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The Island Clans During Six Centuries
Chapter IV. - Home Life


CULTIVATION OF THE SOIL, LIVE STOCK, CUTTING PEATS, LIGHT, SPINNING, WEAVING, IMPORTS AND EXPORTS, SUPPLY OF ARMS, SHIP-BUILDING, MILITARY TRAINING, HOMES OF THE PEOPLE.

History and tradition describe the great political and military events which happened in the past, but do not concern themselves with details about the ordinary life which a people lived, but in many of the old stories, which have come down to us, there are references which throw light on such matters. Moreover, we know something concerning the home life of the West Highlanders in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Very few changes took place as time rolled by, and we may safely assume that what was true of them at a later period was also true in earlier times.

Food, clothing, fuel, light are necessaries of existence, and the method by which these were supplied, often under very great difficulties, are as worthy of our attention as the more striking and more terrible episodes of clan warfare.

Readers of Dean Munro's account of the Western Isles, published in 1549, might well imagine that there was no difficulty in supplying all the wants even of a large population. Neither he nor any other of the early writers mention any of the adverse circumstances which undoubtedly interfered with the production of all the necessaries of life. They say nothing about the disastrous wars which had been waged in the islands for more than a century, and they say nothing about the climate.

The islands have a climate which is not without its merits. Under the influence of the Gulf Stream, the winters are generally, though not always, mild, and to its humid character is due the magnificent colouring in our landscapes, which a distinguished artist friend of mine, who had travelled in many parts of the world, pronounced to be more splendid than that in any other region on the globe. The nearest approach to it, he said, was in the islands of the Grecian Archipelago. But from the agriculturist's point of view it cannot be considered a very favourable climate. The rainfall is without doubt very high, violent gales of wind are very prevalent, and even the summers are often very wet and stormy.

It is still more remarkable that these writers describe the soil of almost all the islands as being extremely fertile. We, who know the Hebrides well, find it difficult to understand this description. We know that there are fertile patches in most of them, but, when we think of the great ranges of barren, though splendid, mountains which are often bare rock, and of the hills, on the sides of which nothing but rough bent grass will grow, while on their summits great hags of peat extend for miles, we must admit that only one or two of the islands, possibly Islay and Tyree, can be considered really fertile.

It is possible that in the course of centuries the climate may have altered. It is also possible that certain parts of the land may have lost some of their fertility, but I do not think it very likely that either of these changes has occurred, and I conceive that the production of sufficient food to feed the population was often a matter of great difficulty, specially in times of war. But in spite of a poor soil and a wet climate it is certain that great quantities of cereals were grown.

For various reasons it was probably extremely difficult to import grain at that time. Letters written in the eighteenth century indicate that, even then, it was not easy to do so. One letter describes the great difficulty of getting a ship to carry the corn; another says how badly the grain in a schooner had been injured by salt water; a third relates the capture of a vessel, laden with meal for use in Skye, by a French privateer.

For this reason it was absolutely necessary to grow what corn was required at home. On many a hill-side now under heather are lazybeds. These show that corn was once grown there, and, though it is probable that some of the land now cultivated was then undrained marshland, lying, as it does, at a low level close to the sea, or on the banks of rivers, it is certain that much more land was under corn in early days than is the case now.

The crops grown were beare, the Hordeum vulgaris, which is still cultivated in the Long Island; oats, barley, some flax, from which a coarse linen was woven, and some linseed. Of this cake was made for the maintenance of the cattle in winter. I have found no reference to hay or turnips, and I gather that the herds suffered very severely in hard winters from the lack of these sorts of food.

The methods of cultivation employed, even at a much later period, were extremely primitive. The plough in use is thus described in an account of Harris, dated 1772:—"Its whole length is but four feet seven inches, it is drawn by four horses abreast, it has one handle by which it is directed. The mould board is fastened with two leather thongs, and the soke and coulter are bound together at the point by a ring of iron." "Another instrument is also used, called a ristle. It is only two feet long, and is drawn by one horse. It has no soke, but has a sharp crooked coulter. This is drawn through the soil near ten inches deep. The use of it is to be drawn before the plough in order to cut the long, twisted roots of a number of plants with which the sandy soil of Harris is infested. These are powerful enough to obstruct the progress of so weak a plough as that which is commonly used." Much of the cultivation was done with the "caschrom," the old kind of spade then in use. Dean Monro, writing in 1549 about Harris, says that "twisse mair of delving is done in it nor of tilling." This means that two-thirds of the soil were dug with the spade, not ploughed. In spite of all the efforts made by the people to grow sufficient corn for their own requirements, they were occasionally very short of meal. Then, as now, the crops sometimes failed, but the seannachies say that in such years they did manage somehow to import some grain.

