Without the mouth of Loch-Carlvay lies the small island Garve; it is a high rock, about half-a-mile in compass, and fit only for pasturage. Not far from this lies the island Berinsay, which is a quarter of a mile in compass, naturally a strong fort, and formerly used as such, being almost inaccessible.
The island Fladda, which is of small compass, lies between Berinsay and the main land. Within these lies the island called Bernera Minor, two miles in length, and fruitful in corn and grass. Within this island, in the middle of Loch-Carlvay, lies the island Bernera Major, being four miles in length, and as much in breadth. It is fruitful also in corn and grass, and hath four villages. Alexander MackLenan, who lives in Bernera Major, told me that some years ago a very extraordinary ebb happened there, exceeding any that had been seen before or since; it happened about the vernal equinox, the sea retired so far as to discover a stone-wall, the length of it being about 40 yards, and in some parts about 5, 6 or 7 feet high they suppose much more of it to be under water: it lies opposite to the west side of Lewis, to which it adjoins. He says that it is regularly built, and without all doubt the effect of human industry. The natives had no tradition about this piece of work, so that I can form no other conjecture about it, but that it has probably been erected for a defense against the sea, or for the use of fishermen, but came in time to be overflowed. Near to both Berneras lie the small islands of Kialisay, Cavay, Carvay, and Grenim.
Near to the north-west promontory of Carlvay Bay, called Galen-head, are the little islands of Pabbay, Shirem, Vacksay, Wuya, the Great and Lesser. To the north-west of Galen-head, and within six leagues of it, lie the Flannan-Islands, which the seamen call North-hunters; they are but small islands, and six in number, and maintain about seventy sheep yearly. The inhabitants of the adjacent lands of the Lewis, having a right to these islands, visit them once every summer, and there make a great purchase of fowls, eggs, down, feathers, and quills. When they go to sea, they have their boat well manned, and make towards the islands with an east wind; but if before or at landing the wind turn westerly, they hoist up sail, and steer directly home again. If any of their crew is a novice, and not versed in the customs of the place, he must be instructed perfectly in all the punctilioes observed here before landing; and to prevent inconveniences that they think may ensue upon the transgression of the least nicety observed here, every novice is always joined with another, that can instruct him all the time of their fowling: so all the boat's crew are matched in this manner. After their landing, they fasten the boat to the sides of a rock, and then fix a wooden ladder, by laying a stone at the foot of it, to prevent its falling into the sea; and when they are got up into the island, all of them uncover their heads, and make a turn sun-ways round, thanking God for their safety. The first injunction given after landing, is not to ease nature in that place where the boat lies, for that they reckon a crime of the highest nature, and of dangerous consequence to all their crew; for they have a great regard to that very piece of rock upon which they first set their feet, after escaping the danger of the ocean.
The biggest of these islands is called Island-More; it has the ruins of a chapel dedicated to St. Flannan, from whom the island derives its name. When they are come within about 20 paces of the altar, they all strip themselves of their upper garments at once; and their upper clothes being laid upon a stone, which stands there on purpose for that use, all the crew pray three times before they begin fowling: the first day they say the first prayer, advancing towards the chapel upon their knees; the second prayer is said as they go round the chapel; the third is said hard by or at the chapel; and this is their morning-service. Their vespers are performed with the like number of prayers. Another rule is that it is absolutely unlawful to kill a fowl with a stone, for that they reckon a great barbarity, and directly contrary to ancient custom.
It is also unlawful to kill a fowl before they ascend by the ladder. It is absolutely unlawful to call the island of St. Kilda (which lies thirty leagues southward) by its proper Irish name Hirt, but only the high country. They must not so much as once name the islands in which they are following by the ordinary name Flannan, but only the country. There are several other things that must not be called by their common names, e.g., Visk, which in the language of the natives signifies Water, they call Burn; a Rock, which in their language is Creg, must here be called Cruey, i.e., hard; Shore in their language, expressed by Claddach, must here be called Vah, i.e., a Cave; Sour in their language as expressed Gort, but must be here called Gaire, i.e., Sharp; Slippery, which is expressed Bog, must be called Soft; and several other things to this purpose. They account it also unlawful to kill a fowl after evening-prayers. There is an ancient custom by which the crew is obliged not to carry home any sheep-suet, let them kill ever so many sheep in these islands. One of their principal customs is not to steal or eat anything unknown to their partner, else the transgressor (they say) will certainly vomit it up; which they reckon as a just judgment. When they have loaded their boat sufficiently with sheep, fowls, eggs, down, fish, &c., they make the best of their way homeward. It is observed of the sheep of these islands that they are exceeding fat, and have long horns.
