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Outer Isles
Chapter IX. Eriskay


IN a letter to Lord Balfour published December, 1900, a sort of apologia for the recent agitations upon her islands of South Uist and Barra, Lady Gordon Cathcart, among many other surprising statements, asserts more than once that the people are worst off on the smaller islands. I never heard that she had ever visited any of them, but from some weeks’ residence in Eriskay, one of those especially referred to, and from personal acquaintance with many of its inhabitants, I venture to assert that it is one of the few bright spots on her estate. It is a mere gull’s nest, scarcely worth the name of an island, storm-beaten, wind-swept, treeless, shelterless, rocky, but the soil is a little drier than that of South Uist; there are no farms, and the people are let alone and have the island to themselves.

Though the distance across the minch is probably not much more than two miles, the crossing is one not to be undertaken lightly. Always difficult, sometimes dangerous, it is, not infrequently, impossible, and for long even the factor would not venture across to collect the rents, and so, to save trouble to one man, sixty would have to cross to the little inn at Polacharra, the southernmost point of Uist, and await his pleasure the whole day, an occasion of temptation which ought never to have been allowed.

The one charm of Eriskay is its utter solitude and aloofness. For one person who goes to Eriskay five hundred visit the shores of St. Kilda; it is unknown to the tourist, it is beyond MacBrayne. It rises suddenly and steeply out of the sea except on the west side, where a sandy plain stretches down to the historical harbour of Prince’s Bay, where Prince Charlie landed nearly two hundred years ago, a fact still sacred in the memory of the people. It is said that there were but three holdings in the island in those days, and there is some vague tradition of monastic occupation at one time, though there are no architectural remains to give colour to the story. Munro in his Description, 1594, has the following paragraph:

“To the eist of this ile of Fuday, be three myle of sea, lyes ane ile callit Eriskeray, twa mile lang, inhabit and manurit. In this ile ther is daylie gottin aboundance of verey grate pintill fishe at ebb seas, and als verey guid for uther fishing, perteining to M’Neill of Barray.”

Fuday was, according to local tradition, the last retreat of the Norsemen. An illegitimate son of Macneill fell in love with one of their maidens, and she made him aware that though invincible by daylight, they were weak and powerless after sunset. He and his men invaded the island during the night and they thus became extinct.

It is said that Eriskay was offered to Boisdale when he lost his property in South Uist, but that he would not accept it. The island has few traditions. Necessity alone drove human beings to so dreary a spot, and it was colonized by victims of the Gordon evictions in South Uist and Barra, people driven down to the edge of the sea to add land to the farm of Kilbride on the one island, to that of Eoligarry on the other. Some came also from the glens of Ben More, once well peopled, now occupied by two shepherds. Driven south, they redeemed some wretched ground and built shelter for themselves, but evicted again, with only the sea before them, they crossed over to Eriskay, and once more resumed the hand-to-hand fight against the fearful odds of Nature. They seem to-day altogether brighter and more intelligent, than their neighbours in Uist, possibly owing to the greater independence of their lives, and the relief from the hideous pressure of the extreme poverty of the parent island.

The island rises to a point, which though only some 600 feet above sea-level, appears considerably higher, from the very small amount of ground surrounding the hill, which is called Ben Scrien. The people are healthier also, and free from tho asthma which is so great a curse in South Uist, probably in consequence of the mists which perpetually hover about its countless lakes. There are no roads, and consequently no carts. Even a wheel-barrow would be out of place. We heard, on one visit, that the school-board had ordered a road to be made to allow of the bare-footed children getting more conveniently to school in the winter, but finding no trace of any such improvement, we had to accept the explanation that “the hens had scratched it.” In the Highlands one speaks of “ hens ” not of “fowls.”

There is a school-house and a post-office and a church and a shop—at least sometimes there is a shop or, rather, sometimes there are some things in the shop. On one occasion when we were there, there was a threatened famine in oil, and other necessaries of life, but after a few days’ depression, the excellent and capable woman who was housekeeper to our host, announced, with a beaming smile, that the men wore out of tobacco, from which we were left to infer that some strong measures would now be taken to communicate with “the mainland,” by which they mean South Uist. The post-office is an important centre of business. The post-master can write English, and one constantly finds him occupied with secretarial work, and that not only of a private nature, the communication with distant friends, but also in connexion with commercial interests. Incredible as it sounds, over £500 a year goes out from Eriskay—with a population of about 500—for goods sent by parcel post.

