A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland

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

Island of Lewis

THE Island of Lewis is so called from Leog, which in the Irish language signifies water, lying on the surface of the ground; which is very proper to this island, because of the great number of fresh-water lakes that abound in it. The Isle of Lewis is by all strangers and seafaring men accounted the outmost tract of islands lying to the north-west of Scotland. It is divided by several narrow channels, and distinguished by several proprietors as well as by several names: by the islanders it is commonly called, the Long Island; being from south to north 100 miles in length, and from east to west from 3 to 14 in breadth. It lies in the shire of Ross, and made part of the diocese of the Isles.

The Isle of Lewis, properly and strictly so called, is 36 miles in length; viz., from the north-point of Bowling-head to the south-point of Hussiness in Harris: and in some places it is 10, and in others 12 miles in breadth. The air is temperately cold and moist, and for a corrective the natives use a dose of trestarig or usquebaugh. This island is for the most part healthy, especially in the middle from south to north. It is arable on the west side, for about 16 miles on the coast; it is likewise plain and arable in several places on the east. The soil is generally sandy, excepting the heaths, which in some places are black, and in others a fine red clay; as appears by the many vessels made of it by their women; some for boiling meat, and others for preserving their ale, for which they are much better than barrels of wood.

This island was reputed very fruitful in corn, until the late years of scarcity and bad seasons. The corn sown here is barley, oats, and rye; and they have also flax and hemp. The best increase is commonly from the ground manured with sea-ware: they fatten it also with soot; but it is observed that the bread made of corn growing in the ground so fattened, occasions the jaundice to those that eat it. They observe likewise that corn produced in ground which was never tilled before, occasions several disorders in those who eat the bread, or drink the ale made of that corn; such as the headache and vomiting.

The natives are very industrious, and undergo a great fatigue by digging the ground with spades, and in most places they turn the ground so digged upside down, and cover it with sea-ware; and in this manner there are about 500 people employed daily for some months. This way of labouring is by them called Timiy; and certainly produces a greater increase than digging or ploughing otherwise. They have little harrows with wooden teeth in the first and second rows, which break the ground; and in the third row they have rough heath, which smooths it. This light harrow is drawn by a man having a strong rope of horse-hair across his breast.

Their plenty of corn was such, as disposed the natives to brew several sorts of liquors, as common usquebaugh, another called trestarig, id est, aquavitæ, three times distilled, which is strong and hot; a third sort is four times distilled, and this by the natives is called usquebaugh-baul, id est, usquebaugh, which at first taste affects all the members of the body: two spoonfuls of this last liquor is a sufficient dose; and if any man exceed this, it would presently stop his breath, and endanger his life. The trestarig and usquebaugh-baul, are both made of oats.

There are several convenient bays and harbours in this island. Loch-Grace and Loch-Tua lying north-west, are not to be reckoned such; though vessels are forced in there sometimes by storm. Loch-Stornvay lies on the east side in the middle of the island, and is 18 miles directly south from the northernmost point of the same. It is a harbour well known by seamen. There are several places for anchoring about half a league on the south of this coast. About 7 miles southward there is a good harbour, called the Birkin Isles; within the bay called Loch-Colmkill, 3 miles further south, lies Loch-Erisort, which hath an anchoring-place on the south and north: about 5 miles south lies Loch-Seafort, having two visible rocks in the entry; the best harbour is on the south side.

About 24 miles south-west lies Loch-Carlvay, a very capacious, though unknown harbour, being never frequented by any vessels: though the natives assure me that it is in all respects a convenient harbour for ships of the first rate. The best entrance looks north and north-west, but there is another from the west. On the south side of the island Bernera, there are small islands without the entrance, which contribute much to the security of the harbour, by breaking the winds and seas that come from the great ocean. Four miles to the south on this coast is Loch-Rogue, which runs in among the mountains. All the coasts and bays above-mentioned, do in fair weather abound with cod, ling, herring, and all other sorts of fishes taken in the Western Islands.

Cod and ling are of a very large size, and very plentiful near Loch-Carlvay; but the whales very much interrupt the fishing in this place. There is one sort of whale remarkable for its greatness, which the fishermen distinguish from all others by the name of the Gallan-whale; because they never see it but at the promontory of that name. I was told by the natives, that about 15 years ago, this great whale overturned a fisher’s boat, and devoured three of the crew; the fourth man was saved by another boat which happened to be near, and saw this accident. There are many whales of different sizes, that frequent the herring-bays on the east side: the natives employ many boats together in pursuit of the whales, chasing them up into the bays, till they wound one of them mortally, and then it runs ashore; and they say that all the rest commonly follow the track of its blood, and run themselves also on shore in like manner, by which means many of them are killed. About five years ago there were fifty young whales killed in this manner, and most of them eaten by the common people, who by experience find them to be very nourishing food. This I have been assured of by several persons, but particularly by some poor meagre people, who became plump and lusty by this food in the space of a week: they call it Seapork, for so it signifies in their language. The bigger whales are more purgative than these lesser ones, but the latter are better for nourishment.

