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Outer Isles
Chapter XVII. Harris and Smaller Islands


FOR twenty-four miles after leaving Stornoway there is little to interest one. The road is bordered on either side by a gloomy moorland, varied occasionally by small, shallow grey lakes; and only the distant view of the grand hills of Harris encourages one to persevere in exploring a country so dreary and so featureless.

After passing two or three small villages, at one of which, Ballallan, we change horses, we come nearer to the land of promise, the purple glory of the Harris hills, and about a mile short of the border—for Lewis and Harris, be it remembered, are not two separate islands—we reach Athan Linne (pronounced A-Leene) when the ground suddenly rises, and we enter upon a mountain pass. Up and up we go, till at some 800 feet above sea-level, with great walls of mountains still surrounding us on either hand, we turn and look behind us, on perhaps the grandest view in the outer Hebrides. We are on an isthmus between Loch Seaforth and Loch Tarbert, both salt-water inlets, strewn with green islands, while also nearer at hand are various small lochs, upon which the shadows of hill and cloud are painting fairy islands of purple and blue, adding yet fresh beauty to a picture more varied in colour and outline than anything we have yet seen among the Hebridean greys and sepias. Across the front of the hills are giant terraces, the path of some moving glacier, and from deep clefts come the sounds of rushing waters forcing their way down to the sea. The great wall of mountain, which has been our goal almost since leaving Stornoway, is the Forest of Harris, which one cannot grudge to the deer, for those bare peaks, towering each of them well over 2,000 feet, could serve no other purpose, and the sport which involves such climbing, is, unlike a good deal of “sport” one hears of, at least fair play, man’s wit and endurance pitted against the beast's experience and agility. In places, even the high road makes some demands upon the fortitude of the nervous traveller, and the merciful one will certainly travel some miles of the journey on his own feet, though the excellent horses sent for us from Tarbert are an equine pleasure such as we have not enjoyed since we left Tyree.

Perhaps none of the Islands has a name so English, so commonplace in sound as this. Till after the first half of the eighteenth century it was known as Kilbride, the Church or cell of St. Bridget, but how it came by its later name Na Heradh, i.e., the Herries (plural), or what the name means, it is difficult to ascertain. The alleged explanation that the reference is to na hardubh, “ the heights,”—the mountains of this parish being higher than any in the Long Island—is said by etymologists to be purely fanciful, though it is worth observing that the same name, Na Heradh, is given to the highest part of the island of Rum.

As a matter of fact, Harris is not an island—only the southern half of the Lews, but it is difficult not to separate them in one’s thoughts, so utterly unlike are Lewis and Harris in every natural feature; the one flat, desolate, colourless ; the other mountainous, varied, rich with colour and beauty of form. Moreover, Harris, though not an island, is set in a numerous Archipelago of islets of which some half-dozen only are inhabited, though many measure a mile or more in length. They seem to have been named by the Danes ; the larger, to the number of about a score, having names ending in ay. Ensay, to the south, was made famous for Highland cattle by the late proprietor, Major Stewart, and there is one celebrated bull with whom most of those we met in the Islands are anxious to call “ cousins,” as other Highlanders with other chieftains. South-west of Ensay is Berneray, smiling and fertile, of which more elsewhere, and we note too Pabay, one of many of that name, “priest’s islands ”—possibly in old times part of the endowment of the Church—Calligray, Hermitray, Hulmitray, Gilisay, and so on. Some of the smaller islets have a different termination, Tuem% Cuadera, Coddem9 Heste?n, etc, Scandinavian, too, are the names of most of the farms; Nisabost, Horgabost, Shelabost, and the many points in Nish—Renish, Noranish, Groad-nish, and the like.

Far away to the south we note the most northerly point of Skye, and the hills of North Uist seem mere hillocks seen from amid the great mountains which tower around us here. A characteristic, though unconscious testimony, to the hilly character of the roads, is presented in various parts of the island, by the number of cairns marking the resting-places of coffins on their way to the burial - grounds, which here, as elsewhere, generally surround the ruins of some old Columban church.

Tarbert, which is our destination, is an exceedingly neat, well-kept village, perhaps the most orderly in all the Hebrides. The houses are not only well-built, but, unlike those of Loch Maddy, for instance, well-placed, having some relation to each other and to the roads and neighbouring buildings. There are trees, too, and about the hotel and one or two comfortable private houses there are well-kept gardens, which yield excellent fruit and vegetables, in spite of the usual difficulty of rough salt winds and sand drifts, and poverty of soil. There are neat little shops and a well-arranged pier, two Churches and a police station, which, not forty miles from Stornoway, would strike one as superfluous as official arrangements go in this island, only that one is being constantly reminded of the fact that here we are in the county of Inverness and not in Ross, as we were a few miles back; a fact which introduces extraordinary complications into common things, and sends one’s letters to mysterious and apparently irrelevant places.

