A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland

The following is from A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland by Martin Martin:

A Brief Account of the Advantages the Isles Aford

THE north-west isles are of all others most capable of improvement by sea and land; yet by reason of their distance from trading towns, and because of their language, which is Irish, the inhabitants have never had any opportunity to trade at home or abroad, or to acquire mechanical arts and other sciences: so that they are still left to act by the force of their natural genius, and what they could learn by observation. They have not yet arrived to a competent knowledge in agriculture, for which cause many tracts of rich ground lie neglected, or at least but meanly improved in proportion to what they might be. This is the more to be regretted, because the people are as capable to acquire arts or sciences as any other in Europe. If two or more persons skilled in agriculture were sent from the lowlands, to each parish in the isles, they would soon enable the natives to furnish themselves with such plenty of corn as would maintain all their poor and idle people; many of which, for want of subsistence at home, are forced to seek their livelihood in foreign countries, to the great loss, as well as dishonour of the nation. This would enable them also to furnish the opposite barren parts of the continent with bread; and so much the more that in plentiful years they afford them good quantities of corn in this infant state of their agriculture. They have many large parcels of ground never yet manured, which if cultivated would maintain double the number of the present inhabitants, and increase and preserve their cattle; many of which, for want of hay or straw, die in the winter and spring: so that I have known particular persons lose above one hundred cows at a time, merely by want of fodder.

This is so much the more inexcusable because the ground in the Western Isles is naturally richer in many respects than in many other parts of the continent, as appears from several instances, particularly in Skye, and the opposite Western Isles, in which there are many valleys, &c., capable of good improvement, and of which divers experiments have been already made; and besides most of those places have the convenience of fresh-water lakes and rivers, as well as of the sea, near at hand, to furnish the inhabitants with fish of many sorts, and alga marina for manuring the ground.

In many places the soil is proper for wheat; and that their grass is good is evident from the great product of their cattle: so that if the natives were taught and encouraged to take pains to improve their corn and hay, to plant, enclose, and manure their ground, drain lakes, sow wheat and peas, and plant orchards and kitchen-gardens, &c., they might have as great plenty of all things for the sustenance of mankind as any other people in Europe.

I have known a hundred families, of four or five persons a-piece at least, maintained there upon little farms, for which they paid not above five shillings sterling, one sheep, and some pecks of corn per annum each; which is enough to show that, by a better improvement, that country would maintain many more inhabitants than live now in the isles.

If any man be disposed to live a solitary, retired life, and to withdraw from the noise of the world, he may have a place of retreat there in a small island, or in the corner of a large one, where he may enjoy himself, and live at a very cheap rate.

If any family, reduced to low circumstances, had a mind to retire to any of these isles, there is no part of the known world where they may have the products of sea and land cheaper, live more securely, or among a more tractable and mild people. And that the country in general is healthful, appears from the good state of health enjoyed by the inhabitants.

I shall not offer to assert that there are mines of gold or silver in the Western Isles, from any resemblance they may bear to other parts that afford mines, but the natives affirm that gold dust has been found, at Griminis on the western coast of the isle of North-Uist, and at Copveaul in Harris; in which, as well as in other parts of the isles, the teeth of the sheep which feed there are dyed yellow.

There is a good lead mine, having a mixture of silver in it, on the west end of the isle of Islay, near Port Escock; and Buchanan and others say, that the isle Lismore affords lead: and Sleat and Strath, on the south-west of Skye, are in stone, ground, grass, etc., exactly the same with that part of Islay, where there is a lead mine. And if search were made in the isles and hills of the opposite main, it is not improbable that some good mines might be discovered in some of them.

I was told by a gentleman of Lochaber, that an Englishman had found some gold-dust in a mountain near the river Lochy, but could never find out the place again after his return from England. That there have been gold mines in Scotland, is clear, from the manuscripts mentioned by Dr. Nicholson, now Bishop of Carlisle, in his late Scots Hist. Library.

The situation of these isles for promoting trade in general, appears advantageous enough; but more particularly for a trade with Denmark, Sweden, Hamburg, Holland, Britain, and Ireland. France and Spain seem remote, yet they do not exceed a week’s sailing, with a favourable wind.

The general opinion of the advantage that might be reaped from the improvement of the fish trade in these isles, prevailed among considering people in former times to attempt it.

The first that I know of, was by King Charles the First, in conjunction with a company of merchants; but it miscarried because of the civil wars, which unhappily broke out at that time.

