A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland

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

The Islands of Tiree and Coll

Is so called from tirea country, and iyan isthmus; the rocks in the narrow channel seem to favour the etymology.

THIS isle lies about eight leagues to the west of Iona, or I Colm-Kil. The land is low and Moorish, but there are two little hills on the south-west side; the mould is generally brown, and for the most part sandy. The western side is rocky for about three leagues; the isle affords no convenient harbour for ships, but has been always valued for its extraordinary fruitfulness in corn, yet being tilled every year, it is become less fruitful than formerly. There is a plain piece of ground about six miles in compass on the east coast called the Rive; the grass is seldom suffered to grow the length of half an inch, being only kept as a common, yet is believed to excel any parcel of land of its extent in the isles, or opposite continent; there are small channels in it, through which the tide of flood comes in, and it sometimes overflows the whole.

The isle is four miles in length from the south-east to the north-west; the natives for the most part live on barley-bread, butter, milk, cheese, fish, and some eat the roots of silverweed; there are but few that eat any flesh, and the servants use water-gruel often with their bread. In plentiful years the natives drink ale generally. There are three ale-houses in the isle; the brewers preserve their ale in large earthen vessels, and say they are much better for this purpose than those of wood; some of them contain twelve English gallons. Their measure for drink is a third part larger than any I could observe in any other part of Scotland. The ale that I had in the inn being too weak, I told my host of it, who promised to make it better; for this end he took a hectic-stone, and having made it red hot in the fire, he quenched it in the ale. The company and I were satisfied that the drink was a little more brisk, and I told him that if he could add some more life to our ale he would extremely oblige the company. This he frankly undertook, and to effect it toasted a barley-cake, and having broken it in pieces he put it into the dish with the ale, and this experiment we found as effectual as the first. I enquired of him if he had any more art to revive our ale and then he would make it pretty good; he answered that he knew of nothing else but a malt-cake, which he had not then ready, and so we were obliged to content ourselves with what pains had been already used to revive our drink. The natives preserve their yeast by an oaken with which, they twist and put into it; and for future use, keep it in barley-straw. The cows and horses are of a very low size in this isle, being in the winter and spring-time often reduced to eat sea-ware. The cows give plenty of milk; when they have enough of fresh sea-ware to feed on it fattens them; the horses pace naturally, and are very sprightly though little. The ground abounds with flint stone; the natives tell me they find pieces of sulphur in several places. The west winds drive the ordinary Indian nuts to the shore of this isle, and the natives use them, as above, for removing the diarrhœa; and the water of the well called Toubir in Donich is by the natives drunk as a catholicon for diseases.

Some years ago, about one hundred and sixty little whales, the biggest not exceeding twenty feet long, run themselves ashore in this isle, very seasonably, in time of scarcity, for the natives did eat them all, and told me that the sea-pork, i.e., the whale, is both wholesome and very nourishing meat. There is a fresh-water lake in the middle of the isle, on the east side of which there is an old castle now in ruins. The isle being low and moorish is unwholesome, and makes the natives subject to the ague. The inhabitants living in the south-east parts are for the most part bald, and have but very thin hair on their heads. There is a cave in the south-west which the natives are accustomed to watch in the night, and then take many cormorants on it. There are several forts in the isle; one in the middle of it, and Dun-Taelk in Baelly Petris: they are in form the same with those in the northern isles. There are several great and small circles of stones in this isle. The inhabitants are all Protestants; they observe the festivals of Christmas, Good-Friday, Easter, and St. Michael’s Day. Upon the latter there is a general cavalcade at which all the inhabitants rendezvous. They speak the Irish tongue, and wear the Highland dress. This isle is the Duke of Argyll’s property, it being one of the isles lately possessed by the Laird of Maclean; the Parish Church in the isle is called Soroby, and is a parsonage.

THIS lies about half a league to the east and north-east of Tiree, from which it hath been severed by the sea. It is ten miles in length, and three in breadth; it is generally composed of little rocky hills covered with heath. The north side is much plainer, and arable ground, affording barley and oats; the inhabitants always feed on the latter, and those of Tiree on the former. The isle of Coll produces more boys than girls; as if nature intended both these isles for mutual alliances, without being at the trouble of going to the adjacent isles or continent to be matched. The Parish-Book, in which the number of the baptised is to be seen, confirms this observation.

There are several rivers in this isle that afford salmon. There is a fresh-water lake in the south-east side, which hath trouts and eels. Within a quarter of a mile lies a little castle, the seat of MacLean of Coll, the proprietor of the isle; he and all the inhabitants are Protestants; they observe the festivals of Christmas, Good-Friday, Easter, and St. Michael: at the latter they have a general cavalcade. All the inhabitants speak the Irish tongue (a few excepted), and wear the habit used by the rest of the islanders. This isle is much wholesomer than that of Tiree. I saw a gentleman of Maclean of Coll’s family here, aged eighty-five, who walked up and down the fields daily.

Cod and ling abound on the coast of this isle, and are of a larger size here than in the adjacent isles or continent.

On the south-east coast of this isle lie the train of rocks called the Carn of Coll; they reach about half a league from the shore, and are remarkable for their fatality to sea-faring men, of which there are several late instances. There is no venomous creature in this island or that of Tiree.

The Islands of Rum, Muck & Cannay


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