Picture of Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

places mentioned

The economy of the islands

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The traveller who comes hither from more opulent countries, to speculate upon the remains of pastoral life, will not much wonder that a common Highlander has no strong adherence to his native soil; for of animal enjoyments, or of physical good, he leaves nothing that he may not find again wheresoever he may be thrown.

The habitations of men in the Hebrides may be distinguished into huts and houses.  By a house, I mean a building with one story over another; by a hut, a dwelling with only one floor.  The Laird, who formerly lived in a castle, now lives in a house; sometimes sufficiently neat, but seldom very spacious or splendid.  The Tacksmen and the Ministers have commonly houses.  Wherever there is a house, the stranger finds a welcome, and to the other evils of exterminating Tacksmen may be added the unavoidable cessation of hospitality, or the devolution of too heavy a burden on the Ministers.

Of the houses little can be said.  They are small, and by the necessity of accumulating stores, where there are so few opportunities of purchase, the rooms are very heterogeneously filled.  With want of cleanliness it were ingratitude to reproach them.  The servants having been bred upon the naked earth, think every floor clean, and the quick succession of guests, perhaps not always over-elegant, does not allow much time for adjusting their apartments.

Huts are of many gradations; from murky dens, to commodious dwellings.

The wall of a common hut is always built without mortar, by a skilful adaptation of loose stones.  Sometimes perhaps a double wall of stones is raised, and the intermediate space filled with earth.  The air is thus completely excluded.  Some walls are, I think, formed of turfs, held together by a wattle, or texture of twigs.  Of the meanest huts, the first room is lighted by the entrance, and the second by the smoke hole.  The fire is usually made in the middle.  But there are huts, or dwellings of only one story, inhabited by gentlemen, which have walls cemented with mortar, glass windows, and boarded floors.  Of these all have chimneys, and some chimneys have grates.

The house and the furniture are not always nicely suited.  We were driven once, by missing a passage, to the hut of a gentleman, where, after a very liberal supper, when I was conducted to my chamber, I found an elegant bed of Indian cotton, spread with fine sheets.  The accommodation was flattering; I undressed myself, and felt my feet in the mire.  The bed stood upon the bare earth, which a long course of rain had softened to a puddle.

In pastoral countries the condition of the lowest rank of people is sufficiently wretched.  Among manufacturers, men that have no property may have art and industry, which make them necessary, and therefore valuable.  But where flocks and corn are the only wealth, there are always more hands than work, and of that work there is little in which skill and dexterity can be much distinguished.  He therefore who is born poor never can be rich.  The son merely occupies the place of the father, and life knows nothing of progression or advancement.

The petty tenants, and labouring peasants, live in miserable cabins, which afford them little more than shelter from the storms.  The Boor of Norway is said to make all his own utensils.  In the Hebrides, whatever might be their ingenuity, the want of wood leaves them no materials.  They are probably content with such accommodations as stones of different forms and sizes can afford them.

Their food is not better than their lodging.  They seldom taste the flesh of land animals; for here are no markets.  What each man eats is from his own stock.  The great effect of money is to break property into small parts.  In towns, he that has a shilling may have a piece of meat; but where there is no commerce, no man can eat mutton but by killing a sheep.

Fish in fair weather they need not want; but, I believe, man never lives long on fish, but by constraint; he will rather feed upon roots and berries.

The only fewel of the Islands is peat.  Their wood is all consumed, and coal they have not yet found.  Peat is dug out of the marshes, from the depth of one foot to that of six.  That is accounted the best which is nearest the surface.  It appears to be a mass of black earth held together by vegetable fibres.  I know not whether the earth be bituminous, or whether the fibres be not the only combustible part; which, by heating the interposed earth red hot, make a burning mass.  The heat is not very strong nor lasting.  The ashes are yellowish, and in a large quantity.  When they dig peat, they cut it into square pieces, and pile it up to dry beside the house.  In some places it has an offensive smell.  It is like wood charked for the smith.  The common method of making peat fires, is by heaping it on the hearth; but it burns well in grates, and in the best houses is so used.

The common opinion is, that peat grows again where it has been cut; which, as it seems to be chiefly a vegetable substance, is not unlikely to be true, whether known or not to those who relate it.

There are water mills in Sky and Raasa; but where they are too far distant, the house-wives grind their oats with a quern, or hand-mill, which consists of two stones, about a foot and a half in diameter; the lower is a little convex, to which the concavity of the upper must be fitted.  In the middle of the upper stone is a round hole, and on one side is a long handle.  The grinder sheds the corn gradually into the hole with one hand, and works the handle round with the other.  The corn slides down the convexity of the lower stone, and by the motion of the upper is ground in its passage.  These stones are found in Lochabar.

