Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed.
Glenora Single Malt Whisky

Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.
Scottish Review

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

Outer Isles
Chapter XV. Lewis


THE island of Lewis, another peat bog in the Atlantic, contains a great deal that is of interest. According to Martin, one should find the traces of sixteen of such Churches as we have heard of in Tyree ; its Druidical stones are among the most famous in history and are part of the setting of William Black’s story, The Princess of Thule, (incomparably his best picture of Highland life. It contains the largest and most flourishing town of the Outer Hebrides, and some of its wildest and most savage scenery; here one may see the highest prosperity, possibly, of which these Islands are capable, and some of the most sordid, savage poverty. It is, as the people themselves say, in parts, “ the farthest back ” of all the Islands. The trail of the Sassenach is over it, and the Highlander inevitably deteriorates under the influence of the lowland sportsman. He loses all his characteristic attributes; he puts out his hand, not as elsewhere, for a friendly shake, which one soon learns never to omit, but to take a “tip.” Other islanders know the English for "you are welcome,”—the Gillie learns to say “I should like to drink your health.” He leaves his croft to take care of itself, and hangs about the hotel doors, waiting for a job. Although geographically more remote than other islands already described, the island of Lewis and Harris (for physically they are one) is more easily accessible, as the visitor for shooting or fishing can do the greater part of his journey by train; and even if he choose the longer sea journey, he may take the Claymore or the Clansman, which, for MacBrayne, are really luxurious, and make the journey from Oban in (nominally) thirty-six hours.

The sport is said to be good, and probably the shooting lodges which the proprietor has scattered about the island have been an excellent investment, and give a great deal of pleasure to the English sportsman, only, for some of us, they have spoilt the island, just as the Glasgow excursionist has spoilt St. Kilda.

Moreover, the Lews is a Free Kirk island. I have left this fact to the last, but even at the risk of being suspected of religious prejudice, the statement must be added to the list of drawbacks. From the religious point of view I have nothing to say against the Free Church, to which belong many of my most valued friends. I have never really grasped the varieties of Presbyterianism, except that “the New Presbyterian eats hot roast beef on a Sunday, and the Old Presbyterian eats cold roast beef on the Sabbath” ; and now that the Free Church has amalgamated with the United Presbyterians, there is one variety the less to take account of. My quarrel with Free Churchmen is purely intellectual, and solely from the point of view of the anthropologist and the antiquarian. They are the enemies of romance and of the beautiful. They have banished the bagpipes and the violin. They forbid dancing and merry-making; they have dried up the springs of the Ceilidh, and have denounced the recital of the deeds of the Lachlin men, and the traditions of witchcraft and second-sight. They are the apostles of the common-place, excellent in its way, but having, by rights, neither part nor lot in the Outer Isles!

Mr. Anderson Smith, in his Lewisiana, the only modern book of interest about this island, tells a story of a lame boy at Shawbost who “had bought a fiddle to solace himself during the long winter evenings, but the Elders forced him to dispose of it, and not a man now plays anything but a Jews’ harp among the natives of the west. Everything that dark superstition and a severe creed can do has been done to oppress the minds of the people; but Celtic blood will show.”

That is the only consolation. Nature and temperament will have their way, and we hear on excellent authority that when the Minister and Elders remove themselves from the scene of a wedding, it is no uncommon thing for the guests to hang plaids over door and window to deaden sound, and screen the festive lights, and (taking turns to watch outside) to draw the fiddle from its hiding-place (probably too the whisky bottle), and clearing the house for a dance, to “play at” bringing back the old times when, under a more genial faith, the world was young and hearts were merry. Even the weekly recurrence of the Free Church Sunday cannot but have a depressing effect upon the lives of the people. Everywhere, and among all creeds, Sunday in the Highlands is kept with reverence and Godly fear, [The observance of Sunday is an old and very strict tradition of the Church, and there are many rhymes and stories of supernatural appearances to those breaking the Sabbath. There is an old rhyme known as the “Lay of Sunday,” of which Father Allan has collected some fragments.

O bright God,
Give truth and strength to help the Christian;
Sunday was born Mary,
Mother of God, with gold-yellow hair;
Sunday was born Christ For honour to us;
Sunday, the seventh day,
Ordained of Christ for each,
To preserve life only
That all should take their breath,
Taking no work from ox or man.]

but the sacred festival is here degraded by superstition into a day of starvation for soul and spirit. We happened to be at Stornoway last June when a week of rough weather had driven away many of the east-coast fishing boats, after which followed a calm and beautiful Sunday. A fellow-guest in our comfortable quarters at the Royal Hotel Mary ordained that it should be

Without spinning of thread, silk or wool,
Without cleaning of house, without reaping,
Without kiln, without mill,
Without rowing, without fishing,
Without hastening to the hunt,
Or whittling with pegs.
Whoever would keep Sunday,
Twere smooth and lasting for him,
From the sundown of Saturday
Till the rising of Monday;
He would have value, therefor;
There would be fruitfulness after the plough,
And fish in the river, newly run from the sea.
The water of Sunday, warm as honey:
Whoever shall drink it as a draught
Will get healing without harm
From every illness that may be upon him.
The wailing of Sunday, let it be brief,
[The reference is evidently to hired mourners,]
Not raising it in an unseemly hour;
Let us rather wail early on Monday,
And wail not at all on Sunday.
[The next lines are very obscure and are omitted.]
Not listening to the babbling of strangers,
Nor to common, idle talk,
Lawful is it to guard the crops on a high hill,
To fetch a leach for a violent ailment,
To lead a cow to a strong bull,
Far on near though the way may be;
And to let a boat sail under canvas
To the land of its home from strange parts.
Whoever remembers my lay
Let him recite it each Monday night,
That the blessing of Michael may be upon him,
And that he may never see hell.

