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Outer Isles
Chapter XVI. Lewis and its Fisherfolk


LEAVING the wilder country north and north-west of Lewis, and crossing endless miles of grey moorland, diversified only by black patches of peat, or grey lochs of sullen water, we come to Stornoway. Here we have paved streets and rows of shops, several varieties of Churches, even villas with “bedded out” gardens, which would pass muster in a London suburb —a place where people pay calls, read the ladies’ papers, and have afternoon tea.

Just as one thinks of kelp and Tyree, of poverty and South Uist, of officialism and Loch Maddy, so one inevitably associates Stornoway with fish and education. The shops and the villas and the church-going finery are an accident, the real Stornoway smells of fish and reeks of education; and in regard to both interests one finds much that is characteristic, much that well repays one for inquiry.

In spite of considerable difference of detail and surroundings, the fishery problem is much the same in all the Islands. In Stornoway, however, the capital of the fishing world of the west coast, it naturally reaches its climax; and had the relations between proprietor and people been such as they are in South Uist, or even Tyree, the brave little town would never have arrived at its present degree of prosperity.

But the people, in spite of occasional errors on both sides, have been generously and considerately treated; and in Stornoway, with its shops and hotels and Churches, its villas and gardens, its harbour, its orderly officials, its police, its poorhouse, its courts, its Banks, its general activity, we see what can be done, under fair conditions, by the same people who, otherwise dealt with, are condemned, wholesale, as idle and ungrateful.

Even in Lewis, where the industry has reached its height, where the facilities for transport are so much better than elsewhere, and where there is some cooperation and local organization, we are told by those most cognizant of the subject that the population can never be supported by the fisheries alone, that the fishing-trade can never be much more than a help to the people, that every acre annexed for sport is subtracted from the living of the poor.

The minister of Uig, giving evidence before the Commission and speaking from a life-long familiarity with the conditions of the people, stated: “ There is a notion prevalent with some that the people, or at least many of them, should become exclusively fishermen, and that this would leave them better off than they are at present. I wish very strongly to impress upon the Commissioners the folly of this view and the danger of entertaining it. The herring-fishing is carried on for two months of the year on the east-side of the island. During the remainder of the year the native population prosecute the ling-fishing exclusively. I should also mention that for two or three months in the year they go as hired men to the east-coast herring-fishing.”

The east-coast fishing, though very variable, may in certain years be remunerative. The men go mainly to Peterhead and Fraserburgh, and take their chance, following the herring round the coast, and selling it at so much a cran, i.e. a deep barrel. Often they bring homo from £20 to £30 each, which supports their families through the worst of the winter. Then, returning early in September, they fish for lythe and saithe, while the women get in the harvest.

The lobster fishing, once profitable, is now declining, and no pains are taken to cultivate oysters, which might do well in the calm lochs and bays of the east coast, if only some one with capital could take the matter in hand. It is out of the question for the people themselves to undertake the experiment, the first step of which is to lodge £60 in advance, with the certainty of other costs to follow.

“The Crown,” says Mr. Anderson Smith, “is the most mercenary and least satisfactory landlord to deal with. Others may be negligent, the Crown is oppressive,” from which we gather that there were some islands with which Mr. Anderson Smith had not made personal acquaintance! He points out (op. cit. p. 415) that what is required is some cheap and simple means of getting grants for oyster or lobster beds and other small undertakings, and, above all, compensation for improvements on Crown-fishing with no Government rackrenting allowed. On the part of the proprietors there should be the granting of facilities for building small piers, and right of settlement at reasonable cost on lands near to the foreshores.

The salmon rivers are, of course, a feature of the “ sport,” so productive—to the landlord. We read that in old times salmon was sold at a penny a pound, and the “ Indweller,” already quoted, speaking of a river in Barvas, half-a-mile long, which connects a freshwater loch with the sea, says that “in 1585 it was observed that there were 3,000 great salmon taken in that small portion of river.”

It is also alleged by older writers, as well as by Mr. Anderson Smith, that many species of fish of little value elsewhere are firm and well-tasted here.

