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Historical Sketches


WHETHER the earliest inhabitants of the Lews are named Dicaledones, Albanich, or Picts, it seems generally admitted that they were a pure Celtic race.

After continued inroads from the Norsemen over a lengthened period, the islands were conquered by Harald Harfager in 888. The following year they rose in rebellion, but were again crushed by a Vikingr named Ketil, who was king of the isles till his death. In 938 Aulaf Mac Sitric, son of the Danish king of Northumberland, was king of the isles; he was succeeded by Maccus Mac Arailt Mac Sitric— Gofra Mac Arailt, another king, dying in 989.

In 990 Sigurd, Earl of Orkney, conquered the Hebrides and held them through his lieutenant, Gilli. As there is mention of one Ragnal Mac Gofra, King of the Isles, who died in 1004, while Sigurd was again in possession of the isles in 1014, there is in all probability some obscurity, caused by rivals having occasionally divided the northern from the southern Hebrides, as afterwards occurred, each retaining the title of “King of the Isles.”

In 1034 Earl Thorfin, son of Sigurd, reconquered the islands, which seemed to have fallen from the grasp of the Norsemen after the destructive battle of Clontarf. On his death, in 1064, they passed under the rule of an Irish prince, Diarmed Mac Maelnambo, who died in 1072. Next we find Godred, the son of Si trie, who reigned in the Isle of Man ; then his son Fingal, who was dethroned about 1077 by a Norse chieftain, Godred Crovan, son of Harald the Black. Godred Crovan was in turn expelled by the Norse king Magnus Barefoot, who placed his son Sigurd on the throne in 1093. Upon Sigurd succeeding his father as King of Norway about 1103, Lagman, son of Godred Crovan, was elected by the islanders: he afterwards died a pilgrim at Jerusalem.

Lagman was followed by a kinsman of Mur-chard O’Brien, King of Ireland, in mi, who was expelled in 1113. He was succeeded by Olave the Red, youngest son of Godred Crovan, who enjoyed an unaccountably peaceable and successful reign of forty years, and was succeeded by his son, Godred the Black, in 1154. Olave’s daughter Ragnhildis was married to Somerled, Prince of Argyle, and thus originated the Macdonalds, the family best known historically as Lords of the Isles. Godred the Black retained Man and the North Isles, while Somerled took possession of the South Isles. Reginald, the son of Godred the Black, was King of Man and the Isles in 1210, and it remained in the family of Godred until the death of Magnus, King of Man, in 1265.

It was in this year that the Western Isles passed from the kingdom of Norway under the allegiance of the King of Scotland; and while the remaining portions of the sub-kingdom of the isles were divided among the descendants of Somerled, the Lews was conferred upon the Earl of Ross. Thus the long subjection of the Lews to Norway, extending over several centuries, ended with the cession of the Isles to Scotland in 1266.

Lewis seems to have remained in the possession of the Earls of Ross until it was confirmed by David II. to John of Isla in 1344. It thus once more became a portion of a species of sub-kingdom, which shortly afterwards comprehended all the territories formerly held by the Norse jarls, or kings, in fealty to the King of Norway. From this time the Lewis chiefs were vassals to the house of Isla.

In 1380 Donald, son of John of Isla and grandson of Robert II. by the mother’s side, succeeded to his father. By marriage he claimed and secured also the earldom of Ross. In 1420 Alexander, third Lord of the Isles, entered in possession, and by the death of his mother in 1429 also became Earl of Ross. He was twice imprisoned during the life of James I. for rebellious practices, and was succeeded in 1449 by his son John. After many vicissitudes John was forfeited and deprived of his titles and estates in May, 1493 ; from which date the various clans which constituted his lordship, including the Macleods of Lewis, were independent of any superior but the Crown.

According to Martin, Lewis is so called from “Leog” which, in the Irish language (Gaelic), signifies water. It is also derived from the Norwegian Ltod Huts, windy house; or, following later authorities, it is Leod’s Land, or land of the sons of Leod or Loyd, the eldest son of King Olave the Black, brother of Magnus, last King of Man and the Isles. Such is the received genealogy of the earliest-known chiefs. Leod’s son, Torquil, was progenitor of the Lews branch, or Siol Torquil, whose possessions shortly included Rasay Island, Water-ness in Skye, and Assint, Coigach, and Gairloch on the mainland.

