Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Outer Isles
Chapter VIII. South Uist and its People

LORD NAPIER, who has so admirably shown his real appreciation of the crofter and his troubles, has well described this district, as one which “the caprice of Nature has' stricken with so many disabilities, and invested with so deep a charm.”

As has already been shown, there was a time when man was glad, even in South Uist; and in truth, even here, were the tyranny of Nature all that he had to contend with, man's life might yet be tolerable. As it is, he lives in memory and tradition, and the Uist man is at his best when talking of the past.

Many of the common-place affairs of every-day life used to be conducted in the most picturesque manner. In every township, even if of only half a dozen houses, there was formerly a constabal baile (constable of the hamlet), whose business it was to direct and distribute the work of gathering peats, to select new peat grounds when the old were exhausted, to see to the repair of the mountain paths by which the peat was brought down in creels, to direct the reclaiming of land, to represent the crofters in their dealings with the factor, and in much else. He was elected yearly, or for longer periods or even for life, according to the custom of his district. When he accepted office he would take off his shoes and stockings—to show that he was in contact with the earth of which he was made and to which he would return, and then, raising his bonnet, and lifting up his eyes to heaven he would declare that upon his honour, in presence of earth and heaven, in presence of God and men, he would be faithful to his trust. Many are the tributes we have heard to the faithfulness of one and another of these men, to their zeal, justice, industry and resource.

Such an intermediary was especially necessary,-when, as on the Gordon estates, the factor was unable to speak Gaelic. He, on his side, has a sub-official, known as the Maor Gruind, the ground-officer, who can meet and converse with the Maor-Baile, so that, as the local saying has it, “The tongue of the people is in another man's mouth.”

There are some lofty hills in South Uist—one point, Ben Mhor, visible even from Tyree and from the mainland, is over 2,000 feet high; another, Hecla, named probably by the Norsemen over a thousand years ago, 1,988 feet high. The hills lie along the east coast of the island, while westward of them, the ground, intersected with lake and bog, lies level to the sea-shore or machair, a great sandy, bent-grown plain, excellent for cattle and horses, and in former times all common land, as were also the hills.

Now the hill-ground is taken away as well as the best of the machair, and they have even had to share their rocks and bogs with new-comers. In the old days, however, when the grass on the shallow strand was exhausted, the people, with their cattle, used to betake themselves to the hills and so, by change of scene for themselves and of pasture for their flocks and herds, they escaped many complaints and ailments common now that the soil is over-worked, and food, lodging, and clothing so much deteriorated. They themselves, equally with the cattle, were much better fed when the ground had a chance to lie fallow. The possession of common land made even a small croft much more productive than now, when so much is exacted from it, and Father Campbell, a native of South Uist, where he is still held in loving memory, assured the Commissioners that there was sufficient land in Uist for the present population if only they had the use of it.

A fine day in the month of June would be chosen for the start, and at an early hour in the morning the procession formed, the men, lads and young girls, driving the sheep, mares, and calves, their simple provision packed in creels strapped on the backs of a few mountain ponies, the older women, knitting as they walked, following with the young children, while half-grown boys and girls, full of wild anticipations of fun, ran backward and forward like the excited dogs, probably of all the party most conscious of responsibility.

On arriving, there would be small repairs to make to the shealings of last year, all of the simplest and most elementary description, often of the bee-hive shape, but on occasion adapted to the material available—stones roughly piled against a large rock, or against a bank, supports of disused oars or parts of masts, a roof of the roughest thatch of heather or bent grass, a shelf in the thickness of the wall for keeping the milk cool on hot summer days, the floor as Nature may have provided, turf or sand or beaten earth.

Then, when all was arranged, they would sit down in scattered groups to the Moving Feast, of which the eating and drinking would be, as on all occasions in the Highlands, the least conspicuous part, consisting probably of cheese and scones, perhaps tea.

Then would come, as the climax, the shoaling evening hymn sung to one of the slow melodies with the melancholy cadence so characteristic of the oldest Gaelic songs. They would confide themselves and their flocks to the protection of S. Michael, subduer of the wild beast, to Mary, mother of the white lamb, to SL Columba, always concerned with the care of the dumb beasts to whom in his life-time he showed so much kindness, and finally to the Blessed Trinity.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Three in One, be with us in light and darkness:
Down in the low-lying machair or up on the hill-side,
The Thnn» in One be with us,
His ann around our head.

