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Outer Isles
Chapter XIV. Benbecula and North Uist


ONE may travel northward from South Uist either by land or sea, that is, one may either take one of our old friends, the Staffa or the Floicerdale, from Loch Boisdale to Loch Maddy, or drive northward from Dalibrog up to the south ford, and so across Benbecula, and over the north ford into North Uist. It is a long drive, some forty miles, and to the mere tourist a tedious one, but, to the observant, full of interest, and, in a sense, of charm, if not of beauty.

The time of day for the journey is decided by the hour at which the state of the tide will make it possible to cross the fords. The road is little more than a causeway across a mere, so innumerable and extensive are the lochs, between which we make our way. The only road in the island runs north and south, and lies on the west side on the low ground, so that the mountain range to our right is uninterrupted the whole way, Ben More, over two thousand feet high, dominating the whole ; though perhaps Hekla, in height but little less, is in outline with its volcanic-looking crest, even more impressive, and may, one fancies, have been named by some Viking jarl in memory of his home. The charm of Uist is largely that of colouring, especially in the early summer, when the grey water of the lochs is wreathed round with golden iris and blue forget-me-not, and the short grey turf is aflame with a hundred alpine flowerets. It is a land in which every touch of colour counts ; not a tree, not a bush, overshadows the detail of the landscape, there are no warm greens and browns to modify the colouring, nothing breaks the grey background of the plain till we come to the deep purples and rich blues of the mountains beyond. The hills rise steeply from their base, and the low ground at their feet has but little undulation and few interruptions. Here and there one comes to a township, the little sod-roofed huts scarcely distinguishable from rock or peat-stack; here and there a group of children are herding, and playing the while at building a shealing, or sailing a boat; but, for the most part, flocks of wandering sheep are the only evidence of life, and for miles there is no sign of human habitation, but the patches of greener grass which tell of homes laid low, and a population dispersed. With an occasional excursion from the main road we may make this drive a veritable pilgrimage in memory of Prince Charlie. Soon after leaving Loch Boisdale, we come in sight of Hekla just beyond Ben More, and in the glen between these hills we may find the cave where the royal fugitive spent so many weeks. We may fancy him coming one bleak day in May, from his first hiding-place in Benbecula, by Clanranald’s advice, and for his greater comfort and protection, to the Forest House of Glencorrodale, little more than a shealing, from whence, when his safety seemed to require it, he found shelter in the cave : so safe a place of concealment, that we had some little difficulty in lighting upon it, even though accompanied by friends who knew its whereabouts. The glen is approached by a narrow pass sacred to the memory of St. Columba, who is said to have addressed the heathen from a rock still pointed out. The scene is wild and bare, but has a grandeur and solemnity even apart from its associations. There is a loch in Glen Uisnish which, in its utter loneliness, rivals the now tourist-frequented Coruisk, and is, thank heaven, too inaccessible to tempt the wandering Sassenach. From the cave, which is somewhat elevated on the eastern front of Hekla, one can look out over a vast extent of land and sea, and one realizes the advantage of such a position for the royal exile. The glen now is utterly deserted, and only a single lonely hut remains where, when the Prince was among them, over ninety families had their home, all undoubtedly knowing that by one word to the enemy as to the whereabouts of the “ fair haired shepherd,” a man might enrich himself beyond the wealth of all the clan. Have we in these days, anywhere, a village, where man, woman, and child, with no promise binding them, in face of a reward of £30,000, could be absolutely depended upon for such fidelity as this? The Uist bard, MacCodrum, contemporary with Prince Charlie, knew the people among whom he dwelt—

“They were lofty in spirit and noble in mien,
A statelier race never trod on the green;
And they showed to the foe not the face of a child,
In the breast of the storm when the war-cry was wild.

“O they were manful and mighty of mood,
Nor shrunk like a woman, from tasting of blood ;
They were modest and gentle, but bold in the fray,
And though proud to command, they were prompt to obey.”

