A JOURNEY TO THE WESTERN ISLANDS OF SCOTLAND by Samuel Johnson
We were very near an Island, called Nun's Island,
perhaps from an ancient convent. Here is said to have been dug the stone that was used in
the buildings of Icolmkill. Whether it is now inhabited we could not stay to inquire.
At last we came to Icolmkill, but found no convenience for landing. Our boat
could not be forced very near the dry ground, and our Highlanders carried us over the
We were now treading that illustrious Island, which was once the
luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the
benefits of knowledge, and the blessings of religion. To abstract the mind from all local
emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish, if it were
possible. Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses; whatever makes the past, the
distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of
Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may
conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom,
bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force
upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona!
We came too late to visit monuments: some care was necessary for
ourselves. Whatever was in the Island, Sir Allan could command, for the inhabitants were
Macleans; but having little they could not give us much. He went to the headman of the
Island, whom Fame, but Fame delights in amplifying, represents as worth no less than fifty
pounds. He was perhaps proud enough of his guests, but ill prepared for our entertainment;
however, he soon produced more provision than men not luxurious require. Our lodging was
next to be provided. We found a barn well stocked with hay, and made our beds as soft as
In the morning we rose and surveyed the place. The churches of the
two convents are both standing, though unroofed. They were built of unhewn stone, but
solid, and not inelegant. I brought away rude measures of the buildings, such as I cannot
much trust myself, inaccurately taken, and obscurely noted. Mr. Pennant's delineations,
which are doubtless exact, have made my unskilful description less necessary.
The episcopal church consists of two parts, separated by the belfry,
and built at different times. The original church had, like others, the altar at one end,
and tower at the other: but as it grew too small, another building of equal dimension was
added, and the tower then was necessarily in the middle. That these edifices are of
different ages seems evident. The arch of the first church is Roman, being part of a
circle; that of the additional building is pointed, and therefore Gothick, or Saracenical;
the tower is firm, and wants only to be floored and covered.
Of the chambers or cells belonging to the monks, there are some
walls remaining, but nothing approaching to a complete apartment.
The bottom of the church is so incumbered with mud and rubbish, that
we could make no discoveries of curious inscriptions, and what there are have been already
published. The place is said to be known where the black stones lie concealed, on which
the old Highland Chiefs, when they made contracts and alliances, used to take the oath,
which was considered as more sacred than any other obligation, and which could not be
violated without the blackest infamy. In those days of violence and rapine, it was of
great importance to impress upon savage minds the sanctity of an oath, by some particular
and extraordinary circumstances. They would not have recourse to the black stones, upon
small or common occasions, and when they had established their faith by this tremendous
sanction, inconstancy and treachery were no longer feared.
The chapel of the nunnery is now used by the inhabitants as a kind
of general cow-house, and the bottom is consequently too miry for examination. Some of the
stones which covered the later abbesses have inscriptions, which might yet be read, if the
chapel were cleansed. The roof of this, as of all the other buildings, is totally
destroyed, not only because timber quickly decays when it is neglected, but because in an
island utterly destitute of wood, it was wanted for use, and was consequently the first
plunder of needy rapacity.
The chancel of the nuns' chapel is covered with an arch of stone, to
which time has done no injury; and a small apartment communicating with the choir, on the
north side, like the chapter-house in cathedrals, roofed with stone in the same manner, is
In one of the churches was a marble altar, which the superstition of
the inhabitants has destroyed. Their opinion was, that a fragment of this stone was a
defence against shipwrecks, fire, and miscarriages. In one corner of the church the bason
for holy water is yet unbroken.
The cemetery of the nunnery was, till very lately, regarded with
such reverence, that only women were buried in it. These reliques of veneration always
produce some mournful pleasure. I could have forgiven a great injury more easily than the
violation of this imaginary sanctity.
South of the chapel stand the walls of a large room, which was
probably the hall, or refectory of the nunnery. This apartment is capable of repair. Of
the rest of the convent there are only fragments.
