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Outer Isles
Chapter V. Miscellaneous Notes on the Islanders


BEFORE proceeding further in any detailed description of particular islands it may be as well to give some account of certain characteristics which apply to all, especially those which relate to the people themselves, and in so doing to avoid any possible suspicion of dealing in personalities.

The entire ease of manner and savoir faire of the Highlander, remarked upon by many travellers from the earliest times, is still noticeable, though some of the causes which so well accounted for it no longer exist. Personally, I have never seen a Highlander at a loss, even under circumstances which would have perplexed an Englishman of, technically, a higher class, and of far wider experience. I heard the other day of a girl, well known to me, from a very humble home in a remote island, whom a lady had taken into her service, and was training in the elements, as she believed, of civilization. However, on taking the girl on a visit to one of the most sumptuous of the noble houses of England, she observed that she was not in the smallest degree disconcerted, and though she showed an intelligent interest in her new surroundings, had quite the air of being accustomed to palaces instead of the black huts of the Hebrides. When the chiefs lived among their people this attitude of mind was not difficult to explain. The point is well put in Stewart’s most valuable Sketches of the Highlanders, Section III: “The chief generally resided among his retainers. His castle was the court where rewards were distributed and the most enviable distinctions conferred. . . . His tenants followed his standard in war, attended him in his hunting excursions, supplied his table with the produce of their farms, and assembled to reap his corn, and to prepare and bring home his fuel. . . . Great part of the rent was paid in kind and generally consumed where it was produced. One chief was distinguished from another, not by any additional splendour of dress or equipage, but by having a greater number of followers, by entertaining a greater number of guests, and by the exercise of general hospitality, kindness and condescension. What his retainers gave from their individual property was spot amongst them in the kindest and most liberal manner. At the castle every individual was made welcome, and was treated according to his station, with a degree of courtesy and regard to his feelings unknown in many other countries. This condescension, while it raised the clansman in his own estimation, and drew closer the ties between him and his superior, seldom tempted him to use any improper familiarities. He believed himself well born, and was taught to respect himself in the respect he showed to his chief, and thus : instead of complaining of the difference of station and fortune, or considering a ready obedience to his chieftain’s call as a slavish oppression, he felt convinced that he was supporting his own honour in showing his gratitude and duty to the generous head of his family.”

“Hence,” as we read in Dairy triple s Memoirs, “the Highlanders, whom more savage nations called savage carried in the outward expression of their manners, the politeness of courts without their vices, and in their bosoms the high points of honour without its follies.” Among the many more serious results of the introduction of the tacksman at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was the incidental disadvantage, that in supplanting the old class of tenant, usually a cadet of the family of the chief, the gentle classes of the islands came to an end. The Lowland, often non-resident farmer, was of an entirely different class from those whose hospitality Dr. Johnson so greatly appreciated, and of whom Buchanan wrote but a few years later: “The gentlemen in the Western Islands have, many of them, the advantage of a university education. They are commonly connected together by the ties of matrimony, consanguinity or otherwise, which makes them firm to one another, while the commoners are no less united among themselves by similar bonds of friendship in their respective departments.” (Travels in the Western Hebrides, p. 45.)

In listening to folk-lore and old-time stories, especially in South Uist, now the home of little but utter poverty and squalor, I have often been struck by the number of incidents which could have occurred only where there was a resident, leisure, more or less “ cultured ” society, a fact which one at first fails to realize as a part of the past history of this unhappy people.

But, except where the people are depressed by sheer physical misery, they seem to have suffered surprisingly little from the enforced change in their social conditions. It is part of the system of a wide acknowledgement of relationship, of “calling cousins” to the most remote degree, part too of the pride which is something more than merely social—part again of the Highland capacity fpr self-advancement, that in every rank one meets with persons having relatives in a considerably higher walk of life, and this, in the present day, not merely as belonging to the time when the chief at court was the kinsman of his lowest retainer at home. James Conway, the observant author of Foray among Salmon and Deer, p. 161, points out that “from this constant and unconstrained intercourse of the different ranks has arisen an inborn propriety of manner, and an easy self-possession in- the presence of his superiors, still conspicuous in the Highlander and which gives him a decided advantage over the clownish shyness of the peasantry of England.” Possibly, however, there is some temptation to lay too much stress on explanatory causes for a courtesy and grace, which, after all, is largely inherent in character, and Mrs. Grant (Letter 34) may be nearer the truth when she writes, remarking upon the refinement of the inhabitants of even the solitary district in which her husband was the minister, she herself being a highly cultivated woman who had travelled widely and had much knowledge of the world:—“You ask, how people secluded from the world are to acquire manner.* I answer, that where there is mind there is always manner; and when they are accustomed to treat each other with gentleness and courtesy, they will feel that quick disgust at what is rude and inelegant, which contributes more than any instruction to the refinement of manners.”

