Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Hebrides - 1867

The below article from the Pall Mall Gazette of 15 July 1867 paints a reasonably dispassionate image of the Hebrides at the time. Particularly noteworthy is the reference to the disappearance of superstition under the influence of the minister, who (with other local worthies) appears to have taken over from the clan chiefs as heads of the community.

THE isolation of the Hebrides sufficiently accounts for the comparative ignorance of most Englishmen in regard to them, as well as for the peculiar character and habits of the people. Skye, indeed, may be easily reached, but the traveller who seeks to penetrate its recesses or to explore the outer islands must prepare to encounter a formidable array of discomforts, hardships, and even perils. Mr. Alexander Nicolson, who has just written a very able and interesting report on this part of the kingdom for the Scottish Education Commissioners, gives us some idea of the difficulties of travelling. In going from Eigg to Coll, a voyage of some thirty-five miles, he was twelve hours at sea, landing at 4 A.M. in a storm of wind and rain, after beating about for some hours in a dark night off that rocky shore. From Tiree to Barray the only means of transit was in an open smack, across so wide and turbulent a bit of the Atlantic that the journey, which began at noon, termiuated about seven in the evening, after which there was a walk of four or five miles in darkness and rain, to the hospitable refuge of the manse. Again, the passage of the ferry from Barray to South Uist, which with a fair wind may be crossed in less than an hour, took five hours against wind and tide, in a boat of rather frail construction, with sails to match. When you quit one island for another it is hard to say how long it may be before you are able to return or to pursue your journey in any other direction; and there is a story of the minister of Harris being kept a prisoner for seven weeks by the winds and waves in an outlying part of his parish, whither he had gone to conduct some services. Under these circumstances it is scarcely surprising that the Hebrides should be so little visited. Of the host of tourists who annually resort to the Scotch Highlands, few are courageous enough to surrender themselves to the coarse fare and rude travelling of the Western Islands. The scenery is, no doubt, very grand, but a certain sense of comfort and security is essential to a proper appreciation of the picturesque. The tourist who is kept half his time tossing in an open smack at sea, and the other half jolting over terrible roads in a primitive car without springs, and who is constantly haunted by doubts as to where he will get his next meal, or lay his weary head and aching bones at night, may be excused if he misses some of the natural beauties of the country he is traversing. The total number of inhabited islands (including every rock with a lighthouse) on the west of Scotland outside the Firth of Clyde, is reckoned at 106, with a population of 80,587. Here the Gael is to be found in perhaps his purest and most unsophisticated form. The actual condition of the islanders differs equally from the conceptions of the sanitary economist who insists upon the necessary association of dirt and squalor with moral and mental degradation, and the fancies of romantic people who have exalted notions of the virtue of simple habits of life. In Harris, Sir J. Matheson has exerted himself to introduce a better class of dwellings; but the descriptions of the Old Statistical Account of seventy years ago still hold good as to the general character of the houses. The walls are built of stone, mixed with turf; Windows are a rare comfort, and chimneys are unknown. Through a porch, like a small cave in a hill-side, you stumble, eyes smarting with the pungent peat smoke, into the dark interior, with its family circle clustering round the fire in the centre of the floor, and the cows tranquilly ruminating in the further end. Furniture there is next to none. A board for a table, a bench, and perhaps a cutty stool or two, supply the modest requirements of the inmates. In one house the gude wife apologized to Mr. Nicolson for the absence of “the chair ;” it had been lent to a neighbour to do honour to a call from the minister, and was being passed on from house to house for the same purpose. The first impression produced on a stranger by the sight of one of these wretched hovels is that of wonder and pain; but Mr. Nicholson is with those who insist that there cannot be a greater error than to jump to the conclusion that life in a dirty and smoky hut must necessarily be a state of misery and degradation, if not of sin. The Registrar-General’s returns answer the conjecture of the sanitaryreforrner that chronic dirt, with spare diet and scanty clothing, must produce excessive sickness and mortality. The counteracting agencies of fresh bracing air, abundant water of good quality, and sufficient exercise, must be taken into account. Doctors in the Hebrides are as rare as windows and chairs; in the whole of Lewis there are only two medical men, both in Stornoway ; and this is no exception to the general rule in the other islands. The annual death rate is only 157 per 10,000; and the standard of longevity is unusually high. Nor do we find that the sorry circumstances of their domestic life deteriorate the moral qualities of the islanders. They are certainly averse from steady and sustained labour; but the climate is against continuous out-door work, and in many, indeed in most, parts any regular employment, apart from fishing, is not to be had, except bya very limited number of people. There is not much encouragement for steady agriculture with such a soil and atmosphere, where a fine spring and summer may give promise of luxuriant crops, which the autumn rains all but destroy, and where the rains wash away much of the very substance of the soil. There are some slate quarries and kelp factories, and along the coast there is every now and again a little wrecking to be done. Fishing, however, is the chief support of the Hebrideans, and nowhere are more expert or bolder boatmen to be met with than the fishermen of Lewis. Even in a high wind they venture out in open boats far beyond sight of land, and their daring is often rewarded by large takes of cod and ling. There is a certain stately courtesy peculiar to the Gael which is by no means rare in the Hebrideans. Sir ]ohn McNeill, who visited them in 1851 during the famine, owns that, though all he had to state was calculated to disappoint their expectations, he did not observe a tone, a look, a gesture, that expressed resentment or even irritation. "They frequently argued freely, sometimes with considerable ability and subtlety, never with rudeness, and often with a politeness and delicacy of deportment that would have been graceful in any society, and such as perhaps no men of their class in any other country I am acquainted with could have maintained in similar circumstances.” At the same time this politeness is apt, to pass into servility, and to be accompanied by an unfortunate disregard of truth. Mr. Nicolson tries to explain away their deference to superiors as a respect for authority—“ As the chief was of old, so now the minister, the laird, the sheriff, is to them, if he deserves 1t, an authority undoubtedly recognized and faithfully obeyed.” They are sometimes rather extortionate in their demands when they get hold of a helpless stranger; sheep now
and then disappear mysteriously from the fields, and_vegetables are dug up —not by their owners— after nightfall ; but Mr. Nicolson, on the other hand, has testimony to offer on behalf of the general honesty of the people,