The bays afford plenty of shell-fish, as clams, oysters, cockles, mussels, limpets, whelks, spout-fish; of which last there is such a prodigious quantity cast up out of the sand of Loch-Tua, that their noisome smell infects the air, and makes it very unhealthful to the inhabitants, who are not able to consume them, by eating or fattening their ground with them: and this they say happens most commonly once in seven years.

The bays and coasts of this island afford great quantity of small coral, not exceeding six inches in length, and about the bigness of a goose’s quill. This abounds most in Loch-Seafort, and there is coraline likewise on this coast.

There are a great many fresh-water lakes in this island, which abound with trouts and eels. The common bait used for catching them is earthworms, but a handful of parboiled mussels thrown into the water attracts the trouts and eels to the place; the fittest time for catching them is when the wind blows from the south-west. There are several rivers on each side this island which afford salmons, as also black mussels, in which many times pearl is found.

The natives in the village Barvas retain an ancient custom of sending a man very early to cross Barvas River, every first day of May, to prevent any female crossing it first; for that they say would hinder the salmon from coming into the river all the year round; they pretend to have learned this from a foreign sailor, who was shipwrecked upon that coast a long time ago. This observation they maintain to be true from experience.

There are several springs and fountains of curious effects; such as that at Loch-Carlvay, that never whitens linen, which hath often been tried by the inhabitants. The well at St. Cowsten’s Church never boils any kind of meat, though it be kept on fire a whole day. St Andrew’s Well, in the village Shader, is by the vulgar natives made a test to know if a sick person will die of the distemper he labours under. They send one with a wooden dish to bring some of the water to the patient, and if the dish, which is then laid softly upon the surface of the water, turn round sun-ways, they conclude that the patient will recover of that distemper; but if otherwise, that he will die.

There are many caves on the coast of this island, in which great numbers of otters and seals do lie; there be also many land and sea fowls, that build and hatch in them. The cave in Loch-Grace hath several pieces of a hard substance in the bottom, which distil from the top of it. There are several natural and artificial forts on the coast of this island, which are called Dun, from the Iris word Dain, which signifies a fort. The natural forts here are Dun-owle, Dun-coradil, Dun-eisten.

The castle at Stornvay village was destroyed by the English garrison, kept there by Oliver Cromwell. Some few miles to the north of Brago there is a fort composed of large stones; it is of a round form, made taperwise towards the top, and is three stories high: the wall is double, and hath several doors and stairs, so that one may go round within the wall. There are some cairns, or heaps of stones, gathered together on heaths, and some of them at a great distance from any ground that affords stones, such as Cairnwarp, near Mournagh Hill, &c. These artificial forts are likewise built upon heaths, at a considerable distance also from stony ground. The Thrushel Stone, in the Parish of Barvas, is above 20 feet high, and almost as much in breadth. There are three erected stones upon the north side of Loch-Carlvay, about 12 feet high each. Several other stones are to be seen here in remote places, and some of them standing on one end. Some of the ignorant vulgar say, they were men by enchantment turned into stones; and others say, they are monuments of persons of note killed in battle.

The most remarkable stones for number, bigness, and order, that fell under my observation, were at the village of Classerniss, where there are 39 stones set up 6 or 7 feet high, and 2 feet in breadth each. They are placed in form of an avenue, the breadth of which is 8 feet, and the distance between each stone 6; and there is a stone set up in the entrance of this avenue. At the south end there is joined to this range of stone a circle of 12 stones of equal distance and height with the other 39. There is one set up in the centre of this circle, which is 13 feet high, and shaped like the rudder of a ship: without this circle there are 4 stones standing to the west, at the same distance with the stones in the circle; and there are 4 stones set up in the same manner at the south and east sides. I enquired of the inhabitants what tradition they had from their ancestors concerning these stones; and they told me, it was a place appointed for worship in the time of heathenism, and that the chief druid or priest stood near the big stone in the centre, from whence he addressed himself to the people that surrounded him.

Upon the same coast also there is a circle of high stones standing on one end, about a quarter of a mile’s distance from those above-mentioned.