reported at breakfast that he had innocently observed to one of the fishermen to whom the past week had brought serious loss, “We want some days like this for the fishing,” and had promptly received the reproof, “Is this a day to be talking about days?” Norman Macleod, in his Reminiscences of a Highland Parish, a matchless epic of Highland life, gives a very different picture of the spirit of the manse of the Established Church. “One cottager could play the bagpipe, another the fiddle. The Minister was an excellent performer on the latter, and to have his children dancing in the evening was his delight. If strangers were present, so much the better. He had not an atom of that proud fanaticism which connects religion with suffering, as suffering, apart from its cause . .. A minister in a remote island parish once informed me that 4 on religious grounds,* he had broken the only fiddle in the island! His notion of religion, I fear, is not rare among his brethren in the far west and north. We are informed by Mr. Campbell, in his admirable volumes on The Tales of the Highlands, that the old songs and tales are also being put under the clerical ban in some districts, as being too secular and profane for the pious inhabitants. What next? are the singing-birds to be shot by the kirk sessions?”

Without going so far as to endorse the account given of the Free Church in the Highlands by William Black, who had seen something of life in the Lews (In Far Lochaber, chap. iii.), one cannot but feel the intense contrast between this island and all the rest of the Outer Hebrides, where the Roman Catholic Church or the Established Church of Scotland still allow the liberty of the subject.

The depression of the Lewis people is intellectual rather than physical, and all the greater because, as will be shown, they are an intelligent race, with the Tyree thirst for education. In spite of much apparent poverty, probably more apparent than real, and chiefly shown in disorder and want of cleanliness in their homes, the Lewis people have no such record of suffering and injustice as those of South Uist and Barra,

The island has, of course, had its vicissitudes, but on the whole the proprietors have been for long well spoken of. In a Description of Lewis by an Indtceller there, 1673, we read that it is “a fertile soyl for bean and oats,” “plentiful in all sorts of cattle, such as kyne, sheep, goat, horse.^ It is also plentiful of all sorts of wyld foul, such as wilde goose, duck, drake, whape, pliver, murefoul, and the lyke. It is also served with a most plentiful forest of deir.... But of all the properties of the countrie, the great trade of fishing is not the least, wherein it exceeds anie countrie in Scotland for herine, cod, ling, salmon, and all other sorts of smaller fishes.”

Moreover, “the Earl of Seaforth established a school where the gentlemen’s sons and daughters are bred to the great good and comfort of that people, so that there are few families but at least the maister can read and write. I do remember in my own time that there was not three in all the countrie that knew A B by a Bible.”

At a later period we read in the Old Statistical Account, 1797: “Seaforth Lodge is now the abode of Col. Francis Humberstone Mackenzie, who with his lady took pleasure in directing and superintending their people to habits of industry and happiness, until he was called away at the commencement of the present war to serve his King and country, by raising two battalions of infantry for Government.”

The lady in question established spinning schools in various parts of the island, and receives an amusing contemporary tribute:

“The memory of the haughty, and of course the cruel-hearted daughters of dissipation, shall be utterly forgotten, or if mentioned, shall be mentioned with abhorrence; whilst that of the generous, whose kind efforts are well directed for the permanent good of mankind, shall be blessed on the earth for many succeeding ages.”

Times change and we with them. This guileless author did not foresee the time when “philanthropy” would be a recognized method of whitewashing “the haughty daughters of dissipation,” and a valuable advertisement for those anxious to get into society!

It will be remembered that in the days of the oppression of the tacksman, Seaforth alone allowed no subtenant, but dealt direct with every one on his estate. Moreover, “Mr. Mackenzie of Seaforth gives every head of a family one guinea to encourage them to remove [from miserable huts on the north side to better ones east on the shore]. He gives those poor people twenty years’ lease of their dwelling-places, to each of which a small garden is joined, and they pay three Scotch merks yearly for every such house-room and garden. He gives them full liberty to cultivate as much as they can of a neighbouring moor, and exacts no rent for seven years for such parts thereof as they bring into culture.”

The title of the Seaforth family, forfeited after the ’45, was restored to the laird of whom we are speaking in 1797, and he became the sixth and last Earl of Seaforth.

The story of the forfeiture of the family property in Lewis and elsewhere, is too romantic to be passed over, and is perhaps the more interesting as forming part of the history of an island in which romance, and especially the romance of second-sight, is no longer tolerated.

The name of Coinneach Odhar, known as the “Brahan Seer,” should not be omitted in any account of Lewis, if. only because the real place of his birth seems likely to be forgotten on account of his more familiar association with Brahan, the seat of the family of Seaforth, to whom so many of his predictions refer, and who, as proprietors of Lewis, had very naturally a special claim upon the interest and attention of one who was brought up on their estates, and belonged to their clan.

Kenneth Mackenzie, better known as Coinneach Odhar, was born at Baile na Cille, in the parish of Uig, a remote spot on the edge of the Atlantic, where he remained till he was grown up, when he went to work as a farm labourer, near Loch Ussie on the Brahan estate in Ross-shire.

