A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland
Part 1 out of 4
This etext was prepared by David Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org
from the 1775 edition with the corrections noted in the 1785 errata.
A JOURNEY TO THE WESTERN ISLANDS OF SCOTLAND
I had desired to visit the Hebrides, or Western Islands of
Scotland, so long, that I scarcely remember how the wish was
originally excited; and was in the Autumn of the year 1773 induced
to undertake the journey, by finding in Mr. Boswell a companion,
whose acuteness would help my inquiry, and whose gaiety of
conversation and civility of manners are sufficient to counteract
the inconveniences of travel, in countries less hospitable than we
On the eighteenth of August we left Edinburgh, a city too well
known to admit description, and directed our course northward,
along the eastern coast of Scotland, accompanied the first day by
another gentleman, who could stay with us only long enough to shew
us how much we lost at separation.
As we crossed the Frith of Forth, our curiosity was attracted by
Inch Keith, a small island, which neither of my companions had ever
visited, though, lying within their view, it had all their lives
solicited their notice. Here, by climbing with some difficulty
over shattered crags, we made the first experiment of unfrequented
coasts. Inch Keith is nothing more than a rock covered with a thin
layer of earth, not wholly bare of grass, and very fertile of
thistles. A small herd of cows grazes annually upon it in the
summer. It seems never to have afforded to man or beast a
We found only the ruins of a small fort, not so injured by time but
that it might be easily restored to its former state. It seems
never to have been intended as a place of strength, nor was built
to endure a siege, but merely to afford cover to a few soldiers,
who perhaps had the charge of a battery, or were stationed to give
signals of approaching danger. There is therefore no provision of
water within the walls, though the spring is so near, that it might
have been easily enclosed. One of the stones had this inscription:
'Maria Reg. 1564.' It has probably been neglected from the time
that the whole island had the same king.
We left this little island with our thoughts employed awhile on the
different appearance that it would have made, if it had been placed
at the same distance from London, with the same facility of
approach; with what emulation of price a few rocky acres would have
been purchased, and with what expensive industry they would have
been cultivated and adorned.
When we landed, we found our chaise ready, and passed through
Kinghorn, Kirkaldy, and Cowpar, places not unlike the small or
straggling market-towns in those parts of England where commerce
and manufactures have not yet produced opulence.
Though we were yet in the most populous part of Scotland, and at so
small a distance from the capital, we met few passengers.
The roads are neither rough nor dirty; and it affords a southern
stranger a new kind of pleasure to travel so commodiously without
the interruption of toll-gates. Where the bottom is rocky, as it
seems commonly to be in Scotland, a smooth way is made indeed with
great labour, but it never wants repairs; and in those parts where
adventitious materials are necessary, the ground once consolidated
is rarely broken; for the inland commerce is not great, nor are
heavy commodities often transported otherwise than by water. The
carriages in common use are small carts, drawn each by one little
horse; and a man seems to derive some degree of dignity and
importance from the reputation of possessing a two-horse cart.
At an hour somewhat late we came to St. Andrews, a city once
archiepiscopal; where that university still subsists in which
philosophy was formerly taught by Buchanan, whose name has as fair
a claim to immortality as can be conferred by modern latinity, and
perhaps a fairer than the instability of vernacular languages
We found, that by the interposition of some invisible friend,
lodgings had been provided for us at the house of one of the
professors, whose easy civility quickly made us forget that we were
strangers; and in the whole time of our stay we were gratified by
every mode of kindness, and entertained with all the elegance of
In the morning we rose to perambulate a city, which only history
shews to have once flourished, and surveyed the ruins of ancient
magnificence, of which even the ruins cannot long be visible,
unless some care be taken to preserve them; and where is the
pleasure of preserving such mournful memorials? They have been
till very lately so much neglected, that every man carried away the
stones who fancied that he wanted them.
The cathedral, of which the foundations may be still traced, and a
small part of the wall is standing, appears to have been a spacious
and majestick building, not unsuitable to the primacy of the
kingdom. Of the architecture, the poor remains can hardly exhibit,
even to an artist, a sufficient specimen. It was demolished, as is
well known, in the tumult and violence of Knox's reformation.
Not far from the cathedral, on the margin of the water, stands a
fragment of the castle, in which the archbishop anciently resided.
It was never very large, and was built with more attention to
security than pleasure. Cardinal Beatoun is said to have had
workmen employed in improving its fortifications at the time when
he was murdered by the ruffians of reformation, in the manner of
which Knox has given what he himself calls a merry narrative.
The change of religion in Scotland, eager and vehement as it was,
raised an epidemical enthusiasm, compounded of sullen
scrupulousness and warlike ferocity, which, in a people whom
idleness resigned to their own thoughts, and who, conversing only
with each other, suffered no dilution of their zeal from the
gradual influx of new opinions, was long transmitted in its full
strength from the old to the young, but by trade and intercourse
with England, is now visibly abating, and giving way too fast to
that laxity of practice and indifference of opinion, in which men,
not sufficiently instructed to find the middle point, too easily
shelter themselves from rigour and constraint.
The city of St. Andrews, when it had lost its archiepiscopal pre-
eminence, gradually decayed: One of its streets is now lost; and
in those that remain, there is silence and solitude of inactive
indigence and gloomy depopulation.
The university, within a few years, consisted of three colleges,
but is now reduced to two; the college of St. Leonard being lately
dissolved by the sale of its buildings and the appropriation of its
revenues to the professors of the two others. The chapel of the
alienated college is yet standing, a fabrick not inelegant of
external structure; but I was always, by some civil excuse, hindred
from entering it. A decent attempt, as I was since told, has been
made to convert it into a kind of green-house, by planting its area
with shrubs. This new method of gardening is unsuccessful; the
plants do not hitherto prosper. To what use it will next be put I
have no pleasure in conjecturing. It is something that its present
state is at least not ostentatiously displayed. Where there is yet
shame, there may in time be virtue.
The dissolution of St. Leonard's college was doubtless necessary;
but of that necessity there is reason to complain. It is surely
not without just reproach, that a nation, of which the commerce is
hourly extending, and the wealth encreasing, denies any
participation of its prosperity to its literary societies; and
while its merchants or its nobles are raising palaces, suffers its
universities to moulder into dust.
Of the two colleges yet standing, one is by the institution of its
founder appropriated to Divinity. It is said to be capable of
containing fifty students; but more than one must occupy a chamber.
The library, which is of late erection, is not very spacious, but
elegant and luminous.
The doctor, by whom it was shewn, hoped to irritate or subdue my
English vanity by telling me, that we had no such repository of
books in England.
Saint Andrews seems to be a place eminently adapted to study and
education, being situated in a populous, yet a cheap country, and
exposing the minds and manners of young men neither to the levity
and dissoluteness of a capital city, nor to the gross luxury of a
town of commerce, places naturally unpropitious to learning; in one
the desire of knowledge easily gives way to the love of pleasure,
and in the other, is in danger of yielding to the love of money.
The students however are represented as at this time not exceeding
a hundred. Perhaps it may be some obstruction to their increase
that there is no episcopal chapel in the place. I saw no reason
for imputing their paucity to the present professors; nor can the
expence of an academical education be very reasonably objected. A
student of the highest class may keep his annual session, or as the
English call it, his term, which lasts seven months, for about
fifteen pounds, and one of lower rank for less than ten; in which
board, lodging, and instruction are all included.
The chief magistrate resident in the university, answering to our
vice-chancellor, and to the rector magnificus on the continent, had
commonly the title of Lord Rector; but being addressed only as Mr.
Rector in an inauguratory speech by the present chancellor, he has
fallen from his former dignity of style. Lordship was very
liberally annexed by our ancestors to any station or character of
dignity: They said, the Lord General, and Lord Ambassador; so we
still say, my Lord, to the judge upon the circuit, and yet retain
in our Liturgy the Lords of the Council.
In walking among the ruins of religious buildings, we came to two
vaults over which had formerly stood the house of the sub-prior.
One of the vaults was inhabited by an old woman, who claimed the
right of abode there, as the widow of a man whose ancestors had
possessed the same gloomy mansion for no less than four
generations. The right, however it began, was considered as
established by legal prescription, and the old woman lives
undisturbed. She thinks however that she has a claim to something
more than sufferance; for as her husband's name was Bruce, she is
allied to royalty, and told Mr. Boswell that when there were
persons of quality in the place, she was distinguished by some
notice; that indeed she is now neglected, but she spins a thread,
has the company of her cat, and is troublesome to nobody.
Having now seen whatever this ancient city offered to our
curiosity, we left it with good wishes, having reason to be highly
pleased with the attention that was paid us. But whoever surveys
the world must see many things that give him pain. The kindness of
the professors did not contribute to abate the uneasy remembrance
of an university declining, a college alienated, and a church
profaned and hastening to the ground.
St. Andrews indeed has formerly suffered more atrocious ravages and
more extensive destruction, but recent evils affect with greater
force. We were reconciled to the sight of archiepiscopal ruins.
The distance of a calamity from the present time seems to preclude
the mind from contact or sympathy. Events long past are barely
known; they are not considered. We read with as little emotion the
violence of Knox and his followers, as the irruptions of Alaric and
the Goths. Had the university been destroyed two centuries ago, we
should not have regretted it; but to see it pining in decay and
struggling for life, fills the mind with mournful images and
As we knew sorrow and wishes to be vain, it was now our business to
mind our way. The roads of Scotland afford little diversion to the
traveller, who seldom sees himself either encountered or overtaken,
and who has nothing to contemplate but grounds that have no visible
boundaries, or are separated by walls of loose stone. From the
bank of the Tweed to St. Andrews I had never seen a single tree,
which I did not believe to have grown up far within the present
century. Now and then about a gentleman's house stands a small
plantation, which in Scotch is called a policy, but of these there
are few, and those few all very young. The variety of sun and
shade is here utterly unknown. There is no tree for either shelter
or timber. The oak and the thorn is equally a stranger, and the
whole country is extended in uniform nakedness, except that in the
road between Kirkaldy and Cowpar, I passed for a few yards between
two hedges. A tree might be a show in Scotland as a horse in
Venice. At St. Andrews Mr. Boswell found only one, and recommended
it to my notice; I told him that it was rough and low, or looked as
if I thought so. This, said he, is nothing to another a few miles
off. I was still less delighted to hear that another tree was not
to be seen nearer. Nay, said a gentleman that stood by, I know but
of this and that tree in the county.
