A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland
Part 3 out of 4
Strong reasons for incredulity will readily occur. This faculty of
seeing things out of sight is local, and commonly useless. It is a
breach of the common order of things, without any visible reason or
perceptible benefit. It is ascribed only to a people very little
enlightened; and among them, for the most part, to the mean and the
To the confidence of these objections it may be replied, that by
presuming to determine what is fit, and what is beneficial, they
presuppose more knowledge of the universal system than man has
attained; and therefore depend upon principles too complicated and
extensive for our comprehension; and that there can be no security
in the consequence, when the premises are not understood; that the
Second Sight is only wonderful because it is rare, for, considered
in itself, it involves no more difficulty than dreams, or perhaps
than the regular exercise of the cogitative faculty; that a general
opinion of communicative impulses, or visionary representations,
has prevailed in all ages and all nations; that particular
instances have been given, with such evidence, as neither Bacon nor
Bayle has been able to resist; that sudden impressions, which the
event has verified, have been felt by more than own or publish
them; that the Second Sight of the Hebrides implies only the local
frequency of a power, which is nowhere totally unknown; and that
where we are unable to decide by antecedent reason, we must be
content to yield to the force of testimony.
By pretension to Second Sight, no profit was ever sought or gained.
It is an involuntary affection, in which neither hope nor fear are
known to have any part. Those who profess to feel it, do not boast
of it as a privilege, nor are considered by others as
advantageously distinguished. They have no temptation to feign;
and their hearers have no motive to encourage the imposture.
To talk with any of these seers is not easy. There is one living
in Sky, with whom we would have gladly conversed; but he was very
gross and ignorant, and knew no English. The proportion in these
countries of the poor to the rich is such, that if we suppose the
quality to be accidental, it can very rarely happen to a man of
education; and yet on such men it has sometimes fallen. There is
now a Second Sighted gentleman in the Highlands, who complains of
the terrors to which he is exposed.
The foresight of the Seers is not always prescience; they are
impressed with images, of which the event only shews them the
meaning. They tell what they have seen to others, who are at that
time not more knowing than themselves, but may become at last very
adequate witnesses, by comparing the narrative with its
To collect sufficient testimonies for the satisfaction of the
publick, or of ourselves, would have required more time than we
could bestow. There is, against it, the seeming analogy of things
confusedly seen, and little understood, and for it, the indistinct
cry of national persuasion, which may be perhaps resolved at last
into prejudice and tradition. I never could advance my curiosity
to conviction; but came away at last only willing to believe.
As there subsists no longer in the Islands much of that peculiar
and discriminative form of life, of which the idea had delighted
our imagination, we were willing to listen to such accounts of past
times as would be given us. But we soon found what memorials were
to be expected from an illiterate people, whose whole time is a
series of distress; where every morning is labouring with
expedients for the evening; and where all mental pains or pleasure
arose from the dread of winter, the expectation of spring, the
caprices of their Chiefs, and the motions of the neighbouring
clans; where there was neither shame from ignorance, nor pride in
knowledge; neither curiosity to inquire, nor vanity to communicate.
The Chiefs indeed were exempt from urgent penury, and daily
difficulties; and in their houses were preserved what accounts
remained of past ages. But the Chiefs were sometimes ignorant and
careless, and sometimes kept busy by turbulence and contention; and
one generation of ignorance effaces the whole series of unwritten
history. Books are faithful repositories, which may be a while
neglected or forgotten; but when they are opened again, will again
impart their instruction: memory, once interrupted, is not to be
recalled. Written learning is a fixed luminary, which, after the
cloud that had hidden it has past away, is again bright in its
proper station. Tradition is but a meteor, which, if once it
falls, cannot be rekindled.
It seems to be universally supposed, that much of the local history
was preserved by the Bards, of whom one is said to have been
retained by every great family. After these Bards were some of my
first inquiries; and I received such answers as, for a while, made
me please myself with my increase of knowledge; for I had not then
learned how to estimate the narration of a Highlander.
They said that a great family had a Bard and a Senachi, who were
the poet and historian of the house; and an old gentleman told me
that he remembered one of each. Here was a dawn of intelligence.
Of men that had lived within memory, some certain knowledge might
be attained. Though the office had ceased, its effects might
continue; the poems might be found, though there was no poet.
Another conversation indeed informed me, that the same man was both
Bard and Senachi. This variation discouraged me; but as the
practice might be different in different times, or at the same time
in different families, there was yet no reason for supposing that I
must necessarily sit down in total ignorance.
Soon after I was told by a gentleman, who is generally acknowledged
the greatest master of Hebridian antiquities, that there had indeed
once been both Bards and Senachies; and that Senachi signified 'the
man of talk,' or of conversation; but that neither Bard nor Senachi
had existed for some centuries. I have no reason to suppose it
exactly known at what time the custom ceased, nor did it probably
cease in all houses at once. But whenever the practice of
recitation was disused, the works, whether poetical or historical,
perished with the authors; for in those times nothing had been
written in the Earse language.
Whether the 'Man of talk' was a historian, whose office was to tell
truth, or a story-teller, like those which were in the last
century, and perhaps are now among the Irish, whose trade was only
to amuse, it now would be vain to inquire.
Most of the domestick offices were, I believe, hereditary; and
probably the laureat of a clan was always the son of the last
laureat. The history of the race could no otherwise be
communicated, or retained; but what genius could be expected in a
poet by inheritance?
The nation was wholly illiterate. Neither bards nor Senachies
could write or read; but if they were ignorant, there was no danger
of detection; they were believed by those whose vanity they
The recital of genealogies, which has been considered as very
efficacious to the preservation of a true series of ancestry, was
anciently made, when the heir of the family came to manly age.
This practice has never subsisted within time of memory, nor was
much credit due to such rehearsers, who might obtrude fictitious
pedigrees, either to please their masters, or to hide the
deficiency of their own memories.
Where the Chiefs of the Highlands have found the histories of their
descent is difficult to tell; for no Earse genealogy was ever
written. In general this only is evident, that the principal house
of a clan must be very ancient, and that those must have lived long
in a place, of whom it is not known when they came thither.
Thus hopeless are all attempts to find any traces of Highland
learning. Nor are their primitive customs and ancient manner of
life otherwise than very faintly and uncertainly remembered by the
The peculiarities which strike the native of a commercial country,
proceeded in a great measure from the want of money. To the
servants and dependents that were not domesticks, and if an
estimate be made from the capacity of any of their old houses which
I have seen, their domesticks could have been but few, were
appropriated certain portions of land for their support. Macdonald
has a piece of ground yet, called the Bards or Senachies field.
When a beef was killed for the house, particular parts were claimed
as fees by the several officers, or workmen. What was the right of
each I have not learned. The head belonged to the smith, and the
udder of a cow to the piper: the weaver had likewise his
particular part; and so many pieces followed these prescriptive
claims, that the Laird's was at last but little.
The payment of rent in kind has been so long disused in England,
that it is totally forgotten. It was practised very lately in the
Hebrides, and probably still continues, not only in St. Kilda,
where money is not yet known, but in others of the smaller and
remoter Islands. It were perhaps to be desired, that no change in
this particular should have been made. When the Laird could only
eat the produce of his lands, he was under the necessity of
residing upon them; and when the tenant could not convert his stock
into more portable riches, he could never be tempted away from his
farm, from the only place where he could be wealthy. Money
confounds subordination, by overpowering the distinctions of rank
and birth, and weakens authority by supplying power of resistance,
or expedients for escape. The feudal system is formed for a nation
employed in agriculture, and has never long kept its hold where
gold and silver have become common.
Their arms were anciently the Glaymore, or great two-handed sword,
and afterwards the two-edged sword and target, or buckler, which
was sustained on the left arm. In the midst of the target, which
was made of wood, covered with leather, and studded with nails, a
slender lance, about two feet long, was sometimes fixed; it was
heavy and cumberous, and accordingly has for some time past been
gradually laid aside. Very few targets were at Culloden. The
dirk, or broad dagger, I am afraid, was of more use in private
quarrels than in battles. The Lochaber-ax is only a slight
alteration of the old English bill.
After all that has been said of the force and terrour of the
Highland sword, I could not find that the art of defence was any
part of common education. The gentlemen were perhaps sometimes
skilful gladiators, but the common men had no other powers than
those of violence and courage. Yet it is well known, that the
onset of the Highlanders was very formidable. As an army cannot
consist of philosophers, a panick is easily excited by any unwonted
mode of annoyance. New dangers are naturally magnified; and men
accustomed only to exchange bullets at a distance, and rather to
hear their enemies than see them, are discouraged and amazed when
they find themselves encountered hand to hand, and catch the gleam
of steel flashing in their faces.
The Highland weapons gave opportunity for many exertions of
personal courage, and sometimes for single combats in the field;
like those which occur so frequently in fabulous wars. At Falkirk,
a gentleman now living, was, I suppose after the retreat of the
King's troops, engaged at a distance from the rest with an Irish
dragoon. They were both skilful swordsmen, and the contest was not
easily decided: the dragoon at last had the advantage, and the
Highlander called for quarter; but quarter was refused him, and the
fight continued till he was reduced to defend himself upon his
knee. At that instant one of the Macleods came to his rescue; who,
as it is said, offered quarter to the dragoon, but he thought
himself obliged to reject what he had before refused, and, as
battle gives little time to deliberate, was immediately killed.
Funerals were formerly solemnized by calling multitudes together,
and entertaining them at great expence. This emulation of useless
cost has been for some time discouraged, and at last in the Isle of
Sky is almost suppressed.
Of the Earse language, as I understand nothing, I cannot say more
than I have been told. It is the rude speech of a barbarous
people, who had few thoughts to express, and were content, as they
conceived grossly, to be grossly understood. After what has been
lately talked of Highland Bards, and Highland genius, many will
startle when they are told, that the Earse never was a written
language; that there is not in the world an Earse manuscript a
hundred years old; and that the sounds of the Highlanders were
never expressed by letters, till some little books of piety were
translated, and a metrical version of the Psalms was made by the
Synod of Argyle. Whoever therefore now writes in this language,
spells according to his own perception of the sound, and his own
idea of the power of the letters. The Welsh and the Irish are
cultivated tongues. The Welsh, two hundred years ago, insulted
their English neighbours for the instability of their Orthography;
while the Earse merely floated in the breath of the people, and
could therefore receive little improvement.
When a language begins to teem with books, it is tending to
refinement; as those who undertake to teach others must have
undergone some labour in improving themselves, they set a
proportionate value on their own thoughts, and wish to enforce them
by efficacious expressions; speech becomes embodied and permanent;
different modes and phrases are compared, and the best obtains an
establishment. By degrees one age improves upon another.
Exactness is first obtained, and afterwards elegance. But diction,
merely vocal, is always in its childhood. As no man leaves his
eloquence behind him, the new generations have all to learn. There
may possibly be books without a polished language, but there can be
no polished language without books.
That the Bards could not read more than the rest of their
countrymen, it is reasonable to suppose; because, if they had read,
they could probably have written; and how high their compositions
may reasonably be rated, an inquirer may best judge by considering
what stores of imagery, what principles of ratiocination, what
comprehension of knowledge, and what delicacy of elocution he has
known any man attain who cannot read. The state of the Bards was
yet more hopeless. He that cannot read, may now converse with
those that can; but the Bard was a barbarian among barbarians, who,
knowing nothing himself, lived with others that knew no more.
There has lately been in the Islands one of these illiterate poets,
who hearing the Bible read at church, is said to have turned the
sacred history into verse. I heard part of a dialogue, composed by
him, translated by a young lady in Mull, and thought it had more
meaning than I expected from a man totally uneducated; but he had
some opportunities of knowledge; he lived among a learned people.
After all that has been done for the instruction of the
Highlanders, the antipathy between their language and literature
still continues; and no man that has learned only Earse is, at this
time, able to read.
The Earse has many dialects, and the words used in some Islands are
not always known in others. In literate nations, though the
pronunciation, and sometimes the words of common speech may differ,
as now in England, compared with the South of Scotland, yet there
is a written diction, which pervades all dialects, and is
understood in every province. But where the whole language is
colloquial, he that has only one part, never gets the rest, as he
cannot get it but by change of residence.
In an unwritten speech, nothing that is not very short is
transmitted from one generation to another. Few have opportunities
of hearing a long composition often enough to learn it, or have
inclination to repeat it so often as is necessary to retain it; and
what is once forgotten is lost for ever. I believe there cannot be
recovered, in the whole Earse language, five hundred lines of which
there is any evidence to prove them a hundred years old. Yet I
hear that the father of Ossian boasts of two chests more of ancient
poetry, which he suppresses, because they are too good for the
He that goes into the Highlands with a mind naturally acquiescent,
and a credulity eager for wonders, may come back with an opinion
very different from mine; for the inhabitants knowing the ignorance
of all strangers in their language and antiquities, perhaps are not
very scrupulous adherents to truth; yet I do not say that they
deliberately speak studied falsehood, or have a settled purpose to
deceive. They have inquired and considered little, and do not
always feel their own ignorance. They are not much accustomed to
be interrogated by others; and seem never to have thought upon
interrogating themselves; so that if they do not know what they
tell to be true, they likewise do not distinctly perceive it to be
Mr. Boswell was very diligent in his inquiries; and the result of
his investigations was, that the answer to the second question was
commonly such as nullified the answer to the first.
We were a while told, that they had an old translation of the
scriptures; and told it till it would appear obstinacy to inquire
again. Yet by continued accumulation of questions we found, that
the translation meant, if any meaning there were, was nothing else
than the Irish Bible.
We heard of manuscripts that were, or that had been in the hands of
somebody's father, or grandfather; but at last we had no reason to
believe they were other than Irish. Martin mentions Irish, but
never any Earse manuscripts, to be found in the Islands in his
I suppose my opinion of the poems of Ossian is already discovered.
I believe they never existed in any other form than that which we
have seen. The editor, or author, never could shew the original;
nor can it be shewn by any other; to revenge reasonable
incredulity, by refusing evidence, is a degree of insolence, with
which the world is not yet acquainted; and stubborn audacity is the
last refuge of guilt. It would be easy to shew it if he had it;
but whence could it be had? It is too long to be remembered, and
the language formerly had nothing written. He has doubtless
inserted names that circulate in popular stories, and may have
translated some wandering ballads, if any can be found; and the
names, and some of the images being recollected, make an inaccurate
auditor imagine, by the help of Caledonian bigotry, that he has
formerly heard the whole.
I asked a very learned Minister in Sky, who had used all arts to
make me believe the genuineness of the book, whether at last he
believed it himself? but he would not answer. He wished me to be
deceived, for the honour of his country; but would not directly and
formally deceive me. Yet has this man's testimony been publickly
produced, as of one that held Fingal to be the work of Ossian.
It is said, that some men of integrity profess to have heard parts
of it, but they all heard them when they were boys; and it was
never said that any of them could recite six lines. They remember
names, and perhaps some proverbial sentiments; and, having no
distinct ideas, coin a resemblance without an original. The
persuasion of the Scots, however, is far from universal; and in a
question so capable of proof, why should doubt be suffered to
continue? The editor has been heard to say, that part of the poem
was received by him, in the Saxon character. He has then found, by
some peculiar fortune, an unwritten language, written in a
character which the natives probably never beheld.
I have yet supposed no imposture but in the publisher, yet I am far
from certainty, that some translations have not been lately made,
that may now be obtruded as parts of the original work. Credulity
on one part is a strong temptation to deceit on the other,
especially to deceit of which no personal injury is the
consequence, and which flatters the author with his own ingenuity.
The Scots have something to plead for their easy reception of an
improbable fiction; they are seduced by their fondness for their
supposed ancestors. A Scotchman must be a very sturdy moralist,
who does not love Scotland better than truth: he will always love
it better than inquiry; and if falsehood flatters his vanity, will
not be very diligent to detect it. Neither ought the English to be
much influenced by Scotch authority; for of the past and present
state of the whole Earse nation, the Lowlanders are at least as
ignorant as ourselves. To be ignorant is painful; but it is
dangerous to quiet our uneasiness by the delusive opiate of hasty
But this is the age, in which those who could not read, have been
supposed to write; in which the giants of antiquated romance have
been exhibited as realities. If we know little of the ancient
Highlanders, let us not fill the vacuity with Ossian. If we had
not searched the Magellanick regions, let us however forbear to
people them with Patagons.
Having waited some days at Armidel, we were flattered at last with
a wind that promised to convey us to Mull. We went on board a boat
that was taking in kelp, and left the Isle of Sky behind us. We
were doomed to experience, like others, the danger of trusting to
the wind, which blew against us, in a short time, with such
violence, that we, being no seasoned sailors, were willing to call
it a tempest. I was sea-sick and lay down. Mr. Boswell kept the
deck. The master knew not well whither to go; and our difficulties
might perhaps have filled a very pathetick page, had not Mr.
Maclean of Col, who, with every other qualification which insular
life requires, is a very active and skilful mariner, piloted us
safe into his own harbour.
In the morning we found ourselves under the Isle of Col, where we
landed; and passed the first day and night with Captain Maclean, a
gentleman who has lived some time in the East Indies; but having
dethroned no Nabob, is not too rich to settle in own country.
Next day the wind was fair, and we might have had an easy passage
to Mull; but having, contrarily to our own intention, landed upon a
new Island, we would not leave it wholly unexamined. We therefore
suffered the vessel to depart without us, and trusted the skies for
Mr. Maclean of Col, having a very numerous family, has, for some
time past, resided at Aberdeen, that he may superintend their
education, and leaves the young gentleman, our friend, to govern
his dominions, with the full power of a Highland Chief. By the
absence of the Laird's family, our entertainment was made more
difficult, because the house was in a great degree disfurnished;
but young Col's kindness and activity supplied all defects, and
procured us more than sufficient accommodation.
Here I first mounted a little Highland steed; and if there had been
many spectators, should have been somewhat ashamed of my figure in
the march. The horses of the Islands, as of other barren
countries, are very low: they are indeed musculous and strong,
beyond what their size gives reason for expecting; but a bulky man
upon one of their backs makes a very disproportionate appearance.
From the habitation of Captain Maclean, we went to Grissipol, but
called by the way on Mr. Hector Maclean, the Minister of Col, whom
we found in a hut, that is, a house of only one floor, but with
windows and chimney, and not inelegantly furnished. Mr. Maclean
has the reputation of great learning: he is seventy-seven years
old, but not infirm, with a look of venerable dignity, excelling
what I remember in any other man.
His conversation was not unsuitable to his appearance. I lost some
of his good-will, by treating a heretical writer with more regard
than, in his opinion, a heretick could deserve. I honoured his
orthodoxy, and did not much censure his asperity. A man who has
settled his opinions, does not love to have the tranquillity of his
conviction disturbed; and at seventy-seven it is time to be in
Mention was made of the Earse translation of the New Testament,
which has been lately published, and of which the learned Mr.
Macqueen of Sky spoke with commendation; but Mr. Maclean said he
did not use it, because he could make the text more intelligible to
his auditors by an extemporary version. From this I inferred, that
the language of the translation was not the language of the Isle of
He has no publick edifice for the exercise of his ministry; and can
officiate to no greater number, than a room can contain; and the
room of a hut is not very large. This is all the opportunity of
worship that is now granted to the inhabitants of the Island, some
of whom must travel thither perhaps ten miles. Two chapels were
erected by their ancestors, of which I saw the skeletons, which now
stand faithful witnesses of the triumph of the Reformation.
The want of churches is not the only impediment to piety: there is
likewise a want of Ministers. A parish often contains more Islands
than one; and each Island can have the Minister only in its own
turn. At Raasa they had, I think, a right to service only every
third Sunday. All the provision made by the present ecclesiastical
constitution, for the inhabitants of about a hundred square miles,
is a prayer and sermon in a little room, once in three weeks: and
even this parsimonious distribution is at the mercy of the weather;
and in those Islands where the Minister does not reside, it is
impossible to tell how many weeks or months may pass without any
publick exercise of religion.
GRISSIPOL IN COL
After a short conversation with Mr. Maclean, we went on to
Grissipol, a house and farm tenanted by Mr. Macsweyn, where I saw
more of the ancient life of a Highlander, than I had yet found.
Mrs. Macsweyn could speak no English, and had never seen any other
places than the Islands of Sky, Mull, and Col: but she was
hospitable and good-humoured, and spread her table with sufficient
liberality. We found tea here, as in every other place, but our
spoons were of horn.
The house of Grissipol stands by a brook very clear and quick;
which is, I suppose, one of the most copious streams in the Island.
This place was the scene of an action, much celebrated in the
traditional history of Col, but which probably no two relaters will
Some time, in the obscure ages, Macneil of Barra married the Lady
Maclean, who had the Isle of Col for her jointure. Whether Macneil
detained Col, when the widow was dead, or whether she lived so long
as to make her heirs impatient, is perhaps not now known. The
younger son, called John Gerves, or John the Giant, a man of great
strength who was then in Ireland, either for safety, or for
education, dreamed of recovering his inheritance; and getting some
adventurers together, which, in those unsettled times, was not hard
to do, invaded Col. He was driven away, but was not discouraged,
and collecting new followers, in three years came again with fifty
men. In his way he stopped at Artorinish in Morvern, where his
uncle was prisoner to Macleod, and was then with his enemies in a
tent. Maclean took with him only one servant, whom he ordered to
stay at the outside; and where he should see the tent pressed
outwards, to strike with his dirk, it being the intention of
Maclean, as any man provoked him, to lay hands upon him, and push
him back. He entered the tent alone, with his Lochabar-axe in his
hand, and struck such terror into the whole assembly, that they
dismissed his uncle.
When he landed at Col, he saw the sentinel, who kept watch towards
the sea, running off to Grissipol, to give Macneil, who was there
with a hundred and twenty men, an account of the invasion. He told
Macgill, one of his followers, that if he intercepted that
dangerous intelligence, by catching the courier, he would give him
certain lands in Mull. Upon this promise, Macgill pursued the
messenger, and either killed, or stopped him; and his posterity,
till very lately, held the lands in Mull.
The alarm being thus prevented, he came unexpectedly upon Macneil.
Chiefs were in those days never wholly unprovided for an enemy. A
fight ensued, in which one of their followers is said to have given
an extraordinary proof of activity, by bounding backwards over the
brook of Grissipol. Macneil being killed, and many of his clan
destroyed, Maclean took possession of the Island, which the
Macneils attempted to conquer by another invasion, but were
defeated and repulsed.
Maclean, in his turn, invaded the estate of the Macneils, took the
castle of Brecacig, and conquered the Isle of Barra, which he held
for seven years, and then restored it to the heirs.
CASTLE OF COL
From Grissipol, Mr. Maclean conducted us to his father's seat; a
neat new house, erected near the old castle, I think, by the last
proprietor. Here we were allowed to take our station, and lived
very commodiously, while we waited for moderate weather and a fair
wind, which we did not so soon obtain, but we had time to get some
information of the present state of Col, partly by inquiry, and
partly by occasional excursions.
Col is computed to be thirteen miles in length, and three in
breadth. Both the ends are the property of the Duke of Argyle, but
the middle belongs to Maclean, who is called Col, as the only
Col is not properly rocky; it is rather one continued rock, of a
surface much diversified with protuberances, and covered with a
thin layer of earth, which is often broken, and discovers the
stone. Such a soil is not for plants that strike deep roots; and
perhaps in the whole Island nothing has ever yet grown to the
height of a table. The uncultivated parts are clothed with heath,
among which industry has interspersed spots of grass and corn; but
no attempt has yet been made to raise a tree. Young Col, who has a
very laudable desire of improving his patrimony, purposes some time
to plant an orchard; which, if it be sheltered by a wall, may
perhaps succeed. He has introduced the culture of turnips, of
which he has a field, where the whole work was performed by his own
hand. His intention is to provide food for his cattle in the
winter. This innovation was considered by Mr. Macsweyn as the idle
project of a young head, heated with English fancies; but he has
now found that turnips will really grow, and that hungry sheep and
cows will really eat them.
By such acquisitions as these, the Hebrides may in time rise above
their annual distress. Wherever heath will grow, there is reason
to think something better may draw nourishment; and by trying the
production of other places, plants will be found suitable to every
Col has many lochs, some of which have trouts and eels, and others
have never yet been stocked; another proof of the negligence of the
Islanders, who might take fish in the inland waters, when they
cannot go to sea.
Their quadrupeds are horses, cows, sheep, and goats. They have
neither deer, hares, nor rabbits. They have no vermin, except
rats, which have been lately brought thither by sea, as to other
places; and are free from serpents, frogs, and toads.
The harvest in Col, and in Lewis, is ripe sooner than in Sky; and
the winter in Col is never cold, but very tempestuous. I know not
that I ever heard the wind so loud in any other place; and Mr.
Boswell observed, that its noise was all its own, for there were no
trees to increase it.
Noise is not the worst effect of the tempests; for they have thrown
the sand from the shore over a considerable part of the land; and
it is said still to encroach and destroy more and more pasture; but
I am not of opinion, that by any surveys or landmarks, its limits
have been ever fixed, or its progression ascertained. If one man
has confidence enough to say, that it advances, nobody can bring
any proof to support him in denying it. The reason why it is not
spread to a greater extent, seems to be, that the wind and rain
come almost together, and that it is made close and heavy by the
wet before the storms can put it in motion. So thick is the bed,
and so small the particles, that if a traveller should be caught by
a sudden gust in dry weather, he would find it very difficult to
escape with life.
For natural curiosities, I was shown only two great masses of
stone, which lie loose upon the ground; one on the top of a hill,
and the other at a small distance from the bottom. They certainly
were never put into their present places by human strength or
skill; and though an earthquake might have broken off the lower
stone, and rolled it into the valley, no account can be given of
the other, which lies on the hill, unless, which I forgot to
examine, there be still near it some higher rock, from which it
might be torn. All nations have a tradition, that their earliest
ancestors were giants, and these stones are said to have been
thrown up and down by a giant and his mistress. There are so many
more important things, of which human knowledge can give no
account, that it may be forgiven us, if we speculate no longer on
two stones in Col.
This Island is very populous. About nine-and-twenty years ago, the
fencible men of Col were reckoned one hundred and forty, which is
the sixth of eight hundred and forty; and probably some contrived
to be left out of the list. The Minister told us, that a few years
ago the inhabitants were eight hundred, between the ages of seven
and of seventy. Round numbers are seldom exact. But in this case
the authority is good, and the errour likely to be little. If to
the eight hundred be added what the laws of computation require,
they will be increased to at least a thousand; and if the
dimensions of the country have been accurately related, every mile
maintains more than twenty-five.
This proportion of habitation is greater than the appearance of the
country seems to admit; for wherever the eye wanders, it sees much
waste and little cultivation. I am more inclined to extend the
land, of which no measure has ever been taken, than to diminish the
people, who have been really numbered. Let it be supposed, that a
computed mile contains a mile and a half, as was commonly found
true in the mensuration of the English roads, and we shall then
allot nearly twelve to a mile, which agrees much better with ocular
Here, as in Sky, and other Islands, are the Laird, the Tacksmen,
and the under tenants.
Mr. Maclean, the Laird, has very extensive possessions, being
proprietor, not only of far the greater part of Col, but of the
extensive Island of Rum, and a very considerable territory in Mull.
Rum is one of the larger Islands, almost square, and therefore of
great capacity in proportion to its sides. By the usual method of
estimating computed extent, it may contain more than a hundred and
twenty square miles.
It originally belonged to Clanronald, and was purchased by Col;
who, in some dispute about the bargain, made Clanronald prisoner,
and kept him nine months in confinement. Its owner represents it
as mountainous, rugged, and barren. In the hills there are red
deer. The horses are very small, but of a breed eminent for
beauty. Col, not long ago, bought one of them from a tenant; who
told him, that as he was of a shape uncommonly elegant, he could
not sell him but at a high price; and that whoever had him should
pay a guinea and a half.
There are said to be in Barra a race of horses yet smaller, of
which the highest is not above thirty-six inches.
The rent of Rum is not great. Mr. Maclean declared, that he should
be very rich, if he could set his land at two-pence halfpenny an
acre. The inhabitants are fifty-eight families, who continued
Papists for some time after the Laird became a Protestant. Their
adherence to their old religion was strengthened by the countenance
of the Laird's sister, a zealous Romanist, till one Sunday, as they
were going to mass under the conduct of their patroness, Maclean
met them on the way, gave one of them a blow on the head with a
yellow stick, I suppose a cane, for which the Earse had no name,
and drove them to the kirk, from which they have never since
departed. Since the use of this method of conversion, the
inhabitants of Egg and Canna, who continue Papists, call the
Protestantism of Rum, the religion of the Yellow Stick.
The only Popish Islands are Egg and Canna. Egg is the principal
Island of a parish, in which, though he has no congregation, the
Protestant Minister resides. I have heard of nothing curious in
it, but the cave in which a former generation of the Islanders were
smothered by Macleod.
If we had travelled with more leisure, it had not been fit to have
neglected the Popish Islands. Popery is favourable to ceremony;
and among ignorant nations, ceremony is the only preservative of
tradition. Since protestantism was extended to the savage parts of
Scotland, it has perhaps been one of the chief labours of the
Ministers to abolish stated observances, because they continued the
remembrance of the former religion. We therefore who came to hear
old traditions, and see antiquated manners, should probably have
found them amongst the Papists.
Canna, the other Popish Island, belongs to Clanronald. It is said
not to comprise more than twelve miles of land, and yet maintains
as many inhabitants as Rum.
We were at Col under the protection of the young Laird, without any
of the distresses, which Mr. Pennant, in a fit of simple credulity,
seems to think almost worthy of an elegy by Ossian. Wherever we
roved, we were pleased to see the reverence with which his subjects
regarded him. He did not endeavour to dazzle them by any
magnificence of dress: his only distinction was a feather in his
bonnet; but as soon as he appeared, they forsook their work and
clustered about him: he took them by the hand, and they seemed
mutually delighted. He has the proper disposition of a Chieftain,
and seems desirous to continue the customs of his house. The
bagpiper played regularly, when dinner was served, whose person and
dress made a good appearance; and he brought no disgrace upon the
family of Rankin, which has long supplied the Lairds of Col with
The Tacksmen of Col seem to live with less dignity and convenience
than those of Sky; where they had good houses, and tables not only
plentiful, but delicate. In Col only two houses pay the window
tax; for only two have six windows, which, I suppose, are the
Laird's and Mr. Macsweyn's.
The rents have, till within seven years, been paid in kind, but the
tenants finding that cattle and corn varied in their price, desired
for the future to give their landlord money; which, not having yet
arrived at the philosophy of commerce, they consider as being every
year of the same value.
We were told of a particular mode of under-tenure. The Tacksman
admits some of his inferior neighbours to the cultivation of his
grounds, on condition that performing all the work, and giving a
third part of the seed, they shall keep a certain number of cows,
sheep, and goats, and reap a third part of the harvest. Thus by
less than the tillage of two acres they pay the rent of one.
There are tenants below the rank of Tacksmen, that have got smaller
tenants under them; for in every place, where money is not the
general equivalent, there must be some whose labour is immediately
paid by daily food.
A country that has no money, is by no means convenient for beggars,
both because such countries are commonly poor, and because charity
requires some trouble and some thought. A penny is easily given
upon the first impulse of compassion, or impatience of importunity;
but few will deliberately search their cupboards or their granaries
to find out something to give. A penny is likewise easily spent,
but victuals, if they are unprepared, require houseroom, and fire,
and utensils, which the beggar knows not where to find.
Yet beggars there sometimes are, who wander from Island to Island.
We had, in our passage to Mull, the company of a woman and her
child, who had exhausted the charity of Col. The arrival of a
beggar on an Island is accounted a sinistrous event. Every body
considers that he shall have the less for what he gives away.
Their alms, I believe, is generally oatmeal.
Near to Col is another Island called Tireye, eminent for its
fertility. Though it has but half the extent of Rum, it is so well
peopled, that there have appeared, not long ago, nine hundred and
fourteen at a funeral. The plenty of this Island enticed beggars
to it, who seemed so burdensome to the inhabitants, that a formal
compact was drawn up, by which they obliged themselves to grant no
more relief to casual wanderers, because they had among them an
indigent woman of high birth, whom they considered as entitled to
all that they could spare. I have read the stipulation, which was
indited with juridical formality, but was never made valid by
If the inhabitants of Col have nothing to give, it is not that they
are oppressed by their landlord: their leases seem to be very
profitable. One farmer, who pays only seven pounds a year, has
maintained seven daughters and three sons, of whom the eldest is
educated at Aberdeen for the ministry; and now, at every vacation,
opens a school in Col.
Life is here, in some respects, improved beyond the condition of
some other Islands. In Sky what is wanted can only be bought, as
the arrival of some wandering pedlar may afford an opportunity; but
in Col there is a standing shop, and in Mull there are two. A shop
in the Islands, as in other places of little frequentation, is a
repository of every thing requisite for common use. Mr. Boswell's
journal was filled, and he bought some paper in Col. To a man that
ranges the streets of London, where he is tempted to contrive
wants, for the pleasure of supplying them, a shop affords no image
worthy of attention; but in an Island, it turns the balance of
existence between good and evil. To live in perpetual want of
little things, is a state not indeed of torture, but of constant
vexation. I have in Sky had some difficulty to find ink for a
letter; and if a woman breaks her needle, the work is at a stop.
As it is, the Islanders are obliged to content themselves with
succedaneous means for many common purposes. I have seen the chief
man of a very wide district riding with a halter for a bridle, and
governing his hobby with a wooden curb.
The people of Col, however, do not want dexterity to supply some of
their necessities. Several arts which make trades, and demand
apprenticeships in great cities, are here the practices of daily
economy. In every house candles are made, both moulded and dipped.
Their wicks are small shreds of linen cloth. They all know how to
extract from the Cuddy, oil for their lamps. They all tan skins,
and make brogues.
As we travelled through Sky, we saw many cottages, but they very
frequently stood single on the naked ground. In Col, where the
hills opened a place convenient for habitation, we found a petty
village, of which every hut had a little garden adjoining; thus
they made an appearance of social commerce and mutual offices, and
of some attention to convenience and future supply. There is not
in the Western Islands any collection of buildings that can make
pretensions to be called a town, except in the Isle of Lewis, which
I have not seen.
If Lewis is distinguished by a town, Col has also something
peculiar. The young Laird has attempted what no Islander perhaps
ever thought on. He has begun a road capable of a wheel-carriage.
He has carried it about a mile, and will continue it by annual
elongation from his house to the harbour.
Of taxes here is no reason for complaining; they are paid by a very
easy composition. The malt-tax for Col is twenty shillings.
Whisky is very plentiful: there are several stills in the Island,
and more is made than the inhabitants consume.
The great business of insular policy is now to keep the people in
their own country. As the world has been let in upon them, they
have heard of happier climates, and less arbitrary government; and
if they are disgusted, have emissaries among them ready to offer
them land and houses, as a reward for deserting their Chief and
clan. Many have departed both from the main of Scotland, and from
the Islands; and all that go may be considered as subjects lost to
the British crown; for a nation scattered in the boundless regions
of America resembles rays diverging from a focus. All the rays
remain, but the heat is gone. Their power consisted in their
concentration: when they are dispersed, they have no effect.
It may be thought that they are happier by the change; but they are
not happy as a nation, for they are a nation no longer. As they
contribute not to the prosperity of any community, they must want
that security, that dignity, that happiness, whatever it be, which
a prosperous community throws back upon individuals.
The inhabitants of Col have not yet learned to be weary of their
heath and rocks, but attend their agriculture and their dairies,
without listening to American seducements.
There are some however who think that this emigration has raised
terrour disproportionate to its real evil; and that it is only a
new mode of doing what was always done. The Highlands, they say,
never maintained their natural inhabitants; but the people, when
they found themselves too numerous, instead of extending
cultivation, provided for themselves by a more compendious method,
and sought better fortune in other countries. They did not indeed
go away in collective bodies, but withdrew invisibly, a few at a
time; but the whole number of fugitives was not less, and the
difference between other times and this, is only the same as
between evaporation and effusion.
This is plausible, but I am afraid it is not true. Those who went
before, if they were not sensibly missed, as the argument supposes,
must have gone either in less number, or in a manner less
detrimental, than at present; because formerly there was no
complaint. Those who then left the country were generally the idle
dependants on overburdened families, or men who had no property;
and therefore carried away only themselves. In the present
eagerness of emigration, families, and almost communities, go away
together. Those who were considered as prosperous and wealthy sell
their stock and carry away the money. Once none went away but the
useless and poor; in some parts there is now reason to fear, that
none will stay but those who are too poor to remove themselves, and
too useless to be removed at the cost of others.
Of antiquity there is not more knowledge in Col than in other
places; but every where something may be gleaned.
How ladies were portioned, when there was no money, it would be
difficult for an Englishman to guess. In 1649, Maclean of Dronart
in Mull married his sister Fingala to Maclean of Coll, with a
hundred and eighty kine; and stipulated, that if she became a
widow, her jointure should be three hundred and sixty. I suppose
some proportionate tract of land was appropriated to their
The disposition to pompous and expensive funerals, which has at one
time or other prevailed in most parts of the civilized world, is
not yet suppressed in the Islands, though some of the ancient
solemnities are worn away, and singers are no longer hired to
attend the procession. Nineteen years ago, at the burial of the
Laird of Col, were killed thirty cows, and about fifty sheep. The
number of the cows is positively told, and we must suppose other
victuals in like proportion.
Mr. Maclean informed us of an odd game, of which he did not tell
the original, but which may perhaps be used in other places, where
the reason of it is not yet forgot. At New-year's eve, in the hall
or castle of the Laird, where, at festal seasons, there may be
supposed a very numerous company, one man dresses himself in a
cow's hide, upon which other men beat with sticks. He runs with
all this noise round the house, which all the company quits in a
counterfeited fright: the door is then shut. At New-year's eve
there is no great pleasure to be had out of doors in the Hebrides.
They are sure soon to recover from their terrour enough to solicit
for re-admission; which, for the honour of poetry, is not to be
obtained but by repeating a verse, with which those that are
knowing and provident take care to be furnished.
Very near the house of Maclean stands the castle of Col, which was
the mansion of the Laird, till the house was built. It is built
upon a rock, as Mr. Boswell remarked, that it might not be mined.
It is very strong, and having been not long uninhabited, is yet in
repair. On the wall was, not long ago, a stone with an
inscription, importing, that 'if any man of the clan of Maclonich
shall appear before this castle, though he come at midnight, with a
man's head in his hand, he shall there find safety and protection
against all but the King.'
This is an old Highland treaty made upon a very memorable occasion.
Maclean, the son of John Gerves, who recovered Col, and conquered
Barra, had obtained, it is said, from James the Second, a grant of
the lands of Lochiel, forfeited, I suppose, by some offence against
Forfeited estates were not in those days quietly resigned; Maclean,
therefore, went with an armed force to seize his new possessions,
and, I know not for what reason, took his wife with him. The
Camerons rose in defence of their Chief, and a battle was fought at
the head of Loch Ness, near the place where Fort Augustus now
stands, in which Lochiel obtained the victory, and Maclean, with
his followers, was defeated and destroyed.
The lady fell into the hands of the conquerours, and being found
pregnant was placed in the custody of Maclonich, one of a tribe or
family branched from Cameron, with orders, if she brought a boy, to
destroy him, if a girl, to spare her.
Maclonich's wife, who was with child likewise, had a girl about the
same time at which lady Maclean brought a boy, and Maclonich with
more generosity to his captive, than fidelity to his trust,
contrived that the children should be changed.
Maclean being thus preserved from death, in time recovered his
original patrimony; and in gratitude to his friend, made his castle
a place of refuge to any of the clan that should think himself in
danger; and, as a proof of reciprocal confidence, Maclean took upon
himself and his posterity the care of educating the heir of
This story, like all other traditions of the Highlands, is
variously related, but though some circumstances are uncertain, the
principal fact is true. Maclean undoubtedly owed his preservation
to Maclonich; for the treaty between the two families has been
strictly observed: it did not sink into disuse and oblivion, but
continued in its full force while the chieftains retained their
power. I have read a demand of protection, made not more than
thirty-seven years ago, for one of the Maclonichs, named Ewen
Cameron, who had been accessory to the death of Macmartin, and had
been banished by Lochiel, his lord, for a certain term; at the
expiration of which he returned married from France, but the
Macmartins, not satisfied with the punishment, when he attempted to
settle, still threatened him with vengeance. He therefore asked,
and obtained shelter in the Isle of Col.
The power of protection subsists no longer, but what the law
permits is yet continued, and Maclean of Col now educates the heir
There still remains in the Islands, though it is passing fast away,
the custom of fosterage. A Laird, a man of wealth and eminence,
sends his child, either male or female, to a tacksman, or tenant,
to be fostered. It is not always his own tenant, but some distant
friend that obtains this honour; for an honour such a trust is very
reasonably thought. The terms of fosterage seem to vary in
different islands. In Mull, the father sends with his child a
certain number of cows, to which the same number is added by the
fosterer. The father appropriates a proportionable extent of
ground, without rent, for their pasturage. If every cow brings a
calf, half belongs to the fosterer, and half to the child; but if
there be only one calf between two cows, it is the child's, and
when the child returns to the parent, it is accompanied by all the
cows given, both by the father and by the fosterer, with half of
the increase of the stock by propagation. These beasts are
considered as a portion, and called Macalive cattle, of which the
father has the produce, but is supposed not to have the full
property, but to owe the same number to the child, as a portion to
the daughter, or a stock for the son.
Children continue with the fosterer perhaps six years, and cannot,
where this is the practice, be considered as burdensome. The
fosterer, if he gives four cows, receives likewise four, and has,
while the child continues with him, grass for eight without rent,
with half the calves, and all the milk, for which he pays only four
cows when he dismisses his Dalt, for that is the name for a foster
Fosterage is, I believe, sometimes performed upon more liberal
terms. Our friend, the young Laird of Col, was fostered by
Macsweyn of Grissipol. Macsweyn then lived a tenant to Sir James
Macdonald in the Isle of Sky; and therefore Col, whether he sent
him cattle or not, could grant him no land. The Dalt, however, at
his return, brought back a considerable number of Macalive cattle,
and of the friendship so formed there have been good effects. When
Macdonald raised his rents, Macsweyn was, like other tenants,
discontented, and, resigning his farm, removed from Sky to Col, and
was established at Grissipol.
These observations we made by favour of the contrary wind that
drove us to Col, an Island not often visited; for there is not much
to amuse curiosity, or to attract avarice.
The ground has been hitherto, I believe, used chiefly for
pasturage. In a district, such as the eye can command, there is a
general herdsman, who knows all the cattle of the neighbourhood,
and whose station is upon a hill, from which he surveys the lower
grounds; and if one man's cattle invade another's grass, drives
them back to their own borders. But other means of profit begin to
be found; kelp is gathered and burnt, and sloops are loaded with
the concreted ashes. Cultivation is likely to be improved by the
skill and encouragement of the present heir, and the inhabitants of
those obscure vallies will partake of the general progress of life.
The rents of the parts which belong to the Duke of Argyle, have
been raised from fifty-five to one hundred and five pounds, whether
from the land or the sea I cannot tell. The bounties of the sea
have lately been so great, that a farm in Southuist has risen in
ten years from a rent of thirty pounds to one hundred and eighty.
He who lives in Col, and finds himself condemned to solitary meals,
and incommunicable reflection, will find the usefulness of that
middle order of Tacksmen, which some who applaud their own wisdom
are wishing to destroy. Without intelligence man is not social, he
is only gregarious; and little intelligence will there be, where
all are constrained to daily labour, and every mind must wait upon
After having listened for some days to the tempest, and wandered
about the Island till our curiosity was satisfied, we began to
think about our departure. To leave Col in October was not very
easy. We however found a sloop which lay on the coast to carry
kelp; and for a price which we thought levied upon our necessities,
the master agreed to carry us to Mull, whence we might readily pass
back to Scotland.
As we were to catch the first favourable breath, we spent the night
not very elegantly nor pleasantly in the vessel, and were landed
next day at Tobor Morar, a port in Mull, which appears to an
unexperienced eye formed for the security of ships; for its mouth
is closed by a small island, which admits them through narrow
channels into a bason sufficiently capacious. They are indeed safe
from the sea, but there is a hollow between the mountains, through
which the wind issues from the land with very mischievous violence.
There was no danger while we were there, and we found several other
vessels at anchor; so that the port had a very commercial
The young Laird of Col, who had determined not to let us lose his
company, while there was any difficulty remaining, came over with
us. His influence soon appeared; for he procured us horses, and
conducted us to the house of Doctor Maclean, where we found very
kind entertainment, and very pleasing conversation. Miss Maclean,
who was born, and had been bred at Glasgow, having removed with her
father to Mull, added to other qualifications, a great knowledge of
the Earse language, which she had not learned in her childhood, but
gained by study, and was the only interpreter of Earse poetry that
I could ever find.
The Isle of Mull is perhaps in extent the third of the Hebrides.
It is not broken by waters, nor shot into promontories, but is a
solid and compact mass, of breadth nearly equal to its length. Of
the dimensions of the larger Islands, there is no knowledge
approaching to exactness. I am willing to estimate it as
containing about three hundred square miles.
Mull had suffered like Sky by the black winter of seventy-one, in
which, contrary to all experience, a continued frost detained the
snow eight weeks upon the ground. Against a calamity never known,
no provision had been made, and the people could only pine in
helpless misery. One tenant was mentioned, whose cattle perished
to the value of three hundred pounds; a loss which probably more
than the life of man is necessary to repair. In countries like
these, the descriptions of famine become intelligible. Where by
vigorous and artful cultivation of a soil naturally fertile, there
is commonly a superfluous growth both of grain and grass; where the
fields are crowded with cattle; and where every hand is able to
attract wealth from a distance, by making something that promotes
ease, or gratifies vanity, a dear year produces only a comparative
want, which is rather seen than felt, and which terminates commonly
in no worse effect, than that of condemning the lower orders of the
community to sacrifice a little luxury to convenience, or at most a
little convenience to necessity.
But where the climate is unkind, and the ground penurious, so that
the most fruitful years will produce only enough to maintain
themselves; where life unimproved, and unadorned, fades into
something little more than naked existence, and every one is busy
for himself, without any arts by which the pleasure of others may
be increased; if to the daily burden of distress any additional
weight be added, nothing remains but to despair and die. In Mull
the disappointment of a harvest, or a murrain among the cattle,
cuts off the regular provision; and they who have no manufactures
can purchase no part of the superfluities of other countries. The
consequence of a bad season is here not scarcity, but emptiness;
and they whose plenty, was barely a supply of natural and present
need, when that slender stock fails, must perish with hunger.
All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better
countries, he may learn to improve his own, and if fortune carries
him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.
Mr. Boswell's curiosity strongly impelled him to survey Iona, or
Icolmkil, which was to the early ages the great school of Theology,
and is supposed to have been the place of sepulture for the ancient
kings. I, though less eager, did not oppose him.
That we might perform this expedition, it was necessary to traverse
a great part of Mull. We passed a day at Dr. Maclean's, and could
have been well contented to stay longer. But Col provided us
horses, and we pursued our journey. This was a day of
inconvenience, for the country is very rough, and my horse was but
little. We travelled many hours through a tract, black and barren,
in which, however, there were the reliques of humanity; for we
found a ruined chapel in our way.
It is natural, in traversing this gloom of desolation, to inquire,
whether something may not be done to give nature a more cheerful
face, and whether those hills and moors that afford heath cannot
with a little care and labour bear something better? The first
thought that occurs is to cover them with trees, for that in many
of these naked regions trees will grow, is evident, because stumps
and roots are yet remaining; and the speculatist hastily proceeds
to censure that negligence and laziness that has omitted for so
long a time so easy an improvement.
To drop seeds into the ground, and attend their growth, requires
little labour and no skill. He who remembers that all the woods,
by which the wants of man have been supplied from the Deluge till
now, were self-sown, will not easily be persuaded to think all the
art and preparation necessary, which the Georgick writers prescribe
to planters. Trees certainly have covered the earth with very
little culture. They wave their tops among the rocks of Norway,
and might thrive as well in the Highlands and Hebrides.
But there is a frightful interval between the seed and timber. He
that calculates the growth of trees, has the unwelcome remembrance
of the shortness of life driven hard upon him. He knows that he is
doing what will never benefit himself; and when he rejoices to see
the stem rise, is disposed to repine that another shall cut it
Plantation is naturally the employment of a mind unburdened with
care, and vacant to futurity, saturated with present good, and at
leisure to derive gratification from the prospect of posterity. He
that pines with hunger, is in little care how others shall be fed.
The poor man is seldom studious to make his grandson rich. It may
be soon discovered, why in a place, which hardly supplies the
cravings of necessity, there has been little attention to the
delights of fancy, and why distant convenience is unregarded, where
the thoughts are turned with incessant solicitude upon every
possibility of immediate advantage.
Neither is it quite so easy to raise large woods, as may be
conceived. Trees intended to produce timber must be sown where
they are to grow; and ground sown with trees must be kept useless
for a long time, inclosed at an expence from which many will be
discouraged by the remoteness of the profit, and watched with that
attention, which, in places where it is most needed, will neither
be given nor bought. That it cannot be plowed is evident; and if
cattle be suffered to graze upon it, they will devour the plants as
fast as they rise. Even in coarser countries, where herds and
flocks are not fed, not only the deer and the wild goats will
browse upon them, but the hare and rabbit will nibble them. It is
therefore reasonable to believe, what I do not remember any
naturalist to have remarked, that there was a time when the world
was very thinly inhabited by beasts, as well as men, and that the
woods had leisure to rise high before animals had bred numbers
sufficient to intercept them.
Sir James Macdonald, in part of the wastes of his territory, set or
sowed trees, to the number, as I have been told, of several
millions, expecting, doubtless, that they would grow up into future
navies and cities; but for want of inclosure, and of that care
which is always necessary, and will hardly ever be taken, all his
cost and labour have been lost, and the ground is likely to
continue an useless heath.
Having not any experience of a journey in Mull, we had no doubt of
reaching the sea by day-light, and therefore had not left Dr.
Maclean's very early. We travelled diligently enough, but found
the country, for road there was none, very difficult to pass. We
were always struggling with some obstruction or other, and our
vexation was not balanced by any gratification of the eye or mind.
We were now long enough acquainted with hills and heath to have
lost the emotion that they once raised, whether pleasing or
painful, and had our mind employed only on our own fatigue. We
were however sure, under Col's protection, of escaping all real
evils. There was no house in Mull to which he could not introduce
us. He had intended to lodge us, for that night, with a gentleman
that lived upon the coast, but discovered on the way, that he then
lay in bed without hope of life.
We resolved not to embarrass a family, in a time of so much sorrow,
if any other expedient could he found; and as the Island of Ulva
was over-against us, it was determined that we should pass the
strait and have recourse to the Laird, who, like the other
gentlemen of the Islands, was known to Col. We expected to find a
ferry-boat, but when at last we came to the water, the boat was
We were now again at a stop. It was the sixteenth of October, a
time when it is not convenient to sleep in the Hebrides without a
cover, and there was no house within our reach, but that which we
had already declined.
While we stood deliberating, we were happily espied from an Irish
ship, that lay at anchor in the strait. The master saw that we
wanted a passage, and with great civility sent us his boat, which
quickly conveyed us to Ulva, where we were very liberally
entertained by Mr. Macquarry.
To Ulva we came in the dark, and left it before noon the next day.
A very exact description therefore will not be expected. We were
told, that it is an Island of no great extent, rough and barren,
inhabited by the Macquarrys; a clan not powerful nor numerous, but
of antiquity, which most other families are content to reverence.
The name is supposed to be a depravation of some other; for the
Earse language does not afford it any etymology. Macquarry is
proprietor both of Ulva and some adjacent Islands, among which is
Staffa, so lately raised to renown by Mr. Banks.
When the Islanders were reproached with their ignorance, or
insensibility of the wonders of Staffa, they had not much to reply.
They had indeed considered it little, because they had always seen
it; and none but philosophers, nor they always, are struck with
wonder, otherwise than by novelty. How would it surprise an
unenlightened ploughman, to hear a company of sober men, inquiring
by what power the hand tosses a stone, or why the stone, when it is
tossed, falls to the ground!
Of the ancestors of Macquarry, who thus lies hid in his
unfrequented Island, I have found memorials in all places where
they could be expected.
Inquiring after the reliques of former manners, I found that in
Ulva, and, I think, no where else, is continued the payment of the
Mercheta Mulierum; a fine in old times due to the Laird at the
marriage of a virgin. The original of this claim, as of our tenure
of Borough English, is variously delivered. It is pleasant to find
ancient customs in old families. This payment, like others, was,
for want of money, made anciently in the produce of the land.
Macquarry was used to demand a sheep, for which he now takes a
crown, by that inattention to the uncertain proportion between the
value and the denomination of money, which has brought much
disorder into Europe. A sheep has always the same power of
supplying human wants, but a crown will bring at one time more, at
Ulva was not neglected by the piety of ardent times: it has still
to show what was once a church.
In the morning we went again into the boat, and were landed on Inch
Kenneth, an Island about a mile long, and perhaps half a mile
broad, remarkable for pleasantness and fertility. It is verdant
and grassy, and fit both for pasture and tillage; but it has no
trees. Its only inhabitants were Sir Allan Maclean and two young
ladies, his daughters, with their servants.
Romance does not often exhibit a scene that strikes the imagination
more than this little desert in these depths of Western obscurity,
occupied not by a gross herdsman, or amphibious fisherman, but by a
gentleman and two ladies, of high birth, polished manners and
elegant conversation, who, in a habitation raised not very far
above the ground, but furnished with unexpected neatness and
convenience, practised all the kindness of hospitality, and
refinement of courtesy.
Sir Allan is the Chieftain of the great clan of Maclean, which is
said to claim the second place among the Highland families,
yielding only to Macdonald. Though by the misconduct of his
ancestors, most of the extensive territory, which would have
descended to him, has been alienated, he still retains much of the
dignity and authority of his birth. When soldiers were lately
wanting for the American war, application was made to Sir Allan,
and he nominated a hundred men for the service, who obeyed the
summons, and bore arms under his command.
He had then, for some time, resided with the young ladies in Inch
Kenneth, where he lives not only with plenty, but with elegance,
having conveyed to his cottage a collection of books, and what else
is necessary to make his hours pleasant.
When we landed, we were met by Sir Allan and the Ladies,
accompanied by Miss Macquarry, who had passed some time with them,
and now returned to Ulva with her father.
We all walked together to the mansion, where we found one cottage
for Sir Allan, and I think two more for the domesticks and the
offices. We entered, and wanted little that palaces afford. Our
room was neatly floored, and well lighted; and our dinner, which
was dressed in one of the other huts, was plentiful and delicate.
In the afternoon Sir Allan reminded us, that the day was Sunday,
which he never suffered to pass without some religious distinction,
and invited us to partake in his acts of domestick worship; which I
hope neither Mr. Boswell nor myself will be suspected of a
disposition to refuse. The elder of the Ladies read the English
Inch Kenneth was once a seminary of ecclesiasticks, subordinate, I
suppose, to Icolmkill. Sir Allan had a mind to trace the
foundations of the college, but neither I nor Mr. Boswell, who
bends a keener eye on vacancy, were able to perceive them.
Our attention, however, was sufficiently engaged by a venerable
chapel, which stands yet entire, except that the roof is gone. It
is about sixty feet in length, and thirty in breadth. On one side
of the altar is a bas relief of the blessed Virgin, and by it lies
a little bell; which, though cracked, and without a clapper, has
remained there for ages, guarded only by the venerableness of the
place. The ground round the chapel is covered with grave-stones of
Chiefs and ladies; and still continues to be a place of sepulture.
Inch Kenneth is a proper prelude to Icolmkill. It was not without
some mournful emotion that we contemplated the ruins of religious
structures and the monuments of the dead.
On the next day we took a more distinct view of the place, and went
with the boat to see oysters in the bed, out of which the boat-men
forced up as many as were wanted. Even Inch Kenneth has a
subordinate Island, named Sandiland, I suppose in contempt, where
we landed, and found a rock, with a surface of perhaps four acres,
of which one is naked stone, another spread with sand and shells,
some of which I picked up for their glossy beauty, and two covered
with a little earth and grass, on which Sir Allan has a few sheep.
I doubt not but when there was a college at Inch Kenneth, there was
a hermitage upon Sandiland.
Having wandered over those extensive plains, we committed ourselves
again to the winds and waters; and after a voyage of about ten
minutes, in which we met with nothing very observable, were again
safe upon dry ground.
We told Sir Allan our desire of visiting Icolmkill, and entreated
him to give us his protection, and his company. He thought proper
to hesitate a little, but the Ladies hinted, that as they knew he
would not finally refuse, he would do better if he preserved the
grace of ready compliance. He took their advice, and promised to
carry us on the morrow in his boat.
We passed the remaining part of the day in such amusements as were
in our power. Sir Allan related the American campaign, and at
evening one of the Ladies played on her harpsichord, while Col and
Mr. Boswell danced a Scottish reel with the other.
We could have been easily persuaded to a longer stay upon Inch
Kenneth, but life will not be all passed in delight. The session
at Edinburgh was approaching, from which Mr. Boswell could not be
In the morning our boat was ready: it was high and strong. Sir
Allan victualled it for the day, and provided able rowers. We now
parted from the young Laird of Col, who had treated us with so much
kindness, and concluded his favours by consigning us to Sir Allan.
Here we had the last embrace of this amiable man, who, while these
pages were preparing to attest his virtues, perished in the passage
between Ulva and Inch Kenneth.
Sir Allan, to whom the whole region was well known, told us of a
very remarkable cave, to which he would show us the way. We had
been disappointed already by one cave, and were not much elevated
by the expectation of another.
It was yet better to see it, and we stopped at some rocks on the
coast of Mull. The mouth is fortified by vast fragments of stone,
over which we made our way, neither very nimbly, nor very securely.
The place, however, well repaid our trouble. The bottom, as far as
the flood rushes in, was encumbered with large pebbles, but as we
advanced was spread over with smooth sand. The breadth is about
forty-five feet: the roof rises in an arch, almost regular, to a
height which we could not measure; but I think it about thirty
This part of our curiosity was nearly frustrated; for though we
went to see a cave, and knew that caves are dark, we forgot to
carry tapers, and did not discover our omission till we were
wakened by our wants. Sir Allan then sent one of the boatmen into
the country, who soon returned with one little candle. We were
thus enabled to go forward, but could not venture far. Having
passed inward from the sea to a great depth, we found on the right
hand a narrow passage, perhaps not more than six feet wide,
obstructed by great stones, over which we climbed and came into a
second cave, in breadth twenty-five feet. The air in this
apartment was very warm, but not oppressive, nor loaded with
vapours. Our light showed no tokens of a feculent or corrupted
atmosphere. Here was a square stone, called, as we are told,
If we had been provided with torches, we should have proceeded in
our search, though we had already gone as far as any former
adventurer, except some who are reported never to have returned;
and, measuring our way back, we found it more than a hundred and
sixty yards, the eleventh part of a mile.
Our measures were not critically exact, having been made with a
walking pole, such as it is convenient to carry in these rocky
countries, of which I guessed the length by standing against it.
In this there could be no great errour, nor do I much doubt but the
Highlander, whom we employed, reported the number right. More
nicety however is better, and no man should travel unprovided with
instruments for taking heights and distances.
There is yet another cause of errour not always easily surmounted,
though more dangerous to the veracity of itinerary narratives, than
imperfect mensuration. An observer deeply impressed by any
remarkable spectacle, does not suppose, that the traces will soon
vanish from his mind, and having commonly no great convenience for
writing, defers the description to a time of more leisure, and
He who has not made the experiment, or who is not accustomed to
require rigorous accuracy from himself, will scarcely believe how
much a few hours take from certainty of knowledge, and distinctness
of imagery; how the succession of objects will be broken, how
separate parts will be confused, and how many particular features
and discriminations will be compressed and conglobated into one
gross and general idea.
To this dilatory notation must be imputed the false relations of
travellers, where there is no imaginable motive to deceive. They
trusted to memory, what cannot be trusted safely but to the eye,
and told by guess what a few hours before they had known with
certainty. Thus it was that Wheeler and Spon described with
irreconcilable contrariety things which they surveyed together, and
which both undoubtedly designed to show as they saw them.
When we had satisfied our curiosity in the cave, so far as our
penury of light permitted us, we clambered again to our boat, and
proceeded along the coast of Mull to a headland, called Atun,
remarkable for the columnar form of the rocks, which rise in a
series of pilasters, with a degree of regularity, which Sir Allan
thinks not less worthy of curiosity than the shore of Staffa.
Not long after we came to another range of black rocks, which had
the appearance of broken pilasters, set one behind another to a
great depth. This place was chosen by Sir Allan for our dinner.
We were easily accommodated with seats, for the stones were of all
heights, and refreshed ourselves and our boatmen, who could have no
other rest till we were at Icolmkill.
The evening was now approaching, and we were yet at a considerable
distance from the end of our expedition. We could therefore stop
no more to make remarks in the way, but set forward with some
degree of eagerness. The day soon failed us, and the moon
presented a very solemn and pleasing scene. The sky was clear, so
that the eye commanded a wide circle: the sea was neither still
nor turbulent: the wind neither silent nor loud. We were never
far from one coast or another, on which, if the weather had become
violent, we could have found shelter, and therefore contemplated at
ease the region through which we glided in the tranquillity of the
night, and saw now a rock and now an island grow gradually
conspicuous and gradually obscure. I committed the fault which I
have just been censuring, in neglecting, as we passed, to note the
series of this placid navigation.
We were very near an Island, called Nun's Island, perhaps from an
ancient convent. Here is said to have been dug the stone that was
used in the buildings of Icolmkill. Whether it is now inhabited we
could not stay to inquire.
At last we came to Icolmkill, but found no convenience for landing.
Our boat could not be forced very near the dry ground, and our
Highlanders carried us over the water.
We were now treading that illustrious Island, which was once the
luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving
barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge, and the blessings of
religion. To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be
impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish, if it
were possible. Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses;
whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate
over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings.
Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may
conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been
dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be
envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of
Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of
We came too late to visit monuments: some care was necessary for
ourselves. Whatever was in the Island, Sir Allan could command,
for the inhabitants were Macleans; but having little they could not
give us much. He went to the headman of the Island, whom Fame, but
Fame delights in amplifying, represents as worth no less than fifty
pounds. He was perhaps proud enough of his guests, but ill
prepared for our entertainment; however, he soon produced more
provision than men not luxurious require. Our lodging was next to
be provided. We found a barn well stocked with hay, and made our
beds as soft as we could.
In the morning we rose and surveyed the place. The churches of the
two convents are both standing, though unroofed. They were built
of unhewn stone, but solid, and not inelegant. I brought away rude
measures of the buildings, such as I cannot much trust myself,
inaccurately taken, and obscurely noted. Mr. Pennant's
delineations, which are doubtless exact, have made my unskilful
description less necessary.
The episcopal church consists of two parts, separated by the
belfry, and built at different times. The original church had,
like others, the altar at one end, and tower at the other: but as
it grew too small, another building of equal dimension was added,
and the tower then was necessarily in the middle.
That these edifices are of different ages seems evident. The arch
of the first church is Roman, being part of a circle; that of the
additional building is pointed, and therefore Gothick, or
Saracenical; the tower is firm, and wants only to be floored and
Of the chambers or cells belonging to the monks, there are some
walls remaining, but nothing approaching to a complete apartment.
The bottom of the church is so incumbered with mud and rubbish,
that we could make no discoveries of curious inscriptions, and what
there are have been already published. The place is said to be
known where the black stones lie concealed, on which the old
Highland Chiefs, when they made contracts and alliances, used to
take the oath, which was considered as more sacred than any other
obligation, and which could not be violated without the blackest
infamy. In those days of violence and rapine, it was of great
importance to impress upon savage minds the sanctity of an oath, by
some particular and extraordinary circumstances. They would not
have recourse to the black stones, upon small or common occasions,
and when they had established their faith by this tremendous
sanction, inconstancy and treachery were no longer feared.
The chapel of the nunnery is now used by the inhabitants as a kind
of general cow-house, and the bottom is consequently too miry for
examination. Some of the stones which covered the later abbesses
have inscriptions, which might yet be read, if the chapel were
cleansed. The roof of this, as of all the other buildings, is
totally destroyed, not only because timber quickly decays when it
is neglected, but because in an island utterly destitute of wood,
it was wanted for use, and was consequently the first plunder of
The chancel of the nuns' chapel is covered with an arch of stone,
to which time has done no injury; and a small apartment
communicating with the choir, on the north side, like the chapter-
house in cathedrals, roofed with stone in the same manner, is
In one of the churches was a marble altar, which the superstition
of the inhabitants has destroyed. Their opinion was, that a
fragment of this stone was a defence against shipwrecks, fire, and
miscarriages. In one corner of the church the bason for holy water
is yet unbroken.
The cemetery of the nunnery was, till very lately, regarded with
such reverence, that only women were buried in it. These reliques
of veneration always produce some mournful pleasure. I could have
forgiven a great injury more easily than the violation of this
South of the chapel stand the walls of a large room, which was
probably the hall, or refectory of the nunnery. This apartment is
capable of repair. Of the rest of the convent there are only
Besides the two principal churches, there are, I think, five
chapels yet standing, and three more remembered. There are also
crosses, of which two bear the names of St. John and St. Matthew.
A large space of ground about these consecrated edifices is covered
with gravestones, few of which have any inscription. He that
surveys it, attended by an insular antiquary, may be told where the
Kings of many nations are buried, and if he loves to sooth his
imagination with the thoughts that naturally rise in places where
the great and the powerful lie mingled with the dust, let him
listen in submissive silence; for if he asks any questions, his
delight is at an end.
Iona has long enjoyed, without any very credible attestation, the
honour of being reputed the cemetery of the Scottish Kings. It is
not unlikely, that, when the opinion of local sanctity was
prevalent, the Chieftains of the Isles, and perhaps some of the
Norwegian or Irish princes were reposited in this venerable
enclosure. But by whom the subterraneous vaults are peopled is now
utterly unknown. The graves are very numerous, and some of them
undoubtedly contain the remains of men, who did not expect to be so
Not far from this awful ground, may be traced the garden of the
monastery: the fishponds are yet discernible, and the aqueduct,
which supplied them, is still in use.
There remains a broken building, which is called the Bishop's
house, I know not by what authority. It was once the residence of
some man above the common rank, for it has two stories and a
chimney. We were shewn a chimney at the other end, which was only
a nich, without perforation, but so much does antiquarian
credulity, or patriotick vanity prevail, that it was not much more
safe to trust the eye of our instructor than the memory.
There is in the Island one house more, and only one, that has a
chimney: we entered it, and found it neither wanting repair nor
inhabitants; but to the farmers, who now possess it, the chimney is
of no great value; for their fire was made on the floor, in the
middle of the room, and notwithstanding the dignity of their
mansion, they rejoiced, like their neighbours, in the comforts of
It is observed, that ecclesiastical colleges are always in the most
pleasant and fruitful places. While the world allowed the monks
their choice, it is surely no dishonour that they chose well. This
Island is remarkably fruitful. The village near the churches is
said to contain seventy families, which, at five in a family, is
more than a hundred inhabitants to a mile. There are perhaps other
villages: yet both corn and cattle are annually exported.
But the fruitfulness of Iona is now its whole prosperity. The
inhabitants are remarkably gross, and remarkably neglected: I know
not if they are visited by any Minister. The Island, which was
once the metropolis of learning and piety, has now no school for
education, nor temple for worship, only two inhabitants that can
speak English, and not one that can write or read.
The people are of the clan of Maclean; and though Sir Allan had not
been in the place for many years, he was received with all the
reverence due to their Chieftain. One of them being sharply
reprehended by him, for not sending him some rum, declared after
his departure, in Mr. Boswell's presence, that he had no design of
disappointing him, 'for,' said he, 'I would cut my bones for him;
and if he had sent his dog for it, he should have had it.'
When we were to depart, our boat was left by the ebb at a great
distance from the water, but no sooner did we wish it afloat, than
the islanders gathered round it, and, by the union of many hands,
pushed it down the beach; every man who could contribute his help
seemed to think himself happy in the opportunity of being, for a
moment, useful to his Chief.
We now left those illustrious ruins, by which Mr. Boswell was much
affected, nor would I willingly be thought to have looked upon them
without some emotion. Perhaps, in the revolutions of the world,
Iona may be sometime again the instructress of the Western Regions.
It was no long voyage to Mull, where, under Sir Allan's protection,
we landed in the evening, and were entertained for the night by Mr.
Maclean, a Minister that lives upon the coast, whose elegance of
conversation, and strength of judgment, would make him conspicuous
in places of greater celebrity. Next day we dined with Dr.
Maclean, another physician, and then travelled on to the house of a
very powerful Laird, Maclean of Lochbuy; for in this country every
man's name is Maclean.
Where races are thus numerous, and thus combined, none but the
Chief of a clan is addressed by his name. The Laird of Dunvegan is
called Macleod, but other gentlemen of the same family are
denominated by the places where they reside, as Raasa, or Talisker.
The distinction of the meaner people is made by their Christian
names. In consequence of this practice, the late Laird of
Macfarlane, an eminent genealogist, considered himself as
disrespectfully treated, if the common addition was applied to him.
Mr. Macfarlane, said he, may with equal propriety be said to many;
but I, and I only, am Macfarlane.
Our afternoon journey was through a country of such gloomy
desolation, that Mr. Boswell thought no part of the Highlands
equally terrifick, yet we came without any difficulty, at evening,
to Lochbuy, where we found a true Highland Laird, rough and
haughty, and tenacious of his dignity; who, hearing my name,
inquired whether I was of the Johnstons of Glencroe, or of
Lochbuy has, like the other insular Chieftains, quitted the castle
that sheltered his ancestors, and lives near it, in a mansion not
very spacious or splendid. I have seen no houses in the Islands
much to be envied for convenience or magnificence, yet they bare
testimony to the progress of arts and civility, as they shew that
rapine and surprise are no longer dreaded, and are much more
commodious than the ancient fortresses.
The castles of the Hebrides, many of which are standing, and many
ruined, were always built upon points of land, on the margin of the
sea. For the choice of this situation there must have been some
general reason, which the change of manners has left in obscurity.
They were of no use in the days of piracy, as defences of the
coast; for it was equally accessible in other places. Had they
been sea-marks or light-houses, they would have been of more use to
the invader than the natives, who could want no such directions of
their own waters: for a watch-tower, a cottage on a hill would
have been better, as it would have commanded a wider view.
If they be considered merely as places of retreat, the situation
seems not well chosen; for the Laird of an Island is safest from
foreign enemies in the center; on the coast he might be more
suddenly surprised than in the inland parts; and the invaders, if
their enterprise miscarried, might more easily retreat. Some
convenience, however, whatever it was, their position on the shore
afforded; for uniformity of practice seldom continues long without
A castle in the Islands is only a single tower of three or four
stories, of which the walls are sometimes eight or nine feet thick,
with narrow windows, and close winding stairs of stone. The top
rises in a cone, or pyramid of stone, encompassed by battlements.
The intermediate floors are sometimes frames of timber, as in
common houses, and sometimes arches of stone, or alternately stone
and timber; so that there was very little danger from fire. In the
center of every floor, from top to bottom, is the chief room, of no
great extent, round which there are narrow cavities, or recesses,
formed by small vacuities, or by a double wall. I know not whether
there be ever more than one fire-place. They had not capacity to
contain many people, or much provision; but their enemies could
seldom stay to blockade them; for if they failed in the first
attack, their next care was to escape.
The walls were always too strong to be shaken by such desultory
hostilities; the windows were too narrow to be entered, and the
battlements too high to be scaled. The only danger was at the
gates, over which the wall was built with a square cavity, not
unlike a chimney, continued to the top. Through this hollow the
defendants let fall stones upon those who attempted to break the
gate, and poured down water, perhaps scalding water, if the attack
was made with fire. The castle of Lochbuy was secured by double
doors, of which the outer was an iron grate.
In every castle is a well and a dungeon. The use of the well is
evident. The dungeon is a deep subterraneous cavity, walled on the
sides, and arched on the top, into which the descent is through a
narrow door, by a ladder or a rope, so that it seems impossible to
escape, when the rope or ladder is drawn up. The dungeon was, I
suppose, in war, a prison for such captives as were treated with
severity, and, in peace, for such delinquents as had committed
crimes within the Laird's jurisdiction; for the mansions of many
Lairds were, till the late privation of their privileges, the halls
of justice to their own tenants.
As these fortifications were the productions of mere necessity,
they are built only for safety, with little regard to convenience,
and with none to elegance or pleasure. It was sufficient for a
Laird of the Hebrides, if he had a strong house, in which he could
hide his wife and children from the next clan. That they are not
large nor splendid is no wonder. It is not easy to find how they
were raised, such as they are, by men who had no money, in
countries where the labourers and artificers could scarcely be fed.
The buildings in different parts of the Island shew their degrees
of wealth and power. I believe that for all the castles which I
have seen beyond the Tweed, the ruins yet remaining of some one of
those which the English built in Wales, would supply materials.
These castles afford another evidence that the fictions of
romantick chivalry had for their basis the real manners of the
feudal times, when every Lord of a seignory lived in his hold
lawless and unaccountable, with all the licentiousness and
insolence of uncontested superiority and unprincipled power. The
traveller, whoever he might be, coming to the fortified habitation
of a Chieftain, would, probably, have been interrogated from the
battlements, admitted with caution at the gate, introduced to a
petty Monarch, fierce with habitual hostility, and vigilant with
ignorant suspicion; who, according to his general temper, or
accidental humour, would have seated a stranger as his guest at the
table, or as a spy confined him in the dungeon.
Lochbuy means the Yellow Lake, which is the name given to an inlet
of the sea, upon which the castle of Mr. Maclean stands. The
reason of the appellation we did not learn.
We were now to leave the Hebrides, where we had spent some weeks
with sufficient amusement, and where we had amplified our thoughts
with new scenes of nature, and new modes of life. More time would
have given us a more distinct view, but it was necessary that Mr.
Boswell should return before the courts of justice were opened; and
it was not proper to live too long upon hospitality, however
Of these Islands it must be confessed, that they have not many
allurements, but to the mere lover of naked nature. The
inhabitants are thin, provisions are scarce, and desolation and
penury give little pleasure.
The people collectively considered are not few, though their
numbers are small in proportion to the space which they occupy.
Mull is said to contain six thousand, and Sky fifteen thousand. Of
the computation respecting Mull, I can give no account; but when I
doubted the truth of the numbers attributed to Sky, one of the
Ministers exhibited such facts as conquered my incredulity.
Of the proportion, which the product of any region bears to the
people, an estimate is commonly made according to the pecuniary
price of the necessaries of life; a principle of judgment which is
never certain, because it supposes what is far from truth, that the
value of money is always the same, and so measures an unknown
quantity by an uncertain standard. It is competent enough when the
markets of the same country, at different times, and those times
not too distant, are to be compared; but of very little use for the
purpose of making one nation acquainted with the state of another.
Provisions, though plentiful, are sold in places of great pecuniary
opulence for nominal prices, to which, however scarce, where gold
and silver are yet scarcer, they can never be raised.
In the Western Islands there is so little internal commerce, that
hardly any thing has a known or settled rate. The price of things
brought in, or carried out, is to be considered as that of a
foreign market; and even this there is some difficulty in
discovering, because their denominations of quantity are different
from ours; and when there is ignorance on both sides, no appeal can
be made to a common measure.
This, however, is not the only impediment. The Scots, with a
vigilance of jealousy which never goes to sleep, always suspect
that an Englishman despises them for their poverty, and to convince
him that they are not less rich than their neighbours, are sure to
tell him a price higher than the true. When Lesley, two hundred
years ago, related so punctiliously, that a hundred hen eggs, new
laid, were sold in the Islands for a peny, he supposed that no
inference could possibly follow, but that eggs were in great
abundance. Posterity has since grown wiser; and having learned,
that nominal and real value may differ, they now tell no such
stories, lest the foreigner should happen to collect, not that eggs
are many, but that pence are few.
Money and wealth have by the use of commercial language been so
long confounded, that they are commonly supposed to be the same;
and this prejudice has spread so widely in Scotland, that I know
not whether I found man or woman, whom I interrogated concerning
payments of money, that could surmount the illiberal desire of
deceiving me, by representing every thing as dearer than it is.
From Lochbuy we rode a very few miles to the side of Mull, which
faces Scotland, where, having taken leave of our kind protector,
Sir Allan, we embarked in a boat, in which the seat provided for
our accommodation was a heap of rough brushwood; and on the twenty-
second of October reposed at a tolerable inn on the main land.
On the next day we began our journey southwards. The weather was
tempestuous. For half the day the ground was rough, and our horses
were still small. Had they required much restraint, we might have
been reduced to difficulties; for I think we had amongst us but one
bridle. We fed the poor animals liberally, and they performed
their journey well. In the latter part of the day, we came to a
firm and smooth road, made by the soldiers, on which we travelled
with great security, busied with contemplating the scene about us.
The night came on while we had yet a great part of the way to go,
though not so dark, but that we could discern the cataracts which
poured down the hills, on one side, and fell into one general
channel that ran with great violence on the other. The wind was
loud, the rain was heavy, and the whistling of the blast, the fall
of the shower, the rush of the cataracts, and the roar of the
torrent, made a nobler chorus of the rough musick of nature than it
had ever been my chance to hear before. The streams, which ran
cross the way from the hills to the main current, were so frequent,
that after a while I began to count them; and, in ten miles,
reckoned fifty-five, probably missing some, and having let some
pass before they forced themselves upon my notice. At last we came
to Inverary, where we found an inn, not only commodious, but
The difficulties of peregrination were now at an end. Mr. Boswell
had the honour of being known to the Duke of Argyle, by whom we
were very kindly entertained at his splendid seat, and supplied
with conveniences for surveying his spacious park and rising
After two days stay at Inverary we proceeded Southward over
Glencroe, a black and dreary region, now made easily passable by a
military road, which rises from either end of the glen by an
acclivity not dangerously steep, but sufficiently laborious. In
the middle, at the top of the hill, is a seat with this
inscription, 'Rest, and be thankful.' Stones were placed to mark
the distances, which the inhabitants have taken away, resolved,
they said, 'to have no new miles.'
In this rainy season the hills streamed with waterfalls, which,
crossing the way, formed currents on the other side, that ran in
contrary directions as they fell to the north or south of the
summit. Being, by the favour of the Duke, well mounted, I went up
and down the hill with great convenience.
From Glencroe we passed through a pleasant country to the banks of
Loch Lomond, and were received at the house of Sir James Colquhoun,
who is owner of almost all the thirty islands of the Loch, which we
went in a boat next morning to survey. The heaviness of the rain
shortened our voyage, but we landed on one island planted with yew,
and stocked with deer, and on another containing perhaps not more
than half an acre, remarkable for the ruins of an old castle, on
which the osprey builds her annual nest. Had Loch Lomond been in a
happier climate, it would have been the boast of wealth and vanity
to own one of the little spots which it incloses, and to have
employed upon it all the arts of embellishment. But as it is, the
islets, which court the gazer at a distance, disgust him at his
approach, when he finds, instead of soft lawns; and shady thickets,
nothing more than uncultivated ruggedness.
Where the Loch discharges itself into a river, called the Leven, we
passed a night with Mr. Smollet, a relation of Doctor Smollet, to
whose memory he has raised an obelisk on the bank near the house in
which he was born. The civility and respect which we found at
every place, it is ungrateful to omit, and tedious to repeat. Here
we were met by a post-chaise, that conveyed us to Glasgow.
To describe a city so much frequented as Glasgow, is unnecessary.
The prosperity of its commerce appears by the greatness of many
private houses, and a general appearance of wealth. It is the only
episcopal city whose cathedral was left standing in the rage of
Reformation. It is now divided into many separate places of
worship, which, taken all together, compose a great pile, that had
been some centuries in building, but was never finished; for the
change of religion intercepted its progress, before the cross isle
was added, which seems essential to a Gothick cathedral.
The college has not had a sufficient share of the increasing
magnificence of the place. The session was begun; for it commences
on the tenth of October and continues to the tenth of June, but the
students appeared not numerous, being, I suppose, not yet returned
from their several homes. The division of the academical year into
one session, and one recess, seems to me better accommodated to the
present state of life, than that variegation of time by terms and
vacations derived from distant centuries, in which it was probably
convenient, and still continued in the English universities. So
many solid months as the Scotch scheme of education joins together,
allow and encourage a plan for each part of the year; but with us,
he that has settled himself to study in the college is soon tempted
into the country, and he that has adjusted his life in the country,
is summoned back to his college.
Yet when I have allowed to the universities of Scotland a more
rational distribution of time, I have given them, so far as my
inquiries have informed me, all that they can claim. The students,
for the most part, go thither boys, and depart before they are men;
they carry with them little fundamental knowledge, and therefore
the superstructure cannot be lofty. The grammar schools are not
generally well supplied; for the character of a school-master being
there less honourable than in England, is seldom accepted by men
who are capable to adorn it, and where the school has been
deficient, the college can effect little.
Men bred in the universities of Scotland cannot be expected to be
often decorated with the splendours of ornamental erudition, but
they obtain a mediocrity of knowledge, between learning and
ignorance, not inadequate to the purposes of common life, which is,
I believe, very widely diffused among them, and which countenanced
in general by a national combination so invidious, that their
friends cannot defend it, and actuated in particulars by a spirit
of enterprise, so vigorous, that their enemies are constrained to
praise it, enables them to find, or to make their way to
employment, riches, and distinction.
From Glasgow we directed our course to Auchinleck, an estate
devolved, through a long series of ancestors, to Mr. Boswell's
father, the present possessor. In our way we found several places
remarkable enough in themselves, but already described by those who
viewed them at more leisure, or with much more skill; and stopped
two days at Mr. Campbell's, a gentleman married to Mr. Boswell's
Auchinleck, which signifies a stony field, seems not now to have
any particular claim to its denomination. It is a district
generally level, and sufficiently fertile, but like all the Western
side of Scotland, incommoded by very frequent rain. It was, with
the rest of the country, generally naked, till the present
possessor finding, by the growth of some stately trees near his old
castle, that the ground was favourable enough to timber, adorned it
very diligently with annual plantations.
Lord Auchinleck, who is one of the Judges of Scotland, and
therefore not wholly at leisure for domestick business or pleasure,
has yet found time to make improvements in his patrimony. He has
built a house of hewn stone, very stately, and durable, and has
advanced the value of his lands with great tenderness to his
I was, however, less delighted with the elegance of the modern
mansion, than with the sullen dignity of the old castle. I
clambered with Mr. Boswell among the ruins, which afford striking
images of ancient life. It is, like other castles, built upon a
point of rock, and was, I believe, anciently surrounded with a
moat. There is another rock near it, to which the drawbridge, when
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