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Outer Isles
Chapter XVIII. Stray Thoughts


SOMETHING has already been said as to the Nicolsonian Institute in Lewis. As I write, there reaches me from that far-away island the first number of what, it is hoped, may prove an annual publication, a pamphlet of thirty-two pages, well printed on good paper, and containing so much that is of interest wider than the merely obvious, that I cannot refrain from comment.

It is produced and edited by the scholars themselves, and naturally enough exhibits a laudable pride in their school and their companions; it is natural too that the contents should be chosen from the best material which the school has produced, that we should have well-informed essays on such subjects as Britain as a Colonizing Power, or The Literally Projects of the Twentieth Century, though original and interesting views on such subjects may surprise the Anglo-Saxon when hailing from “a peat floating on the Atlantic.” But it is even more interesting to realize that the ordinary school-boy and girl pedantry, even among a race so literary as this, has not superseded a healthy interest in their immediate surroundings, but that, out of thirty-four items in the magazine, twenty are of purely local interest; that they are concerned with the flowers, scenery, games and fishing of their own island, that there are, even among the rising generation in a Free Church community, those who collect and preserve old-world stories and, what is more, who can retail them equally well in excellent Gaelic, and in spirited, and not too conventional, English.

In the original stories, as well as in the spirit in which old traditions are related, there is much of the characteristic pathos which those who speak the Gaelic tongue so well, know how to use. What will perhaps surprise the inventors of the “Celtic gloom” theory, are the gleams of that wider sympathy with nature, which Wordsworth, also a dweller among the mountains, understood so well:

There is a blessing in the air,
Which seems a sense of joy to yield,
To the bare trees and mountains bare,
And grass in the green field.

What is more, there is active humour. The children have enjoyed and remembered various youthful inadvertencies of their own, some of which are really pleasing. The following are examples worth noting.

“Here is a line from Vergil” (your Highlander is careful of the spelling of the poet’s name) “ meaning roughly that the hero weeps copiously:

Largoque flumine vultum humectat,

which being interpreted means, according to one scholar, “He moistens his countenance with a large river.” Another illustration of dictionary pitfalls— English it must be remembered is as much a foreign language as Latin—is the paraphrase of Coleridge’s line,

The balls like jndses beat.

“The bullets kept striking repeated blows like peas.” Another story comes from a younger class. A little boy “who had evidently some experience of daily journeys for milk, on being asked the meaning of the ‘Milky Way,’ replied ‘Goathill Road.’” Another very human incident also preserved in the infant school, was of “a teacher who was telling her class how Monmouth was found lying in a ditch, with only a few peas in his pocket, when she noticed one boy not attending. Pointing to him she asked rather sharply, ‘What had he in his pocket?’ ‘Jumbo balls ma’am/ was the faltering reply of the conscience-stricken little fellow.” Another teacher was giving an object lesson to infants about a chair; infants, be it remembered, to whom a chair was conceivably a novelty, or at best a rare and precious possession. She took one little boy out to examine it. “Now,” she said, “What did the wood feel like?” “Please ma’am, dusty,” was the answer.

One’s pleasure in such stories lies in the fact that they were observed and recorded by the children themselves, that they are not the humours of the examination room, perceived by an educated man of the world, with a wide experience of the relations of things.

A question which cannot fail to occur to one on reading of the kind of education the children receive, is as to its subsequent utilisation. In the Arvmuil we hear of twenty-one now studying in the Universities of Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow, ten in arts, and eleven in medicine; of three more about to enter the Universities, a number which will probably be largely increased now that the Carnegie Fund is available. We hear of eleven women who are certificated teachers, one a Hospital Nurse in London, one who has just finished an advanced course in cookery, eight variously employed on the mainland, eleven in Stornoway. To return to the lads, only two appear to be teaching, which is to be regretted, Gaelic-speaking teachers being still scarce ; five are engineers, one is in South Africa, three are architects, one a chemist, one a photographer, fifteen are clerks, of whom six are in banks.

We note also that out of the sixteen students who are from the out-lying country districts, presumably holding that miraculous course of ten-pound scholarships, two are now girls.

