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Outer Isles
By A. Goodrich-Freer (1902)



THAT one half of the world knows not how the other half lives is a statement one accepts readily enough in the abstract, but which seems less comprehensible when we reduce it to the concrete fact that, even in this miniature land of Great Britain, there is a whole chain of islands, some hundred and fifty miles long, possessed of natural beauties and resources, having its own characteristic literature, archaeology and traditions, in some sort even its special language and religion, of which its nearest neighbours on the mainland know little, the rest of the world, for the most part, next to nothing.

Possibly, in the case of most Englishmen, even that little would have been less, had not the publication of Martin Martin’s Description of the Western Isles in 1695 led to the visit of Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1773, a brave, not to say desperate undertaking for an Englishman of his customs and circumference.

From the discomforts of Johnson and Boswell, the salmon and sunsets of Black's novels, the dialect and depression of certain modern story-tellers, even if balanced in part by the sympathetic sketches of Norman Macleod, the casual reader has possibly constructed for himself a picture of desolation, ignorance and melancholy, which is very far from the truth, even in these darker days of alien landlords and uncultivated soil. Even the possession of a language and a dress banished by Act of Parliament (1695), a musical instrument suspected of contributing to rebellion, an alien faith superimposed as a matter of policy (the “religion of the yellow stick”), even a land laid bare, and homes made desolate, these things and more have not sufficed to subtract from the Hebrideans the inherent characteristics of a people who were Christianized long before S. Augustine, who were sending scholars to found continental Universities two centuries before the existence of Oxford, and who, as we learn from early Gaelic poems, were drinking wine and burning wax candles, while English kings slept upon straw, and bought wine as a cordial from the apothecaries.

The earliest descriptive work to be depended upon for facts in regard to the Hebrides is the very interesting Statistical Account of Scotland (1798), written by various ministers, each describing his own parish, and edited by Sir John Sinclair. A later work, on the same lines, known as the New Statistical Account, was published in 1845, and these, together with the Report upon the Crofter Commission, most conveniently read in the form of Alexander Mackenzie’s Analysis of the Report of the Crofter Royal Commission (Inverness, 1884), are practically the only books of general reference upon the subject of the Outer Isles. The student may nevertheless find passages of interest in The Abridgement of the Scots Chronicles, Monipennie (1612); Vol. iii. of The Miscellanies of the Maitland Club (1701); Present State of the Hebrides, James Anderson (1785); James Macdonald's Agricultural Survey of the Hebrides (1811); and, if he be a patient and tolerant student, in the writings of John Macculloch, who visited the islands in 1811-21.

The archaeologist and antiquarian will not fail to turn to the pages of W. F. Skene (Highlanders of Scotland, 1837, and Celtic Scotland, 1876), and Professor Anderson ; more especially his Scotland in Early Christian Times (1881). He will also find certain descriptions of Churches and Crosse# in the Outer Isles, in Thomas S. Muirs Ecclesiological Notes (1885), and in the anonymous Characteristics of Old Church Architecture (1876).

For the Folklorist there is always Campbell of Islay and, in relation to the Outer Isles, the even more precious volumes of Campbell of Tyree, edited by his sister, Mrs. Wallace, still living in the island. There are certain other volumes of folk-lore which have less of the essential accuracy of narration and scrupulous veracity in repetition, which the student of anthropology and the youngest child alike require in a fairy tale.

Those who would rightly understand the human interest of these islands, the sad story of depopulation, as effective as that of “Sweet Auburn,” as tragic as that of Glencoe, should study David Stewart’s Sketch of the Present State of the Highlands, preferably in the edition issued by W. Mackenzie of Inverness (1885); The Depopulation System by an Eye-witness (1849), and The Argyll Manifesto (No. 1, in the series of Land Tracts), a reply to the Duke of Argyll’s Crofts and Farms. Though not directly relating to the islands, the student of the population and land problems should moreover not fail to read Macleod’s Gloomy Memories, an essential contribution to the picture of the sad times when Highland property was “improved.”

The present volume is so far from being exhaustive even of the notes and material I already possess, that I can offer it only as possibly suggestive to others, specialists or observers, who may wander further in the same fields. There is abundance of pasture, and those who go as friends, and not critics, to learn, not to discover fault, will assuredly find, as we have never failed to find, a hearty welcome.

To name all who have facilitated our enquiries, and added to the pleasure of our wanderings, would be impossible in a country where courtesy, hospitality, and even friendship, have never failed. I must however mention, with especial gratitude and esteem, the Rev. Allan Macdonald, Catholic priest, of Eriskay, whose practical kindness and companionship alone made possible some of the more difficult of our journeyings, and without whose help much of this book (especially chapters VII-XIII) could never have been written. As priest, and even more perhaps as friend, to a people whose hearts can never open fully but to one of their own faith, living daily in their midst, he has had, and has used to the full, opportunities which are in the most literal sense unique, and to his generous help I acknowledge the deepest obligation.

I would recall, in grateful memory, that to the late Marquess of Bute I owe the first stimulus to visit these islands, in many of which his name is still dear in the hearts of the people to whom he showed such timely and spontaneous liberality.

I would cordially thank Mr. Allan Baraud, of Bushey Heath, for the skill with which he has entered into the spirit of the work, and has made of my imperfect photographs, pictures which I hope may contribute largely to the right understanding of my attempts to describe the Outer Hebrides.

I would thank my friend, Walter B. Blaikie, Esq., of Edinburgh, for the use of two photographs, those of “ Prince Charlie's House," [As this book is parsing through the press, I hear with deep regret that this cottage, where the Prince slept for the first time in his own kingdom, has been lately demolished by permission of Lady Gordon Cathcart.] in Eriskay, and of “Shealing Life,” as well as for pleasant memories of companionship on land and sea.

Finally I have to express much obligation to Miss Ruth Landon for the patient kindness with which she has corrected the proof sheets of this book, and has made herself responsible for the tedious work of compiling an index.

From a distant land, where nevertheless much in the country, the customs, the folk-lore and the traditions reminds me daily of the western Highlands—pointing to the homogeneity of the less conventional types of the human race—I herewith greet my many friends in Outer Isles.

Jerusalem, May, 1902.


Thanks are due to the Editors of The Contemporary Review, The Folk Lore Journal, Blackwood's Magazine, and The Saga Book of the Viking Club respectively, for permission to republish the chapters on “Christian Legends,” “The Powers of Evil,” “Prince Charlie,” and “The Norsemen in the Hebrides.”


Chapter I. Tyree
Chapter II. Natural History of Tyree
Chapter III. Tyree Churches: Skerryvore
Chapter IV. The Ceilidh in Tyree
Chapter V. Miscellaneous Notes on the Islanders
Chapter VI. Barra
Chapter VII. South Uist
Chapter VIII. South Uist and its People
Chapter IX. Eriskay
Chapter X. Christian Legends of Eriskay and South Uist
Chapter XI. The Powers of Evil in Eriskay and South Uist
Chapter XII. Prince Charlie in Eriskay
Chapter XIII. The Norsemen in the Hebrides
Chapter XIV. Benbecula and North Uist
Chapter XV. Lewis
Chapter XVI. Lewis and its Fisherfolk
Chapter XVII. Harris and Smaller Islands
Chapter XVIII. Stray Thoughts

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