There are various wild stories as to the occasion, when, a lad in his teens, he acquired the power of divination, all centred round the possession of a certain stone of miraculous origin. That narrated by Hugh Miller in his Scenes and Legends in the North of Scotland is the most commonly quoted, and refers the gift to a period after he had left the island of Lewis, when, on awaking from sleep upon a fairy hillock, he found upon his person “a beautiful smooth stone resembling a pearl, but much larger”; according to other versions, the stone was blue and had a hole through its centre.

“He is,” says Alexander Mackenzie in "The Prophecies of the Brahan Seer, “beyond comparison the most distinguished of all the Highland Seers, and his prophecies have been known throughout all the country for more than two centuries. The popular faith in them has been, and still continues to be, strong and widespread. Sir Walter Scott, Sir Humphrey Davy, Mr. Morritt, Lockhart, and other contemporaries of the last of the Seaforths,” firmly believed in them. Many of them were well known, and recited from generation to generation, two centuries before they were fulfilled.

Some of them have been fulfilled in our own day, and many are still unfulfilled.

There is a tendency among those who quote the Seer’s predictions to suppose that he brought about some of the evil which he predicted, and to represent that the downfall of the Mackenzies of Seaforth and the consequent loss of the property, including the sale of the island of Lewis to Sir James Matheson, was a revenge for the brutal cruelty of the wife of the third Earl, which would be a very literal visiting of the sins of the fathers upon the third and fourth generation.

The story is, that Earl Kenneth had occasion to visit Paris after the restoration of Charles II. His prolonged absence in the gay city causing much anxiety to his countess, she sent for the Seer and asked him to give an account of her lord’s interests and occupations. Applying the divination stone to his eye, Kenneth somewhat unwillingly described some of the gay and not very creditable scenes in which he saw his chief engaged.

The lady perceived that her husband’s desertion of her would become a widespread scandal, only to be averted by branding the Seer as a liar and a defamer of his chief, with which idea she doomed him to an instant and horrible death.

“Such a stretch of feudal oppression,” says Alexander Mackenzie, “at a time so little remote as the reign of Charles II., may seem strange. A castle may be pointed out, viz.: Menzies Castle, much less remote from the seat of authority, and the courts of law, than Brahan, where, half a century later, an odious vassal was starved to death by order of the wife of the chief, the sister of the ‘great and patriotic’ Duke of Argyll.”

When Coinneach found that no mercy was to be expected either from the vindictive lady or her subservient vassals, he resigned himself to his fate. He drew forth his white stone, so long the instrument of his supernatural intelligence, and once more applying it to his eye, said :

“I see into the far future, and I read the doom of the race of my oppressor. The long-descended lines of Seaforth will, ere many generations have passed, end in extinction and in sorrow, I see a chief, the last of his house, both deaf and dumb. He will be the father of four sons, all of whom he will follow to the tomb. He will live careworn and die mourning, knowing that the honours of his line are to be extinguished for ever, and that no future chief of the Mackenzies shall bear rule at Brahan or in Kintail. After lamenting over the last and most promising of his sons he himself shall sink into the grave, and the remnant of his possessions shall be inherited by a white-coifed lassie from the east, and she is to kill her sister. And as a sign by which it may be known that these things are coming to pass, there shall be four great lairds in the days of the last deaf and dumb Seaforth—Gairloch, Chisholm, Grant and Raasay—of whom one shall bo buck-toothed, another hare-lipped, another half-witted, and the fourth a stammerer. Chiefs distinguished by these personal marks shall be the allies and neighbours of the last Seaforth, and when he looks around him and sees them he may know that his sons are doomed to death, that his broad lands shall pass away to the stranger, and that his race shall come to an end.”

Sir Bernard Burke, in his Vicissitudes of Families, remarks : “With regard to the four Highland lairds who were to be buck-toothed, etc., I am uncertain which was which. Suffice it to say that the four lairds were marked by the above-mentioned distinguishing personal peculiarities, and all four were contemporaries of the last of the Seaforths.”

Mr. Alexander Mackenzie, author of The History of the Mackenzies, believes that Sir Hector Mackenzie, of Gairloch, was the buck-tooth laird, the Chisholm the hare-lipped, Grant the half-witted, and Raasay the stammerer.

Francis Humberston Mackenzie, the last Earl of Seaforth, became deaf after an attack of scarlet fever and by degrees lost the use of his speech. Nevertheless he raised a regiment at the beginning of the great European War, in 1797 he was created a British peer, in 1800 became Governor of Barbadoes, and in 1808 was made a Lieutenant-General. He survived his four sons, but died on the 11th of January, 1815, the last male representative of his race. His modern title became extinct, the chiefdom passed away to a very remote collateral who succeeded to no portion of the property. He was thus lamented by Sir Walter Scott:

Thy sons rose around thee in light and in love,
All a father could hope, all a friend could approve ;
What ’vails it the tale of thy sorrows to tell,
In the springtime of youth and of promise they fell!
Of the line of Mac Kenneth remains not a male
To bear the proud name of the Chief of Kintail.

The Seaforth estates were inherited by his eldest surviving daughter, Lady Hood, who was returning from India a newly-made widow—“the white-coifed lassie from the East.” Some few years later she was the innocent cause of the death of her younger sister from an accident to a carriage which she was driving at the time.

These events greatly interested Sir Walter Scott, who wrote to Mr. Morritt:

“Our friend Lady Hood will now be Cabarfeidh (=stag-head, the Celtic designation of the Chief of the Clan, taken from the family crest) . . . there are few situations in which the cleverest women are so apt to be imposed upon as in the management of landed property, especially of a Highland estate. I do fear the accomplishment of the prophecy that when there should be a deaf Cabarfeidh the house was to fall.”