The fishing operations, even from the practical point of view—all questions of the science of breeding and preservation apart—are far more complicated than the mere outsider is at all likely to realize. A recent writer in the Quarterly Review, July, 1901, touches on some interesting points, which he has obviously observed for himself, a privilege which has not been ours. We talk about “poor” fishermen and “ignorant” fishermen; it is a becoming lesson in humility to learn that the mere question of nets is one involving much knowledge and experience.

“Four different kinds of net may be enumerated. The trawl scrapes the sandy bed of the sea, scooping up everything that moves in its path. The trammel is a fixed wall of meshes, generally laid among the rocks, with deep purses, in which the wandering fish entangle themselves. The drift net, which may be likened to a moving trammel, drives through the water ahead of the smacks, and enmeshes every herring or mackerel that strikes it. Omitting some less important patterns of net, we have as our fourth typo the seine or sean, a corked and leaded net, which is ‘ shot ’ with the aid of a rowing boat close in shore in a circle. Its method of working is thus a compromise between trawl and trammel.

“Each method of netting has its followers, and the trawlers, drifters and seaners of any large fishing community may be regarded professionally, and in some parts indeed socially as well, as distinct castes, the adept at one method being often totally unfitted to earn his living at any other. Dire necessity, it is true, may compel fishermen of one class to turn their hands to another, but such transferred activity is rare. This distinction between the various sections of the fishing population is scarcely common knowledge with those who have not resided for a time in their midst; and we have even recounted instances of profound ignorance on the subject, in gentlemen who sit for these fishing constituencies in the House of Commons, and are proudly alluded to with a conscious dignity of ownership by those hard-worked electors, with the nature of whose occupations they are so slightly acquainted. To the uninitiated, fishing appears to be unskilled rather than skilled labour. A fisherman is just a fisherman, and not a drifter, or seaner, or hooker; and few persons are aware of the deep-rooted prejudices and jealousies that demarcate the men of different methods.”

It seems almost incredible that there should not be “as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it,” but such is in fact the melancholy truth; and just as England is looking forward to the extinction of her coal mines, so the west-coast fisherman is not only looking forward, but in certain cases is already experiencing the exhaustion of his fishing grounds ; and in both cases to some extent for the same reasons—that the alien is allowed to profit, and that it does not seem to be any one’s business to prevent the individual from enriching himself at the expense of the ultimate public good. Even as I write, the newspapers are reporting the co-operation of Welsh coal owners with a view to the direction and organization of output; but again and again our enlightened Government entirely refuses to consider the enforcing of any such policy, in regard to fish, as the coal owners are voluntarily proposing for themselves.

And yet the fishing question is of more pressing consequence because more remediable. If those who cut down the forests of the outer Hebrides had planted as well as destroyed, it would have been to the permanent advantage of the health, climate and cultivation of the Islands; like these selfish destroyers of old, with no thought for posterity, our lawgivers are absolutely refusing to give attention alike to the possible replenishing and the imminent exhaustion of our waters.

The most evident of the grievances calling for redress is that of the abuse of the alien steam-trawler, which sweeps the bottom of the sea, and destroys far more than it takes away; disturbing the spawning-beds, and shoals of school-fish, crushing young fish in the beams, and breaking tackle and fishing gear spread by other fishermen. Such attempts at legislation as have already been made have been mainly in the direction of restriction of area, but this, as has already been pointed out, is constantly evaded, and a trawling-boat will often come in by night, do infinite damage even before it is perceived, and be off before any steps can be taken to arrest its movements.

Experts tell us, moreover, that even the methods of the fishermen themselves, both those belonging to the district and the visitors from the east-coast, are not entirely blameless, and require supervision and control. Be that as it may, few seek to deny that while the division of profits is spread over an ever extended area, the “bad years” are increasingly frequent.

