A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland

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

The Island of Harris

THE Harris being separated from Lewis is 18 miles, from the Hushiness on the West Ocean to Loch-Seafort in the east; from this bounding to the Point of Strond in the South of Harris, it is 24 miles; and in some places 4, 5, and 6 miles in breadth. The soil is almost the same with that of Lewis, and it produces the same sorts of corn, but a greater increase.

The air is temperately cold, and the natives endeavour to qualify it by taking a dose of aquavitae, or brandy; for they brew no such liquors as trestarig, or usquebaugh-baul. The eastern coast of Harris is generally rocky and mountainous, covered with grass and heath. The west side is for the most part arable on the sea-coast; some parts of the hills on the east side are naked without earth. The soil being dry and sandy, is fruitful when manured with sea-ware. The grass on the west side is most clover and daisy which in the summer yields a most fragrant smell. Next to Loch-Seafort, which for some miles divides the Lewis from Harris, is the notable harbour within the island, by seafaring men called Glass, and by the natives Scalpa; it is a mile and a half long from south to north, and a mile in breadth. There is an entrance on the south and north ends of the isle, and several good harbours in each, well known to the generality of seamen. Within the isle is Loch-Tarbat, running 4 miles west; it hath several small isles, and is sometimes frequented by herring. Without the loch there is plenty of cod, ling, and large eels.

About half a league farther on the same coast, lies Loch-Stokness, which is about a mile in length: there is a fresh-water lake at the entrance of the island, which affords oysters, and several sorts of fish, the sea having access to it at spring-tides.

About a league and a half farther south, is Loch-Finisbay, an excellent, though unknown harbour: the land lies low, and hides it from the sight of seafaring men, till they come very near the coast. There are, besides this harbour, many creeks on this side, for barks and lesser boats.

Fresh-water lakes abound in this island, and are well-stored with trout, eels, and salmon. Each lake has a river running from it to the sea, from whence the salmon comes about the beginning of May, and sooner if the season be warm. The best time for angling for salmon and trout, is when a warm southwest wind blows. They use earth-worms commonly for bait, but cockles attract the salmon better than any other.

There is a variety of excellent springs issuing from all the mountains of this island, but the wells on the plains near the sea are not good. There is one remarkable fountain lately discovered near Marvaghouses, on the eastern coast, and has a large stone by it, which is sufficient to direct a stranger to it. The natives find by experience that it is very effectual for restoring lost appetite; all that drink of it become very soon hungry, though they have ate plentifully but an hour before: the truth of this was confirmed to me by those that were perfectly well, and also by those that were infirm; for it had the same effect on both.

There is a well in the heath, a mile to the east from the village Borve; the natives say that they find it efficacious against colics, stitches, and gravel.

There are several caves in the mountains, and on each side the coast: the largest and best fortified, by nature, is that in the hill Ulweal, in the middle of a high rock; the passage leading to it is so narrow, that one only can enter at a time. This advantage renders it secure from any attempt; for one single man is able to keep off a thousand, if he have but a staff in his hand, since with the least touch of it he may throw the strongest man down the rock. The cave is capacious enough for 50 men to lodge in: it hath two wells in it, one of which is excluded from dogs; for they say if a dog do but taste of the water, the well presently drieth up: and for this reason, all such as have occasion to lodge there, take care to tie their dogs, that they may not have access to the water. The other well is called the dogs-well, and is only drunk by them.

There are several ancient forts erected here, which the natives say were built by the Danes: they are of a round form, and have very thick walls and a passage in them by which one can go round the fort. Some of the stones that compose them are very large: these forts are named after the villages in which they are built, as that in Borve is called Down-Borve, &c. They are built at convenient distances on each side of the coast, and there is a fort built in every one of the lesser isles.

There are several stones here erected on one end, one of which is in the village of Borve, about 7 feet high. There is another stone of the same height to be seen in the opposite Isle of Taransay. There are several heaps of stones, commonly called cairns, on the tops of hills and rising grounds on the coast, upon which they used to burn heath, as a signal of an approaching enemy. There was always a sentinel at each cairn to observe the sea-coast; the steward of the isle made frequent rounds, to take notice of the sentinels, and if he found any of them asleep, he strips them of their clothes, and deferred their personal punishments to the proprietor of the place. This isle produced the same kind of cattle, sheep, and goats, that are on the Lewis. The natives gave me an account, that a couple of goats did grow wild on the hills, and after they had increased, they were observed to bring forth their young twice a year.

There are abundance of deer in the hills and mountains here, commonly called the forest; which is 18 miles in length from east to west: the number of deer computed to be in this place is at least 2000; and there is none permitted to hunt there without a license from the steward to the forester. There is a particular mountain, and above a mile of ground surrounding it, to which no man hath access to hunt, this place being reserved for Macleod himself, who when he is disposed to hunt, is sure to find game enough there.

Both hills and valleys in the forest are well provided with plenty of good grass mixed with heath, which is all the shelter these deer have during the winter and spring: there is not a shrub of wood to be seen in all the forest; and when a storm comes, the deer betake themselves to the sea-coast, where they feed upon the Alga Marina, or sea-ware.

The mertrick, a four-footed creature, about the size of a big cat, is pretty numerous in this isle: they have a fine skin, which is smooth as any fur, and of a brown colour. They say that the dung of this animal yields a scent like musk.