The fall soon followed. Lady Hood married Mr. Stewart, who assumed the name of Mackenzie. Lord Seaforth had already sold a part of Kintail. The remaining portion, the property in Ross, the church lands of Chanonry, the Barony of Pluscarden, and the island of Lewis were disposed of one after the other. All that remains are the ruins of Brahan Castle, and a last fraction of property now in the hands of trustees.

Lockhart, in his Life of Scott, remarks: “Mr. Morritt can testify thus far, that he heard the prophecy quoted in the Highlands at a time when Lord Seaforth had two sons alive and in good health, and that it was certainly not made after the event,” and he goes on to remark that Scott and Sir Humphrey Davy were most certainly convinced of its truth, as were also many others who had watched the latter days of Seaforth in the light of these predictions.

The late Duncan Davidson of Tulloch, Lord Lieutenant of the County of Ross, wrote (May 21, 1878), “ Many of these prophecies I heard of upwards of seventy years ago, and when many of them were not fulfilled, such as the late Lord Seaforth surviving his sons, and Mrs. Stewart Mackenzie’s accident near Brahan, by which Miss Caroline Mackenzie was killed.” He was a regular visitor at Brahan Castle, and often heard the predictions discussed among members of the family. (Cf. Mackenzie’s History of the Mackenzies, p. 267.)

A prophecy which has been handed down in Gaelic verse relates to another branch of the family, the Mackenzies of Rosehaugh:

The heir of the Mackenzies will take
A white rook out of the wood,
And will take a wife from a music-house
With his people against him.

And the Heir will be great In deeds and as an orator When the Pope in Rome Will be thrown off his throne.

Over opposite Creagh-a-chow
Will dwell a little lean tailor,
Foolish James will be the Laird
(When Wise James is the measurer)
Who will ride without a bridle
The wild colt of his choice.
But foolish pride, without sense,
Will put in the place of the seed of the deer the seed of the goat
And the beautiful Black Isle will fall
Under the rule of the fishermen of Avoch.

We can hear of no tradition of any literal taking of a white rook out of the wood, One of the Rosehaugh Mackenzies is said to have married a girl from a music hall, for which his people were naturally “ against him.” Sir George Mackenzie, Lord Advocate for Scotland, was celebrated as an orator, though he lived before the Pope suffered the loss of his temporal power. Mr. Maclennan of Rosehaugh, who says that he has heard these lines discussed ever since he was a boy, explains that the lean tailor was a pious man who frequently remonstrated with the Laird of Rosehaugh, known as Foolish James, as also did Wise James, one James Maclaren, who often rebuked him for the freedom he allowed to his wife, “ the wild colt ” whom he chose from the music hall. None can deny that the ruin of the Mackenzies, whose armorial bearings are the deer’s head with his horns, was brought about by “foolish pride without sense.” The arms of the Fletchers are a goat, and as they now rule in Rosehaugh, the seed of the goat may be said to have taken the place of the seed of the deer. Perhaps one of the most curious details of this fulfilment of prophecy is the fact that the proprietor of Rosehaugh, who in 1856 assumed the name of Fletcher, is the son of an Avoch fisherman of the more humble patronymic of Jack.

Though, from the first, the personal relations of the people with the new proprietors have never been other than friendly, there has been in Lewis, as elsewhere, a certain amount of friction on the subject of the land, and in some degree the same mistake of expecting a people, whose instincts and hereditary tendency are those of crofters, to become fishermen, only because it suited the proprietors to subtract land for sport and for large farms.

Mr. Anderson Smith, an expert in the fisheries question, testifies that “ it is ridiculous to suppose that the fisheries, as at present conducted, are alone capable of supporting such a large and rapidly increasing population. . . . The Celtic races never seem to become thorough seamen. They are tillers of the soil, to which, in general, they are passionately attached.” Hence there was, even in the Lews, work for the Crofter Commission, and the usual evidence was extracted as to the degeneracy of recent times.

“My recollections of Lewis go back for seventy years,” says an aged Free Church minister. “How different the comfort and circumstances of the population of sixty years ago! All the people were then in a state of comparative comfort, having arable land and hill pasture for sheep and cattle, whereas now poverty and want largely predominate.

“Increase of population cannot here be the cause of the immense difference in the condition of the people. The present population (1883) of 3,489 is only some 488 more than that of fifty years ago, when the parish had a population of 3,041, and when the circumstances of the people were much more comfortable. And this is so in the face of the large increase in the value of the fishing industry since 1831, affording a source of income to the people many times larger now than it was then. Why, then, the unfavourable condition of the people as contrasted with their condition then? Simply because the large reaches of pasture ground then in their possession have been taken from the people since and are formed into sheep walks and deer forests.” The same witness testifies that out of £20,000 rental yielded by the island, £12,000 comes from sportsmen and a few large farmers, though all the land now in possession of these farmers, except what was reclaimed by the late Sir James Matheson, had been reclaimed by the forefathers of the present crofter population.

Or, again, what says the minister of the Established Church of Scotland in Stornoway, the very centre of the fishing industry?

“It is evident to any one who knows the real state of the Highland crofters that the Commission has not been appointed a day too soon. Fifty or forty years ago they were quite comfortable and able to live well, but now they find it very difficult to make a bare living.”