Often in the Islands, one notes a brighter colour on the heather, or a greener shade upon the grass in some wild spot just above the rocky shore, denoting the former occupation of the spot by a group of shealings, perhaps for the pasturage of cattle, I am told, though I have not seen them, that on the machair of the west coast of South Uist there are earth dwellings, which are used as shealings by kelp-workers.

As is described elsewhere, it is not only at the shealing that such prayers are and have long been in constant use in the Catholic islands. There are prayers for travelling, for following the cattle, for going to sea, for raking the peats at night, for rousing them in the morning, the theory of saying grace carried to a logical conclusion.

The summer exodus was indeed the great festival of the year, and among the folk-songs of the people those in praise of the shealings are among the most poetical Both in mind and body, perhaps even in soul, the people have lost much in losing the rest and refreshment of the shealing life.

The women and children happily established in their now surroundings, all needful repairs done to shealing and bothie and pen, the men would return home to attend to the crops and get in the peat, thatch the houses and generally make preparation for the coming winter.

During the three months or more of their stay, the principal work of the women would be to make butter and cheese for the winter store. The flocks could ramble all day at will, feeding in the freshest and greenest spots; the calves and lambs would be growing fat and strong on the sweet hill pasture, and the cows would be yielding of their best. Spare hours would be occupied with the distaff, getting the wool ready for the winter s task of weaving the warm durable cloth which was then their only wear. The young folks enjoyed the fun and freedom of an existence without even the responsibility of herding, and none of the folk-songs are so blithe and gay as those in praise of the shealings and the shealing life.

In the old days many of the people paid their rent in kelp, but when kelp-making for the Estate practically ceased, a reduction in rent, long promised by Colonel Gordon, ought to have been allowed, for money payment is- always dearer for the people than payment by labour or produce; for the amount of money in circulation is very small, and has an exaggerated value among the people, whose ordinary transactions with each other are carried on by barter, being a very usual unit of exchange. What the people buy from the local “merchant” or shop keeper (a tradesman in the islands is a craftsman; a tailor, shoemaker, carpenter, etc.) is generally bought on credit and paid for in wool or home-made cloth, which, though a convenient method, indeed at times the only one possible, is considerably to the advantage of the merchant, who, however, of course incurs a certain amount of risk from which he is bound in some degree to protect himself.

Even when kelp was worth considerably more than at the present day, little more than two or three pounds per ton ever reached the people, and the tendency for the profit to accrue to the Estate, which contributed nothing whatever, has naturally increased rather than diminished, so that compulsory service in kelp-making, on pain of eviction, lingered on, often greatly to the detriment of agricultural work in June, July and August, until, in the year 1886, the crofters secured fixity of tenure and the old threat became of no avail. When, to a question put by Mr. Fraser Macintosh in the House of Commons, the Lord Advocate replied that there was now no contract compelling the crofters to make kelp for the Estate, and that all the money got for kelp was handed to them in return for their labour, the people naturally supposed themselves free to seek a better market. With a power of initiation one would hardly have expected to find in so remote a place, one of the crofters undertook to act as agent, and at once offered a penny more per square yard of tangle than was paid by the Gordon Cathcart Estate. The Estate authorities at once interdicted the prospective purchasers, and the poor islanders had no choice but to offer the result of their season's work to them at the old price. The Estate not only refused the offer, but served an action of suspension and interdict upon seventeen of the crofters, prohibiting them from removing or disposing of the tangles collected. To quote from a contemporary newspaper account:

“They were thus boycotted; their severe and protracted labours go for nothing, and the fruit of their hardy industry is ruthlessly sacrificed. Can anything more disheartening to industrious and honest people be imagined ? The islanders are greatly agitated over the question, and claim that it is unreasonable and contrary to justice, that Lady Cathcart’s claim to tangles, grown perhaps hundreds of miles from the shores of her estate, should be allowed as her property, merely because they happen to be cast upon the sea-shores of her island by the accident of the winds and the waves, and which, but for the industry of the poor people living on her estate, would not be worth a farthing to any person in the British Empire.”

It is only in the Highlands, among a race accustomed to look to those over them as holding parental, not tyrannical authority, that such things are possible. In Ireland the people boycot the landlords; in the Islands, the landlord boy cots the people. And then we talk about “the lazy Highlander” and wonder that he does not make more effort to better his condition!