The Lowlands of Scotland had once undoubtedly an equal portion of
woods with other countries. Forests are every where gradually
diminished, as architecture and cultivation prevail by the increase
of people and the introduction of arts. But I believe few regions
have been denuded like this, where many centuries must have passed
in waste without the least thought of future supply. Davies
observes in his account of Ireland, that no Irishman had ever
planted an orchard. For that negligence some excuse might be drawn
from an unsettled state of life, and the instability of property;
but in Scotland possession has long been secure, and inheritance
regular, yet it may be doubted whether before the Union any man
between Edinburgh and England had ever set a tree.
Of this improvidence no other account can be given than that it
probably began in times of tumult, and continued because it had
begun. Established custom is not easily broken, till some great
event shakes the whole system of things, and life seems to
recommence upon new principles. That before the Union the Scots
had little trade and little money, is no valid apology; for
plantation is the least expensive of all methods of improvement.
To drop a seed into the ground can cost nothing, and the trouble is
not great of protecting the young plant, till it is out of danger;
though it must be allowed to have some difficulty in places like
these, where they have neither wood for palisades, nor thorns for
Our way was over the Firth of Tay, where, though the water was not
wide, we paid four shillings for ferrying the chaise. In Scotland
the necessaries of life are easily procured, but superfluities and
elegancies are of the same price at least as in England, and
therefore may be considered as much dearer.
We stopped a while at Dundee, where I remember nothing remarkable,
and mounting our chaise again, came about the close of the day to
The monastery of Aberbrothick is of great renown in the history of
Scotland. Its ruins afford ample testimony of its ancient
magnificence: Its extent might, I suppose, easily be found by
following the walls among the grass and weeds, and its height is
known by some parts yet standing. The arch of one of the gates is
entire, and of another only so far dilapidated as to diversify the
appearance. A square apartment of great loftiness is yet standing;
its use I could not conjecture, as its elevation was very
disproportionate to its area. Two corner towers, particularly
attracted our attention. Mr. Boswell, whose inquisitiveness is
seconded by great activity, scrambled in at a high window, but
found the stairs within broken, and could not reach the top. Of
the other tower we were told that the inhabitants sometimes climbed
it, but we did not immediately discern the entrance, and as the
night was gathering upon us, thought proper to desist. Men skilled
in architecture might do what we did not attempt: They might
probably form an exact ground-plot of this venerable edifice. They
may from some parts yet standing conjecture its general form, and
perhaps by comparing it with other buildings of the same kind and
the same age, attain an idea very near to truth. I should scarcely
have regretted my journey, had it afforded nothing more than the
sight of Aberbrothick.
Leaving these fragments of magnificence, we travelled on to
Montrose, which we surveyed in the morning, and found it well
built, airy, and clean. The townhouse is a handsome fabrick with a
portico. We then went to view the English chapel, and found a
small church, clean to a degree unknown in any other part of
Scotland, with commodious galleries, and what was yet less
expected, with an organ.
At our inn we did not find a reception such as we thought
proportionate to the commercial opulence of the place; but Mr.
Boswell desired me to observe that the innkeeper was an Englishman,
and I then defended him as well as I could.
When I had proceeded thus far, I had opportunities of observing
what I had never heard, that there are many beggars in Scotland.
In Edinburgh the proportion is, I think, not less than in London,
and in the smaller places it is far greater than in English towns
of the same extent. It must, however, be allowed that they are not
importunate, nor clamorous. They solicit silently, or very
modestly, and therefore though their behaviour may strike with more
force the heart of a stranger, they are certainly in danger of
missing the attention of their countrymen. Novelty has always some
power, an unaccustomed mode of begging excites an unaccustomed
degree of pity. But the force of novelty is by its own nature soon
at an end; the efficacy of outcry and perseverance is permanent and
The road from Montrose exhibited a continuation of the same
appearances. The country is still naked, the hedges are of stone,
and the fields so generally plowed that it is hard to imagine where
grass is found for the horses that till them. The harvest, which
was almost ripe, appeared very plentiful.
Early in the afternoon Mr. Boswell observed that we were at no
great distance from the house of lord Monboddo. The magnetism of
his conversation easily drew us out of our way, and the
entertainment which we received would have been a sufficient
recompense for a much greater deviation.
The roads beyond Edinburgh, as they are less frequented, must be
expected to grow gradually rougher; but they were hitherto by no
means incommodious. We travelled on with the gentle pace of a
Scotch driver, who having no rivals in expedition, neither gives
himself nor his horses unnecessary trouble. We did not affect the
impatience we did not feel, but were satisfied with the company of
each other as well riding in the chaise, as sitting at an inn. The
night and the day are equally solitary and equally safe; for where
there are so few travellers, why should there be robbers.
We came somewhat late to Aberdeen, and found the inn so full, that
we had some difficulty in obtaining admission, till Mr. Boswell
made himself known: His name overpowered all objection, and we
found a very good house and civil treatment.
I received the next day a very kind letter from Sir Alexander
Gordon, whom I had formerly known in London, and after a cessation
of all intercourse for near twenty years met here professor of
physic in the King's College. Such unexpected renewals of
acquaintance may be numbered among the most pleasing incidents of
The knowledge of one professor soon procured me the notice of the
rest, and I did not want any token of regard, being conducted
wherever there was any thing which I desired to see, and
entertained at once with the novelty of the place, and the kindness
To write of the cities of our own island with the solemnity of
geographical description, as if we had been cast upon a newly
discovered coast, has the appearance of very frivolous ostentation;
yet as Scotland is little known to the greater part of those who
may read these observations, it is not superfluous to relate, that
under the name of Aberdeen are comprised two towns standing about a
mile distant from each other, but governed, I think, by the same
Old Aberdeen is the ancient episcopal city, in which are still to
be seen the remains of the cathedral. It has the appearance of a
town in decay, having been situated in times when commerce was yet
unstudied, with very little attention to the commodities of the
New Aberdeen has all the bustle of prosperous trade, and all the
shew of increasing opulence. It is built by the water-side. The
houses are large and lofty, and the streets spacious and clean.
They build almost wholly with the granite used in the new pavement
of the streets of London, which is well known not to want hardness,
yet they shape it easily. It is beautiful and must be very
What particular parts of commerce are chiefly exercised by the
merchants of Aberdeen, I have not inquired. The manufacture which
forces itself upon a stranger's eye is that of knit-stockings, on
which the women of the lower class are visibly employed.
In each of these towns there is a college, or in stricter language,
an university; for in both there are professors of the same parts
of learning, and the colleges hold their sessions and confer
degrees separately, with total independence of one on the other.
In old Aberdeen stands the King's College, of which the first
president was Hector Boece, or Boethius, who may be justly
reverenced as one of the revivers of elegant learning. When he
studied at Paris, he was acquainted with Erasmus, who afterwards
gave him a public testimony of his esteem, by inscribing to him a
catalogue of his works. The stile of Boethius, though, perhaps,
not always rigorously pure, is formed with great diligence upon
ancient models, and wholly uninfected with monastic barbarity. His
history is written with elegance and vigour, but his fabulousness
and credulity are justly blamed. His fabulousness, if he was the
author of the fictions, is a fault for which no apology can be
made; but his credulity may be excused in an age, when all men were
credulous. Learning was then rising on the world; but ages so long
accustomed to darkness, were too much dazzled with its light to see
any thing distinctly. The first race of scholars, in the fifteenth
century, and some time after, were, for the most part, learning to
speak, rather than to think, and were therefore more studious of
elegance than of truth. The contemporaries of Boethius thought it
sufficient to know what the ancients had delivered. The
examination of tenets and of facts was reserved for another
Boethius, as president of the university, enjoyed a revenue of
forty Scottish marks, about two pounds four shillings and sixpence
of sterling money. In the present age of trade and taxes, it is
difficult even for the imagination so to raise the value of money,
or so to diminish the demands of life, as to suppose four and forty
shillings a year, an honourable stipend; yet it was probably equal,
not only to the needs, but to the rank of Boethius. The wealth of
England was undoubtedly to that of Scotland more than five to one,
and it is known that Henry the eighth, among whose faults avarice
was never reckoned, granted to Roger Ascham, as a reward of his
learning, a pension of ten pounds a year.
The other, called the Marischal College, is in the new town. The
hall is large and well lighted. One of its ornaments is the
picture of Arthur Johnston, who was principal of the college, and
who holds among the Latin poets of Scotland the next place to the
In the library I was shewn some curiosities; a Hebrew manuscript of
exquisite penmanship, and a Latin translation of Aristotle's
Politicks by Leonardus Aretinus, written in the Roman character
with nicety and beauty, which, as the art of printing has made them
no longer necessary, are not now to be found. This was one of the
latest performances of the transcribers, for Aretinus died but
about twenty years before typography was invented. This version
has been printed, and may be found in libraries, but is little
read; for the same books have been since translated both by
Victorius and Lambinus, who lived in an age more cultivated, but
perhaps owed in part to Aretinus that they were able to excel him.
Much is due to those who first broke the way to knowledge, and left
only to their successors the task of smoothing it.
In both these colleges the methods of instruction are nearly the
same; the lectures differing only by the accidental difference of
diligence, or ability in the professors. The students wear scarlet
gowns and the professors black, which is, I believe, the academical
dress in all the Scottish universities, except that of Edinburgh,
where the scholars are not distinguished by any particular habit.
In the King's College there is kept a public table, but the
scholars of the Marischal College are boarded in the town. The
expence of living is here, according to the information that I
could obtain, somewhat more than at St. Andrews.
The course of education is extended to four years, at the end of
which those who take a degree, who are not many, become masters of
arts, and whoever is a master may, if he pleases, immediately
commence doctor. The title of doctor, however, was for a
considerable time bestowed only on physicians. The advocates are
examined and approved by their own body; the ministers were not
ambitious of titles, or were afraid of being censured for ambition;
and the doctorate in every faculty was commonly given or sold into
other countries. The ministers are now reconciled to distinction,
and as it must always happen that some will excel others, have
thought graduation a proper testimony of uncommon abilities or
The indiscriminate collation of degrees has justly taken away that
respect which they originally claimed as stamps, by which the
literary value of men so distinguished was authoritatively denoted.