“Where there is mind, there is always manner,” is a statement which is, I fear, not always borne out by experience, but which has, I believe, direct connection with the particular people under discussion. I find the following passage in my own journal, written in one of the islands last May: “ During the past week I have found men—and one woman—with whom to discuss, much to my own advantage, various questions of local history, geology, and derivation; many points in politics, present and past; theology, dispassionate and unprejudiced; Miss Austen’s novels ; Sir Walter Scott’s appreciation (the word used in its classical sense) of various writers of his own time; Dr. Johnson’s views on the Hebrides; Mr. Rider Haggard's experiments in fanning; the enthusiasm of humanity (the phrase was not mine), and the distribution of wealth. I think only one of those I talked with wore a collar—I wish I more often met men in dress suits who talked half so well. They were speaking in a foreign tongue of books and thoughts written in a foreign tongue, and their language was the more literary in consequence; for the Highlander of Miss Fiona Macleod and of William Black is a man I never met, and talks a language I never heard, further north than the London stage.”

Happily, the Highlanders sense of humour conies to his aid, and for the most part he expresses, not indignation nor offence, but an amused toleration for the popular portraiture of himself, his surroundings, and his language. The “Celtic twilight ” and “Celtic gloom” business amuse him exceedingly, though for Black's descriptions, especially for his sunsets, he has only unqualified admiration. The language with which they are credited, however, is a source of much perplexity. A first cousin of the “Princess of Thule" whose English would put to shame that of what, in England, is called “Society,” assured me that neither in her father s home nor elsewhere had he ever heard the extraordinary phrases alleged to be current in the household of “ the King of Borva,” and which we listened for in vain in the same district.

However, I asked a man who had spent his life in various parts of the Highlands, where one might find the Highlander whose only equivalent for lie, she, and it was alike “ she,” and after some thought, he replied that he knew of only one example, which he believed to be the result of mere force of habit—the case of a man who had eleven sisters!

The Highlander, as I have known him under a great variety of circumstances, for a good many years past, speaks English, even when limited in amount, which may be favourably compared, not with that of the man of his own class in England, but with that, in many cases, of the University man and the scholar. It is the English of books, and he consequently uses such words as seem to him to fit the occasion, without fear of pedantry. He uses a fine phrase freely and naturally, because it expresses what he wants to say, and indulges in metaphor or natural symbols because he thinks in terms of sight, and is a visualiser from childhood. His use of prepositions is different from ours, but the fact is often explained by comparison with the Gaelic, sometimes even by comparison with the French, which was largely in use in Scotland at the time when “English,” so-called, first penetrated these islands.

The words, debris, ashet (assiette), gigot, are in common use. A Highlander always infuses, not “makes,” the tea; they rise and retire, instead of “getting up and going to bed”; in the meantime means “for the present”; presently means “at once, now.” They go through where we should “go over” a house; they call for, not “upon” a friend; they say cannot, where the Englishman says “can’t,” and the Scot “canna”; and they use whatever as a general expletive.

Now and then, in districts where English is scarce, one comes across a curious use of words, as, for example, upon a gravestone which commemorated affectionate and dutiful parents; or another, where a young man, who had passed a harmless life in fishing and crofting on a very small and solitary island, was described as “patriotic.” But even in cases of the exceptional use of words, I think there is often something to be said for their particular custom as against ours. Of Scotch provincial uses, they know nothing, and I remember a well-educated Highland minister expressing his regret, that having bought the whole of Scott’s novels with the idea of laying up a treasure-house of enjoyment, he found them “too Scotch” to understand.

The fact of being bi-lingual gives to the Highlander an especial interest in, and appreciation of, language, and I have many times observed the particular attention they give to the speech of a new-comer, and the pleasure they take in that of any one gifted with power of expression at all above the average.

There are certain phrases used in the Highlands which have, one feels, a sort of historical value, and are born out of the conditions of life. Miss Wordsworth expresses something of this when she says:

“We were amused with the phrase, Yell get that in the Highlands, which appeared to us as if it came from a perpetual feeling of the difficulty with which most things are procured.”

In the same way, “Take your time,” is the phrase with which one is constantly encouraged and reassured by the kind friends always ready to help one over slippery rocks, or among treacherous bogs. There is always plenty of time in the islands, and there is no reason why the visitor should not take as much as he wants. In many districts there are no clocks: the sun and the fowls regulate the hours, and while these are active, the day will go on. The story is told of a Tyree minister who, himself intellectual and literary, was delighted with the companionship of an Edinburgh official, come over to inspect the Island Schools, and who checked his companion’s anxiety to be down at Scarinish in good time for the departure of the Fingal, by the reiteration of “Hoots, man! What is a handful of minutes, more or less in Tyree?” with the result that the busy Inspector missed his boat, was detained four days (at least), and had to rearrange all his subsequent appointments.

