A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland

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

Of The Inferior Adjacent Islands (belonging to Harris)

The inferior islands belonging to Harris are as follow: The island Bernera is five miles in circumference, and lies about two leagues to the south of Harris. The soil is sandy for the most part, and yields a great product of barley and rye in a plentiful year, especially if the ground be enriched by sea-ware, and that there be rain enough to satisfy the dry soil. I had the opportunity to travel this island several times, and upon a strict enquiry I found the product of barley to be sometimes twenty fold and upwards, and at that time all the east side of the island produce thirty fold. This hath been confirmed to me by the natives, particularly by Sir Norman Macleod, who possesses the island: he likewise confirmed to me the account given by all the natives of Harris and South-Uist, viz., that one barley-grain produceth in some places 7, 10, 12, and 14 ears of barley; of which he himself being diffident for some time, was at the pains to search nicely the room of one grain after some weeks growth, and found that from this one grain many ears had been grown up. But this happens not, except when the season is very favourable, or in grounds that have not been cultivated some years before; which, if manured with sea-ware, seldom fail to produce an extraordinary crop. It is observed in this island as elsewhere, that when the ground is dug up with spades and the turfs turned upside down, and covered with sea-ware, it yields a better product than when it is ploughed.

There is a fresh-water lake in this island, called Loch-Bruist, in which there are small islands, abounding with land and sea fowl, which build there in the summer. There is likewise plenty of eels in this lake, which are easiest caught in September; and then the natives carry lights with them in the night-time to the rivulet running from the lake, in which the eels fall down to the sea in heaps together.

This island in the summer is covered all over with clover and daisy, except in the corn fields. There is to be seen about the houses of Bernera, for the space of a mile, a soft substance, in show and colour exactly resembling the sea plant called slake, and grows very thick among the grass. The natives say, that it is the product of a dry hot soil; it grows likewise in the tops of several hills in the Island of Harris.

It is proper to add here an account of several strange irregularities in the tides, on Bernera coast, by Sir Robert Murray, mentioned in the "Phil. Transactions."

The tides increase and decrease gradually, according to the moon’s age, so as about the third day after the new and full moon, in the Western Isles and Continent, they are commonly at the highest, and about the quarter moons at the lowest (the former called spring tides, the other neap tides). The tides from the quarter to the highest spring tide increase in a certain proportion, and from the spring tide to the quarter tide in like proportion; and the ebbs rise and fall always after the same manner.

It is supposed that the increase of tides is made in the proportion of sines; the first increase exceeds the lowest in a small proportion, the next in a greater, the third greater than that, and so on to the middle-most, whereof the excess is the greatest; diminishing again from that to the highest spring tide, so as the proportions before and after the middle do answer one another. And likewise from the highest spring tide to the lowest neap tide, the decreases seem to keep the like proportions. And this commonly falls out when no wind or other accident causes an alteration. At the beginning of each flood on the coast, the tide moves faster, but in a small degree, increasing its swiftness till towards the middle of the flood, and then decreasing in swiftness again from the middle to the top of the high water. It is supposed that the unequal spaces of time, the increase and decrease of swiftness, and consequently the degrees of the risings and fallings of the same inequal spaces of time, are performed according to the proportion of sines. The proportion cannot hold precisely and exactly in regard of the inequalities that fall out in the periods of the tides, which are believed to follow certain positions of the moon in regard to the equinox, which are known not to keep a precise constant course; so that there not being equal portions of time between one new moon and another, the moon’s return to the same meridian cannot be always performed in the same time. And the tides from new moon being not always the same in number, or sometimes but 57, sometimes 58, sometimes 59 (without any certain order or succession) is another evidence of the difficulty of reducing this to any great exactness.

At the east end of this isle there is a strange reciprocation of the flux and reflux of the sea. There is another no less remarkable upon the west side of the Long Island. The tides which come from the southwest run along the coast northward; so that during the ordinary course of the tides the flood runs east in the Frith, where Bernera lies, and the ebb west; and thus the sea ebbs and flows orderly, some four days before the full and change, and as long after (the ordinary spring tides rising some 14 or 15 feet upright, and all the rest proportionably, as in other places); but afterwards, for four days before the quarter moons, and as long after, there is constantly a great and singular variation. For then (a southerly moon making there a full sea) the course of the tide being eastward, when it begins to flow, which is about 9˝ of the clock, it not only continues so about 3˝ in the afternoon, that it be high water; but after it begins to ebb, the current runs on still eastwards during the whole ebb; so that it runs eastwards 12 hours together, that is, all day long, from about 9˝ in the morning till about 9˝ at night. But then when the night tide begins to flow, the current turns and runs westward all night, during both flood and ebb, for some 12 hours more, as it did eastward the day before. And thus the reciprocations continue, one flood and ebb running 12 hours eastward, and another 12 hours westward till four days before the full and new moon; and then they resume their ordinary regular course as before, running east during the six hours of flood, and west during the six of ebb.

