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Lewsiana
The Lews


WHEN the name of the “The Lews” is mentioned, it rarely calls up any distinct idea in the minds of the public. A “peat floating in the Atlantic,” it has been left outside, and, until lately, no one has held out a helping hand to draw it within our ken.

Since our first papers were printed, the West —our West—has been invaded by a charmed pen, and Sheila and Mairi, redolent of peat and heather, yet fresh as the Hebridean breezes, have been cajoled into saying “And are you ferry well?” to their southern neighbours. “And it’s me that’s glad” that they had a trip “whatever,” for they don’t see much company, and they have done us all good, and we are all “ferry proud and happy ” to have met the Princess of Thule.

In the following pages we shall not attempt to introduce our readers to dames of high degree, but endeavour to show how the subjects of the Princess manage to exist.

As we have recently had particular opportunities of living among the cotters and fishermen in the most unfrequented district, and enjoyed the most intimate and friendly relations with all classes of the community, the result of our observations may not be uninteresting to the public.

Those questions most important to the sportsman have been recently so well handled by “ Sixty-one ” (Mr. Hutchison) that we shall confine ourselves principally to subjects of general interest. Men and manners in a barren land and a boisterous climate are surely worthy of at least a passing glance. The fact that they exist in happiness and comparative comfort, notwithstanding the gloomy aspect of nature, and hug their saturated peat moss as affectionately as if the sun of Italy were over them, and its fertile soil beneath, may point a moral to the growling multitude, surging impatiently amid “a' the comforts o’ the Saut-market.”

Let us suppose there has been a good year for potatoes, what a work there is for the clergyman ! The whole country-side is marrying, and giving in marriage. In the year '71, not an unmarried girl over eighteen was left in Shaddar, and everywhere else it was on the same scale. The potato crop did it. But before a Lews young man can hope to make a good matrimonial bargain he must go to the Wick fishing. Once he has proved his manhood by bringing back a few pounds from the everlasting Northern herring harvest, he can calmly look around for the girl that can carry the biggest creel of peat across the moor, or the heaviest creel of seaweed from the beach. Let him add to this a scrap of a lot from the laird, or from the lot of his father, and as soon as he has knocked up a hut, he is a remarkably marriageable young man.

Formerly the cotters were much better off, in a way, than at present; seeing they had considerable-sized lots, where, with the labour of their families and the manure supplied by their cattle and the sea, they could raise enough to keep themselves in abundance, if not in luxury. But now population has increased to such an extent, without any proportionate increase in land allotted to them, and the lots have been so divided and subdivided, by the cotters themselves giving portions to their marrying sons or daughters, that few indeed now raise enough for their own necessities. They are thus forced to purchase meal or potatoes at the dearest season and in the dearest market.

It is a serious consideration whether the proprietor ought not to divide among these hordes some of the unlimited moor close by, or whether necessity will force them to emigrate, the solution hoped for by the laird, we fear in vain.

The erection of a dwelling-place, into which he may lead his partner in life, is not a very serious matter to a Lews man. No great skill is required, and little expense in materials, except for a few planks. The stones, everywhere abundant—for all through the West the rocks crop out amid the peat—are brought together, and two rude walls built, one within the other, all round. The interval between these two walls, always several feet, sometimes many, is filled up with earth and gravel, so as to form one broad outer wall, only one door being considered necessary. Upon this wall the roof is raised on a framework of old oars and odd scraps of drift and other wood, an occasional sound plank giving stability; these are again covered over with “ divots,” or large turfs, closely covering it, and these once more are thatched over. The edge of the roof falls on the inner corner of the outer wall, so as to leave a broad top to the main wall all round. This soon collects grass and plants, and is a favourite promenade for the sheep of the establishment, as well as dogs and children. These latter are the least tended, as being the least valuable animals about the clachan. They may often be seen chasing various quadrupeds off these raised promenades, the luxuriant green growth generally to be seen there in the summer proving a strong temptation to the stock. Often the outer wall is built of turfs; and even when of stone, skill in masonry not being general, a bank is thrown against it as an additional support. Various explanations have been attempted of this peculiar Hebridean mode of erecting huts, such as want of wood to stretch the roof over the whole so as to form eaves, a former state of great cold demanding thick walls, want of constructive knowledge, and so on. It seems to us natural, that thick walls should be thus erected by those without constructive ability, even although they had the knowledge; and that the houses are built in the most natural mode to resist severe winds, which are well known to sweep over this “ ultima Thule ” with unrestrained violence.