Returning to the high road, and on the further side of it, we may visit the remains of the cottage of Airidh Mhuillin (pronounce Aryvoolin), “the shealing of the mill,” once a thatched hut of three rooms, where Flora Macdonald was brought up, and where Professor Blackie, it is said, when a white-haired old man, stooped down and kissed the threshold. It is a matter of psychological interest that strikes one the more in face of the grim grey life of today in South Uist, that it was from a cottage in this island that a gentle girl stepped out to become one of the greatest heroines in history, braving not only a situation in itself embarrassing to one of her modesty and upbringing, but one which endangered the life and fortune of herself and her friends. Looking around here, west to the Atlantic, eastward to the mountains, in the immediate distance, only the dreary hills of Arneval, Sheval, Reneval, and Askervin, one realizes the more the innate greatness of the Highland character, and its independence of those things upon which convention and tradition have taught us to lean for guidance.

Some five miles away, are the ruins of Ormiclete, once the seat of the Clanranalds. When Allan, the chief, died for his master on Sheriffmuir, and the old home at Ormiclete was burnt down, the family removed to Nunton in Benbecula, where they remained till the islands passed away from the clan, and even from the Highland race.

With hearts saddened by memories such as these, and by the ever-present sight of poverty and desolation, we continue our drive northward, past the comfortable homes of factor and absentee proprietor, past the tree, but for the most part with only bare grey grass and sullen grey water on either side the road, and with what Mr. Jolly, who has given us so sympathetic a sketch of Flora Macdonald, has well called “an inextricable confusion of mountain and moor, sea and lake beyond; with the bleating of sheep for sole sign of life, varied by the cry of coot or seagull, like some lone spirit crushed by fate.”

As an old writer expresses it, the lakes in this district “perplex the view, and defy enumeration.” The total lakes in the Long Island from the Butt of Lewis to Barra Head are estimated at one thousand five hundred, covering a superficial extent of 50,000 acres, of which the greater portion must lie in just that district which we are traversing today.

It is curious, in remembrance of the scene as it is now, to read the description of the same district in the Agricultural Survey of 1811, which describes this low-lying country as producing “ crops of barley, oats, rye and potatoes, or of natural grass and wild clover, far beyond what a stranger would expect. They assume a variegated and beautiful dress, scarcely yielding in colours or perfume to agy fields in the kingdom; and being of great extent, they afford a prospect of riches and plenty equalled by no other of the Western Isles.

The lakes, with their verdant banks mid ruinous forts, surrounded by hamlets and covered with wild fowl, yield a pleasant picture."

At last we reach the south ford, and if we have timed ourselves well, we cross it without difficulty. The horses are used to it, and make no objection to their work, even when—in places—they feel severely the weight of the carriage as it sinks into deep sand, or is retarded by heavy shingle. Some serious accidents have occurred, and almost any one in the district can describe personal adventures in the fords, not wholly encouraging to the stranger; but after nearly a mile of effort and patience, we reach the other side, and the little inn of Creagorry, where, all things considered, it is as well to stay the night; one is sure of the society of one or two sportsmen, and of the good dinner of fish and birds which their presence—at the right time of year—ensures. I remember, however, once arriving there alone at a somewhat late hour, to find that no accommodation beyond a meal was to be had. I was directed elsewhere in search of a lodging, but found so large a hole in the floor of the room overhead as to promise a somewhat insufficient degree of privacy, and so, as not infrequently happened in our adventures, I presumed upon Highland hospitality, and found a kind welcome and hospitable entertainment in the Presbytery, with a ready pardon for a late and unexpected arrival. I have grateful recollections of pleasant entertainment, both in manse and presbytery, in this island of Benbecula, and of glimpses at different times, of certain comfortable and home-like interiors, which have left us with associations of ready hospi-# tality, and a capacity for triumphing over the material difficulties of life, which we had not seen equalled unless in the more genial atmosphere of Tyree. The islanders have a saying about

The vain Benbecula man,
The impudent Barra man,
The Barra wag,
The Benbecula snob.