Harris appears to have belonged originally to Mac-leod of Macleod, by whom it was sold in 1778 to a relative, a native of Harris, one Alexander Macleod, and to have passed later into the hands of Lord Dunmore, who, it is said, gave £60,000 for it, not apparently a satisfactory bargain, as a considerable portiou of the property has again changed hands, and now belongs to the well-known bankers, the Scotts. The present representative is reported to be much in favour of emigration, and even to offer special facilities to steady and capable young men, but this liberality is not quoted to his disadvantage, as the fact that Harris is wholly unadapted for agriculture is too obvious to be disputed ; moreover, the deer forests are less injurious to the country than sheep farms, because, among other reasons, the ground they occupy would, here at least, be for the most part valueless for other purposes. Such complaints as one hoars are mostly of old standing, and bear reference to former depopulation in the early days of Lord Dunmore. The island contains about a hundred and forty-six square miles of land, being about fifty miles in length and from eight to twenty-four in breadth, rock being the predominating feature of the country, instead of the watery wastes of other islands.

Even the Old Statistical Account which, as a rule, gives such golden pictures of former fertility, admits that “ Harris can never be enriched by agriculture.” The prominent reason, then, lay in the fact that in the anxiety to make kelp, the land had degenerated from want of manure, the seaweed being otherwise utilized, but the underlying cause for the necessity of so much manure still remains—that of the extreme shallowness of the soil which lies often but a few inches deep over the gneiss rock of which the island is, for the most part, composed. The only possible system of cultivation is by “lazy beds,” which, upon any extensive scale, is extremely laborious, but except at the south end of the island, near Rowdill, seems to be almost a necessity. Munro, nevertheless, tells us that in his time “Harris was very fertill and fruitfull of corne, store, and fisching,” but, he adds mysteriously, that there is “twisse more of delving in it nor of teilling.”

Harris, like Lewis, seems to be largely under Free Church influence which, acting upon the essentially religious temperament of the people, appears to have taken real hold of their life, not only on the aesthetic side which one cannot but regret, but in regard to more practical details as well. There was a powerful religious revival about 1835, “in consequence of which,” says a contemporary writer, “the Sabbath is strictly observed.” The inhabitants have been recently subjected to a Christian Science Crusade, under the leading of Lord Dunmore himself, but the results do not appear to be conspicuous. It is said that in the whole of Harris there is hardly any tradition of crime ; theft is uncommon, and murder wholly unknown. The Statistical Account speaks of “two licensed houses seldom frequented by natives.” Of one licensed house at Tarbert we can testify that it is. considerably frequented by visitors as a convenient and comfortable centre for fishing, the only abiding place between Loch Maddy and Stornoway.

There are some stone circles in Harris, two of which are near Tarbert and, we are told, are spoken of by the people as “clach na grein” (stone of the sun), an interesting testimony to the tradition, doubtless very ancient, as to their original purpose.

Perhaps the most interesting monument *in Harris if not, of its kind, in the Outer Islands, is the Church of St. Clement at Rowdill. Its records go no further back than the sixteenth century when, according to Buchanan, it served as the Church to the monastery built by Alexander Macleod, who died in 1527. It was restored by another Alexander Macleod, who began work upon it about 1784, but during this restoration the building took fire and had to be reroofed. The Church was again repaired by Lady Dunmore and appears to have been in use when the family were at Rowdill in the “mansion-house” of the proprietor. Of late years it has, however, fallen into a state of most unfortunate neglect; the windows are broken and the damp sea-air has coated the stones with moss, to the threatened injury of the curious and beautiful carvings upon the tombs of the Macleod chieftains. An occasional service is held, we were told, but the people have their suspicions of the Popish tendencies of the architecture, and it is but little frequented. The body of the Church is a narrow oblong about eighty feet, seven inches long, by fifteen feet wide. It is correctly orientated, and has north and south chapels, and a western tower the width of the church. Even the New Statistical Account, so recent as 1841, written by the Parish Minister, entirely ignores the existence of the Church, though it makes mention of a plague of rats in the parish and of an alleged stone-circle under the sea. The Church itself, however, hints at a story much older than has been preserved for us in history, or even in the traditions of an indifferent population and an uninformed public.

Rowdill is certainly remote; it is in the extreme south of the island, but is easily reached by the help of the mail-boat which brings letters from Skye.

As there is no pier one has to row to the shore in a small boat, but except in bad weather, or when the boat is more than usually crowded with cattle and stores, it is easy enough, especially if the tide admits of the choice of a convenient landing-place. There is a little coffee-house at Obbe, three miles away, where one can spend the night if necessary, as of course the mail steamer leaves at once and may not return for some days. To drive from the hotel at Tarbert is really the easiest plan for the non-adventurous, and the visit may be made in a day.

There are the remains in the churchyard of some handsome tombs enclosed by carved-stone screens, all in a state of disregarded dilapidation. The Church tower tells the story of a structure older than even the Macleod monuments or the ancient font, for built into the walls are some fragments of a much earlier building, figures which suggest to the learned, traces possibly of Phallic worship, or at any rate of something pre-Christian.

Rowdill probably dates, as a Church, from the flourishing times of Iona when, it is said, the lands of Harris belonged to the Columban territory, and it is not unlikely that some missionary named Clement, “sainted by the courtesy of after ages,” may have been sent there and may have turned to Christian use some existent sacred spot, in the same spirit which we find amoug the earliest religious teachers in all parts; the same spirit indeed, which we have met with in other islands prompting the burial of the dead on the sites of old Columban Churches, and even of Scandinavian barrows and brochs. The subject matter of the carvings is, in some cases, of a nature which makes their exalted position, removed from public gaze, desirable where their deeper purport is not perceived, but to the student they are suggestive of the mysteries of an older faith, of faraway times more remote even than the simpler nature-worship which the “Standing stones” may possibly commemorate. Sex worship, sun worship, Christianity itself, in its older forms, are to the uninterested alike all part of the forgotten errors of our fathers, to be ignored by a pious present and allowed to fall into decay, as belonging merely to the ancestors of somebody else.