Assint was acquired by Torquil Macleod, a younger son of the Lews chief, who married the heiress. He was the third chief of the Lews, and a grandson of the original Torquil; and the first charter of his house was the confirmation to him of this barony by a royal grant in the reign of King David II. Previous to the Macleods, the Lews was probably held by lieutenants of the island kings; as the popular belief, that the Macnaughtons were chiefs of the Lews for three hundred years before the Macleods, seems a complete misapprehension. Indeed, it is only in the same reign in which the Macleods obtained their first charter that the Macnaughtons obtained a grant of portion of the island of Lews, when the possessions of John of the Isles were forfeited.

According to a native historian, this Torquil, the third chief, acted as conciliator between the minor chiefs of the Morrisons of Ness and the Macaulays of Uige. This would place the battle between these two small clans—which was fought near Barvas—in the thirteenth century, but would scarcely coincide with the understanding that the clan Macaulay only date from 1513. We are also told that “the year after Torquil became chief of the Lews, he and the Macnaugh-ton were proceeding in their birlins, or large boats, to Stornoway, when Macleod ran the boat of Macnaughton down in the Sound of Jaunt, and allowed the whole crew to drown.” By this simple and effective arrangement, he acquired an undisputed right to the whole island, and it remained in his possession.

The next chief after Torquil was one Ruari, whose younger son, Tormod, held Assint in vassalage; while in 1493 his grandson, another Ruari, whose eldest son was slain in 1481 at the battle of the Bloody Bay, was head of the clan. He was one of those chiefs who made their submission to James IV. in 1494. Ruari’s second son was Torquil, who married Katherine, daughter of the first Earl of Argyle. As Torquil was thus connected with Donald Dhu, whose mother was also a daughter of Argyle, he received and protected him when he escaped from prison, and, braving forfeiture, espoused his cause. He had previously, by a charter under the Great Seal, been granted, in August, 1498, the office of bailliary, and eighty merks of the lands of Trotternish in Skye, on the ground of it having been formerly held by him under the Lords of the Isles. This was immediately afterwards revoked.

Although he was nominally forfeited in 1502, the combination of the island chiefs was not broken until 1506, when Torquil, as the principal remaining insurgent, was attacked in his castle at Stornoway. The castle was taken, and the whole island subjugated.

After this the Lews was restored to Malcolm, a brother of Torquil, in 1511. This Malcolm seems to have been little less turbulent than his predecessors, as we find him one of the principal adherents of Sir Donald of Lochalsh during the five years’ rebellion. The Macleods of Lews and their kinsmen of Rasay also accompanied Sir Donald when he passed south to attack John Mac Ian of Ardnamurchan. They defeated the latter at Craig-an-airgid, or the Silver Craig, in Morven, slaying him and his two sons, John Sunoirtich and Angus, with many of their followers. Malcolm’s second son, Malcolm Garbh, was the progenitor of the Macleods of Rasay.

Malcolm’s nephew, John, son of Torquil, who had been expressly excluded in the charter of restoration, seized the Lews on his uncle’s death about 1528, and held it during his life. In 1530 he was one of the island chiefs who sent offers of submission to the king, on occasion of the rebellion of Alexander of Isla. Through a compromise with Donald Gorme, John was succeeded by his cousin, Ruari, son of Malcolm, popularly known as Old Rory. In May, 1539, Ruari, in virtue of this agreement, joined Donald Gorme in an attack upon Trotter-nish, in order to recover it from the Dunvegan family; but, passing over to the mainland,'the expedition came to an untimely end shortly after through the death of the laird of Sleat.