The export industry of Eriskay is confined to salt fish and eggs, of which latter nearly £200 worth are sent out yearly. The hens very quickly deteriorate in the cold and damp climate, and the strain has frequently to be renewed, or for table purposes they would be entirely useless. Something like £125 per annum is spent in Eriskay in tobacco, which, when on the sea during long dark nights, wet, cold, and often hungry, is almost a necessity for the men. As far as one can observe, they seem extraordinarily moderate in their smoking, using a very small pipe, which does not, to the merely female intelligence, look worth the trouble of lighting. None of the women smoke, and only one or two old ones take snuff.

The women are said to be exceptionally strong in child-birth, which, considering their distance from medical aid and from all conveniences of life, speaks well for their adaptation to environment; and moreover the rate of mortality is very low among young children. Of late years the influenza plague has sorely troubled both Eriskay and South Uist, but otherwise the islanders seem strong and healthy, and Father Allan tells us that when he first came to the island, there were three people over ninety years of age.

Before the days of the parcel post, before even such small conveniences as now reach South Uist could be imported into Eriskay, before oven the small amount of cultivation now achieved was possible, one wonders how the people lived, and we were interested in learning from Father Allan various details about matters of diet. In old days cabbage and the curly green kail were freely grown in South Uist, but after the evictions the people had no ground even if they had had the heart to cultivate it, and they fell back largely on certain wild vegetables which before had been used only in emergency. The root of the pretty little silver-weed which grows so freely all over the island, is called in Gaelic “the seventh food that comes out of the ground”; and a man, still living, says that he remembers seeing a large trunkful stored for winter use in his grandfather’s house. (In the islands there are no cupboards, and everything is kept in boxes, which they call “trunks.”) This was in Harris, where, he says, the land used to be divided among the people at ploughing time, so that each might have a fair share of the weed which came off the ground when it was being tilled, otherwise the land was held and worked in common, and not in separate crofts.

Probably some of the stories told of injustice done to the people out of sheer vindictiveness may be exaggerated, such for example as that the disappearance of shell-fish from between Prince’s Bay and Rudh Caol in Eriskay, and near Cnoc Mor on the opposite coast of Uist, as well as at certain other places, was due to their having been ploughed to deprive the people of food as a means of driving them away. When Eriskay was first inhabited, separate spots in the island were marked off for certain families, for collecting wild spinach. It is still found where sea-weed has been lying on the land, but is not eaten now, nor would be except under pressure of hunger. The goose-foot, wild mustard, and young nettles were also boiled as food. Then there were certain kinds of sea-weed: the dulse is still used, raw or boiled, also a sea-weed which grows on the rocks, called Sloak, which, is boiled with butter, so too another called Gruaigean, probably identical with Iceland moss. A broad-leafed sea-weed called liathag, which grows among the tangle, is edible when heated over the fire and rubbed in the hands. Another weed called cock’s-comb, feamainn chirein, found on the rocks at half-tide, serves a variety of purposes. It is eaten raw by the cattle, and is given to them boiled as a useful cathartic. It is also made into poultices for man and beast, and boiled to give a lustre to homemade cloth.

When potatoes were a novelty and still scarce, they used to be brought into the house, and hung from the roof in bags made of bent grass. They were first introduced into Uist about 1743, and the old proprietors, anxious for the good of their people, threatened them with eviction when they refused to plant them, wisely, as it turned out, for in ten years the Islands were covered with them. They proved a most valuable addition to the barley, rye, and coarse oats hitherto grown, not only for their own merits as food, but because they could be grown where nothing else would prosper, on account of the hopelessly wet nature of the soil in a great many places.

This was accomplished by means of the “lazy bed” system, which as being largely in use in Eriskay, as it is in all the peat islands, may as well be described. Imagine a strip of soil, about three feet wide, upon which is spread a thick layer of decomposed sea-weed. At either side a deep trench is dug, the soil from which is thrown up on to the top of the sea-weed, thus forming a sandwich of soil with the sea-weed between. The bed so constructed has two advantages—that of artificial depth, seldom to be acquired otherwise on the island where the rock is very near the surface, and that of artificial drainage, equally important on account of the retentive nature of the peat. In the second year this same ground serves to grow barley, and the third oats.

