“A! HERE are red
cheeks,” says a proverb of the Outer Hebrides, “before the tailor
and the fulling women,” their visits being the two occasions when
the public is admitted into the intimate domestic life of the
family. The tailor is peripatetic, and as he visits from house to
house he carries with him the gossip of the neighbourhood. He knows
when the meal tub is getting low, and when the whisky bottle is
withheld from the guest. So, too, when the cloth is being dressed
after it is taken out of the loom. It needs eight or ten women to do
the work, and as .many as the house will hold to look on. None may
refuse an invitation to a fulling, and as it requires skilled labour,
and the work is voluntary, it is an opportunity for the exercise of
all possible hospitality: to give less than the best would be,
indeed, an occasion for scandal and “red cheeks.”
The “fulling” is a
scene of the utmost friendliness: the talk is intimate, and yet a
certain ceremony and dignity are observed, and the customs, probably
many centuries old, are adhered to rigidly. The songs which
accompany the work are preserved orally, and are of the deepest
interest; some are love ditties; some are religious, some political,
all have a quaint picturesqueness of language, which, like many
things in these Islands, is almost oriental. One sees, on such
occasions as these, something of the under-current of the life of
the people ; in the song, one hears, as it were, the keynotes of the
views and the faith which they have inherited. They are an emotional
people, but so reticent that one who would know what traditions they
still cherish has need of some such opportunity as this.
The scene is almost
weird. It is an evening in the early autumn. The house is long and
low, it has neither floor nor ceiling; but the walls are thick, and
the thatch, of divots, or sods of grass, fastened on with heather
ropes, is an excellent protection from cold and draught. A peat fire
burns in a hollow in the clay floor, and the smoke seeks escape
through an opening in the roof. A kettle, singing gaily, is
suspended from an iron chain, and round flat cakes, supported by
stones, are arranged in a circle about the fire. The scant furniture
of the house has been cleared to one side, and three long planks,
supported table-wise at either end, so as to slope towards the door,
occupy the open space. Chairs are scarce, but forms and boxes are
placed so as to seat the women who are to do the work of the
evening. Ten big muscular young women they are, with bare arms, and
long coarse aprons over their gowns. They take much heed to the
right height and firmness of their seats, as indeed the violent
exercise they are about to enter upon requires. The house is already
well filled with humanity, and but ill-ventilated, while two or
three smoking paraffin-lamps further subtract from the available
oxygen. Later we learn to be thankful for the additional reek of
peat and tobacco, for the climax of ill savour is not reached till
the hostess brings in the web of cloth freshly dipped in some
nauseous compound which contends with its original smell of fish and
hot sheep,—fish oil and tallow being the most fragrant of the
various dressings applied to the wool, from which the process of
fulling is to cleanse it.
Five to each side
they sit, and the dripping cloth is passed from hand to hand, while
the moisture runs down the sloping boards to the floor. The
movements of the women, at first slow, are in perfect rhythm, and,
like all co-ordinated movement in these islands, their direction is
dessil—sunwards. It is only at first that we can observe the details
of their operations, for soon the process becomes so rapid that we
can distinguish nothing but the swaying of their figures, and the
rapid thud of the cloth, keeping time to the rhythm of their song.
And what strange
singing it is! Deep-toned and monotonous, the rhythm very marked,
the thud of the wet cloth regular as the beat of a drum, the melody
seldom extending beyond five notes, each syllable having its
separate note, and no pause made from beginning to end of the song,
which is necessarily in four time. The verses are couplets, and each
is sung first by one woman alone, and then taken up by all.
The course of the web
along the board describes a series of zigzags, each woman’s movement
forming the letter V, of which she herself is the base, and each
point being marked by the loud thud of the cloth upon the board,
always in four time. At one she receives the cloth from her
neighbour on the right, leaning forward and throwing it down at
arm’s length; at two she draws herself upright and brings it down
again immediately in front of her, twisting it as she does so; at
three she passes it, again at arm’s length, to her neighbour on the
left; and at four, once more upright, she brings her hands again in
front of her, still beating time, and is thus ready for one, da
capo, for the rhythm is ceaseless.
Each song averages
about eight minutes, and is about fifty couplets in length. As each
one is finished, the women throw down the web and their arms drop.
They are exhausted and breathless, as well they may be, for to sing
and work as they do, throwing themselves violently forward so that
the cloth they are handling becomes absolutely hot in the process,
is no light work.