There were great numbers of live stock in the country. One of my correspondents speaks of pigs, but I think that the Highlanders did not keep this kind of animal. But they certainly possessed large flocks of sheep, probably of a breed similar to that still found in St Kilda, very small, but very hardy, and thoroughly suited to the climate of the West Highlands. Bishop Leslie gives a most remarkable description of the St Kilda sheep. The old name of St Kilda is Hirth. "Hirth has its name from a certaine scheip quhilkis in thir only island did abound. The scheip may be comparit in height to a gait, and in greatness to a buffel (a buffalo). Thair hornis in length exceid those of a buffel." He goes on to describe the sheep still to be found on Soa as "very wilde scheip, whether to call thame scheip or gait I know not, they have neither wool like a scheip nor hair like a gait." In 1542 a sheep was worth two pence.

The old rent rolls show, from the number of hens paid in lieu of money, that a great deal of poultry was then kept, and it is probable that this was also the case in earlier times. In 1542 the price of hens was six for a penny.

The letterpress on the back of a map of Skye, published in 1650, tells us that there were at that time great droves of semi-wild horses wandering about the country. These were probably rather ponies than horses, but of a strong and serviceable breed. A great many of these would be required for the method of cultivation described above, and I am under the impression that the Highlanders in old days did a great deal more riding on horseback than their descendants do now.

The black cattle were the main wealth of the Highlands up to the end of the 18th century. These were most extraordinarily hardy animals, capable of bearing any amount of exposure to the weather, and extremely picturesque. They supplied the milk, butter and cheese which formed so important a part of the food consumed by the people; from their hides the leather was prepared of which the clansmen made their shoes, and from the herds were taken the marts, as the beasts were called which were killed every autumn, and salted down for food in the winter.

During the bad times, when the clan feuds were raging, cattle were constantly being carried off by hostile marauders; and some of the most thrilling stories of clan warfare relate how the raiders collected great numbers of cattle, and how, their retreat being necessarily slow, they were overtaken, and desperate battles fought for the recovery of the spoil. One wonders how any herds remained when this was constantly going on.

One feature of life in the old days was the annual migration to the Sheillings, the equivalent of the Norwegian Saeters. Every summer the cattle were sent up to the hills, in charge of women and girls, to utilise the grass on the high ground, and a busy summer was spent tending the herds, making cheese, and churning butter. The scene of many of the old legends is laid in the sheillings.

All the operations on a West Highland farm involved an enormous amount of labour. One very remarkable circumstance clearly appears in some of the old stories. From these it seems that there were absolutely no fences of any kind in the country. It was not till towards the end of the 18th century that the importance of building fences round the steadings and arable fields began to be realised. All the old walls and dykes, of which there are so many now in the country, were put up about that period. The result of this was that, as there were no fences round any of the fields on which cereals were grown, from the time when the young corn appeared above the ground to the day on which the harvest was carried, the fields had to be watched day and night to prevent the herds from doing harm to the crops.

The corn was ground in hand-mills or querns. Pennant says it was a very labourious process, and that it took two women four hours to grind a bushel of corn. There were no mills in Skye until about 1730. He also describes a method of burning the corn, called the "graddan," which took the place of threshing. "This is performed in two ways, first by cutting off the ears and drying them in a kiln, then setting fire to them on a floor, and picking out the grain, by this operation rendered as black as coal. The second method is more expeditious, but very wasteful, as it destroys both thatch and manure. In this the whole sheaf is burnt without cutting off the heads."

Herding the cattle, taking them up to the sheillings in summer, milking the cows morning and evening, churning the butter and making the cheese required constant and unremitting attention. The sheep probably took care of themselves during most of the year, but, in the lambing season, it was necessary to protect the lambs from foxes, of which there were great numbers; from eagles, which were fairly numerous, and from ravens, which abounded. Plucking the wool off the backs of the sheep, which was the practice instead of the more modern method of clipping, took a long time, and involved much toil.

Besides all this, the peats had to be cut, dried, stacked, and carried home. A householder in the South, who orders a ton of coal, and has it delivered and put in his cellar, without any further trouble on his part, will find it difficult to realise the amount of labour which is even now expended by the Highlanders in securing the supply of fuel they require. Sometimes this labour is all in vain, for, in a very wet year, it may be impossible to dry the peats. This actually happened in 1923. In such years the people must have had to endure great hardships in the winter. Possibly the birchwoods, of which there were many more then than now, were cut down for firewood when the peats failed. The same fuel was used in the forges of the blacksmiths. Mr Mackenzie writes as follows on the subject:—