Besides the two principal churches, there are, I think, five chapels
yet standing, and three more remembered. There are also crosses, of which two bear the
names of St. John and St. Matthew.
A large space of ground about these consecrated edifices is covered
with gravestones, few of which have any inscription. He that surveys it, attended by an
insular antiquary, may be told where the Kings of many nations are buried, and if he loves
to sooth his imagination with the thoughts that naturally rise in places where the great
and the powerful lie mingled with the dust, let him listen in submissive silence; for if
he asks any questions, his delight is at an end.
Iona has long enjoyed, without any very credible attestation, the
honour of being reputed the cemetery of the Scottish Kings. It is not unlikely, that, when
the opinion of local sanctity was prevalent, the Chieftains of the Isles, and perhaps some
of the Norwegian or Irish princes were reposited in this venerable enclosure. But by whom
the subterraneous vaults are peopled is now utterly unknown. The graves are very numerous,
and some of them undoubtedly contain the remains of men, who did not expect to be so soon
Not far from this awful ground, may be traced the garden of the
monastery: the fishponds are yet discernible, and the aqueduct, which supplied them, is
still in use.
There remains a broken building, which is called the Bishop's house,
I know not by what authority. It was once the residence of some man above the common rank,
for it has two stories and a chimney. We were shewn a chimney at the other end, which was
only a nich, without perforation, but so much does antiquarian credulity, or patriotick
vanity prevail, that it was not much more safe to trust the eye of our instructor than the
There is in the Island one house more, and only one, that has a
chimney: we entered it, and found it neither wanting repair nor inhabitants; but to the
farmers, who now possess it, the chimney is of no great value; for their fire was made on
the floor, in the middle of the room, and notwithstanding the dignity of their mansion,
they rejoiced, like their neighbours, in the comforts of smoke.
It is observed, that ecclesiastical colleges are always in the most
pleasant and fruitful places. While the world allowed the monks their choice, it is surely
no dishonour that they chose well. This Island is remarkably fruitful. The village near
the churches is said to contain seventy families, which, at five in a family, is more than
a hundred inhabitants to a mile. There are perhaps other villages: yet both corn and
cattle are annually exported.
But the fruitfulness of Iona is now its whole prosperity. The
inhabitants are remarkably gross, and remarkably neglected: I know not if they are visited
by any Minister. The Island, which was once the metropolis of learning and piety, has now
no school for education, nor temple for worship, only two inhabitants that can speak
English, and not one that can write or read.
The people are of the clan of Maclean; and though Sir Allan had not
been in the place for many years, he was received with all the reverence due to their
Chieftain. One of them being sharply reprehended by him, for not sending him some rum,
declared after his departure, in Mr. Boswell's presence, that he had no design of
disappointing him, 'for,' said he, 'I would cut my bones for him; and if he had sent his
dog for it, he should have had it.'
When we were to depart, our boat was left by the ebb at a great
distance from the water, but no sooner did we wish it afloat, than the islanders gathered
round it, and, by the union of many hands, pushed it down the beach; every man who could
contribute his help seemed to think himself happy in the opportunity of being, for a
moment, useful to his Chief.
We now left those illustrious ruins, by which Mr. Boswell was much
affected, nor would I willingly be thought to have looked upon them without some emotion.
Perhaps, in the revolutions of the world, Iona may be sometime again the instructress of
the Western Regions.
It was no long voyage to Mull, where, under Sir Allan's protection,
we landed in the evening, and were entertained for the night by Mr. Maclean, a Minister
that lives upon the coast, whose elegance of conversation, and strength of judgment, would
make him conspicuous in places of greater celebrity. Next day we dined with Dr. Maclean,
another physician, and then travelled on to the house of a very powerful Laird, Maclean of
Lochbuy; for in this country every man's name is Maclean.