Fishing is of course the main source of food, as well as of commerce, in Eriskay, and I hear, on the best authority, that every year fewer of the Eriskay men go off to the East Coast. They are capable and thrifty— they are not interfered with at home, thanks to their remoteness and other natural disadvantages; they have many good boats, and they find it more profitable and more independent, to remain in the island.

Then, of course, there were always plenty of shellfish (limpets, and razor-fish), and abundance of sea-fowl. The domestic fowls are freely used at festivals and as many as forty will sometimes be seen at a wedding, mostly contributed by the guests, or the feast made at the birth of a child, to which every one brings some gift, usually a hen, or some meal.

At Christmas, many of the people will kill a sheep, though in truth the mutton is so lean and so dry that it seems scarcely worth eating. The pasture is so poor that the little creatures make no fat, and the absence of fat of any kind for cooking purposes is a serious difficulty, especially in islands where no pigs are kept. In old days no Highlander would touch pork, and where old customs are kept up, the prejudice still remains.

Another prejudice, commonly held, is that it is dangerous to eat the head of an eel, for eels are subject to madness and apt to communicate the disease. Our informant was asked if he had met with any case of such infection, and he instanced a friend of his own who was saved only by being caused to vomit just when his head was beginning to go wrong. He also told us a story of a man, who, having killed a trout and an eel, gave the trout to his wife and ate the eel himself. He forthwith became insane, but not before he had warned his wife to escape for safety from him to her brother’s house. The brother went next day to visit his afflicted relative, and found that he had killed his horse, and was eating the raw flesh, so to prevent further mischief he shot him. It was considered advisable that he should leave the country, and that is how he came to Ben More, in Uist, where his descendant still lives, and is known as Ian, son of Ian, son of Donald “of the Horse.”

Again if a person eat the liver of a spotted ling, his own skin will become spotted with red marks. The ling, however, is held in high estimation. There is a Gaelic saying that the ling would be the beef of the sea, if it always had salt enough, butter enough, and boiling enough. Another saying is, “A boiling and a half for the limpets, and warm water for whelks.” The people have a high opinion of the nourishing power of whelks. They say, “The whelk will sustain a man till he be as black as its own scale.” There is a black, scaly covering at the mouth of the shell.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that the trout lost its side fins, in consequence of the profanity of a man in South Uist. This is the way the story is told." A niggardly man, fond of fishing, was asked what he had taken. "Devil a fin,’ he returned, though his creel was full of trout.” That was how the devil came to remove the side fins from the trout.

Space will not permit of the quotation of many of the innumerable quaint beliefs of this primitive island, though they are interesting and characteristic, and one or two more must suffice.

It is not right to remove a dead fish from its native element. An Eriskay man says he and two others were landing in a boat a little below the Presbytery, when they saw a dead salmon and some large trout on the shore. All made a rush for it, “but the man who got it was thereafter sorry, for a near relative soon died.”

The king of fishes is the herring, but the haddock is a good fish “whatever,” for he it was who supplied Saint Peter with the tribute money.

News reaches this island so slowly, and the people have so little opportunity of enlarging their ideas, that they sometimes get curious notions about things. There is an old prophecy that “a war ship is to throw down the pinnacles on the house of Kilbride,” the old Boisdale residence on the south point of South Uist opposite Eriskay; and in the summer of 1806 much alarm was caused by the appearance of a Danish gunboat which anchored in the Sound between Eriskay and Barra, and which they believed to portend the return of the Loch-linners (the Vikings who so long harried the Hebrides, a thousand years ago) and the beginning again of the old piratical work. A queer anachronism, showing their difficulty in appreciating the relation of time past and present, is that one man definitely asserted that a British gunboat was telegraphed for to Stornoway to prevent mischief! It is alleged also that many times during the past two years, when a foreign boat has been seen on the Atlantic, there has been serious fear of a Boer invasion.

