this is the practice, be considered as burdensome. The fosterer, if he gives four
cows, receives likewise four, and has, while the child continues with him, grass for eight
without rent, with half the calves, and all the milk, for which he pays only four cows
when he dismisses his Dalt, for that is the name for a foster child.
Fosterage is, I believe, sometimes performed upon more liberal
terms. Our friend, the young Laird of Col, was fostered by Macsweyn of Grissipol. Macsweyn
then lived a tenant to Sir James Macdonald in the Isle of Sky; and therefore Col, whether
he sent him cattle or not, could grant him no land. The Dalt, however, at his return,
brought back a considerable number of Macalive cattle, and of the friendship so formed
there have been good effects. When Macdonald raised his rents, Macsweyn was, like other
tenants, discontented, and, resigning his farm, removed from Sky to Col, and was
established at Grissipol.
These observations we made by favour of the contrary wind that drove
us to Col, an Island not often visited; for there is not much to amuse curiosity, or to
The ground has been hitherto, I believe, used chiefly for pasturage.
In a district, such as the eye can command, there is a general herdsman, who knows all the
cattle of the neighbourhood, and whose station is upon a hill, from which he surveys the
lower grounds; and if one man's cattle invade another's grass, drives them back to their
own borders. But other means of profit begin to be found; kelp is gathered and burnt, and
sloops are loaded with the concreted ashes. Cultivation is likely to be improved by the
skill and encouragement of the present heir, and the inhabitants of those obscure vallies
will partake of the general progress of life.
The rents of the parts which belong to the Duke of Argyle, have been
raised from fifty-five to one hundred and five pounds, whether from the land or the sea I
cannot tell. The bounties of the sea have lately been so great, that a farm in Southuist
has risen in ten years from a rent of thirty pounds to one hundred and eighty.
He who lives in Col, and finds himself condemned to solitary meals,
and incommunicable reflection, will find the usefulness of that middle order of Tacksmen,
which some who applaud their own wisdom are wishing to destroy. Without intelligence man
is not social, he is only gregarious; and little intelligence will there be, where all are
constrained to daily labour, and every mind must wait upon the hand.
After having listened for some days to the tempest, and wandered
about the Island till our curiosity was satisfied, we began to think about our departure.
To leave Col in October was not very easy. We however found a sloop which lay on the coast
to carry kelp; and for a price which we thought levied upon our necessities, the master
agreed to carry us to Mull, whence we might readily pass back to Scotland.