Where races are thus numerous, and thus combined, none but the Chief
of a clan is addressed by his name. The Laird of Dunvegan is called Macleod, but other
gentlemen of the same family are denominated by the places where they reside, as Raasa, or
The distinction of the meaner people is made by their Christian
names. In consequence of this practice, the late Laird of Macfarlane, an eminent
genealogist, considered himself as disrespectfully treated, if the common addition was
applied to him. Mr. Macfarlane, said he, may with equal propriety be said to many; but I,
and I only, am Macfarlane.
Our afternoon journey was through a country of such gloomy
desolation, that Mr. Boswell thought no part of the Highlands equally terrifick, yet we
came without any difficulty, at evening, to Lochbuy, where we found a true Highland Laird,
rough and haughty, and tenacious of his dignity; who, hearing my name, inquired whether I
was of the Johnstons of Glencroe, or of Ardnamurchan.
Lochbuy has, like the other insular Chieftains, quitted the castle
that sheltered his ancestors, and lives near it, in a mansion not very spacious or
splendid. I have seen no houses in the Islands much to be envied for convenience or
magnificence, yet they bare testimony to the progress of arts and civility, as they shew
that rapine and surprise are no longer dreaded, and are much more commodious than the
The castles of the Hebrides, many of which are standing, and many
ruined, were always built upon points of land, on the margin of the sea. For the choice of
this situation there must have been some general reason, which the change of manners has
left in obscurity.
They were of no use in the days of piracy, as defences of the coast;
for it was equally accessible in other places. Had they been sea-marks or light-houses,
they would have been of more use to the invader than the natives, who could want no such
directions of their own waters: for a watch-tower, a cottage on a hill would have been
better, as it would have commanded a wider view.
If they be considered merely as places of retreat, the situation
seems not well chosen; for the Laird of an Island is safest from foreign enemies in the
center; on the coast he might be more suddenly surprised than in the inland parts; and the
invaders, if their enterprise miscarried, might more easily retreat. Some convenience,
however, whatever it was, their position on the shore afforded; for uniformity of practice
seldom continues long without good reason.
A castle in the Islands is only a single tower of three or four
stories, of which the walls are sometimes eight or nine feet thick, with narrow windows,
and close winding stairs of stone. The top rises in a cone, or pyramid of stone,
encompassed by battlements. The intermediate floors are sometimes frames of timber, as in
common houses, and sometimes arches of stone, or alternately stone and timber; so that
there was very little danger from fire. In the center of every floor, from top to bottom,
is the chief room, of no great extent, round which there are narrow cavities, or recesses,
formed by small vacuities, or by a double wall. I know not whether there be ever more than
one fire-place. They had not capacity to contain many people, or much provision; but their
enemies could seldom stay to blockade them; for if they failed in the first attack, their
next care was to escape.
The walls were always too strong to be shaken by such desultory
hostilities; the windows were too narrow to be entered, and the battlements too high to be
scaled. The only danger was at the gates, over which the wall was built with a square
cavity, not unlike a chimney, continued to the top. Through this hollow the defendants let
fall stones upon those who attempted to break the gate, and poured down water, perhaps
scalding water, if the attack was made with fire. The castle of Lochbuy was secured by
double doors, of which the outer was an iron grate.
In every castle is a well and a dungeon. The use of the well is
evident. The dungeon is a deep subterraneous cavity, walled on the sides, and arched on
the top, into which the descent is through a narrow door, by a ladder or a rope, so that
it seems impossible to escape, when the rope or ladder is drawn up. The dungeon was, I
suppose, in war, a prison for such captives as were treated with severity, and, in peace,
for such delinquents as had committed crimes within the Laird's jurisdiction; for the
mansions of many Lairds were, till the late privation of their privileges, the halls of
justice to their own tenants.