Ruari first married Barbara Stewart, a daughter of Lord Methven, by whom he had one son, Torquil Eir, or the heir, to distinguish him from the succeeding sons of the same name by other wives. This son reached manhood, but perished in a storm along with 200 men, on his way to his property of Vaternish, in Skye. His mother died six months after his birth, and in another half year the chief married Janet, Lady Reah, relict of the Mackay, and daughter of the chief of Kintail.

By this second wife Ruari had another son, Torquil, afterwards known as Torquil Connanach, from having been reared in Strathconnan. Lady Reah, however, eloped with a cousin of Ruari, John Macgillechallum, of Rasay, when she was divorced by the Lews chief, who at the same time disowned her son, Connanach, as being her offspring by Morrison, the Breve or Celtic judge of the Lews. This was the occasion of a protest in 1566, taken by Donald Gormeson, claiming to be heir of Lewis, with the sanction of the chief, on the ground of an alleged confession of Hugheoun, the Brew, that Torquil Connanach was his son. Lady Reah bore Rasay several sons and a daughter, but, after her death, the chief and all his sons by her were murdered by Ruari Mac Allan Macleod, of Gerloch, brother of his second wife, at a feast on the Island of Isay, in Waterness.

His second wife having thus eloped, Ruari married a daughter of Lauchlan Maclean, of Dowart, by whom he had two sons, Torquil Dhu and Tormad. Ruari had thus three sons named Torquil by three separate wives; the first was drowned, the third executed at Coigach by the Mackenzies; and the second, repudiated by his father, allied himself with his mother’s relatives, the Mackenzies of Kintail, who used him as a catspaw to obtain possession of the Lews for themselves.

Besides these four legitimate, there were five illegitimate sons. Two of these, Tormad Uigach and Murdo, backed the claim of Torquil Connanach as heir; while three, Donald, Rory Oig, and Neil, sided with Torquil Dhu.

This old Ruari was exceedingly turbulent and lawless, offering an example which his sons were not slow to follow. In 1539 he was engaged with Donald Gorme, of Skye, against Lord Kintail, and in 1540 we find that James V. took him captive to Edinburgh, on his visit to the isles, but liberated him on giving hostages. In April, 1555, the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, commenced a process of treason against him, but in September of the same year he was granted a respite; and we next find him specially summoned to join the Earl of Athole, in 1565, against the insurgents under Argyle.    .

During the bloody disputes between Torquil Connancich, assisted by Kintail and Mackenzie of Gerloch, on the one hand; and Ruari, of the Lews, assisted by Donald Gorme of Sleat, Macleod of Assint, and Ruari Mac Allan, on the other, old Ruari fell into the hands of Connanach, who kept him prisoner four years. In 1572, however, before the Earl of Mar and Privy Council, he acknowledged Connanach as his son and heir, and was thereupon liberated. The turbulent chieftain was no sooner free than he revoked the deed of acknowledgment, but was again in 1576 obliged to accept Connanach as his heir, before Regent Morton and a Privy Council, bestowing upon him the district of Coigach for his maintenance.

In 1585 the feud again broke out afresh. Tormad Uigach was slain by Donald, who was in return captured by Murdo, but escaping seized his captor, and imprisoned him in Stornoway. Connanach now espoused the cause of his supporter, and, capturing the castle of Stornoway, again imprisoned the old Lewis chief, placing him in the castle under the custody of his son John. After a time Rory Oig retook the castle, killed Connanach’s heir, and liberated old Ruari, who remained in possession till his death. Torquil, in the meantime, seized his natural brother, Donald, and executed him at Dingwall.

The piratical conduct of himself and natural sons towards all vessels touching at the Lews, was one reason for Ruari’s outlawry, and gave occasion for those attempts at colonisation and civilisation made by the Fife adventurers. These attempts, as will afterwards appear, were frustrated by the combined efforts of the islanders and the Mackenzies, who looked upon the Lews as their peculiar prey.

On the death of this old freebooter, the chief-ship fell to Torquil Dhu, who had married a sister of Macleod of Harris. But Connanach, aided by the Mackenzies, again invaded the Lews, took the castle of Stornoway, and, with the aid of the Morrisons of Ness, or Clann-Mhic-Ghille-Moir, secured Torquil Dhu himself. They then carried him to Coigach, in July, 1597, to ornament a tree at the end of the castle.

