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Scenes and Stories of the North of Scotland
Chapter III. - The Island of Lewis


The Island of Lewis, the largest of the Hebrides, lies some forty miles off the western shores of Ross and Sutherland, the wide and stormy sound known as the Minch running between. It lies on the Atlantic bosom like a diamond-shaped pendant on a fair lady’s breast, but the edges are so indented with deep bays, and long-narrow inlets that the coast line must be little less, if not even more, than twenty times the length of the island. At the rough angle on the eastern side there runs out a long peninsula, shaped like a mushroom ; and in the bend where it touches the mainland on the south lie the bay and town of Stornoway. The whole island at one time belonged to the family of Macleods, but passed, about the beginning of the seventeenth century, into the hands of the powerful Mackenzies of Kintail.

On our way to visit “the Lews,” as it is often called, we crossed the Minch from Lochinver in a somewhat heavy sea. The waves were breaking constantly over the bow of the steamer, and frequently drenched the bridge also with water. There was nothing to be called either gale or storm, so that there was no danger; but many of the passengers appeared no less timid than wretched, which is

saying a good deal. Their condition reminded me of on East Coast captain, who was rather a rough customer, and at times very out-spoken, to put it mildly, in his language. He was a strong, burly man, with a face of deep red colour almost approaching to purple. On one occasion, during a stiff north-east gale, when heavy seas were sweeping his vessel’s decks, and the wild wind howling angrily in the rigging, there was a very timid passenger on board. This gentleman, who could not be persuaded to go below, stood trembling and shivering on the after part of the bridge, and nervously clutched the rails with his hands. Once or twice he ventured, timidly but anxiously, to ask the captain if there was any danger, to which that officer always replied that he might keep his mind at rest, there was no danger whatever. The same enquiry, however, was repeated once too often, for at length the captain turned upon his questioner, and vented his impatience in a stentorian key—

“Now, Sir, I’ll tell you what it is, and let this be an end of it. "When you see my face as white like a sheet as your own, you may take it for granted that there may be some danger; but, not till then.”

The traveller, more timid and cowed-looking than ever, made no more inquiries.

Stornoway, the chief, or rather the only, town of the Hebrides, is a lively little sea-port, with signs of activity and prosperity which often surprise strangers. Picturesque in situation, quaint in many of its aspects, it has become the great centre of the fishing industry on the West Coast, and the one source of supply for all southern products and luxuries, including tourists, to the whole island of Lewis. On the hillside opposite the town, and looking down upon the harbour, stands Stornoway Castle, the seat of Lady Matheson, its richly wooded grounds kept with scrupulous and lavish care. But I must call a halt in time. If you wish to know the capital city in more detail, please consult your guide-books, and leave me to my own scenes and memories.

The general features of the Island of Lewis are few in number, but well marked and distinctive in character. The shores are everywhere rocky and rugged, save where, at wide intervals, they are interrupted by broad bays or narrow sea lochs, which terminate in green glens among the hills. The middle and northern districts are for the most part great stretches of flat or undulating moorland, dotted all over with hundreds of little lochs and tarns, into which no burns tumble, and out of which no rivers flow. Yet how pretty these flat saucers of rainwater are—scores and scores of them glistening in the sunshine like silver ornaments laid out to view upon a russet ground. In the south and south-west, the mountains are thickly studded and lofty, but long, twisting arms of the sea boldly creep in between them, and almost meet from opposite sides of the island. Many of these inlets taper away to narrow points, which are hidden in deep valleys eight or ten miles from the open sea. So many are the fresh-water lochs and the insinuating strips of the ocean, that, in bird’s eye view, the whole island must resemble a diamond window with its countless rain-drops darting one into the other at the beginning of a shower. The hill-tops are singularly wild and bare, scarce a tinge of green relieving the yellow masses of rock and stone ; but in the valleys there are many choice spots of sweet verdure and beauty. An old writer compares the island to a cap with a gold band around it—the latter term denoting the cultivated spots which lie in the valleys, or by the shores. The simile is not a happy one, but may be allowed to pass if we suppose the cap to be second-hand, and much the worse for wear, because then we can account for the many ragged gaps in the band of gold.

The people of Lewis are not purely Celtic as to blood and character. In the north of the island especially there are many evidences of the Norse element both in the people and their ways, and in the names of places as well. There are strong affinities between the natives there and the Scandinavian settlers of Orkney and Shetland; and no wonder,—the reason is not very far to seek. The frequent invasions and settlements of the Vikings in the days of old have left indelible marks upon the men and the scenery of the Butt of Lewis. It is not possible, however, in all cases, to separate what is Celtic from what is Norse. The two elements have long ago become largely fused into one another ; the habits of the two races have grown together; and Gaelic, whatever once may have been, is now the common language of all. It has always been a pet idea with me, that this admixture of Celtic and Scandinavian blood should and will produce, if social and economic conditions admitted of fair play, as fine a race of men, physically, intellectually, and morally, as any which has ever lived upon earth. This view I venture to put in type, pace the Saxon-born southerner. It will be no surprise to me if some day or other, even if I should not live to see it, “the Lews5’ sends out a man of front rank into the world. To ask me to mention to disclose in what particular line this Lewsman will excel and rise into wide fame, is neither fair nor kind; it is going too far. Meantime we must be content with what we find ; and I now offer some memories and musings, chiefly relating to the island, which have, at least, the merit of variety.

