A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland

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

Editorial Note

AMONG the books from the Advocates’ Library now part of the National Library, Edinburgh, there is, as noted by Mr. Fred T. MacLeod, F.S.A. Scot., in his paper on Martin’s Description of the Western Isles in Vol. IX of the Transactions of the Inverness Scientific Society and Field Club, p. 170, a copy of the first edition (1703) of Martin’s work with the following inscription in Boswell’s hand-writing: ----- "This very book accompanied Mr. Samuel Johnson and me in our tour to the Hebrides in April, 1773. Mr. Johnson told me that he had read Martin when he was very young. Martin was a native of the Island of Skye, where a number of his relations still remain. His book is a very imperfect performance, and he is erroneous as to many particulars, even some concerning his own Island. Yet as it is the only book upon the subject, it is very well known. I have seen a second edition of it. I cannot but have kindness for him, notwithstanding his defects. James Boswell, 16th April, 1774."

There is good reason for concluding that Martin’s Description of the Western Isles was one of the main causes that induced Johnson to visit the Hebrides. In his Journal of their famous tour Boswell states that Dr. Johnson "told me, in summer 1763, that his father put Martin’s Account in his hands when he was very young and that he was much pleased with it." Stephen’s Dictionary of National Biography states: "although Johnson was interested in this work and took the book with him to the Highlands, he had a poor opinion of its literary merit". "No man," he said, "now writes so ill as Martin’s account of the Hebrides is written." Martin Martin, the author of the work referred to, and also of another most valuable book, "A Late Voyage to St. Kilda, the Remotest of all the Hebrides, or Western Isles of Scotland," published in 1697, was evidently born at Bealach, near Duntulm, Skye, ca. 1655-1660. The precise year is not known, but in 1681 he graduated M.A. at Edinburgh University where he was educated along with other members of his family. He belonged to a very well-known Skye family (Martainn a’Bhealaich) whose position and family tree are set forth in the monumental history of Clan Donald (Vol. III. p. 558) published in 1904 at Inverness by Rev. A. MacDonald, D.D., Killearnan, and Rev. A. MacDonald, D.D., Kiltarlity, the well-known Clan historians and authors of other well-known and valued works dealing with the history and literature of the Highlands. Mr. George M. Fraser, Portree, Solicitor and Factor to the MacDonald Estates, Skye, to whose courtesy we owe access to some MS. papers in connection with Duntulm in Martin’s time writes under date 12th October, 1931, "When recently arranging some old MacDonald Charter chest papers I came across an obligation by a Captain Hugh MacDonald, dated 30th March, 1686, and as this Deed was witnessed by Mr. Martin Martin, in whose work you are interested, I think you may be also interested in seeing a copy of the Deed, which I enclose. You will notice that Mr. Martin was there described as Governor to the Laird of MacDonald, Younger. Attached to it I have put a facsimile tracing of Martin Martin’s signature. No doubt you note the reference in the "Clan Donald" to Martin Martin where he is shown as a descendant of the Martins of Bealach. I think some people are of the impression that he was one of the Martins of Flodigarry. Personally, I think this latter is not correct and the idea may have arisen from the fact that his brother John Martin had a tack of Flodigarry as I have traces of it in the estate papers . . . . . ."

Mr. Fraser summarises the reference in "Clan Donald" as follows: -----

The Martins of Bealach and Duntulm

"Aonghas na Gaoithe," the first of the family of whom there is any trace, is said by tradition to have been a seafaring man, with no fixed place of residence. He received the name by which he became known from his wandering life among the Western Isles in his galley in all seasons and in all kinds of weather. Before he came to the Isles, he, it is said, was celebrated for his exploits in Ireland, where he fought in the wars of Sorley Buy MacDonald. He is said to have married a Danish Princess called Biurnag, or Bernice, and had seven sons. Over his grave at Kilmuir is a stone representing a recumbent warrior, brought by himself from Iona.

Angus’s son, Martin, commonly called Gille-Martin, from whom evidently the family took their name, settled in Troternish, and received a wadset of the lands of Bealach from Donald Gorm MacDonald of Sleat. He married Janet MacDonald, a near relative of the family of Sleat, and had by her: -----

  • Donald.
  • Lachlan.
  • John.
  • Angus.
  • Martin.

Martin was succeeded at Bealach by his son, Donald III. He fought under the Macdonald banner in the campaign of Montrose, and acted shortly thereafter as chamberlain of Troternish. He married Mary, daughter of Alexander, brother of Sir Donald Macdonald of Sleat, and by her had: -----

  • Donald.
  • John.
  • Martin, who in 1686 was "governor to Donald, younger of Sleat." He was the author of "A Voyage to St. Kilda," which was published in 1698, and of "A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland," published in 1703. Martin, who was a man of ability and culture, qualified for the medical profession, but he never practised. He lived latterly in London, where he died unmarried.

Donald Martin of Bealach was succeeded by his son, Donald IV.

From Dr. Erskine Beveridge’s "North Uist," pp. 335, 336 we note that, "For some period until 1686 he was ‘governor’ to Donald MacDonald, younger of Sleat-afterwards fourth baronet, evidently born ca. 1665, who led the Sleat men at Killiecrankie in 1689 and died in 1718, two years after being forfeited. From 1686 to 1692 Martin Martin acted as ‘governor’ to young MacLeod of Dunvegan, the earliest receipt for his salary in this capacity being dated 13th August, 1686, and the latest 16th August, 1692.