And so the brave little ship launched less than thirty years ago keeps her course, and lands the little passengers so lately wandering bare-foot on the shores of their native peat bog, into distant worlds of thought and action. It is delightful to learn that the intentions of the pious founder of the Nicolson Institute are to receive further extension, and that his two brothers, between them, will further endow the school to the extent of £7,000, “the annual income to be employed in providing University Bursaries for boys educated in the school.” Possibly, now that Mr. Carnegie’s liberality has possessed the Universities of more wealth than at present they know how to employ, this sending of “coals to Newcastle,” or perhaps in such connexion, one should rather say, “owls to Athens,” may be reconsidered, and the endowment otherwise utilised. One more point of which the magazine reminds us, is of special interest to the student of these Islands, who may be tempted to ask whether all this training and education and enlargement of notions is robbing the Celt of his inherent characteristics. Personally we answer “a thousand times, no.” That is the work of landlordism and oppression, and Sassenach propinquity, and alien contempt, and certain religious influences; but of education— never. Even so essentially Celtic a characteristic as the power of spontaneous poetic expression remains, not only in islands more remote from the conventionalities of life, but even here, on the desk of a schoolgirl. The following lines, written impromptu in a few minutes, on hearing of the Queen’s death, have something in them of the wail of the pibroch, if not of the old bardic lamentation.

Tread softly, she’s no more,
She’s gone beyond the roar
And strife; weep nations all;
Let every pleasure pall
Now that she's gone.
Ah! who can fill her place?
Whose smile so full of grace?
Whose hand so bountiful
Could countless thousands rule?
Ah! who?—Not one.
Tread softly, she is gone,
And we are left alone;
A nation deep in woe,
That can no solace know
Now she is gone.

It is the womanly lament for a good woman gone from among us, albeit written upon soil which furnished brave soldiers to fight the Hanoverian army in the ’15 and the ’45! I once heard a gallant Highlander tell how, when Queen Victoria was engaging him as a piper, she said to him, “You Camerons were all for the Stuarts when they came over” and how he, starting forward with raised hand, shouted, “And so we are now, my leddy!” But he loved and, till her death, faithfully served, the good woman who made no demur when, Queen as she was, he point-blank refused to enter her service at the date she desired, because there was “no one but himself the day” who could do justice to the Laird’s moor, or could rightly distribute the points of vantage for the deer, or could finish training the young dogs, and so “ it would be when the season was 4 over that it would be just right and fair for him to be leaving the Lodge."

I have lately had opportunity for inquiring how far the Nicols<fti gift really benefits the class who could not otherwise obtain secondary education, or whether the desire for education is in any way confined, as is so largely the case in England, to the middle-classes, as a means mainly of self-advancement. I learn, in reply, that out of two-dozen lads now at the University, ten or eleven are of the crofter class; and that two of the most promising now in school are the sons of widows of crofters. One of these brave women still works her own croft, allowing her bright lad, the eldest of four children, to follow his bent at school, while she herself works at farm labour at home. Who that has taken any part in the work of training children in England does not know the difficulty of being allowed by the parents to carry on the work after the children have arrived at even the earliest wage-earning age?

“The difficulty in the way of the crofter’s children,” writes Mr. Gibson, the able Headmaster of the Institute, “is one of money mainly. As far as natural ability goes, the country boys can quite hold their own with the town boys. ... I can assure you with, I believe, no hesitation, that these children, whatever the station of the parents, have a susceptibility to culture that I can only explain as racial. It is certainly inherent in many of them, and is perhaps one of their most interesting features.”

It is certainly one of their most characteristic features, and one for which England can furnish little analogy. Even in the Lowlands of Scotland one may perhaps assume that some of the sacrifices made for education owe something to Highland example and influence. Now and then one meets an American, seldom an Englishman, who has grasped the difference between Scot and Highlander, their diametrically opposed temperaments and tendencies, their differences of history and of race. The Scot will occasionally claim the Highlander. “We’re all Scotch,” I have heard him say, especially if he were a Lowland-born schoolmaster anxious to minimize differences, but the Highlander tells another story; and I have heard him mimic, with infinite gusto, the Scot abroad about the time of Glasgow fair, with the “Tammy Shanty” cap, which the tourist believes to be the equivalent of a Highland bonnet, and his “Whaur’s Wullie?” and “What’s gotten Jock?” Perhaps the most surprising instance of failure to realize the difference in speech of Scot and Highlander is in the case of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, who makes Flora Macdonald lament in such phrases as:

But oh there is ane whose hard fate I deplore,
Nor house ha’ nor haine in his country has he;

“It jars upon a West Highlander’s ear to find broad Scotch put into the mouths of Gaelic speaking Highlanders,” writes Dr. Keith Macdonald, who has written with so much sympathy of the Highlands to which he belongs; “they never pronounced their English in Lowland Scotch, and don’t do it now. . . . This is not finding fault with the Lowland Doric, which is a most expressive and, according to some, a most beautiful language.”

Since remarking, in an earlier chapter, upon this question of Highland language, a few more examples have come under my notice, which further illustrate the historical interest of certain local phrases. Cothram na Feinn6, literally “Fingalian justice,” was an exclamation to which our attention was called when used by some boys at play, and which bears the same testimony as do the traditions of the Fingalians to the Highland belief in their honour and courtesy. It is perhaps interesting to remark that there is an old Island belief in the existence of a cold hell, a faith which a very short residence in South Uist would incline one to share. The first instinct of hospitality among the people is always to provide warmth, and everywhere we go we can always record that “the people showed us no little kindness, for they kindled a fire because of the present rain and because of the cold.” In a land of damp and draughts, and wet mist and low-lying clouds, a warm hell sounds almost luxurious! The people have a saying which one soon learns to appreciate, “Hell is bitter with its dampness," and they make use of a euphemism, “Save us from the wind of the cold channels” (i.e. hell). There is however a story which tells in another direction. The will o’ the wisp is a blacksmith who could get no admittance even into the lower regions. The most that could be granted him was a single ember to keep him warm, and he has gone shivering about with it ever since. Such a legend however need not be taken seriously, as the origin of the will o’ the wisp is an historical fact with date complete. Like the Siege of Badajoz and the Retreat of the Grand Army, it was first heard of in 1812, and is well known to be the wandering spirit of a woman condemned perpetually to seek the Galium verum used for dyeing the tweeds, as a punishment for having covetously sought to overreach her neighbours in collecting an undue quantity of what should be common to all!

There are certain terms of endearment which have what I have called, an historical interest. “Oh food and clothing of men!” in a country where food and clothing are hard to come by, is expressive of no common affection; so too, “Coat of the waist,” Cota cneais, and “Shirt of the girdle,” Leine chrios, are expressive of hearty devotion. “Calf of my heart,” where cattle are so much valued, is even yet more loving. Affection is indeed variously expressed in terms of cows, and the Highlander, speaking of the old indigenous breed of small sheep, as differentiated from the large Lowland sheep which have been the cause of so much disaster and sorrow, will speak of them affectionately as “ the small cattle.”

Norman Macleod, in one of his matchless Highland Reminiscences, brings to bear another argument against the new order of things in the Highlands which has hardly been so forcibly and clearly stated elsewhere—that is, the enormous increase in the cost of the poor to the country. In a note to the paper on The Minister and his Work, he points out that before the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, when relief was gratuitously administered by the sessions, the cost of all the poor in Scotland, including the towns, went little beyond £170,000 a year; whereas he writes in 1864, some ten to fifteen years after the Highland depopulation, “under the present system, with rentals largely increased, with wages rising rapidly, the poor cost the country annually upwards of £750,000, that the expense is steadily rising, and that the discontent of the poor is rising as steadily.” Elsewhere {Tacksmen and Tenants) he points out that, in the old days, the poor of the parish were wholly provided for by the tacksmen. Each farm, according to its size, had its old men, widows and orphans depending on it for their support. “ The widow’s free house was kept in repair by her neighbours, who also cut her peats and drove her cow to the hills with their own. Her gleanings of corn—a sparrow would disdain to glean in some of the islands now—were threshed at the mill with the tacksman’s crop, she had hens and ducks and a potato patch.” In short she was tolerably comfortable and very thankful, enjoying the feeling of being the object of true charity, which was returned by such labour as she could give, and by her hearty gratitude. “But all this was changed when those tacksmen were swept away to make room for the large sheep farms, and when the remnants of the people flocked from their empty glens to occupy houses in wretched villages near the sea-shore by way of becoming fishers—often whore no fish could be caught. The result has been that this parish for example, which once had a population of 2,200 souls, and received only £11 per annum from public (church) funds for the support of the poor, expends now, under the poor law, upwards of £600 annually, with a population diminished by one half, but with poverty increased in a greater ratio.”