The shore in Egginess abounds with many little smooth stones prettily variegated with all sorts of colours; they are of a round form, which is probably occasioned by the tossing of the sea, which in those parts is very violent.

The cattle produced here are cows, horses, sheep, goats, hogs. These cows are little, but very fruitful, and their beef very sweet and tender. The horses are considerably less here, than in the opposite Continent, yet they plough and harrow as well as bigger horses, though in the spring-time they have nothing to feed upon but sea-ware. There are abundance of deer in the Chase of Oservaul, which is 15 miles in compass, consisting in mountains, and valleys between them: this affords good pasturage for the deer, black cattle, and sheep. This forest, for so they call it, is surrounded with the sea, except about one mile upon the west side: the deer are forced to feed on sea-ware, when the snow and frost continue long, having no wood to shelter in, and so are exposed to the rigour of the season.

I saw big roots of trees at the head of Loch-Erisport, and there is about a hundred young birch and hazle trees on the south-west side of Loch-Stornvay, but there is no more wood in the island. There is great variety of land and sea-fowls to be seen in this and the lesser adjacent islands.

The amphibia here are seals and otters; the former are eaten by the vulgar, who find them to be as nourishing as beef and mutton.

The inhabitants of this island are well proportioned, free from any bodily imperfections, and of a good stature: the colour of their hair is commonly a light-brown, or red, but few of them are black. They are a healthful and strong-bodied people, several arrive to a great age. Mr. Daniel Morison, late minister of Barvas, one of my acquaintance, died lately in his 86th year.

They are generally of a sanguine constitution: this place hath not been troubled with epidemical diseases, except the small-pox, which comes but seldom, and then it sweeps away many young people. The chin-cough afflicts children too: the fever, diarrhœa, dysentery, and the falling down of the uvula, fevers, jaundice and stitches, and the ordinary coughs proceeding from cold are the diseases most prevalent here. The common cure used for removing fevers and pleurisies, is to let blood plentifully. For curing the diarrhœa and dysentery, they take small quantities of the kernel of the black molocca beans, called by them Crospunk; and this being ground into powder, and drunk in boiled milk, is by daily experience found to be very effectual. They likewise use a little dose of trestarig water with good success. When the cough affects them, they drink brochan plentifully, which is oat-meal and water boiled together; to which they sometimes add butter. This drink used at going to bed, disposeth one to sleep and sweat, and is very diuretic if it bath no salt in it. They use also the roots of nettles, and the roots of reeds boiled in water and add yeast to it, which provokes it to ferment; and this they find also beneficial for the cough. When the uvula falls down, they ordinarily cut it, in this manner ----- They take a long quill, and putting a horsehair double into it, make a noose at the end of the quill, and putting it about the lower end of the uvula, they cut off from the uvula all that is below the hair with a pair of scissors; and then the patient swallows a little bread and cheese, which cured him. This operation is not attended with the least inconvenience, and cures the distemper so that it never returns. They cure green wounds with ointment made of golden-rod, all-heal, and fresh butter. The jaundice they cure two ways ----- the first is by laying the patient on his face, and pretending to look upon his backbones, they presently pour a pail-full of cold water on his bare back; and this proves successful. The second cure they perform by taking the tongs, and making them red-hot in the fire; then pulling off the clothes from the patient’s back, he who holds the tongs gently touches the patient on the vertebrae upwards of the back, which makes him furiously run out of doors, still supposing the hot iron is on his back, till the pain be abated, which happens very speedily, and the patient recovers soon after. Donald Chuan, in a village near Bragir, in the parish of Barvas, had by accident cut his toe at the change of the moon, and it bleeds a fresh drop at every change of the moon ever since.

Anna, daughter to George, in the village of Melbost, in the parish of Ey, having been with child, and the ordinary time of her delivery being expired, the child made its passage by the fundament for some years, coming away bone after bone. She lived several years after this, but never had any more children. Some of the natives, both of the island of Lewis and Harris, who conversed with her at the time when this extraordinary thing happened, gave me this account.

The natives are generally ingenious and quick of apprehension; they have a mechanical genius, and several of both sexes have a gift of poesy, and are able to form a satire or panegyric ex tempore, without the assistance of any stronger liquor than water to raise their fancy. They are great lovers of music; and when I was there they gave an account of eighteen men who could play on the violin pretty well without being taught: they are still very hospitable, but the late years of scarcity brought them very low, and many of the poor people have died by famine. The inhabitants are very dexterous in the exercises of swimming, archery, vaulting, or leaping, and are very stout and able seamen; they will tug at the oar all day long upon bread and water, and a snush of tobacco.

Of The Inferior Adjacent Islands


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