Dr. Johnson, who should be an authority on the subject of language, and was certainly not prejudiced in favour of the Highlands, declared himself very definitely upon this point as long ago as 1773, at a time when the accuracy of Highland speech could not be accounted for by the advancement of education, or the presence of the School Board.

“Those Highlanders that can speak English, commonly speak it well, with few# of the words, and little of the tone by which a Scotchman is distinguished.

“Their language seems to have been learned in the army or the navy or by some communication with those who could give them good examples of accent and pronunciation.”

He remarks also upon the presence of books and, naturally enough, upon the unfailing courtesy and good manners of the people. Moreover, he says, with the gallantry which the clumsy old Doctor seldom lacked,

“We know that the girls of the Highlands are all gentlewomen.”

It is a painful and delicate point to discuss, but I am bound to say that we could not entirely endorse this opinion, and were indeed forced to the conclusion that the women of the Islands were, as a whole, inferior to the men. The physical inferiority, so obvious in the southern part of the Long Island, especially in South Uist, and, to some degree, in Barra, may be accounted for by the fact, that while the man’s work— battling with the forces of Nature, bracing himself to danger and hardship by sea and land—tends to manliness, the work of the women, in these days, does not tend to womanliness. Indoors, without chimneys, without windows that will open, they become withered and anaemic, their skins are stained with peat, their eyes bleared with smoke. The men are, of necessity, often away at distant fishing, and the women have to climb the hills to dig and fetch peat, bearing it home in creels on their backs ; they have to cut, and now that there is no common ground on which to graze ponies, literally carry home the harvest, such as it is ; they have to tend the cows and sheep, and on account of the absence of fences, remain with them the whole day, so that the possession of a single cow absorbs the entire energies of an able-bodied human being. They are prematurely aged with hardship, bowed with rheumatism, depressed by dyspepsia, and now that the hill-grazing is taken from them, they have none of the change of air and scene which the men still get by going away to fish.

In Tyree, where the conditions of climate and the general surroundings are so much happier, we were told that the people had nothing to die of but “Glasgow Fair,” i.e. of epidemics, introduced from without; in Barra and South Uist we learnt what was indeed sufficiently obvious, that those who survived starvation, died of the teapot. And indeed, “the cup that cheers” is the curse of these islands, in a degree never reached by the whisky of old times; though I feel I am courting the indignation of the virtuous in admitting it.

“A man of the Hebrides, for of the women s diet I can give no account,” writes the tea-drinking Dr. Johnson, “as soon as he appears in the morning swallows a glass of whisky ; yet they are not a drunken race, at least I never was present at much intemperance; but no man is so abstemious as to refuse the morning dram, which they call a skalk. The word whisky (uisge) signifies water, and is applied by way of eminence to strong water or distilled liquor. The spirit drank in the north is drawn from barley. I never tasted it, except once for experiment at the inn in Inverary, when I thought it preferable to any English malt brandy. It was strong, but not pungent, and was free from the empyreumatic taste or smell.” One must of course remember that the whisky was home-made, and free from potato spirit and other modern adulterations. The teapot, which stands by the fire the whole day, is especially dangerous for a race doing hard physical labour in a damp and depressing climate, where the food consists largely of potatoes—often of very inferior quality—unfermented bread, often made of home-grown flour, musty, poor, and ill-prepared, with, at best, the addition of boiled fish, chiefly flounders, if not worse.

That the coarse, unpleasing air of the women is mainly the result of their circumstances and conditions, is the more probable that they continue to be the mothers of fine manly sons of pleasing manners and appearance; whereas, at an early age, the girls, like their mothers, appear unkempt, weary and melancholy. What is even more distressing is the alleged fact that their inferiority to the men is not merely physical, but that morally too he is the superior, a fact which the physiologist may again conceivably explain by their respective conditions of life; speaking always of the unhappy islands of Barra and South Uist, with which geographically one should include Benbecula, but that this island, though sharing in many of the misfortunes of its neighbours, is, at least in appearance, decidedly happier than they.