In a minute or two
they begin again. A “song-less” web (clo bodaich) is unlucky, and,
without any pre^arrangement, another strikes up an air. Like the
last, it is a love song, its sentiment of the most florid
description. After this we have another in which the rival merits of
two adjacent islands are discussed, and then the women, having
worked more than half-an-hour, examine the cloth. It is carefully
measured: a piece of cloth must always be finished at a sitting, and
in course of fulling it should shrink an inch to every foot of
length. The women measure on the back of the hand, occasionally
verifying their estimate on a half-yard wand—eight feet to the yard
being the Highland measurement.
“It will take three
or four songs more,” they say, and the picturesque phrase seems in
keeping with the scene about us.
While the work has
gone on, more visitors have strolled in. The hostess is moving
about, now that the cessation of work makes movement possible in the
cramped space. The dogs have clustered about the fire, relieved at
the stopping of the singing. The hens are complaining on the beams
overhead; the cat, who had climbed to the top of one of the cupboard
beds, is expressing disgust as only a cat can. With every hair of
her fur she protests against the crowd, the smell—above all, the
noise; but it is better to bear the ills she has than to run the
gauntlet of the dogs.
Now they begin again:
the women are rested, and the singing becomes more vigorous,1 the
melody is marked and rapid, the aspirates of the Gaelic breathe an
audible excitement. Four long and short syllables go to a line, and
the accent this time is very definite, and the thud of the cloth
takes on a sharper sound as the web dries. The very first couplet
reveals why the song is one which they sing with especial gusto.
Morag is the old secret name, in Gaelic, for Prince Charlie.
Morag of the flowing
It is of thy love my thoughts are full.
If over seas thou hast gone from us,
May it be soon thou wilt return.
To take with thee a band of maidens
Who will full the red cloth with vigour.
* * * * *
O! I would not let
thee to the cattle-fold,
Lest the soil should be on thy raiment.
What! is it thou should be tending the cattle?
It is for the rough lassies to do that.
Pretty is Morag, my maid,
She of the fair ringlets;
Clustering, curling, wreathing
Are the ringlets of the winsome maid.
Thy tresses are bright as the peacock’s neck;
’Twould blind nobles to see their sheen.
Four more couplets
describe their colour and luxuriance, and the song continues:
Pennant, describing a
similar scene, 1790, writes: “As by this time they grow very earnest
in their labours, the fury of the song rises; at length it arrives
to such a pitch that without breach of charity you would imagine a
troop of female demoniacs to have been assembled.” He found then, as
now, that “the subjects of the songs . . . are sometimes love,
sometimes panegyric, and often a rehearsal of the deeds of the
Far we wandered in the
land we knew,
And far in a land unknown.
I would follow thee through the world
If thou shouldst but ask it of me.
Many a lover has Morag Between Annan and Morar.
There is many a gay warrior of a Gaul
Who would not shun taking sides with Morag;
Who would go with sword and shield
Boldly to the cannon’s mouth.
Much else would he
do, this warrior, here and in Dun Edin, but above all else:
There is who would
rise with thee,
Thy own Captain Mac ic Ailein!
It is of their own
former chieftain, young Clanranald, they are boasting, and the sad
dreary present under the rule of proprietors alien in blood and
faith is forgotten, and a century and a half rolls back as their
voices ring out loud and clear :
He drew near thee ere
now before all the rest,
And again would he do it didst thou return.
Every man that is in Moidart and in Uist,
And in dark blue Arisaig of the birches;
In Canna and Eigg and Morar
Foremost were ever the men of Ailein’s race,
Spirits of terror to the Southrons
In the days of Montrose and Alasdair.
The yellow hair, worn
au naturel, recalls the familiar portraits of Prince Charlie, and
the miniatures of him seem to be before us as the women continue :
Thy eyes, kindly and
Full-round and playful, are upon me.
Many a youth took joy in thee Between Man and Orkney.
In the day of Inverlochy was it felt
Who they were that were sweeping with the blades.
In Perth and Kilsyth and Aldearn
Dead and soulless lay the rebels.