It is obvious therefore, that with no agriculture worth mentioning, insufficient ground on which to graze stock, rare and uncertain markets for their beasts, and every obstacle put in the way of making profit out of even the jetsam and flotsam of the ocean, it is extremely difficult for the people to acquire the actual cash which alone would enable them to face the world with the characteristic Highland independence and self-respect. This their present life is going far to obliterate, at least among the inhabitants of South Uist. The hope of gaining a prosperous home in South Uist seems so remote that the islander in despair turns his gaze across the Atlantic. In Manitoba he knows that the hardy industrious Highlandor will be welcome. It is true that compulsory emigration is not now permitted. Yet are there many indirect methods of making life quite intolerable, in districts where endurance is being already stretched to its utmost possibility of tension.

The people have an absolute craving for work, and it is chiefly from these islands that the young women go every year to the east-coast fishing, mainly now to Aberdeen, though formerly largely to Fraserburgh and Peterhead. They are expert fish-curers. They receive £2 on engagement, in mid-winter, when money is scarcest, and this probably tempts away many a woman who possibly repents of her bargain later. However there is no work for them to do at home, the change and better food, now that there is no shealing-life, is good for their health, and they bring home not only money but enlargement of notions. Many of the domestic details of life have improved greatly since the women have been away from the Islands. They bring home crockery and articles of clothing, and their lives have gained in order and in complexity. Their life at the fishing is necessarily of the roughest. Sometimes they work for two or three nights without sleep. Their conduct is said to be excellent.

I have travelled with them two or three times between Oban and their own islands. They were always neat and modest in their dress and orderly in their conduct, but, poor girls, strange to say, they were horribly sea-sick!

Some of the crofters too go south to work on mainland farms, but almost always as emergency-work to tide over necessities, bringing back the money earned to spend on their own crofts, and very rarely tempted to remain in permanent employment away from family and home. They are capable of immense endurance and very hard work for any definite object such as fishing or tangle-drying, persevering day and night without sleep and with scanty food. Indeed, without such perseverance and the capacity for seizing occasion, nothing would be accomplished. When the miserable little crops are gathered, often literally a mere handful here and there, as any little accumulation of soil in the hollow of a rock or under the shelter of a hillock has made planting possible, they often have to stand in the “stooks” (small shocks) for weeks before they can be stacked, waiting for a drying wind, in a climate where continuance of sunshine cannot be depended upon. Only about 150 or so of these poor little bundles go to a stack as, again probably on account of the damp, the stacks are made very small and of bee-hive shape. We were told that the flowers of the water ragwort, caoibhrechan, are put freely among the straw to keep out the rats; but whether this is a useful agricultural hint or a part of the same superstition which leads the people to put this weed into the dairy to keep off the Evil-Eye, I am unable to say.

The peat-cutting is still done, if possible, by the men, who leave the peats to dry; but the burden of bringing them home too often falls upon the women, as the men are away most of the autumn. The peats are cut flat and big, not brick-shaped as on the mainland, and require a great deal of drying before they are fit for use.

There are separate names for the peats: Barrad is the top peat, Gollacl the outside peat, Tveasad, the third peat, Siomad the one most protected.

Much labour is spent over the thatch of the houses, which, if attended to from time to time, may last for forty years. The material mainly used in Uist is the bent-grass from the machair, but the people have to pay in labour for permission to cut it. The bent, when dried, is extremely tough, and is sometimes woven into mats, bags, and horse collars; one industrious man in Benbecula makes excellent chairs of it, of design and outline just such as one sometimes sees in old-fashioned houses as having come from India. Sometimes rushes are used, if permission can be obtained to cut them, more rarely heather, bracken, or the Osmxmda regalia. The walls are built three or four feet thick, but are pointed with lime, sometimes packed with sand, as in Tyree.

Now that the people have security of tenure and are beginning to improve their houses, the old building is often turned into a byre (shelter for cattle), and the new one built beside it. There are, however, a few of the old sod or turf byres still standing, built where surface stones are not easily available, and these, many of them, were at one time houses, put up when the unhappy inhabitants had to provide themselves with a roof-tree, yet with no certainty of being able to keep even such wretched shelter as this for long.

The average houses of old times of which large numbers, are still standing, measured, inside, about thirty feet by fourteen. One end was occupied by the box-beds, the fire was in the middle of the floor, and at the end furthest away from the beds, the cattle were formerly housed.