I lost some money on the high road, near the village of Portree in Skye, which I never expected to see again; but before many hours it was restored to my possession by the finder; a poor little girl. I had been told of a cask of whisky driven ashore in Islay from a wreck being carefully returned to the distillery of which it bore the brand. I have even heard of an umbrealla found and restored in that island to its owner, an instance of scrupulosity almost unparalleled in modern society.

Mr. Nicolson allows that want of enterprise, self-reliance, and perseverance against difficulties is the great defect of their character, attributing it, as well as greed, cunning, and flattery, to tne miserably dependent condition which has so long been the lot of the population. Although usquebaugh is- almost a necessary corrective to the cold and moisture of the climate, the Hebrideans are, as a body, a sober people. The sight of a. drunken man, save at fairs or great occasions, is exceedingly rare ; and “ a drunken woman would be looked on as a monster.” The percentage of illegitimate births in the Registrar-General’s returns is very low as compared with the rest of Scotland.

Although the condition of the Hebrideans is by no means so wretched as might at first sight be supposed, it calls urgently for amelioration, if only to save them from the recurring famines which desolate the region. The only permanent remedy is to be sought in emigration, but at present the islanders aré, in a great degree, debarred from this by their ignorance of English. Education in the English language is therefore one of the great wants of this part of the kingdom, although the inhabitants themselves still cling fondly to their own old tongue, notwithstanding the disadvantage at which it places them, and lool: with little fayour on the invading dialect The exclusive use of Gaelic has a depressing effect on the mind of the people, for it cuts them off from modern literature ; and, on the other hand, they are ashamed of the old legendary lore, which “ the minister ” denounces as superstition. The fairies have vanished. Neither the water-kelpie nor the brownie has been seen by any one now living. Nor has the faculty of second sight survived in this sceptical generation. But dead lights are not quite gone out, though seldom mentioned; and the art of depriving cattle of their milk and cream of its capacity to make butter is in a good many places still understood to be cultivated by malevolent old women. The evil eye also, Mr. Nicolson says, is believed in to a greater extent than might be supposed, and even by people above the common both in position and intelligence. The pity is that with the superstitions, the extinction of which nobody need deplore, the oral literature of song and story is passing into oblivion.

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