And as the song of
triumph rings out, one forgets for the moment all the sad story of
loss and failure so little looked for. The song is one of their own
bard’s, Alasdair Macdonald, and he, says Professor Blackie, was to
the ’45 what Kilmer and Arndt were to the liberation war of the
Germans in 1813. Even here and now we catch something of the warmth
which he kindled then. Morag is a part of their own story, personal
and living, and their love for him means the traditional hatred of a
Protestant succession. “In the Highlands,” says J. R. Green, with a
perception of facts one should be a Highlander to appreciate—“In the
Highlands nothing was known of English government or misgovernment:
all that the Restoration meant to a Highlander was the restoration
of the House of Argyle. . . . They were as ready to join Dundee in
fighting their old oppressors, the Campbells, and the Government
which upheld them, as they had been ready to join Montrose in the
same cause fifty years before.”
All the Highland
chiefs would muster, says the song:
Big Alasdair of
And the fierce battle of Glengarry,
As also the chiefs of Sleat,
Though he himself were but a child.
There are several
more verses descriptive of the Prince’s adherents; then the melody
changes a little —the thud, thud of the cloth becomes more rapid,
and the women more breathless and shrill, as they continue:
Ten thousand of them
sat at the fulling-table
In the wars of King Charles who lives not.
On many a cloth they raised the pile
Between Sutherland and Annan.
Others there were who fulled not for thee,
But they gathered the people in bands.
O King, good too was their handiwork,
When they came to the drawing of blades.
They too handled the cloth for you,
And stiff it was they left it.
Tight, thick, strong, woven, fulled,
Dyed red of the hue of blood.
Haste across with thy fulling-women,
And the maidens here will go with thee.
The song is finished,
and the women, exhausted, lean forward on the table. The sudden
cessation of sound and movement is almost painful. The discontented
cat shakes a disgusted paw, the dogs look hopefully towards the
door. The fulling is over, the cloth lies reeking on the table.
We are once more in
the sixty-second year of Victoria; but remembering time, we also
remember place, and the place, of all in her Majesty’s dominions, is
the island of Eriskay, where Prince Charlie first set foot in the
kingdom of his fathers.
The ceremonial is not
yet ended. Two of the women stand up and roll the cloth from
opposite ends till they meet in the middle, and then, still keeping
time, four of them fall upon the roll and proceed to pat it
violently, straightening out the creases, and those unemployed
strike up another song, this time of different metre. This finished,
one standing up calls out, “The rhymes, the rhymes!” And those who
have been working reply :
Three rhymes, four
rhymes, five and a half rhymes.
This is very
mysterious—probably the last remains of some forgotten ceremony.
Then the cloth is
unwound, and again very carefully rolled up, this time into one firm
bale, and then all rise and stand in reverent silence while the
leader of the fulling-women pronounces the quaint, old-world grace
with which their work concludes. Laying one hand on the cloth, she
Let not the Evil Eye
afflict, let not be mangled
The man about whom thou goest, for ever.
When he goes into battle or combat
The protection of the Lord be with him.
And then some man of
the party—it would not be etiquette for a woman—turns to the owner
and says with emphasis : —
May you possess it and
And the cloth is fulled.
Whisky of course
follows—the merest taste for each; but there is much drinking of
healths, with pretty formal speeches which seem to belong to other
days. The woman who has led the fulling begins. “Your own health,”
she says to her hostess, and then turning to us, she bows and adds,
“And the health of the noble ladies, and may they long remain at the
top of the Ru Ban.”
The Ru Ban—the White
Point—where stands the Presbytery in which we are guests, seems to
us for the moment a place in which to spend the rest of our lives,
where common things become dramatic, and hard labour is set to
music, and our emotions are attuned to the hopes and longings of a
century and a half ago.
Even the next morning
hardly restores the light of common day. The grey islet, treeless,
sea-worn, can look little different this September morning from what
it showed to Prince Charlie that 23rd of July, 1745 Thanks to
Lowland “sportsmen” and alien proprietors, no eagles hover over the
Long Island to-day as the king of birds hovered over the Doutelle to
welcome home his royal master; and starving refugees evicted from
other islands have perhaps added somewhat to the population of
Eriskay. Now, however, as then, one sees little on landing but bare
grey rock, rising five hundred feet in height, and sloping gently
away from the white sands which surround it. A little bay, outlined
with broken rocks, and facing north-west, is known as the Prince’s
Bay, and here one finds, still growing luxuriantly, the delicate
purple and white blossoms of the convolvulus maritimus, said to have
been planted by the Prince on landing. Some years ago one of the
Stewarts of Ensay (Harris), who claim royal descent through the
Stewarts of Garth, built a low wall for its protection, and to mark
the Prince’s landing-place, but little is left of it now. We
proposed to have a brief inscription carved upon one of the rocks,
but were begged to do nothing that might attract the tourist,—though
how the tourist is to get there, or to get food or shelter if he
does, is not easy to say.