We thus find the Esquimaux in Greenland building similar dwellings, doubtless for similar reasons. They are thus described. “The walls are all built alike, six feet high and four feet thick, of stones and turf. There is a roof of rough timbers and boards; then the whole, roof and walls, are covered with heavy sods, which grow green, and convert the hut into a sort of mound.’'

A thin unmortared wall could offer no resistance to cold blasts driven with the force of all the furies; and if a young Benedict were to build an eaved dwelling with his limited and imperfect materials, the roof some rough night might take French leave, and go dancing across the hills.

On the top of the thatched dwelling, whence the smoke finds an exit, the colony of fowls belonging to the house finds warmth and a congenial roost. This artificial heat is said to make them lay much more readily than they would otherwise do. It supplies them with a sort of tropical climate at all seasons, for the peat fire is never extinguished, nor allowed to lapse, night or day. At the same time, there is the drawback of having their eggs always impregnated with a subtle flavour of peat-smoke, which to some palates is an insurmountable obstacle to their enjoyment. No wonder the diminutive creatures lay constantly, such fires are kept up beneath. Many put almost a creel of peats, of which eight or nine go to a country cart, on the fire at a time. This is accounted for by the fact that, notwithstanding, or rather in consequence of their walls, the damp keeps the huts cold and comfortless. The rain running off the roofs renders the walls exceedingly damp, although turfs are placed in the hope of its running over them.

Then the floor is the plain earth; one large bench is formed of earth, peat, or stone, and is the family lounge, while occasionally a rude wooden chair is placed for the head of the family. Indeed, the interior comforts are both few and far between; at least, as far as the contracted space will allow them to keep separate.

The live stock, cows, horse, sheep, &c., keep one end of the dwelling; the hens roost nearer the other bipeds, and nothing but a small edging of stones divides the different inhabitants—sometimes not even that.

They say the cows like to have their company and see the fire, and as they are their great mainstay, they pet them accordingly; spoil them with fish-bones for sweetmeats, and treat them with great familiarity generally.

The furniture consists of a large chest or two, and sometimes a half-box bed; very little further, excepting the pots in which every article of food in the Lews is conscientiously boiled, and a few necessary dishes for porridge, fish, and potatoes.

Fifty years ago, there was only one bowl in Carloway district, and that was at Dalebeg, three miles away. It was sent for whenever the minister came over from Lochs—as he did every third Sunday—that they might do honour to their spiritual superior. There was at that time no spoon with which to eat an egg, and indeed such an article is a rarity even now. When the minister asked for a knife, he was told they once had a shoemaker’s knife, but they did not know where the highly prized article had gone, it having doubtless been too carefully laid by.

One also hears much here of the bonnet of Dune Carloway, and on inquiry it turns out to have been a celebrated Kilmarnock bonnet— one of those everlasting, indestructible inventions for carrying wool “where the hair ought to grow,” now famous alike in song and story. This bonnet belonged to the community, like their moor and their history, and on the rare occasions when any enterprising member wended his solitary way to the great city, he was carefully intrusted with its use for the journey, to sustain the honour and glory of the clachan. How they managed when two were struck with the same idea of proceeding to “the capital” we never could clearly make out.

At that time, we are told, an active maidservant received only 5s. per annum, out of which she had to repair damage done during her service; while the men-servants were paid from 30s. to 40s., and even from 10s. to 20s. a year. Their wages to-day may be calculated at an average of £ 3 for maidservants; while men receive from £8 to £10. We have often hired able-bodied men at 7s. 6d. to 9s. per week, which is yet above the average pay of labourers in Irish country districts.