That academical honours, or any others should be conferred with
exact proportion to merit, is more than human judgment or human
integrity have given reason to expect. Perhaps degrees in
universities cannot be better adjusted by any general rule than by
the length of time passed in the public profession of learning. An
English or Irish doctorate cannot be obtained by a very young man,
and it is reasonable to suppose, what is likewise by experience
commonly found true, that he who is by age qualified to be a
doctor, has in so much time gained learning sufficient not to
disgrace the title, or wit sufficient not to desire it.
The Scotch universities hold but one term or session in the year.
That of St. Andrews continues eight months, that of Aberdeen only
five, from the first of November to the first of April.
In Aberdeen there is an English Chapel, in which the congregation
was numerous and splendid. The form of public worship used by the
church of England is in Scotland legally practised in licensed
chapels served by clergymen of English or Irish ordination, and by
tacit connivance quietly permitted in separate congregations
supplied with ministers by the successors of the bishops who were
deprived at the Revolution.
We came to Aberdeen on Saturday August 21. On Monday we were
invited into the town-hall, where I had the freedom of the city
given me by the Lord Provost. The honour conferred had all the
decorations that politeness could add, and what I am afraid I
should not have had to say of any city south of the Tweed, I found
no petty officer bowing for a fee.
The parchment containing the record of admission is, with the seal
appending, fastened to a riband and worn for one day by the new
citizen in his hat.
By a lady who saw us at the chapel, the Earl of Errol was informed
of our arrival, and we had the honour of an invitation to his seat,
called Slanes Castle, as I am told, improperly, from the castle of
that name, which once stood at a place not far distant.
The road beyond Aberdeen grew more stony, and continued equally
naked of all vegetable decoration. We travelled over a tract of
ground near the sea, which, not long ago, suffered a very uncommon,
and unexpected calamity. The sand of the shore was raised by a
tempest in such quantities, and carried to such a distance, that an
estate was overwhelmed and lost. Such and so hopeless was the
barrenness superinduced, that the owner, when he was required to
pay the usual tax, desired rather to resign the ground.
SLANES CASTLE, THE BULLER OF BUCHAN
We came in the afternoon to Slanes Castle, built upon the margin of
the sea, so that the walls of one of the towers seem only a
continuation of a perpendicular rock, the foot of which is beaten
by the waves. To walk round the house seemed impracticable. From
the windows the eye wanders over the sea that separates Scotland
from Norway, and when the winds beat with violence must enjoy all
the terrifick grandeur of the tempestuous ocean. I would not for
my amusement wish for a storm; but as storms, whether wished or
not, will sometimes happen, I may say, without violation of
humanity, that I should willingly look out upon them from Slanes
When we were about to take our leave, our departure was prohibited
by the countess till we should have seen two places upon the coast,
which she rightly considered as worthy of curiosity, Dun Buy, and
the Buller of Buchan, to which Mr. Boyd very kindly conducted us.
Dun Buy, which in Erse is said to signify the Yellow Rock, is a
double protuberance of stone, open to the main sea on one side, and
parted from the land by a very narrow channel on the other. It has
its name and its colour from the dung of innumerable sea-fowls,
which in the Spring chuse this place as convenient for incubation,
and have their eggs and their young taken in great abundance. One
of the birds that frequent this rock has, as we were told, its body
not larger than a duck's, and yet lays eggs as large as those of a
goose. This bird is by the inhabitants named a Coot. That which
is called Coot in England, is here a Cooter.
Upon these rocks there was nothing that could long detain
attention, and we soon turned our eyes to the Buller, or Bouilloir
of Buchan, which no man can see with indifference, who has either
sense of danger or delight in rarity. It is a rock perpendicularly
tubulated, united on one side with a high shore, and on the other
rising steep to a great height, above the main sea. The top is
open, from which may be seen a dark gulf of water which flows into
the cavity, through a breach made in the lower part of the
inclosing rock. It has the appearance of a vast well bordered with
a wall. The edge of the Buller is not wide, and to those that walk
round, appears very narrow. He that ventures to look downward
sees, that if his foot should slip, he must fall from his dreadful
elevation upon stones on one side, or into water on the other. We
however went round, and were glad when the circuit was completed.
When we came down to the sea, we saw some boats, and rowers, and
resolved to explore the Buller at the bottom. We entered the arch,
which the water had made, and found ourselves in a place, which,
though we could not think ourselves in danger, we could scarcely
survey without some recoil of the mind. The bason in which we
floated was nearly circular, perhaps thirty yards in diameter. We
were inclosed by a natural wall, rising steep on every side to a
height which produced the idea of insurmountable confinement. The
interception of all lateral light caused a dismal gloom. Round us
was a perpendicular rock, above us the distant sky, and below an
unknown profundity of water. If I had any malice against a walking
spirit, instead of laying him in the Red-sea, I would condemn him
to reside in the Buller of Buchan.
But terrour without danger is only one of the sports of fancy, a
voluntary agitation of the mind that is permitted no longer than it
pleases. We were soon at leisure to examine the place with minute
inspection, and found many cavities which, as the waterman told us,
went backward to a depth which they had never explored. Their
extent we had not time to try; they are said to serve different
purposes. Ladies come hither sometimes in the summer with
collations, and smugglers make them storehouses for clandestine
merchandise. It is hardly to be doubted but the pirates of ancient
times often used them as magazines of arms, or repositories of
To the little vessels used by the northern rovers, the Buller may
have served as a shelter from storms, and perhaps as a retreat from
enemies; the entrance might have been stopped, or guarded with
little difficulty, and though the vessels that were stationed
within would have been battered with stones showered on them from
above, yet the crews would have lain safe in the caverns.
Next morning we continued our journey, pleased with our reception
at Slanes Castle, of which we had now leisure to recount the
grandeur and the elegance; for our way afforded us few topics of
conversation. The ground was neither uncultivated nor unfruitful;
but it was still all arable. Of flocks or herds there was no
appearance. I had now travelled two hundred miles in Scotland, and
seen only one tree not younger than myself.
We dined this day at the house of Mr. Frazer of Streichton, who
shewed us in his grounds some stones yet standing of a druidical
circle, and what I began to think more worthy of notice, some
forest trees of full growth.
At night we came to Bamff, where I remember nothing that
particularly claimed my attention. The ancient towns of Scotland
have generally an appearance unusual to Englishmen. The houses,
whether great or small, are for the most part built of stones.
Their ends are now and then next the streets, and the entrance into
them is very often by a flight of steps, which reaches up to the
second story, the floor which is level with the ground being
entered only by stairs descending within the house.
The art of joining squares of glass with lead is little used in
Scotland, and in some places is totally forgotten. The frames of
their windows are all of wood. They are more frugal of their glass
than the English, and will often, in houses not otherwise mean,
compose a square of two pieces, not joining like cracked glass, but
with one edge laid perhaps half an inch over the other. Their
windows do not move upon hinges, but are pushed up and drawn down
in grooves, yet they are seldom accommodated with weights and
pullies. He that would have his window open must hold it with his
hand, unless what may be sometimes found among good contrivers,
there be a nail which he may stick into a hole, to keep it from
What cannot be done without some uncommon trouble or particular
expedient, will not often be done at all. The incommodiousness of
the Scotch windows keeps them very closely shut. The necessity of
ventilating human habitations has not yet been found by our
northern neighbours; and even in houses well built and elegantly
furnished, a stranger may be sometimes forgiven, if he allows
himself to wish for fresher air.
These diminutive observations seem to take away something from the
dignity of writing, and therefore are never communicated but with
hesitation, and a little fear of abasement and contempt. But it
must be remembered, that life consists not of a series of
illustrious actions, or elegant enjoyments; the greater part of our
time passes in compliance with necessities, in the performance of
daily duties, in the removal of small inconveniences, in the
procurement of petty pleasures; and we are well or ill at ease, as
the main stream of life glides on smoothly, or is ruffled by small
obstacles and frequent interruption. The true state of every
nation is the state of common life. The manners of a people are
not to be found in the schools of learning, or the palaces of
greatness, where the national character is obscured or obliterated
by travel or instruction, by philosophy or vanity; nor is public
happiness to be estimated by the assemblies of the gay, or the
banquets of the rich. The great mass of nations is neither rich
nor gay: they whose aggregate constitutes the people, are found in
the streets, and the villages, in the shops and farms; and from
them collectively considered, must the measure of general
prosperity be taken. As they approach to delicacy a nation is
refined, as their conveniences are multiplied, a nation, at least a
commercial nation, must be denominated wealthy.
Finding nothing to detain us at Bamff, we set out in the morning,
and having breakfasted at Cullen, about noon came to Elgin, where
in the inn, that we supposed the best, a dinner was set before us,
which we could not eat. This was the first time, and except one,
the last, that I found any reason to complain of a Scotish table;
and such disappointments, I suppose, must be expected in every
country, where there is no great frequency of travellers.
The ruins of the cathedral of Elgin afforded us another proof of
the waste of reformation. There is enough yet remaining to shew,
that it was once magnificent. Its whole plot is easily traced. On
the north side of the choir, the chapter-house, which is roofed
with an arch of stone, remains entire; and on the south side,
another mass of building, which we could not enter, is preserved by
the care of the family of Gordon; but the body of the church is a
mass of fragments.
A paper was here put into our hands, which deduced from sufficient
authorities the history of this venerable ruin. The church of
Elgin had, in the intestine tumults of the barbarous ages, been
laid waste by the irruption of a highland chief, whom the bishop
had offended; but it was gradually restored to the state, of which
the traces may be now discerned, and was at last not destroyed by
the tumultuous violence of Knox, but more shamefully suffered to
dilapidate by deliberate robbery and frigid indifference. There is
still extant, in the books of the council, an order, of which I
cannot remember the date, but which was doubtless issued after the
Reformation, directing that the lead, which covers the two
cathedrals of Elgin and Aberdeen, shall be taken away, and
converted into money for the support of the army. A Scotch army
was in those times very cheaply kept; yet the lead of two churches
must have born so small a proportion to any military expence, that
it is hard not to believe the reason alleged to be merely popular,
and the money intended for some private purse. The order however
was obeyed; the two churches were stripped, and the lead was
shipped to be sold in Holland. I hope every reader will rejoice
that this cargo of sacrilege was lost at sea.