Now, as then, a few
rough stone huts lie in a little hollow just above the bay, scarcely
distinguishable from the rocks about them, and among them still
stands the hut in which the Prince is said to have sheltered.
“Is not this Prince
Charlie’s house?” we ask of a man who stands in the doorway. He
laughs at the form of our question. “It’s mine now, in any case,” he
answers, hospitably standing aside that we may enter. It is just
like a score more within a stone’s throw, and has probably changed
little in a century and a half. An iron pot is boiling over the peat
fire in the middle of the clay floor, the roof is black with smoke,
the family beds are in cupboards concealed by dimity curtains; hens
are clucking to call attention to the eggs they have deposited in
corners; wooden trunks are ranged along the wall containing all
possessions that are not in actual use, and a bench made of a plank
supported on rocks is the most noticeable article of furniture. A
small dresser, adorned with gay crockery, speaks of relations with
the mainland, visits probably to the east-coast fishing, and is the
only article which could not have been present when Prince Charlie
stood here, coughing at the peat smoke, as we do to-day. “You must
be proud of the house in which the Prince slept,” we suggest. “Oh
ay, I’m proud of it whatever,” replies our friend.
Across a narrow
strait, about two miles to the northwest, on the opposite coast of
South Uist, stands Kilbride, the home of Boisdale, brother of
Clanranald, onq of the chiefs of the clan Macdonald, [Indeed—pace
the Macdonalds of Sleat and Macdonell of Glengarry, who also claimed
the chiefdom—the representative of the Lord of the Isles. The whole
question turns on the legality of a marriage in 1337, for which the
Pope gave dispensation, but as to which, when tired of his bargain,
the bridegroom had, like Henry VIII, scruples of conscience at his
convenience.] who were among Prince Charlie’s most faithful
adherents, although, in common prudence, they at first attempted to
dissuade him from his wild attempt. When they met, the morning after
the Prince’s arrival, Boisdale advised him to go home. “I am come
home, sir,” said the Prince, looking across these wild grey waters.
“I am persuaded that my faithful Highlanders will stand by me.” The
people of Eriskay tell that the Prince’s foot slipped as he landed
on the Kilbride shore, and that he fell on the treacherous
seaweed-covered rocks—an ill omen, it was felt, in this land of omen
We are fortunate
enough to find some still living who claim kindred with those who
served the Prince. There are descendants of one Angus, son of
Murdoch, whom history has forgotten, but Eriskay folk remember as
the man who carried the Prince ashore from the boat. In a
neighbouring island, even more remote and inaccessible than Eriskay,
we chance to find the proud descendant of a faithful adherent. The
story comes as a matter of fact from the mainland, but we listen to
it in especially appropriate surroundings, for here, in hollows and
caves, among lofty cliffs, there are still pointed out the
hiding-places of fugitives after the ’Forty-five.
Our informant is
descended on the mother’s side from the Macraes of Kintail, one of
whom, “sure to be a Gilchrist or a Farquhar by his first name,”
served as guide to the Prince at some period of his wanderings—it
may be during that unhappy time in July, 1746, after his parting
from Flora Macdonald and return to the mainland.
The Prince, with his
guide and a dog, were resting on a ledge overhanging a mountain
pass, screened from below by a projecting rock. “You may fancy it
just there,” says our friend, pointing to just such a spot on the
hill above. “Suddenly, and never a word, the man—he that was of my
kin—took the dog by the throat and laid him strangled on the ground,
dead. The Prince was sore afraid, for it seemed to him the man was
mad, till he pointed below to where the men of the red army were
passing by, just at their feet. And the Prince’s eyes filled with
Well they might! for
he, the fugitive upon whose head was set a great price, had been
long enough in the Highlands to know the tie between man and dog,
and the worth of such a sacrifice!
It is in Eriskay,
however, that we find a wonderful old woman, Mairearad Mhor—big
Margaret—so old that we could almost believe that her stories of the
last century were contemporaneous. She comes of a long-lived family,
and declares that her father’s great-great-grandfather was murdered
in the massacre of Glencoe. He was not a Macdonald, but a MacEachan
from Morar (“Morar” being in the Islands a generic term for the
mainland), and was there only by accident. “He went to see a
friend,” she says, “and he hasn’t come back yet.” Another friend who
paid a later visit came back not long since. He had stayed in the
house of some Campbells. “Why didn’t you get up in the night and
murder them?” big Margaret had asked. “Some Campbells may be
innocent,” the friend had replied—a suggestion which she offers to
us with an air of conscious tolerance.
remembered Glencoe, she tells us. When he was in Glen Corrodale, in
South Uist, he asked a man his name. “Campbell,” said he. “Oh,
confound you for a scoundrel!” said the Prince. “That was because of
Glencoe,” Margaret explains; but she has the honesty to add that the
man Campbell “ferried him about all the same.”