The oldest dress we saw was that of a man in knee-breeches and “hoggars,” or footless stockings, which was said to represent the former apparel. But in 1790 Buchanan tells us, “The men wear the short coat, the feilabeg, and the short hose, with bonnets sewed with black ribbons around their rims, and a slit behind with the same ribbon in a knot. Their coats are commonly of tartan, striped with black, red, or some other colour, after a pattern made, upon a stick, of the yarn.” He adds, as to the women, “the arrisats are quite laid aside —being the most ancient dress used. It consisted of one large piece of flannel that reached down to the shoe, and fastened with clasps below, and the large silver brooch at the breast, while the whole arm was entirely naked. The ladies made use of the finer, while common women used coarser, kinds of flannel, or white woollen cloths.” “The breeid, or curtah, a fine linen handkerchief fastened about married women’s heads, with a flap hanging behind their backs, above the guilechan (or small plaid), is mostly laid aside.” To this we may add, that to-day the unmarried women wear their own strong hair in a neat roll, as the only head-dress, coming out in a clean white “mutch” the morning after their wedding, and never after do we see them without this badge of “authority.”

One article of the toilet we find in general use in the present day, according to competent female authorities, and that is red ink. The close dark house, oppressed with pungent reek, is by no means favourable to good colour in the cheeks of the young girls, who thus endeavour, by this simple and cheap cosmetic, to rival the belles who “painted with cinnabar.”

The first necessity of existence in such a damp climate is fuel, seeing so little aid to comfort is derivable from the dwelling. Consequently a winter store, or indeed a store for the whole year—as the summer is about as destructive to fuel as the winter—is the first desideratum, never to be overlooked. Fortunately for the poor people, it is generally plentiful and at hand. Every cotter is allotted a portion of the adjacent moor, in which to cut peats sufficient to supply his wants. This always accompanies the lot as a necessary adjunct. A cotter will cut enough in a day or two to last him the year through, but peats require to be well dried in the sun, and, as this depends on the summer, most cotters take care to have a good supply in advance, for fear of a wet year. After cutting, they are lifted into ricks, and afterwards accumulated in still larger stacks. From these last they are carried in as required. A stack or two is placed at the side of the cot, the remainder being left on the moor; but, if the winter is severe or prolonged, they have often to carry creel after creel from the moor to the house, often a mile or more distant, in most unpleasant weather.

The peat on the west side is remarkably good—hard, black, and dense, burning with great heat and intensity. That on the east is scarcely so good; but that of the country generally is of a very superior character. The continuous but not ordinarily very heavy rains, and the slight elevations of the hills, seem particularly favourable conditions for its growth. This has been recently calculated to require fifty to a hundred years per foot, which latter figure may be taken as a rough estimate even for the black fibrous peat in some localities. These fibres, or roots of various peat plants, have been observed to communicate with and draw nourishment from the rocky substratum, being thus supplied from the soil direct. On the other hand, the spongy brown peat is more especially a moss, drawing its supplies from the air and the moisture. The former, the principal one in this country, is considered by far the slowest of growth; but yet, from its double sources of supply, may not be so languid in its progress here as is generally supposed.

The various Druidical remains have been cleared of peat that had grown over them often to the height of several feet, in one case six. No one can say for certain how long it is since these monuments of our ancestral faith have been allowed to weep unregarded over the peat that hugged their knees; but, if the peat is a tell-tale, the above calculation of a foot a century would give but six centuries since the feet of votaries left unvisited the ancient fane.

Fuel from the moor, meal from their crops, and an occasional fish from the neighbouring sea, supply food and warmth.

With wool from their own sheep, the women make their own and their men-folk’s raiment; and ready money is a thing almost unknown in many families, as it is never required, except in a year of scarcity. Yes, it is wanted for one article, tobacco — for all are inveterate smokers of the most atrocious twist.

No visitor can help being struck by the fact that in the Lews there is an intelligent people still living in the most primitive of known dwellings—dwellings that carry us back to the earliest dawn of civilisation—and that men in contact with English cultivation, many of whom have learned to speak and write the English tongue, are more degraded than the Africans in their habitations.

Many of the people of the West are indebted to civilisation for scarcely anything but tobacco, the Government being felt only through the want of stimulating drinks—a want never felt by Highlanders or Islanders in the olden time, so long as the land would raise a crop of barley.