Let us not however make too much haste to despise our neighbours.
Our own cathedrals are mouldering by unregarded dilapidation. It
seems to be part of the despicable philosophy of the time to
despise monuments of sacred magnificence, and we are in danger of
doing that deliberately, which the Scots did not do but in the
unsettled state of an imperfect constitution.
Those who had once uncovered the cathedrals never wished to cover
them again; and being thus made useless, they were, first
neglected, and perhaps, as the stone was wanted, afterwards
Elgin seems a place of little trade, and thinly inhabited. The
episcopal cities of Scotland, I believe, generally fell with their
churches, though some of them have since recovered by a situation
convenient for commerce. Thus Glasgow, though it has no longer an
archbishop, has risen beyond its original state by the opulence of
its traders; and Aberdeen, though its ancient stock had decayed,
flourishes by a new shoot in another place.
In the chief street of Elgin, the houses jut over the lowest story,
like the old buildings of timber in London, but with greater
prominence; so that there is sometimes a walk for a considerable
length under a cloister, or portico, which is now indeed frequently
broken, because the new houses have another form, but seems to have
been uniformly continued in the old city.
FORES. CALDER. FORT GEORGE
We went forwards the same day to Fores, the town to which Macbeth
was travelling, when he met the weird sisters in his way. This to
an Englishman is classic ground. Our imaginations were heated, and
our thoughts recalled to their old amusements.
We had now a prelude to the Highlands. We began to leave fertility
and culture behind us, and saw for a great length of road nothing
but heath; yet at Fochabars, a seat belonging to the duke of
Gordon, there is an orchard, which in Scotland I had never seen
before, with some timber trees, and a plantation of oaks.
At Fores we found good accommodation, but nothing worthy of
particular remark, and next morning entered upon the road, on which
Macbeth heard the fatal prediction; but we travelled on not
interrupted by promises of kingdoms, and came to Nairn, a royal
burgh, which, if once it flourished, is now in a state of miserable
decay; but I know not whether its chief annual magistrate has not
still the title of Lord Provost.
At Nairn we may fix the verge of the Highlands; for here I first
saw peat fires, and first heard the Erse language. We had no
motive to stay longer than to breakfast, and went forward to the
house of Mr. Macaulay, the minister who published an account of St.
Kilda, and by his direction visited Calder Castle, from which
Macbeth drew his second title. It has been formerly a place of
strength. The draw-bridge is still to be seen, but the moat is now
dry. The tower is very ancient: Its walls are of great thickness,
arched on the top with stone, and surrounded with battlements. The
rest of the house is later, though far from modern.
We were favoured by a gentleman, who lives in the castle, with a
letter to one of the officers at Fort George, which being the most
regular fortification in the island, well deserves the notice of a
traveller, who has never travelled before. We went thither next
day, found a very kind reception, were led round the works by a
gentleman, who explained the use of every part, and entertained by
Sir Eyre Coote, the governour, with such elegance of conversation
as left us no attention to the delicacies of his table.
Of Fort George I shall not attempt to give any account. I cannot
delineate it scientifically, and a loose and popular description is
of use only when the imagination is to be amused. There was every
where an appearance of the utmost neatness and regularity. But my
suffrage is of little value, because this and Fort Augustus are the
only garrisons that I ever saw.
We did not regret the time spent at the fort, though in consequence
of our delay we came somewhat late to Inverness, the town which may
properly be called the capital of the Highlands. Hither the
inhabitants of the inland parts come to be supplied with what they
cannot make for themselves: Hither the young nymphs of the
mountains and valleys are sent for education, and as far as my
observation has reached, are not sent in vain.
Inverness was the last place which had a regular communication by
high roads with the southern counties. All the ways beyond it
have, I believe, been made by the soldiers in this century. At
Inverness therefore Cromwell, when he subdued Scotland, stationed a
garrison, as at the boundary of the Highlands. The soldiers seem
to have incorporated afterwards with the inhabitants, and to have
peopled the place with an English race; for the language of this
town has been long considered as peculiarly elegant.
Here is a castle, called the castle of Macbeth, the walls of which
are yet standing. It was no very capacious edifice, but stands
upon a rock so high and steep, that I think it was once not
accessible, but by the help of ladders, or a bridge. Over against
it, on another hill, was a fort built by Cromwell, now totally
demolished; for no faction of Scotland loved the name of Cromwell,
or had any desire to continue his memory.
Yet what the Romans did to other nations, was in a great degree
done by Cromwell to the Scots; he civilized them by conquest, and
introduced by useful violence the arts of peace. I was told at
Aberdeen that the people learned from Cromwell's soldiers to make
shoes and to plant kail.
How they lived without kail, it is not easy to guess: They
cultivate hardly any other plant for common tables, and when they
had not kail they probably had nothing. The numbers that go
barefoot are still sufficient to shew that shoes may be spared:
They are not yet considered as necessaries of life; for tall boys,
not otherwise meanly dressed, run without them in the streets; and
in the islands the sons of gentlemen pass several of their first
years with naked feet.
I know not whether it be not peculiar to the Scots to have attained
the liberal, without the manual arts, to have excelled in
ornamental knowledge, and to have wanted not only the elegancies,
but the conveniences of common life. Literature soon after its
revival found its way to Scotland, and from the middle of the
sixteenth century, almost to the middle of the seventeenth, the
politer studies were very diligently pursued. The Latin poetry of
Deliciae Poetarum Scotorum would have done honour to any nation, at
least till the publication of May's Supplement the English had very
little to oppose.
Yet men thus ingenious and inquisitive were content to live in
total ignorance of the trades by which human wants are supplied,
and to supply them by the grossest means. Till the Union made them
acquainted with English manners, the culture of their lands was
unskilful, and their domestick life unformed; their tables were
coarse as the feasts of Eskimeaux, and their houses filthy as the
cottages of Hottentots.
Since they have known that their condition was capable of
improvement, their progress in useful knowledge has been rapid and
uniform. What remains to be done they will quickly do, and then
wonder, like me, why that which was so necessary and so easy was so
long delayed. But they must be for ever content to owe to the
English that elegance and culture, which, if they had been vigilant
and active, perhaps the English might have owed to them.
Here the appearance of life began to alter. I had seen a few women
with plaids at Aberdeen; but at Inverness the Highland manners are
common. There is I think a kirk, in which only the Erse language
is used. There is likewise an English chapel, but meanly built,
where on Sunday we saw a very decent congregation.
We were now to bid farewel to the luxury of travelling, and to
enter a country upon which perhaps no wheel has ever rolled. We
could indeed have used our post-chaise one day longer, along the
military road to Fort Augustus, but we could have hired no horses
beyond Inverness, and we were not so sparing of ourselves, as to
lead them, merely that we might have one day longer the indulgence
of a carriage.
At Inverness therefore we procured three horses for ourselves and a
servant, and one more for our baggage, which was no very heavy
load. We found in the course of our journey the convenience of
having disencumbered ourselves, by laying aside whatever we could
spare; for it is not to be imagined without experience, how in
climbing crags, and treading bogs, and winding through narrow and
obstructed passages, a little bulk will hinder, and a little weight
will burthen; or how often a man that has pleased himself at home
with his own resolution, will, in the hour of darkness and fatigue,
be content to leave behind him every thing but himself.
We took two Highlanders to run beside us, partly to shew us the
way, and partly to take back from the sea-side the horses, of which
they were the owners. One of them was a man of great liveliness
and activity, of whom his companion said, that he would tire any
horse in Inverness. Both of them were civil and ready-handed.
Civility seems part of the national character of Highlanders.
Every chieftain is a monarch, and politeness, the natural product
of royal government, is diffused from the laird through the whole
clan. But they are not commonly dexterous: their narrowness of
life confines them to a few operations, and they are accustomed to
endure little wants more than to remove them.
We mounted our steeds on the thirtieth of August, and directed our
guides to conduct us to Fort Augustus. It is built at the head of
Lough Ness, of which Inverness stands at the outlet. The way
between them has been cut by the soldiers, and the greater part of
it runs along a rock, levelled with great labour and exactness,
near the water-side.
Most of this day's journey was very pleasant. The day, though
bright, was not hot; and the appearance of the country, if I had
not seen the Peak, would have been wholly new. We went upon a
surface so hard and level, that we had little care to hold the
bridle, and were therefore at full leisure for contemplation. On
the left were high and steep rocks shaded with birch, the hardy
native of the North, and covered with fern or heath. On the right
the limpid waters of Lough Ness were beating their bank, and waving
their surface by a gentle agitation. Beyond them were rocks
sometimes covered with verdure, and sometimes towering in horrid
nakedness. Now and then we espied a little cornfield, which served
to impress more strongly the general barrenness.
Lough Ness is about twenty-four miles long, and from one mile to
two miles broad. It is remarkable that Boethius, in his
description of Scotland, gives it twelve miles of breadth. When
historians or geographers exhibit false accounts of places far
distant, they may be forgiven, because they can tell but what they
are told; and that their accounts exceed the truth may be justly
supposed, because most men exaggerate to others, if not to
themselves: but Boethius lived at no great distance; if he never
saw the lake, he must have been very incurious, and if he had seen
it, his veracity yielded to very slight temptations.
Lough Ness, though not twelve miles broad, is a very remarkable
diffusion of water without islands. It fills a large hollow
between two ridges of high rocks, being supplied partly by the
torrents which fall into it on either side, and partly, as is
supposed, by springs at the bottom. Its water is remarkably clear
and pleasant, and is imagined by the natives to be medicinal. We
were told, that it is in some places a hundred and forty fathoms
deep, a profundity scarcely credible, and which probably those that
relate it have never sounded. Its fish are salmon, trout, and
It was said at fort Augustus, that Lough Ness is open in the
hardest winters, though a lake not far from it is covered with ice.