In visiting the ecclesiastical sites of the western Highlands one becomes accustomed to meet with the names of various unfamiliar saints, from Jeremiah whom one is not used to hearing of as such, to Pharaer, Lennan, Cutcheon, Aula or Kiaran, whom one is unused to in any capacity. But St. Clement, it seems, is not a saint at all. Two Clements are known as belonging to the period of the Columban missionaries, one who was persecuted about 747 by Boniface, Archbishop of Mentz, and the other who was entertained by Charlemagne in 784, and who taught the first Grammar School in Paris. Neither was canonized, and the latter is probably the one commemorated by the Church at Rowdill.

No account of Harris would be complete without some reference to the “Harris tweeds,” though, as a matter of fact, they are in no sense peculiar to Harris and may be bought in almost any part of the Long Island, more especially in Lewis and North Uist. The process of fulling the cloth, with all its attendant ceremonial, can be seen in perfection only in the Catholic Islands, where the romance of life still lingers, and indeed much so-called “Island” tweed is made wholly or in part in “power-looms” on the mainland, thus losing all its distinctive character, as well as its especial attributes of being waterproof and changeless in colour by wind or sun. Those who want the real thing should trust no London or mainland agencies, but apply direct to the local dealers in Tarbert (Harris) or Stornoway (Lewis) as the method most satisfactory to oneself, and most beneficial to the weavers. The cloth is of excellent quality, and endless in wear, both for men and women, besides being often beautiful in combination of colouring, or in pure tints, all of local, and mainly vegetable, extraction.

In former days, and in certain islands still, the people have suffered at the hands of local general merchants, especially before the recommendations of the Crofter Commissioners came into operation, and land was more difficult to com© by than even now. The difficulty of keeping sheep obliged them to run into debt to the factor or general merchant for wool; then, when the cloth was finished, it would probably be sold to the same man at a low value; and being already in his debt they would have to take payment in goods, charged at extortionate prices, so that in many cases he would make three profits,—on the wool, the cloth, and the groceries.

In South Uist and Barra, the people have long given up any attempt to make cloth for the market, as they have been compelled to give up other advantages common to happier islands, but a little is made in Benbecula, and a good deal in North Uist, and now that the land question is under consideration, the people are likely to have opportunities of obtaining wool among themselves without resort to the factor or general merchant. Moreover, by selling the tweed to the tweed merchant, of whom there are now many in various parts of the Islands, the truck system is avoided, and the weavers are honestly paid in cash, which enables them to pay ready-money for wool, and at once establishes trade on a just and reasonable basis, as they can obtain their goods at market value, and “philanthropic” stimulus is rendered superfluous.

The entire manufacture is done by the people themselves, often by different members of one family. In Tyree, where, from the land famine, the people have, as in South Uist, given up making cloth, even (to a great extent) for their own use, there are but few looms, and it is common for people to bring their home-spun wool to the weaver, and to pay by the yard for the labour of weaving, but in the Northern Hebrides, where looms are common, most weavers undertake the entire work. This includes washing the wool, drying it (often on the roof), dyeing, carding, spinning, running on to the spindles, setting the warp, weaving, washing, drying, fulling (or waulking), baling, and delivering the goods to the merchant, often carried in a creel, perhaps on the weaver s back, for many miles.

As a rule the cloth is woven in lengths of from thirty to forty yards,—the shorter the length the greater the multiplication of labour in setting the warp, which from personal experiment is, I can testify, a somewhat tedious proper, and trying- to the sight. Cloth of good quality weighs, when finished, and dried, very nearly a lb. per yard, say 28 lbs. to a length of thirty yards. The loss in carding and washing the wool is at least thirty per cent., so that about 8i lbs. must be allowed for waste.

The piece will therefore require at least 38 lbs. of wool, which costs at present value (October, 1891) about ten shillings a stone of 14 lbs. for black-faced sheep, and about fifteen shillings for the superior Cheviot; the cost of raw material therefore is in itself considerable.

The intrinsic value of the dye is trifling, as it is generally some local product,—seaweed, sundew, lichen, dandelion, iris, heather, blaeberries, tormentil, bog-myrtle, and various other simple herbs.

This is assuming that the dye is one of those characteristic of the Islands, which is by no means always the case unless the tweed is bought direct from the dealers, who, honesty apart, would never so far kill the goose that lays them golden eggs, as to rob the cloth of what to the expert is one of its especial “ points.” The colours of the “ Harris tweeds ” one meets in London drawing-rooms are certainly surprising. The real cloth is dyed ingrain and will wash and wear “for ever.” That the art of faking is confined to alien sources of supply is illustrated by the following story, quoted in The Nicolson Institute Annual, as pure humour—

“At another time one of the standards was getting a lesson in nature knowledge, the subject being the tweed industry. They had found out the details of every process in the tweed-making, till it came to the question of dye and its source, when one little fellow, who thought he was sure of this at any rate, answered, They'll be buying it down in Mr. John Maclean s shop!”