When we were last in Eriskay the priest had decided to enclose the graveyard which lies just above the seashore, indistinguishable except by a few rude crosses, from the grassy plain on which it lies, so near the houses that reverent treatment of the graves, where children play, nets are dried, and sheep feed, is scarcely possible. Those who possessed any material out of which a fence could be made, a piece of a mast, a fragment of a boat, a broken oar, the rafter of an abandoned house, were expected to bring it, those who had leisure were required to give time, those who had skill were asked for direction. All were willing, but they worked like children put to a task. Twenty times a day they came up to the little Presbytery on the hill, to report progress, to announce new contributions, to receive praise or blame. It takes two men to do a day’s work in the Highlands and two more to look on, it is said in the Lowlands. As we have seen, the Highlander can work seriously, solemnly, for life and death; but over his holiday tasks the saying is true enough. And yet what cannot he accomplish? The little Church at Eriskay is a monument to the zeal, and sacrifice, and endurance, of which some are capable.

Till within the last few years there was no priest in Eriskay, it was served jointly with the parish of Dalibrog in South Uist eight miles away. When the priest heard that he was required—for the last holy offices perhaps — by one of his flock in the smaller island, he would have to walk, fasting probably, down to the shore at Polacharra. Possibly the tide would not admit of his crossing, possibly the boat was on the further side. There is a rock, a signal from which, means “The Priest,” and if it were dark he would light a bonfire, not always an easy task in a place where there is no wood and it generally rains, to signal that, if possible, the boat should be brought over. Anyway the light would be seen, and in the assurance that his faithful people would do their best, he would wait taking advantage of such shelter as the rocks could afford. There he might have to remain for many hours without food, and there might be delay, even on arriving, in the performance of his sacred task, and the possibility of taking refreshment. One of the cottages was always placed at his disposal for hearing confessions, and from time to time there would be Mass in the little Church. The scene was described to us by an eyewitness. The walls were without cement and unplastered; the windows had no glass and were filled with sods and stones for protection from the weather. There was no flooring, and in places the water stood in pools. Some rocks, however, which remained on the ground, afforded foothold for such of the congregation as required special consideration. Those who wished to sit down, pulled a stone out of the wall and replaced it when done with. To obtain light at the altar one of the divots (sods) was removed from the roof, and rough stones supplied the place of a bookstand. Now all is changed. The walls are pointed, the floor is levelled and paved, the windows are filled with glass, and the simple appointments of the chancel are neat and orderly. But at what sacrifices on the part of the people, and still more of the priest, this was all effected, one is afraid even to think. The people are devout, and, according to their means, liberal, and they are deeply conscious of the debt of gratitude they owe to the good Father now happily resident among them. His life is one from which most educated men would shrink as from a slow martyrdom, a living death. He has now happily a neat and comfortable house overlooking the Minch toward the island of South Uist. It is enclosed, and by blasting some of the rocks a fair piece of ground, perhaps some quarter of an acre, has been made available for cultivation and for the care of ducks and poultry. There is a tiny oratory where there is daily Mass, seldom unattended, and this little centre of “Sweetness and Light” is visible from almost every part of the island. But when one thinks of the utter loneliness of such a life, of the distance from any person who can even speak the English language, none probably, in any degree, companionable nearer than Dalibrog, when one remembers the dangerous Minch dividing the islet from even such amenities as are furnished by South Uist, and the fierce waves of the Atlantic beating it on every side, it seems as if even the lives of the hermits of old were not more sacrificial, more heroic, than this!

The people care mainly for cattle; indeed in the absence of any enclosures, and the consequent necessity for herding, almost every cow demands the constant attendance of a human companion, generally an old woman past other work or a boy or girl. The old women will occupy themselves with their distaffs, and the children, generally two or three together, amuse themselves, as children will, in constructing shealings, and rigging toy boats, which they sail in the little burns or on the seawater pools along the shore. A cow is the ordinary marriage dowry.