To come, as we did only last June, from the repose and silence of other islands into the Babel of a Stornoway evening, is a curious and surprising experience. The pearl-coloured tints of sky and sea which follow a calm sunset in the Hebrides, the distant purple hills, the grey plain of the open country, all are there ; but the rare meeting of a home-returning shepherd, of a girl carrying a basket of peat for the evening fire, of the old woman weary with a long day’s herding, all friends, known to us by name and kindly acknowledging our evening greeting, this, the familiar human element, is wanting. Instead we have a motley crowd, largely of strangers, speaking in tongues that sound harsh and strange; for only here and there one catches the usually predominant Gaelic; instead, there is the plaintive sing-song of the low country Scot, the guttural of the east-coast, the provincial utterance of the East Riding of Yorkshire, or the coast of Norfolk and Suffolk, or, stranger still, the Babel-sounds of Dutch or German, or even Russian. Even the Jew is not wanting on this Rialto of the north. The day’s work is done, the night work not yet begun. The men have perhaps had their afternoon rest, and are smoking their evening pipe ; the women, in holiday attire, are walking up and down or standing about in bright-coloured groups, knitting the inevitable stocking, and, often enough, betraying their own local origin by its make and quality. No sportsman, catered for with dainty fingers at country-house firesides, can show “tops” to compare for skill and elaboration with these produced by the fish-curing girls of some of the Islands and east-coast stations; patterns never yet written down, designs handed from generation to generation, marvellous to the uninitiated. It is to be for ever regretted that the introduction by wandering pedlars and visitants from Glasgow, of hideous aniline dyes, has been encouraged by English purchasers, and that the people are learning to buy inferior wool of the crudest reds and greens instead of using the fleeces of their own sheep and the beautiful colourings of the lily-roots and heather-tops which have been their pride and distinction for generations. All is decorous and orderly; their dresses varied and picturesque, ranging from the “mutch” of the east-coast fishwife to the conventional form and livid colouring of the English girls from Grimsby or Yarmouth. The local costume, however carefully reminiscent of last year’s visitor, generally betrays itself from lack of variety in form or material, and we traced a trimming of wavy braid, probably imported by some merchant in Stornoway, through half the villages in the island. One always reflected with satisfaction that the flimsy stuffs of mainland manufacture, with which the native girls were rivalling their summer visitants, would soon perish in such a climate and with such service, and that before long they would be back in their own tweeds of softer colouring and more dignified outline. Meanwhile the gay colourings were not unacceptable among the sober tints of earth and sky.

At sunrise the whole scene is changed. The harbour is a forest of masts, the sails are folded away; here and there a lantern, fastened to the mast, has been forgotten, and the light is dimly twinkling in the early sunshine. In every boat men are hauling up from the bottom the great red-brown nets full of silver fish, while scores of girls with bare heads and shortened skirts stand in orderly rows beside great wooden troughs, into which the gleaming spoils are cast, in deep basketfuls. Then, with incredible rapidity and a skill learnt from danger avoided, they slit and gut the fish, casting them, one by one, into the barrels which stand in rows beside them. How the palms of their hands escape a horrible accident a hundred times a day is a problem to the uninitiated, but we are assured that accidents are very rare. The island-women are said to be especially skilful, and their services in much demand. The Dutch fishermen cure for themselves, and the east-coast men bring women with them, but extra hands are often wanted. Stornoway alone possesses some eighty or ninety lassies, and some two thousand inhabitants are engaged just now in fishing; so with the temporary immigration the fishing-population is very large at the present time, although we are assured that some two-thirds of the foreign fleet has already gone elsewhere, a fact which, in face of the close-packed forest of masts, it is difficult to apprehend. The scene is curiously characteristic. There is none of the chatter which accompanies any gregarious work in the fishing-quarters of Dieppe and Boulogne. Now and then the men on the boats shout to each other, or to the women ashore, but there is no mere talk. The scene however is not silent. The air is rent with the shrieks of thousands of gulls, and the flapping of their wings as they hover in myriads, darting and swooping at the refuse thrown to them, is distinctly audible. They are the scavengers of the occasion, taking a useful and definite share of the work in progress.