Another witness, a solicitor, who had lived for fifty years in the island, set forth various grievances of the Crofters: that the statistics presented were not to be depended upon, that they are “virtually factorial figures, that families increase and holdings diminish." It. was further asserted that emigration was no remedy in this island, that “for many a year to come every able-bodied man, with a taste for the sea is required in Lewis.”

The presence of the sportsman is sufficient explanation for the greater part of the discontent in Lewis, for he is not even of use as an employer of labour. He is naturally a passing visitor, whose presence is disturbing rather than productive, and who probably, with mistaken generosity, overpays the few persons he employs, and unfits them doubly for their ordinary occupations.

In all the complaints made there is nothing that is personal. Unlike other new proprietors, the Matheson family, including the late proprietor, Lady Matheson, are spoken of with unfailing respect, and it will never be forgotten that in the dreary years of 1846-7 when others thought only of promoting emigration, voluntary or involuntary, Sir James Matheson brought all his resources to the help of the famishing islanders.

The original possessors of the island were the Macleods, and some small ruins of an ancient castle still testify to their existence. There is a tradition of another tower “built by Cromwell to awe the neighbourhood, but its very site is now uncertain.

The old Seaforth Lodge is now superseded by a modern “Castle,” which, if not in itself of very imposing appearance, has at least the advantage of a most beautiful situation, surrounded not only by glorious and extensive woods, but even by a flower garden which might be the pride of any nobleman s seat in Britain, and which in these latitudes is especially remarkable as a triumph of taste, industry, and perseverance. The islanders are allowed access to the grounds within certain reasonable limitations, and such a tribute to the power of mind over matter cannot fail to have its effect upon the beauty-loving Celt.

The Castle contains nothing of special interest unless it be a china bedstead, at which one gazes in much the same spirit as at the full-rigged ships which a sailor brings home at the bottom of a narrow necked bottle. As it is alleged of a certain boat, which shall be nameless, in which we crossed over to this island from Skye, that at a particular period of the voyage even the crew take to their beds, and as we can testify to the sufferings of even certain officers of His Majesty’s Royal Navy on the same occasion, the problem of how a china bedstead arrived on the island of Lewis seems to be beyond solution.

Stories are still current about one Eonachan Dubh, a factor to Lord Seaforth, who seems to have been quite a “character.” He could neither read nor write, but seems to have prospered, for he had a cow for every day in the year. Returning from Brahan Castle one day, he was asked what fine things he had seen there, and replied, “I saw tongs with a crown [i.e. tongs with rounded ends like crown pieces], a goad for embers [a poker], and a spoon for ashes [shovel].”

The saying common among the other Islands, that the people of Lewis are “ very far back,” points to another of the anomalies characteristic of the island, its mixture of culture and superstition, prosperity and squalor. The houses are certainly among the worst we have seen, but the appearance of the people themselves is very superior to that of the population of South Uist or Barra, where the houses are often equally wretched. We read that in 1845 there were sixty-seven slated houses in Stornoway, generally of two stories high, and a garret; that there was “a custom house, a town house, an assembly room and two schoolrooms, one attorney, and one Roman Catholic priest, without an individual of a flock,” from which we may gather that Protestantism gained an early hold upon the island. Mr. Anderson Smith (1874) tells us that fifty years before there was only one bowl to drink out of in the Carloway district, and

that when the minister came from Lochs every third Sunday, it had to be sent for from Dalebeg, three miles away; the people ate out of a trough, such as we have seen (though not now in use) in Eriskay. Whisky was made from oats, which were cut with a sickle, but the barley crop was plucked up by the roots. The grain, if wanted at once, was dried in a pot over the fire, and ground in a handmill, but generally there was a kiln or two in every township.

A field is still shown, called the “tea field,” on account of its having been manured with tea from a wreck, which the people did not know how otherwise to utilize. Some queer things come of wrecks. A doctor in one of the Islands told us he had lately seen the Bay strewn with thousands of pills of a much advertised variety, which were being eagerly collected. Professional etiquette would not admit of his gratifying our curiosity as to the effect of the salvage upon his practice.

The people of Lewis are said to be extremely healthy, and, especially in the district of Uig, there are records of considerable longevity; it is said too that tubercular consumption is unknown, except when introduced from towns on the mainland. There is, however, the tradition of a disease which seized new-born infants about the fifth night after their birth, and from which no case of recovery is recorded. The infants of aliens did not suffer; evidence was conflicting as to whether this still continues.

Unlike other islands, where the difficulty is, and has long been, to get work, as late as 1845 we hear of labour being very scarce, principally on account of the fishing, but also of levies for the services. Wages at that period were sixpence a day, with two meals of meat and a dram, or eightpence without; which does not suggest that living was dear half-a-century ago.

The excellent roads now to be found all over the island were begun in 1741. We read, about the same time, that fine hares had lately been introduced by Seaforth, but that there were “no partridges, robins, rooks or magpies.”

In 1759 a fortnightly post was established which soon became weekly (Old. Stat. Acc.). We hear that there were twelve large farms and that some of the land was worth 36s. an acre.

The peat in Lewis seemed to us very poor, and it burnt with difficulty. Indeed at the Royal Hotel in Stornoway we had coal fires, the only place in the Hebrides except Tyree where we did not find peat. The peat beds in Lewis seem to cover the greater part of the island, but we were told that they were only about six feet deep and soon exhausted. Stornoway, Gross and the peninsula of Ey are the only districts where any sort of fertility is apparent.