The crofters generally build north and south, which is said to be for economy in thatching, but I don’t know upon what principle, and the miserable position chosen for their homes, is often accounted for by the fact that in old days, when the land was held in common, it was profitable to build on the worst part; even such a morsel as thirty feet by fourteen being too precious to use lightly, if it were capable of growing corn or potatoes. The house is regarded mainly as a shelter at night, and the people care nothing for a view; indeed, as windows are of comparatively recent introduction, they had, till lately, little opportunity to enjoy it.

It is said that there was formerly a good deal of illicit trade in South Uist, and that Dutch smugglers landed goods on the island, but whether for the benefit of families of the Clan Ranald or whether the goods were brought with the view of conveyance to the mainland does not appear.

The shebeen or unlicensed drinking-shops have also, technically, disappeared, though one in South Uist lingered on until but a few years ago, and naturally there is some evasion of the excise by the many foreign traders who visit Barra and Lewis during the short fish-curing season. Only this year we heard of a melancholy scene when some of the fishermen of a certain island were deluded into buying a considerable quantity of Eau de Cologne. Under the impression it was some new variety of uisge (strong water), they adjourned to the hill one afternoon, when resting from a night of fishing, and proceeded to drink it. Then followed a fearful thirst which the men on a Scotch or English boat induced them to appease with beer, and the results, as may be imagined, were highly disastrous.

The township of Steligarry, the endowment of the Macvurrichs, the bards of Clanranald, was a sacred place and afforded sanctuary for any person escaping thither, no matter what the nature of his crime. There is a tradition that the endowment was in perpetuity, as was that of Bornish, another part of the Clanranald estate, “To be held as long as the sea comes about a stone, or a black cow gives milk, and until the big stone of Beinne Corairidh (a hill in Bornish) runs out on the point of Ard by itself.”

It is said, however, that when troubles befel the Clanranalds, both Macvurrich and the laird of Bornish had to go to Edinburgh to defend their claims, which they maintained successfully in six courts. But one day a man “like a gentleman” met them, and said that if they wished to be free from further trouble they had only to go to the Cross at Edinburgh, and declare themselves publicly in the phrase :

“I am Macvurrich from Steligarry.
And I am Bornish from Bornish.”

Unfortunately the expression they used—as was intended—was Mach a Steligarry, Mack a Bornish, which means out of as well as from,, and when they had said it “the lawyers who had been in hiding rushed out, and told them they had publicly renounced all claim to their lands.”

The same informant says that the Macvurrichs were in Steligarry, the Clanranalds in Uist, the MacNeills in Barra, and the Macleans in Duart for fifteen generations.

Like Claverhouse and many other heroes, the Clanranalds could not be killed with lead. The chief, who was at Sheriff Muir, was so certain of his immunity that he dressed in scarlet to exhibit the favours of fate. However, a man from Moidart, the district next to Clanranald’s mainland property of Arisaig, who had enlisted to escape punishment for theft, knew of the charm, and loading his gun with silver, killed him.

At the north end of the island is a tract of country which, even in South Uist, is of exceptional desolation. Bounded on three sides by the sea, intersected with countless lakes on endless bog, fit only for a nursery of moss and sundew, a hopeless dreary expanse overhung with a grey mist of exhalation, which never seems to clear away from the reeking soil, lies the parish of Iochar, a collection of nine townships, where, if anywhere on earth, one may look for the very apotheosis of the struggle for existence.

Mr. Carmichael, who for some years lived but a mile or two beyond the dreary region, thus describes it:

“Where the land is not rock it is heath, where not heath it is bog, where not bog it is black peaty shallow lake, and where not lake it is a sinuous arm of the sea, winding, coiling, and trailing its snakelike forms into every conceivable shape, and meeting you with all its black slimy mud in the most unexpected places.”

But even here the gentle inhabitants cherish kindly thoughts and a love for home. The little Church has lately been restored by means of gifts from sons and daughters exiled abroad, and who, it may be, preserve in grateful memory the thought of one kind man who, in this desolate spot, preached to his people, as so many of these priests have done, by his life and active work, still eloquent, and still bearing fruit. With his own hands, Father Macgrigor laboured among the people, encouraging them to clear their little plots of the rocks that encumbered them, and using the stone thus gained in erecting miles of excellent dykes which help to diminish the task of herding the cattle by keeping the cows and sheep away from the crofts. A witness for the Commission testified (Report, p. 462): “During his incumbency of over forty years he showed a more admirable example to the people how to improve their crofts than all the proprietors, factors, and tacksmen put together.”