"In the smithies peats were the only fuel used, but this had to be converted into a sort of charcoal—which I have seen myself done—and the old blacksmith used to say that its heat was greater than that of any coal, but that the trouble of converting it into charcoal was considerable, and that a good deal of the peat was wasted. Yet, when labour was cheap, the conversion would present no great difficulty. I know of one place from which peat was taken for conversion into charcoal. Every kind of peat won't do, and the conversion must be from the black peat, which is usually found at a depth of 'four peats.' "

The supply of light, which was so urgently required in the long winter evenings, was always a difficulty. In parts of the Highlands, where pines grew freely, resin was extracted from these, and burnt in receptacles called "pyrnies," but in the islands there were no pine woods. Here seals were killed in large numbers, and oil extracted from their carcases. In St Kilda this was obtained from the fulmar petrels, which breed in such numbers on the island. The lamp which, it is said, Lady Grange used during her detention at St Kilda, is preserved at Dunvegan. It is a low iron receptacle, rather like a flat cream jug, with a very long, upright handle. In this oil was placed, and a wick, floating upon it, gave a most miserable light.

It is certain that in later times the Highlanders used tallow candles, made at home from the fat of animals, but I have not been able to ascertain when they began to do this. The processes used in the making of clothes were very laborious. The materials used were wool and linen, which were spun on the old-fashioned spindle and distaff. The spinning-wheel did not come into use until about 1750.

The distaff was a bar of wood, to which the material to be spun was loosely attached, generally by being wrapped up in a soft ball, into which the end of the distaff was inserted. The spindle was a smaller tapering piece of wood, with a weight of stone or earthenware at the bottom, and a slit to take the thread at the top. The distaff was held under the left arm of the spinner, the spindle was made to rotate and recede from the spinner by a dexterous twist, the thread being drawn out between the fore-finger and the thumb of the right hand so long as the twisting of the spindle lasted. It was then drawn in, new material put on it, and the operation was repeated.

When the wool or linen was spun, it was dyed with colours from plants, which had to be searched for on the hills; it was then woven in hand-looms.

Not only was the cloth of one colour so woven, but tartans with elaborate patterns. "The plaid," says Martin, "is made of fine wool, it consists of divers colours, and there is a great deal of ingenuity required in sorting the colours, so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy. For this reason the women are at great pains to give an exact pattern of the plaid upon a piece of wood, having the numbers of every thread of the stripe upon it."

When the weaving was finished, the cloth had to be fulled and cleansed from oil and grease, and this was done by what was called the "Laughad," or "walking" the cloth.

Pennant describes the operation in the following words:— "Twelve or fourteen women sit down on each side of a long board, ribbed lengthways, putting the cloth upon it. First they work it backwards and forwards with their hands, and they then use their feet, singing all the time with such fury that you might imagine a troop of female demoniacs to have been assembled."

Another industry was the tanning of leather made from the skins of animals, and, when the cloth and leather were prepared, the work of making cloths and shoes was all carried out at home.

All this implies that each of the West Highland clans was, to some extent, a self-sufficing community; the needs of which were supplied by the produce of its own country, and by the labours of its own clansmen. The barley oats and beare which they required were grown in their own fields, and ground in their own querns by their own toil; the butter, cheese and meat which they consumed were the produce of their own flocks and herds. The great beds of peat supplied them with fuel, which they cut, dried, stacked and carried home by their own labour. They made their own linen from home-grown flax; they spun the wool which their own sheep produced; they dyed it with dyes of varied colours, which were derived from plants which grew wild on the hills. From the wool they knitted their own stockings, and wove cloth of singular excellence and beauty. They made their own clothes with the cloth, and their own shoes with leather prepared by themselves from the skins of their own animals. The black huts in which they lived were built by their own hands.

But they were not quite self-sufficing; there were some articles which it was absolutely necessary to import. Even if the arms and armour were all made at home, as there was no iron in the country, the raw material must have been imported, and it seems probable that corn, wine and brandy were also brought from abroad.

That means that there was certainly some trade between the West Highlands and other parts of the world, possibly, it has been suggested, with France, the Mediterranean ports, St Kilda this was obtained from the fulmar petrels, which breed in such numbers on the island. The lamp which, it is said, Lady Grange used during her detention at St Kilda, is preserved at Dunvegan. It is a low iron receptacle, rather like a flat cream jug, with a very long, upright handle. In this oil was placed, and a wick, floating upon it, gave a most miserable light.

It is certain that in later times the Highlanders used tallow candles, made at home from the fat of animals, but I have not been able to ascertain when they began to do this. The processes used in the making of clothes were very laborious. The materials used were wool and linen, which were spun on the old-fashioned spindle and distaff. The spinning-wheel did not come into use until about 1750.