The people themselves are extraordinarily ignorant of the value of time and labour, mainly because they are not accustomed to receive payment for it in cash, and it is therefore extremely difficult to arrive at any estimate of the additional cost of the labour of spinning and weaving. A recent article which received the Mod prize and is published in the Celtic Monthly gives the cost of carding and spinning at 8d. per lb. (raw material) and Id. per yard for weaving, thu9 adding another thirty-five shillings to the cost of the web. Elsewhere we heard of a shilling per Highland yard of eight feet, and were told that this was about a day’s work, though sometimes a good weaver might earn as much as Is. 6d. Even the New Statistical Account (1845), written when wool and labour were alike cheaper than now, quotes the value of Lewis Kelt cloth at about 48. per Highland yard (four feet). However, in buying from these unsophisticated people through the local merchants, one may, as a rule, make sure that they will be fairly dealt with on straightforward business lines with none of the superfluous “ philanthropy ” which the time Highlander so properly resents.

It is possible that English readers may expect to hear something of the islands of Skye and St. Kilda, not knowing that neither of these comes under the category of Outer Isles. There is some question whether Tyree does not fairly belong to the Inner Hebrides, but at least it has, in common with islands geographically more remote, the characteristic of not having yet attracted the tourist, and therefore of, so far, avoiding the commonplace.

In Skye there are some delightful districts, wild, beautiful, and romantic ; glens of which we think with gratitude for happy days spent among kind friends; mountains and moors still possessed by the old families, and sacred from vulgar intrusion. But also in Skye there are electric light and Tottenham Court Road furniture, and the exorbitant, even worse, the pretentious and incompetent innkeeper, with other blessings of civilization. Something in the direction of return to old times may be hoped for from the deviation in the path of the tourist, by the opening of the new route to Mallaig; though the inhabitants of the quaint little town of Portree may not at present regard this as other than a doubtful blessing. Here, as elsewhere, the alien landlord is in possession, and the least observant cannot fail to trace his handiwork in depopulated glens and an incredibly poverty-stricken populace. One district was pointed out to us near the town of Portree where, at the time of the threatened Napoleonic invasion, 200 able men were raised in a fortnight, and now a single farm, twelve miles by four or five, occupies the site of scores of homesteads, and, as the local phrase is, “the smoke of a hundred hearths goes through a single chimney.”

Now and then one realizes that better times are coming. A few months ago a certain landlord moved his tenants from the sunny to the shady side of the hill, where good grass was to be found only near the top, and which was therefore better adapted for sheep that could climb, than for cows. The people accordingly exchanged their cows for sheep in the usual proportion of six sheep to a cow, but the County Council having given a licence for cows and not sheep, the tenants were ordered to remove them just at a time when the patriots of the crofting township were away: some at the “front,” some at their “depots,” some in the Naval Reserve, having, as they supposed, arranged their home affairs according to such poor best as was possible under the circumstances. The County Council supported the rule, and an enforced sale was ordered. Fortunately the people of Skye are not so friendless as those in more remote islands. An appeal was made to Lord Balfour, who declined to order out the militia or even the police, and let us hope the sheep are still evading the arbitrary rules of unreasoning officialism.

St. Kilda, like Iona, has become the happy hunting-ground of the Lowland tourist, and nearly every year some irresponsible book or magazine article, founded on a week’s observation plus a Kodak camera, is added to the “literature” of the subject. When we were last in Eriskay where, during the two years of our previous absence only three strangers had landed, we observed from the newspapers that during the fortnight of our solitary stay in that lonely island, over 300 visitors had arrived in St. Kilda.

The natives are deteriorating under the foolish treatment of those who “take an interest” in them; who bring them presents of silver teaspoons, confectionery, silk aprons, mantelpiece ornaments, and silk handkerchiefs of tartans belonging to no clan in the island. A lady on her return showed me with much delight an old Celtic brooch she had “picked up” for five shillings. It was made, doubtless, in anticipation of such purchasers, out of a brass safety-pin and a penny key-ring (both new). Such an incident, I venture to say, could occur in no other island, not even in Iona.

Elsewhere we found that the district nurse had lately left a certain island, quite one of the most comfortable of the Hebrides, because she missed the conveniences she had been previously accustomed to in St. Kilda! Mr. Richard Kearton, whose volume (beautifully illustrated) With Nature and a Camera is quite the best of its kind, testifies :

“The houses are substantial one-storey buildings with zinc roofs securely fastened down by iron bands. . . . They are far ahead in point of comfort and conveniences of nearly all the crofters’ dwellings I have been into in Harris, Uist, and other Hebridean Isles.”

The houses are all divided into two rooms at least, are well-lighted, and have fair-sized chimneys—all very satisfactory and greatly to the credit of their excellent landlord, Macleod of Macleod. The tourist who lands —only if the landing can b© quit© conveniently managed — from the electric-lighted saloon of the Hebridean, or the homelike comfort of the Dunnra Castle, and returns in a few hours to sleep in harbour at Loch Maddy, must not however delude himself into supposing that he and some scores of companions have done anything adventurous or unique.

The birds of St. Kilda are its most interesting feature, but even they can be more than paralleled elsewhere in lovelier spots, and where the hand of man is less violent against them.

We remember with far more interest than St. Kilda can invoke in us, at least half-a-dozen islands which, if geographically nearer to the world, are at least much more “far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife.” The Old Statistical Account observes in its stately fashion:

“The compilers of the Encyclopaedia Britannica will do well to correct their error in calling Barra a rock half a mile in circumference, inhabited only by solan geese and other wild fowls.”