If, as from certain indications of the state of public opinion seems not unlikely, the vanity and snobbery of the Benbecula people consists in a greater care of their homes and a regard for the bien stances of life, they fully deserve the characterization, for there is a marked difference between the general appearance of this island and of those of Barra and South Uist, although, as they are on the same estate, they have much the same difficulties to contend with. Whatever the cause, there is not, even about the obvious poverty, the same look of hopelessness as in South Uist. The district is smaller, and the people are near neighbours to the happier island of North Uist; it has, moreover, the appearance, at all events, of being healthier and more productive. In Benbecula, as elsewhere on this estate, there are remains at best neglected, often wantonly destroyed, of buildings of intense interest to the archaeologist. Here and there a native will show us a few stones, within his recollection a fine dun now destroyed for the erection of some farm dyke; will point out the spot where a stone coffin or cinerary urn has been unearthed, though no one knows what has become of it, or will remind us that the modern and ugly farmhouse at Nunton, built for the convenience of the proprietor, was erected on the site and with some of the material of probably one of the oldest religious houses in Scotland. Another nunnery also existed on the islands of Heisgar (also called Monach), the nearest land to St. Kilda, where, when the night falls, the lighthouse will send forth its warning ray just where long ago the pious women sent forth holy prayers for the safety of the wandering mariner in that boundless Atlantic sea. “There were nunneries here in the time of Popery,” says Martin. It is still the time of Popery to some extent in Benbecula, though there is a larger proportion of Presbyterians both of the new and old variety than in either South Uist or Barra. In Eriskay and most of the smaller islands there are no Protestants at all. At Baile Mhanaich is another neglected monument of antiquity in the remains of an ecclesiastical building of unusual size, some fifty-seven feet long, with a window at either end and the traces of a chapel within a few yards. Martin adds, “I remember I have seen an old lay Capuchin here, called in the language Brahir bocht, poor brother, which is literally true, for he answers this character, having nothing but what is given him.” It is said that he dressed like his Order, but with a plaid about him, that he lived in great poverty and humility, speaking only when addressed.

The name Benbecula means “hill of the fords” from the hill of Rueval, which stands in the middle of the island, between the two fords, and near this hill was another of Prince Charlie’s hiding-places, where he lived for some time in a bothy, the doorway of which was so low that his followers scooped away the threshold to admit of more convenient entrance. There he was visited by Clanranald from Nunton, bringing wines, provision, shoes, stockings and some shirts made by Lady Clanranald, that which the Prince was wearing being, said his follower, 'Douglas Graham, “as dingy as a dish-clout.” According to some, the first meeting between Flora Macdonald and the Prince was at this, or probably some other hut in Benbecula, though others believe it to have been near a boulder beside her own home at Airidh Mhuillin. Be that as it may, it was from Benbecula that the memorable expedition to Skye started on Saturday, June 28. The small shallop which should convey the Prince had been made ready, and the Prince and his attendants descended to the shore in the forenoon, after hearing that one large search party had arrived in Benbecula, and another at Ormiclete. It is only here, on the spot, with the bare hills and the bare sea at either side, and the open shelterless country all around, that one can fully realize the scene: the Prince in his flowered linen gown—treasured fragments of which are still to be found in certain Highland homes—his light-coloured quilted petticoat, white apron and mantle of dun camlet, made after the Irish fashion with a hood; here in the pelting rain they found shelter and warmth by lighting a fire beneath a rock, an experience we have ourselves tried and of which we know the difficulty. It was on the south ford, which we have just crossed, that Flora Macdonald and her servant, having no passport, were made prisoners by a party of militia. As, by a strange coincidence, their commander, absent at the moment, was her own stepfather, she preferred to remain in the guardhouse rather than be put through any catechism as to her movements, and when he (Macdonald of Armadale) arrived, she was speedily released, provided with passports, and furnished with a letter recommending the services of the Irish girl, Betty Burke (the Prince himself), as able to spin and sew, to his wife, who, like every housekeeper since civilization began, was, at the moment, in need of a servant.

Resuming our road, we are soon at the North Ford. It is about sunset, as that is usually a convenient time for crossing, and this ford, being considerably wider than the other, is the one especially to be considered.

I remember arriving here once at somewhat too early an hour, and though by dint of putting our feet and possessions on to the seat of the carriage, we advanced for a mile or so, we had then to wait for au hour before it was safe to proceed, and so had a grand opportunity for beholding the great pageant of sunset under conditions new even in our varied experience of nature’s grandest effects in the Outer Hebrides. What I think impressed one most was the power of nature, not in her supreme, but in her quiet moments. All around us were the waters of the same Atlantic ocean which, not far off, was raging and hurling itself with its wonted might, but here silently ebbing and clearing a pathway for us mere human# things whom a single wave could destroy, and who yet sat there undisturbed, confident in the reign of law. The expanse of land at our feet, the sobbing waters, the glittering pools, the rocks reaching out above the retreating tide, were glorified with a thousand hues. The islands of Grimisay and Ronay to the east, and of Baleshare to the west gleamed like jewels in the lap of earth, and away on the horizon the mighty sun, father of all this glory, was slowly, slowly sinking into the ocean, again obedient to the reign of law. There was no obtrusive sign of power, no immensity of effect, but only silence and the setting sun brooding upon a watery waste, while from the distance came the low ceaseless sea-sound which in these Islands is about us night and day. It was the magic of law, the silent law of nature and of God.