Nothing seems to be known of Martin Martin in his later years, except that he entered Leyden University, 6th March, 1710, and there graduated as M.D., afterwards residing in London until his death unmarried, in 1719. It has been stated that Martin was ‘factor’ to the laird of MacLeod, but this is wholly incorrect. These particulars, the result of careful research, have come to light since the last edition of Martin in 1884. Leslie Stephen’s Dictionary of National Biography further adds that Martin contributed two papers to the Royal Society, the first in 1697 forming the ground work of his vol. of 1703 and also that Martin "mainly at the request of Sir Robert Sibbald, the antiquary, travelled over the western islands of Scotland, collecting information regarding the condition and habits of the islanders." There can be no doubt that he was, for his period, a person of means and position as he styles himself "Gentleman," and likewise must have spent much time and money in the investigations and journeyings he made among his native Islands. It is particularly interesting to note that in the 17th century a native of the remote Hebrides was in a position to give informative addresses before the Royal Society and to produce and publish works of interest and importance. Only a Highlander with a full and intimate knowledge of the people and their language could have done so with such sympathy and understanding. With the exception of Dean Monro’s small work 150 years previous it is the earliest description of the Western Islands we have and the only lengthy work on the subject before the era of modern innovations. Its value is justly held at a high rate, more especially when it is borne in mind that the whole is the result of personal observation. Martin had the intelligence and enterprise to devote himself to Hebridean investigation ----- a field from a literary point of view almost entirely new and unoccupied, and readers will find his style exceedingly interesting, if often quaint. His writings formed a new departure in Scottish literature and were for long the only productions of consequence in their especial walk. They have been quoted by all subsequent writers of note who have dealt with the same subject. As time goes on their value as descriptive of a type of Scottish and Highland life, now to a very great extent a thing of the past, is being more and more realised. The entire literature of this sort left to us is lamentably small and limited in extent. Had Martin omitted to write what he has written our knowledge regarding earlier life in Celtic Scotland would be much more limited than it is.

To round off this volume in an interesting and useful way the publisher has decided to include the "Description of the Western Isles of Scotland" by Sir Donald Monro, High Dean of the Isles (1549). This is the earliest description of the Western Islands made from personal observation. The first printed issue of this extremely rare work was published in Edinburgh in 1774 but only fifty copies were printed.

In addition to this issue the work was included in one of the volumes of the Miscellanea Scotica.

In 1884 a limited edition of two hundred and fifty copies was published.

The present edition, like that of 1884, is a verbatim reprint with all the old curious spellings and names strictly retained. This feature should prove of special interest to students who may desire to have the original forms, as noted by Monro, ready at hand. Of the Dean himself little is known beyond the fact that he travelled through the Isles in 1549 on a pastoral visit of inspection. One of the Rectors of St. Columba’s Church, Eye, Island of Lewis, in the sixteenth century was a Sir Donald Monro and Mr W. C. Mackenzie, the Highland historian, considers that he "was probably the sixteenth century Archdeacon of the Isles with whose description of the Hebrides the historian is familiar."

Many of the names as noted by the Dean suggest that he was either not very familiar with Gaelic or that he was unable to write it with any accuracy. It is also probable that he did not concern himself with recording many of the names accurately and that in several instances the forms he gives were written down by him from memory some time subsequent to his visit. In any case not a few of them are difficult to identify as well as to explain. But the contrast between the glimpses he provides of insular economic and social life in the islands in the sixteenth century and those noted in Martin’s fuller record towards the end of the seventeenth century cannot fail to attract the interest of the reader.

Copy of Deed from the Macdonald Charter Chest referred to by Mr G. M. Fraser, Portree.

I Captain Hugh Mconal Lawfull son to umq Alexr Mcdonal of pabellseary binds and oblidges me and my heirs to procure from Mistris Anna Macky my mother and from Mr Hugh Munro minister of Durness her husband a full and ample disposition and discharge to Sir Donal Mconal of Slait or his heirs of all they can ask or crave of him after the term of Whitsunday next to come eightie six years either upon the account of the sd mistris Anna Mckys matrimoniall contract or any other transaction or agreement made betwixt the Late Lord Reay her brother (with her consent) and Sir James Mackdonald of Slait, but still w’out prejudice of qt is due to her be the sd Sir Donal preceeding the forsd term. And in case I the sd Captain Hugh fail in procuring the forsd disposition & discharge betwixt the dait hierof and the term of Mertimess next to come eightie six years. Then and in yt case I bind and oblidge me and my heirs not only to give up to the sd Sr Donal or his heirs an contract of Wodsett granted be him to me of the Lands of Dustill more, but Likewayes to renounce the sds Lands in favours of the sd Sr Donal or his forsds, and also to be bound to pay to the sd Sir Donal or his forsds the usuall rent of the sds Lands at the term of mertimess abovmention’d, and ilk year thereafter during my stay there, and yt allenerly in case of failing in the fullfilling of the premises. And the sd Capt Hugh binds and oblidges me and my forsds to give up to the sd Sir Donal or his heirs an bond of five thousand merks granted be him to me at Edr the day of years. And farder I bind & oblidge me & my forsds to renew this my obligation to the sd Sir Donal or his heirs ay and while they find themselves sufficiently secured in witness qrof I have subscribed thir prit at Armidell the thirtieth day of March on thusand six hundred & eightie six years, before these wittnesses Donald Mconal off Castletown and Mr Martin Martin governour to the Laird of Mcdonal younger H. Mconal

Donald Mcdonald Witness

Introduction by Donald J. MacLeod


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