The amphibia here are otters and seals; the latter are ate by the meaner sort of people, who say they are very nourishing. The natives take them with nets, whose ends are tied by a rope to the strong alga, or sea-ware, growing on the rocks.

This island abounds with variety of land and sea-fowl, and particularly with very good hawks.

There are eagles here of two sorts; the one is of a large size and gray colour, and these are very destructive to the fawns, sheep, and lambs.

The other is considerably less, and black, and shaped like a hawk, and more destructive to the deer, etc., than the bigger sort.

There are no venomous creatures of any kind here, except a little viper, which was not thought venomous till of late, that a woman died of a wound she received from one of them.

I have seen a great many rats in the village Rowdil, which became very troublesome to the natives, and destroyed all their corn, milk, butter, cheese, etc. They could not extirpate these vermin for some time by all their endeavours. A considerable number of cats was employed for this end, but were still worsted, and became perfectly faint, because overpowered by the rats, who were twenty to one. At length one of the natives, of more sagacity than his neighbours, found an expedient to renew his cat’s strength and courage, which was by giving it warm milk after every encounter with the rats; and the like being given to all the other cats after every battle, succeeded so well, that they left not one rat alive, notwithstanding the great number of them in the place.

On the east-side of the village Rowdil, there is a circle of stone, within 8 yards of the shore: it is about 3 fathoms under water, and about two stories high: it is in form broader above than below, like to the lower story of a kiln: I saw it perfectly on one side, but the season being then windy, hindered me from a full view of it. The natives say that there is such another circle of less compass in the Pool Borodil, on the other side the bay.

The shore on the west coast of this island affords variety of curious shells and walks; as tellinae and turbines of various kinds, thin patellæœ, streaked blue, various coloured pectenes, some blue, and some of orange colours.

The os-sepie is found on the sand in great quantities. The natives pulverize it, and take a dose of it in boiled milk which is found by experience to be an effectual remedy against the diarrhœa and dysentery. They rub this powder likewise, to take off the film on the eyes of sheep.

There is variety of nuts, called molluka beans, some of which are used as amulets against witchcraft, or an evil eye, particularly the white one; and upon this account they are wore about children’s necks, and if any evil is intended to them, they say the nut changes into a black colour. That they did change colour, I found true by my own observation, but cannot be positive as to the cause of it.

Malcolm Campbell, steward of Harris, told me, that some weeks before my arrival there, all his cows gave blood instead of milk, for several days together: one of the neighbours told his wife that this must be witchcraft, and it would be easy to remove it, if she would but take the white nut, called the Virgin Mary’s Nut, and lay it in the pail into which she was to milk the cows. This advice she presently followed, and having milked one cow into the pail with the nut in it, the milk was all blood, and the nut changed its colour into dark brown: she used the nut again, and all the cows gave pure good milk, which they ascribe to the virtue of the nut. This very nut Mr. Campbell presented me with, and I keep it still by me.

Some small quantity of ambergris hath been found on the coast of the island Bernera. I was told that a weaver in this island had burnt a lump of it, to show him a light for the most part of the night, but the strong scent of it made his head ache exceedingly, by which it was discovered.

An ancient woman about sixty years of age, here lost her hearing; and having no physician to give her advice, she would needs try an experiment herself, which was thus: She took a quill with which she ordinarily snushed her tobacco, and filling it with the powder of tobacco, poured it into her ear; which had the desired effect, for she could hear perfectly well next day. Another neighbour about the same age, having lost her hearing some time after, recovered it by the same experiment, as I was told by the natives.

The sheep which feed here on sandy ground, become blind sometimes, and are cured by rubbing chalk in their eyes.

A servant of Sir Norman Macleod’s living in the island of Bernera, had a mare that brought forth a foal with both the hinder feet cloven, which died about a year after: the natives concluded that it was a bad omen to the owner, and his death, which followed in a few years after, confirmed them in their opinion.

The natives make use of the seeds of a white wild carrot, instead of hops, for brewing their beer; and they say that it answers the end sufficiently well, and gives the drink a good relish besides.

John Campbell, forester of Harris, makes use of this singular remedy for a could: He walks into the sea up to the middle with his clothes on, and immediately after goes to bed in his wet clothes, and then laying the bedclothes over him procures a sweat, which removes the distemper; and this he told me is his only remedy for all manner of colds. One of the said John Campbell’s servants having his cheek swelled, and there being no physician near, he asked his master’s advice: he knew nothing proper for him, but however bid him apply a plaister of warm barley-dough to the place affected. This assuaged the swelling, and drew out of the flesh a little worm, about half an inch in length, and about the bigness of a goose-quill, having a pointed head, and many little feet on each side: this worm they call fillan, and it hath been found in the head and neck of several persons that I have seen in the Isle of Skye.

Allium latisolium, a kind of wild garlic, is much used by some of the natives, as a remedy against the stone: they boil it in water, and drink the infusion, and it expels sand powerfully with great ease.

The natives told me, that the rock on the east side of Harris, in the Sound of island Glass, hath a vacuity near the front, on the northwest side of the sound; in which they say there is a stone that they call the lunar-stone, which advances and retires according to the increase and decrease of the moon.

A poor man born in the village of Rowdil, commonly called St. Clements-blind, lost his sight at every change of the moon, which obliged him to keep his bed for a day or two, and then he recovered his sight.

Of The Inferior Adjacent Islands (to Harris)


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