As we turn away in the direction of our hotel, which, facing the bay-head, affords us a lingering view of the scene, we meet certain lounging gentlemen whose appearance might perplex a stranger. No tourists are they, affecting the air of sportsmen; no real sportsmen affecting nothing at all; but trim and well-dressed, unmistakably commercial, canny Scots some of them, silent English, voluble Frenchmen, heavy German, even the Dutchman whom we saw last night in his wooden shoes, now alert, and with an eye to business. Merchants they are, every one of them, waiting till the fish shall be cleaned, salted, and measured into crans to be sold in open market and carried off in the little steamboats that are standing outside in the bay. Some, it may be, however, have a contract with certain boats and do not buy as the fish comes in, as do others.

An important and interesting feature of Stornoway life is that it is one of the depots of the Naval Reserve for the west of Scotland, and, naturally, a centre of attraction towards naval life for the whole of the Long Island. The particular aspect in which the Naval Reserve is presented to most of us is that of the coastguard, which is entirely recruited from able-bodied navy men who have seen nine years’ service, and who are moreover kept up to a high standard of efficiency by regular drill and inspection, and are ready and liable to be called upon at any hour for active sea-service.

The primary and obvious duty of the coastguard is of course the protection of our shores; but when one passes the little white-washed stations with their flagstaff and parallelogram of garden, on some lonely promontory overlooking the Atlantic, one realizes that there must be work for them other than the prevention of smuggling. And indeed their work as protectors of life and property in such spots as these is both difficult and dangerous, for they serve the Board of Trade and the Admiralty, as well as the Customs, and on the storm-beaten shores of the west-coast of Scotland they have a wide field for noble and quiet heroism. When sitting comfortably at breakfast we read in the paper of a wreck (off the Hebrides, it may be), and we say carelessly, “It is all right, no life lost,” we little realize all that has probably been dared and endured in cheating the hungry waves of their prey. When a ship is in distress, the coastguard, on the look-out night and day, signals or fires back an assurance of help at hand, and the wonderful rocket apparatus is at once brought into use. The sending of a line by means of a rocket so that it shall arrive on board a ship tossing wildly on a boiling sea, while a heavy gale is madly raging at every human effort, is often a difficult, sometimes a hopeless task. Again and again the attempt is made against fearful odds, and at last the coastguardsmen see their efforts rewarded, and the line is drawn in ; the hawser follows, and the frail-looking basket or “trousers-buoy” carries out the brave expert, and the grand work of rescue begins. The coastguardsmen are not only the last to leave the wreck, but, from the time she is left by the captain and the crew, they become responsible for every spar and every morsel of cargo which it may be possible to redeem from the fury of the waves. The brief announcement which we read so carelessly may be the record of deeds of endurance and heroism hardly to be paralleled in the annals of the Victoria Cross.

Often the coastguardsmen have to spend hours in the water conveying help, it may be, to fellow-creatures struggling in the waves, or perilously floating on rafts and spars. The victims of the shipwreck are taken to the coastguard station and fed and warmed, often restored to life, and kindly cared for till help reaches them.

The Naval Reserve, moreover, supplies our lighthouses. A visit to the Skerryvore or the Dubh Eartach, or Barra Head, or the Flannan Island lighthouse, is a revelation not only of human skill, but of human endurance and heroism, which can hardly fail to produce a permanent effect upon one’s view of life. Now and then some ghastly tragedy, such as the Flannan Island catastrophe of last year, reveals the hideous possibilities of lighthouse existence. We had a talk with William Ross, the sole survivor, the one man who, according to the regular rotation, happened to be on shore at the time. He had photographs of his three companions, one of them a fine young man, over six feet high, only twenty-nine years of age. “We were all good friends,” he said, showing us a group of the four, himself included; “and we never even had a chance to bury them.” “And it might just as well have been himself,” his wife interjected, looking round upon her bonnie children and her orderly home. And then he told us how the weather being rough, those in the look-out house were hardly surprised that the light should be obscured, as was sometimes the case in a heavy sea-fog; but when the storm somewhat subsided, and eleven days passed, and still no light shone out, they became alarmed, and went across the dangerous minch, to find not a trace of the three brave men upon whose life, as upon their work, had fallen the silence of eternal darkness. The lighthouse stands upon a perpendicular cliff, and some 200 feet down the zig-zag path which leads to the landing-place, is a ledge or small terrace, where various ropes and landing-gear are stored, ready for use. It is supposed that the men may have gone down to rescue implements, the loss of which would have been very serious, and that they were swept away in the attempt. Looking at the photograph of the scene, it seemed to us incredible that even the fierce waves of the open Atlantic could reach such a height as this, but our friend assured us that it not infrequently happened. He had also been at the Skerryvore, but we could not wonder that he should now feel unequal to further lighthouse work, and that the authorities had considerately placed him in a coastguard station, upon another and more accessible island, a post lonely and perilous enough, but with none of the hideous possibilities of a home on a solitary storm-beaten rock in the open Atlantic.