As these fortifications were the productions of mere necessity, they
are built only for safety, with little regard to convenience, and with none to elegance or
pleasure. It was sufficient for a Laird of the Hebrides, if he had a strong house, in
which he could hide his wife and children from the next clan. That they are not large nor
splendid is no wonder. It is not easy to find how they were raised, such as they are, by
men who had no money, in countries where the labourers and artificers could scarcely be
The buildings in different parts of the Island shew their degrees of
wealth and power. I believe that for all the castles which I have seen beyond the Tweed,
the ruins yet remaining of some one of those which the English built in Wales, would
These castles afford another evidence that the fictions of romantick
chivalry had for their basis the real manners of the feudal times, when every Lord of a
seignory lived in his hold lawless and unaccountable, with all the licentiousness and
insolence of uncontested superiority and unprincipled power. The traveller, whoever he
might be, coming to the fortified habitation of a Chieftain, would, probably, have been
interrogated from the battlements, admitted with caution at the gate, introduced to a
petty Monarch, fierce with habitual hostility, and vigilant with ignorant suspicion; who,
according to his general temper, or accidental humour, would have seated a stranger as his
guest at the table, or as a spy confined him in the dungeon.
Lochbuy means the Yellow Lake, which is the name given to an inlet
of the sea, upon which the castle of Mr. Maclean stands. The reason of the appellation we
did not learn.
We were now to leave the Hebrides, where we had spent some weeks
with sufficient amusement, and where we had amplified our thoughts with new scenes of
nature, and new modes of life. More time would have given us a more distinct view, but it
was necessary that Mr. Boswell should return before the courts of justice were opened; and
it was not proper to live too long upon hospitality, however liberally imparted.
Of these Islands it must be confessed, that they have not many
allurements, but to the mere lover of naked nature. The inhabitants are thin, provisions
are scarce, and desolation and penury give little pleasure.
The people collectively considered are not few, though their numbers
are small in proportion to the space which they occupy.
Mull is said to contain six thousand, and Sky fifteen thousand. Of
the computation respecting Mull, I can give no account; but when I doubted the truth of
the numbers attributed to Sky, one of the Ministers exhibited such facts as conquered my
Of the proportion, which the product of any region bears to the
people, an estimate is commonly made according to the pecuniary price of the necessaries
of life; a principle of judgment which is never certain, because it supposes what is far
from truth, that the value of money is always the same, and so measures an unknown
quantity by an uncertain standard. It is competent enough when the markets of the same
country, at different times, and those times not too distant, are to be compared; but of
very little use for the purpose of making one nation acquainted with the state of another.
Provisions, though plentiful, are sold in places of great pecuniary
opulence for nominal prices, to which, however scarce, where gold and silver are yet
scarcer, they can never be raised.
In the Western Islands there is so little internal commerce, that
hardly any thing has a known or settled rate. The price of things brought in, or carried
out, is to be considered as that of a foreign market; and even this there is some
difficulty in discovering, because their denominations of quantity are different from
ours; and when there is ignorance on both sides, no appeal can be made to a common
This, however, is not the only impediment. The Scots, with a
vigilance of jealousy which never goes to sleep, always suspect that an Englishman
despises them for their poverty, and to convince him that they are not less rich than
their neighbours, are sure to tell him a price higher than the true. When Lesley, two
hundred years ago, related so punctiliously, that a hundred hen eggs, new laid, were sold
in the Islands for a peny, he supposed that no inference could possibly follow, but that
eggs were in great abundance. Posterity has since grown wiser; and having learned, that
nominal and real value may differ, they now tell no such stories, lest the foreigner
should happen to collect, not that eggs are many, but that pence are few.
Money and wealth have by the use of commercial language been so long
confounded, that they are commonly supposed to be the same; and this prejudice has spread
so widely in Scotland, that I know not whether I found man or woman, whom I interrogated
concerning payments of money, that could surmount the illiberal desire of deceiving me, by
representing every thing as dearer than it is.
From Lochbuy we rode a very few miles to the side of Mull, which
faces Scotland, where, having taken leave of our kind protector, Sir Allan, we embarked in
a boat, in which the seat provided for our accommodation was a heap of rough brushwood;
and on the twenty-second of October reposed at a tolerable inn on the main land.