Picture of Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

places mentioned

Ostig, and Skye in general

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At Ostig, of which Mr. Macpherson is minister, we were entertained for some days, then removed to Armidel, where we finished our observations on the island of Sky.

As this Island lies in the fifty-seventh degree, the air cannot be supposed to have much warmth.  The long continuance of the sun above the horizon, does indeed sometimes produce great heat in northern latitudes; but this can only happen in sheltered places, where the atmosphere is to a certain degree stagnant, and the same mass of air continues to receive for many hours the rays of the sun, and the vapours of the earth.  Sky lies open on the west and north to a vast extent of ocean, and is cooled in the summer by perpetual ventilation, but by the same blasts is kept warm in winter.  Their weather is not pleasing.  Half the year is deluged with rain.  From the autumnal to the vernal equinox, a dry day is hardly known, except when the showers are suspended by a tempest.  Under such skies can be expected no great exuberance of vegetation.  Their winter overtakes their summer, and their harvest lies upon the ground drenched with rain.  The autumn struggles hard to produce some of our early fruits.  I gathered gooseberries in September; but they were small, and the husk was thick.

Their winter is seldom such as puts a full stop to the growth of plants, or reduces the cattle to live wholly on the surplusage of the summer.  In the year Seventy-one they had a severe season, remembered by the name of the Black Spring, from which the island has not yet recovered.  The snow lay long upon the ground, a calamity hardly known before.  Part of their cattle died for want, part were unseasonably sold to buy sustenance for the owners; and, what I have not read or heard of before, the kine that survived were so emaciated and dispirited, that they did not require the male at the usual time.  Many of the roebucks perished.

The soil, as in other countries, has its diversities.  In some parts there is only a thin layer of earth spread upon a rock, which bears nothing but short brown heath, and perhaps is not generally capable of any better product.  There are many bogs or mosses of greater or less extent, where the soil cannot be supposed to want depth, though it is too wet for the plow.  But we did not observe in these any aquatick plants.  The vallies and the mountains are alike darkened with heath.  Some grass, however, grows here and there, and some happier spots of earth are capable of tillage.

Their agriculture is laborious, and perhaps rather feeble than unskilful.  Their chief manure is seaweed, which, when they lay it to rot upon the field, gives them a better crop than those of the Highlands.  They heap sea shells upon the dunghill, which in time moulder into a fertilising substance.  When they find a vein of earth where they cannot use it, they dig it up, and add it to the mould of a more commodious place.

Their corn grounds often lie in such intricacies among the craggs, that there is no room for the action of a team and plow.  The soil is then turned up by manual labour, with an instrument called a crooked spade, of a form and weight which to me appeared very incommodious, and would perhaps be soon improved in a country where workmen could be easily found and easily paid.  It has a narrow blade of iron fixed to a long and heavy piece of wood, which must have, about a foot and a half above the iron, a knee or flexure with the angle downwards.  When the farmer encounters a stone which is the great impediment of his operations, he drives the blade under it, and bringing the knee or angle to the ground, has in the long handle a very forcible lever.

According to the different mode of tillage, farms are distinguished into long land and short land.  Long land is that which affords room for a plow, and short land is turned up by the spade.

The grain which they commit to the furrows thus tediously formed, is either oats or barley.  They do not sow barley without very copious manure, and then they expect from it ten for one, an increase equal to that of better countries; but the culture is so operose that they content themselves commonly with oats; and who can relate without compassion, that after all their diligence they are to expect only a triple increase?  It is in vain to hope for plenty, when a third part of the harvest must be reserved for seed.

When their grain is arrived at the state which they must consider as ripeness, they do not cut, but pull the barley: to the oats they apply the sickle.  Wheel carriages they have none, but make a frame of timber, which is drawn by one horse with the two points behind pressing on the ground.  On this they sometimes drag home their sheaves, but often convey them home in a kind of open panier, or frame of sticks upon the horse's back.

Of that which is obtained with so much difficulty, nothing surely ought to be wasted; yet their method of clearing their oats from the husk is by parching them in the straw.  Thus with the genuine improvidence of savages, they destroy that fodder for want of which their cattle may perish.  From this practice they have two petty conveniences.  They dry the grain so that it is easily reduced to meal, and they escape the theft of the thresher.  The taste contracted from the fire by the oats, as by every other scorched substance, use must long ago have made grateful.  The oats that are not parched must be dried in a kiln.

The barns of Sky I never saw.  That which Macleod of Raasay had erected near his house was so contrived, because the harvest is seldom brought home dry, as by perpetual perflation to prevent the mow from heating.

Of their gardens I can judge only from their tables.  I did not observe that the common greens were wanting, and suppose, that by choosing an advantageous exposition, they can raise all the more hardy esculent plants.  Of vegetable fragrance or beauty they are not yet studious.  Few vows are made to Flora in the Hebrides.