One is always so reluctant to find a definite inferiority in one’s own sex, that it is pleasant to turn elsewhere and to notice the very high level of intellectual success which the same class of women have reached in happier islands; to note, for example, that in the past six years the dux of the Nicolson School in Lewis, with its very high standard of attainments, has twice been a girl; that two girls in Lewis have lately obtained Highland Trust Bursaries; that one has successfully passed her L.L.A. Examination; to remember one June evening last summer, when, as the purple dusk fell, at ten o’clock or thereabouts, we saw a light sparkle out in a solitary cottage on the lonely reef of Tyree, a tiny shepherd’s hut distinguishable only by its whitewash from the rocky mounds about it. There, we were told, lived a girl who, encouraged a few years ago by taking the first prize at the Oban Mod., persevered in her solitary studies, took next year the gold medal, and is now an M. A. of the Glasgow University.

That is what the Highland girl does, while her English contemporary is scheming to escape from home, to get paid for neglecting work in domestic service or business, and struggling to become a “lidy.” Except where the trail of the Sassenach has corrupted the country, the “lidy” and the “gent” are entirely unknown in the Highlands. ’Arry and ’Arriet have absolutely no equivalent, and long may they remain with the barrel-organ and the Music Hall, the Brummagem jewellery and tawdry clothing, the cheap trips and low standard of life which have created them ! However, while I can say with conviction that we never met any Highland man who was not a gentleman, I am bound to admit that wo now and then did meet with a woman guilty of the vulgarity of being anxious to show her superiority to her surroundings, and as a rule we preferred the surroundings.

The simplicity of plain living and high thinking are essentially Highland, and it is still true, as Mrs. Grant of Laggan said in 1807:

“Among the peculiarities of Highland manners is an avowed contempt for the luxuries of the table. A Highland hunter will eat with a keen appetite and sufficient discrimination, but were he to stop in any pursuit, because it was meal-time, to growl over a bad dinner, or visibly exult over a good one, the manly dignity of his character would be considered as fallen for ever.”

The entire freedom from the fear of death is a characteristic of the Highlanders, alleged by those who do not understand them, to be among other attributes which they possess in common with savages. One so familiar with them as Stewart of Garth is, however, concerned to show that this is, on the contrary, a consequence of their family pride, their love of clan if not of country, their sense of the continuity of their history.

“By connecting the past with the present, by showing that the warlike hero, the honoured chief or the respected parent who though no longer present to his friends, could not die in their memory; and that though dead he still survived in fame, and might sympathize with those whom he had left behind, a magnanimous contempt of death was naturally produced, and sedulously cherished.”

The Highlander, whatever form his religion may take is religious by temperament; alike in Catholic and Protestant islands, they are a worshipping, God-fearing people; even their superstitions, their charms, their stories of second-sight have mostly a tinge of the consciousness of the relation of this life with the next. The Presbyterian householder has family worship before he goes to bed, the Roman Catholic attends frequent mass, is careful in his religious observances, carries holy water in his boat, and has special prayers and blessings for every kind of domestic occasion. The modern exaggerations of the Free Church teaching, where it has taken root in the islands, mainly in Lewis, has found a ready soil, though there are not wanting stories of merry-makings carried on within closed doors and curtained windows, of profane songs of love and life overheard in the solitudes of the mountains, even of a minister, fearful of setting an evil example, yet possessed of a sensitive and artistic temperament which craves for expression, who is credibly reported to retire at intervals into an attic of the lonely manse, and with all precautions as to the absence of his household, to play upon the violin! For some inscrutable reason the religion of the Free Church of the islands is incompatible with any musical instrument, but a Jew’s harp ; whether because it is one calculated to give a minimum of pleasure, or because the name has something vaguely Scriptural in its associations, would be hard to say. In one of the small Catholic islands, the people, in the absence not only of a bell but even of clocks, are summoned to church by the music of the pipes, and the congregation, an extraordinarily good one, is not the less devout in consequence.

Possibly one source of the “Celtic gloom” apocrypha— unless its originators have lived exclusively in front of the stage in a Free Kirk island, seeing nothing of the real life of the people—lies in the constant allusions to death and the world to come, not only in the songs and stories, but in everyday life.