A few days after our arrival, we left Stornoway by the north road, which skirts the inmost recess of the Broad Bay, and then breaks—about a mile further on—into a wide fork. To the left lies the highway to Barvas, a township some twelve miles off over a crawling, winding, moorland road on which not more than one or two houses are to be seen. Yet how much there is for which to be thankful! It seems hardly credible, but is a fact nevertheless, that fifty years ago, though there were some roads, there was not a single bridge in the island. If people would cross streams, either on business or to escape the fairies, they must ford them on foot, or on horseback, or on man-back. It is even said—surely by some ill-natured libeller of the weaker sex, that women carried men—husbands, brothers, even lovers—across the fords upon their backs. These happy days are now long gone by; and yellow streaks of road creep here and there all over the island.

At the angle of departure, we chose the route to the right, keeping nearer the coast line, and after a long walk reached a typical Lewis village.

Let me first sketch the outward features of a single dwelling. The walls of a cottage belonging; to a crofter or fisherman are usually about six feet high or little more. They have an outer and inner face built of rough stones all sizes and shapes, the space between filled with earth or rubbish. On the top of this wall, which is often four feet thick and more, there are built up layers of turf which form a broad ledge all round the base of the roof, like the rim of a strong boot along the edge of the upper. This flat wall-top, covered with grass and weeds, is a promenade and feeding ground for the sheep and poultry, and often a look-out for women who expect husbands or brothers home from sea. The roof proper starts from the inner edge of the wall head. The rafters are often few and thin, because all wood for such purposes must be imported from the mainland and is therefore high in price. After the framework is up, layers of turf are laid upon the beams, and over these again a thick coating of grey thatch. To make all tight and fast, straw ropes are thrown over the rounded ridge, and their ends whipped firmly round large stones which serve and are known as anchors, to moor the roof in a storm. If anything more be needed, a harrow thrown over a damaged corner may check further mischief for a time. Some of the houses are very short and small; but others are long and roomy. All appear diminutive and squat-looking, so much so that an old writer of playful humour remarks that one could put his hand down the smoke-hole in the roof and unlatch the door. This is a quiet and harmless joke, no doubt; but if anyone were foolish enough to make the attempt, the result might be serious —for him. I say this, because we have a remarkable warning on record, though it be several centuries old.

A travelling shoemaker came on a Sabbath night to a covenanter’s dwelling. He had been promised a week’s work in the family, and intended to begin betimes on Monday morning. Afraid of being reproved for travelling on the day of rest, he slipped secretly up to a loft above the kitchen. Through a wide square hole in the floor of this upper chamber, the smoke from the central fire below found its way upwards to the aperture in the roof, and so to the open air. Tired with his journey, Birsy, for that was his name, fell fast asleep. His awaking was rude and alarming, and took place while the household were at family worship. First an awl, then a broad-bladed knife, fell on to the hearth below, causing no little flutter; and finally the cobbler himself toppled over and descended with a blinding splutter into the fire around which the family were gathered. What a wide-spread scattering of ashes was there! What a panic and stampede among human kind, great and small, old and young alike! Therefore I cordially commend the lesson to thieves and other fools in Lewis. Let them beware. The descent from the canless vent in the roof to the fire on the hearth below is straight as an arrow, and sure to lead to shame.

A Lewis village is usually a cluster of closely-packed dwellings, which from a height or from a distance look like groups of grey mole-hills in a patch of rough grass. Only narrow causeways, always rough and often very filthy, separate wall from wall or gable from gable. At some places a few cottages straggle along the roadside, while here and there, on moorland or shore, a few stand apart and alone. One of these latter we visited on the day already mentioned ; why and how, it is now my duty to tell.

After attempting some sketching in the intervals between showers, and visiting a small church and a few dwellings near by, we turned our steps homewards, that is, towards Stornoway. It was high time, for heavy swollen clouds from the far west were creeping toward us over hill and moor, dropping here and there a grey-blue band of soaking rain upon the earth. At length a gusty wind and pitiless shower drove us for shelter to a low mean-looking hovel which we took for a byre, and in its deep-set doorway we crouched from the blast. After a little we were greatly surprised to hear the sound of voices within, and by and by an old woman, coming to the door, courteously beckoned us to enter and rest for a while. In my best Gaelic I tried to thank her, and we accepted the invitation. The interior was of the type most common in Lewis, and deserves a few words of description. The house was divided into three distinct compartments. The door by which we entered opened into the byre, where there were two or three stalls for cows on the gable end, and in front of these the usual gutter with its usual contents. Then came two dwarf walls some five or six feet high, with an opening between them, but no door to fill it. This was the entrance to the central and most important division of the dwelling—the scene of all the active indoor life of the inmates. On a raised hearth in the centre of the floor burned a merry, kindly-looking peat fire with its soft fringe of white and orange ashes. On either side, against the opposite walls, were broad benches, which could easily accommodate a large family and one or two visitors besides. Beyond this compartment again, was the door—really a door this time—of the spare or best room, a small chamber with a mahogany table, box beds, and one or two chests painted in green and red. The smoke of the peat fire in the middle division rose reluctantly upward, and was drawn out by a wide aperture on the ridge of the roof, while, as part of the same arrangement, another hole just over the wall-head in a far corner, created as much draught as was needed. If the current of air became too strong, a wisp of straw stuffed into the said hole prevented excessive ventilation. One custom, peculiar, so far as I have heard, to the Lews, must here be mentioned. The crofters and fishermen take the thatch and turf off the roofs of their houses every year or two and use them for manure, for which purpose they are said to be most valuable. No wonder, therefore, that the inmates are rather pleased than otherwise to have their roofs blackened and saturated with peat smoke, which supplies the most valuable ingredients in the fertilising process. Within doors in a Lewis dwelling, the prevailing atmosphere is a misty blue, light in colour but dense in quality, which for a time is very trying to the eyes of strangers. Such are many homes which have been abodes of genuine piety, and from which have gone forth bands of the hardiest sailors and bravest soldiers of which our country can boast.