In discussing these exceptions from the course of nature, the first
question is, whether the fact be justly stated. That which is
strange is delightful, and a pleasing error is not willingly
detected. Accuracy of narration is not very common, and there are
few so rigidly philosophical, as not to represent as perpetual,
what is only frequent, or as constant, what is really casual. If
it be true that Lough Ness never freezes, it is either sheltered by
its high banks from the cold blasts, and exposed only to those
winds which have more power to agitate than congeal; or it is kept
in perpetual motion by the rush of streams from the rocks that
inclose it. Its profundity though it should be such as is
represented can have little part in this exemption; for though deep
wells are not frozen, because their water is secluded from the
external air, yet where a wide surface is exposed to the full
influence of a freezing atmosphere, I know not why the depth should
keep it open. Natural philosophy is now one of the favourite
studies of the Scottish nation, and Lough Ness well deserves to be
The road on which we travelled, and which was itself a source of
entertainment, is made along the rock, in the direction of the
lough, sometimes by breaking off protuberances, and sometimes by
cutting the great mass of stone to a considerable depth. The
fragments are piled in a loose wall on either side, with apertures
left at very short spaces, to give a passage to the wintry
currents. Part of it is bordered with low trees, from which our
guides gathered nuts, and would have had the appearance of an
English lane, except that an English lane is almost always dirty.
It has been made with great labour, but has this advantage, that it
cannot, without equal labour, be broken up.
Within our sight there were goats feeding or playing. The
mountains have red deer, but they came not within view; and if what
is said of their vigilance and subtlety be true, they have some
claim to that palm of wisdom, which the eastern philosopher, whom
Alexander interrogated, gave to those beasts which live furthest
Near the way, by the water side, we espied a cottage. This was the
first Highland Hut that I had seen; and as our business was with
life and manners, we were willing to visit it. To enter a
habitation without leave, seems to be not considered here as
rudeness or intrusion. The old laws of hospitality still give this
licence to a stranger.
A hut is constructed with loose stones, ranged for the most part
with some tendency to circularity. It must be placed where the
wind cannot act upon it with violence, because it has no cement;
and where the water will run easily away, because it has no floor
but the naked ground. The wall, which is commonly about six feet
high, declines from the perpendicular a little inward. Such
rafters as can be procured are then raised for a roof, and covered
with heath, which makes a strong and warm thatch, kept from flying
off by ropes of twisted heath, of which the ends, reaching from the
center of the thatch to the top of the wall, are held firm by the
weight of a large stone. No light is admitted but at the entrance,
and through a hole in the thatch, which gives vent to the smoke.
This hole is not directly over the fire, lest the rain should
extinguish it; and the smoke therefore naturally fills the place
before it escapes. Such is the general structure of the houses in
which one of the nations of this opulent and powerful island has
been hitherto content to live. Huts however are not more uniform
than palaces; and this which we were inspecting was very far from
one of the meanest, for it was divided into several apartments; and
its inhabitants possessed such property as a pastoral poet might
exalt into riches.
When we entered, we found an old woman boiling goats-flesh in a
kettle. She spoke little English, but we had interpreters at hand;
and she was willing enough to display her whole system of economy.
She has five children, of which none are yet gone from her. The
eldest, a boy of thirteen, and her husband, who is eighty years
old, were at work in the wood. Her two next sons were gone to
Inverness to buy meal, by which oatmeal is always meant. Meal she
considered as expensive food, and told us, that in Spring, when the
goats gave milk, the children could live without it. She is
mistress of sixty goats, and I saw many kids in an enclosure at the
end of her house. She had also some poultry. By the lake we saw a
potatoe-garden, and a small spot of ground on which stood four
shucks, containing each twelve sheaves of barley. She has all this
from the labour of their own hands, and for what is necessary to be
bought, her kids and her chickens are sent to market.
With the true pastoral hospitality, she asked us to sit down and
drink whisky. She is religious, and though the kirk is four miles
off, probably eight English miles, she goes thither every Sunday.
We gave her a shilling, and she begged snuff; for snuff is the
luxury of a Highland cottage.
Soon afterwards we came to the General's Hut, so called because it
was the temporary abode of Wade, while he superintended the works
upon the road. It is now a house of entertainment for passengers,
and we found it not ill stocked with provisions.
FALL OF FIERS
Towards evening we crossed, by a bridge, the river which makes the
celebrated fall of Fiers. The country at the bridge strikes the
imagination with all the gloom and grandeur of Siberian solitude.
The way makes a flexure, and the mountains, covered with trees,
rise at once on the left hand and in the front. We desired our
guides to shew us the fall, and dismounting, clambered over very
rugged crags, till I began to wish that our curiosity might have
been gratified with less trouble and danger. We came at last to a
place where we could overlook the river, and saw a channel torn, as
it seems, through black piles of stone, by which the stream is
obstructed and broken, till it comes to a very steep descent, of
such dreadful depth, that we were naturally inclined to turn aside
But we visited the place at an unseasonable time, and found it
divested of its dignity and terror. Nature never gives every thing
at once. A long continuance of dry weather, which made the rest of
the way easy and delightful, deprived us of the pleasure expected
from the fall of Fiers. The river having now no water but what the
springs supply, showed us only a swift current, clear and shallow,
fretting over the asperities of the rocky bottom, and we were left
to exercise our thoughts, by endeavouring to conceive the effect of
a thousand streams poured from the mountains into one channel,
struggling for expansion in a narrow passage, exasperated by rocks
rising in their way, and at last discharging all their violence of
waters by a sudden fall through the horrid chasm.
The way now grew less easy, descending by an uneven declivity, but
without either dirt or danger. We did not arrive at Fort Augustus
till it was late. Mr. Boswell, who, between his father's merit and
his own, is sure of reception wherever he comes, sent a servant
before to beg admission and entertainment for that night. Mr.
Trapaud, the governor, treated us with that courtesy which is so
closely connected with the military character. He came out to meet
us beyond the gates, and apologized that, at so late an hour, the
rules of a garrison suffered him to give us entrance only at the
In the morning we viewed the fort, which is much less than that of
St. George, and is said to be commanded by the neighbouring hills.
It was not long ago taken by the Highlanders. But its situation
seems well chosen for pleasure, if not for strength; it stands at
the head of the lake, and, by a sloop of sixty tuns, is supplied
from Inverness with great convenience.
We were now to cross the Highlands towards the western coast, and
to content ourselves with such accommodations, as a way so little
frequented could afford. The journey was not formidable, for it
was but of two days, very unequally divided, because the only
house, where we could be entertained, was not further off than a
third of the way. We soon came to a high hill, which we mounted by
a military road, cut in traverses, so that as we went upon a higher
stage, we saw the baggage following us below in a contrary
direction. To make this way, the rock has been hewn to a level
with labour that might have broken the perseverance of a Roman
The country is totally denuded of its wood, but the stumps both of
oaks and firs, which are still found, shew that it has been once a
forest of large timber. I do not remember that we saw any animals,
but we were told that, in the mountains, there are stags, roebucks,
goats and rabbits.
We did not perceive that this tract was possessed by human beings,
except that once we saw a corn field, in which a lady was walking
with some gentlemen. Their house was certainly at no great
distance, but so situated that we could not descry it.
Passing on through the dreariness of solitude, we found a party of
soldiers from the fort, working on the road, under the
superintendence of a serjeant. We told them how kindly we had been
treated at the garrison, and as we were enjoying the benefit of
their labours, begged leave to shew our gratitude by a small
Early in the afternoon we came to Anoch, a village in Glenmollison
of three huts, one of which is distinguished by a chimney. Here we
were to dine and lodge, and were conducted through the first room,
that had the chimney, into another lighted by a small glass window.
The landlord attended us with great civility, and told us what he
could give us to eat and drink. I found some books on a shelf,
among which were a volume or more of Prideaux's Connection.
This I mentioned as something unexpected, and perceived that I did
not please him. I praised the propriety of his language, and was
answered that I need not wonder, for he had learned it by grammar.
By subsequent opportunities of observation, I found that my host's
diction had nothing peculiar. Those Highlanders that can speak
English, commonly speak it well, with few of the words, and little
of the tone by which a Scotchman is distinguished. Their language
seems to have been learned in the army or the navy, or by some
communication with those who could give them good examples of
accent and pronunciation. By their Lowland neighbours they would
not willingly be taught; for they have long considered them as a
mean and degenerate race. These prejudices are wearing fast away;
but so much of them still remains, that when I asked a very learned
minister in the islands, which they considered as their most savage
clans: 'Those,' said he, 'that live next the Lowlands.'
As we came hither early in the day, we had time sufficient to
survey the place. The house was built like other huts of loose
stones, but the part in which we dined and slept was lined with
turf and wattled with twigs, which kept the earth from falling.
Near it was a garden of turnips and a field of potatoes. It stands
in a glen, or valley, pleasantly watered by a winding river. But
this country, however it may delight the gazer or amuse the
naturalist, is of no great advantage to its owners. Our landlord
told us of a gentleman, who possesses lands, eighteen Scotch miles
in length, and three in breadth; a space containing at least a
hundred square English miles. He has raised his rents, to the
danger of depopulating his farms, and he fells his timber, and by
exerting every art of augmentation, has obtained an yearly revenue
of four hundred pounds, which for a hundred square miles is three
halfpence an acre.
Some time after dinner we were surprised by the entrance of a young
woman, not inelegant either in mien or dress, who asked us whether
we would have tea. We found that she was the daughter of our host,
and desired her to make it. Her conversation, like her appearance,
was gentle and pleasing. We knew that the girls of the Highlands
are all gentlewomen, and treated her with great respect, which she
received as customary and due, and was neither elated by it, nor
confused, but repaid my civilities without embarassment, and told
me how much I honoured her country by coming to survey it.
She had been at Inverness to gain the common female qualifications,
and had, like her father, the English pronunciation. I presented
her with a book, which I happened to have about me, and should not
be pleased to think that she forgets me.
In the evening the soldiers, whom we had passed on the road, came
to spend at our inn the little money that we had given them. They
had the true military impatience of coin in their pockets, and had
marched at least six miles to find the first place where liquor
could be bought. Having never been before in a place so wild and
unfrequented, I was glad of their arrival, because I knew that we
had made them friends, and to gain still more of their good will,
we went to them, where they were carousing in the barn, and added
something to our former gift. All that we gave was not much, but
it detained them in the barn, either merry or quarrelling, the
whole night, and in the morning they went back to their work, with
great indignation at the bad qualities of whisky.