The people are more teachable than in South Uist, where probably they have grown defiant under oppression and injustice, and in many respects their surroundings are superior. Chimneys are to be found in almost every house, and the new ones they have built are better placed than formerly, in regard to aspect and drainage. They avoid wooden floors as requiring scrubbing and tending to infection ; and indeed in these latitudes they have other disadvantages; one I know well has had large holes pierced in it to let the water off ; and they are learning that, useful as it is to preserve manure, the spot immediately opposite the house door is not the best for the midden. When a man happens to have leisure, now that security of tenure has been given, he will perhaps put up the stone framework of a house, about thirty feet by fourteen, the stones roughly hewn and pointed with lime, made from burnt shells. Then, possibly when he goes to the mainland for fishing, he may be able to expend the necessary £2 or £3 for the requisite wooden fittings, the pine partition, the window frame, a couple of doors, and possibly a shelf or two, often imported ready-made from America as cheaper and sufficiently good. The partition is generally so arranged as to provide a little anteroom or hallway, which, as giving occasion for a double door, is, in these gusty islets, an immense advantage. No one locks the house - door, and indeed such an elaboration is unknown ; to open a door you “pull the bobbin” as in a fairy story. The joiner is probably peripatetic like the tailor, and when he comes, possibly from another island, to do a piece of work, he has to be boarded and lodged.

The roof in Eriskay is a somewhat serious matter owing to the scarcity and cost of wood, and, in the interests of the picturesque, I much regret to state that the people have begun to import corrugated iron. If only they can be induced to paint it red, there might be some alleviation to even such a monstrosity as this, in a country of dun and neutral colouring. The thatch is generally of bracken, using principally the root and stem, and fastening it down with heather rope, the material for which has to be fetched from Uist, for there is very little heather in Eriskay.

Reeds grown in the lakes must not be used for thatch, or a death is sure to follow speedily either in house or byre. Inside the roof they add hay for warmth, and we have seen here very neat and comfortable dwellings, well kept and with many small comforts, generally brought home by the girls after the east coast fishing.

On Sundays and festal occasions the women are neat and even smart in their dress. We were interested in the favour shown to velveteen, although, as :material, it still not wholly lend itself to the lod&e nature of the local fashion, always more or less of the nature of a blouse. There is no prevailing tartan in the island, as the people are a miscellaneous gathering from other islands, but of course the Macneill and Macdonald are frequently met with.

The quern—the double millstone—is still in use in the island of Eriskay and indeed has been in almost every island, within quite recent years. Here too they have a still older mill, which we were fortunate enough to photograph.

The old table-vessels, a wooden dish1 used in common by the whole family for fish and potatoes, and a wooden cup with a sheepskin bottom for drinking, have lingered on in Eriskay till quite lately, but now there is crockery in every household.

In 1897, on the same day, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, lantern illustrations of ancient mills apparently identical, were shown by Mr. Flinders Petrie and myself, the one from ancient Egypt, the other to be found at the present day in Eriskay.

Many writers, as a rule those who speak at secondhand—though the observant Robert Buchanan, who ought to have known better, has fallen into the same error—have dwelt upon the bareness, the colourlessness of the Outer Islands. We, on the other hand, have found much delight in the wild flowers upon every island and islet we have visited. We have found them varied and abundant, and though, as a rule, short on their stalks owing to the severity of the wind, we have generally considered them fine of their kind.

The following list was made in Eriskay, wildest, most wind-swept, most rocky of islets, some three miles by one, without a tree or bush, with no shelter but the rocks, with nothing to break the force of winds sweeping over “half the breadth of half the world” but its own little hill of Ben Scrien. It was made late in August, not a very good month for flowers, where there are no cornfields, but it will be seen that we have included some not then in season, but of the existence of which we had sufficient evidence, either by the remains of leaves or roots, or from dried specimens kindly preserved for us by Father Allan.

As will be seen, the only flowers of special interest are the convolvulus maritimus, the history of which is told in another chapter, and the somewhat rare “midsummer men,” sedum rhodiola, sometimes called rose-root from the pleasant smell of the root-stock when drying. English names are given for the benefit of the nonspecialist reader.

