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Lewsiana
Ness


IF the Lews may be said to be pre-eminent in anything besides peat and ponds, let us give it the palm for getting up a big wind on the shortest possible notice: while to feel this wind to the utmost possible advantage, or disadvantage, go to Ness.

The district of Ness is a great plain extending from the Butt of Lews down to Barvas, without any elevations of consequence. This gives free scope for every wind to dance over its surface, striking a cold chill into strangers and energy into the aborigines, and rendering it in winter de facto a howling desert. “Uninhabitable,” would be the verdict of any one brought to view the suitability of such a wretched tract for the habitation of workers either on sea or land. Not a sign of a natural harbour even for boats, vicious waves hissing and sputtering at the surly cliffs, whose rocky sharpshooters are thrown out to meet them ; the bullying wind in its restless ferocity ever stirring up strife between them. Meeting the wild Atlantic as it hurls its mighty flood into the stormy Minch, the rugged Butt of Lews thrusts boldly forward its stubborn front, and like the Highlander who fought so manfully for a crooked sixpence, defends courageously its bleak expanse.

And yet this inhospitable-looking tract may be said to be the most prosperous out of Stornoway. About two miles from the Butt towards the East is the fishing-station known as “The Port” of Ness. It consists of an opening in the rocks a few yards wide, up from which a pavement has been laid by the laird to enable the fishermen to draw up their boats. This is all their harbour. Out of it no boat can be launched, even on the calmest day, without the men pushing them out up to their waists in water; remaining in this wet condition during the whole time at sea, which is often prolonged for two days. On returning, they are again obliged to leap into the water, to remove mast, oars, and ballast, and then, after a hard day at sea, pull their boats high and dry up the paved beach. The severity of this labour is very great, and the men are said to age rapidly under it. When at sea these men often spread raw cod-livers on their bannocks, and at all times consume a great quantity of livers. This doubtless assists them ^ to endure long exposure in wet clothes : the oil alike supplying heat to the system and lubricating the lungs so as to secure them against cold.

Above the Port, on the top of the cliffs, the fishing-station, curing-houses, &c., are built; and from this point the main road leads off to Stornoway. Along this, for three miles from the Port, stretches a continuous line of huts, without a break, mostly placed well back from the road, with the household peat-stack between. Then to Skegersta on the one side and Lionel on the other, two roads, to right and left of the main, are likewise lined with evidences of the possibility of a numerous population drawing nourishment from this hopeless-looking domain. Whence this numerous body of people draw subsistence appears, at first, a difficult problem ; until we find that their fishing-boats are very numerous, that they have enterprise to purchase them from the curers, energy to fish under the most adverse circumstances, pluck to go to sea in weather such as the Western fisherman would not face, and sufficient skill as boatmen to bring them bravely through it. In the current sweeping round the Butt, the ling and cod are found to be both numerous and good, and but for the severity of the weather would well repay the fishermen’s labour. Even with all disadvantages the Nessmen generally show a good average fishing per boat—say three thousand ling. Besides the money value of these to be obtained from the merchant, they are allowed to take so many cod home to their families; while the heads, the skate, dogfish, and fish-roes, contribute to the sustenance of the household. The bones provide titbits for their ponies and cattle, the livers light their dwellings and supply ,occasional “cod-puddings,” and the garbage is carefully removed to make a compost for their lots.

Thus a successful fishing is a valuable source of profit to the community; and a winter free from gales, especially easterly gales, which force the men to abide on shore, is looked forward to with anxious hope.

A good fishing will give each man from £15 to £20, besides otherwise benefiting the housekeeping. This, added to what is gained at the Wick fishing, with the assistance of meal and potatoes raised on their little lots, is amply sufficient for the simple wants of a Lewsman.

The soil is a rich loam, and raises capital crops with the help of seaware and fish-garbage; but the harvest, dependent upon the weather, is very uncertain.

But it is ridiculous to suppose that the fisheries, as at present conducted, are alone capable of supporting such a large and rapidly increasing population. Besides, the people will not emigrate, as they declare themselves unwilling to leave their friends so long as they are happy and able to support themselves. The feeling of the majority of the people was plainly stated on the occasion of a late meeting to promote emigration to New Zealand, when a native arose and stated, that if the laird gave the land in lots to the people in place of to the sheep, there would be no necessity for emigration. A large body of cotters inhabiting several clachans were exported en masse to America some time ago, but still in this parish there is an increase of several hundred since the former census.