Such, varied by signalling to passing ships and by gun practice, is the life of the men of the Naval Reserve, as none know better than the islanders who see it in its most heroic and dangerous aspects. It seemed to us therefore the more creditable, that no less than 2,558 men were drilled at Stornoway last year, including 567 newly enrolled. By the courtesy of Mr. Beedle, the divisional officer, we were allowed to see the buildings and apparatus in use, and to be present at various kinds of drill, including that of the life-saving apparatus and signalling to shore, which are perfectly understood by all the men, and constantly practised. A rifle-range is rented from the local Company of Artillery, and there is also a sea-range for heavy guns. We learnt that 5,000 rounds are fired annually, and that the practice is at a range of 600 yards. A certain number of men are constantly under instruction, while those who have arrived at full efficiency have to come up for inspection and drill for a fortnight during the year, often walking immense distances for the purpose. These visits are, however, a sort of festive occasion, and they value the opportunity of intercourse with old friends. They are, for the most part, of excellent physique, in spite of a life of poverty and hardship, the larger number of them being crofters, cottars, and crofter fishermen. Their average height is five feet eight, and many are even up to six feet three. They showed the characteristic Highland earnestness in all their work, and the intentness of their expression when under instruction was almost painful to witness. All considerations of public utility apart, such revelation of orderly life, such discipline, such enforced neatness of appearance, dignity of carriage and propriety of conduct and habits, as even the temporary privilege of their life at the depdt permits, cannot fail to modify their entire existence.

Their public utility can scarcely be over-rated. To quote the words of Captain J. T. Newall, late Indian Staff Corps, and familiar with the island and its people: “From an Imperial point of view, any unnecessary expatriation of the islanders of the western coast would be, as it has been, a national loss. These islands, Skye especially, once formed a depot from which was drawn some of the finest fighting material in the British Army. At present, in the Lews, there is a considerable number of Navy Reserve men.”

He wrote in 1889, and I believe that under the present able management, and the pleasant personal relations of the officers with their Highland recruits, the number is considerably on the increase. The lover of the Islands who is truly anxious for the development of the best characteristics of the people cannot but rejoice at this. The personal element, the influence of the chiefs has always been so strong an incentive to the service of the country, that when this was withdrawn, there seemed real danger of actual indifference to public duty. Sir Walter Scott quotes an

Argyllshire chieftain who said, “I have lived to woeful days. When I was young, the only question asked concerning a man’s rank was, how many men lived on his estate; then it came to be how many black cattle he could keep; but now they only ask how many sheep the lands will carry.”

Six Highland regiments formed part of the conquering force at Seringapatam, and we who have lived to see the horrors of the field of Magersfontein may glory still in the brave deeds of our valiant countrymen, perhaps all the braver and more glorious that their incentive is the less.

Sheriff Nicolson’s poem, A Highland Marching Song, to the tune of Angus O'Mhbrag, should be learnt in every Highland school. He begins with a worthy battle cry:

He that wears the kilt should be
Erect and free as deer on heather.
When he hears the bag-pipe sound
His heart should pound like steed for battle.
Think of them who went before us,
Winning glory for the tartan.
Vainly did the mighty Roman
Check the Caledonian valour.
Still from each unconquered glen
Rose the men no yoke could fetter.

And then he proceeds to enumerate, with suitable epithet and picturesque characterization, the deeds of the days of Bruce, Montrose, Dundee and Prince Charlie. He reminds us of Fontenoy, Culloden, Ticonderoga, Quebec, Aboukir, of the Peninsular War, of Waterloo, of Alma, of the Mutiny and of the Ashantee War. The poem was first written in 1865, and brought up to date to 1882, and looking back over twenty years, we the more appreciate his,

From Cabul to Candahar
Glorious was the march with Roberts.
Nor shall he that war who ruled,
Donald Stewart, be forgotten.