Torquil Dhu was chief of the Lews at the time of the expedition against the isles in 1596, when the Lews was withdrawn from the list of disobedient clans, as both Dhu and Connanach agreed to submit their claims to the authorities. The Government decided in favour of Connanach, but Torquil Dhu, who had a following of 700 to 800 men, not only kept what he previously possessed, but ravaged Coigach and Lochbroom.

Torquil Dhu having been destroyed greatly through the treachery of the Breive, who had enticed him on board a vessel at Ness, and then handed him over to Connanach, the Breive and his whole clan were attacked by Neil Macleod, and nearly extirpated. Although a Celtic institution, this Ness Brew, Breive, or Brehon, seems to have been adopted by the Norsemen, both from the name Morrison, which is Scandinavian, as well as from the fact that his jurisdiction extended over the Hebrides from Isla to the Butt of Lews, and over the opposite coast to the Ord of Caithness. This was the acknowledged Norse kingdom of the isles.

With the judge's family the records of the Lews and adjacent country were destroyed, with the exception of a few scraps carried to the mainland by some of the fugitives.

Normand or Tormad, brother of Torquil Dhu, who had long been held a prisoner by Kintail, was now liberated, that he might be the means of expelling the Fife colonists. These latter had gained a firm footing on the island, but on the appearance of the legitimate heir, the natives rose in a body under the leadership of Neil, expelled the colonists, and maintained Tormad as the leader of the Siol Torquil until 1605. In this year he gave himself up, on the return of the Fife men, and never came back to the Lews.

The antagonism of Neil Macleod, who alone remained to oppose them, at length drove the colonists out of the island; when they sold their title to Kintail. Thus strengthened, Mackenzie was stimulated to push his claims to the utmost. Accordingly, armed with the deeds obtained from Torquil Connanach, whose daughter the Tutor of Kintail, uncle of the heir, had married, and the still better credentials of facility for invasion and pacification, Mackenzie lost no time in securing this extensive property. The king freed him from all liability to other military service, that he might direct all his force to this purpose, seeing the purchase of the title from the Fife adventurers had legalised Kintail’s hitherto shadowy claims. The price paid the broken colony for their title was equal to eighty pounds of our present money, being the estimated value of the oak woods of Letterew; and to the woods was added permission to erect some furnaces on the mainland opposite.

The only resolute enemy opposed to Kintail was Neil, the natural son of old Ruari, who maintained an irregular warfare for some years; but he was at length captured and induced to proceed to Edinburgh, where he was executed.

When Cromwell’s troops overran Scotland, they took possession of the Lews and fortified the whole point of Stornoway, Kintail having previously risen in rebellion. This fortification they garrisoned with fourteen hundred men! Earl Kenneth, Lord Kintail, who had always been a sincere Royalist, attacked and routed the defenders with great slaughter; but as Charles II. succeeded to the throne shortly thereafter, the Lewsmen escaped the otherwise inevitable punishment.

Although there are the remains of many ancient chapels and nunneries in the Lews, evidencing a considerable population in a comparative state of quiet, the condition of the inhabitants must have been very degraded towards the end of the possession of the Macleods. “It is told of Farquhar Macrae, born 1580, who entered the Church, that on his first visit to the island of Lews, he had to baptize the whole population under forty years of age.” This points to a wretchedly

disturbed state of the island during the latter end of the sixteenth century, and towards the close of old Ruari’s chieftainship; while, if religion was in abeyance during these times of strife, those which followed sunk the inhabitants who remained still deeper in degeneracy. Traditions of Saxon thraldom, and Southern notions of property in land, replaced the simple ties that bound the clansman to “the head of his house.” We get occasional glimpses from travellers of steady retrogression, until we arrive at the time when population was a stock to be sold with the farm, and kept down by exportation to suit the theories of the purchaser.

