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 South Uist

The island of South-Uist lies directly two miles to the south of Benbecula, being in length one and twenty miles, and three in breadth, and in some places four. The east side is mountainous on the coast, and heathy for the most part. The west side is plain arable ground, the soil is generally sandy, yielding a good produce of barley, oats, and rye, in proportion to that of North-Uist, and has the same sort of cattle. Both east and west sides of this island abound in fresh-water lakes, which afford trouts and eels, besides variety of land and sea fowls. The arable land is much damnified by the overflowing of these lakes in divers places, which they have not hitherto been able to drain, though the thing be practicable. Several lakes have old forts built upon the small islands in the middle of them. About four miles on the south-east end of this island is Loch Eynord. It reaches several miles westward, having a narrow entry, which makes a violent current, and within this entry there is a rock upon which there was staved to pieces a frigate of Cromwell’s, which he sent there to subdue the natives. Ambergris hath been found by several of the inhabitants on the west coast of this island, and they sold it at Glasgow at a very low rate not knowing the value of it at first; but when they knew it they raised the price to the other extreme. Upon a thaw after a long frost the south-east winds cast many dead fishes on the shore. The inhabitants are generally of the same nature and complexion with those of the next adjacent northern islands. They wear the same habit, and use the same diet. One of the natives is very famous for his great age, being, so it is said, a hundred and thirty years old, and retains his appetite and understanding. He can walk abroad, and did labour with his hands as usually till within these three years, and for anything I know is yet living.

There are several big cairns of stone on the east side this island, and the vulgar retain the ancient custom of making a religious tour round them on Sundays and holidays.

There is a valley between two mountains on the east side called Glenslyte, which affords good pasturage. The natives who farm it come thither with their cattle in the summer time, and are possessed with a firm belief that this valley is haunted by spirits, who by the inhabitants are called the great men; and that whatsoever man or woman enters the valley without making first an entire resignation of themselves to the conduct of the great men will infallibly grow mad. The words by which he or she gives up himself to these men’s conduct are comprehended in three sentences, wherein the glen is twice named, to which they add that it is inhabited by these great men, and that such as enter depend on their protection. I told the natives that this was a piece of silly credulity as ever was imposed upon the most ignorant ages, and that their imaginary protectors deserved no such invocation. They answered that there had happened a late instance of a woman who went into that glen without resigning herself to the conduct of these men, and immediately after she became mad, which confirmed them in their unreasonable fancy.

The people residing here in summer say they sometimes hear a loud noise in the air like men speaking. I inquired if their priest had preached or argued against this superstitious custom. They told me he knew better things, and would not be guilty of dissuading men from doing their duty, which they doubted not he judged this to be; and that they resolved to persist in the belief of it until they found better motives to the contrary than have been shown them hitherto. The Protestant minister hath often endeavoured to undeceive them, but in vain, because of an implicit faith they have in their priest; and when the topics of persuasion, though never so urgent, come from one they believe to be a heretic there is little hope of success.

The Island of Erisca


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