The island of Benbecula lies directly to the south of North-Uist, from which it is two miles distant; the ground being all plain and sandy between them, having two little rivers or channels no higher than one's knee at a tide of ebb: this passage is overflowed by the sea at every tide of flood, nor is it navigable except by boats. There are several small islands on the east side of this channel. This island is three miles in length from south to north, and three from east to west, and ten miles in compass. The east side is covered with heath; it hath a bay called Uiskway, in which small vessels do sometimes harbour, and now and then herrings are taken in it.
The mountain Benbecula, from which the isle hath its name, lies in the middle of it; the eastern part of this island is all arable, but the soil sandy, the mould is the same with that of North-Uist, and affords the same corn, fish, cattle, amphibia &c. There is no venomous creature here. It hath several freshwater lakes well stocked with fish and fowl. There are some ruins of old forts to be seen in the small islands, in the lakes, and on the plain.
There are also some small chapels here, one of them at Bael-nin-Killach, id est. Nun's-town, for there were nunneries here in time of popery. The natives have lately discovered a stone vault on the east side of the town, in which there are abundance of small bones, which have occasioned many uncertain conjectures; some said they were the bones of birds, others judged them rather to be the bones of pigmies. The proprietor of the town, enquiring Sir Norman Macleod's opinion concerning them, he told him that the matter was plain, as he supposed, and that they must be the bones of infants born by the nuns there. This was very disagreeable to the Roman Catholic inhabitants, who laughed it over. But in the meantime the natives out of zeal took care to shut up the vault that no access can be had to it since; so that it would seem they believe what Sir Norman said, or else feared that it might gain credit by such as afterwards had occasion to see them. This island belongs properly to Ranald Macdonald of Benbecula, who, with all the inhabitants, are Roman Catholics; and I remember I have seen an old lay Capuchin here, called in the language Brahir-brocht, that is, poor brother, which is literally true, for he answers this character, having nothing but what is given him. He holds himself fully satisfied with food and raiment, and lives in as great simplicity as any of his order; his diet is very mean, and he drinks only fair water; his habit is no less mortifying than that of his brethren elsewhere; he wears a short coat, which comes no further than his middle, with narrow sleeves like a waistcoat; he wears a plaid above it girt about the middle, which reaches to his knee; the plaid is fastened on his breast with a wooden pin, his neck bare, and his feet often so too; he wears a hat for ornament, and the string about it is a bit of fisher's line made of horse hair. This plaid he wears instead of a gown worn by those of his order in other countries. I told him he wanted the flaxen girdle that men of his order usually wear. He answered me that he wore a leather one, which was the same thing. Upon the matter if he is spoken to when at meat, he answers again: which is contrary to the custom of his order. This poor man frequently diverts himself with angling of trouts. He lies upon straw; and had no bell (as others have) to call him to his devotion, but only his conscience, as he told me.
The speckled salmons, described in North-Uist, are very plentiful on the west side of this island.
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 Erisca, about a mile in length, and three in circumference, is partly heathy and partly arable, and yields a good produce. The inner side hath a wide anchorage, there is excellent cod and ling in it; the natives begin to manage it better, but not to that advantage it is capable of. The small island near it was overgrown with heath, and about three years ago the ground threw up all that heath from the very root, so that there is not now one shrub of it in all this island. Such as have occasion to travel by land between South-Uist and Benbecula, or Benbecula and North-Uist, had need of a guide to direct them, and to observe the tide when low, and also for crossing the channel at the right fords, else they cannot pass without danger.
There are some houses under-ground in this island, and they are in all points like those described in North-Uist; one of them is in the South Ferry-Town, opposite to Barray. The cattle produced here are like those of North-Uist, and there are above three hundred deer in this island: it was believed generally that no venomous creature was here, yet of late some little vipers have been seen in the south end of the island.
The natives speak the Irish tongue more perfectly here than in most of the other islands; partly because of the remoteness and the small number of those that speak English, and partly because some of them are scholars, and versed in the Irish language. They wear the same habit with the neighbouring islanders.
The more ancient people continue to wear the old dress, especially women. They are a hospitable, well-meaning people, but the misfortune of their education disposes them to uncharitableness, and rigid thoughts of their Protestant neighbours; though at the same time they find it convenient to make alliances with them. The churches here are St. Columba and St. Mary's in Hogh-more, the most centrical place in the island; St. Jeremy's chapels, St. Peter's, St. Bannan, St. Michael, St. Donnan.