The next attempt was by King Charles the Second, who also joined with some merchants; and this succeeded well for a time. I am assured by such as saw the fish catched by that company, that they were reputed the best in Europe of their kind, and accordingly, were sold for a greater price; but this design was ruined thus: the king having occasion for money, was advised to withdraw that which was employed in the fishery; at which the merchants being displeased, and disagreeing likewise among themselves, they also withdrew their money; and the attempt has never been renewed since that time.

The settling a fishery in those parts would prove of great advantage to the Government, and be an effectual means to advance the revenue, by the customs in exports and imports, etc.

It would also be a nursery of stout and able seamen in a very short time, to serve the Government on all occasions. The inhabitants of the isles and opposite mainland being very prolific already, the country would beyond all peradventure become very populous in a little time, if a fishery were once settled among them. The inhabitants are not contemptible for their number at present, nor are they to learn the use of the oar, for all of them are generally very dexterous at it: so that those places need not to be planted with a new colony, but only furnished with proper materials, and a few expert hands, to join with the natives to set on foot and advance a fishery.

The people inhabiting the Western Isles of Scotland may be about forty thousand, and many of them want employment; this is great encouragement, both for setting up other manufactories, and the fishing trade among them: besides a great number of people may be expected from the opposite continent of the Highlands, and north; which from a late computation, by one who had an estimate of their numbers, from several ministers in the country, are reckoned to exceed the number of islanders above ten to one: and it is too well-known that many of them also want employment. The objection, that they speak only Irish, is nothing: many of them understand English in all the considerable islands, which are sufficient to direct the rest in catching and curing fish; and in a little time the youth would learn English.

The commodiousness and safety of the numerous bays and harbours in those isles, seem as if Nature had designed them for promoting trade; they are likewise furnished with plenty of good water, and stones for building. The opposite mainland affords wood of divers sorts for that use. They have abundance of turf and peat for fuel: and of this latter there is such plenty in many parts, as might furnish salt-pans with fire all the year round. The sea forces its passage in several small channels through the land; so as it renders the design more easy and practicable.

The coast of each isle affords many thousand load of sea ware, which, if preserved, might be successfully used for making glass, and likewise kelp for soap.

The generality of the bays afford all sorts of shellfish in great plenty; as oysters, clams, mussels, lobsters, cockles, etc., which might be pickled and exported in great quantities. There are great and small whales of divers kinds to be had round the isles, and on the shore of the opposite continent; and are frequently seen in narrow bays, where they may be easily caught. The great number of rivers, both in the isles and opposite mainland, afford abundance of salmon, which, if rightly managed, might turn to a good account.

The isles afford likewise great quantities of black cattle, which might serve the traders both for consumption and export.

Strath in Skye abounds with good marble, which may be had at an easy rate, and near the sea.

There is good wool in most of the isles, and very cheap; some are at the charge of carrying it on horseback, about seventy or eighty miles, to the shires of Moray and Aberdeen.

There are several of the isles that afford a great deal of very fine clay; which, if improved, might turn to a good account for making earthenware of all sorts.

The most centrical and convenient places for keeping magazines of casks, salt, etc., are those mentioned in the respective isles; as one at Loch-Maddy isles, in the isle of North Uist; a second in the isle Hermetra, on the coast of the isle Harris; a third in island Glass, on the coast of Harris; and a fourth in Stornvay, in the isle of Lewis.

But for settling a magazine or colony for trade in general, and fishing in particular, the isle of Skye is absolutely the most centrical, both with regard to the isles and opposite mainland; and the most proper places in this isle are island Isa in Loch-Fallart, and Loch-Uig, both on the west side of Skye; Loch-Portree and Scowsar on the east side; and island Dierman on the south side; these places abound with all sorts of fish that are caught in those seas; and they are proper places for a considerable number of men to dwell in, and convenient for settling magazines in them.

There are many bays and harbours that are convenient for building towns in several of the other isles if trade were settled among them; and cod and ling as well as fish of lesser size, are to be had generally on the coast of the lesser, as well as of the larger isles. I am not ignorant that foreigners, sailing through the Western Isles, have been tempted from the sight of so many wild hills that seem to be covered all over with heath, and faced with high rocks, to imagine that the inhabitants, as well as the places of their residence, are barbarous; and to this opinion, their habit, as well as their language, have contributed. The like is supposed by many that live in the south of Scotland, who know no more of the Western Isles than the natives of Italy, but the lion is not so fierce as he is painted, neither are the people described here so barbarous as the world imagines. It is not the habit that makes the monk, nor both the garb in fashion qualify him that wears it to be virtuous. The inhabitants have humanity, and use strangers hospitably and charitably. I could bring several instances of barbarity and theft committed by stranger seamen in the isles, but there is not one instance of any injury offered by the islanders to any seamen or strangers. I had a particular account of seamen, who not many years ago stole cattle and sheep in several of the isles; and when they were found on board their vessels, the inhabitants were satisfied to take their value in money or goods, without any further resentment; though many seamen whose lives were preserved by the natives have made them very ungrateful returns. For the humanity and hospitable temper of the slanders to sailors, I shall only give two instances: Captain Jackson of Whitehaven, about sixteen years ago, was obliged to leave his ship, being leaky, in the bay within island Glass, alias Scalpa, in the isle of Harris, with two men to take care of her, though loaded with goods: the ship was not within three miles of a house, and separated from the dwelling-places by mountains; yet when the captain returned, about ten or twelve months after, he found his men and the vessel safe.

Captain Lotch left the "Dromedary" of London, of six hundred tons burden, with all her rich cargo from the Indies; of which he might have saved a great deal, had he embraced the assistance which the natives offered him to unload her; but the captain’s shyness, and fear of being thought rude, hindered a gentleman on the place to employ about seventy hands, which he had ready to unload her; and so the cargo was lost. The captain and his men were kindly entertained there by Sir Norman Macleod, and though, among other valuable goods, they had six boxes of gold dust, there was not the least thing taken from them by the inhabitants. There are some pedlars from the shire of Moray, and other parts, who of late have fixed their residence in the isle of Skye, and travel through the remotest isles without any molestation; though some of these pedlars speak no Irish. Several barques come yearly from Orkney to the Western Isles, to fish for cod and ling: and many from Anstruther in the shire of Fife, came formerly to Barray and other isles to fish, before the battle of Kilsyth, where most of them being cut off, that trade was afterwards neglected.

The magazines and fishing boats left by foreigners in the isles above mentioned, were reckoned secure enough, when one of the natives only was left in charge with them till the next season,and so they might be still. So that if a company of strangers from any part should settle to fish or trade in these isles, there is no place of greater security in any part of Europe; for the proprietors are always ready to assist and support all strangers within their respective jurisdictions. A few Dutch families settled in Stornvay, in the isle of Lewis, after King Charles the Second’s restoration, but some cunning merchants found means by the secretaries to prevail with the king to send them away, though they brought the islanders a great deal of money for the products of their sea and land fowl, and taught them something of the art of fishing. Had they stayed the islanders must certainly have made considerable progress in trade by this time, for the small idea of fishing they had from the Dutch has had so much effect as to make the people of the little village of Stornvay to excel all those of the neighbouring isles and continent in the fishing trade ever since that time.

For the better government of those isles, in case of setting up a fishing trade there, it may perhaps be found necessary to erect the isles of Skye, Lewis, Harris, South and North-Uist, &c., into a Sheriffalty, and to build a royal burgh in Skye as the centre; because of the people’s great distance in remote isles, from the head burgh of the shire of Inverness. This would seem much more necessary here than those of Bute and Arran, that lie much nearer to Dumbarton, though they be necessary enough in themselves.

It may likewise deserve the consideration of the Government whether they should not make the isle of Skye a free port, because of the great encouragement such immunities give to trade; which always issues in the welfare of the public, and adds strength and reputation to the Government. Since these isles are capable of the improvements above mentioned, it is a great loss to the nation they should be thus neglected.

This is the general opinion of foreigners, as well as of our own countrymen, who know them; but I leave the further inquiry to such as shall be disposed to attempt a trade there, with the concurrence of the Government. Scotland has men and money enough to set up a fishery, so that there seems to be nothing wanting towards it, but the encouragement of those in power, to excite the inclination and industry of the people.

If the Dutch in their public edicts call their fishery a golden mine, and at the same time affirm that it yields them more profit than the Indies do to Spain, we have very great reason to begin to work upon those rich mines, not only in the isles, but on all our coast in general. We have multitudes of hands to be employed at a very easy rate; we have a healthful climate, and our fish, especially the herring, come to our coast in April or May, and into the bays in prodigious shoals in July or August. I have seen complaints from Loch-Essort, in Skye, that all the ships there were loaded, and that the barrel of herring might be had there for fourpence, but there were no buyers.

I have known the herring fishing to continue in some bays from September till the end of January, and wherever they are, all other fish follow them, and whales and seals in particular, for the larger fish of all kinds feed upon herring.

A brief Description of the Isles of Orkney and Shetland etc.


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