The distaff was a bar of wood, to which the material to be spun was loosely attached, generally by being wrapped up in a soft ball, into which the end of the distaff was inserted. The spindle was a smaller tapering piece of wood, with a weight of stone or earthenware at the bottom, and a slit to take the thread at the top. The distaff was held under the left arm of the spinner, the spindle was made to rotate and recede from the spinner by a dexterous twist, the thread being drawn out between the fore-finger and the thumb of the right hand so long as the twisting of the spindle lasted. It was then drawn in, new material put on it, and the operation was repeated.

When the wool or linen was spun, it was dyed with colours from plants, which had to be searched for on the hills; it was then woven in hand-looms.

Not only was the cloth of one colour so woven, but tartans with elaborate patterns. "The plaid," says Martin, "is made of fine wool, it consists of clivers colours, and there is a great deal of ingenuity required in sorting the colours, so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy. For this reason the women are at great pains to give an exact pattern of the plaid upon a piece of wood, having the numbers of every thread of the stripe upon it."

When the weaving was finished, the cloth had to be fulled and cleansed from oil and grease, and this was done by what was called the "Laughad," or "walking" the cloth.

Pennant describes the operation in the following words:— "Twelve or fourteen women sit down on each side of a long board, ribbed lengthways, putting the cloth upon it. First they work it backwards and forwards with their hands, and they then use their feet, singing all the time with such fury that you might imagine a troop of female demoniacs to have been assembled."

Another industry was the tanning of leather made from the skins of animals, and, when the cloth and leather were prepared, the work of making cloths and shoes was all carried out at home.

All this implies that each of the West Highland clans was, to some extent, a self-sufficing community; the needs of which were supplied by the produce of its own country, and by the labours of its own clansmen. The barley oats and beare which they required were grown in their own fields, and ground in their own querns by their own toil; the butter, cheese and meat which they consumed were the produce of their own flocks and herds. The great beds of peat supplied them with fuel, which they cut, dried, stacked and carried home by their own labour. They made their own linen from home-grown flax; they spun the wool which their own sheep produced; they dyed it with dyes of varied colours, which were derived from plants which grew wild on the hills. From the wool they knitted their own stockings, and wove cloth of singular excellence and beauty. They made their own clothes with the cloth, and their own shoes with leather prepared by themselves from the skins of their own animals. The black huts in which they lived were built by their own hands.

But they were not quite self-sufficing; there were some articles which it was absolutely necessary to import. Even if the arms and armour were all made at home, as there was no iron in the country, the raw material must have been imported, and it seems probable that corn, wine and brandy were also brought from abroad.

That means that there was certainly some trade between the West Highlands and other parts of the world, possibly, it has been suggested, with France, the Mediterranean ports, the low countries, the Baltic, and the South of Scotland. Probably adventurous ship masters from all these places paid occasional visits to the Western Isles. It is possible that strings of pack horses might have brought merchandise to some points on the mainland, from which it could be shipped to the islands, and that droves of cattle might have been driven to the markets in the South; but I think it more likely that whatever trade there may have been was sea-borne, specially when we consider how often the country, through which the pack-horses and the cattle would have to pass, was in a condition of frightful disturbance.

And what were the exports? In an extract from his will, King Robert Bruce mentions cattle, but from the Outer Islands they must go part of the way by sea, and it would not have been easy to stow much live stock in the ships of the period. Possibly by cattle the King meant salted carcases. Nothing but salt meat was consumed in Scotland during the winter up to a much later date, and the demand for this article of food must have been very great. Some cheese and butter, some hides, some wool and cloth, and a few sheep may be included in the list. If, as I think, the internal condition of the Islands was peaceful during these early centuries, there was probably a great deal of surplus produce available for export.

There were, and are, great numbers of sea birds, including eider ducks, on our shores. Feathers are still exported from St Kilda, and it is quite likely that there was a demand for them in old days. Indubitably hawking was a favourite form of sport, and large numbers of falcons were needed. James IV., in a charter to MacLeod, dated 1498, reserved the eyries or falcons' nests. Dundee, in a letter to MacLeod in 1689, asks as a great favour for one of his falcons. It is quite likely that a good many of these birds, which breed in the rocks of our islands, were sent South. There they commanded high prices.

Hector Boece, writing in 1526, says that in the Loch Ness district "ar many martrikis (martens), bevers, quhitredis (weasels) and toddis (foxes). The furrings and skinnis of thaim are coft (bought) at gret price among uncouth merchandise." If there was "uncouth merchandise" in furs at Inverness, there may also have been a similar trade in the Islands. I have read that beavers formerly existed in Wales, but I have never heard that any were found in Scotland. Still, it is quite possible that there may have been some of these animals at one time in the Islands, and that, their skins being so valuable, they were killed down. There are plenty of the other animals mentioned at the present day in the Western Isles.