The Encyclopaedia was evidently referring not to Barra at all, but to Barra Head; but how the author of the article knew anything of that remote island is difficult to conjecture. It is a solitary rock, from 600 to 700 feet high, boldly defying the Atlantic, difficult of access, and yet it seems to have been long inhabited, for there are the remains of a dun testifying to Danish occupation, and of a graveyard possibly older still. That half-a-dozen brave men should consent to risk their lives in the service of the Lighthouse one can understand, as one understands other deeds of like heroism. One I remember, who described for us the spectacle of an Atlantic storm as seen from within the shelter of the light-room: how at that elevation, some 700 perpendicular feet, one could look down into the storm and see it raging and swelling below. He said the sensation was of extraordinary security ; there w$s no sense of movement, and even the roar of wind and wave seemed apart and afar in another world.

The birds were in former times the wealth of the islands, and the natives were extraordinarily skilful in collecting them. The cliffs are more precipitous and inaccessible than those of St. Kilda, and yet the islanders used no ropes but climbed over the rocks. Perhaps the grandest cliff is that of Biolacreag in the bay of Aoineag on the west coast, which used to be the crest of the Macneills, and “Biolacreag!” their rallying cry.

The islanders used to pay their rent to Macneill in these birds, called fachaich, fatlings, principally the young of the Manx shearwater, now well-nigh extinct since the arrival of the puffin, a comparatively valueless creature and very vicious, who, according to modem custom, has evicted the older and more profitable inhabitants. Fortunately careful observations have been taken of the birds of these islands by the eminent naturalist Macgillivray, a native of Barra.

No words can describe these wonderful precipices and the long marine arcades which intersect the solid rock, so that one may wind in and out among the grim stone pillars and perpendicular walls which uphold their endless subterranean galleries—the little island-world overhead, the reverberant waters of the Atlantic beneath, a marvellous aquatic aviary all around; the black walls gleaming with myriads of feathered creatures standing erect in close-serried rows, motionless, and so tame that one might handle them could we approach near enough. Sometimes the ledges are so narrow that one wonders how they obtain any foothold at all, while in other spots, on some few inches of vantage, the birds are standing three and four deep, their white breasts and red bills shining weirdly where an occasional ray of sunlight chances to pierce from above into the mystic gloom.

Sometimes we seem to be making direct for a blank wall of rock, leaving behind us the last spark of daylight, return in so narrow a space being impossible; when suddenly, with a deft movement, our skilful oarsmen guide the little boat down some sudden opening to right or left, and a now gallery in the great crypt opens out before us. The immensities of Nature’s architecture, the silence, the mystery, the sense of one’s own helplessness and the rich glory of the deep-toned colouring, combine to make an experience we can never forget, and which we cherish with all the more gratitude that it might not be easy to repeat.

On account of the strong currents running between them these islands are very difficult of access, and landing is so hazardous that it is not unusual for even the native sailors and fishermen to have to return and land elsewhere. One of our party, whose home was within some twenty or thirty miles, told us that during twelve years he had made many fruitless attempts to reach the caves we visited, sometimes waiting within reach even in fair weather for a whole fortnight, but until we brought him good fortune, in vain. A particular combination of wind and tide, a good boat, experienced boatmen, and steady nerves are certainly requisite.

Bernera used to be known as Bernera of the Bishops, Bearnaraidh an Easpaig, probably to distinguish it from several other islands of the same name ; and it seems probable that it was—perhaps in Columban times —once Church property. In Mingulay is a well, known as the well of Columcille, which the people regard with such especial reverence that, left often for months together without any religious privileges, or any means of consecrating water for devotional purposes, they use the well as “holy water,” and will cross themselves with it as they go by, and carry it at the prow of their boat, as is the pious custom among the fishermen.

In Mingulay also are the remains of what may have been a hermit’s cell or “bed of devotion,” of which little more than the ground plan is now left. It is spoken of as “the Cross,” but is really a circle enclosing three rectangular cells, and a solid heap of stones in the centre, upon the use or origin of which, so far as I know, no expert has yet pronounced.

These islands are the remotest corner of the Gordon estate, having passed to it as appertinents of Barra with the rest of the Macneill property ; but they are so inaccessible, so remote from the centre of things, that the people seem exceptionally well-off and comfortable. They welcomed us with the utmost cordiality, and their kindness and cheerful readiness to take any trouble for our pleasure or convenience, we can never forget. So far are they from exploiting the stranger, as is the custom in St. Kilda, that we had the greatest difficulty in persuading them to take payment even for laborious services, and to prevent them from robbing themselves to give us such necessaries as added greatly to our comfort.

“This now is the Atlantic,” said Dr. Johnson. “If I should tell at a tea-table in London that I have crossed the Atlantic in an open boat, how they’d shudder, and what a fool they’d think me to expose myself to such danger.’’