For a time, after the island came into the hands of the Seaforth family, little is heard of it. After the Restoration in 1660 it remained quietly in the hands of its Royalist chiefs, and although Seaforth was forfeited in 1751 for his share in the rebellion, the Lews was doubtless too distant to suffer.

The first careful account we have of the country and people is from Martin, who visited the Lews the beginning of last century, and he gives us no such hopeless account of their condition as we get from the Rev. J. Lane Buchanan, about the end of it. In Martin’s time the crofters seemed comparatively well off: given to dancing, singing, and drinking home-brewed ale; and leading a free, if semi-pagan, semipastoral, and wholly barbarous existence. The following extract from Martin will not be out of place, seeing his work is now within the reach of few. “ The inhabitants (of Long Island) had an ancient custom to sacrifice to a sea god called Shony at Hallowtide, in the manner following. The inhabitants round the Island come to the church of St. Mulvay, having each man his provision along with him. Every family furnished a peck of malt, and this was brewed into ale : one of their number was pickt out to wade into the sea up to the middle, and carrying a cup of ale in his hand standing still in that posture, cry’d out with a loud voice saying, Shony, I give you this cup of ale, hoping that you'll be so kind as to send us plenty of seaware for enriching our ground the ensuing year ; and so threw the cup of ale into the sea. This was performed in the nighttime ; at his return to land they all went to church, where there was a candle burning upon the altar; and then standing silent for a little time, one of them gave a signal, at which the candle was put out, and immediately all of them went to the fields, where they fell a-drinking their ale, and spent the remainder of the night in dancing, singing, &c.”

The country was at this time sparsely populated, and the game, fish, and right of pasturage free to a great extent; so that, with a few acres under crop, the necessaries of life were never wanting. But the “tacksmen,” or farmers, gradually extended their power, and the internal peace of the country brought its own evils. The clansmen, who had formerly to be conciliated as the military support of the chief, were now only treated as thralls to provide for his lavish expenditure. The chiefs, who were only guardians of the country for their people, gradually exercised the same proprietorship over their kinsmen as the Norman barons over their conquered Saxon dependants. Thus the tacksmen now paid heavy rental for their enlarged farms, and increased their stocks to the impoverishment of the cotters or subtenants, until abject necessity drove the latter into their power.

The Rev. John Lane Buchanan, who was intimately acquainted with the country from 1782 to 1790, writes as follows:—“It is an invariable custom, and established by a kind of tacit compact among the tacksmen and inferior lairds, to refuse, with the most invincible obstinacy, an asylum, on their ground, to any subtenant without the recommendation of his landlord, or, as he is very properly called in those parts, his master. The wretched outcast, therefore, has no alternative but to sink down into the situation and rank of an unfortunate and numerous class of men known under the name of Scallags. The scallag, whether male or female, is a poor being, who, for mere subsistence, becomes a predial slave to another, whether a subtenant, a tacksman, or a laird. The scallag builds his own hut with sods and boughs of trees; and if he is sent from one part of the country to another, he moves off his sticks, and, by means of these, forms a new hut in another place.

Five days in the week he works for his master; the sixth is allowed to himself for the cultivation of some scrap of land, on the edge of some moor or mess ; on which he raises a little kail, or coleworts, barley, and potatoes. These articles, boiled up together in one mash, and often without salt, are his only food.

He is allowed coarse shoes, with tartan hose, and a coarse coat, with a blanket or two for clothing.” He devotes some space to a comparison between negroes on plantations and the Hebridean scallags, much to the advantage of the negro in every detail of treatment.

Again: “Formerly a Highlander would have drawn his dirk against even a laird, if he had subjected him to the indignity of a blow. At present, any tyrannical tacksman, in the absence of the laird or lord, whose presence alone can enforce good order and justice, may strike a scallag, and even a subtenant, with perfect impunity.” It may be questioned whether these scallags were a recent institution, as the Celtic races of Scotland seem always to have had a race of helots subject to the free vassals!

The day of the tacksmen and sublairds did not last long. After acting as instruments in crushing out all spirit from the subtenants, they found kinship and traditional service were not reckoned when opposed to mainland gold, and none of those families whose scions formerly came back from France accomplished cavaliers can hold their places to-day.