It is said that there is extraordinarily little crime in Lewis, and indeed the same may be said of all the Hebrides, The people are not litigious, which is fortunate, considering the nature of the arrangements for the administration of justice. For some time past there has been no sheriff at all in those islands, which belong to Inverness. Part of Lewis belongs to Ross and there may be special arrangements for this bit of country; otherwise any one in the Long Island down to Barra Head could not seek for justice nearer than Portree in Skye. It transpired in the evidence of the Crofter Commission that a certain factor in the Lews had boasted of appearing in sixteen capacities at the same time, including that of clerk of the School Board, distributor of stamps, clerk of the Harbour Trusts, collector of rates and local bank agent.

It is said that Lewis was one of the latest settled of all the islands ; whether as being nearest to Norway and the more subject to raids from the Vikings, or as furthest from Iona and therefore from civilizing influences, it would be difficult to decide.

According to the “Indweller,” himself a Morison, the inhabitants of Lewis are descended from three sources : “(1) Mores (now Morison), son of Renannus, natural son to one of the Kings of Norway. (2) Iskair MacAulay, an Irishman. (3) Macnaicle, whose only daughter Torquile [descended also from the King of Norway] did violently cut off immediately the whole race of Macnaicle.”

I owe to the courtesy of Mr. Gibson, the headmaster of the Nicolson Institute at Stornoway, the opportunity of making a summary of the patronymics of the island as represented in the schools of the district, from which one or two interesting historical facts may be inferred.

The Morisons (or Mores) are indeed fairly numerous; 239 children of that name come from the three parishes of Barvas, Lochs and Uig. They are however exceeded by the Macleods, the patronymic of the old chiefs of the Islands, who number 585, and by the Macdonalds (the name of the Lord of the Isles) numerous in almost all the Islands, of whom there are here 364. The next to follow are the Mackenzies—184. These four names are held by 1,392 school children out of a total of 2,974. The only other names represented by over 100 children are Mackay, Maclean, Smith (of which the Gaelic equivalent is the more euphonious Gmc) Maciver and Macaulay. It is curious, as possibly an evidence of the Highland clinging to familiar surroundings, to observe in how many cases a name belongs to a single district, denoting that a family tends to remain where it has once settled. For example, all the twenty Kennedys but one, and all the sixteen Macraes but one, come from Lochs; all the eighteen Buchanans but one, from Uig; all the sixteen Gillies, fifteen Grahams, eleven Gunns, eight Macleays, eight Mitchells, five Bulges, three Hunters, three Macfarquhars, three Rosses from the remote parish of Barvas. The Macsweens, Kerrs, Chisholms are found only in Lochs; the Macgregors, Beggs, Macneills, only in Uig. The presence of some obviously Scotch and English names, represented only by one or two children, Stewart, Beaton, Anderson, Practice, Young, is accounted for, probably, either by the fact that Stornoway is resorted to by Scotch and English fishermen, or because it is the depot of the Royal Naval Reserve.

Perhaps nowhere is the question of names so interesting as in these Islands, where indeed they are often important as traces of history. For example, the fact that the name of Macleod is still the most numerous in the island is confirmation of the tradition that the Macleods held Lewis till 1597, when Torquil, a disinherited son of the chief, recovered the island from the usurping occupant and conveyed it by deed to Kenneth, chief of the Mackenzies, a gift afterwards ratified at Court in 1607 when Kenneth Mackenzie was created Lord Mackenzie of Kintail. The Mackenzies, first distinguished by their bravery at the battle of Largs (1263), gradually rose on the ruins of the Macdonalds, when the lordship of the Isles was forfeited in the fifteenth century, though the Macdonald clan in its various branches remained, in certain districts, powerful and numerous. Hence the Macdonalds occupy the second position. The Morisons, according to the “Indweller,” are abundantly accounted for as among the oldest inhabitants, settled in the island before the battle of Largs brought the rule of the Vikings to an end. The Mackenzies are very naturally third in the list, and it is equally natural that the Mathesons should be only fifteenth with but fifty-four representatives, as, until about sixty years ago, the clan had no connexion with the island. The low-country names, though of recent origin in Lewis, will long testify to another detail of its history, just as the English names in Tyree are a relic of the period of the erection of the Skerryvore lighthouse.

In Barra, in one of the schools, we tried the simple experiment of asking that every child of the name of Macneill should stand. About half the school rose to its feet. Then we asked that those whose mother was a Macneill should also stand, after which not more than a sixth of the school remained sitting. In Tyree and Eriskay, for reasons already given, we found no prevailing patronymic; in South Uist it seemed as if every one we met was, when we came to inquire, a Macdonald; but inquiry, was necessary, as on account of the lack of variety most people seemed to be known by their first names, often accompanied for further distinction by some epithet or by the name of their township; hence the fashion of address of Father Allan (Macdonald), or of Big Peter, or Black Donald, or Ian Bornish (name of the township), and so on.

Lewis, however, has historical monuments beside which even the clan Macleod is of modern growth. The Standing-stones of Callernish, the Stonehenge of the Hebrides, are among the most famous in Britain. They are situated in a wild spot on a tableland somewhat raised above the peat bog which encircles them for miles. A few houses are clustered at the foot of the hill beyond, and there is a little temperance inn, where the friends of the Princess of Thule, on their way to Loch Roag, mysteriously drank whisky. The name Callernish at once suggests a Norse derivation, the affix nish generally denoting a point; but those who would seek a more remote origin for this mysterious monument derive the name from call, a circle, aim of the judge, and gheis of sorcery; hence Callaimgheis, which would denote a place of assembly or of judgement. Though the depth of the slow-growing peat which surrounds the base of the stones (we were told that some six feet had been cleared away) would suggest a more remote antiquity, many think that it is of Norse origin, for small counterparts of this monument are pretty frequent in Iceland, where they are variously regarded as battle-sites or as places of assembly. The ground plan is that of a recumbent Iona cross, that is, a Latin cross with a halo encircling the junction of the arms, the top of the cross pointing almost due west. Hence there are some advocates for the theory that it is of Columban origin. The whole question of such stones is so wrapped in mystery that one can only state the direction of conjecture. Possibly the following theory of the “Indweller ” may however be eliminated.