This being the case, as reported by a Presbyterian witness, one is not surprised to learn further that the factor deprived him of his croft and confiscated his improvements; it is perhaps more surprising to hear that they were restored to him, probably owing to the kindly interference of one, Roderick Maclean, no less a person than the parish minister.

Buchanan (Land of Lome, vol. ii. p. 84) says:

“In the whole list of jobbers, excepting only the mean whites of the Southern States of America, there are no paltrier fellows than the men who stand by Highland doors and interpret between ignorance and the great proprietors. They libel the race they do not understand, they deride the affections they are too base to cultivate, they rob, plunder, and would exterminate wholly the rightful masters of the soil. They are the agents of civilization in such places as the Outer Hebrides, so that if God does not help the civilized it is tolerably clear that the devil will. In the islands beware of the civilized. Wherever the great or little Sassenach comes he leaves a dirty trail like the slime of a snake.”

I have known factors and other agents of the proprietors of whom, so far as one may judge, every word of this indictment appeared to be true. But I think it only right to record that I know others, men whose life and conduct I have watched for years, of whom even the tenants freely testified that they were honest, upright, kindly, as factors go, and of whom the unprejudiced outsider might well say far more than this: men from whom I have received not only personal kindness, but just and humane testimony as to the responsibilities with which they are charged. No one who has not been on the spot knows all the trials and difficulties of a factor, especially such as are not autocratic, who have to render account to a chamberlain who gets the credit of what goes right and knows where to lay the blame of what goes wrong. It is high time that the proprietors took a fair share of responsibility for what is done in their islands. Merely to receive rents, spend them elsewhere, and leave the people to blame the unlucky agents for indifference, if not oppression, is often to do injustice to men, hard - working, well - meaning, but often sorely perplexed.

I venture to think, however, that the factors have in one respect themselves to thank for this. The people are ever ready to point out that they come to the Islands poor men, and go away rich ones, a reproach which they sometimes bring upon themselves by occupying the best farms on the island. Such a position ought not to be possible; the proprietor ought, in common honesty to his tenants, to place the factor in such a financial position that he should have no temptation to expose himself to the charge of “having his own axe to grind.”

Amongst other pleasant memories to which the people of South Uist still cling, is that they were once blessed with a good factor whose name deserves to be recorded, one Doctor Macleod, remembered for his medical skill when medical attendance was even more difficult to obtain than now, but still more for the very rare fact that he sought and gained the love of the people for whom he was responsible, although the representative of the new order and the alien proprietor. He helped to redeem the machairs, and by judicious cutting and economy to promote the growth of kelp. Moreover he contrived, and with great labour and skill carried out, the drainage of some of the vast tracts of water with which the land in South Uist is for ever carrying on a hopeless contest. As Mr. Carmichael has expressed it, “He drained the estates of their water, instead of the holders of their produce.”

Father Allan has recorded a curious fragment of Gaelic verse which gives one an insight into the conditions of life at this period:

McLeod is the clever man,
I fear I shall lose his help
Since it is he who stands true to the right.
The factor spoke then :
McIntyre has tortured me,
If he remain in Glac-nan-Ruari
I shall leave of my own accord.
The Colonel spoke majestically [Colonel Gordon]:
Knock you down your house at Martinmas
And put out the wife and the children,
Though they should die in consequence.

The point being that anything like complaint brought summary punishment upon the person injured.

The mutual good feeling of the Protestants and Roman Catholics in islands where one might very naturally expect the reverse to be the case, is a fact which constantly came under our notice and deserves to be recorded. The only case of tension of which we heard was over a matter not under the control of the people, and which the late Archbishop Macdonald, of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, at one time himself a priest in the Highlands, brought before the notice of the authorities. This was the fact that although in South Uist, out of 280 children in the schools, 255 were of the older faith as against 25 Protestants, the Roman Catholics were allowed no voice in the selection of a teacher. As the Archbishop truly said, the majority had the law on their side, but as the proprietor and factors were on the other, they were afraid to enforce it.