Angelica; Asphodel (bog); Alexanders; Burdock : Bartsia; Bird’s foot trefoil; Bird’s foot (lady’s fingers); Bed-straw (1) white, (2) yellow ; Broom-rape ; Bugloss ; Butter-wort (1) common, (2) alpine; Butter-cup (1) meadow, (2) spear-wort, (3) acris; Buick-bean; Bramble; Bugle; Bladder-wort; Clover (1) dutch, (2) red, (3) purple; Crane’s bill; Carrot; Colt’s foot; Chickweed (1) water chickweed, (2) mouse-ear; Centaury; Convolvulus maritimus; Camomile (1) common, (2) scentless; Cress (water); Celandine (lesser); Cotton-grass; Cranberry; Cat’s ear (mountain everlasting); Cudweed; Catch-fly (white); Cow-parsnip; Campion (moss); Dandelion; Dead-nettle (1) red, (2) white ; Dock ; Daisy; Oxeye daisy; Dove’s foot (crane’s bill); Duckweed ; Eye-bright; Eryngo; Fumitory ; Gale (bog myrtle); Groundsel ; Gentian (field); Golden-rod; Goose-foot (chenopod) (1) red, (2) upright, (3) common orache, (4) hastate var.; Galium (1) marsh-bed straw, (2) hedge-bed straw; Hawkbit, autumn (var. pratensis); Hawk-weed, umbellate ; Honeysuckle; Hyacinth ; Hogweed (cow parsnip); Hypericum ( = St. John’s Wort=St. Columkille); Heath (ling); Heather (bell); Heath, cross-leaved; Harebell; Hemlock, water-drop-wort; Iris (yellow); Illecebrum ; Knot-grass; Knap-weed (1) black, (2) greater; Lady’s smock; Lettuce, sea; Myosotis (1) mouse-ear, (2) field, (3) changing ; Mustard (1) charlock, (2) hedge, (3) treacle ; Midsummer men (rare); Madder (field); Meadow-sweet; Marigold (1) corn, (2) marsh ; Milk-wort (1) white, (2) blue, (3) pink; Mare’s-tail; Nettle (1) common, (2) hemp, (3) dead nettle ; Orchis (1) frog, (2) spotted, (3) marsh, (4) early purple; Persicaria (1) common, (2) amphibious; Pennywort; Poppy, long-headed (the common poppy of the English cornfields, rare in the Highlands); Parsnip, cow; Pearl-wort (1) pro-cumbens, (2) alpine; Primrose; Pimpernel (1) scarlet (poor man’s weatherglass), (2)bog; Parsley, (fool’s); Pond-weeds, various; Plantain (1) maritima, (2) buickthorn, (3) greater, (4) ribwort; Purselane, sea (caryophyllaceae); Potentilla (1)hoary, (2) marsh; Red-rattle (1) common, (2) dwarf ; Rose-bay; Ragged robin ; Rag-wort (1) common, (2) water; Rose,wild; Rue (meadow)(l)thalictrum,yellow, (2) lesser; Ransoms ; Spurge (sun); Self-heal; Sorrel (dock); Sorrel (1) wood, (2) sheep; Stone crop (1) yellow, (2) white; Scabious (1) small, (2) devil’s bit; Silver-weed; Sand-wort; Shepherd’s-purse; Sundew(1)round-leaved, (2) spoon-shaped; Speedwell; Spurry (1) sand, (2) corn; Sea rocket; Snakeweed (bistort); Scurvy grass (1) common, (2) Danish; Squill, vernal; Saltwort; Sneeze wort; Thistle (1) spear plume, (2) sow, (3) plume, (4) corn sow; Tormentil; Thalictrum (1) common, (2) meadow; Thyme (1) white, (2) red; Thrift (sea); Thale (cress); Tansy; violet, dog; Vetch (1) bush, purple, (2) yellow kidney; Viola (white field heartsease) ; Veronica marsh (becca bunga); Willow-herb (1) hoary, (2) broadleaved, (3) pale, (4) square-stemmed; Wormwood; Woundwort (1) marsh, (2) ambigua; Water-lily; Woodroffe; Water star-wort; Yarrow; Yellow rattle.

The natives have many traditions and stories about the flora of their islands. The St. John’s wort is called the armpit-flower of Columba (achlasan Cholumcille), and the story is that the saint, who had engaged a child to herd cattle for a day and a night, found him weeping as the evening fell, lest, in the darkness, the cattle should stray away and he be blamed. St. Colum plucked this flower and put it under the child’s arm, bidding him sleep in peace, for no harm could befall him with this for protection. Virtue still lingers about the plant, and its golden stars are loved by the children and brought home to protect the cattle from the Evil-Eye.