There is a stone set up near a mile to the south of Columba's Church, about 8 feet high, and 2 feet broad: it is called by the natives the Bowing stone; for when the inhabitants had the first sight of the Church, they set up this stone, and there bowed and said the Lord's prayer. There was a buckle of gold found in Einort ground some twenty years ago, which was about the value of seven guineas.
As I came from South-Uist, I perceived about sixty horsemen riding along the sands, directing their course for the east sea; and being between me and the sun, they made a great figure on the plain sands. We discovered them to be natives of South-Uist, for they alighted from their horses and went to gather cockles in the sands, which are exceeding plentiful there. This island is the property of Allan Macdonald of Moydart, head of the tribe of Macdonald, called Clanronald's; one of the chief families descended of Macdonald, who was lord and king of the islands. He and all the inhabitants are Papists, except sixty, who are Protestants. The Papists observe all the festivals of their Church, they have a general cavalcade on All-Saints Day, and then they bake St. Michael's cake at night, and the family and strangers eat it at supper.
Fergus Beaton hath the following ancient Irish manuscripts in the Irish character; to wit, Avicenna, Averroes, Joannes de Vigo, Bernardus Gordonus, and several volumes of Hippocrates.
The island of Barray lies about two leagues and a half to the south-west of the island South-Uist; it is five miles in length and three in breadth, being in all respects like the islands lying directly north from it. The east side is rocky, and the west arable ground, and yields a good produce of the same grain that both Uists do; they use likewise the same way for enriching their land with sea-ware. There is plenty of cod and ling got on the east and south sides of this island. Several small ships from Orkney come hither in summer, and afterward return laden with cod and ling.
There is a safe harbour on the north-east side of Barra, where there is great plenty of fish.
The rivers on the east side afford salmon, some of which are speckled like these mentioned in North-Uist, but they are more successful here in catching them. The natives go with three several herring nets, and lay them cross-ways in the river where the salmon are most numerous, and betwixt them and the sea. These salmon at the sight or shadow of the people make towards the sea, and feeling the net from the surface to the ground, jump over the first, then the second, but being weakened, cannot get over the third net, and so are caught. They delight to leap above water and swim on the surface. One of the natives told me that he killed a salmon with a gun, as jumping above water.
They informed me also that many barrels of them might be taken in the river above mentioned, if there was any encouragement for curing and transporting them. There are several old forts to be seen here, in form like those in the other islands. In the south end of this island there is an orchard which produces trees, but few of them bear fruit, in regard of their nearness to the sea. All sorts of roots and plants grow plentifully in it. Some years ago tobacco did grow here, being of all plants the most grateful to the natives, for the islanders love it mightily.
The little island Kismul lies about a quarter of a mile from the south of this isle. It is the seat of Macneil of Barra; there is a stone wall round it two stories high, reaching the sea, and within the wall there is an old tower and a hall, with other houses about it. There is a little magazine in the tower, to which no stranger has access. I saw the officer called the Cockman, and an old cock he is; when I bid him ferry me over the water to the island, he told me that he was but an inferior officer, his business being to attend in the tower; but if (says he) the constable, who then stood on the wall, will give you access, I'll ferry you over. I desired him to procure me the constable's permission, and I would reward him; but having waited some hours for the constable's answer, and not receiving any, I was obliged to return without seeing this famous fort. Macneil and his lady being absent was the cause of this difficulty, and of my not seeing the place. I was told some weeks after that the constable was very apprehensive of some design I might have in viewing the fort, and thereby to expose it to the conquest of a foreign power, of which I supposed there was no great cause of fear. The natives told me there is a well in the village Tangstill, the water of which being boiled grows thick like puddle. There is another well not far from Tangstill, which the inhabitants say in a fertile year throws up many grains of barley in July and August. And they say that the Well of Kilbarr throws up embryoes of cockles, but I could not discern any in the rivulet, the air being at that time foggy.