One would expect to find large quantities of salt fish among the exports. All the world was then Roman Catholic; Lent and other fast-days were rigorously observed, and the demand for fish must have been enormous. No country in the world could better have supplied this demand. The sea which surrounded the islands teemed with fish of all kinds; the Islanders lived on its shores ; they possessed boats, there was nothing to prevent them catching any quantity of fish, but all the evidence we have points to their having done very little in this direction.

In only one old story, out of the many with which I am acquainted, is fishing referred to. In a report on the Islands, dated 1590, the author again and again refers to the vast quantities of fish in Hebridean waters, and constantly repeats the remark—"The people mak na labour as to slaying any fisches."

Captain Dymes, in 1636, in his description of Lewis, says:—"The great and rich commodity which might be made of this land is the fishinge, whereof the inhabitants do make but small benefit besides their own food . . . they are so far from having the true industry of killing cod and ling, that one boat with our Newfoundland men will kill more fish in a day than they with one of their boats will kill in a year. "Fish were so plentiful, he goes on, that "four Dutch busses in three months made 7500 clear gain." A hundred and fifty years later the report on Harris in 1772 says the same thing. Pennant, describing the disastrous famine in the same year, says "the people were reduced to picking up shell-fish on the sea shore," but not one word does he say about any attempt being made to reap the plenteous harvest of the sea. The only conclusion we can arrive at on all this evidence is that very little fishing was done by the West Highlanders in early days.

My friend, Mr Mackenzie, takes a different view, and his opinion is certainly worthy of respect. I quote from a letter he wrote in answer to one of mine—

"At the present moment I cannot bring forward much evidence against the views expressed by Skene and the others you mention regarding the fishings in our country either for home consumption or export, but I know it to be the local tradition that fish (with which I include shell-fish) formed a considerable portion of the food of the people."

"Dean Munro, when travelling through the islands of his Deanery in 1549, mentions fishings as being good in many of the islands. Of Skye he writes:—

"Into thir ile there is three principal salt water loches, to wit, Loche Sleigachan, Loche Downort, and Loche Sleipan. In thir three principal loches there is a guid take of herrings; for-by thir three principal loches, also within this ile, to wit 1 Loche Skahanask, 2 Loche Emorte, 3 Loche Vrakdill, 4 Loche Kensale serloss, 5 Loche Dunbegan, 6 Loche Gorsarmis, 7 Loche Annoscort, 8 Loche Snasporte, 9 Loche Portri, 10 Loche Ken, 11 Loche Nadale in Sleit. The uther twa Loches my memory has fayled of them; but in mony of them there is guid tack of herrings sometymes, but naught so guid by far as in the first three loches."

"Practically all the inhabited islands yielded fish in considerable quantities. Of Harris he says:—"It is very fertile and fruitful for corne, store, and fischings."

"Seeing that Dean Munro was a century before Martin, it goes to a certain extent to prove that in ancient times considerable fisheries did exist.

"Should I come across anything further which might throw greater light on export I will at once let you know. If fish was an article of trade to the Continent and Mediterranean, there must have been an import of salt to enable the people to cure the fish. The difficulty of getting salt may account for the neglect of the fishing industry."

Such were the peaceful labours of the people. Their recreations and amusements I have dealt with in Chapter III. But one all-absorbing occupation of the men remains to be described. Considering that in those days the clans were constantly engaged in warfare, either external or internal, the maintenance of military efficiency must have been one of the first matters to be dealt with, even when the land was at peace.

The means of destroying life were as important as the means of sustaining life, and the very existence of a clan depended on the possession of sufficient arms and armour to equip its men. The supply was, I imagine, the most difficult problem which a mediaeval Chief had to solve. A clan was frequently prevented from putting its whole available force into the field by the lack of these necessaries. The clansmen used a great variety of weapons when they went out to battle.

Up to the end of the sixteenth century fire-arms were not used. Darts or javelins were "thrown with great force and skill," and one division of a Highland army always consisted of archers. Boswell mentions that, when he visited Dunvegan, the bow of Sir Rory MacLeod was still preserved there, and adds that "hardly any man now can bend it."

For fighting at close quarters the clansmen were armed with broad two-handed swords (the weapon preserved at Dunvegan is one of them), with battle-axes, and with dirks, which were only sharpened on one side.

The supply of these offensive weapons for a large force must have been a serious matter, but there were even greater difficulties to be overcome. All the authorities speak of defensive armour being worn. It is thus described—"An iron bonnet, and an habergeon or shirt of mail made of iron links, so long that it reached to their heels." At Dunvegan, several coats of such mail and one or two iron bonnets are preserved, and I think it is certain that the Chiefs and some of the leading men of each clan wore armour.