There is a saying that, on St. Patrick’s Day, Ivar’s daughter comes out of her hole, and there is another saying that “If I will not touch Ivar’s daughter (nigh-ean Iamhair), Ivar’s daughter will not touch me”; also that at St. Patrick’s she throws away her rod of enchantment, with which she has stopped all growth during the winter. “Ivar’s daughter” is the nettle plant, which, about St. Patrick’s Day, puts her head out of holes in the walls of the houses loosely built without lime. She is said to be blessed by the saint as useful to man and beast. A kail made of boiled nettles should be taken three times a year, not oftener, and one is impervious to sickness ever after.

The wild carrot is the finest fruit ever seen by the children of the Outer Isles, and they value it as other children do apples. As they seek it they recite a Gaelic verse:

Honey underground
Is the winter carrot
Between St. Andrew’s Day and Christmas.

If one child has the luck to find a double or forked one, they all crowd round to rub their hands against it, four times, repeating

Lucky folk, lucky folk,
The luck of big carrots be upon me,

and then all begin to seek in the fortunate spot.

The fishermen will not wear clothes dyed with the lichen or crottle found on the rocks, though it is largely used in some places for children’s clothing and for wool for knitting. They say “ it comes from the rocks and will go back to the rocks ” ; indeed the Eriskay people will not use it at all, living, as they do, in a wild sea and surrounded by treacherous rocks. The use of it was caricatured by one of the bards

’Tis not the indigo of Edinburgh
That would be for clothing to these kites,
But lichen gathered by finger nails
Scratched off the rocks.

The burdock is the nearest thing to a twig or switch known familiarly to many islanders, so destitute are they of wood. The children have a story known as the Rann navi meacann, which relates how a wren and his twelve children failed to uproot it. The dandelion is called bearnan Hrighide, “the notched plant of Brigid.”

As in English, where we have May, or May-flowers, May-buds, Marigold, May-lily, May-weed, May-wort, many of the favourite products of these islands are called after our Lady. We have lua Moire, herb of Mary, a useful application for stiff knees, and luibh Mhoire, plant of Mary, which brings favour from heaven if a prayer for some desired gift is offered at the time it is gathered. Maol Moire is described as a flattish green plant, valuable as a plaster when boiled, and the biolaire Moire is a kind of cress. We had not an opportunity of identifying any of these. Then there are certain nuts washed up on the shore which are considered lucky—the cno Mhoire, the Molucca bean, sometimes used as a snuff-box; and the aime Moire, kidney of Mary, which has a cross-like depression, used to be blessed by the priest and worn by the women in childbirth. The copam'an Moire is a specially dainty kind of limpet, the maorach Moire a bright little whelk. Hail is called the stone of Mary, clach Mhoire;l the crested lark, so beloved of the islanders, is the Uis-Eag Moire; the sea out of which, and even on which, most of them live, which is ever around them as foe or friend, the most familiar part of their whole life, is the cuile Mhoire, the treasury of Mary.

We heard of a plant called garbhag arit sleibh, which we were told by one informant was club moss, though the Gaelic dictionary translates the name as “savoury.” (Garbhag means “rough,” and a kind of flounder, with a very rough skin, is called “garbhag.”) The children seek it in the hills, and present it with the rhyme :

Little man who wanderest lightly,
There is no fear of hurt nor harm to thee
With the sprig of “garbhag” on thy person.

There is a tradition that this is the parting present which a girl would give to her sweetheart in the days of forced military service. Some say that this rhyme is the sian or charm which preserved the Clanranalds from injury by bullets. The tradition that the charm was originally given to a Clanranald by a French lady makes it seem the more likely that the herb in question may be the wild savoury so much valued by the French in salads.

As a secondary use, it is said to have virtue for any sickness if boiled in a quart of water till half has evaporated.

The marsh marigold is called the shoe of the water-horse, brog an eich uisge, from the shape of its leaves. This flower is very abundant in inland lochs, and so too, it is said, is the water-horse, a monster which causes much terror to hapless wayfarers at night.