Margaret can speak no
word of English, and has never been farther from Eriskay than the
island of South Uist, where she was born, in a glen near to
Corrodale, at the back of Ben More, the highest point of the
mountain range of the Outer Hebrides, where the grass grows sweet,
and there is a bonnie loch, and it is sheltered from the south-west,
whence have come all floods and storms from the time of Noah, and,
such a spot, in the eyes of proprietors, was too good for any but
sheep. So Margaret and many another were evicted, and, wandering
south, took up their abode on the southern shore of the island. When
a few years of hard work had shown that even here a little grass and
corn might be raised, they were again evicted, and as there was
nothing beyond them but the sea, they crossed it and came to Eriskay.
Margaret still speaks affectionately of Corrodale. “When Prince
Charlie was there,” she tells us, “he took a drink at the delicious
spring which flows there. ‘This is the Well of the Rock of Wine' he
said. It is called that still, and,” she adds with conviction, “it
will be.” Later we found our way up to Glen Corrodale and identified
the nook in the rock where the Prince sheltered, and possibly the
well, “Tobar Creag-an-Fhiona.”
Seeing our interest
in the subject, Margaret sings us a quaint lullaby, with a refrain
about Prince Charlie, dandling an imaginary baby the while, and
beating time with her feet. The air is monotonous, but, considering
her great age, the musician is wonderfully accurate in time and
tune. We try to write down the words, but not even one or two
islanders whose aid we invoke can make much of them. Either the
sense has been lost, or they are baby-nonsense rhymes pure and
From Prince Charlie
to Flora Macdonald is not a far step, and having once lifted up her
voice, Margaret proceeds to give us a fulling song, swaying herself
backwards and forwards the while as if actually at work, beating
time with her feet, and getting terribly out of breath with her
efforts. It is quite usual, we are told, for those able to do so to
extemporize songs at a fulling (which possibly accounts for the
custom of having each couplet sung first by one woman alone), and
Margaret’s story is of a certain occasion when Flora Macdonald came
back to Uist from Skye, on a visit after her marriage. Entering a
house where a fulling was in progress, she improvised as she stood
by, watching the workers:
My father sent me to
the place of falsehood
he night that he made the marriage for me.
Is it not sad, O God, that it was not the funeral feast,
That they did not bring the red pine for me?
Margaret stops at
this point to remark, “That does not look as if she were very
happy?” and wanders off into a story of Flora Macdonald's husband—a
very fat man, she asserts. On one occasion, having to cross Ben
More, and his dimensions not being adapted for climbing, he engaged
a sedan chair, and “loud was the cursing,” says Margaret—his at the
jolting, and his bearers’ at the weight of the burden.
We recall her to the
song, and she continues. The rhythm is now somewhat changed, and
though she is perhaps describing the wanderings of the Prince, we
think it probable that some stanzas from a different song have crept
I was at Mass in the
yellow wood with thee;
I was in and I was in Uist with thee;
I was in Kildonan of the pine with thee;
I was in the land of the black nuns with thee.
After a few verses of
this kind she reverts to the original, and sings with serious air
and without any accompanying movement:
I would not give thee
to gentle Mary,
Though she should come, and her hand stretched out;
If I did I would ask thee back again.
I would not give thee to Jesus Christ.
“It was never Flora
Macdonald that composed that,” she says with an air of horror.
“There’s no knowing what creature it might be, but she was
impertinent and she was ignorant.”
The thought is too
much for her; Margaret will tell us no more to-day, though on other
days she tells us many things,—stories of fairies and enchantments,
spoils and divinations, and of what Pennant calls “the antient
We learnt to know the
island well, we photographed it a score of times, we classified its
flora, surprisingly varied in a spot so bare and bleak, learnt its
songs and its traditions, and we came to love its simple folk; but
no familiarity could banish from our minds the ever-present sense
that here were written the opening lines of some of the saddest
chapters of our country’s history.