The Chairman of the Commission pointedly replied that such a matter might well be referred to the sense of the ratepayers at the next School Board Election, and something has been done, though we still found some Protestant teachers in the island. What, to our thinking, was more serious, some of the Roman Catholic teachers, since elected, were Irishmen and could not speak Gaelic, and though native pupil-teachers supply the want to a certain extent, it is a cumbersome and unsatisfactory method to instruct a number of young children, intelligent it may be, but stupefied by want of nourishment and often wet and cold, by means of a foreign language. The attention of the Roman Catholic authorities in some of their many admirable training schools, might well be turned to this question of supplying Gaelic-speaking teachers for the schools of the Islands. Also, in these days of lack of work for women, it should be remembered that there is a very imperfect supply of Gaelic-speaking nurses. “District” nurses to look after people in their own homes, are perhaps the sorest need of the islanders. Happily one nurse speaking the language of the people and able to give them advice and instruction, is established in the admirably arranged Bute Hospital and Dispensary at Dalibrog which, though built and maintained at the sole cost of a Roman Catholic, is at the service of Catholics and Protestants alike and is freely used by all, even those from distant islands, (Barra, Eriskay, and Benbecula), who have to cross a dangerous minch or tedious ford as the case may be, as well as to take a journey of, perhaps, twelve or fifteen miles in a country destitute of any public conveyance, possessing indeed very few conveyances of any kind.

The work of the hospital roaches even further than the care of the sick only. While everything is done to show consideration for the feelings of the people, as for example in having all the rooms on one floor, for a staircase has all the terror of the unknown, and by, as far as possible, adapting the food to familiar methods and materials, at the same time advantage is taken of every opportunity of- giving object-lessons in cleanliness, sanitation, and thrift. There is a good garden in which, as far as climate and soil permit, a variety of vegetables and even of flowers receive the care and attention which the people are too hopeless to bestow on their unenclosed patches of ground at home. Women, who are convalescent, are encouraged in sewing and household work, and little children, whose disease is often cold and hunger, receive that teaching of gentle example and quiet self-restraint, which far outweighs the temporary loss of Board school instruction.

The people of South Uist, perhaps even more than those of other islands, live in memories of the past. Reverence for the old and the sacred is a part of the Highland temperament, and here, where the present has so little to give, the past is especially precious.

A cross, known as Crois nan Cnoca Breaca, stood —(part of it still remains)—on a hillock, a little north of the present boundary of Ormiclet. It is said that when the old Howmore parish Church, now a mere ruin, was in use, the people coming from the south had to pass close to it, and always knelt in prayer as they passed, kneeling towards the Church, which was visible from this point. The lochs were then much fuller than now, and there was no road possible between the outer end of Loch Hollay and the Mol of Stoneybridge.

At Loch Eynort near Na Haun, there is an altar built of loose stones. It is now covered with bracken. Mass was said here years ago, and the spot is still called Glaic na h-Altarach. Our informant’s mother had heard Mass there.

An old woman in Garrahilli, who is nearly eighty years of age, relates of her grandfather, Donald M’lan, that in stormy weather, when there could be no Mass at Bornish, he used himself to place a clean linen cloth upon this old altar saying prayers for the people who gathered about him. There is a tradition, which is remembered by a Ben More woman, of the remains of an altar ’at Coire an t-Sagairt in Hecla, and another in Sgalavat.

There are various prophecies current in South Uist which appear to be still unfulfilled, and should therefore be carefully recorded: that Uist will yet be under grey geese and rats; that the sea in the west will be so full of boats that one may step from one to the other; that the old mansion at Bornish is to be burnt. The present occupier has had a conflagration in the farm-steading but none in the house.

Other old prophecies may have already received fulfilment. There is one that the inhabitants of Uist would become so selfish that a daughter would refuse necessaries to her own mother, possibly an allusion to the severe struggle for life, which our own day has witnessed. Again, that four signs should herald the misfortunes of the island. The first was the white raven which one Angus of Arivullin saw and killed with his own hand. He was drowned in Loch Eynort not long after, and the family of Arivullin (the alleged birthplace of Flora Macdonald),8 has faded out of sight; the second was the white crow which old Angus, who remembers these sayings, saw at Kilbride just before it was lost to the old family; the third that the living would envy the dead, “and indeed that happened when they were putting men out into the sea (i.e. at the time of tho Gordon evictions), and much rather would they have been at home in their own grave-yards”; and the fourth that charity would go away from the land, “and true is it that but the other day a crofter said that what was wrong with the island was that charity had gone out of the country.”