When we reach the other side the twilight has fallen, that long soft twilight of the Outer Hebrides of which one never ceases to feel the wonder and the charm. The Heisger light shines out, and our companion points to the whereabouts of St. Kilda beyond, on the northwest.

We are now in North Uist, but the glamour of the southern island is still upon us. There is still the same “inextricable confusion of mountain and moor, sea and lake ; ” there are a few lonely wayside townships, now and then a home-returning shepherd, as we drive on and the darkness gathers. Presently we reach the top of a steep hill, and looking down we perceive such a cluster of lights as betokens a population such as we have not yet seen collected in the Outer Hebrides, and which, except at Stornoway, wo shall not see again. Loch Maddy is at our feet, and we are soon at the door of the comfortable hotel, where we find a four-course dinner, a varied wine list, sea-water baths, and fellow-guests speaking the English of the Court of King Edward VII.

It is all very comfortable, but we find a large addition to our cares in the fact that we have “come up” with our luggage and our letters.

The little cluster of suburban villas look as if they had strayed from the outskirts of Glasgow, and had never had the heart to settle themselves comfortably, so forlornly are they set down anyhow and anywhere, with no relation to each other nor to the general scheme of things—if scheme exists. But they are comfortable and well-to-do of their kind, and however much one may resent their intrusion they have their raison detre, for is not Loch Maddy the capital of the Inverness-shire portion of the Long Island, the abode of officialdom, the whereabouts of Courthouse, and bank, and prison, and police station, and poorhouse, and various of those necessities of life we have been so glad to forget, and have for so long dispensed with ? In Loch Maddy there are pianos, and drawing-rooms, and afternoon tea, and people call upon one, and leave cards, and take photographs, and read newspapers, and are kind and friendly, and a wholesome reminder of some of the duties and pleasures of normal life.

The English and lowland Scots, for whom the hotel exists, have come to fish, and we eat fish, which is very good, and talk of fish, which, with limitations, is very pleasant at every meal, and then we go out in the hall and weigh fish, and then adjourn and look at the map of the district and discuss to-morrow’s fish, for it is a subject which for the fisherman never palls, and as a rule he has no other. For him the Hebrides means Loch Maddy, with a possible diversion to Loch Boisdale, for he knows nothing, and would care less, for Celtic charm, and Island glamour.

The only exhibition of officialism which attracts us is the poorhouse, and, comparatively fresh as we are to certain aspects of civilization, we come to it with vision somewhat assimilated to that of its unhappy inmates. It is far less cheerful than the prison, infinitely more official than the Courthouse ; from the point of view of the desire to make pauperism costly to the public and a terror to its victims, it is a triumph of achievement. This is, however, from no lack of kindness in those whose immediate concern it is to care for the inmates, but the mere result of the utter inability of the official mind to adapt itself to special conditions. The building, in all its gaunt dreariness, with its long wards, bare “day rooms,” draughty passages, its extensive powers of accommodation, might fairly meet the requirements of a Board anxious to discourage the drunken, the idle, the ne’er-do-well of some average mainland town ; but to set down such a place on a remote island, to house three or four old men and women in the last stages of senile decay, who want nothing but a warm shelter and the simple food they are accustomed to, until some sailor son or some daughter at service on the mainland shall return to care for them, or, at worst, till death, not very remote, shall release them from the weariness of living, is brutality to an industrious population, and an imposition upon a rate-paying public. I have seen two old men, bent and blear-eyed, searching the scrap of enclosed land for the precious silverweed as a substitute for tobacco, or an old woman sitting solitary at one end of thirty feet of bare day-room trying to extract a breath of warmth from a fire which would have been kindly enough in the ten feet of space in which her indoor life has hitherto been passed, but which is wholly inadequate to illumine or console in such a wilderness as this ; and the islander, whose first instinct is for warmth, is no better adapted for chilly space than a cat for draughts. A somewhat pleasanter recollection is of Widow Orr, said to be over 104 years of age, alone and in a preposterously large room it is true, but as well warmed and cared for as the kindness of the good Master and Mistress could desire, and who, even on a sunny June day, was indulged with a hot water bag to her aching spine; complaining of nothing, wanting nothing but a little snuff, which was soon supplied; talking brightly of far-off days when she was in service at Glasgow, or when her husband was living, or when her children were with her ; desiring nothing but, with true Highland pride, that those who had known her then, should not hear of her whereabouts now. Many kind friends she has in Loch Maddy, friends who will do their utmost for her and for others, but the institution as such, remains, a monument of human stupidity and lack of imagination.

One anomaly which strikes one accustomed to more careful religious organization than one meets with in Presbyterian islands, is that here, the centre of the educated population of the district, with an hotel well-filled for several months in the year, there should be no provision made for religious teaching of any kind except a tiny Free Kirk and the occasional visit of an Established minister whose Church, (a quoad sacra that is a small chapel of ease) is in a remote spot, distant some six or eight miles from the high road; and that the parent Church, one of the most presentable buildings in the Long Island, should be sixteen miles away on the west side.

A good road encircles the island of North Uist, and indeed there is very fair provision made for all the ordinary requirements of life. The new proprietor, a son of the original purchaser, has at least carried into effect, without any of the “prolonged negotiations” which have elsewhere accompanied enforced reform, the recommendations of the Crofter Commission as to new townships and township roads. Sir Arthur Orde has been absent in the service of his country, but there seems every prospect that his relations with his people will be those of mutual kindness and good feeling.

The island from time immemorial has belonged to the Lords Macdonald ; and, like all the proprietors, they suffered, and the island suffered, from the depreciation of kelp, following on to the losses of the ’15 and the '45. Here, as elsewhere, were evictions, but no tragedy of depopulation to compare with that of South Uist. In the Old Statistical Account (1755, etc.) we read of an industrious and prosperous people, of two hundred ploughs, and forty-two women weavers in the island ; of a surgeon, a merchant, and a schoolmaster; of sloops of thirty and seventy tons, both built in the parish ; of luxuriant crops of barley, and rich pasture of white and red clover.

Then came the kelp harvest, and we hear of twelve hundred tons of kelp being annually made, four hundred being negotiated by various tacksmen. We read that the rents which in 1763 were £1,200, rose, till in 1794 they reached £2,100, besides the profit on the kelp. Then came here, as everywhere, the reaction, but thanks to the kindly Highland proprietor, though himself heavily in debt, the time of poverty was late in reaching the people. The New Statistical Account (1841) tells of weavers, and tailors, and boat carpenters, and millers, and smiths, of abundance of cockle shells used for lime and in extracting soda from kelp, of the value of the bent grass in domestic manufactures and in suppressing the sand drift, of tormentil used for bark in preparing leather, of the edible laver found on the rocks—all evidence of the utilization of the resources of the island. We learn, however, that “at present (1841) it is notorious that there are no less than 390 families not paying rents, but living chiefly on the produce of small spots of potato ground given them by some of their neighbours and relatives. Subdivisions of this kind, from the purest motives of humanity, will and must take place. To force the people away has been entirely repugnant to the humane feelings of the noble proprietor.”

In spite of overwhelming debt, amounting, it is said, to £200,000, we hear little of eviction till 1849 (eight years after the horrors of the depopulation of the Gordon estate), and even then only under the extreme pressure of the chiefs own personal poverty, and to his avowed bitter regret. (See Macleod’s Gloomy Memories). Even then he struggled on for six years more, before dire necessity compelled him to sell the island, in 1855, to Sir John Campbell Orde. The later eccentricities of the new proprietor, and consequent serious misunderstandings with some of his people, were long kept in check by the skill, kindness and wise administration of his factor, whose name is still mentioned with respect and affection, Mr. John Macdonald, tacksman of Newton, a farm at the north end of the island, now occupied— occasionally—by the proprietor himself.

The island is about thirty miles long, and from eight to fourteen wide. The hills, which are not so higli as those further south, are, however, beautiful in outline and in position, and are divided and intersected, not by ravines and rivulets, but by inlets of the sea, so that quite far inland one is surprised by the phenomenon of salt-water lochs (with, of course, the usual tidal changes) producing unexpected effects in the heart of the hills.

The traces of Scandinavian occupation are here especially abundant in the shape of barps and barrows; some twenty duns are commonly known, and probably Mr. Beveridge in his forthcoming book will tell us of more. There are several examples of the mysterious “druid circles,” so called, and the almost equally mysterious little places of defence, generally placed upon hills, and more or less in line with each other. Martin, with his usual tendency to accept evidence of any kind that offers, explains certain Standing-stones on the hills above Loch Maddy as being there “to amxise invaders, for which reason they are called ‘false sentinels.’” It is said that there are still in the burial ground of Kilmory, the site of a chapel which has long disappeared, the remains of two cruciform pillars such as exist in various places in the Islands, with which Martin connects another curious tradition. “The ancient inhabitants,” he says, “had a custom of erecting this sort of cross to procure rain, and when they had got enough they laid it flat on the ground.” From what one knows of the North Uist climate, it seems probable that those crosses seldom attained the perpendicular.

Similar crosses are said to exist on the island of Valay, also certain ecclesiastical remains, an underground dwelling, and some relics of Scandinavian occupation ; and as if these remnants of the past were not sufficiently varied, there is even the flat stone upon which the ancient inhabitants every Sunday moi'ning— note the anomaly—poured a cow’s milk as a libation to Brownie. [It is seldom that one can feel any satisfaction on hearing of Highland projwrty passing into the handsof aLowlander, but it is with cordial pleasure and a strong sense of the fitness of things, that we note that this island has just been purchased by Mr. Urskine Beveridge.]

On the island of Rona, to return to the south end of North Uist, are the remains of a chapel and burial ground known as the Lowlanders' Chapel, because in former days strange seamen who died when fishing in the waters of Loch Eport were buried there. We could not help being reminded of the little colony of lowland and English dead lying in the Soraby churchyard on Tyree.

Loch Maddy takesitsname from thetnaddies,or “dogs,” two basaltic rocks curiously different in substance and outline from anything in the district, and which stand prominently at the entrance of the harbour, adding alike to its picturesqueness and its danger. Martin gives another derivation, and says the rocks are so called “ from the great quantity of big mussels, called maddies, that grows upon them.”

It is with no ingratitude for its hospitalities that one rejoices to leave Loch Maddy, which one may do by either end of the road which encircles the island. Choosing that which goes northward, we find many points of interest on the way, from the romance of a fairy Knowe, past which the wayfarer hastens after sunset, to the grim historical suggestiveness of a Scandinavian fort, a dun in very good preservation, though the characteristic “sounding stone,” which gave warning on the approach of strangers, is missing from the causeway which, after a thousand years or so, still bears us safely across the loch. Not far away is a well of delicious water, slightly ferruginous, which one fancies may have been an inducement to the hardy warriors to settle near by.

All the way along we note, at intervals, the remains of “rigs,” now only heather and coarse grass, telling of a time when the land was under cultivation, and a forgotten population made their home where to-day all is solitude and silence. By-and-by, turning aside from the main road, some six miles after leaving Loch Maddy, we come to Trumisgarry, where a farm or two and a few scattered huts, are all that remain to account for the existence here, rather than elsewhere, of the Church and the little manse beside it. Half a mile further, on a low hillside, we come suddenly upon one of those unenclosed burial grounds, which one feels to be the more sacred that it makes no appeal to conventional sanctities ; but which seem to be in a special sense the restiny-race of those who once lived and worked in sight of the same wild sea, and beneath the same grey sky. It is so lonely that we come across a covey of baby plovers trying their first strength in the long grass, with 110 thought of possible invasion, so rare is the advent of human visitant, and too young and inexperienced to attempt to escape, or to shrink from the attentions which the anxious mother views with apprehension and distress. The hill rises between an open plain and the sea, and the summer sunshine has covered it with a mantle of countless flowers of richest hue and liberal abundance; but the same exposure which brings a wealth of sunshine, brings also the violence of winter winds, and the heavier gravestones stand each in a cage, “shored up,” back and front, to secure them from the Atlantic storms which sweep, without break, over hill and plain, levelling everything in their path.