The church in this island is called Kilbarr, i.e., St. Barr's Church. There is a little chapel by it, in which Macneil and those descended of his family are usually interred. The natives have St. Barr's wooden image standing on the altar, covered with linen in form of a shirt; all their greatest asseverations are by this saint. I came very early in the morning with an intention to see this image, but was disappointed; for the natives prevented me by carrying it away, lest I might take occasion to ridicule their superstition, as some Protestants have done formerly; and when I was gone it was again exposed on the altar. They have several traditions concerning this great saint. There is a chapel (about half a mile on the south side of the hill near St. Barr's Church) where I had occasion to get an account of a tradition concerning this saint, which was thus: "The inhabitants having begun to build the church, which they dedicated to him, they laid this wooden image within it, but it was invisibly transported (as they say) to the place where the church now stands, and found there every morning." This miraculous conveyance is the reason they give for desisting to work where they first began. I told my informer that this extraordinary motive was sufficient to determine the case, if true, but asked his pardon to dissent from him, for I had not faith enough to believe this miracle, at which he was surprised, telling me in the meantime that this tradition hath been faithfully conveyed by the priests and natives successively to this day.
The southern islands are, (1) Muldonish, about a mile in circumference; it is high in the middle, covered over with heath and grass, and is the only forest here for maintaining the deer, being commonly about seventy or eighty in number. (2) The island Sandreray lies southerly of Barray, from which it is separated by a narrow channel, and is three miles in circumference, having a mountain in the middle. It is designed for pasturage and cultivation. On the south side there is a harbour convenient for small vessels, that come yealy here to fish for cod and ling, which abound on the coast of this island. (3) The island Sandreray, two miles in circumference, is fruitful in corn and grass, and separated by a narrow channel from Vattersay. (4) To the south of these lies the island Bernera, about two miles in circumference. It excels other islands of the same extent for cultivation and fishing. The natives never go a fishing while Macneil or his steward is in the island, lest seeing their plenty of fish, perhaps they might take occasion to raise their rents. There is an old fort in this island, having a vacuity round the walls, divided in little apartments. The natives endure a great fatigue in manuring their ground with sea-ware, which they carry in ropes upon their backs over high rocks. They likewise fasten a cow to a stake, and spread a quantity of sand on the ground, upon which the cow's dung falls, and this they mingle together, and lay it on the arable land. They take great numbers of seafowls from the adjacent rocks, and salt them with the ashes of burnt sea-ware in cows' hides, which preserves them from putrefaction.
There is a sort of stone in this island, with which the natives frequently rub their breasts by way of prevention, and say it is a good preservative for health. This is all the medicine they use. Providence is very favourable to them, in granting them a good state of health, since they have no physician among them.
The inhabitants are very hospitable, and have a custom, that when any strangers from the Northern Islands resort thither, the natives, immediately after their landing, oblige them to eat, even though they should have liberally eaten and drank but an hour before their landing there. And this meal they call Bieyta'v; i.e., ocean meat; for they presume that the sharp air of the ocean, which indeed surrounds them, must needs give them a good appetite. And whatever number of strangers come there, or of whatsoever quality or sex, they are regularly lodged according to ancient custom, that is, one only in a family; by which custom a man cannot lodge with his own wife, while in this island. Mr. John Campbell, the present minister of Harris, told me, that his father being then parson of Harris, and minister of Barray (for the natives at that time were Protestants) carried his wife along with him, and resided in this island for some time, and they disposed of him, his wife and servants in manner above-mentioned; and suppose Macneil of Barray and his lady should go thither, he would be obliged to comply with this ancient custom.
There is a large root grows among the rocks of this island lately discovered, the natives call it Curran-Petris, of a whitish colour, and upwards of two feet in length, where the ground is deep, and in shape and size like a large carrot; where the ground is not so deep it grows much thicker, but shorter: the top of it is like that of a carrot.