The water ragwort, caoibhreachan, is kept under an upturned vessel in the dairy, which prevents any one taking toradh, i.e. filching the milk by witchcraft. It is also used in the cornstacks to keep away rats. The children have a rhyme which they sing while scampering over the island in search of it:

Hee! um! bah! the ragweed,
Try who will be in first;
The hindermost, the hindermost,
The dead horse will catch him;
The foremost, the foremost.
He will get a silver shilling;
The middle one, the middle one,
I will thrust him into the bag.

i.e. the bag of bent grass in which they carry home the precious weed. The greater plantain is called cvach Phadruig, Patrick’s cup. One side of the leaf is said to have a healing quality, and the other to act like a blister. It is good for stopping bleeding. The lesser celandine is called in Gaelic, the yellow swan, eala-bhidh. It is a lucky plant, and there is a proverb that the flowering time is good for flitting. The buck-bean, lus nan laogh, is good for headache, a handful to be boiled in a quart of water till half evaporates, a glassful to be taken every morning. The centaury, an teantruidh is good for colic; one “fistful” to be boiled in a quart and a half of water with three teaspoonfuls of sugar till half a quart evaporates ; a glassful every two hours; this is good also for hemorrhage. A common fungus, maoleonain, cut up and soaked in warm water makes a valuable poultice for festering wounds.

A stocking full of earth heated is also used for a poultice, as is also the cnb bhreac, a large shell-snail taken out of the shell and pounded. The same snail is used instead of a leech. It is also a specific for jaundice. The remedy does not sound pleasant. The snails are put alive into water, which the invalid then drinks. The use of the horse leech, sliadh, is also understood.

A decoction of marsh galium, in Gaelic gairgean, is used for dropsy; the ribwort plantain, snath lus, mixed with butter, is used for poultices.

A large-leaved plant was described to us, probably a colt’s foot, called in Gaelic sionnas, which grows near the shore on the east side of Eriskay; it is used as a purge for cows. A decoction of wild parsley, tath-lus, boiled with sugar, is taken by the women, cold, as a valuable sedative. The stem of the bog-myrtle used to be pared down and an infusion made of the parings for a vermifuge. A decoction of burdock is used for jaundice.

I conclude the chapter with a few phrases and sayings collected from the current speech of the people, mainly in Eriskay, some being of special interest as denoting their picturesque outlook upon life; some as evidence of the shrewdness with which they assimilate its lessons.

As a stone (rolling) down a glen
The faint autumn evening;
As a hunter climbing the hill
The joyous spring evening.
“Let the loan be laughing going home”
(i.e. treat well whatever is borrowed).

The swift wind is said to be “as quick as the changing passions of the light-headed woman.”

One flaw spoils the pail!' The origin is said to be the displeasure of the hermit when Michael Scot went to heaven, which spoiled all his years of penance.

The temple of the head is called “the gate of death.”

What in children’s games is called “home” is called, in Gaelic, the cathair or citadel.

The following sayings and phrases are remarkable, mainly for their shrewdness and knowledge of life.

“When a man is come at, he is come at all round,”

(’Nuair a thigte ri duine Thigte ris uile)

is said especially of the kind of slander when others follow up what one has begun.

If a person were to find a change in the manner of his reception at a friend’s house, he would say, “The shore is the same, but the shell-fish is not the same.”

The impossible is thus denoted: “Blackberries in midwinter and seagulls’ eggs in autumn.”

“An egg without butter, ashes, salt, at the end of seven years will cause a sickness.”

“Better thin kneading than to be empty,” i.e. half a loaf is better than no bread.

“The man who is idle will put the cats on the fire.”

“He that does not look before him will look behind him.”

“A house without a dog, without a cat, without a little child, is a house without pleasure and without laughter.”

There are three sayings, expressive of three degrees of annoyance, the origin of which is as follows :

A man sought to break off his engagement to a girl, and sent word to this effect by a companion.

The girl replied only: “It is a mote in my eye.” Not certain whether she had understood, he sent again, and she answered, “It is a little particle sticking between my teeth to me.” He sent a third time, and she replied, “It is a pebble in my shoe to me.”

The young man thought her words must have some hidden meaning, so he personally tested these small troubles and found them sufficiently unpleasant. His conscience smote him and he returned to his allegiance.


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