As we came along we noted a little cairn in the heather telling of a drover returning with sheep from Loch Maddy, who, exhausted by the battle with the pitiless storm, lay down and perished by the roadside. From the minister, too, we hear of many a winter’s day, when, abroad on parochial duty, he is so blinded by the storm that he cannot see the head of the horse he is riding, and the combined instinct of man and beast barely suffice to keep them in the road.

Proceeding further along the island one comes to the less conventionalized district of the west coast. Here, in the little village of Houghgary, in one of the neglected and forsaken churchyards one so often meets with near the remains of some Columban Church, lies MacCodrum, the bard of North Uist, and an important contributor to the evidence in favour of the genuineness of Macpherson’s Ossian. His grave is covered with a rough slab of gneiss, without inscription, which the poet himself picked up on the shore, desiring that it should be used to mark his burying-place.

But even the memory of MacCodrum, even the sight of the wild swans which frequent the lochs, or the glimpse of the red deer in the hills, cannot redeem North Uist from being the least individualized of all the Islands. One cannot wholly escape from the taint of Loch Maddy. The moment the islander ceases to be himself, his charm has gone; as an imitation mainlander, still more a low-lander, he is a poor creature. Buchanan puts this forcibly when he says, “ The farther one recedes from the seaports, from the large farms of the wealthy tacksmen, from the domain of the shopkeeper and the

schoolmaster, the brighter do the souls of the cottars grow, the opener their hands, the purer their morals, and the happier their homes. Whenever the great dr little Sassenach comes, he loaves a dirty trail like the slime of a snake. He it is who abuses the people for their laziness, points sneeringly at their poor houses, spits scorn on their wretchedly cultivated scraps of land; and he it is who, introducing the noble goad of greed, turns the ragged domestic virtues into well-dressed prostitutes, heartless and eager for hire.” (The Hebrid Isles, p. 195.)

Strong language this, my countrymen, but we have heard it elsewhere ; among the decaying races of North America, among the Europeanized peoples of India, the gin-sodden tribes of Western Africa, the disappearing natives of Australasia ! No one is more adaptable than the Highlander, and all over the world we find him in positions of responsibility and trust, perfectly at home in changed surroundings, and yet preserving his independence of character and bearing. It is when he is put upon the defensive, when he and his are misunderstood, undervalued, that the worst in him is called out; the indifference which leads to that idleness and drunkenness which the Lowlander associates but too often with the Highland gillie, or the suspiciousness and resentfulness which leads Buchanan to say elsewhere: “Walk from one end of the Uists to the other and you will not meet a smiling face.” The remark certainly does not apply to North Uist, and is not indeed wholly true of the sister island, for in both we have seen much fun, and life, and humour, though they are not displayed in the presence of the stranger and the indifferent.

It is now, as it was a hundred and fifty years ago, when Burt wrote (op. cit. Letter xlii): “It is almost peculiar to these people that the greatest beauties in their character have commonly been considered as blemishes. Among these, the most prominent are family pride, the love of kindred, even to the exclusion of justice, and attachment to a country which seems to have so few charms to the inhabitants of more favoured regions.”

Still much is left in the remoter parts of North Uist. I cannot forget a certain occasion, when—leaving a breakfast table at which the talk had been of the imposition, the overcharging, the idleness, the greed, with which “the inhabitants of more favoured regions” considered that they had to contend in these districts— we made our way in a few hours to others some dozen miles more remote. For a whole day we trespassed on the leisure and enjoyed the hospitality of certain kind friends, strangers until that day, working people, fighting the battle of life honestly and well. As we were leaving I said to my companion, “Now you shall see something you never saw before.” “Not unlikely— here,” my friend replied. “Unlikely this, anywhere,” I persisted. “You shall see a schoolboy refuse a tip” The tip was of a nature which would have been promptly accepted at Eton or Harrow, but my young friend, who had probably never spent half-a-crown for himself in his life, barely glanced at the fnore attractive coin, put his hands behind his back, and firmly declined to accept it. When we explained that we should consider his doing so a favour to ourselves, that we desired him to exchange it for something that would keep us in remembrance, his innate courtesy came to our rescue, and he accepted the position from our own point of view.


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