“It is left by traditione that these were a sort of men converted into stones by ane inchanter. Others affirm that they were set up in places for devotion; but the places where they stand are so far from any such sort of stones to be seen or found either above or below ground that it cannot but be admired how they could be carried there ”—(like the china bed at Stornoway).

There are, moreover, two subsidiary circles on an opposite hill at a short distance, all, I believe, pointing in the direction of the Atlantic and the setting sun.

The celebrated Dun of Carloway is of its kind perhaps the most perfect in Scotland, and there are several others, mostly on islands in small lochs.

Of the many remains of chapels now largely buried in sand, some of the most interesting are in the wild district of Barvas, the most primitive part of the Islands. It was to our great regret that we never penetrated to the Butt of Lewis, the most northerly point of the island, and far wilder than anything to be now seen in the much frequented St. Kilda. The largest Church is St. Mulvay, fifty feet long by twenty-four broad, outside measurement, the walls being about four feet thick, which reduces the inside measurement to sixteen feet.

The visitor to Barvas should not omit to see the manufacture of the crogans or bollachans still made by the old women of the district for domestic use. They are pots or jars with a wide mouth not ungraceful in shape, moulded in the hand, without tools, from the local red clay, and hardened in the sun. Then warm milk is put into them, and boiled slowly over a peat fire, which produces a fairly good glaze. They must at one time have been in common use in the Islands, as we saw some in Tyree and heard of them in Skye and elsewhere.

At Melista there are the remains of a nunnery called “Teagh na'll eailichan don,” “the house of the old black women.”

On the peninsula of Eye, near Stornoway, the burial ground surrounding the old chapel (or Teampul as these Columban Churches are called) is still in use, as are many others elsewhere, and we were told that the old sentiments so far linger that the people still bury their dead with their feet to the east. A worthy minister, anxious to stamp out “a Popish superstition,” set the example of burying his own relatives north and south, but it was quite in vain. Moreover, we noted with interest that a boy relating a story of an apparition which met him on the way to school, said, “I had only just time to bless myself (obviously a relic of the days when the sign of the cross would have been made) when it disappeared.” Another informant, speaking of a deceased relative, used the phrase, “God bless him,” evidently the remains of the old “God rest his soul.” Old beliefs, which have taken hold of the life of the people, die hard, and that in more directions than one.

Only a few months ago a Free Kirk Elder was visited by a witch who wanted a glowing peat, for her fire had gone out, which is unlucky. Hospitality compelled him to oblige her at all risks, and “besides, you never know what may happen when the like of them are crossed. But it would not do to let her have a share in anything that belongs to you. You might as well let her have your hair, or the parings of your nails, instead of putting them in among the stones of the wall of the house, as one always should. So when she got the peat, he put a similar one into the tub of water by the door. In a minute she came back, and said the peat had gone out, and she got another, red and glowing from the fire, and he put another one into the tub. Then again she came back and the same thing happened a third time, after which, when he looked into the water, there were three lumps of beautiful butter,” which but for the Elder’s foresight would have come for the witch and not for himself.

Truly, Lewis is in some respects an anomalous island, an island of contrasts, the contrasts of poverty and prosperity, of the old and the new, the romantic and the commonplace. One may drive to the Seal cave of Gress which runs back into the conglomerate for two hundred yards or more, and of which Anderson Smith says, “It is a much more imagination-stirring and weirdlike cavern than the more celebrated cave of Staffa," and then one may come back and eat Italian ices in Stornoway!

One of the objects of interest described by the “Indweller” we did not manage to locate.

“There is a little island hard by the coast where it is said that pigmies lived some tyme by reason they find, by searching, some small bones in the earth”; Standing among the giant stones at Callernish one feels oneself such a pigmy, such a pert anachronism, that if the green-coated men of peace, the claoine sithe, should open their green hillocks and come out into the daylight, one could hardly feel surprise, unless it were that they should brave the wrath of the Free Kirk Elders by the gaiety of their fairy dance. Everywhere in the Islands, singly or in circles, the Standing-stones are impressive, guarding their secret in the solitary places of the earth, their past known only to the hills, memorials of a time to which no one can put a date, of a religion of which no one knows the creed, of lawgivers whose code is forgotten, of a race which we cannot even identify.

Note on the Brahan Seer.

The following account of similar prophecies elsewhere is borrowed from The Oban Telegraph (April 27, 1888).

The records of Argyll tell of a seer known as Niven Macvicar, the first Reformed minister of Inverary, who preached under a rock until a church was built for him, called after him Cill Ghillenaoimh —Niven’s preaching and burying place; it was built in an old burying ground, pronounced now Cillmale, and in English, Killmalieu.