This is a question we have touched upon elsewhere, but it is here pertinent to ask cut bono? as to this emigration. One can understand the Duke of Sutherland depopulating a region for his own convenience or the cotters* social progress, but to send away a handful of people who will be immediately more than replaced by the natural increase does not seem a very masterly proceeding. If the vast body of human beings, over whom a purchasing proprietor assumes a serious responsibility, are willing to remain and make the most of their native land, it is his sacred duty to enable them to do so as far as lies in his power. To give them sufficient tracts of land to support their families, for their own happiness and the good of the State,—to endeavour to open up whatever resources his property may possess,— and to lease portions of his waste lands to such cotters as are willing to improve them,—is as much a moral obligation as furthering the education and social prosperity of those to whom he owes a great part of his income. To export several hundreds out of a country population of twenty thousand, and endeavour, by starvation on small crops, to force the remainder to follow their example, is too paltry a policy to be characterized as a policy at all. When a capitalist leaves money-making, and assumes the responsibilities of a landed proprietor, a large interest on money invested ought distinctly to become a secondary consideration, subservient to the welfare of his dependants, seeing he has voluntarily assumed their management.

No one can view without astonishment those long ranges of miserable dwellings, with their happy inmates, and those ranges of peat-stacks, representing many a gathering of neighbours to the cutting, and many a “caley” over the consuming in the long winter nights. When the simple elements of this happiness are considered, the natural verdict follows—“man wants but little here below,” excepting that “contentment which is great gain.”

Let us step over this bank of turf and endeavour to see outside of this row of huts, often two deep. It stretches on thus down to the Port; but now we are outside we can see about us.

Towards the north—why do you start ? it is only a few hundred blue pigeons rushing past with their tireless flight, and blue and white plumage dancing in the sun—to the north you see the lighthouse standing on the edge of the cliff, and blinking at Cape Wrath across the Minch. It is a steady, respectable light, with no particular enemies except the neighbouring cave-dwelling starlings, that are caught in great numbers by horsehair nooses fixed around it. On revolving lights birds of all kinds are destroyed by driving against the glass, but a steady light does not allure them to destruction, but gives notice in advance. To the west may be seen the famous hole in the rock to which the celebrated hawser was fixed that dragged the Lews from Europe, and thereby hangs a tale. The white patch in the dark rock, caused by the sea breaking through it, may be plainly seen from the road. Between the lighthouse and this hawser-hole stretch the rocky cliffs of the Butt—veterans scarred and disfigured in many a battle with the raging restless foe beneath.

Pigs! we exclaimed, as a grumph was heard from an animal rarely seen in the West. Yes, pigs ! Ness has gone into pigs greatly of late ; upwards of two hundred were exported this year, and a trade in this species of live-stock is quickly springing up. So the Highland dislike to the unclean animal, so common here, is giving way before the conclusive arguments of remunerative prices.

The men one sees about the Port are tall, big-boned, and powerful; the women buxom, stout, and hearty; the children numerous and active. But there is an unmistakable difference between this fair-haired race and the population of the West. They are taller, but not so stout; the women not so pleasant-looking, nor the children so bright-eyed and quick.

Let us enter the handsome schoolroom lately erected by the laird, and examine the state of mind and body of the scholars. We find about eighty boys and girls assembled, of all sizes and ages; some few cleanly dressed, and some six or eight who can read tolerably and cipher passably. Their teacher can at least speak English, an accomplishment few of the other teachers in the Lews seem to have acquired. But the education received is truly of the most elementary description, and, so far as we could see, the bulk of those present would never be reasonably well acquainted with the three R’s under the present system. How could this be otherwise, when many have to come a good way to school, and any excuse is sufficient to detain them at home? Then when spring comes they are kept away to work in the fields, and help the females at their various labours, or the men in their preparations for sea. During the summer the visiting clergyman finds sometimes only two or three, and on one occasion, with a great effort, five were brought together to meet him. So with a very good schoolroom, and houses accompanying for resident master and mistress, the education disseminated therefrom is a mere farce. The Education Act has startled them, however, since we were there.

Standing on the rocky cliff called the Butt of Lews, overlooking the wide expanse of ever-shifting sea dashing its spray to our feet, all around skim the stout skiffs, manned each by six boatmen, in search of the precarious “el Dorado ” which so often fails its most assiduous courtiers. Howl as you please, bully as you please, but yield us up your treasures!—and from Cape Wrath or the Skerries, to the far western banks, the deep must yield up its riches to the ceaseless assault. Five thousand souls, slumbering under the roots of the barley, wake every morning and turn to the east as anxiously as Parsee to the rising of the sun— as seriously as Mohammedan towards the tomb of the prophet. How is the wind ? That momentous question, to those who go to sea in open boats, is on every lip, and an Argus-eyed meteorological society watches every swirl in the sky.

On the rocks beneath us the pigeons are flitting to and fro in ceaseless activity, and an occasional cormorant or green shag springs from an overhanging cliff headlong into the deep. The gulls are skimming around us with suspicious rolling eye and irritating screech, or, gathered in a squalling, fluttering crowd, fight over some stranded titbit; while the sea now creeps like a treacherous tiger and laps the base of the cliffs, now springs with half-muttered growl to the weather-beaten summit.


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