They gather a little hay, but the grass is mown late; and is so often almost dry and again very wet, before it is housed, that it becomes a collection of withered stalks without taste or fragrance; it must be eaten by cattle that have nothing else, but by most English farmers would be thrown away.

In the Islands I have not heard that any subterraneous treasures have been discovered, though where there are mountains, there are commonly minerals.  One of the rocks in Col has a black vein, imagined to consist of the ore of lead; but it was never yet opened or essayed.  In Sky a black mass was accidentally picked up, and brought into the house of the owner of the land, who found himself strongly inclined to think it a coal, but unhappily it did not burn in the chimney.  Common ores would be here of no great value; for what requires to be separated by fire, must, if it were found, be carried away in its mineral state, here being no fewel for the smelting-house or forge.  Perhaps by diligent search in this world of stone, some valuable species of marble might be discovered.  But neither philosophical curiosity, nor commercial industry, have yet fixed their abode here, where the importunity of immediate want supplied but for the day, and craving on the morrow, has left little room for excursive knowledge or the pleasing fancies of distant profit.

They have lately found a manufacture considerably lucrative.  Their rocks abound with kelp, a sea-plant, of which the ashes are melted into glass.  They burn kelp in great quantities, and then send it away in ships, which come regularly to purchase them.  This new source of riches has raised the rents of many maritime farms; but the tenants pay, like all other tenants, the additional rent with great unwillingness; because they consider the profits of the kelp as the mere product of personal labour, to which the landlord contributes nothing.  However, as any man may be said to give, what he gives the power of gaining, he has certainly as much right to profit from the price of kelp as of any thing else found or raised upon his ground.

This new trade has excited a long and eager litigation between Macdonald and Macleod, for a ledge of rocks, which, till the value of kelp was known, neither of them desired the reputation of possessing.

The cattle of Sky are not so small as is commonly believed.  Since they have sent their beeves in great numbers to southern marts, they have probably taken more care of their breed.  At stated times the annual growth of cattle is driven to a fair, by a general drover, and with the money, which he returns to the farmer, the rents are paid.

The price regularly expected, is from two to three pounds a head: there was once one sold for five pounds.  They go from the Islands very lean, and are not offered to the butcher, till they have been long fatted in English pastures.

Of their black cattle, some are without horns, called by the Scots humble cows, as we call a bee an humble bee, that wants a sting.  Whether this difference be specifick, or accidental, though we inquired with great diligence, we could not be informed.  We are not very sure that the bull is ever without horns, though we have been told, that such bulls there are.  What is produced by putting a horned and unhorned male and female together, no man has ever tried, that thought the result worthy of observation.

Their horses are, like their cows, of a moderate size.  I had no difficulty to mount myself commodiously by the favour of the gentlemen.  I heard of very little cows in Barra, and very little horses in Rum, where perhaps no care is taken to prevent that diminution of size, which must always happen, where the greater and the less copulate promiscuously, and the young animal is restrained from growth by penury of sustenance.

The goat is the general inhabitant of the earth, complying with every difference of climate, and of soil.  The goats of the Hebrides are like others: nor did I hear any thing of their sheep, to be particularly remarked.

In the penury of these malignant regions, nothing is left that can be converted to food.  The goats and the sheep are milked like the cows.  A single meal of a goat is a quart, and of a sheep a pint.  Such at least was the account, which I could extract from those of whom I am not sure that they ever had inquired.

The milk of goats is much thinner than that of cows, and that of sheep is much thicker.  Sheeps milk is never eaten before it is boiled: as it is thick, it must be very liberal of curd, and the people of St. Kilda form it into small cheeses.

The stags of the mountains are less than those of our parks, or forests, perhaps not bigger than our fallow deer.  Their flesh has no rankness, nor is inferiour in flavour to our common venison.  The roebuck I neither saw nor tasted.  These are not countries for a regular chase.  The deer are not driven with horns and hounds.  A sportsman, with his gun in his hand, watches the animal, and when he has wounded him, traces him by the blood.

They have a race of brinded greyhounds, larger and stronger than those with which we course hares, and those are the only dogs used by them for the chase.

Man is by the use of fire-arms made so much an overmatch for other animals, that in all countries, where they are in use, the wild part of the creation sensibly diminishes.  There will probably not be long, either stags or roebucks in the Islands.  All the beasts of chase would have been lost long ago in countries well inhabited, had they not been preserved by laws for the pleasure of the rich.

There are in Sky neither rats nor mice, but the weasel is so frequent, that he is heard in houses rattling behind chests or beds, as rats in England.  They probably owe to his predominance that they have no other vermin; for since the great rat took possession of this part of the world, scarce a ship can touch at any port, but some of his race are left behind.  They have within these few years began to infest the isle of Col, where being left by some trading vessel, they have increased for want of weasels to oppose them.

Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland (London: W. Strahan and T.Cadell, 1775) Text transcribed from the 1775 edition by David Price, including the corrections noted in the 1785 errata. Placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall.

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