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A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland

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

The Preface

THE Western Islands of Scotland, which make the subject of the following book, were called by the ancient geographers Æbudæ and Hebrides; but they knew so little of them, that they neither agreed in their name nor number. Perhaps it is peculiar to those isles, that they have never been described till now by any man that was a native of the country or had travelled them. They were indeed touched by Boethius, Bishop Lesly, Buchanan, and Johnston, in their histories of Scotland; but none of those authors were ever there in person: so that what they wrote concerning them was upon trust from others. Buchanan, it is true, had his information from Donald Monro, who had been in many of them; and therefore his account is the best that has hitherto appeared, but it must be owned that it is very imperfect: that great man designed the history, and not the geography of his country, and therefore in him it was pardonable. Besides since his time there is a great change in the humour of the world, and by consequence in the way of writing. Natural and experimental philosophy has been much improved since his days; and therefore descriptions of countries, without the natural history of them, are now justly reckoned to be defective.

This I had a particular regard to, in the following description, and have every where taken notice of the nature of the climate and soil, of the produce of the places by sea and land, and of the remarkable cures performed by the natives merely by the use of simples; and that in such variety as I hope will make amends for what defects may be found in my style and way of writing: for there is a wantonness in language as well as in other things, to which my countrymen of the Isles are as much strangers as to other excesses which are too frequent in many parts of Europe. We study things there more than words, though those that understand our native language must own that we have enough of the latter to inform the judgment and work upon the affections in as pathetic a manner as any other languages whatever. But I go on to my subject.

The isles here described are but little known or considered, not only by strangers, but even by those under the same government and climate.

The modern itch after the knowledge of foreign places is so prevalent that the generality of mankind bestow little thought or time upon the place of their nativity. It is become customary in those of quality to travel young into foreign countries, whilst they are absolute strangers at home; and many of them when they return are only loaded with superficial knowledge, as the bare names of famous libraries, stately edifices, fine statues, curious paintings, late fashions, new dishes, new tunes, new dances, painted beauties, and the like.

The places here mentioned afford no such entertainment; the inhabitants in general prefer convenience to ornament both in their houses and apparel, and they rather satisfy than oppress nature in their way of eating and drinking; and not a few among them have a natural beauty, which excels any that has been drawn by the finest Apelles.

The land and the sea that encompasses it, produce many things useful and curious in their kind, several of which have not hitherto been mentioned by the learned. This may afford the theorist subject of contemplation, since every plant of the field, every fibre of each plant, and the least particle of the smallest insect, carries with it the impress of its maker; and if rightly considered may read us lectures of divinity and morals.

The inhabitants of these islands do for the most part labour under the want of knowledge of letters and other useful arts and sciences; notwithstanding which defect, they seem to be better versed in the book of nature than many that have greater opportunities of improvement. This will appear plain and evident to the judicious reader, upon a view of the successful practice of the islanders in the preservation of their health, above what the generality of mankind enjoys. And this is performed merely by temperance, and the prudent use of simples, which, as we are assured by repeated experiments, fail not to remove the most stubborn distempers, where the best prepared medicines have frequently no success. This I relate not only from the authority of many of the inhabitants, who are persons of great integrity, but likewise from my own particular observation. And thus with Celsus they first make experiments and afterwards proceed to reason upon the effects.

Human industry has of late advanced useful and experimental philosophy very much. Women and illiterate persons have in some measure contributed to it by the discovery of some useful cures. The field of nature is large, and much of it wants still to be cultivated by an ingenious and discreet application; and the curious, by their observations, might daily make further advances in the history of nature.

Self-preservation is natural to every living creature; and thus we see the several animals of the sea and the land so careful of themselves as to observe nicely what is agreeable and what is hurtful to them; and accordingly they choose the one and reject the other.

The husbandman and the fisher could expect but little success without observation in their several employments; and it is by observation that the physician commonly judges of the condition of his patient. A man of observation proves often a physician to himself; for it was by this that our ancestors preserved their health till a good old age, and that mankind laid up that stock of natural knowledge of which they are now possessed.

The wise Solomon did not think it beneath him to write of the meanest plant, as well as of the tallest cedar. Hippocrates was at the pains and charge to travel foreign countries, with a design to learn the virtues of plants, roots, etc. I have in my little travels endeavoured, among other things, in some measure to imitate so great a pattern; and if I have been so happy as to oblige the republic of learning with anything that is useful I have my design. I hold it enough for me to furnish my observations without accounting for the reason and way that those simpler produce them. This I leave to the learned in that faculty; and if they would oblige the world with such therems from these and the like experiments, as might serve for rules upon occasions of this nature, it would be of great advantage to the public.

As for the improvement of the isles in general, it depends upon the Government of Scotland to give encouragement for it to such public-spirited persons or societies as are willing to lay out their endeavours that way; and how large a field they have to work upon will appear by taking a survey of each, and of the method of improvement that I have hereunto subjoined.

There is such an account given here of the second sight as the nature of the thing will bear. This has always been reckoned sufficient among the unbiassed part of mankind; but for those that will not be satisfied, they ought to oblige us with a new scheme, by which we may judge of matters of fact.

There are several instances of heathenism and pagan superstition among the inhabitants of the islands, related here; but I would not have the reader to think those practices are chargeable upon the generality of the present inhabitants, since only a few of the the oldest and most ignorant of the vulgar are guilty of them. These practices are only to be found where the reformed religion has not prevailed; for it is to the progress of that alone that the banishment of evil spirits, as well as of evil customs, is owing, when all other methods proved ineffectual. And for the islanders in general I may truly say that in religion and virtue they excel many thousands of others who have greater advantages of daily improvement.

The Island of Lewis


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