The inmates of the cottage were three in number—the kindly old woman who asked us to enter; her daughter, a cheerful, young wife, whose husband was a mechanic in Stornoway; and last, but not least important, an infant child, buried among clothes in a fish creel, for want of a better cradle. The younger mother told us she was merely on a visit to “grannie,” who wanted to see and dote over her grandson. We were by no means inquisitive, and neither were they; yet, little by little, we learnt a good deal about each other. The old woman, knowing nothing but Gaelic, spoke only to or through her daughter; but if that obstacle could have been removed, she would have displayed, I believe, very remarkable conversational powers. From time to time I stepped out to the door to see if there was any blue sky visible, but the watery gusts were still sweeping by with undiminished fury and frequency. Meantime, without any interruption to our talk, the young woman quietly infused tea, and set it on the hearth, drew cups and saucers from a trunk in the inner room, and handed to each of us large sea biscuits, each one of which bore its burden of excellent cheese. Our repast was both “grateful and comforting,” and we shall none of us forget one of its accompaniments. The grandmother had by this time found out that I understood some portions of the Gaelic conversation which passed between herself and her daughter. From that moment many of her remarks were intended for my special benefit, but I was careful to keep well within my depth in reply. At length, without asking for it, we were afforded the rich treat, which adds, to us at least, so much interest to the memory of our visit. The old woman, when her daughter was busy, had lifted the little child from its strange crib, and laid him ou her lap. Then, bending her keen, dark eyes and unkempt hair over his chubby face, she rocked her body to and fro, and crooned the plaintive AEoliaii strains of some ancient Gaelic air. Both in itself and in its harmony of circumstances, that weird lullaby remains to us a precious and fascinating memory. Much rather should I prefer to hear it again than to sit through half the concerts and operas and classical music of a London season. Of course, that confession is most heretical, and shows what many people will call a low level of taste. So be it; think so if you will. At once I take my stand in this matter by the side of my old teacher, Professor Blackie, and for the present am content to fling at your heads the old adage, diversos diversa juvant. By-and-by the rain ceased, and we resumed our long tramp to the town. All the details of our parting with the inmates of the cottage are not for the public at large. We shall never forget the homely and natural kindness with which we were welcomed and entertained.

Allow me here a wide digression on the subject of language, and of the many blunders which have been made by Celts and Saxons alike when away from their respective homes. We shall take the Saxon first, and give the natives of the Highlands the first of the laugh.

My knowledge of Gaelic—once fair for one who is no Celt—is now very slight indeed. I used to be told, “They’ll no sell you in it,” but I fear that now, if the attempt were made without much ostentation, the bargain might be struck before I was aware. Therefore, I seldom attempt to use the language unless for a little sport or in necessity. Yet my canon for learning a strange tongue is entirely different from that system of caution, and is indeed very simple. Study grammar, write exercises, read extracts of books—do these certainly; but above all, speak, speak, speak, every chance you can get, and no matter how many blunders you may make. By such a method, you will gain ever so much daily, and lose nothing except, perhaps, a little stupid pride. But that advice is only for private use. How many men have made, and daily make, asses of themselves by venturing to speak publicly in a language which they have not mastered. Let me give you a few rather amusing instances. "Whether they are all, or even most of them, from the Lews or no, I cannot tell; but most of them are from the pulpit, which ought to be quite as good a source.

In a certain rural parish in the north, there lived and laboured an excellent Christian minister, who had acquired a knowledge of Gaelic, because he earnestly desired to preach to Highlanders in their native tongue. It will be matter of surprise to no one that, during the early years of his ministry especially, he made frequent, and often grotesque, blunders. The following is one specimen out of very many which have been current. It was a warm, bright summer day, and the doors of the church at the further end from the pulpit were thrown wide open to admit a current of air from without. At one passage of his discourse, which seems to have been of a hortatory nature, the minister meant to convey the earnest counsel, “Be up and doing; spring is at the door,” and he thought he had said so as correctly as fervently. Unfortunately, what reached the ears of his Gaelic audience was this: “Be up and doing; there’s a colt at the door.” At once four hundred heads were turned toward the open door to see the animal enter. The colt, however, never appeared ; and I question if the good old man ever knew of the error he had committed. The words “spring” and “colt” in Gaelic are closely similar in sound.

Another preacher who had sought and found a quiet retreat in the remote Highlands for the very purpose of acquiring the language, fell into a similar mistake. He had travelled some distance to make a call, and on arriving at the house of some friends, astonished them by declaring, “Tha tri raidhean f’on ah’ fliag sinn,” which is, being interpreted, “I left my own house three quarters of a year ago.” Whether he was asked to narrate the story of his wanderings in the interval, we are not told; perhaps an amused smile on the faces of his friends might induce him to suspect that something was wrong. Probably he would ere long be awakened to the fact that there is a difference, which exists even in Gaelic, between a year and an hour.