And so with much annotation of accurate chronology, the poet presses on to the key-note of the whole:

Where the doughtiest deeds are dared
Shall the Gael be forward pressing.
Where the Highland broad-sword wave
There shall graves be found the thickest.
But when they have sheathed the swords
Then their glory is to succour.
Hearts that scorn the thought of fear
Melt to tears at touch of pity.
Hands that fiercest smite in war
Have the warmest grasp for brothers.
And beneath the tartan plaid
Wife and maid find gentlest lover.
Think then of the name ye bear
Ye that wear the Highland tartan!
Jealous of its old renown
Hand it down without a blemish!
Angus O’Mhbrag!
Ho-ro! march together,
Angus O’Mh6rag.

Nothing less than the call upon Mliorag, the esoteric name of Prince Charlie, can serve as fit peroration for such a battle-call as this. It would be a vain and thankless task to represent to the Highlander that their idol had feet of clay. More, it would be irrelevant. To them the thought of Prince Charlie is the last utterance of the day of romance, of enthusiasm, of love for the chiefs, of hatred of the alien oppressor, — for them represented by the Duke of Argyll rather than by the Elector of Hanover. The thought is cosmic, not individual, the voice of a dying past, that lies “too deep for tears.”

And so we come back, and truly it is not far to come, to the depot of the Naval Reserve at Stornoway.

Here, as in the schools, we were interested in asking questions as to family and clan, and we noted that 496 Macleods and 138 Mackenzies were drilled during the past year. We heard, moreover, of an amusing episode when, on some occasion, an Angus Macleod being required without further specification, the claims of no less than forty Angus Macleods had to be considered!

The transition to the remaining prominent fact in the existence of Stornoway is not remote from that of the elevating influences of the Naval Reserve.

Heron, writing in 1794, whether humorous or ignorant it would be hard to say, attributes the improvement in the Hebrides to the family of Argyll, the soldiers of Cromwell, and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. The good old S.P.C.K., like all reforming bodies, is used to being libelled and misunderstood, and is doubtless strong enough to endure any propinquity which may be thrust upon it! There is no question as to the good work it accomplished in old times in the Hebrides, especially in the direction of education, and I believe that the Society still contributes £60 a year to the support of higher education in Lews. In Martin we learn that even two hundred years ago Stornoway was in the van of the education movement, and that in 1696 schools were generally established. In 1774 there is a report upon education which tends to show that at that time it was largely religious, as it included religious teaching on two afternoons a week; “the inspection of morals in and out of school”; and a day of real hard work on Sundays. There was school, with religious teaching, from 7 to 9, from 10 to 12, and from 2 to 5. If the children did not go to church at 11, being afterwards catechised on the sermon, they had a sermon in school from 12 to 2. In 1803 we learn that the salaries of teachers were raised—one cannot wonder if there may have been some agitation on the question ! The scholars’ fees were very low, 2s. 6d. per quarter and a guinea for extras, such as navigation, a subject now constantly taught in the West Highland schools. There was a sort of private academy known as Mackay’s School, where navigation, “the big book of the sea,” was studied by men still living, who speak gratefully of their old master, whose devotion to this particular subject is recorded on his gravestone. He died in 1879.

When the School Board came to Stornoway in 1873, it found no schools in its charge except the Parish School, which was closed, and the teacher retired. As we hear that in 1865 there were some 2,500 children in the island not attending school at all, one feels that the Parochial Inspectors must have had plenty of occupation!

However, the whole question took on a new aspect when Nicolson, a native of the island, left a considerable sum of money for the building and endowment of schools to benefit “the children of my old schoolfellows.”