Dean Ramsay, in his Scottish Life and Character, has some quaint stories of this peculiarity, and Miss Ferrier, in her admirable novel of Inheritance, has a very characteristic scene in which the young lady of English education, visiting a sick man and inquiring what she could do for his comfort, is petitioned by his wife for some “good bein’ dead claes,” which, on a subsequent occasion she found, far more to her own horror than to that of the patient, in process of airing in front of the fire. In a rare book on the Superstitions of the Highlanders there is a chapter on their amusements, among which the author enumerates funerals! Without regarding them from quite that point of view, it is easy to understand that an occasion which brings together friends from considerable distances, who might not otherwise meet, to share in a common interest, if not a common sorrow, is not without its alleviations. It is the great occasion for showing respect both to the living and to the dead, and in the islands, where there is often no road between the home of the departed and the graveyard of his clan, which may be at considerable distance or even in another island, the services of the able-bodied men of the district are a practical necessity. The coffin is slung with ropes, and long poles, sometimes the oars of a boat, are passed through the ropes to facilitate carrying. Where the ground is rough, (and the funeral procession often has to cross over the shoulder of a mountain) the bearers are frequently changed, and it is customary for six or eight men to walk beside the coffin in readiness to “take up” as the phrase is, when those who have finished their turn pass to the back of the procession, and six or eight more step out. Wherever it is necessary to rest the coffin a cairn of stones is always raised to mark the spot, and these little cairns, wherever one finds them, have a peculiar and pathetic interest. In certain places, where such resting is customary, one sometimes finds quite a largo number of cairns close together. When the procession approaches the burial ground, which is often unenclosed, a mere cluster of graves on the bare hillside, it will, at whatever inconvenience, approach the spot sunwards (dessil) from east to west. In the Roman Catholic islands there is a very pretty custom of throwing a coin into a newly-made grave, to pay mother-earth for her hospitality. The bareness, the absence of ornament, of flowers, in the Highland burial-grounds is no sign of indifference or carelessness. There is, as we have seen, no lack of loving service and respect paid to the departed. The people are not accustomed to any form of decoration in or around their homes, and it seems only natural to them that the resting-place of their loved ones should mingle with the grass and wildflowers with which they are familiar, and, it may be, form a shelter from the wind to a wandering lamb or a child engaged in herding. “In the midst of life we are in death,” is ever prominent in the mind of the Islander, no mere sentiment, but a fact which is accepted as the natural corollary of the dangers by storm and shipwreck which accustom them to sudden death in a degree of which we, whose lives are so carefully protected, know nothing. Crioch Onarach, “may you have an honourable exit” is a common expression of kindly feeling, and “Peace to thy soul and a stone to thy cairn,” is another phrase in common use, even among Presbyterians, though doubtless a relic of the older faith. It is quite common for those about the dying to send messages to friends who have gone before, generally of a practical kind, that a debt is paid, or a sick child recovered, or that good news has come from an emigrant son—something which they would be expected to hear with pleasure.

From all this one may reasonably gather that the familiarity with which the Highlander treats the subject of death proceeds, not from the indifference of the savage, but from the entire sincerity of his belief in other conditions of being. The very strong clan and family feeling of the Highlander comes out nowhere more prominently than in the burial of the dead. The great desire is to lie near kindred dust, and very touching stories are sometimes told of the pains taken to accomplish this even on behalf of paupers and the comparatively friendless. We heard of a woman who, born on the mainland but married to an islander, died in her uew home, and all suitable arrangements were made for her funeral, when there appeared on the scene twelve of her father s family who had come sixty miles over the sea to carry her body back to lie among her own people. When the husband remonstrated, they quietly declared their intention of carrying out their scheme at all risks; and as the neighbours, while sympathizing with the husband, approved the sentiment too thoroughly to promise him any practical help, he was obliged to give in, and returned with the family to bury his wife in the graveyard of her old home.

Possibly it is from this very family feeling that a woman is always buried by her maiden name, so that the proprieties of the Saxon are violated by such inscriptions as “. . . children of Donald Macdonald and of Mary Macintosh,” or “In Memory of Gillespie Mac-lean, and Flora Macneil; erected of their sorrowing children.”

The absence of the separate family burying-ground (often on an island or in some corner of land near to the homes of the clan) so characteristic of the mainland Highlands, may be due to the fact that in almost every part of the Islands there are the remains of religious edifices, churches, monasteries, even a hermit’s cell perhaps, which, with their instinctive reverence for religion and for the past, the islanders treat as holy ground and about which they bury their dead.

It would not be fair to pass over the question of the Highland funeral without expressing regret that it should ever be, as even now, though rarely, is still the case at times, the occasion for excess in drinking. The practice of taking refreshment at the churchyard has great excuse in the conditions of climate and distance, and those who cling to old-time usage and the traditions of Highland hospitality would be very unwilling to abandon it entirely. I believe that there is now a recognized limit of the amount allowed for each person, and taken with bread and cheese, it seems moderate enough.

On leaving the grave-side the minister, nearest friends and visitors of a superior class, commonly adjourn to some neighbouring house, where tea is provided and whence they can return at their convenience, leaving those less nearly concerned to remain, often for the rest of the day, in groups on the grass, talking of business and of family affairs. Before passing judgment on such utilization of a solemn occasion, one should perhaps think for a moment on the difference between our lives and the lives of these simple Islanders, when perhaps it may not seem quite so obvious that the same rules should apply to both alike.

Think of the existence of an intelligent, educated people who have no daily paper, and very few books, who have no trade, no business, little work, but that in which they are their own masters, or fishing, carried on mainly at night; no public house or meeting-place; often no neighbours ; no local affairs to discuss; no markets, except perhaps twice a year; no buying and selling among themselves.

Think of women who have no shop- -ping but at best that from a cart which travels round the island at intervals; whose household possessions are so few that the “chores” can take but a very short time each day; who have no carpets to sweep, no rugs to shake, scarcely any crockery to wash; who, if they are in need of clothing, scarcely know whence to get the material, who have no table on which to cut it out; who if they break a needle, as Dr. Johnson points out, may have to wait weeks to get another, whose cooking is so elementary that they have need of no appliances but a pot hung over the fire, though sometimes indeed they have a kettle as well; who bake their bread on a stone and wash their few clothes in the burn outside the door; whose fire never requires re-lighting (it is ill-luck to let out the peats); who have no shoes to clean, no furniture to dust; who seldom travel more than a mile or two from home; who have no servants to discuss, and no new bonnets. Think what it must be in such a life to meet one’s friends, to hear from one and another, of Neil out in Canada, and Lachlan away at sea; of Mairi who has gone to service on the mainland, or Alan who is learning a trade in Glasgow, to ask advice, to compare notes, to say, “don’t you wonder?”, and “do you remember?”, perhaps too to mourn together over the friend who has gone, to recite his history and genealogy, to relate the visions and warnings which foreboded his death, to speculate on the future of his family, and the line the factor will take in regard to his affairs.

I have seen these little groups, decent and orderly, sitting for hours together on the bare hillside, greeting one another and parting, with much hand-shaking, for indeed hand-shaking is a great institution in these friendly Islands, and I have seen no irreverence nor lack of sympathy in their conduct, nor in their presence there.

The gentle courtesy of the islander is no mere surface politeness to a stranger. The kindness of the people to each other and to the dumb creatures about thorn would be proof of this, if proof were wanting.

The terror and aversion, passing even that of the mainland peasantry, with which the Islander regards the poorhouse, is, apart from his love of freedom, and habit of outdoor life, thoroughly justified by the nature of the accommodation provided either in North Uist or in Lewis. That at Loch Maddy supplies accommodation for, I believe, forty persons with wards and dormitories of size proportionate; but as a tenth of that number would exceed the average of occupants, the contrast between the great, bare, high, chilly, expanse of space and the very close, and, to their thinking, cosy and warm quarters to which they are accustomed, must upset the most rudimentary of their notions of life, kind and fairly liberal as is the treatment they receive.

On one of our visits to North Uist we were much concerned at a glimpse of a little tragedy so characteristic that I cannot refrain from relating it. A poor woman, very old, very feeble, lived alone in a wretched hut, which was undoubtedly an eyesore to any orderly minded proprietor. On the other hand, to its solitary occupant it meant home, and the alternative was the poorhouse. Eviction seemed inevitable, and some kindly neighbours, we were told, offered to build her a decent shelter—she was otherwise provided for—if the morsel of land, enough for an average cowshed, could be granted for the short term of life which remained to her. But no, among the thousands of bare acres all around, there was no room for so valueless a life as hers. The time came—the photograph of the scene is in my possession—when her few belongings were turned out by the roadside, and she herself laid upon the miserable bedding which, with a wooden chest, a couple of chairs, a single cooking pot, a few bits of crockery, constituted her entire wealth. When we saw her next she was sitting, decently fed and clad it is true, the sole occupant of a vast dreary “Female Ward.” “And how did you get here?” we asked, and it is for the sake of her answer, so thoroughly characteristic of Highland speech and thought, that I have told the little story. Her eyes filled with tears, and for a minute she stroked my hand in silence. “It was himself that did it,” she answered, pointing to the master of the poor-house, himself an islander, who has since, as often before, served his country “at the front.” “It was himself that did it, and may the blessed angels carry him to heaven as gently as he carried me here that day/’ There was no word of what she had lost, no reproach, no bitterness. To him from whom she had received kindness, she had nothing to give but prayer to the One who has “constituted the services of angels and men in a wonderful order,” a gift which brings blessing alike to “him that gives and him that takes.”

One cannot fail to be struck, in going through the Islands, by the singular absence, even as compared with the mainland, of cripples, or blind persons, or persons of weak intellect. One obvious, though perhaps superficial explanation, lies in the theory of the survival of the fittest, in the fact that a good constitution must be needed to survive existence at all in South Uist or Barra, though, on the other hand, that would be less applicable in happier islands, especially in Tyree, which has so superior a climate.

Lord Napier pays a well deserved tribute to those characteristics, which, according to modern theories of psychology, have so much connexion with the sound mind in the sound body, the just balance of body and spirit which is health. He writes of the Crofter (Nineteenth Century, 1885): “In the main his house does not make him unhappy, for he does not complain; it does not make him immoral, for he is above the average standard of morality in his country; it does not make him unhealthy, for he enjoys an uncommon share of vigour and longevity.”

Perhaps the following expression of opinion in the Report of the Crofters Commission is even more to the point.

“His habitation is usually of a character which would almost imply physical and moral degradation in the eyes of those who do not know how much decency, courtesy, virtue, and even mental refinement, survive amidst the sordid surroundings of a Highland hovel.”

Unhappily however, there seems to be a certain number of cases of insanity, of which of course one hears only. A recent contributor to the Caledonian Medical Journal describes certain cases which he had personally met with as a boy in Uist. They seem to have always been treated with kindness, and in the Highlands, as in certain places elsewhere, one wanting in mind is regarded as being in a special sense under Divine protection—“God’s fool” as such a patient is still called in Scandinavia, from whence the islanders may have received the idea. Mr. Macleod’s concluding sentiments must appeal to the sympathy of any who have ever visited one of the institutions—with all their advantages—where the mentally afflicted are cared for.

“I presume there are ainadain still roaming about in the more remote districts, but they are not seen so much as formerly. Possibly, as in more crowded and advanced places, they are swept into the district asylum or the poorhouse. In such institutions they are, no doubt, better lodged, clothed, and fed, but they, as a rule, do not thrive—they pine for the freedom of action and impulse, and for the kindliness of friendship which the weakest of them had bestowed on him from everyone.”

I remember our meeting an old woman in a certain island (for her sake I will not say which) who seemed to be destitute of everything but the miserable shelter erected for her as a bride, where all her children, now dead, had been born and brought up, and her tenancy of which so far had escaped the vigilance of the factor. Without a morsel of ground on which to keep an animal or grow potatoes, she was too old and feeble to go any distance in search of employment. We asked a neighbour how she lived. “Oh, it’ll be just by the goodness of God,” was the simple answer, not, his might truly have been said, “by the goodness of the friends, themselves of the poorest, whom God has sent to provide for her.”

There is a Gaelic proverb, “Am fear bhitheas trocaireach ri’ anam, Cha bhi e mi-throcaireach ri bhruid ”—“He who is merciful to his soul will not be unmerciful to his beast,”—and I think we may fairly say that we have never met with a single case of intentional unkindness to any animal in the Hebrides. If the poor creatures have hard work and scanty food, they are but sharing the fate of their owners; and if, as it sometimes struck us was the case, more dogs are kept than can be sufficiently fed, it is because they are the friends and companions of those whose pleasures and friendships can be but few.

A curious sight, in certain places, is to meet the cats of the islands coming down to the landing-place at the time when the fishermen are sorting and cleaning the fish. In spite, however, of the abundance of this particular kind of food, the cat race rapidly deteriorates in the islands. So too do the fowls, for they, like the cats, are by nature unfitted for cold, wet and draughts, though both cats and fowls live a good deal on the rafters of the houses, where they get the warmth of the peat fire burning in the middle of the floor below.

One of the duties of the constcibal baile, a voluntary officer, elected by the people themselves, of whom we shall have more to say presently, was to see that in the hard labour of carting peats and tangles the brave little horses should not be overworked, but that the various crofters should contribute a share of the labour both of man and beast in just proportion. The work is indeed hard, not only because heavy loads have to be carted over very rough ground, but because the horses, like the men, have often to stand for hours together in the water.*

The horses are too valuable, too necessary to the life of the people, apart from their natural kindliness, to be unfairly treated. If a crofter’s horse dies, the neighbours will help him with their own, or subscribe to get him another. Moreover, in districts where old ways prevail, they are very careful not to work a horse before it has come to maturity. Their rules about breeding are equally careful. The Islanders believe that before the Fall the animals had the gift of speech, and they preserve the last words of the horse, the cow and the sheep. They believe that from their superior innocence the beasts can see much that is invisible to man—or at all events those men not gifted with second-sight, and many of the stories of visions and warnings turn upon this special faculty. Moreover, in some places, where the narrow creeds of modem bigotry have not yet subtracted from the more genial views of life and death natural to these kindly people, they believe that as the animals shared in the Fall, so too shall they share in the Redemption, and that the horse, at all events, is, after death, in communication with the spirits of the departed.

There are some interesting sayings about cats. In spite of all the creature has to contend with it apparently attains to long life even in the Islands, for they have a proverb that the cat’s first seven years are spent joyously and pleasantly, but that its other seven years are heavy-headed, large-headed and sleepy.

Another saying, which however tends to prove that a shorter career is probable, is that three ages of a cat are equal to the age of a dog, three ages of a dog to the age of a man, three ages of a man to the age of a deer, and three ages of a deer to the age of an oak tree, though what they know about oak trees it would be difficult to say.

If a cat scratches on the ground with its forepaws, it is a sign of death, for it is seeking for a corpse. If it goes into a pot, it is a presage of fish coming to the house. Stories of sharp practice, such as in AEsop’s Fables are attributed to the fox, in South Uist and Eriskay, where the fox is unknown, are told of the cat.

Two old cats went down to the shore one day and found a large lump of butter. After much quarrelling as to proprietorship, it was agreed that the oldest should have it.

“I am the oldest,” said the one who had made the suggestion. “I am the cat that Adam had.”

The other replied, “You are undoubtedly elderly, but not so old as I, for I was on the earth before the hempen feet [i.e. the rays] went under the sun. Hand over the butter.”

He ate so much butter that he began to swell, and he became so heavy that he could not run, and so when a hungry wolf came down to the strand, he fell a victim. “It is not good to be telling lies,” as the cat said when the wolf ate him.

There is a tree in South Uist, at least there was, though now you would not know it from a telegraph pole, for it was an araucaria of the monkey-puzzle variety, said to make and to lose a ring every year. This one seems to have confined its exertions to losing them. I remember when it had a ring and a half, now it is gaunt and bare. What misguided person put a semi-tropical plant in a Highland bog I never learnt, but next time planting is attempted in this island I should suggest that some very hardy pines, planted on an artificial mound for the sake of drainage, and temporarily sheltered by some elders of the coarsest variety, would have more chance of success.

Strange to say, one does not desire the presence of trees in South Uist. Never was any place so dependent for effect upon its own personality, and something would be lost, I think, by anything which approximated this with any other place. In Tyree one feels that trees have been lost out of the island : it was once the land of wood, and should be so again, but it is not so here. Here indeed, one is reminded of a story which Dorothy Wordsworth quotes from Sir Walter Scott (Recollections of a Tour in Scotland, under date September 21, 1803). “ . . . . The neighbouring ground had the wildness of a forest, being irregularly scattered over with fine old trees. The wind was tossing their branches, and sunshine dancing among the t loaves, and I happened to exclaim,

‘What a life there is in trees!’, on which Mr. Scott observed that the words reminded him of a young lady who had been born and educated on an island of the Orcades, and came to spend a summer at Kelso and in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh. She used to say that in the new world into which she was come nothing had disappointed her so much as trees and woods; she complained that they were lifeless, silent, and, compared with the grandeur of the ever-changing ocean, even insipid. At first I was surprised, but the next moment I felt that the impression was natural. Mr. Scott said that she was a very sensible young woman, and had road much. She talked with endless rapture and feeling of the power and greatness of the ocean, and with the same passionate attachment returned to her native land without any probability of quitting it again.”

In the island of Tyree, still more when crossing—as one does now on the West Highland Railway—the Moor of Rannoch, one is persistently conscious that trees ought to be there; it is obvious they wore there once, and the landscape requires it. The same is true of many parts of the Highlands of Scotland, where trees have been destroyed, possibly for fuel, or perhaps, as within our own memory, on the Duke of Athole’s property, by storm. None who have seen those thousands of stalwart trees lying in heaps on the hillside, their branches tom and mangled, their roots pointing to the sky, can ever forget this testimony to what Nature in her wilder moods may do, even far inland or on a sheltered hillside.

Burt, in his Letters, referring to a quaint book of travel called A Journey Through Scotland, published in 1723, remarks: “He labours the Plantations about the country-seats so much that he shows thereby what a Rarity Trees are in Scotland, and indeed it has been often remarked that here are but few Birds except such as build their nests upon the ground, so scarce are Hedges and Trees.”

It will be remembered that when Dr. Johnson lost his walking-stick in the Hebrides he was convinced it was stolen, and Boswell could not persuade him out of the suspicion. “No, no, my friend,” said he, “it is not to be expected that any man who has got it will part with it. Consider, sir, the value of such a piece of timber here!”

Macculloch remarks on the destruction of trees, and says that Johnson’s remark “that no tree in Scotland is older than the Union ” is likely soon to prove true.

“In former ages these trees were preserved and venerated, and by the recollections of the length of time they had sheltered and thrown an air of dignity and importance over the castles and seats of ancient families, the respect of people for their owners was increased and preserved. But such recollections are now out of fashion, the trees are valued according to the money they bring, and like the fidelity of the clansmen, sold to the highest bidder.”


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