It is said that the last Bornish was urging some of his tenants to go to the kelp-gathering when their own crops needed their attention, and one of the men got angry and said that “it would not be long that they would be reaping crops where he was now eating his food. And true is it that Neil Campbell who was on the same land with him after he became poor, actually planted cabbage on the site of the old dining-room.”

“Big Margaret,” a very old woman from whom many stories have been collected, says that it has long been known that there would be a great army that would stretch over South Uist, from the Benbecula Ford on the-north to the Sound of Eriskay on the south. It has been suggested that the search parties which were scattered all over South Uist may be said to have fulfilled this.

She says that her father saw 300 men leave the Islands for the wars, eighty years ago (probably the Peninsula War, one does not expect chronological accuracy), and that it was only one leg that returned, that of Mac Dhunchaidh 'ic ’ic Iain.

The islanders hold in reverence certain little cells, about seven feet by six, which are still to be found in places, and which are called in the Gaelic “beds of devotion.” We saw and measured the ground plan of some such cells in Mingulay and on the Stack Islands, and Father Allan records one at Dalibrog. Another, now destroyed, is remembered at a spot called Gairrahilli (holy section) near Heilibost (holy town). These may have been places of religious retirement in the active days of the religious houses, such as the nunnery at Nunton in Benbecula, and possibly one at North Boisdale where, on the machair, some ruins and tho traces of an underground passage may still be found.

An old woman, who had many old-time stories, says that no one had ever prospered in Nun ton in consequence of the desecration of Church lands, and she produced many instances of the misfortunes of its inhabitants either by bereavement or loss of worldly goods.

Of the middle district of South Uist, the inhabitants of which are characterized by a rough frankness, is said—

Stoneybridge of the tangles
Township of worst manners
Till you reach Hogh.

Hoghmore (= Great Hogh, there is also Hogh Beg = little Hogh) seems to have been the ecclesiastical centre in old days. There is a burial-ground of great age containing the ruins of a Church of which the internal length is nearly sixty feet, perhaps one of the largest in the Hebrides. There are also some three or four chapels or oratories. Hogh is, moreover, the birthplace of Neill MacEachain, the father of Marshal Macdonald, Duke of Tarentum, who, in 1826, visited South Uist, the home of his ancestors. It is said that he took away some stones from the cave of Corodal, and some earth from his birthplace, and that they were buried with him.

Another spot which cannot fail to be of interest is Airidh Mhuillin (pronounced Arivullin) = “the shealing of the mill,” the birthplace of Flora Macdonald.

In Loch Eynort there is a rock still pointed out as the place where one of Cromwell’s frigates, sent to subdue the natives, went to pieces. Once, k propos of the Estate having exacted payment from the noble philanthropist who built the only hospital in the Outer Hebrides, not only for the ground it stands upon, but for the stone of which it is built, I remarked to a native who was thankfully profiting by its benefits, “The Estate ought to be grateful to anybody who uses up any amount of the superfluous rock of this island.” “Ah, but there’s one rock,” he said, “that South Uist would be sorry to want!” (that is, to miss), and this, we found, was the historical rock in Loch Eynort.

It is obvious that South Uist is not without its interests. It is less easy to convey to the stranger that, in spite of all its wrongs, its sorrows, its deprivations, it is, as Lord Napier has said, “ a land invested with so deep a charm.” It is the charm which Wordsworth has expressed for us in such poems as “The Daisy,” “The Lesser Celandine,” “The Solitary Reaper.” It is the land where one learns

To look on Nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity
Nor harsh, nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and sulxlue.

The lines, however, most often in one’s thoughts under the grey skies of South Uist are those more practical, because the fruit of personal knowledge, of Sheriff Nicolson (LL.D.), a member of [the Crofters’ Commission who, poet that he was, was deeply sensitive to the soul-sorrows, even more than to the physical needs of these unhappy people :

See that thou kindly use them, O man!
To whom God giveth
Stewardship over them, in thy short span,
Not for thy pleasure!
Woe be to them who choose for a clan
Four-footed people! [i.e. who evict people from their homes to make room for sheep.]
Blessings be with you, both now and aye
Dear human creatures.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus