A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland

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

The Ancient and Modern Customs of the Inhabitants of the Western Islands of Scotland

EVERY heir or young chieftain of a tribe was obliged in honour to give a public specimen of his valour before he was owned and declared governor or leader of his people, who obeyed and followed him upon all occasions.

This chieftain was usually attended with a retinue of young men of quality, who had not beforehand given any proof of their valour, and were ambitious of such an opportunity to signalize themselves.

It was usual for the captain to lead them, to make a desperate incursion upon some neighbour or other that they were in feud with; and they were obliged to bring by open force the cattle they found in the lands they attacked, or to die in the attempt.

After the performance of this achievement, the young chieftain was ever after reputed valiant and worthy of government, and such as were of his retinue acquired the like reputation. This custom being reciprocally used among them, was not reputed robbery; for the damage which one tribe sustained by this essay of the chieftain of another, was repaired when their chieftain came in his turn to make his specimen: but I have not heard an instance of this practice for these sixty years past.

The formalities observed at the entrance of these chieftains upon the government of their dens, were as follow: -----

A heap of stones was erected in form of a pyramid, on the top of which the young chieftain was placed, his friends and followers standing in a circle round about him, his elevation signifying his authority over them, and their standing below their subjection to him. One of his principal friends delivered into his hands the sword worn by his father, and there was a white rod delivered to him likewise at the same time.

Immediately after, the chief Druid (or orator) stood close to the pyramid, and pronounced a rhetorical panegyric, setting forth the ancient pedigree, valour, and liberality of the family as incentives to the young chieftain, and fit for his imitation.

It was their custom when any chieftain marched upon a military expedition, to draw some blood from the first animal that chanced to meet them upon the enemy’s ground, and thereafter to sprinkle some of it upon their colours. This they reckoned as a good omen of future success.

They had their fixed officers who were ready to attend them upon all occasions, whether military or civil. Some families continue them from father to son, particularly Sir Donald Macdonald has his principal standard-bearer and quartermaster. The latter has a right to all the hides of cows killed upon any of the occasions mentioned above; and this I have seen exacted punctually, though the officer had no charter for the same, but only custom.

They had a constant sentinel on the top of their houses called gockmin, or in the English tongue cockman, who was obliged to watch day and night, and at the approach of any body to ask, "Who comes there?" This officer is continued in Barray still, and has the perquisites due to his place paid him duly at two terms in the year.

There was a competent number of young gentlemen called lucht-taeh or guard de corps, who always attended the chieftain at home and abroad. They were well trained in managing the sword and target, in wrestling, swimming, jumping, dancing, shooting with bows and arrows, and were stout seamen.

Every chieftain had a bold armour-bearer, whose business was always to attend the person of his master night and day, to prevent any surprise, and this man was called galloglach; he had likewise a double portion of meat assigned him at every meal. The measure of meat usually given him is called to this day bieyfir, that is, a man’s portion, meaning thereby an extraordinary man, whose strength and courage distinguished him from the common sort.

Before they engaged the enemy in battle, the chief Druid harangued the army to excite their courage. He was placed on an eminence, from whence he addressed himself to all of them standing about him, putting them in mind of what great things were performed by the valour of their ancestors, raised their hopes with the noble rewards of honour and victory, and dispelled their fears by all the topics that natural courage could suggest. After this harangue, the army gave a general shout, and then charged the enemy stoutly. This in the ancient language was called "brosnichiy kah," i.e., an incentive to war. This custom of shouting aloud is believed to have taken its rise from an instinct of nature, it being attributed to most nations that have been of a martial genius ----- as by Homer to the Trojans, by Tacitus to the Germans, by Livy to the Gauls. Every great family in the isles had a chief Druid, who foretold future events, and decided all causes, civil and ecclesiastical. It is reported of them that they wrought in the night time, and rested all day. Cæsar says they worshipped a deity under the name of Taramis, or Taran, which in Welsh signifies Thunder; and in the ancient language of the Highlanders, Torin signifies Thunder also.

Another God of the Britons was Belus or Belinus, which seems to have been the Assyrian God Bel or Belus; and probably from this pagan deity comes the Scots term of Beltin, the first day of May, having its first rise from the custom practiced by the Druids in the isles, of extinguishing all the fires in the parish until the tithes were paid; and upon payment of them the fires were kindled in each family, and never till then. In those days malefactors were burnt between two fires; hence when they would express a man to be in a great strait, they say, "He is between two fires of Bel," which in their language they express thus, "Edir da din Veaul or Bel." Some object that the Druids could not be in the isles because no oaks grow there. To which I answer, that in those days oaks did grow there, and to this day there be oaks growing in some of them, particularly in Sleat, the most southern part of the isle of Skye. The houses named after those Druids shall be described elsewhere.

The manner of drinking used by the chief men of the isles is called in their language Streah, i.e., a round; for the company sat in a circle, the cup-bearer filled the drink round to them, and all was drunk out whatever the liquor was, whether strong or weak; they continued drinking sometimes twenty-four, sometimes forty-eight hours. It was reckoned a piece of manhood to drink until they became drunk, and there were two men with a barrow attending punctually on such occasions. They stood at the door until some became drunk, and they carried them upon the barrow to bed, and returned again to their post as long as any continued fresh, and so carried off the whole company one by one as they became drunk. Several of my acquaintance have been witnesses to this custom of drinking, but it is now abolished.

Among persons of distinction it was reckoned an affront put upon any company to broach a piece of wine, ale, or aquavitæ and not to see it all drunk out at one meeting. If any man chance to go out from the company, though but for a few minutes, he is obliged upon his return, and before he take his seat, to make an apology for his absence in rhyme; which, if he cannot perform, he is liable to such a share of the reckoning as the company think fit to impose; which custom obtains in many places still, and is called beanchiy bard, which in their language signifies the poet’s congratulating the company.

It hath been an ancient custom in these isles, and still continues, when any number of men retire into a house, either to discourse of serious business, or to pass some time in drinking; upon these occasions the door of the house stands open, and a rod is put across the same, which is understood to be a sign to all persons without distinction not to approach: and if any should be so rude as to take up this rod, and come in uncalled, he is sure to be no welcome guest; for this is accounted such an affront to the company, that they are bound in honour to resent it; and the person offending may come to have his head broken, if he do not meet with a harsher reception.

The chieftain is usually attended with a numerous retinue when he goes a hunting the deer, this being his first specimen of manly exercise. All his clothes, arms, and hunting equipage are, upon his return from the hills, given to the forester, according to custom.

Every family had commonly two stewards, which in their language were called marischal taeh: the first of these served always at home, and was obliged to be well versed in the pedigree of all the tribes in the isles, and in the Highlands of Scotland; for it was his province to assign every man at table his seat according to his quality; and this was done without one word speaking, only by drawing a score with a white rod which this marshal had in his hand, before the person who was bid by him to sit down; and this was necessary to prevent disorder and contention; and though the marshal might sometimes be mistaken, the master of the family incurred no censure by such an escape; but this custom has been laid aside of late. They had also cup-bearers, who always filled and carried the cup round the company, and he himself drank off the first draught. They had likewise purse-masters, who kept their money. Both these officers had an hereditary right to their office in writing, and each of them had a town and land for his service: some of those rights I have seen fairly written on good parchment.

Besides the ordinary rent paid by the tenant to his master, if a cow brought forth two calves at a time, which indeed is extraordinary, or an ewe two lambs, which is frequent, the tenant paid to the master one of the calves or lambs; and the master on his part was obliged, if any of his tenants’ wives bore twins, to take one of them, and breed him in his own family. I have known a gentleman who had sixteen of these twins in his family at a time.

Their ancient leagues of friendship were ratified by drinking a drop of each other’s blood, which was commonly drawn out of the little finger. This was religiously observed as a sacred bond; and if any person after such an alliance happened to violate the same, he was from that time reputed unworthy of all honest men’s conversation. Before money became current, the chieftains in the isles bestowed the cow’s head, feet, and all the entrails upon their dependents; such as the physician, orator, poet, bard, musicians, &c., and the same was divided thus: the smith had the head, the piper had the, &c.

It was an ancient custom among the islanders to hang a he-goat to the boat’s mast, hoping thereby to procure a favourable wind; but this is not practiced at present; though I am told it hath been done once by some of the vulgar within these 13 years last past.

They had an universal custom, of pouring a cow’s milk upon a little hill, or big stone, where the spirit called Browny was believed to lodge: this spirit always appeared in the shape of a tall man, having very long brown hair. There was scarce any the least village in which this superstitious custom did not prevail. I inquired the reason of it from several well-meaning women, who, until of late, had practiced it; and they told me, that it had been transmitted to them by their ancestors successfully, who believed it was attended with good fortune, but the most credulous of the vulgar had now laid it aside. It was an ordinary thing among the over-curious to consult an invisible oracle, concerning the fate of families, and battles, &c. This was performed three different ways; the first was by a company of men, one of whom being detached by lot, was afterwards carried to a river, which was the boundary between two villages; four of the company laid hold on him, and having shut his eyes, they took him by the legs and arms, and then tossing him to and again, struck his hips with force against the bank. One of them cried out, "What is it you have got here?" Another answers, "A log of birchwood." The other cries again, "Let his invisible friends appear from all quarters, and let them relieve him by giving an answer to our present demands": and in a few minutes after a number of little creatures came from the sea, who answered the question and disappeared suddenly. The man was then set at liberty, and they all returned home to take their measures according to the prediction of their false prophets, but the poor deluded fools were abused, for the answer was still ambiguous. This was always practiced in the night, and may literally be called the works of darkness.

I had an account from the most intelligent and judicious men in the isle of Skye that about sixty-two years ago the oracle was thus consulted only once, and that was in the parish of Kilmartin, on the east side, by a wicked and mischievous race of people, who are now extinguished, both root and branch.

The second way of consulting the oracle was by a party of men who first retired to solitary places, remote from any house, and there they singled out one of their number, and wrapt him in a big cow’s hide, which they folded about him; his whole body was covered with it except his head, and so left in this posture all night until his invisible friends relieved him by giving a proper answer to the question in hand, which he received, as he fancied, from several persons that he found about him all that time. His consorts returned to him at break of day, and then he communicated his news to them, which often proved fatal to those concerned in such unwarrantable enquiries.

There was a third way of consulting, which was a confirmation of the second above-mentioned. The same company who put the man into the hide took a live cat and put him on a spit; one of the number was employed to turn the spit, anyone of his consorts inquired of him, What are you doing? He answered, I roast this cat until his friends answer the question, which must be the same that was proposed by the man shut up in the hide. And afterwards a very big cat comes, attended by a number of lesser cats, desiring to relieve the cat turned upon the spit, and then answers the question. If this answer proved the same that was given to the man in the hide, then it was taken as a confirmation of the other, which in this case was believed infallible.

Mr. Alexander Cooper, present minister of North Uist, told me that one John Erach, in the isle of Lewis assured him it was his fate to have been led by his curiosity with some who consulted this oracle, and that he was a night within the hide, as above mentioned; during which time he felt and heard such terrible things that he could express them: the impression it made on him was such as could never go off, and he said that for a thousand worlds he would never again be concerned in the like performance, for this had disordered him to a high degree. He confessed it ingenuously, and with an air of great remorse, and seemed to be very penitent under a just sense of so great a crime. He declared this about five years since, and is still living in the Lewis, for anything I know. The inhabitants here did also make use of a fire called tin-egin, i.e., a forced fire, or fire of necessity, which they used as an antidote against the plague or murrain in cattle; and it was performed thus: all the fires in the parish were extinguished, and then eighty-one married men, being thought the necessary number for effecting this design, took two great planks of wood, and nine of them were employed by turns, who by their repeated efforts rubbed one of the planks against the other until the heat thereof produced fire; and from this forced fire each family is supplied with new fire, which is no sooner kindled than a pot full of water is quickly set on it, and afterwards sprinkled upon the people infected with the plague, or upon the cattle that have the murrain. And this they all say they find successful by experience. It was practiced in the mainland, opposite to the south of Skye, within these thirty years.

They preserve their boundaries from being liable to any debates by their successors, thus: they lay a quantity of the ashes of burnt wood in the ground, and put big stones above the same; and for conveying the knowledge of this to posterity, they carry some boys from both villages next the boundary, and there whip them soundly, which they will be sure to remember, and tell it to their children. A debate having arisen betwixt the villages of Ose and Groban in Skye, they found ashes as above mentioned under a stone, which decided the controversy. It was an ancient custom in the islands that a man should take a maid to his wife, and keep her the space of a year without marrying her; and if she pleased him all the while, he married her at the end of the year, and legitimated these children; but if he did not love her, he returned her to her parents, and her portion also; and if there happened to be any children, they were kept by the father: but this unreasonable custom was long ago brought into disuse.

It is common in these islands, when a tenant dies, for the master to have his choice of all the horses which belonged to the deceased; and this was called the eachfuin horizeilda, i.e., a Lord’s gift: for the first use of it was from a gift of a horse granted by all the subjects in Scotland for relieving the King from his imprisonment in England. There was another duty payable by all the tenants to their chief, though they did not live upon his lands; and this is called calpich: there was a standing law for it also, called calpich law; and I am informed that this is exacted by some in the mainland to this day.

Women were anciently denied the use of writing in the islands to prevent love-intrigues: their parents believed that nature was too skilful in that matter, and needed not the help of education; and therefore that writing would be of dangerous consequence to the weaker sex.

The orators, in their language called Is-dane, were in high esteem both in these islands and the Continent unto within these forty years they sat always among the nobles and chiefs of families in the streah or circle. Their houses and little villages were sanctuaries, as well as churches, and they took place before doctors of physic. The orators, after the Druids were extinct, were brought in to preserve the genealogy of families, and to repeat the same at every succession of a chief; and upon the occasion of marriages and births, they made epithalamiums and panegyrics which the poet or bard pronounced. The orators by the force of their eloquence had a powerful ascendant over the greatest men in their time; for if any orator did but ask the habit, arms, horse, or any other thing belonging to the greatest man in these islands, it was readily granted them, sometimes out of respect and sometimes for fear of being exclaimed against by a satire, which in those days was reckoned a great dishonour: but these gentlemen becoming insolent lost ever since both the profit and esteem which was formerly due to their character; for neither their panegyrics nor satires are regarded to what they have been, and they are now allowed but a small salary. I must not omit to relate their way of study, which is very singular: they shut their doors and windows for a day’s time, and lie on their backs, with a stone upon their belly, and plaids about their heads, and their eyes being covered, they pump their brains for rhetorical encomium or panegyric; and indeed they furnish such a style from this dark cell, as is understood by very few; and if they purchase a couple of horses as the reward of their meditation, they think they have done a great matter. The poet or bard had a title to the bridegroom’s upper garb, that is, the plaid and bonnet; but now he is satisfied with what the bridegroom pleases to give him on such occasions. There was an ancient custom in the island of Lewis to make a fiery circle about the houses, corn, cattle, &c., belonging to each particular family: a man carried fire in his right hand, and went round, and it was called dessil, from the right hand, which in the ancient language is called dess. An instance of this round was performed in the village Shader, in Lewis, about sixteen years ago (as I was told), but it proved fatal to the practiser, called MacCallum; for after he had carefully performed this round, that very night following he and his family were sadly surprised, and all his houses, corn, cattle, &c., were consumed with fire. This superstitious custom is quite abolished now, for there has not been above this one instance of it in forty years past.

There is another way of the dessil, or carrying fire round about women before they are churched after child-bearing; and it is used likewise about children until they be christened: both which are performed in the morning and at night. This is only practised now by some of the ancient midwives: I inquired their reason for this custom, which I told them was altogether unlawful; this disobliged them mightily, insomuch that they would give me no satisfaction. But others, that were of a more agreeable temper, told me the fire-round was an effectual means to preserve both the mother and the infant from the power of evil spirits, who are ready at such times to do mischief, and sometimes carry away the infant; and when they get them once in their possession, return them poor meagre skeletons: and these infants are said to have voracious appetites, constantly craving for meat. In this case it was usual with those who believed that their children were thus taken away, to dig a grave in the fields upon quarter day, and there to lay the fairy skeleton till next morning; at which time the parents went to the place, where they doubted not to find their own child instead of this skeleton. Some of the poorer sort of people in these islands retain the custom of performing these rounds sun-ways about the persons of their benefactors three times, when they bless them, and wish good success to all their enterprises. Some are very careful when they set out to sea that the boat be first rowed about sun-ways; and, if this be neglected, they are afraid their voyage may prove unfortunate. I had this ceremony paid me (when in the island of Islay) by a poor woman after I had given her an alms: I desired her to let alone that compliment, for I did not care for it; but she insisted to make these three ordinary turns, and then prayed that God and MacCharmig, the patron saint of that island, might bless and prosper me in all my designs and affairs.

I attempted twice to go from Islay to Colonsay, and at both times they rowed about the boat sun-ways, though I forbade them to do it; and by a contrary wind the boat and those in it were forced back. I took boat again a third time from Jura to Colonsay, and at the same time forbade them to row about their boat, which they obeyed, and then we landed safely at Colonsay, without any ill adventure, which some of the crew did not believe possible, for want of the round; but this one instance hath convinced them of the vanity of this superstitious ceremony. Another ancient custom observed on the second of February, which the Papists there yet retain, is this: The mistress and servants of each family take a sheaf of oats and dress it up in women’s apparel, put it in a large basket, and lay a wooden club by it, and this they call Briid’s-bed; and then the mistress and servants cry three times, Briid is come, Briid is welcome. This they do just before going to bed, and when they rise in the morning they look among the ashes, expecting to see the impression of Briid’s club there; which if they do, they reckon it a true presage of a good crop and prosperous year, and the contrary they take as an ill omen.

It has been an ancient custom amongst the natives, and now only used by some old people, to swear by their chief or laird’s hand.

When a debate arises between two persons, if one of them assert the matter by your father’s hand they reckon it a great indignity; but if they go a degree higher, and out of spite say, by your father and grandfather’s hand, the next word is commonly accompanied with a blow.

It is a received opinion in these islands, as well as in the neighbouring part of the mainland, that women by a charm, or some other secret way, are able to convey the increase of their neighbour’s cow’s milk to their own use; and that the milk so charmed doth not produce the ordinary quantity of butter; and the curds made of that milk are so tough that it cannot be made so firm as other cheese, and is also much lighter in weight. The butter so taken away and joined to the charmer’s butter is evidently discernible by a mark of separation, viz., the diversity of colours; that which is charmed being still paler than that part of the butter which hath not been charmed; and if butter having these marks be found with a suspected woman, she is presently said to be guilty. Their usual way of recovering this loss, is to take a little of the rennet from all the suspected persons, and to put it in an egg-shell full of milk; and when that from the charmer is mingled with it, it presently curdles, and not before.

Thus was asserted to me by the generality of the most judicious people in these islands; some of them having, as they told me, come to the knowledge of it to their cost. Some women make use of the root of groundsel as an amulet against such charms, by putting it among their cream.

Both men and women in those islands, and in the neighbouring mainland, affirm that the increase of milk is likewise taken away by trouts; if it happen that the dishes or pails wherein the milk is kept be washed in the rivulets where trouts are. And the way to recover this damage is by taking a live trout, and pouring milk into its mouth; which they say doth presently curdle, if it was taken away by trouts, but otherwise they say it is not.

They affirm, likewise, that some women have an art to take away the milk of nurses.

I saw four women, whose milk were tried that one might be chosen for a nurse; and the woman pitched upon was, after three days’ suckling, deprived of her milk; whereupon she was sent away, and another put in her place; and on the third day after, she that was first chosen recovered her milk again. This was concluded to be the effect of witch-craft by some of her neighbours.

They also say that some have an art of taking away the increase of malt, and that the drink made of this malt hath neither life nor good taste in it; and, on the contrary, the charmer hath very good ale all this time. A gentleman of my acquaintance, for the space of a year, could not have a drop of good ale in his house; and having complained of it to all that conversed with him, he was at last advised to get some yeast from every ale-house in the parish; and having got a little from one particular man, he put it among his wort, which became as good ale as could be drunk, and so defeated the charm. After which the gentleman in whose land this man lived, banished him thirty-six miles from thence.

They say there be women who have an art of taking a moat out of one’s eye, though at some miles’ distance from the party grieved; and this is the only charm these women will avouch themselves to understand, as some of them told me, and several of these men, out of whose eyes moats were then taken, confirmed the truth of it to me.

All these islanders, and several thousands on the neighbouring continent, are of opinion, that some particular persons have an evil eye, which affects children and cattle; this they say, which occasions frequent mischances, and sometimes death. I could name some who are believed to have this unhappy faculty, though at the same time void of any ill design. This hath been an ancient opinion, as appears from that of the poet: -----

"Nescio quis teneros oculus mihi fassinat Agnos."

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