The same author does not hesitate to assert that1 the drunkenness charged upon the Highlanders (but of which we have seen next to nothing in the Islands) also belongs to the New Order. He quotes from his father (the well-known Dr. Macleod of Glasgow) an account translated from the first Gaelic magazine ever published, in which the Hogmany Festival, the great merry-making of the year, is described with its mumming and dancing and singing, and adds, “ Thus we passed the last night of the year at Glendersarie (in the Island of Mull), and neither I nor my father ever saw a quarrel or heard an improper word at such a gathering. It is since the gentry have ceased thus to mingle freely with the people that disgusting drunkenness has become common in these black tippling houses, which prove the highway to almost every vice. The people of each estate were as one family—the knot of kindness tying every heart together, and the friendly eye of the superiors was over us all.”

Courtesy, courage and fairness are the ideal virtues of the Highlands, and any disregard of these is not easily forgotten. I remember once asking a piper for the well-known dance tune Diibh Luidneach, a request which so obviously created amusement that I inquired into the cause. “Oh, they’ll be thinking you will be knowing the history of that tune,” said my hostess; and I was further informed that the Diibh Luidneach, the Black Sluggard, was the boat in which Argyll sailed away after the defeat of Inverlochy, leaving his men to be slaughtered by Montrose and the Macdonalds. In how many English kitchens could one hear the history of, let us say, Sir Roger de Coverley?

In recalling the history of the fisheries it ought not to be forgotten that it is only since the decline of the House of Stuart that England has been indifferent to the prosperity, in this respect, of the sister kingdom. Careful investigation was made by Charles I into the possible developments of an industry of which he saw the advantages, but the fishing - stations which he established, afterwards fell into neglect in the generally disturbed state of the kingdom. Charles II revived the good work, which succeeded well for a time; but, says Martin, “ the design was ruined thus : the king having occasion for money was advised to withdraw that employed in the fishery; at which the merchants being displeased and disagreeing likewise among themselves, they also withdrew their money, and the attempt has never been renewed since that*time.”

For the observant, much of the history of a country may be found written upon its agricultural and domestic implements, and this is especially the case in the Outer Hebrides, where the scarcity both of wood and iron, and the peculiar nature of the soil, sometimes bog, sometimes dry and stony, sometimes incredibly shallow—a few inches of soil collected on the surface of the rock—have necessarily influenced the material and nature of the tools in use.

The oldest implement in the Islands, possibly one of the oldest in the world’s history, is the cas-chrom, the crooked spade (literally, crooked foot). It is still in use in certain districts—we have noticed it in Skye and in Harris—and is said to be far more effective than the plough, besides being suitable in positions practically inaccessible for horse-labour, for many an island plot is too small for a plough to turn in.

The cas-chrom is extremely strong. The right foot is placed upon the side pin, and the head, which is about 2ft. 9in. long, jerked into the ground with the entire weight of the labourer, who rests upon the long shaft or handle which measures between 5 and 6 feet. He works from right to left, walking backwards. In Harris and other districts where cultivation is by means of “lazy beds,” already described, this instrument is almost indispensable. There are various modifications, notably the cas dhireach, as to which some verses are recited, said to be the spontaneous address of a Lochaber drover on first seeing an islander at work with the less orthodox implement:—

’Tis not the right stick
You have got in your fist,
You have gone beyond your senses
You will never be right while alive;
Little tillage will you do
With the ugly stick
You cannot raise a crop
That will keep alive a child,
My darling is the crookie
That comes up to meet me,
When my foot is on the side spur,
Heavily and kindly.
It is not the right stick
You have got in your fist.

Then there is the racan, or clod-breaker, so primitive but withal so useful an implement that one may suppose it to have been unaltered from the earliest days of tillage. It is primarily used as a mallet, and the teeth are only called into requisition on occasion.