Another case was more unfortunate, because, as in the first, the blunder was made in public. Towards the close of the service, a minister proceeded to make some intimations from the pulpit. Among others, he intended to announce that on the following Lord’s Day there would be a collection for the poor of the congregation. But, alas, for him ! he forgot how nearly alike in sound are the words “boclid,” signifying poor, and “boc,” which means a buck. The word he uttered was the latter instead of the former, so that he startled his audience by solemnly intimating a collection for the bucks of the congregation ! We can easily understand to what inquiries this interesting call to benevolence might give rise, especially among the young ladies. Who were these bucks? Were they many in number? Why were contributions asked on their behalf? Were they in poverty or in debt, or in both together? Had extravagance in costume or luxury in living brought them into straits? We have, unfortunately, no answer to any of these questions, nor have we any record of the amount of the collection when it came off. It would be interesting to know how far so touching an appeal for a deserving class had reached the hearts of the people.

One instance more let me offer of the ignorance and rash folly of the Saxon when he attempts to air himself in the earliest and greatest of all languages. In this case, the minister was impressing upon his audience their needy and lost condition in a spiritual sense. He meant to enforce upon them the conviction that they were “peacaich thruagh chaillte," that is, poor lost sinners. His actual words were somewhat similar in sound, but widely different in meaning. Imagine the feelings of his hearers when he called them “pieieli chruaidh shaillte,” that is, hard, salted saith, the saith being a coarse, deep-sea fish, often caught and cured in the western and northern isles. It is much to be feared that both mind and conscience among his hearers would refuse assent to such a description—even coming ex cathedra—and might even resent it as an insult. Perhaps it is still more likely that the announcement was received in quite another spirit. The Highlanders, like the French, are very indulgent toward foreigners who blunder in their language. Probably the congregation heard their minister expose his ignorance with a kindly pity flitting in smiles from face to face.

Now, being myself a Norseman in blood and sympathies, I should like to hold the scales evenly between Saxon and Celt. Therefore my digression as to Gaelic must lead to another. Possibly some ardent Celts may store up some of the above blunders in memory, and upon occasion fling them gleefully in the face of the Saxon. We must, therefore, provide the latter with a few pebbles to sling back. Not too abruptly, however, must we approach the delicate subject of Highland frailty. If I handle it too roughly, I shall pay for it next time I visit the north.

The Lewis people are deeply attached to their native island. Local patriotism burns strongly and steadily in their bosoms. They are reluctant to leave the scenes of their birth and youth, and fain—even if they have wandered to far-off’ lands—to return again to the island which has never ceased to be home. It was an American, but it might well have been a Lewsmau, who wrote—

“Me whom the city holds, whose feet
Have worn its stony highways,
Familiar with its loneliest street,
Its ways were never my ways—
My cradle was beside the sea,
And there, I hope, my grave will be.”

Yet many leave the island, as they do other parts of the west and north, to better their condition or status in life. Among this class perhaps the most interesting are the youths who go south to our Universities, in order to study for one or other of the learned professions. Through what a hard struggle has many a Highland student fought and won his way! All honour to his dauntless perseverance and courage! Yet there are few such men in whose careers there have not been one or two strange or amusing episodes. They know the English language sometimes very imperfectly; and the conditions and habits of city life often land them in trouble.

Well do I remember the case of one such student—I shall not say where he came from—with whom I had a slight acquaintance at college. He had taught a school in the north for many years, and was well advanced in middle life when he came to Edinburgh. After passing through the Arts classes, he proposed to study for the Church. In order to do this he must needs be examined by his local Presbytery. One incident in that process is worthy of mention, A well-known and excellent minister was appointed to ask him some questions in mathematics. The first of these came off as follows :

“Well, Mr F., let us begin with what is very simple. Would you be so kind as tell me,—What is a point?” The student looks bashful, and is silent. He must be spurred up a bit,

“Come away, Mr F., I’m sure that’s very easy. What is a point?” The student begins to feel that he must make some reply, so he deems it wise policy to win, if he can, the good graces of his examiner. Accordingly, with an insinuating smile, he suggests—

“Oh, Mr G., ye ken yersel; ye ken fine yersel.” “Well,” replied the minister, “perhaps I do; but that’s not the point. What I want is that you should tell me. Come away, What is a point?”

The poor student feels that the question must now be fairly faced; he can temporise no longer. Accordingly, after a prolonged nervous application of his fingers to the crown of his head, he dropped his hand, bobbed his forefinger sharply on the table, and with an air of conscious triumph, exclaimed,

“A dabbie like that; jist a dabbie like that.”

We can guess the general character of the questions and answers which followed.

The story of one of Mr F.’s great difficulties in a theological class is still a lively tradition in student circles. One of the professors was examining orally—the subject being a somewhat unusual one, the Jewish marriage law. Mr F. was called, at once stood upon his feet, and prepared to receive cavalry. He made, however, but a poor stand. At every question put—for he could answer none of them—Mr F. nudged the student next to him with his elbow, and whispered sideways, “ Tell me, man, tell me.” This was repeated several times, and did indeed produce one or two bungling answers. At length the professor saw that the student was utterly lost in the depths. With the kindly intention of restoring him to terra jirma, he thus addressed the trembling sufferer with an encouraging smile—

“Well, Mr F., perhaps you can answer this one. Are you married yourself?”