It has been argued that the evidences of former extensive cultivation in the west of the Lews proves a considerable population; while Buchanan, on the other hand, remarks that the absence of partridges, blackcock, or many of the granivorous fowls, is a strong proof that grain has not been long sown here, and that the country has not been sufficiently cultivated to entice them to reside in it. This is scarcely an argument, as the country affords no cover for partridge or blackcock, and only strict preservation could secure the continued presence even of the heath-fowl in such a populous country. We are inclined to believe that notwithstanding emigration, enforced and otherwise, the country has been steadily advancing in population ever since the succession of the Mackenzies gave comparative security; while, for a century or two before that time, the continual wars and clan squabbles must have sadly depopulated the land. The clergy were driven out, the hereditary judge and his family destroyed, and all authority, save that of the strongest, for a time was in abeyance.

Since the beginning of the century, the increase has been in correspondence with that of the kingdom generally. In 1817, the population, according to Headrick, as taken by the ground officers, was 11,534; in 1831 it had increased to 14,541, and the latest statistics give about 25,000.

This enormous increase in population, without a corresponding advance in means of livelihood, has necessarily caused a much greater number to be little removed above pauperism. But, notwithstanding this, the condition of the people in general, as regards morality and real elements of civilisation, has infinitely improved during this century. This progress we must acknowledge to have been mainly due to the honest endeavours of the clergy, and more especially those of the Free Church of Scotland, who have reason to point with pride to the present moral character of the people under their charge. When Martin visited the island, the inhabitants were not yet emancipated from the most pagan customs.

Still later, the Rev. Mr. Buchanan gives a most deplorable account of the gross immorality of the people—viewed in the light of the accepted code—in which their ministers and elders showed them a precious example.

After describing the looseness of social ties in general, as well as in particular instances among the teachers of the people, he adds : “Presbyteries are for the most part held at public-houses, and continued sometimes without prorogation or adjournment for three successive days and nights. The holy fathers stand in no need of Paul’s advice to Timothy, respecting his weak stomach. One may form a judgment of their style of living from the bill of fare for one day in Harris. This was no less than one pound sterling per head, or three pounds for the three days that the presbytery lasted. As the meetings of the presbyteries are, for the most part, scenes of riot, they are attended only by young people of both sexes, who delight in frolic.” It must be added: “These are not attended with such abominable excesses as mark the clerical assemblies in some other quarters”—wherever these may beI

In commenting upon the reverend gentleman’s observations about Lewis immorality, this would partly spring from the habits and dwellings of the natives, partly from the degrading “scallag” system, and, no doubt, greatly to the freer and more primitive ideas respecting sexual intercourse always current among the Scottish lower classes.

However this may be, under the inquisitorial rule of the Free Church clergy, the natural births have fallen to a fractional percentage ; drunkenness is rare in the country, bad language is almost never heard, and an intelligent body of people patiently submit to an arbitrary and not always intelligent control. The evil effects are, of course, those obtained under a comparatively under-educated and one-idead priesthood; but we must be thankful for what they have really done for the social advancement of the inhabitants.

When the country passed about thirty years ago, by purchase, into the hands of Mr. Mathe-son, a merchant prince, all traditional devotion was destroyed. The population felt they had been purchased; and while losing all feeling of kinship and family attachment, wholesale eviction and compulsory emigration failed to ingratiate those who remained. Thus a weird, wild song, with an infinite charm alike to native and stranger, keeps up in every “clachan” the wail of the heart-broken wanderer from the roof-tree of his love.

The tangible benefits in the shape of improved communication do not come home to those who can race across the moor with a sack of meal on their backs, who wish nothing to be brought them, and have nothing to send away. Indeed, it is wonderful how little advantage roads are to a country as yet unsettled except around the coast, and without produce or manufactures. Cattle and sheep, like the natives, travel easier on the moors. Still, improved communication is a great boon even in a desert, and may enable some future proprietor, who shall have gone to the West, in place of the East, for his notions of government, to permanently benefit the people.

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