There is another extraordinary irregularity in the tides, which never fail: That whereas between the vernal and autumnal equinox, that is, for six months together, the course of irregular tides about the quarter moons, is to run all day, 12 hours, as from about 9˝ to 9˝ or 10, exact eastward; all night, that is, 12 hours more westward: during the other six months, from the autumnal to the vernal equinox, the current runs all day westward, and all night eastward. I have observed the tides as above, for the space of some days both in April, May, July, and August. The natives have frequent opportunities to see this both day and night, and they all agree that the tides run as mentioned above.

There is a couple of ravens in this island, which beat away all ravenous fowls, and when their young are able to fly abroad, they beat them also out of the island, but not without many blows, and a great noise.

There are two chapels in this isle, to wit, St. Asaph’s and St. Columbus’s chapel. There is a stone erected near the former, which is eight feet high, and two feet thick.

About half a league from Bernera, to the westward lies the Island Pabbay, 3 miles in circumference, and having a mountain in the middle. The soil is sandy, and fruitful in corn and grass, and the natives have lately discovered here a white marble. The west end of this island, which looks to St. Kilda, is called the wooden harbour, because the sands at low water discover several trees that have formerly grown there. Sir Norman Macleod told me that he had seen a tree cut there, which was afterwards made into a harrow.

There are two chapels in this island, one of which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the other to St. Muluag.

The steward of Kilda, who lives in Pabbay, is accustomed in time of storm to tie a bundle of puddings made of the fat of sea fowl to the end of his cable, and lets it fall into the sea behind the rudder; this, he says, hinders the waves from breaking, and calms the sea; but the scent of the grease attracts the whales, which put the vessel in danger.

About half a league to the north of Pabbay lies the isle of Sellay, a mile in circumference, that yields extraordinary pasturage for sheep, so that they become fat very soon; they have the biggest horns that ever I saw on sheep.

About a league farther to the north lies the isle Taransay, very fruitful in corn and grass, and yields much yellow talk. It is 3 miles in circumference, and has two chapels, one dedicated to St. Tarran, the other to St. Keith.

There is an ancient tradition among the natives here, that a man must not be buried in St. Tarran’s, nor a woman in St. Keith’s, because otherwise the corpse would be found above ground the day after it is interred. I told them this was a most ridiculous fancy which they might soon perceive by experience if they would but put it to a trial. Roderick Campbell, who resides there, being of my opinion, resolved to embrace the first opportunity that offered, in order to undeceive the credulous vulgar; and accordingly a poor man in this island, who died a year after, was buried in St. Tarran’s chapel, contrary to the ancient custom and tradition of this place, but his corpse is still in the grave, from whence it is not like to rise until the general resurrection. This instance has delivered the credulous natives from this unreasonable fancy. This island is a mile distant from the main land of Harris, and when the inhabitants go from this island to Harris with a design to stay for any time, they agree with those that carry them over, on a particular motion of walking upon a certain piece of ground, unknown to every body but themselves, as a signal to bring them back.

Three leagues to the westward of this island, lies Gasker, about half a mile in circumference; it excels any other plot of its extent for fruitfulness in grass and product of milk; it maintains 8 or 10 cows. The natives kill seals here, which are very big.

About two leagues farther north lies the island Scarp, two miles in circumference, and is a high land covered with heath and grass.

Between Bernera and the main land of Harris lies the island Ensay, which is above two miles in circumference, and for the most part arable ground, which is fruitful in corn and grass: there is an old chapel here, for the use of the natives; and there was lately discovered a grave in the west end of the island, in which was found a pair of scales made of brass, and a little hammer, both which were finely polished.

Between Ensay and the main land of Harris lie several small islands, fitter for pasturage than cultivation.

The little island Quedam hath a vein of adamant stone in the front of the rock. The natives say that mice do not live in this island, and when they chance to be carried thither among corn they die quickly after. Without these small islands there is a tract of small isles in the same line with the east side of the Harris, and North-Uist. They are in all respects of the same nature with those two islands, so that the sight of them is apt to dispose one to think that they have been once united together.

The most southerly of these islands, and the nearest to North-Uist, is Hermetra, two miles in circumference. It is a moorish soil, covered all over almost with heath, except here and there a few piles of grass and the plant milkwort. Yet, notwithstanding this disadvantage, it is certainly the best spot of its extent for pasturage among these isles, and affords great plenty of milk in January and February beyond what can be seen in the other islands.

I saw here the foundation of a house built by the English, in King Charles the First’s time, for one of their magazines to lay up the cask, salt, etc., for carrying on the fishery, which was then begun in the West tern Islands; but this design miscarried because of the civil wars which then broke out.

The channel between Harris and North-Uist is above three leagues in breadth, and abounds with rocks as well under as above water: though, at the same time, vessels of 300 tons have gone through it from east to west, having the advantage of one of the natives for a pilot. Some 16 years ago one Captain Frost was safely conducted in this manner. The Harris belongs in property to the Laird of Macleod. He and all the inhabitants are Protestants, and observe the festivals of Christmas, Good Friday, and St. Michael’s Day. Upon the latter they rendezvous on horse-back, and make their cavalcade on the sands at low water.

The Island of North-Uist and Adjacent Islands


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