The visitor to Barra Head must travel in the same fashion as Dr. Johnson; the convenient mail steamers which travel to St. Kilda or the Orkneys know nothing of these solitary islands, and it need hardly be said that one does not travel with much luggage. We had a dog and a “hold-all,” our companions (three priests and a doctor) carried, they alleged, a razor and a Breviary. We made our headquarters in Mingulay, in some rooms under the new chapel in process of building. It was bright August weather, and the scanty furniture was quite sufficient for our needs. There was a bedstead and bedding, which, with the aid of a lavish loan of clean home-spun blankets, we were enabled to distribute into three separate rooms; there was a board and trestles left behind by the workmen, and a good cooking stove, with a pot and kettle as part of its fittings. Within an hour of our arrival we were supplied with chairs, cups, plates, the inevitable teapot, and abundance of blankets. A burn trickled down the hill behind the house, the sea lapped gently on the white sands in front; we had abundance of water for drinking and ablution. What more could one want?

The day of our arrival was Friday, and we had excellent fresh fish in abundance, though there is a tradition that the sea-birds taste so strongly of their natural food, that we should not have transgressed had we dined off them. Our companions, the men, both of religion and medicine, found plenty of occupation, for the people naturally took advantage of their visit to supply their needs spiritual and bodily.

At an early hour next morning Mass was said in the little unfinished chapel, with such fittings as could be arranged. There were no seats, but we were glad to bring up our four chairs for the very old and infirm. Almost every adult in the island was present, except a retired Presbyterian schoolmaster, and outside, a little group of awe-stricken children silently awaited the dispersion of such a gathering as they had never beheld.

The schoolmaster interested us greatly. He was a scholarly man from the mainland, and could speak English. He came to the island somewhere about 1860, and the story is told that on his arrival the children crowded round to see the school they were going to have! I believe he has never been away ; he married a woman of the island, and after teaching for, I think, over thirty years, was pensioned, and now is “passing rich” on half the income of the village preacher. His little croft supplies him with food and clothing; his house is well-furnished with blankets, his fire with peats; and his one luxury is tea—which he imports— of the very best. He has books, and is quite an accomplished botanist, having observed and classified the flora of the island without knowing the names of a dozen flowers. We had tbe privilege of being of some use in naming his collection, and left him, feeling as one so often does among the Highlanders:

Alas! the gratitude of man Hath often left me mourning!

The island is so little known that no Martin or Buchanan, not even a contributor to the Statistical Account has been found to write its history. We had an interesting talk with “the oldest inhabitant,” which can be but inadequately reproduced in English.

“Caluni Macphee is my name,” said he, “son of Donald, son of John, son of Rory, son of Rory, son of Rory, son of Donald, and I can’t go further back than that; but the man we came from was big Kenneth, who was an unrighteous man, and came from the island of Colonsay or from Eigg. In any case there were men slain in a cave in the place where he came from.

“Kenneth and his son, with a crew of three, fled to Barra, but a storm came on them with great cold, and the three men perished; but big Kenneth and his son got ashore at Oronsay in the Sound of Vatersay. He had a crock of gold, and he took his son under his arm, and tried to spring across to the bigger island. In springing over, the crock fell, and was broken, and it has been cast up to the Macphees ever since, and there is a raun about it. I might have learnt it, but I would not; it was a reproach to us. Next day ho went back at low tide and picked up the gold.

“The Macneill of the day liked to have all the stalwart young men about him at Kisimul, and it was either the son or the grandson that was along with him there, when the people died of the plague in Mingulay.

“Macneill at Kisimul had noticed that it was long that the people of Mingulay were not coming to the mainland, and he sent out a crew to see what was wrong, and the stalwart descendant of big Kenneth was with them. They landed over there at Sloe nan Druisdan [chasm of brambles]. Macphee jumped ashore and came up to the township, and every house he went into he found clean swept and the fire out, till he came to the last house, where the people lay dead, for there had been none to bury them. The township was then up above to the north-west, and I think that there must have been houses where the chapel is built, because they found many stones and some ashes when they opened the ground there.

“Macphee hurried back to the boat, and called to the crew to put back for him. ‘You must tell us your news first,’ they said, for they were surprised no person had come down to welcome them to shore.

“When he told them how things were, they were afraid, and pushed off and left him alone; but when they got to Kisimul and told Macneill, he was angry, and told them to go back at once to fetch Macphee, with the coit [a Gaelic word for “boat,” now falling into disuse, but the lingering use of which in this remote island is worth noting].

“However, it was seven weeks before they could land in Mingulay because of the weather. All this time the poor man had no fire, but he was yet alive before them ; some say he had killed a sheep, and lived on raw flesh and sheep’s blood. Every day he used to climb to the top of the highest hill, looking out for the boat, and the hill has been called Ben Macphee ever since.

“When they returned with him to Kisimul, Macneill asked if he would be willing to go back again and stay in Mingulay, and he said He would if he could choose his own companions. Macneill told him he would get that, and among those he chose was an ancestor of Michael there, and of Angus, son of Donald, who lives at the back of the schoolhouse.”

“Did he take a Campbell?” asked one of the group mischievously.

“And Michael’s ancestor a Macneill of the chief s own blood! No!”

“Macneill went with them, and on landing climbed up Ben Macphee as far as the place since called Macneill’s Bed, yonder ” (pointing to where a projecting rock made a sort of cavern-like shelter), “so as to be away from the smoke and disease, while Macphee, who was not at all afraid, set fire to every house, and the township was built in the new place. Macphee got free land for himself and his descendants.”