In the report, from which I have already made some quotations, it is stated that a third of the clansmen wore defensive armour, but I very much doubt the possibility of providing coats of mail for so large a proportion of the men. In an old tradition which describes one of the fights between two clans, it is related that on each side was a smith clad in complete armour, probably made by themselves, and that they fought a sort of duel while their companions looked on. This seems to imply that they were the only two who wore defensive armour. Moreover, the frightful losses suffered on both sides in some of the clan battles induce me to think that only a few wore coats of mail. In the contemporary wars in Italy the mercenaries, equipped cap-a-pie in plate armour, often fought for a whole day without any serious casualties at all taking place. The terrible losses endured by the Highlanders were probably due to lack of defensive armour.

Some seannachies believed that the weapons and armour were imported from abroad. Others maintained that they were made at home. I have been able to find no evidence that an hereditary armourer was attached to the household of any Chief, and it is doubtful whether, if the word is used in its strict sense, there were any armourers at all in the country, but there were certainly a good many blacksmiths, and it is probable that they made, at all events, some of the arms and armour which were so urgently needed.

It must also be remembered that each of the Island clans was not only a military power, but a naval power, and had its fleet of birlinns or galleys. Such a vessel, with "sailing geir compleit" and 26 oars, was part of the dowry given by Sir Rory MacLeod of Dunvegan with his daughter Moir, on her marriage to young Clan Ranald in 1613.

Therefore, there can be no doubt that a very important ship-building industry was being carried on in the country. The MacNeills of Barra had the reputation of being the best builders of birlinns in the West Highlands.

There was wood on the mainland, which was used in building houses, and there may have been timber there which was suitable for ship-building, but in the islands there were no trees, except low-stunted birch. And this certainly could not be used for such a purpose.

Unfortunately, we have no knowledge as to what a birlinn or galley was like. As far as I know, not one has been preserved, neither are there any old prints or pictures of them. I conjecture that they resembled the dragon ships of the Norsemen.

A report to the English Privy Council in 1545 describes the arrival of 4000 Islanders to co-operate with the troops of Henry VIII. in Ireland. In this it is stated that 1000 of them were "tall marryners for rowing of the galleys." Gregory says in his history (page 170) that the fleet which conveyed these men to Ireland consisted of 180 galleys. From this I gather that each galley carried about 22 men on an average, but it is probable that some were larger, and that others were much smaller. Some, we know, were propelled by 26 oars, and in one case a galley with 36 oars is mentioned.

The training of the manhood of the clan in the art of war was no less important than the supply of arms and ships. No man wearing a heavy suit of mail could be capable of strenuous and prolonged exertion unless he had been accustomed to bear its weight from his youth. The gentlemen who tried to revive an old-day tournament at Eglinton in the last century discovered this. Their lack of skill in wearing their armour and using their weapons was one of the reasons why what should have been a brilliant pageant was something of a fiasco.

No man can be an efficient archer until he has perfected himself in the art of shooting with the bow by long and patient practice, as the famous bowmen of England well knew. No man can wield a sword with effect till he has learnt all that a fencing school can teach, or a battle-axe till he understands his weapon; no man can defend himself with his targe till he has learnt how to use it.

Though the severe course of drill in a barrack yard, which is essential in the making of a soldier in the regular army, was not necessary for the Highlanders, they had to be trained in their own peculiar methods of fighting. Even the desperate charges, which so often in later days broke the ranks of the hardiest veterans, and which seemed so spontaneous, had been rehearsed a hundred times while the preparation for war was going on in peaceful days.

Therefore, the most important employment of the clansmen, when the land was at rest, was the incessant training, which alone could make them efficient when war broke out. Probably this strenuous education in the art of war was even more marked in the households of the Chiefs than anywhere else. Tradition tells us how one Chief, who had been severely wounded at Harlaw, and incapacitated from active service in the field, spent his enforced leisure. He was one of the finest swordsmen of his day, and during the rest of his life it was his daily delight to fence with the members of his household, and teach them how to use their swords to the best effect.

Another Chief lived to be nearly a hundred years old. The training of his youthful kinsmen in the art of war was the main employment of his old age, and he used to give suits of armour as prizes to those who acquitted themselves best.

The houses in which the people lived are no less interesting than the lives they led. In the Western Isles are many earth houses; there are also many brochs and duns, but I do not propose to deal with them, interesting as they are from an antiquarian point of view. After them, the oldest edifices in the country are the castles, the homes of the Chiefs. Of these there are a great many on our shores. As far as I know, only two are still inhabited, Duart and Dunvegan; the rest are all of them in ruins. It is quite clear that the one thought in the minds of the men who built these strongholds was security. Sites of great natural strength were chosen. One or two stand on rocky islets surrounded by the sea. MacNeill's Fortress in Barra is one of these, and Eilan Donan is on an islet at high tide. Others, like Dunvegan and Dunskaith, stand on isolated rocks. But most of them are situated at the end of promontories. They are protected on three sides by precipices, which rise abruptly out of the sea, and all are built on rocks above sheltered bays, where the fleets of galleys belonging to their owners could lie securely at anchor.