We had gained so much the favour of our host, that, when we left
his house in the morning, he walked by us a great way, and
entertained us with conversation both on his own condition, and
that of the country. His life seemed to be merely pastoral, except
that he differed from some of the ancient Nomades in having a
settled dwelling. His wealth consists of one hundred sheep, as
many goats, twelve milk-cows, and twenty-eight beeves ready for the
From him we first heard of the general dissatisfaction, which is
now driving the Highlanders into the other hemisphere; and when I
asked him whether they would stay at home, if they were well
treated, he answered with indignation, that no man willingly left
his native country. Of the farm, which he himself occupied, the
rent had, in twenty-five years, been advanced from five to twenty
pounds, which he found himself so little able to pay, that he would
be glad to try his fortune in some other place. Yet he owned the
reasonableness of raising the Highland rents in a certain degree,
and declared himself willing to pay ten pounds for the ground which
he had formerly had for five.
Our host having amused us for a time, resigned us to our guides.
The journey of this day was long, not that the distance was great,
but that the way was difficult. We were now in the bosom of the
Highlands, with full leisure to contemplate the appearance and
properties of mountainous regions, such as have been, in many
countries, the last shelters of national distress, and are every
where the scenes of adventures, stratagems, surprises and escapes.
Mountainous countries are not passed but with difficulty, not
merely from the labour of climbing; for to climb is not always
necessary: but because that which is not mountain is commonly bog,
through which the way must be picked with caution. Where there are
hills, there is much rain, and the torrents pouring down into the
intermediate spaces, seldom find so ready an outlet, as not to
stagnate, till they have broken the texture of the ground.
Of the hills, which our journey offered to the view on either side,
we did not take the height, nor did we see any that astonished us
with their loftiness. Towards the summit of one, there was a white
spot, which I should have called a naked rock, but the guides, who
had better eyes, and were acquainted with the phenomena of the
country, declared it to be snow. It had already lasted to the end
of August, and was likely to maintain its contest with the sun,
till it should be reinforced by winter.
The height of mountains philosophically considered is properly
computed from the surface of the next sea; but as it affects the
eye or imagination of the passenger, as it makes either a spectacle
or an obstruction, it must be reckoned from the place where the
rise begins to make a considerable angle with the plain. In
extensive continents the land may, by gradual elevation, attain
great height, without any other appearance than that of a plane
gently inclined, and if a hill placed upon such raised ground be
described, as having its altitude equal to the whole space above
the sea, the representation will be fallacious.
These mountains may be properly enough measured from the inland
base; for it is not much above the sea. As we advanced at evening
towards the western coast, I did not observe the declivity to be
greater than is necessary for the discharge of the inland waters.
We passed many rivers and rivulets, which commonly ran with a clear
shallow stream over a hard pebbly bottom. These channels, which
seem so much wider than the water that they convey would naturally
require, are formed by the violence of wintry floods, produced by
the accumulation of innumerable streams that fall in rainy weather
from the hills, and bursting away with resistless impetuosity, make
themselves a passage proportionate to their mass.
Such capricious and temporary waters cannot be expected to produce
many fish. The rapidity of the wintry deluge sweeps them away, and
the scantiness of the summer stream would hardly sustain them above
the ground. This is the reason why in fording the northern rivers,
no fishes are seen, as in England, wandering in the water.
Of the hills many may be called with Homer's Ida 'abundant in
springs', but few can deserve the epithet which he bestows upon
Pelion by 'waving their leaves.' They exhibit very little variety;
being almost wholly covered with dark heath, and even that seems to
be checked in its growth. What is not heath is nakedness, a little
diversified by now and then a stream rushing down the steep. An
eye accustomed to flowery pastures and waving harvests is
astonished and repelled by this wide extent of hopeless sterility.
The appearance is that of matter incapable of form or usefulness,
dismissed by nature from her care and disinherited of her favours,
left in its original elemental state, or quickened only with one
sullen power of useless vegetation.
It will very readily occur, that this uniformity of barrenness can
afford very little amusement to the traveller; that it is easy to
sit at home and conceive rocks and heath, and waterfalls; and that
these journeys are useless labours, which neither impregnate the
imagination, nor enlarge the understanding. It is true that of far
the greater part of things, we must content ourselves with such
knowledge as description may exhibit, or analogy supply; but it is
true likewise, that these ideas are always incomplete, and that at
least, till we have compared them with realities, we do not know
them to be just. As we see more, we become possessed of more
certainties, and consequently gain more principles of reasoning,
and found a wider basis of analogy.
Regions mountainous and wild, thinly inhabited, and little
cultivated, make a great part of the earth, and he that has never
seen them, must live unacquainted with much of the face of nature,
and with one of the great scenes of human existence.
As the day advanced towards noon, we entered a narrow valley not
very flowery, but sufficiently verdant. Our guides told us, that
the horses could not travel all day without rest or meat, and
intreated us to stop here, because no grass would be found in any
other place. The request was reasonable and the argument cogent.
We therefore willingly dismounted and diverted ourselves as the
place gave us opportunity.
I sat down on a bank, such as a writer of Romance might have
delighted to feign. I had indeed no trees to whisper over my head,
but a clear rivulet streamed at my feet. The day was calm, the air
soft, and all was rudeness, silence, and solitude. Before me, and
on either side, were high hills, which by hindering the eye from
ranging, forced the mind to find entertainment for itself. Whether
I spent the hour well I know not; for here I first conceived the
thought of this narration.
We were in this place at ease and by choice, and had no evils to
suffer or to fear; yet the imaginations excited by the view of an
unknown and untravelled wilderness are not such as arise in the
artificial solitude of parks and gardens, a flattering notion of
self-sufficiency, a placid indulgence of voluntary delusions, a
secure expansion of the fancy, or a cool concentration of the
mental powers. The phantoms which haunt a desert are want, and
misery, and danger; the evils of dereliction rush upon the
thoughts; man is made unwillingly acquainted with his own weakness,
and meditation shows him only how little he can sustain, and how
little he can perform. There were no traces of inhabitants, except
perhaps a rude pile of clods called a summer hut, in which a
herdsman had rested in the favourable seasons. Whoever had been in
the place where I then sat, unprovided with provisions and ignorant
of the country, might, at least before the roads were made, have
wandered among the rocks, till he had perished with hardship,
before he could have found either food or shelter. Yet what are
these hillocks to the ridges of Taurus, or these spots of wildness
to the desarts of America?
It was not long before we were invited to mount, and continued our
journey along the side of a lough, kept full by many streams, which
with more or less rapidity and noise, crossed the road from the
hills on the other hand. These currents, in their diminished
state, after several dry months, afford, to one who has always
lived in level countries, an unusual and delightful spectacle; but
in the rainy season, such as every winter may be expected to bring,
must precipitate an impetuous and tremendous flood. I suppose the
way by which we went, is at that time impassable.
The lough at last ended in a river broad and shallow like the rest,
but that it may be passed when it is deeper, there is a bridge over
it. Beyond it is a valley called Glensheals, inhabited by the clan
of Macrae. Here we found a village called Auknasheals, consisting
of many huts, perhaps twenty, built all of dry-stone, that is,
stones piled up without mortar.
We had, by the direction of the officers at Fort Augustus, taken
bread for ourselves, and tobacco for those Highlanders who might
show us any kindness. We were now at a place where we could obtain
milk, but we must have wanted bread if we had not brought it. The
people of this valley did not appear to know any English, and our
guides now became doubly necessary as interpreters. A woman, whose
hut was distinguished by greater spaciousness and better
architecture, brought out some pails of milk. The villagers
gathered about us in considerable numbers, I believe without any
evil intention, but with a very savage wildness of aspect and
manner. When our meal was over, Mr. Boswell sliced the bread, and
divided it amongst them, as he supposed them never to have tasted a
wheaten loaf before. He then gave them little pieces of twisted
tobacco, and among the children we distributed a small handful of
halfpence, which they received with great eagerness. Yet I have
been since told, that the people of that valley are not indigent;
and when we mentioned them afterwards as needy and pitiable, a
Highland lady let us know, that we might spare our commiseration;
for the dame whose milk we drank had probably more than a dozen
milk-cows. She seemed unwilling to take any price, but being
pressed to make a demand, at last named a shilling. Honesty is not
greater where elegance is less. One of the bystanders, as we were
told afterwards, advised her to ask for more, but she said a
shilling was enough. We gave her half a crown, and I hope got some
credit for our behaviour; for the company said, if our interpreters
did not flatter us, that they had not seen such a day since the old
laird of Macleod passed through their country.
The Macraes, as we heard afterwards in the Hebrides, were
originally an indigent and subordinate clan, and having no farms
nor stock, were in great numbers servants to the Maclellans, who,
in the war of Charles the First, took arms at the call of the
heroic Montrose, and were, in one of his battles, almost all
destroyed. The women that were left at home, being thus deprived
of their husbands, like the Scythian ladies of old, married their
servants, and the Macraes became a considerable race.
As we continued our journey, we were at leisure to extend our
speculations, and to investigate the reason of those peculiarities
by which such rugged regions as these before us are generally
Mountainous countries commonly contain the original, at least the
oldest race of inhabitants, for they are not easily conquered,
because they must be entered by narrow ways, exposed to every power
of mischief from those that occupy the heights; and every new ridge
is a new fortress, where the defendants have again the same
advantages. If the assailants either force the strait, or storm
the summit, they gain only so much ground; their enemies are fled
to take possession of the next rock, and the pursuers stand at
gaze, knowing neither where the ways of escape wind among the
steeps, nor where the bog has firmness to sustain them: besides
that, mountaineers have an agility in climbing and descending
distinct from strength or courage, and attainable only by use.
If the war be not soon concluded, the invaders are dislodged by
hunger; for in those anxious and toilsome marches, provisions
cannot easily be carried, and are never to be found. The wealth of
mountains is cattle, which, while the men stand in the passes, the
women drive away. Such lands at last cannot repay the expence of
conquest, and therefore perhaps have not been so often invaded by
the mere ambition of dominion; as by resentment of robberies and
insults, or the desire of enjoying in security the more fruitful
As mountains are long before they are conquered, they are likewise
long before they are civilized. Men are softened by intercourse
mutually profitable, and instructed by comparing their own notions
with those of others. Thus Caesar found the maritime parts of
Britain made less barbarous by their commerce with the Gauls. Into
a barren and rough tract no stranger is brought either by the hope
of gain or of pleasure. The inhabitants having neither commodities
for sale, nor money for purchase, seldom visit more polished
places, or if they do visit them, seldom return.