As elsewhere in the Islands the inhabitants had plenty of time for ceilidh, and another kind friend was ready to give us a further unwritten chapter of Mingulay history. We had often heard of a certain pious priest named James Grant, who had been stationed in South Uist at the time of Prince Charlie’s visit. He was then about thirty-nine years of age. He was betrayed, and had to seek shelter in Mingulay, whence, after some time, he tried to escape to the mainland. It was at this point that our friend’s story began.

“It was at nightfall that he set sail, and when he got to Vatersay he went ashore to enquire news, and heard that the red soldiers [i.e. the Hanoverians] were in Barra, so he returned to Mingulay, and went alone to the cave of Hoisp.”

I note as thoroughly characteristic of a Highland ceilidh that at this point a bystander interrupted to add, “And a man brought him an egg to eat.” There is always a received method of telling a story, from which no deviation is permitted without reminder, which, in the interests of history, has its advantages.

“The red soldiers came to Mingulay, and the first two men they met were put under oath at the point of the sword. The first man said he had seen the priest leaving the island the day before, and the second said he had seen him come back and go over the hill. The soldiers struck the first man on the face with their muskets, and his nose was crooked till the day of his death. The other man they took with them, and they got the priest, and he was bound, and brought down to the village, and thrown into a barn near the house where John Mackinnon, son of Donald, son of Niel, now lives. Two young lads came in, one after another, where he was, and he asked the first to bring him some thatch to put under him, for the ground was very wet; and the lad went out, but was unable to return. And he asked the second to bring him an egg, but he too could not return. Thereafter the priest was taken away, and the next thing they heard was that he had been made a bishop.”

James Grant did happily escape from his enemies,, ultimately became Bishop of the Lowland district, and died in Aberdeen in 1778 at the age of seventy-two.

We were next informed why this particular story belonged to our informant. His mother, who died at over 100 years old, remembered the two lads. She was “a praying woman,” and Father Allan himself communicated her at Easter, 1885 or 1886. Her son is now seventy-one, and she married late in life.

A cave in Ben More in Uist, which also sheltered Bishop Grant, is still known as TJamh a Ghranndaich, the Cave of the Grant.

From yet another chronicler we gleaned a further note to our little chapter of Mingulay history.

“There was about this time a soldier, who had been in the ’45, who belonged to Mingulay. He was great-uncle’s son to Ian yonder, the son of Hamish, and he had some money, and the soldiers were coming after him. His brother advised him to put away the money in case of what might happen, but he said, ‘They’ve not done with me yet.’ However, he was surrounded by soldiers, and Captain Scott [whose name is execrated in the islands] ordered him to be shot, and he was robbed and murdered at the back of the house where the stackyard is.

“Captain Scott, with some more of his kind, went off in a ship to Tyree. He was only just in time, for his superior officer, on coming to Mingulay, was shocked to hear of his brutality, and said that if he had been there, it was Scott himself would have been shot.”

“And there is no more story about Mingulay,” said one of our friends, “till we shall begin to tell about the time when the two ladies with the wise white doggie came to the island.”

Sometimes—when our thoughts go back to those hours of golden sunshine on the little green bank in the Atlantic Ocean, where men and women lead simple lives and talk of golden deeds, where they visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction (alas! how many are bereaved each stormy winter!), and keep themselves unspotted from the world—theirs “seems the real life and this the dream.”

But if they had no more stories to tell us, we could always talk about the birds, and to us that seemed an endless fairy tale.

About the 1st of February they come. There is snow on the hills, it may be, or at least far away to the east one can see on a clear day that the Scaur of Eigg and the hills of Cuchullin are crowned with silvery white. The lighthouse men talk of wrecks, and the fishermen’s boats are on shore, and at night the winds wail and moan about their homesteads ; but the birds have come, and it is the first promise of spring, just as surely as when, with us, the brown of the winter woods takes on a veil of purple.

The birds have come, but not to stay. They will visit the old nests and clear them of rubbish, and clean and repair them, and then, in great flocks and clouds, they fly away and melt into the grey distance. But now and then, on bright days perhaps, or when the wind sets towards the island, a few will be seen here and there—advance guards of the great army. About the last week of April they again reconnoitre their nests, and in a few days they are all about the islands in thousands ; and then the great nursery is opened, and each hen lays one egg on ledges so narrow that but for their extraordinary balance—which one realizes only by experiment—they must inevitably be destroyed. They are so close together too that it is wonderful how each bird can distinguish her own. About the end of July all are hatched, and soon they disappear—some say that each hen with her young one on her back plunges into the sea, and is no more seen. Each tribe keeps, year by year, to its own quarters— the oily puffin, the rare shearwater, the various gulls, the guillemot, the cormorant and a dozen others.

The island of Mingulay is rough and hilly, but the pasture is good. Naturally life is not easy, and expedients have to be resorted to. There is a high rock called Bennichorn close to the island, with very fine grass upon the top, up which men climb at the risk of their lives, and then draw their wethers up after them to fatten. In another place we were shown a very narrow cleft in a rock, the jagged edges of which just make it possible for a sheep to obtain a foothold, but it can never turn round. The men bring their sheep in boats to the bottom, and start the poor beasts on their upward path, which eventually, after some hundreds of feet of danger and darkness, brings them out into green pasture and the light of day.

These islanders are a fine-looking race, the men as usual superior to the women; some were of definitely Scandinavian appearance, veritable Vikings, with grand, fair, well-shaped heads and big voices. They are notoriously long-lived, unless, as so often happens, they fall victims to the hungry sea. Mingulay has lately boasted two giants: one Peter Campbell of six-foot-nine, and Duncan Sinclair nearly as tall.