His principal prophecy was about a dyke not then built. “This dyke was built for the most part by Duke John, the fiftieth duke, and begins at the Garrora Bridge, and goes along the side of the road to the Stronshire Cottage, and after numerous windings enters the sea at Rudha nam Frangach. He prophesied that an enemy would come secretly into the place and surprise the inhabitants within the crooked dyke, and that a sanguinary battle would take place at a spot named from this prophecy Ath-nan-lann (the Sword Ford). At this ford the heat of the battle was to take place ; and so much were the men to be engaged in the strife that a man born with only one hand would hold three kings’ horses; and so great would be the slaughter there that people would walk dry shod on the bodies of the slain across the ford ; that the ravens would drink their full of man’s blood, and the river would run with blood; that the inhabitants would be defeated, and that an old lame white horse would carry all that remained of Siol Diarmid (Clan Campbell) over Kern Drom, near Tyndrum; and that after that day one would travel in Argyllshire forty miles without seeing a chimney smoke or hearing a cock crow.”

When the Marquis of Argyll is said to have asked of this person, “What death shall I die?” the parson implied, “You’ll be beheaded, my lord.” “What death will you yourself die?” “I shall be drowned, my lord.” Then the Marquis said, “I will prevent that,” and sent the parson to reside in Stirling with a servant to attend to him. One night the drum beat an alarm of fire, and the servant ran to see what was the matter. As he did not return soon the parson attempted to go out, and fell from an outside stair into a hogshead for catching rainwater. When his gillie returned, he found the parson feet uppermost in the butt and quite dead.

Other of the Brahan Seer’s prophecies which have an interest for us as relating to the Islands, are as follows:

“The day will come when the Lewsmen shall go forth with their hosts to battle, but they will be turned back by the jaw bone of an animal smaller than an ass,” was a prediction accounted ridiculous and quite incomprehensible until it was fulfilled in a remarkable, but very simple, manner.

The Seaforth estates, forfeited after the ’15, were restored shortly before the ’45. On this account it was considered desirable that Seaforth, though still a Jacobite at heart, should not take part in any new rising. When the news came, he set out with a friend and travelled by night in the direction of Poolewe. While in concealment near the shore, they saw two ships entering the bay, having on board a large number of armed men, whom they at once recognized as Seaforth’s followers from the Lews, raised and commanded by Captain Colin Mackenzie. Lord Seaforth had just been making a repast of a sheep’s head when he espied his retainers, and approaching the ships with the sheep’s jaw bone in his hand, he waved it towards them and ordered them to return to their homes at once, which command they obeyed by turning back for Stornoway.

On another occasion, Coinnaich Odhar predicted that “When the big-thumbed sheriffs officer, and the blind man of the twenty-four fingers, shall be together in Barra, Macneill may be making ready for the flitting.” This prediction, well known in Barra for generations, has been most literally fulfilled. On a certain occasion a blind man from Benbecula having six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot, went to collect alms in South Uist, and afterwards decided to proceed to Barra. He crossed over in the same boat with “Maor nan Ordagan morah ” (the Sheriff-officer of the Big Thumbs), who was on his way to serve a summons of ejectment on the unfortunate Chief of Barra. Iain MacAonghaisic Calum, the man who served as guide to the blind beggar, was living at the time when Mr. Alexander Mackenzie published the story (1882). We also gleaned the same story in Barra, with the addition that when Macneill heard they had come to Eoligarry, he said, “This is the man who is to put me out of Barra,” and talked of shooting them, which sounds like a local variant.

“The day will come when the old wife with the footless stocking will drive the Lady of Clanranald from Nunton House in Benbecula.” Old Mrs. Macdonald, whose husband took the farm of Nunton, was probably one of the last to wear those primitive articles of dress once common in the Highlands. Clanranald and his Lady were compelled to leave the island, and the descendants of the Cailleach nani Mogan, as Mrs. Macdonald was called, have long occupied the ancient residence of Clanranald of the Isles.

Among other prophecies which have been definitely fulfilled are the following, made, it should be rememl>ered, some 240 years ago. “Strange as it may seem to you this day, the time will come when full-rigged ships will be seen sailing eastward and westward by the back of Tom-na-hurich” (the farfamed Fairies’ Hill near Inverness). This has been literally fulfilled by the making of the Caledonian Canal.

“The clans will flee front their native country before an army of sheep.” “The day will come when the Big Sheep (understood to mean deer) will overrun the country until they meet the Northern Sea.” “The ancient proprietors of the soil shall give place to strange merchant proprietors, and the whole Highlands shall become one huge deer forest; the whole country will be so utterly desolated and depopulated that the crow of a cock shall not be heard north of Druim-Uachdair (in Kintail); the people will emigrate to islands now unknown, but which shall yet be discovered in the boundless oceans.” Comment upon these is needless. With respect to the clearances in Lewis, he said, “ Many a long waste feannag (i.e. rig once arable) will yet be seen between Uig of the mountains and Ness of the plains,” a prediction which has been fulfilled to the letter.

The following does not concern our district, but is too striking to be omitted. The Seer, called to Culloden on business, was passing what is now known as the Battlefield, when he exclaimed, “Oh, Drummossie, thy bleak moor shall, ere many generations have passed away, be stained with the best blood of the Highlands. Glad am I that I will not see that day, for it will be a fearful time; heads will be lopped off by the score, and no mercy will be shown on either side.”

The Seer one day, pointing to the now celebrated Strathpeffer mineral wells, said, “The day will come when this disagreeable spring, with thick-crusted surface and unpleasant smell, shall be put under lock and key, so great will be the crowd of people that will press to drink its waters.”


Return to Book Index Page

 


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus

Quantcast