So utterly bewildered was the student that he did not even catch the question, so he nudged his neighbour as vigorously as ever with,

“Tell me, man, tell me.”

In very wantonness of mischief the other whispered back, “Say yes,” and his counsel was taken without a word of question.

“Yes, sir,” said Mr F. timidly and modestly; and the very walls resounded with the strong laughter of the Professor and his class. After a few moments Mr F. recovered himself. He believed he had for once made a great hit; and therefore he contributed a broad, benevolent smile to the merriment. It was only at the end of the class hour that he understood what had taken place.

Another such case arose from sheer ignorance of polite or scrupulous habits. A Highland student was invited to breakfast at one of the Professor’s houses, and happened to be seated near the hostess at table. His plate was supplied with fish ; and, as he ate, he pitched fragments of bone over his shoulder, and they alighted on the carpet behind. The lady ventured to remonstrate once and again,

“Just leave the bones on your plate, Mr M.; don’t trouble to throw them away.”

A second and third time the offence was repeated, and the lady grew more importunate.

“Leave them on your plate, Mr M., please don’t trouble to throw them away.”

All unconscious of the cause of her anxiety, the student finally silenced her by replying,

“It’s no trouble, ma’am; no trouble at all.”

The summary process went on until the plate was cleared. The lady was pitiful, the student happy and unruffled. He had seldom, perhaps, enjoyed a better breakfast up to that hour; he has had very many as good or better at his own table in subsequent years.

During our stay on the island we spent the best part of at least one whole day upon the moors. Taking a light luncheon with us, and making an early start, Ave chose the route through the Avell-kept grounds and rich woods of Stornoway Castle. What a contrast do these full-grown trees, and vigorous shrubs, and brilliant flowerbeds present to the general character of the scenery around! They quite remind one of Mr Hanbury’s famous grounds at Mortola on the Riviera, where human skill and Mediterranean sunshine have converted a steep, stony hillside into a Paradise of rich verdure and shady foliage. Here in the grounds of the Lewis Castle, skill and money have not been spared, and the result is wonderful; but, alas! the marvellous sunshine is wanting. Once through the woods we came upon the banks of the Creid, or Creed, which falls into the Bay of Stornoway. Its dancing waters rushed by as if in their haste they had no time even to greet us. By and by, we came out upon the road, which had made a wide circuit round the Castle policies; and very soon we left behind all sight of either houses or trees. At a distance of less than three miles from the town, there is no trace or evidence of human life to be found save the road on which we walk, and here and there a deep cutting of peat. Round and round on every hand there lies a dreary dead expanse of flat moorland—its long, low undulations thickly sprinkled over with little lochs and tarns. Nothing bounds it save its own level horizon, except to the far west and south, where a long range of hills with many rounded peaks rises like a rugged Galloway dyke against the sky. The moor itself is thickly covered with banks and tufts of heather, among which are scattered plants of bog myrtle, and white tassels of cotton-grass like snowflakes which have wandered one by one from a passing shower. As to feathered fowl there was scarce the flutter of a wing. Only once that day, as we sat sketching a brown loch with the mountain range as a distant background, a water fowl flew over the dark brown mirror, scratching its smooth surface with its wing-tips, and then sinking out of view in the motley heather. To many, that far-stretching plateau, without tree or stream or flower, might, notwithstanding the sunshine, seem dreary even to desolation ; but it had a charm and even fascination of its own. In its unbroken repose beneath the sunlight: in its fulness and warmth of colour: in its wealth of waters, like bright coins upon its bosom; in its long undulations like far-off Atlantic rollers; and in its western fence of hill tops, which show in brilliant pink at the setting of the sun, the moorland has beauty under its tameness, and variety under its sombre surface. What gorgeous sunsets have been mirrored in these flat sheets of water ! What conflicts of quivering lights has the belated traveller seen in that northern sky! Round about these tarns have the sportive fairies chased one another, and when wearied have gathered in a circle to sing the happy chorus :

“By the moon we sport and play;
With the night begins our day;
As we dance, the dew doth fall;
Trip it, little urchins all,
Lightly as the nimble bee,
Two by two, and three by three,
And about go we, and about go we.”

During that very day on which we visited the moor of Arnish, we had a most satisfying experience of the one incurable misery of the Lews. The atmosphere was pervaded with that peculiar luminosity, which often accompanies calm and heat, and as a consequence we were assailed from morning till night by multitudinous clouds of tiny midges. The common house fly, as we all know, displays much activity and bravery when you lie down to steal an after-dinner nap ; but for persistency and brazen impudence, he must hide his diminished head in presence of the midges. It is notoriously very difficult to estimate numbers. Even the most cautious and experienced are apt to form too high an estimate of a crowd. On the Arnish road we had the same difficulty to face; for we had to deal with a largely attended public meeting, and the crowds came and went continually. Still, I do not hesitate to say, that within a radius of say ten yards round about us, the number of the midges was at least equal to the present population of the Chinese Empire, whatever that may be. How many we slew with our hands; how many we swallowed; how many committed suicide before our eyes 011 our oil canvasses, it is impossible to say; but one strange fact impressed us greatly. As the hours went by, we could detect no diminution whatever, not even of a single midge, in the myriad hosts of our assailants. Perhaps travellers who come after us may be able to confirm this experience by their own.