For six years these schools have been reported on by the Government Inspectors in the most favourable terms, and they are constantly enlarging their sphere and advancing in efficiency. Their leaving certificates are now accepted in lieu of the preliminary examinations for legal and civil service training, for the War Office, the army, the English and Scotch Universities, and for the Royal College of Surgeons. The course of study ranges from kindergarten work up to preparation for the Universities. Commercial life is equally kept in view, and includes modem languages, mathematics, shorthand, and typewriting. There is a physical laboratory, the girls, especially, have teaching in botany, and half an hour every morning is devoted to religious instruction.

The stranger probably looks around at the modern villas and enterprising shops of Stornoway, and concludes that it is from such homes as these that the Nicolson School gathers its material, which is true enough so far as it goes; but, mingling with the well-dressed girls and boys (taught together after the Scotch fashion, be it observed), are large numbers of bare-footed children, of children whose vernacular is Gaelic, to whom English and Latin are equally foreign languages, who—as we were quietly directed to observe—go up and down the handsome school staircase clinging to the railing with both hands, so absolute a novelty is a second floor to children brought up in “black houses” with a roof of sods, walls without mortar, probably a fire in the middle of the room, and a plank, a box or two, and a few shelves for sole furniture. An almost incredible—except in the Highlands an impossible—fact, is that the presence of a considerable number of these children is due to the arrangement in 1894 of a bursary scheme, for bringing into the school the best pupils from rural schools, who come to live in Stornoway on an income of ten pounds a year. Imagine the English villages with all their advantages, all their experience, all the difference of their conditions, under auy conceivable County Council arrangement, sending, wanting to send, being persuaded to send, finding the notion conceivable of sending, their little Charlies and Florences alone, on an income of ten pounds, to study the classics or modern languages, not across miles of peat-bog among strangers speaking a foreign tongue, but even by train to the capital of their county!

The quiet dignity of the girls, the matter-of-course courtesy of the boys, is a tribute to the success of the system of bringing them together as part of the ordinary course of things from the very first. Moreover, the girls receive the highest of all tributes to their potentialities, in the fact that a successful student is not regarded as a lusus naturce, that a woman may exhibit intellectual ability, and capacity for making her way, without exciting either misplaced admiration or irrelevant surprise.

Martin tells us that women “were anciently denied the use of writing in the islands to prevent love-intrigues; their parents believed that Nature was too skilful in that matter, and needed not the help of education, and, therefore, that writing would be of dangerous consequence to the weaker sex.”

The Highlands, if not the rest of Britain, have, however, happily outgrown a point of view so elementary as that of supposing that a woman is necessarily deprived of common sense and self-respect by the mere accident of sex. Moreover, the fact that the girls of the Nicolson School have distinguished themselves in such subjects as point to future plans of womanly work, rather than to any vulgar “equality of the sexes,” suggests that absence of strain and abnormal intellectual effort which has done so much to make our professional “clever woman,” educated beyond her brain power, the uninteresting animal she is. During the past six years the dux of the Nicolson School has twice been a girl. Whereas the lads have been foremost in science and in classics, the girls have done best in modern languages—English, French, and German. It is the girls who have taken prizes in botany and who have shown special aptitude for shorthand and drawing from nature. Girls and boys are equally successful in the theory of music. In all languages, Greek and Latin, or French, German and English, composition is taught, and the boys who work in the practical laboratory are encouraged to make their own instruments.

Perhaps in America, possibly in Germany, we might find some such combination of teaching and receptivity, but nowhere but in the Highlands could we find quite such social conditions as here. It takes Caledonia to “ cultivate literature on a little oatmeal!”

It was with very real pleasure that we found to how great an extent the iuferior teachers of the school had been trained within its walls, and how sympathetic they were with their pupils in consequence, meeting them on their own ground, and, above all, addressing them in their own tongue. Among all the words of wisdom to be found in the Report of the Crofter Commission none, as it seems to us, shows more real love for the people, more true knowledge of their lives than the following

“We think that the discouragement and neglect of the native language in the education of Gaelic speaking children, which have hitherto so largely influenced the system practised in the Highlands, ought to cease, and that a knowledge of that language ought to be considered one of the primary qualifications of every person engaged in the carrying out of the national system of education in Gaelic-speaking districts, whether as school inspectors, teachers, or compulsory officers.”