The rock, Linmull, about half a mile in circumference, is indifferently high, and almost inaccessible, except in one place, and that is by climbing, which is very difficult. This rock abounds with sea-fowls that build and hatch here in summer; such as the guillemot, coulterneb, puffin, etc. The chief climber is commonly called Gingich, and this name imports a big man having strength and courage proportionable. When they approach the rock with the boat, Mr. Gingich jumps out first upon a stone on the rock-side, and then, by the assistance of a rope of horse-hair, he draws his fellows out of the boat upon this high rock, and draws the rest up after him with the rope, till they all arrive at the top, where they purchase a considerable quantity of fowls and eggs. Upon their return to the boat, this Gingich runs a great hazard by jumping first into the boat again, where the violent sea continually rages; having but a few fowls more than his fellows, besides a greater esteem to compensate his courage. When a tenant's wife in this or the adjacent islands dies, he then addresses himself to Macneil of Barra representing his loss, and at the same time desires that he would be pleased to recommend a wife to him, without which he cannot manage his affairs, nor beget followers to Macneil, which would prove a public loss to him. Upon this representation, Macneil finds out a suitable match for him; and the woman's name being told him, immediately he goes to her, carrying with him a bottle of strong waters for their entertainment at marriage, which is then consummated.
When a tenant dies, the widow addresseth herself to Macneil in the same manner, who likewise provides her with a husband, and they are married without any further courtship. There is in this island an altar dedicated to St. Christopher, at which the natives perform their devotion. There is a stone set up here, about seven feet high, and when the inhabitants come near it they take a religious turn round it.
If a tenant chance to lose his milk-cows by the severity of the season, or any other misfortune; in this case Macneil of Barra supplies him with the like number that he lost.
When any case of these tenants are so far advanced in years that they are incapable to till the ground, Macneil takes such old men into his own family, and maintains them all their life after. The natives observe, that if six sheep are put a grazing in the little island Pabbay, five of them still appear fat, but the sixth a poor skeleton; but any number in this island not exceeding five are always fat. There is a little island not far from this called Micklay, of the same extent as Pabbay, and hath the same way of feeding sheep. These little islands afford excellent hawks.
The isles above-mentioned, lying near to the south of Barray, are commonly called the Bishop's Isles, because they are held of the Bishop. Some isles lie on the east and north of Barray, as Fiaray, Mellisay, Buya Major and Minor, Lingay, Fuda; they afford pasturage, and are commodious for fishing; and the latter being about two miles in circumference is fertile in corn and grass. There is a good anchoring place next to the isle on the north-east side.
The steward of the Lesser and Southern Islands is reckoned a great man here, in regard of the perquisites due to him; such as a particular share of all the lands, corn, butter, cheese, fish, etc., which these islands produce; the measure of barley paid him by each family yearly is an omen, as they call it, containing about two pecks.
There is an inferior officer, who also hath a right to a share of all the same products. Next to these come in course those of the lowest posts, such as the cockman and porter, each of whom hath his respective due, which is punctually paid.
Macneil of Barra and all his followers are Roman Catholics, one only excepted, viz., Murdock Macneil; and it may perhaps be thought no small virtue in him to adhere to the Protestant communion, considering the disadvantages he labours under by the want of his Chief's favour, which is much lessened, for being a heretic, as they call him. All the inhabitants observe the anniversary of St. Barr, being the 27th of September; it is performed riding on horseback, and the solemnity is concluded by three turns round St. Barr's church. This brings into my mind a story which was told me concerning a foreign priest and the entertainment he met with after his arrival there some years ago, as follows: - This priest happened to land here upon the very day, and at the particular hour of this solemnity, which was the more acceptable to the inhabitants, who then desired him to preach a commemoration sermon to the honour of their patron St. Barr, according to the ancient custom of the place. At this the priest was surprised, he never having heard of St. Barr before that day; and therefore knowing nothing of his virtues, could say nothing concerning him: but told them, that if a sermon to the honour of St. Paul or St. Peter could please them, they might have it instantly. This answer of his was so disagreeable to them, that they plainly told him he could be no true priest, if he had not heard of St. Barr, for the Pope himself had heard of him; but this would not persuade the priest, so that they parted much dissatisfied with one another. They have likewise a general cavalcade on St. Michael's Day, in Kilbar village, and do then also take a turn round their church. Every family, as soon as the solemnity is ended, is accustomed to bake St. Michael's cake, as above described; and all strangers, together with those of the family, must eat the bread that night.
This island, and the adjacent lesser islands, belong in property to Macneil, being the thirty-fourth of that name by lineal descent that has possessed this island, if the present genealogers may be credited. He holds his lands in vassalage of Sir Donald Macdonald of Sleat, to whom he pays £40 per annum and a hawk, if required, and is obliged to furnish him a certain number of men upon extraordinary occasions.
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