It sometimes happens that by conquest, intermixture, or gradual
refinement, the cultivated parts of a country change their
language. The mountaineers then become a distinct nation, cut off
by dissimilitude of speech from conversation with their neighbours.
Thus in Biscay, the original Cantabrian, and in Dalecarlia, the old
Swedish still subsists. Thus Wales and the Highlands speak the
tongue of the first inhabitants of Britain, while the other parts
have received first the Saxon, and in some degree afterwards the
French, and then formed a third language between them.
That the primitive manners are continued where the primitive
language is spoken, no nation will desire me to suppose, for the
manners of mountaineers are commonly savage, but they are rather
produced by their situation than derived from their ancestors.
Such seems to be the disposition of man, that whatever makes a
distinction produces rivalry. England, before other causes of
enmity were found, was disturbed for some centuries by the contests
of the northern and southern counties; so that at Oxford, the peace
of study could for a long time be preserved only by chusing
annually one of the Proctors from each side of the Trent. A tract
intersected by many ridges of mountains, naturally divides its
inhabitants into petty nations, which are made by a thousand causes
enemies to each other. Each will exalt its own chiefs, each will
boast the valour of its men, or the beauty of its women, and every
claim of superiority irritates competition; injuries will sometimes
be done, and be more injuriously defended; retaliation will
sometimes be attempted, and the debt exacted with too much
In the Highlands it was a law, that if a robber was sheltered from
justice, any man of the same clan might be taken in his place.
This was a kind of irregular justice, which, though necessary in
savage times, could hardly fail to end in a feud, and a feud once
kindled among an idle people with no variety of pursuits to divert
their thoughts, burnt on for ages either sullenly glowing in secret
mischief, or openly blazing into public violence. Of the effects
of this violent judicature, there are not wanting memorials. The
cave is now to be seen to which one of the Campbells, who had
injured the Macdonalds, retired with a body of his own clan. The
Macdonalds required the offender, and being refused, made a fire at
the mouth of the cave, by which he and his adherents were
Mountaineers are warlike, because by their feuds and competitions
they consider themselves as surrounded with enemies, and are always
prepared to repel incursions, or to make them. Like the Greeks in
their unpolished state, described by Thucydides, the Highlanders,
till lately, went always armed, and carried their weapons to
visits, and to church.
Mountaineers are thievish, because they are poor, and having
neither manufactures nor commerce, can grow richer only by robbery.
They regularly plunder their neighbours, for their neighbours are
commonly their enemies; and having lost that reverence for
property, by which the order of civil life is preserved, soon
consider all as enemies, whom they do not reckon as friends, and
think themselves licensed to invade whatever they are not obliged
By a strict administration of the laws, since the laws have been
introduced into the Highlands, this disposition to thievery is very
much represt. Thirty years ago no herd had ever been conducted
through the mountains, without paying tribute in the night, to some
of the clans; but cattle are now driven, and passengers travel
without danger, fear, or molestation.
Among a warlike people, the quality of highest esteem is personal
courage, and with the ostentatious display of courage are closely
connected promptitude of offence and quickness of resentment. The
Highlanders, before they were disarmed, were so addicted to
quarrels, that the boys used to follow any publick procession or
ceremony, however festive, or however solemn, in expectation of the
battle, which was sure to happen before the company dispersed.
Mountainous regions are sometimes so remote from the seat of
government, and so difficult of access, that they are very little
under the influence of the sovereign, or within the reach of
national justice. Law is nothing without power; and the sentence
of a distant court could not be easily executed, nor perhaps very
safely promulgated, among men ignorantly proud and habitually
violent, unconnected with the general system, and accustomed to
reverence only their own lords. It has therefore been necessary to
erect many particular jurisdictions, and commit the punishment of
crimes, and the decision of right to the proprietors of the country
who could enforce their own decrees. It immediately appears that
such judges will be often ignorant, and often partial; but in the
immaturity of political establishments no better expedient could be
found. As government advances towards perfection, provincial
judicature is perhaps in every empire gradually abolished.
Those who had thus the dispensation of law, were by consequence
themselves lawless. Their vassals had no shelter from outrages and
oppressions; but were condemned to endure, without resistance, the
caprices of wantonness, and the rage of cruelty.
In the Highlands, some great lords had an hereditary jurisdiction
over counties; and some chieftains over their own lands; till the
final conquest of the Highlands afforded an opportunity of crushing
all the local courts, and of extending the general benefits of
equal law to the low and the high, in the deepest recesses and
While the chiefs had this resemblance of royalty, they had little
inclination to appeal, on any question, to superior judicatures. A
claim of lands between two powerful lairds was decided like a
contest for dominion between sovereign powers. They drew their
forces into the field, and right attended on the strongest. This
was, in ruder times, the common practice, which the kings of
Scotland could seldom control.
Even so lately as in the last years of King William, a battle was
fought at Mull Roy, on a plain a few miles to the south of
Inverness, between the clans of Mackintosh and Macdonald of
Keppoch. Col. Macdonald, the head of a small clan, refused to pay
the dues demanded from him by Mackintosh, as his superior lord.
They disdained the interposition of judges and laws, and calling
each his followers to maintain the dignity of the clan, fought a
formal battle, in which several considerable men fell on the side
of Mackintosh, without a complete victory to either. This is said
to have been the last open war made between the clans by their own
The Highland lords made treaties, and formed alliances, of which
some traces may still be found, and some consequences still remain
as lasting evidences of petty regality. The terms of one of these
confederacies were, that each should support the other in the
right, or in the wrong, except against the king.
The inhabitants of mountains form distinct races, and are careful
to preserve their genealogies. Men in a small district necessarily
mingle blood by intermarriages, and combine at last into one
family, with a common interest in the honour and disgrace of every
individual. Then begins that union of affections, and co-operation
of endeavours, that constitute a clan. They who consider
themselves as ennobled by their family, will think highly of their
progenitors, and they who through successive generations live
always together in the same place, will preserve local stories and
hereditary prejudices. Thus every Highlander can talk of his
ancestors, and recount the outrages which they suffered from the
wicked inhabitants of the next valley.
Such are the effects of habitation among mountains, and such were
the qualities of the Highlanders, while their rocks secluded them
from the rest of mankind, and kept them an unaltered and
discriminated race. They are now losing their distinction, and
hastening to mingle with the general community.
We left Auknasheals and the Macraes its the afternoon, and in the
evening came to Ratiken, a high hill on which a road is cut, but so
steep and narrow, that it is very difficult. There is now a design
of making another way round the bottom. Upon one of the
precipices, my horse, weary with the steepness of the rise,
staggered a little, and I called in haste to the Highlander to hold
him. This was the only moment of my journey, in which I thought
Having surmounted the hill at last, we were told that at Glenelg,
on the sea-side, we should come to a house of lime and slate and
glass. This image of magnificence raised our expectation. At last
we came to our inn weary and peevish, and began to inquire for meat
Of the provisions the negative catalogue was very copious. Here
was no meat, no milk, no bread, no eggs, no wine. We did not
express much satisfaction. Here however we were to stay. Whisky
we might have, and I believe at last they caught a fowl and killed
it. We had some bread, and with that we prepared ourselves to be
contented, when we had a very eminent proof of Highland
hospitality. Along some miles of the way, in the evening, a
gentleman's servant had kept us company on foot with very little
notice on our part. He left us near Glenelg, and we thought on him
no more till he came to us again, in about two hours, with a
present from his master of rum and sugar. The man had mentioned
his company, and the gentleman, whose name, I think, is Gordon,
well knowing the penury of the place, had this attention to two
men, whose names perhaps he had not heard, by whom his kindness was
not likely to be ever repaid, and who could be recommended to him
only by their necessities.
We were now to examine our lodging. Out of one of the beds, on
which we were to repose, started up, at our entrance, a man black
as a Cyclops from the forge. Other circumstances of no elegant
recital concurred to disgust us. We had been frighted by a lady at
Edinburgh, with discouraging representations of Highland lodgings.
Sleep, however, was necessary. Our Highlanders had at last found
some hay, with which the inn could not supply them. I directed
them to bring a bundle into the room, and slept upon it in my
riding coat. Mr. Boswell being more delicate, laid himself sheets
with hay over and under him, and lay in linen like a gentleman.
In the morning, September the second, we found ourselves on the
edge of the sea. Having procured a boat, we dismissed our
Highlanders, whom I would recommend to the service of any future
travellers, and were ferried over to the Isle of Sky. We landed at
Armidel, where we were met on the sands by Sir Alexander Macdonald,
who was at that time there with his lady, preparing to leave the
island and reside at Edinburgh.
Armidel is a neat house, built where the Macdonalds had once a
seat, which was burnt in the commotions that followed the
Revolution. The walled orchard, which belonged to the former
house, still remains. It is well shaded by tall ash trees, of a
species, as Mr. Janes the fossilist informed me, uncommonly
valuable. This plantation is very properly mentioned by Dr.
Campbell, in his new account of the state of Britain, and deserves
attention; because it proves that the present nakedness of the
Hebrides is not wholly the fault of Nature.
As we sat at Sir Alexander's table, we were entertained, according
to the ancient usage of the North, with the melody of the bagpipe.
Everything in those countries has its history. As the bagpiper was
playing, an elderly Gentleman informed us, that in some remote
time, the Macdonalds of Glengary having been injured, or offended
by the inhabitants of Culloden, and resolving to have justice or
vengeance, came to Culloden on a Sunday, where finding their
enemies at worship, they shut them up in the church, which they set
on fire; and this, said he, is the tune that the piper played while
they were burning.
Narrations like this, however uncertain, deserve the notice of the
traveller, because they are the only records of a nation that has
no historians, and afford the most genuine representation of the
life and character of the ancient Highlanders.
Under the denomination of Highlander are comprehended in Scotland
all that now speak the Erse language, or retain the primitive
manners, whether they live among the mountains or in the islands;
and in that sense I use the name, when there is not some apparent
reason for making a distinction.
In Sky I first observed the use of Brogues, a kind of artless
shoes, stitched with thongs so loosely, that though they defend the
foot from stones, they do not exclude water. Brogues were formerly
made of raw hides, with the hair inwards, and such are perhaps
still used in rude and remote parts; but they are said not to last
above two days. Where life is somewhat improved, they are now made
of leather tanned with oak bark, as in other places, or with the
bark of birch, or roots of tormentil, a substance recommended in
defect of bark, about forty years ago, to the Irish tanners, by one
to whom the parliament of that kingdom voted a reward. The leather
of Sky is not completely penetrated by vegetable matter, and
therefore cannot be very durable.