Dr. Johnson spoke severely of the absurdities of “the native language being proscribed in the schools, and the children taught to read a language which they may never use nor understand.”

Things have changed since Johnson’s time, and the opportunity for the islanders to make use of English, and the advantage of their familiarity with it, have greatly increased; but the futility of trying to instruct children entirely in a foreign language is too obvious to dwell upon. It was a matter looked into even by the S.P.C.K. in 1824, and we read in the report that after careful enquiry they came to the conclusion “that great injury had been done by the neglect of the vernacular language.”

There are some 300,000 Gaelic-speaking persons in Scotland, and surely such a population should be specially considered, as indeed it has been, by the central if not by the local authorities; for the code of 1878 gave permission for examinations to be conducted in Gaelic. In the more enlightened districts, the schoolmasters themselves are becoming conscious of the folly of the wholly English system, and I know of one most praiseworthy instance, in the island of Tyree, where a schoolmaster, with the kind and capable assistance of the parish minister, has absolutely learnt Gaelic, and is now, unlike many head-masters, in a position to have direct intercourse with the children under his care.

Professor Blackie, than whom the western Highlands had no truer friend, reflects upon “the stupid system of neglecting the mother tongue, and forcing English down the throat of innocent children who can no more be changed into Saxons by a mere stroke of pedagogy than the heather on the hills can blush itself into roses, from hearing a lecture by the professor of botany.”

Professor Blackie, moreover, is not only an advocate for the education of the Gael in his own language, but both by example and precept he has done much to stimulate its acquisition by the stranger, and he relates how, after working his way through the Gaelic Bible with the help of Monro’s Grammar and MacAlpines Dictionary, he was able to read various prose works, and so to acquire a considerable vocabulary in a language which he describes as a “very fine and polished dialect, rather too polished, somewhat like French, and especially adapted for music.” And indeed for students very inferior to Professor Blackie the acquisition of a reading acquaintance with Gaelic, which has so many roots in common with more familiar tongues, is comparatively easy. “ It is not,” he says in another place (Language and Literature of the Highlands of Scotland, p. 21 )> “it is not, therefore, the difficulty to the learner, but the ignorance, indifference, laziness and prejudice of the teacher, that makes the reading of Gaelic so

shamefully neglected in many Gaelic schools. It is an act of intellectual suicide of which an intelligent people should be ashamed."

To the stranger it is not the establishment of a reading, but of a speaking acquaintance with Gaelic which presents the supreme difficulty. The relation between the appearance and pronunciation of the commonest words, makes one feel inclined to assert that there are two languages, the spoken and the written. One says, Kem mar hd shiv t — How do you do? and one 'torites, Cia mar tha sibh. One says, Hatch meshu colla riv—I’ll come with you; but one ivrites, Theicl mise comhla ribh.

It seems as if the only way to spell a Gaelic word is to begin by eliminating every letter, which by the light of nature seems likely to be required. That it is an extraordinarily expressive language, peculiarly rich in epithets, no one would venture to dispute. It is popularly described as the finest tongue “to swear in, to make love in, and to shuffle out of a bargain in,” the last probably because it contains no direct equivalent for “yes” and “no” When one remarks that it is a fine day, your interlocutor replies, “A fine day it is.” “You say so” (reminding one of the biblical “Thou sayest it ”), or, “I’m sure,” are courteous forms of agreement with your statement. For story-telling the language is unequalled, as any one may discover from a study of the High-land Tales collected and almost literally translated by Campbell of Islay.

He, by the way, goes even further than Blackie in denouncement of the policy of stamping out the tongue of the people.

“I find,” he writes (Highland Tales, vol. iv., page 358), “that lectures are delivered to Sunday-school children to prove that Gaelic is part of the Divine curse, and Highland proprietors tell me that ‘it is a bar to the advancement of the people.’ But if there is any truth in this assertion, it is equally true, on the other hand, that English is a bar to the advancement of proprietors if they cannot speak to those who pay their rents; and it is the want of English, not the possession of Gaelic, which retards the advancement of those who seek employment where English is spoken. So Highland proprietors should learn Gaelic and teach English.”


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