At this point I am tempted to make a confession in order to follow it up with an explanation regarding the midges. I suppose every young man of average ability or less has been tempted once at least to “commit poetry,” though he generally hides his sin. Once at least in my early days, I perpetrated a few verses, which start to memory in connection with the midges. Under a certain influence, which I shall not name or define, I promised to give up smoking for several months. That same night I sat down and wrote “An Address to his Divorced Spouse by a Disconsolate Widower ”—my pipe being the spouse, and I the disconsolate. Fortunately, I can only remember the first and last two verses ; but here they are—

“My darling pipe! a long adieu!
No more, alas! ’tvvixt me and you
The happy times of yore;
The sweet acquaintanceship we had,
The many hours you made me glad,
Are gone for evermore.

* * * *

“Farewell, the deep and dreamy joy,
Farewell, the calm without alloy,
Which thou wert wont to bring!
With no regret to rack my heart,
With no remorse from thee I part,
And o’er thy grave will sing!

“A long farewell! a glad farewell!
Bravely I tear away the spell
Around my heart that grew.
Thou horrid weed! avaunt with speed
So purely vile, so full of guile,
A long, a last adieu ! ”

I have only quoted these verses to confess that after all it was not a “long,” neither was it a “last,” adieu ; and for that I was duly and truly thankful on the “day of the midges.” Nothing but clouds of tobacco smoke cooled their ardour for an instant, and I was very happy indeed that I had broken the above poetical vows into a thousand shivers many a long day before. Even ladies, in such a time of distress, do not object to have a puff or two in their very faces. So true is the old adage, that circumstances alter cases.

As I have alluded to one source of misery in Lewis, I may also mention another, not altogether wanting, as my readers will remember, in the region of Loch Duich. Generally speaking, you need not trouble to take umbrellas to the island, and 1 shall tell you why. To put the matter in few words, it is this : if its fair in Lewis, it’s fair ; if it rains, it rains. This may seem very simple, and even trite ; but many pregnant truths are so. If it’s fair, you need no umbrella; if it rains, no umbrella yet invented will keep you dry, so you had better stay indoors. Even a London bus-driver, with his red mushroom overhead, would be soaked to the skin in rather less than ten minutes. But all has not yet been told. Probably the climate is, on the whole, not much different from what it used to be, say, fifty years ago. A worthy clergyman tells us that it was then very damp. Here are his very words: “The dampness of the air is such that, in rooms wherein fires are not constantly kept, the walls emit a hoary down of a brinish taste, resembling pounded saltpetre when brushed off. The climate is an enemy to polished iron and to books. Fire-irons rust in the space of twenty-four hours without constant fire; and books are covered with a greyish-yellow mould, unless frequently wiped.” How great is the temptation to moralise which these words present ! One reflection only shall I put on record. What a mercy for him that Beau Brummel never lived in Stornoway! You remember how he complained that he had caught a cold by sleeping one night in the same room with a damp stranger. In what condition would he be found, if alive at all, after a night among books and fire-irons in the Island of Lewis?

Another reflection, and then we may pass from this theme. How strong and hardy must the natives themselves be to reach manhood and womanhood under such conditions! This exceptional vigour and vitality explains many things. No wonder, for example, that Birt, who visited the Highlands in 1725, speaks of seeing dark patches, each of something like human shape, among the wreaths of snow. They were simply the spots where the clansmen had lain over night. No wonder, also, that they have shown such endurance and prowess in war. From my boyish days I have been amazed, many a time and oft, at a certain statement in an old ballad-song, which describes the battle of Harlaw in 1411. It was a desperate and prolonged conflict between Highlanders and Royal troops, in which the former were undoubtedly victorious at the end. What I want you to note, however, is the duration of the battle, for, so far as I am aware, it is without a parallel in history—

“This fecht began oil Monanday
By risin’ o’ the sun ;
An’ on Saturday at twal o’clock,
Ye’d scarce ken wlia wud wun.”

Think of the “staying powers" there displayed! Since I have visited Lewis, and made acquaintance with midges and damp, I have ceased to wonder at the protracted struggle, or at the final triumph of the western islanders.

It may be interesting at this point to offer some remarks as to ways of courtship and customs of marriage in some of the remoter parts of Lewis. I have said courtship, but I daresay many will be disposed to say that what I am to describe docs not deserve tlial interesting name. In outlying districts of the island, marriages do not always arise from love, nor are they preceded by long or sweetly - protracted advances on the part of the young man toward the young lady. The whole matter is, to a large extent, one of business or convenance. It hinges very much on the all-important question whether the lady is an adept in handling and bearing the “creel.” This is of course due to the fact that the said article plays an active part in many operations of daily life. It is used to carry out to the fields the piled-up manure-heap of the byre—an annual piece of work; to carry loads of peats from the moors; to bring great burdens of seaweed from the shore; to convey food to the cattle in the airiclh, or green shealing among the hills ; and for many other purposes besides. Hence arises the high value set upon the ability to work the creel. A young man’s courtship very often originates with his parents. An elderly man on some suitable occasion addresses his spouse after this fashion (in Gaelic of course, but I give the substance in English):

“Well, Maggie, you have always been a good and faithful wife to me. I am afraid, however, that you are not so strong as you once were. Your diligence and industry with the creel have broken down your strength. You deserve some measure of relief and rest. We must ask our son Donald to get married, and his wife will take the heavy burdens off your shoulders.”