This is alone enough to show that they were built by a seafaring people. These naturally strong positions were further strengthened by every device which the mind of man could conceive. The gateway was narrow, the iron-studded door was massive and of great strength, while holes in the masonry behind the door show where huge bars, probably of iron, made it yet more difficult to force an entrance. Behind the door was the portcullis, which rose and fell in grooves, which can still be seen. When he had forced the gate, an enemy would find himself in a narrow passage, which two or three resolute men, clad in armour, could hold against an army, and where he would be harassed by the missiles which the defenders could fling upon his head from above. At Dunskaith this passage took the form of a steep stair, with several turns in it. On this a desperate defence could be put up.

When all these difficulties were overcome, the enemy was only in the baillie, and he still had to force his way into the keep, and this was enormously strong. The walls at Dunvegan are nine feet thick, and nothing but modern artillery could batter them down. The windows were mere slits in the wall, through which not even a boy could creep. These castles were practically impregnable; nothing but starvation could force their garrisons to surrender, and there are very few records, if, indeed, there are any, of one of them being captured.

One remarkable circumstance about all these West Highland castles is that they are very small. Ardtornish, once the principal seat of the Island Lords, consists of a single keep, 72 feet by 51; Dunvegan, until the end of the fifteenth century, also only contained a single keep, about 55 feet by 40 feet, and most of the castles are much smaller. How in such buildings could a Chief keep up the state I have described? It is at least possible that there were attached to each of these keeps less solid structures, which have disappeared. When a building is in ruins, people very often take the old stones to save themselves the expense and trouble of quarrying and dressing fresh ones, and in this way extensive ranges of building may have entirely disappeared. Moreover, till one has excavated round an old castle, one can never be sure that mounds, which look natural, may not be really due to fallen masonry which lies below them. It is therefore quite reasonable to suppose that these old castles were once much larger than they now seem to have been. There is one circumstance at Dunvegan which lends some probability to this theory. The keep is at the north end of the rock. About 1490 another tower was built at the south end of the rock. Why was it not built beside the keep ? The reason may be that there was then a range of buildings there, and that this was taken down when a new wing was built on the site early in the seventeenth century.

A question of great interest arises : When were these old castles built? The generally received theory is that there were no stone castles in the Western Isles before the thirteenth century. I do not think that that theory can be maintained. Indeed, it is not in accordance with facts. The brochs and duns, though they differ in shape and method of construction from the castellated buildings we are considering, are stone castles, and it is not correct to say that none such exist in a country where they abound.

But, apart from this, is the theory reasonable? The Norsemen, who were settling in the Western Isles in the ninth and following centuries, were living amongst a conquered population, who might rise against them at any moment; and they were exposed to the raids of pirates, who were none the less to be feared because they were Norsemen like themselves. For these reasons I think that it is certain that the Norsemen must have required and built fortresses of some kind.

It has been suggested that they built them of wood, and that for this reason all trace of them has disappeared. But when we remember that there was no wood suitable for building purposes in the islands, and that they would have been obliged to bring it from the mainland by sea, this seems to be a most improbable theory. It is, in my opinion, far more likely that they built their strongholds of stone, of which there was any quantity close at hand, and if they really did this, the ruins of their castles would remain.

Surely then when we find numerous castles of unknown antiquity in the Western Isles, it is not an unreasonable hypothesis that some of them were built by the Norsemen during the ninth and following centuries. Some may have been built from the foundations at a much later date; some may have been altered and remodelled in subsequent years. But I firmly believe that many of the castles were originally built by the Norsemen, and that some of them may be as early as the end of the ninth century.

That is the date which tradition assigns to the oldest part of Dunvegan, and the architectural evidence which remains convinces me that the tradition is not very far wrong. Kismul Castle in Barra is another building of the most venerable antiquity. In both these buildings the staircases which lead to the roof, unlike those in southern castles, are straight nights of stairs ascending in the thickness of the walls, and turning at the angles. In both the masonry is random rubble, which was only employed in important buildings at an early date; in both the windows are very small, and absolutely plain, which was unusual in Norman castles, and the sea gate at Dunvegan, where the voussoirs in the arch are rough and jagged, numerous and long, with very wide joints between them, must clearly date from a very early period, quite possibly from the ninth century.