The Islands afford few pleasures, except to the hardy sportsman, who can tread the moor and climb the mountain.  The distance of one family from another, in a country where travelling has so much difficulty, makes frequent intercourse impracticable.  Visits last several days, and are commonly paid by water; yet I never saw a boat furnished with benches, or made commodious by any addition to the first fabric.  Conveniences are not missed where they never were enjoyed.

The solace which the bagpipe can give, they have long enjoyed; but among other changes, which the last Revolution introduced, the use of the bagpipe begins to be forgotten.  Some of the chief families still entertain a piper, whose office was anciently hereditary.  Macrimmon was piper to Macleod, and Rankin to Maclean of Col.

The tunes of the bagpipe are traditional.  There has been in Sky, beyond all time of memory, a college of pipers, under the direction of Macrimmon, which is not quite extinct.  There was another in Mull, superintended by Rankin, which expired about sixteen years ago.  To these colleges, while the pipe retained its honour, the students of musick repaired for education.  I have had my dinner exhilarated by the bagpipe, at Armidale, at Dunvegan, and in Col.

The general conversation of the Islanders has nothing particular.  I did not meet with the inquisitiveness of which I have read, and suspect the judgment to have been rashly made.  A stranger of curiosity comes into a place where a stranger is seldom seen: he importunes the people with questions, of which they cannot guess the motive, and gazes with surprise on things which they, having had them always before their eyes, do not suspect of any thing wonderful.  He appears to them like some being of another world, and then thinks it peculiar that they take their turn to inquire whence he comes, and whither he is going.

The Islands were long unfurnished with instruction for youth, and none but the sons of gentlemen could have any literature.  There are now parochial schools, to which the lord of every manor pays a certain stipend.  Here the children are taught to read; but by the rule of their institution, they teach only English, so that the natives read a language which they may never use or understand.  If a parish, which often happens, contains several Islands, the school being but in one, cannot assist the rest.  This is the state of Col, which, however, is more enlightened than some other places; for the deficiency is supplied by a young gentleman, who, for his own improvement, travels every year on foot over the Highlands to the session at Aberdeen; and at his return, during the vacation, teaches to read and write in his native Island.

In Sky there are two grammar schools, where boarders are taken to be regularly educated.  The price of board is from three pounds, to four pounds ten shillings a year, and that of instruction is half a crown a quarter.  But the scholars are birds of passage, who live at school only in the summer; for in winter provisions cannot be made for any considerable number in one place.  This periodical dispersion impresses strongly the scarcity of these countries.

Having heard of no boarding-school for ladies nearer than Inverness, I suppose their education is generally domestick.  The elder daughters of the higher families are sent into the world, and may contribute by their acquisitions to the improvement of the rest.

Women must here study to be either pleasing or useful.  Their deficiencies are seldom supplied by very liberal fortunes.  A hundred pounds is a portion beyond the hope of any but the Laird's daughter.  They do not indeed often give money with their daughters; the question is, How many cows a young lady will bring her husband.  A rich maiden has from ten to forty; but two cows are a decent fortune for one who pretends to no distinction.

The religion of the Islands is that of the Kirk of Scotland.  The gentlemen with whom I conversed are all inclined to the English liturgy; but they are obliged to maintain the established Minister, and the country is too poor to afford payment to another, who must live wholly on the contribution of his audience.

They therefore all attend the worship of the Kirk, as often as a visit from their Minister, or the practicability of travelling gives them opportunity; nor have they any reason to complain of insufficient pastors; for I saw not one in the Islands, whom I had reason to think either deficient in learning, or irregular in life: but found several with whom I could not converse without wishing, as my respect increased, that they had not been Presbyterians.

The ancient rigour of puritanism is now very much relaxed, though all are not yet equally enlightened.  I sometimes met with prejudices sufficiently malignant, but they were prejudices of ignorance.  The Ministers in the Islands had attained such knowledge as may justly be admired in men, who have no motive to study, but generous curiosity, or, what is still better, desire of usefulness; with such politeness as so narrow a circle of converse could not have supplied, but to minds naturally disposed to elegance.

Reason and truth will prevail at last.  The most learned of the Scottish Doctors would now gladly admit a form of prayer, if the people would endure it.  The zeal or rage of congregations has its different degrees.  In some parishes the Lord's Prayer is suffered: in others it is still rejected as a form; and he that should make it part of his supplication would be suspected of heretical pravity.

The principle upon which extemporary prayer was originally introduced, is no longer admitted.  The Minister formerly, in the effusion of his prayer, expected immediate, and perhaps perceptible inspiration, and therefore thought it his duty not to think before what he should say.  It is now universally confessed, that men pray as they speak on other occasions, according to the general measure of their abilities and attainments.  Whatever each may think of a form prescribed by another, he cannot but believe that he can himself compose by study and meditation a better prayer than will rise in his mind at a sudden call; and if he has any hope of supernatural help, why may he not as well receive it when he writes as when he speaks?