Then the fmidniau and his wife discuss over the fire what fair buxom maiden would be a suitable bride for the excellent young man Donald. Half the robust girls of the neighbourhood pass in review before their minds. By-and-bye Donald himself is informed of his parents' ideas; and whatever his personal feelings may be, lie considers it to be his duty to exercise self-denial, and to please his father and mother. The next step is to order a bottle of whisky from Stornoway; and several days may elapse before its arrival. When the liquor has come, the old man and his son wend their way to the dwelling of the young woman who is first-favourite. The bottle is stowed away out of sight. For a time they chat and gossip pleasantly with the family, and by-and-bye the purpose of their visit is disclosed. The girl’s parents may be well pleased, perhaps even flattered ; but she herself may be coy and reluctant. Perhaps the proposal has come upon her as a sudden surprise, and she does not like frankly to say, even to her mother, that she would require a few days to think the matter over. If any signs of hesitation thus appear, Donald and his father consider that their proposal is rejected, and at once rise to leave the house. They wish the inmates good-night, and enjoy a little malicious satisfaction in thinking how sorry the poor folks will be at the loss of a possible dram. Once outside, the father and son hold a hurried consultation, and soon decide to visit another dwelling. On this second occasion also some unpropitious element from the side of parents or daughter may mar the success of their quest. Once more they bid a disappointed farewell, and leave the house behind. One might imagine that these failures would damp their spirits, and induce them to turn their steps homewards ; but it is not so. The dauntless bravery which has served the old man in good stead during many a difficulty and danger at sea, does not fail him in present straits. Addressing his son, who is perhaps a little dejected, he says,

“Donald, lad, we must not let this business fall to the ground. We left home for a special purpose, and we must not return to confess ourselves beaten. Come along with me to Neil M‘Leod’s house. Mary is the flower of his family, and if she consents, you, Donald, will get a good wife, and your mother a splendid helper for the field and the moss and the cattle.”

This time their fond hopes are realised. Mary had fled when she discovered their errand ; but her mother draws her from her hiding-place. The young lady’s scruples are overcome by maternal persuasions, and she consents to have Donald as her husband. Then at last the bottle is produced, and amid much cordial good cheer arrangements are made for an early wedding.

The marriage day is a great occasion. Omitting the mere ceremony, let me mention some other features of the gathering. There are gradations of honour and of treatment among the company. If there is a room-end in the house, that contains the inner and upper circle. Among these select guests may be numbered a few of the elders of the kirk, the schoolmaster, if he is popular, and those friends who have come from greatest distances. The table -is adorned with plates, forks, and knives, which have been borrowed for the occasion. Eere, too, among other specialties, are some loaves of bread and a stack

of broad barley scones. In this room also is deposited the jar of whisky, which is under the absolute control of the master of ceremonies. It is kept in the bed, and is guarded by two or three persons, who sit upon the edge of the coverlet. Out of the jar there is poured a sufficient quantity of the pure stuff for the wants of the favoured company in this best room. Then the jar is filled up with water, perhaps from some dirty pool near the house. Thus replenished, it is sent, with much show of liberality, to those outside the select circle. A second party is gathered in the common room or kitchen, in the centre of which the peat fire is burning gloriously. Under a smoky canopy of blue, the guests arrange themselves around the walls. They are provided with bowls or other convenient vessels of a miscellaneous kind out of which to sup their food. There are, of course, large piles of barley scones, while the chief delicacy in this compartment is a substantial quantity of beef cut up into minute fragments of various shapes, as if intended for a dish of hash. This piece de resistance is committed to the care of young women, who dig their fingers into the masses of meat, and distribute them here and there in handfuls, keeping up all the while a running fire of joke and banter with the lads of the company. Still lower as to the degree of attention paid to them, are a third class, who dare not intrude upon the other two, but are allowed to shift as best they can for themselves. They may locate themselves in the barn; or, if there be no barn, on the manure-heap between the kitchen and the cows, and in either case are well content. They get food of a quality superior to any they indulge in at home, and even the adulterated whisky is to them quite a luxury.

Even on these high occasions, instrumental music is seldom employed, being accounted sinful in no ordinary degree. This is largely due to the influence of one popular preacher, who a generation ago denounced and resisted the practice. Even to this day, tender consciences are afraid to allow or countenance the use of the fiddle or bagpipe at marriage festivities. The guests have dancing, however, and a pleasant musical accompaniment as well. The young girls sing songs, usually duets, of native composition, and these are set to tunes which suit the various steps of the lively exercise. By many the effect is thought quite equal to the strains of the fiddle. I have heard of a young man of excellent moral character, who could play the concertina and tin whistle, and was, therefore, much in request at weddings. Even he and his instruments were, however, condemned by the “straitest sect,” and fell into disrepute. Not even in the west of Lewis can these prejudices and absurdities live much longer.