My inquiries about brogues, gave me an early specimen of Highland
information. One day I was told, that to make brogues was a
domestick art, which every man practised for himself, and that a
pair of brogues was the work of an hour. I supposed that the
husband made brogues as the wife made an apron, till next day it
was told me, that a brogue-maker was a trade, and that a pair would
cost half a crown. It will easily occur that these representations
may both be true, and that, in some places, men may buy them, and
in others, make them for themselves; but I had both the accounts in
the same house within two days.
Many of my subsequent inquiries upon more interesting topicks ended
in the like uncertainty. He that travels in the Highlands may
easily saturate his soul with intelligence, if he will acquiesce in
the first account. The Highlander gives to every question an
answer so prompt and peremptory, that skepticism itself is dared
into silence, and the mind sinks before the bold reporter in
unresisting credulity; but, if a second question be ventured, it
breaks the enchantment; for it is immediately discovered, that what
was told so confidently was told at hazard, and that such
fearlessness of assertion was either the sport of negligence, or
the refuge of ignorance.
If individuals are thus at variance with themselves, it can be no
wonder that the accounts of different men are contradictory. The
traditions of an ignorant and savage people have been for ages
negligently heard, and unskilfully related. Distant events must
have been mingled together, and the actions of one man given to
another. These, however, are deficiencies in story, for which no
man is now to be censured. It were enough, if what there is yet
opportunity of examining were accurately inspected, and justly
represented; but such is the laxity of Highland conversation, that
the inquirer is kept in continual suspense, and by a kind of
intellectual retrogradation, knows less as he hears more.
In the islands the plaid is rarely worn. The law by which the
Highlanders have been obliged to change the form of their dress,
has, in all the places that we have visited, been universally
obeyed. I have seen only one gentleman completely clothed in the
ancient habit, and by him it was worn only occasionally and
wantonly. The common people do not think themselves under any
legal necessity of having coats; for they say that the law against
plaids was made by Lord Hardwicke, and was in force only for his
life: but the same poverty that made it then difficult for them to
change their clothing, hinders them now from changing it again.
The fillibeg, or lower garment, is still very common, and the
bonnet almost universal; but their attire is such as produces, in a
sufficient degree, the effect intended by the law, of abolishing
the dissimilitude of appearance between the Highlanders and the
other inhabitants of Britain; and, if dress be supposed to have
much influence, facilitates their coalition with their fellow-
What we have long used we naturally like, and therefore the
Highlanders were unwilling to lay aside their plaid, which yet to
an unprejudiced spectator must appear an incommodious and
cumbersome dress; for hanging loose upon the body, it must flutter
in a quick motion, or require one of the hands to keep it close.
The Romans always laid aside the gown when they had anything to do.
It was a dress so unsuitable to war, that the same word which
signified a gown signified peace. The chief use of a plaid seems
to be this, that they could commodiously wrap themselves in it,
when they were obliged to sleep without a better cover.
In our passage from Scotland to Sky, we were wet for the first time
with a shower. This was the beginning of the Highland winter,
after which we were told that a succession of three dry days was
not to be expected for many months. The winter of the Hebrides
consists of little more than rain and wind. As they are surrounded
by an ocean never frozen, the blasts that come to them over the
water are too much softened to have the power of congelation. The
salt loughs, or inlets of the sea, which shoot very far into the
island, never have any ice upon them, and the pools of fresh water
will never bear the walker. The snow that sometimes falls, is soon
dissolved by the air, or the rain.
This is not the description of a cruel climate, yet the dark months
are here a time of great distress; because the summer can do little
more than feed itself, and winter comes with its cold and its
scarcity upon families very slenderly provided.
CORIATACHAN IN SKY
The third or fourth day after our arrival at Armidel, brought us an
invitation to the isle of Raasay, which lies east of Sky. It is
incredible how soon the account of any event is propagated in these
narrow countries by the love of talk, which much leisure produces,
and the relief given to the mind in the penury of insular
conversation by a new topick. The arrival of strangers at a place
so rarely visited, excites rumour, and quickens curiosity. I know
not whether we touched at any corner, where Fame had not already
prepared us a reception.
To gain a commodious passage to Raasay, it was necessary to pass
over a large part of Sky. We were furnished therefore with horses
and a guide. In the Islands there are no roads, nor any marks by
which a stranger may find his way. The horseman has always at his
side a native of the place, who, by pursuing game, or tending
cattle, or being often employed in messages or conduct, has learned
where the ridge of the hill has breadth sufficient to allow a horse
and his rider a passage, and where the moss or bog is hard enough
to bear them. The bogs are avoided as toilsome at least, if not
unsafe, and therefore the journey is made generally from precipice
to precipice; from which if the eye ventures to look down, it sees
below a gloomy cavity, whence the rush of water is sometimes heard.
But there seems to be in all this more alarm than danger. The
Highlander walks carefully before, and the horse, accustomed to the
ground, follows him with little deviation. Sometimes the hill is
too steep for the horseman to keep his seat, and sometimes the moss
is too tremulous to bear the double weight of horse and man. The
rider then dismounts, and all shift as they can.
Journies made in this manner are rather tedious than long. A very
few miles require several hours. From Armidel we came at night to
Coriatachan, a house very pleasantly situated between two brooks,
with one of the highest hills of the island behind it. It is the
residence of Mr. Mackinnon, by whom we were treated with very
liberal hospitality, among a more numerous and elegant company than
it could have been supposed easy to collect.
The hill behind the house we did not climb. The weather was rough,
and the height and steepness discouraged us. We were told that
there is a cairne upon it. A cairne is a heap of stones thrown
upon the grave of one eminent for dignity of birth, or splendour of
atchievements. It is said that by digging, an urn is always found
under these cairnes: they must therefore have been thus piled by a
people whose custom was to burn the dead. To pile stones is, I
believe, a northern custom, and to burn the body was the Roman
practice; nor do I know when it was that these two acts of
sepulture were united.
The weather was next day too violent for the continuation of our
journey; but we had no reason to complain of the interruption. We
saw in every place, what we chiefly desired to know, the manners of
the people. We had company, and, if we had chosen retirement, we
might have had books.
I never was in any house of the Islands, where I did not find books
in more languages than one, if I staid long enough to want them,
except one from which the family was removed. Literature is not
neglected by the higher rank of the Hebridians.
It need not, I suppose, be mentioned, that in countries so little
frequented as the Islands, there are no houses where travellers are
entertained for money. He that wanders about these wilds, either
procures recommendations to those whose habitations lie near his
way, or, when night and weariness come upon him, takes the chance
of general hospitality. If he finds only a cottage, he can expect
little more than shelter; for the cottagers have little more for
themselves: but if his good fortune brings him to the residence of
a gentleman, he will be glad of a storm to prolong his stay. There
is, however, one inn by the sea-side at Sconsor, in Sky, where the
post-office is kept.
At the tables where a stranger is received, neither plenty nor
delicacy is wanting. A tract of land so thinly inhabited, must
have much wild-fowl; and I scarcely remember to have seen a dinner
without them. The moorgame is every where to be had. That the sea
abounds with fish, needs not be told, for it supplies a great part
of Europe. The Isle of Sky has stags and roebucks, but no hares.
They sell very numerous droves of oxen yearly to England, and
therefore cannot be supposed to want beef at home. Sheep and goats
are in great numbers, and they have the common domestick fowls.
But as here is nothing to be bought, every family must kill its own
meat, and roast part of it somewhat sooner than Apicius would
prescribe. Every kind of flesh is undoubtedly excelled by the
variety and emulation of English markets; but that which is not
best may be yet very far from bad, and he that shall complain of
his fare in the Hebrides, has improved his delicacy more than his
Their fowls are not like those plumped for sale by the poulterers
of London, but they are as good as other places commonly afford,
except that the geese, by feeding in the sea, have universally a
These geese seem to be of a middle race, between the wild and
domestick kinds. They are so tame as to own a home, and so wild as
sometimes to fly quite away.
Their native bread is made of oats, or barley. Of oatmeal they
spread very thin cakes, coarse and hard, to which unaccustomed
palates are not easily reconciled. The barley cakes are thicker
and softer; I began to eat them without unwillingness; the
blackness of their colour raises some dislike, but the taste is not
disagreeable. In most houses there is wheat flower, with which we
were sure to be treated, if we staid long enough to have it kneaded
and baked. As neither yeast nor leaven are used among them, their
bread of every kind is unfermented. They make only cakes, and
never mould a loaf.
A man of the Hebrides, for of the women's diet I can give no
account, as soon as he appears in the morning, swallows a glass of
whisky; yet they are not a drunken race, at least I never was
present at much intemperance; but no man is so abstemious as to
refuse the morning dram, which they call a skalk.
The word whisky signifies water, and is applied by way of eminence
to strong water, or distilled liquor. The spirit drunk in the
North is drawn from barley. I never tasted it, except once for
experiment at the inn in Inverary, when I thought it preferable to
any English malt brandy. It was strong, but not pungent, and was
free from the empyreumatick taste or smell. What was the process I
had no opportunity of inquiring, nor do I wish to improve the art
of making poison pleasant.
Not long after the dram, may be expected the breakfast, a meal in
which the Scots, whether of the lowlands or mountains, must be
confessed to excel us. The tea and coffee are accompanied not only
with butter, but with honey, conserves, and marmalades. If an
epicure could remove by a wish, in quest of sensual gratifications,
wherever he had supped he would breakfast in Scotland.
In the islands however, they do what I found it not very easy to
endure. They pollute the tea-table by plates piled with large
slices of cheshire cheese, which mingles its less grateful odours
with the fragrance of the tea.
Where many questions are to be asked, some will be omitted. I
forgot to inquire how they were supplied with so much exotic
luxury. Perhaps the French may bring them wine for wool, and the
Dutch give them tea and coffee at the fishing season, in exchange
for fresh provision. Their trade is unconstrained; they pay no
customs, for there is no officer to demand them; whatever therefore
is made dear only by impost, is obtained here at an easy rate.
A dinner in the Western Islands differs very little from a dinner
in England, except that in the place of tarts, there are always set
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