We were much struck with the healthy appearance of the children, who are rarely deformed in any way; and as rarely succeed in concealing their natural proportions. We have seen half-naked urchins running out bare-limbed among the snow, although but the minute before “dusting” themselves, like sparrows, among the warm peat ashes. Yet a common statement among the people is to the effect that the rising generation cannot compare for physical strength and stamina, as well as for immunity from disease, with that now passing or passed away. They account for this by the want of animal food, which was formerly plentiful among them, but is now rarely indulged in; also by the use of tea and sugar, which have replaced the more healthy native beer consumed among them in former days, and even yet occasionally manufactured surreptitiously for home use.

Delicate chests and rheumatic pains, the latter becoming very prevalent in the damp climate, they account for by the absence of their accustomed home-made whisky, to keep out the everlasting wet to which they are subjected. Indeed, it is not unnatural to suppose that their systems are becoming debilitated from the want of a more stimulating diet to resist the constant encroachments of a trying climate, to which, from the nature of their avocations and the condition of their dwellings, they are continually exposed.

Still, it is an unquestionable fact, vouched for by the medical practitioners long settled in the country, that tubercular consumption is never found among natives who have always remained in the Lews. Strangers have not the same certainty of immunity, as they may have carried the seeds of the disease along with them. Natives who have been away for a time, especially girls on service, not seldom return smitten unto death. So it cannot be said to be the native constitution, so much as the conditions of their existence, to which we must look for an explanation. The quantity of fish oil and marine products devoured may have a beneficial influence, but, above and before all, our conviction is that we must look to the healthy effect of the blessed peat-reek, with which, during half their existence, their lungs are impregnated. Whenever they leave the health-giving outer atmosphere, it is to enter into a strongly antiseptic one. And as they are likewise of a stout habit of body, as a rule, they are peculiarly fitted for the exigencies of their life.

To see the buxom girls sitting singing on the wet moor under the moist sky, herding their kine by the day together; or the well-favoured fisherman, as he “sings in his boat on the bay,” you understand the advantage of a good suit of fat to supplement their sound woollen raiment.

It is Communion Sunday. Let us stroll up between the black houses, with their background of huge peat stacks, and see the congregation gathering to worship. Strapping, hard-featured men from Ness, stout “buirdly” men from the East or from Uig, gather in groups to the meeting. All the houses in the various clachans

have their visitors, making inroads on their stores; all with the slightest claim to relationship are free and welcome. So they stream along, not to the church, but, wet or dry, to the miniature Carnac, spreading out from the pulpit on the moor. What a crowd of blue umbrellas! Every one has a blue umbrella, be it rain or shine. Do you think that fisher-lad would sit on the same stone with Mari, if there was no miniature firmament to slip their heads under, and make them fancy they were “all the world” to each other? Would Donald find room for Black Kate on the same boulder, with a little assistance from his arm, if he could not cover his head like an ostrich and fancy he was hidden? — hidden, indeed ! See those three cailliachs enjoying the luxury of a board laid on two squares of gneiss, and unlimited scandal, with their heads together— would they dare push their noses under each other’s caps, under the eye of the “minister,” were it not for the navy blue?  “Who has contracted? Will it be a match? Did they meet first at the Uig communion? Will her father give her a cow? Was he in luck at Fraserburgh? Look at Ann sharing her shawl with Haramutch! are they not kind?”—“It’ll pe a teer market! The trovers have pot all the cheep! The factor ses non podies must kill a cauf!” And what does the minister say, Murochy Shawbost, thou great “Professor”?

Indeed! have we professors here? what do they profess? A great deal more than they can understand, much less teach; for they profess that widely embracing idea, Christianity, and yet they will but men were ever the same, though manners do sometimes prove a little different.

Are you desirous of transacting business with any one on the opposite end of the island?—wait till the communion—there they all are, you see! Norman the Horse, so called because he sits in a cart occasionally, and lets the horse take its time, as he always does himself; Murdo the Horse, strong as a Clydesdale, who fell over a cliff only to spoil the sea-beach, and relieved the tedium of life fighting all comers in Hudson’s Bay; Donald Satan, who drives like Jehu; and there is our own Donald, with a swing and a step like a captain of free lances, and a face that makes your heart jump. Donald Ban, “O fallow fine,” how your laugh rings through our head!


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