I had this superstitious account not only from several of the natives of the Lewis, but likewise from two who had been in the Flannan islands the preceding year. I asked one of them if he prayed at home as often, and as fervently as he did when in the Flannan Islands, and he plainly confessed to me that he did not: adding further, that these remote islands were places of inherent sanctity; and that there was none ever yet landed in them but found himself more disposed to devotion there, than anywhere else. The Island of Pigmies, or, as the natives call it, the Island of Little Men, is but of small extent. There has been many small bones dug out of the ground here, resembling those of human kind more than any other. This gave ground to a tradition which the natives have of a very low-statured people living once here, called Lusbirdan, i.e., pygmies.
The island of Rona is reckoned about 20 leagues from the north-east point of Ness in Lewis, and counted but a mile in length, and about half a mile in breadth: it hath a hill in the west part, and is only visible from the Lewis in a fair summer's day. I had an account of this little island, and the custom of it, from several natives of Lewis, who had been upon the place; but more particularly from Mr. Daniel Morison, minister of Barvas, after his return from Rona island, which then belonged to him, as part of his glebe. Upon my landing (says he) the natives received me very affectionately, and addressed me with their usual salutation to a stranger: "God save you, pilgrim, you are heartily welcome here; for we have had repeated apparitions of your person among us (after the manner of the second sight), and we heartily congratulate your arrival in this our remote country." One of the natives would needs express his high esteem for my person, by making a turn round about me sun-ways, and at the same time blessing me, and wishing me all happiness; but I bid him let alone that piece of homage, telling him I was sensible of his good meaning towards me: but this poor man was not a little disappointed, as were also his neighbours; for they doubted not but this ancient ceremony would have been very acceptable to me; and one of them told me, that this was a thing due to my character from them, as to their chief and patron, and they could not, nor would not fail to perform it. They conducted me to the little village where they dwell, and in the way thither there were three enclosures; and as I entered each of these, the inhabitants severally saluted me, taking me by the hand, and saying, "Traveller, you are welcome here." They went along with me to the house that they had assigned for my lodging; where there was a bundle of straw laid on the floor, for a seat for me to sit upon. After a little time was spent in general discourse, the inhabitants retired to their respective dwelling-houses; and in this interval, they killed each man a sheep, being in all five, answerable to the number of their families. The skins of the sheep were entire, and flayed off so from the neck to the tail, that they were in form like a sack. These skins being flayed off after this manner, were by the inhabitants instantly filled with barley-meal; and this they gave me by way of a present; one of their number acted as speaker for the rest saying, "Traveller, we are very sensible of the favour you have done us in coming so far with a design to instruct us in our way to happiness, and at the same time to venture yourself on the great ocean; pray be pleased to accept of this small present, which we humbly offer as an expression of our sincere love to you." This I accepted, though in a very coarse dress; but it was given with such an air of hospitality and good-will as deserved thanks. They presented my man also with some pecks of meal, as being likewise a traveller; the boat's crew having been in Rona before, were not reckoned strangers, and therefore there was no present given them, but their daily maintenance.
There is a chapel here dedicated to St. Ronan, fenced with a stone-wall round it; and they take care to keep it neat and clean, and sweep it every day. There is an altar in it, on which there lies a big plank of wood about ten feet in length; every foot has a hole in it, and in every hole a stone, to which the natives ascribe several virtues: one of them is singular, as they say, for promoting speedy delivery to a woman in travail.
They repeat the Lord's Prayer, Creed, and Ten Commandments in the chapel every Sunday morning. They have cows, sheep, barley and oats, and live a harmless life, being perfectly ignorant of most of those vices that abound in the world. They know nothing of money or gold, having no occasion for either; they neither sell nor buy, but only barter for such little things as they want: they covet no wealth, being fully content and satisfied with food and raiment; though at the same time they are very precise in the matter of property among themselves; for none of them will by any means allow his neighbour to fish within his property; and every one must exactly observe not to make any encroachment on his neighbour. They have an agreeable and hospitable temper for all strangers; they concern not themselves about the rest of mankind, except the inhabitants in the north part of Lewis. They take their surname from the colour of the sky, rain-bow, and clouds. There are only five families in this small island, and every tenant hath his dwelling-house, a barn, a house where their best effects are preserved, a house for their cattle, and a porch on each side of the door to keep off the rain or snow. Their houses are built with stone, and thatched with straw, which is kept down with ropes of the same, poised with stones. They wear the same habit with those in Lewis, and speak only Irish. When any of them comes to the Lewis, which is seldom, they are astonished to see so many people. They much admire grey-hounds, and are mightily pleased at the sight of horses; and one of them observing a horse to neigh, asked if that horse laughed at him. A boy from Rona perceiving a colt run towards him, was so much frighted at it, that he jumped into a bush of nettles, where his whole skin became full of blisters.