Every Chief in old days possessed his castle, and it was the centre round which revolved the life of his clan. There he held his court, surrounded by his household, his harpers, his pipers, his bards, his jesters, and his guards. There were gathered the gentlemen in attendance and their retainers. There day by day came clansmen to ask for favours, or to lodge complaints. There came the Chiefs of neighbouring clans to discuss some weighty matter of Island politics, to take part in some great hunting or athletic meeting, or to enjoy the pleasures of social intercourse.

Two accounts have come down to us of the splendid hospitality of Dunvegan in the old days. About the year 1620, a Bard of Clanranald's describes a house party, as we should call it, which lasted several days, and seems to have been an orgy of eating and drinking (see a note in Scott's Lord of the Isles). Mary MacLeod, the famous poetess, tells us of another far pleasanter gathering, which probably took place about 1670. The great house is filled with guests, and all are gathered together in the banqueting hall. Some of the older guests are playing chess, others are seated at a table, drinking wine out of horn goblets. Among them is "Sir Norman of the Banners," Mary's favourite hero, "unsurpassed for the manliness of his form and the readiness of his wit." Young men and maidens throng the hall, and are full of merriment and mirth. When the guests are tired of amusing themselves, the seannachies and bards recite some moving legend of the past, or harpers pour forth floods of entrancing melody, and so the time flies all too quickly by. I do not doubt that in the castles of other chiefs the same kindly hospitality was offered to all who chose to avail themselves of it.

When a chief had several castles on his estate, he sometimes appointed some of his more important chieftains to be constables of these castles. The Macraes were constables of Eilan Donan, the Campbells of Dunstafnage were constables of that castle, and tradition says the MacCaskills were constables of Dunskaith. So some of the chieftains were well housed, but most of them lived in poor abodes. At a time when on any day an enemy might raid the country, and reduce all the houses in it to ashes, it was worth no man's while to build a dwelling which could not be repaired by a very small amount of labour. Possibly, before the clan feuds began, they may have lived in better houses; they certainly did at a later period, but up to the latter part of the 18th century their homes were little more than hovels.

The masses of the people dwelt in black huts, built by themselves, which some of us, who knew the Highlands forty or fifty years ago, can remember so well, but which have in many parts of the country become almost entirely disused. Mr Colin Sinclair gives the following description of this type of dwelling-house:—

"The cottage of the peasant consisted of four walls and a roof, forming a building of rectangular plan. The walls were usually constructed of rubble stones, laid without mortar, and of considerable thickness—varying from three feet to even six feet. In the latter case the wall was often formed of two sections in thickness, with a hollow space between, commonly filled up solidly with moss and earth. The house often consisted of but one room, but frequently a cross partition of wattles and clay was introduced, dividing the house into a larger and a smaller apartment. The fire was placed in the middle of the floor of the larger apartment, which was used as the general living room, while the smaller was reserved for the live stock.

"In the construction of the roof, couples of round timber were placed at wide intervals across the building. Over the couple timbers, longitudinal purlins were placed, supporting the bed-work of wattles and turf upon which the thatch was laid. The thatch consisted of turf, heath or rushes. The roofs were usually constructed with hip ends, the four walls being of equal height, without gables. This form is characteristic of the most rudimentary manner of roof construction, finding its prototype in the "bee-hive" structure as exemplified in the huts of primitive peoples, the gable-end type being a somewhat later development, pertaining more to the mainland than to the islands. The pitch of the roofs was considerably less than forty-five degrees, thereby dispensing with much timber, a scarce commodity in the islands, and at the same time minimising the effect of wind pressure. In many of the island dwellings the general surface of the roof springs from a point towards the inside face of the walls, the thatch being kept well back from the outer edge. Thus in walls of such thickness as were employed, a flat ledge of wall-top remained uncovered. This arrangement is to be found in many localities among the islands at the present day. The house usually had but one door, and often no windows. Directly over the fire an aperture was formed in the roof, through which part of the smoke escaped, the remainder filling the house and finding its way out by the door."

When one entered such a house one's first impression was that it was a terribly comfortless abode; it was very small, very dark, and the upper part of the room so full of peat smoke that one could see scarcely anything till one sat down. When we compare these old dwellings with those in which the crofters now live, we are apt to think that the change from the one to the other kind of house is the greatest improvement which has taken place in recent years. I am not quite sure; there is something to be said for this type of house. The hole in the roof, through which the smoke escaped, ventilated the dwelling, and this was no small advantage. A medical friend was telling me some time ago about the alarming increase of tuberculosis in the Highlands. I asked him what he thought was the reason. He answered, "The passing away of the black hut." Probably in these humble homes of the poor there was much pleasant social intercourse. In them ceilidhs were held, many tales were told, many songs were sung, possibly some one would be present who could play the harp or the bagpipes, and the evenings were as cheerful and happy as those which the Chief and his guests spent in the castle.


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