The trtisgar and the plbitheag are used in cutting peats, and however primitive are admitted to be very effective for their purpose. The head is shod with iron, and the labourer cuts the peats the size intended at one push, while a second man casts them out on to the nearest plot of dry ground ready for drying and subsequent stacking.

The brhth (two stones revolving one upon another) is by some thought to be the oldest form of handmill in existence; the cnotng1 is a very simple instrument for bruising grain for immediate use, and consists of a solid piece of rock, often merely rough hewn, with a hollow for receiving the grain.

The women, too, have their special implements, the cards for combing or carding the raw wool into fleecy curls ready for spinning in the graceful cuibhioll, the low Highland wheel, which must always revolve dessil, sunward, which is used with a special grace— put away with the sign of the cross, and on Saturdays with the loosened band, that the powers of evil may not find it ready to their hand on the day of rest. Then there are the crois-iarna and the more uncommon lianradh for winding the wool into skeins, and the mudag, a basket made of osiers to contain the ball of wool during manipulation and so keep it from the floor, which at best is sanded, but may be wet and muddy, for it consists of the native earth more or less hardened by use, sometimes with a rock cropping through, and affected, even in the best-regulated households, by the state of the weather.

An illustration is given of the crogan or boUachan, vessels still made in Barvas, Lewis, and formerly in other places, moulded in the hand, of clay; roughly decorated with patterns drawn with a pin and glazed by being filled with milk and slowly heated. The cruisie, a lamp of the same design which figures on Egyptian monuments and is still found in Pompeii, is alas! almost superseded by the unsavoury abomination of ill-made lamps and second-rate paraffin. Formerly they were burnt with fish or seal or whale-oil, or, in remote islands, with the intestines of birds.

I remember once seeing on the west coast of a solitary islet a treasured example of one of those freaks of mood with which Nature bewilders her votaries. It was a tiny globe of intensely fragile glass for electric light, washed on to shore by a storm which had wrecked the ship to which it belonged, and landed safely above rocks and shingle—a fairy toy one was almost afraid to handle. Many strange things come ashore from shipwrecks, and unlikely objects are often found among the possessions of the islanders. Once a basket of tomatoes was washed up to the satisfaction of the people, who seldom see vegetables and scarcely ever fruit, as was testified by an old man who observed that he was glad to have seen apples, if only for once, before he died!

It is not every one who has been given the opportunity of studying the Highlander’s character or the privilege of being able to appreciate it. The Highlander is infinitely patient, and he will minister to the requirements of the stranger as part of the respect which he owes to himself, but such courtesies are scattered, not elicited. It is in this faculty of patience that he differs from his nearest of kin in Ireland—

The stranger came with iron hand
And from our fathers reft the land,
Where dwell we now?
See rudely swell,
Crag over crag, and fell o’er fell.
Ask we this savage hill we tread
For fattened steer or household bread?
Ask we for flocks?
These shingles dry
And well the mountain might reply,
To you as to your sires of yore
Belong the target and claymore!

The Highlander’s nature is too great for malice, too brave for petty revenges. If he is strong to suffer, he is strong also to endure.

He has the virtues and the failings of a child, or of the beasts who are his companions and friends. He is sensitive, easily hurt ; his memory is tenacious of a slight or of an injustice; but he has lived hand-in-hand with Nature, and it is not only in his gift of second-sight, in his friendship with bird and boast, in his joy in the glamour of his Islands, but also in capacity for friendship, and in readiness to exchange sympathy, that he shows that his ear has been ever close to the beatings of her heart.

This book will have served its purpose if, in its degree, it has set before even a few of our own countrymen a true picture of the people of the Outer Hebrides; a people well worthy of our friendship and of our interest, but who are practically less known to the average Englishman than the inhabitants of New Zealand or of Central Africa. They are of the same blood with all of us who can claim to be Celtic rather than Saxon, they are geographically our near neighbours, they are under the same rule and obey the same laws ; and yet even those who penetrate to their islands, so far at least as they are represented by comfortable inns in easily accessible places, come back knowing nothing of the life of the people, and only ready to condemn them as half-savage, extortionate, and above all, idle. It is not to the man who wants to kill something, not to the woman who has a wardrobe to exhibit, that the Highlander reveals himself.


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