We heard of a monster that inhabits the caves of Mingulay at the north end opposite Pabbay, and interviewed one man who had seen it, but could only tell us it was not a water-horse but very like it. Of the water-horse we were constantly hearing in many islands, but here we found something very like what the Society for Psychical Research would call “collective evidence,” i.e. a whole boat’s crew, who saw the beast following them for a quarter of a mile. Big Ian, grandest of Vikings, whom the Atlantic in all its fury could not daunt, himself described it. It was bigger than a common horse, and of a dark grey colour; he couldn’t see whether it had hoofs, but its action was that of swimming.

We would gladly have remained among these friendly people, and were really grieved to be told suddenly that it was best that we should be off in half an hour, with barely time for leave-taking; but our friends were right, and we learnt afterwards that had we not left just when we did we might have been detained three months. We were almost becalmed, and the men had constantly to row. We went ashore on the islands of Pabbay and Sandray, on both of which are traces of ecclesiastical buildings; and the evening fell before we reached Barra, after some eight hours’ dream-like floating over a moveless silent sea, with not a sail in sight, only here and there when we neared an island we exchanged greetings with some solitary fishermen setting their nets in the golden twilight.

Many things we talked of in that dream-journey, and now and then some of the men would sing to us, especially when their companions were rowing. We talked of the kindness we had received, and to illustrate their assurance that visitors were welcome in these lonely places, one of the party quoted the speech of a man in Iochar to a priest who was visiting him, and who was detained by a snow-storm, “I wish it would snow so that there wouldn’t be room for a little bird below the heavens!” that is, in order that the visit might be prolonged.

We heard more about the water-horse—one had been seen not long since by four men who were fishing lobsters only sixty yards from shore. The creature came within two oars’ length of them, and looked at them fixedly with great eyes like cups. It had a very broad head and a mane. No one present would own to having seen a mermaid, but they said that when one was reported it was a sign of bad weather, apparently distinguishing between veridical and non-veridical hallucinations, as the learned in such things would say.

We stayed in Barra for the night, and next day resumed our voyage back to Eriskay, a fact which I mention only for the sake of recalling our sight of the Stack Islands’ wave-worn rocks, now only occupied by sheep. One—Creag Mhor, the big rock, romantically crowned with a ruined tower—is the subject of weird legend, and is indeed suggestive to the imagination. Nothing more absolutely solitary could be imagined, and the utter loneliness of the position is accentuated by the extreme minuteness of the island, which seems as if the rush of the surrounding sea might any moment dash it to pieces. Yet even the miniature castle on its summit has defied the Atlantic for untold centuries, while nations and empires have been swept away and whole races of mankind forgotten.

A nameless mystery clings about the Flannan Islands, lately the scene of the terrible disaster which has been already referred to, and which occasioned the death of all the men of the lighthouse, their sole occupants.

The islands, seven in number, are accessible from Lewis, about twenty-five miles to the west.

They have long been uninhabited, though apparently at one time an ecclesiastical settlement of sufficient importance to invest the islands with a reputation for special sanctity. There are the remains of chapels: one, still in some degree of preservation, known as Teampul Beannachadh, the House of Blessing, about 11 ft. by 10 ft. 2 in., may have been the abode of some penitential hermit. It is of the usual Columban variety, built without mortar, and ascribed by Buchanan to the Druids. He calls the islands Insu-lae Sacrae, and the “Indweller,” John Morison, also regards them as especially sacred. “When the people go there,” he says, referring to the depredators of the sea-fowl, “they use every two men to be comrades. They hold it a breach of the sanetitie of the place (for they count it holier than anie other) if any man take a drink of water unknown to his comrade, or eat ane egg or leg of anie fowl, yea, take a snuff of tobacco.” Martin gives quite a long and very curious account of the customs associated with the Flannans, which in his time were held so sacred that “it was not right” to call them by their name, and they were always spoken of as “the countrie.” In the same way to this day green is in certain districts constantly spoken of as “blue,” to avoid naming the colour of the fairies. The St. Kildians do not speak of their island as “Hirta,” but as “the high country” (cf. chapter xi. “ The Powers of Evil ”). Martin quotes other instances—that water must be called burn, not visk; a rock, should be called crueyy or the hard thing; cladach, the shore, should be called vah, a cave; gort, sour, should be called gaire, sharp ; and a bog, a constant source of peril, “the soft thing”—all of these instances being just examples of the Hebridean tendency towards “dodging” the powers of evil, on the principle that “ill will come if mentioned,” and that those things will be injured to which the attention of the listening powers is even accidentally called.

Those who landed must do so sun-wards, thanking God for safety; and they always held a special service, morning and evening, in the ruined chapel, for three days before the work of fowling began, for “there was none ever yet landed, but found himself more disposed to devotion there than anywhere else.”

The Hebrideans have a way, worthy of the mediaeval saints, of including their dumb friends in their recognition of sacred times and places. At certain festivals extra food is given to the cattle, and it was part of the religious celebration to refrain in the Flannans from killing any bird after evening prayer, or with a stone, a belief which, even associated with the almost necessary work of taking life for a liveli hood, included the idea of—

He prayeth well who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.


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