Another of the natives of Rona having had the opportunity of travelling as far as Coul, in the shire of Ross, which is the seat of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, everything he saw there was surprising to him; and when he heard the noise of those who walked in the rooms above him he presently fell to the ground, thinking thereby to save his life, for he supposed that the house was coming down over his head. When Mr. Morison, the minister, was in Rona, two of the natives courted a maid with intention to marry her; and being married to one of them afterwards, the other was not a little disappointed, because there was no other match for him in this island. The wind blowing fair, Mr. Morison sailed directly to Lewis; but after three hours' sailing was forced back to Rona by a contrary wind: and at his landing, the poor man that had lost his sweetheart was overjoyed, and expressed himself in these words: "I bless God and Ronan that you are returned again, for I hope you will now make me happy, and give me a right to enjoy the woman every other year by turns, that so we both may have issue by her." Mr. Morison could not refrain from smiling at this unexpected request, chid the poor man for his unreasonable demand, and desired him to have patience for a year longer, and he would send him a wife from Lewis, but this did not ease the poor man, who was tormented with the thoughts of dying with out issue.
Another who wanted a wife, and having got a shilling from a seaman that happened to land there, went and gave this shilling to Mr. Morison, to purchase him a wife in the Lewis, and send her to him, for he was told that this piece of money was a thing of extraordinary value; and his desire was gratified the ensuing year.
About 14 years ago a swarm of rats, but none knows how, came into Rona, and in a short time ate up all the corn in the island. In a few months after, some seamen landed there, who robbed the poor people of their bull. These misfortunes, and the want of supply from Lewis for the space of a year, occasioned the death of all that ancient race of people. The steward of St. Kilda being by a storm driven in there, told me that he found a woman with her child on her breast, both lying dead at the side of a rock. Some years after, the minister (to whom the island belongeth) sent a new colony to this island, with suitable supplies. The following year a boat was sent by him with some more supplies, and orders to receive the rents; but the boat being lost, as it is supposed, I can give no further account of this late plantation.
The inhabitants of this little island say, that the cuckoo is never seen or heard here, but after the death of the Earl of Seaforth, or the minister.
The rock Soulisker lieth four leagues to the east of Rona; it is a quarter of a mile in circumference, and abounds with great numbers of sea fowl, such as solan geese, guillamote, coulter-neb, puffin, and several other sorts. The fowl called the colk is found here: it is less than a goose, all covered with down, and when it hatches it casts its feathers, which are of divers colours; it has a tuft on its head resembling that of a peacock, and a train longer than that of a house-cock, but the hen has not so much ornament and beauty.
The island Siant, or, as the natives call it, Island-more, lies to the east of Ushiness in Lewis, about a league. There are three small islands here; the two southern islands are separated only by spring-tides, and are two miles in circumference. Island-More hath a chapel in it dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and is fruitful in corn and grass; the island joining to it on the west is only for pasturage. I saw a couple of eagles here: the natives told me that these eagles would never suffer any of their kind to live there but themselves, and that they drove away their young ones as soon as they were able to fly. And they told me likewise, that those eagles are so careful of the place of their abode, that they never yet killed any sheep or lamb in the island, though the bones of lambs, of fawns, and wild-fowls, are frequently found in and about their nests; so that they make their purchase in the opposite islands, the nearest of which is a league distant. This island is very strong and inaccessible, save on one side where the ascent is narrow, and somewhat resembling a stair, but a great deal more high and steep; notwithstanding which the cows pass and repass by it safely, though one would think it uneasy for a man to climb. About a musket-shot farther north lies the biggest of the islands called More, being two miles in circumference; it is fruitful in corn and pasturage, the cows here are much fatter than any I saw in the Island of Lewis. There is a blue stone in the surface of the ground here, moist while it lies there, but when dry, it becomes very hard; it is capable of any impression, and I have seen a set of table-men made of this stone, prettily carved with different figures. There is a promontory in the north end of the Island of Lewis, called Eoropy Point, which is supposed to be the farthest to northwest of any part in Europe.
These islands are divided into two parishes, one called Barvas, and the other Ey or Y; both which are parsonages, and each of them having a minister. The names of the Churches in Lewis Isles, and the saints to whom they were dedicated, are St. Columkil, in the island of that name; St. Pharaer in Kaerness, St. Lennan in Sternvay, St. Collum in Ey, St. Cutchon in Garbost, St. Aula in Grease, St. Michael in Tollosta, St. Collum in Garien, St. Ronan in Eurobie, St. Thomas in Habost, St. Peter in Shanabost, St. Clemen in Dell, Holy-Cross Church in Galan, St. Brigit in Barove, St. Peter in Shiadir, St. Mary in Barvas, St. John Baptist in Bragar, St. Kiaran in Liani-Shadir, St. Michael in Kirvig, St. Macrel in Kirkibost, St. Dondan in Little Berneray, St. Michael in the same island, St. Peter in Pabbay Island, St. Christopher's Chapel in Uge, and Stornvay Church; all these Churches and Chapels were, before the Reformation, sanctuaries; and if a man had committed murder, he was then secure and safe when once within their precincts.
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