Let me add one word more to connect the beginning with the end of this matrimonial theme. In journals and magazines there have been lively discussions of late years on the question, Is Marriage a failure ? The people of Lewis make an important contribution to the controversy. They offer a practical test, which they themselves apply; but, alas! only to one sex. Public judgment on the merits of a wife is entirely suspended until after the birth of her first child. If within a week from that event she is able to handle and bear the creel like any of her neighbours, then the husband is congratulated, for his marriage is no failure. If she fails to come up to the creel standard within the allotted time, then the man becomes an object of pity and condolence ; he has made a blunder which can never be repaired. In the latter case, the words of the poet may be applied—

“Thus grief still treads upon the heels of pleasure,
Married in haste, we may repent at leisure.”

Before we close this chapter, there are three classes of the ancient inhabitants of Lewis of whom I should like to say a few words. I shall do little more than mention the first two ; but of the third I must speak with some fulness.

The first class is, of course, the] sweet “fairies,” or “guid folk”—fewer far than once [they were, and far more shy of human society. There are many theories to account for their diminution and retreat, but on these I have no time to dwell. That they were well known and often seen in days gone by is attested by the poet who sings :

“As when a shepherd of the Hebrid Isles,
Placed far amid the melancholy main,
(Whether it be lone fancy him beguiles,
Or that aerial beings sometimes deign
To stand embodied, to our senses plain)
Sees on the naked hill or valley low,
The whilst in ocean Phoebus dips his wain,
A vast assembly moving to and fro,
Then all at once in air dissolves the wondrous show.”

Another class, once common enough, but now rarely to be seen, were the Roman Catholic “sisters” or “nuns.” Their residences—all now in ruins—are scattered here and there over the island ; and are called in Gaelic, “Teagh nan callichan dhu”—“the houses of the old black women.” It would appear that their ascetic life is not popular in this thoughtless generation. I should not like to say that the native young ladies go so far as their giddy sister who sang—

“I love to go a-shopping, I love fashionable clothes,
I love music, and dancing, and chatting with the beaux;
So I won’t be a nun, no, I shan’t be a nun,
I’m so fond of pleasure, that I cannot be a nun;”

but their ideas tend more in that direction than did those of “the old black women.” The young ladies of Stornoway take in The Queen and the Lady's Pictorial, play lawn tennis, and are as sprightly as “The Princess of Thule” herself.

The third class of beings are, strange to say, modern as well as ancient. They are called “Fir Chreig,” or the false men. You ask, Who or what are these? They are remarkable standing stones of venerable age, and are named the “false men” because of their fancied resemblance, perhaps in mist or darkness, to men of large stature. They might produce a “false” impression to that effect on certain persons in certain states of mind. But now to sober description.

At Callernish in Loch Ptoag, on the west coast of Lewis, may be seen a very remarkable group of these standing stones. As specimens of their kind, they are second only to Stonehenge or Stennis in Orkney. They occupy a gentle eminence near by the shore, and are visible from a great distance round about. They have one or two quite unique features, which are worthy of special attention and study. To begin with, these stones are not simply a circle, as many such groups are, but a circle and cross in combination, with some traces of a wide, surrounding trench. The circle consists of large, rough, flat-sided stones, 14 in number, with another central stone, 15 feet high, which has been likened, not inaptly, to a ship’s rudder. At the base of the central block were found traces of an old altar or table. This circle of stones lies over the intersection of the arms of a gigantic cross.

The long arm, now some 400 feet from end to end, appears once upon a time to have extended as far as 600 feet. It consists of a double row of stones, most of which have fallen, but many are still erect. The shorter or cross arm consists of a single row of stones, and extends to some 200 feet in length. Originally there were probably more than 60 stones, but not more than 50, standing or fallen, can now be found. The blocks are all of gneiss, and their transportation and erection must have been a work of immense labour. Stately and sad, lonely, yet defiant, they stand in rank on that bare knoll, whose base is washed by Atlantic waves.

There is little doubt that these standing stones are a monument of the ancient Druids. These were the priestly caste among the old Gauls and Britons, and taught a religion in which the immortality of the soul and human dependence were prominent elements. But the Druids were not only priests; they were philosophers, holding kindred views to those of Pythagoras ; scientists, poring deeply into the mysteries of astronomy, geography, and other branches of learning ; and judges, expounding, administering, and enforcing the law. Groves of oak were their favourite retreats, and they held the misletoe in peculiar veneration, as an image of man whose life is wholly dependent on that of Another stronger than himself. Whenever that plant was found, a priest, dressed in white robes, cut it off with a golden knife, and two bulls were sacrificed on the occasion. The chief priest, whose office was not hereditary but elective, exercised supreme authority for life; and those who sought admission to the order must pass through a novitiate of twenty years. The ponderous megalithic remains, which we now see in France and Britain, show their skill in mechanical art, and raise many questions as to the design and use of such erections. To me at least it seems most likely that these groups of stones served many and varied ends. They may have been used for worship, for instruction, for courts of justice, and even for the settlement of public questions. In any case they are impressive monuments of a far past age, and of a remarkable order of men.

We left the island of Lewis with real regret. There was much to be seen for which we found no time; and many known spots among which we would fain have lingered. When the hour of departure came, we found that the island and its people had taken a firmer hold of our interest and sympathies than we at first suspected.

This was by no means a unique or rare experience, for young men and maidens are said to have felt it when about to part.

“How oft—if, at the court of love,
Concealment is the fashion,
When How d’ye do has failed to move,
‘Good-bye ’ reveals the passion.’


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