In the variety of mental powers, some must perform extemporary prayer with much imperfection; and in the eagerness and rashness of contradictory opinions, if publick liturgy be left to the private judgment of every Minister, the congregation may often be offended or misled.

There is in Scotland, as among ourselves, a restless suspicion of popish machinations, and a clamour of numerous converts to the Romish religion.  The report is, I believe, in both parts of the Island equally false.  The Romish religion is professed only in Egg and Canna, two small islands, into which the Reformation never made its way.  If any missionaries are busy in the Highlands, their zeal entitles them to respect, even from those who cannot think favourably of their doctrine.

The political tenets of the Islanders I was not curious to investigate, and they were not eager to obtrude.  Their conversation is decent and inoffensive.  They disdain to drink for their principles, and there is no disaffection at their tables.  I never heard a health offered by a Highlander that might not have circulated with propriety within the precincts of the King's palace.

Legal government has yet something of novelty to which they cannot perfectly conform.  The ancient spirit, that appealed only to the sword, is yet among them.  The tenant of Scalpa, an island belonging to Macdonald, took no care to bring his rent; when the landlord talked of exacting payment, he declared his resolution to keep his ground, and drive all intruders from the Island, and continued to feed his cattle as on his own land, till it became necessary for the Sheriff to dislodge him by violence.

The various kinds of superstition which prevailed here, as in all other regions of ignorance, are by the diligence of the Ministers almost extirpated.

Of Browny, mentioned by Martin, nothing has been heard for many years.  Browny was a sturdy Fairy; who, if he was fed, and kindly treated, would, as they said, do a great deal of work.  They now pay him no wages, and are content to labour for themselves.

In Troda, within these three-and-thirty years, milk was put every Saturday for Greogach, or 'the Old Man with the Long Beard.'  Whether Greogach was courted as kind, or dreaded as terrible, whether they meant, by giving him the milk, to obtain good, or avert evil, I was not informed.  The Minister is now living by whom the practice was abolished.

They have still among them a great number of charms for the cure of different diseases; they are all invocations, perhaps transmitted to them from the times of popery, which increasing knowledge will bring into disuse.

They have opinions, which cannot be ranked with superstition, because they regard only natural effects.  They expect better crops of grain, by sowing their seed in the moon's increase.  The moon has great influence in vulgar philosophy.  In my memory it was a precept annually given in one of the English Almanacks, 'to kill hogs when the moon was increasing, and the bacon would prove the better in boiling.'

We should have had little claim to the praise of curiosity, if we had not endeavoured with particular attention to examine the question of the Second Sight.  Of an opinion received for centuries by a whole nation, and supposed to be confirmed through its whole descent, by a series of successive facts, it is desirable that the truth should be established, or the fallacy detected.

The Second Sight is an impression made either by the mind upon the eye, or by the eye upon the mind, by which things distant or future are perceived, and seen as if they were present.  A man on a journey far from home falls from his horse, another, who is perhaps at work about the house, sees him bleeding on the ground, commonly with a landscape of the place where the accident befalls him.  Another seer, driving home his cattle, or wandering in idleness, or musing in the sunshine, is suddenly surprised by the appearance of a bridal ceremony, or funeral procession, and counts the mourners or attendants, of whom, if he knows them, he relates the names, if he knows them not, he can describe the dresses.  Things distant are seen at the instant when they happen.  Of things future I know not that there is any rule for determining the time between the Sight and the event.

This receptive faculty, for power it cannot be called, is neither voluntary nor constant.  The appearances have no dependence upon choice: they cannot be summoned, detained, or recalled.  The impression is sudden, and the effect often painful.

By the term Second Sight, seems to be meant a mode of seeing, superadded to that which Nature generally bestows.  In the Earse it is called Taisch; which signifies likewise a spectre, or a vision.  I know not, nor is it likely that the Highlanders ever examined, whether by Taisch, used for Second Sight, they mean the power of seeing, or the thing seen.

I do not find it to be true, as it is reported, that to the Second Sight nothing is presented but phantoms of evil.  Good seems to have the same proportions in those visionary scenes, as it obtains in real life: almost all remarkable events have evil for their basis; and are either miseries incurred, or miseries escaped.  Our sense is so much stronger of what we suffer, than of what we enjoy, that the ideas of pain predominate in almost every mind.  What is recollection but a revival of vexations, or history but a record of wars, treasons, and calamities?  Death, which is considered as the greatest evil, happens to all.  The greatest good, be it what it will, is the lot but of a part.

That they should often see death is to be expected; because death is an event frequent and important.  But they see likewise more pleasing incidents.  A gentleman told me, that when he had once gone far from his own Island, one of his labouring servants predicted his return, and described the livery of his attendant, which he had never worn at home; and which had been, without any previous design, occasionally given him.

Our desire of information was keen, and our inquiry frequent.  Mr. Boswell's frankness and gaiety made every body communicative; and we heard many tales of these airy shows, with more or less evidence and distinctness.

It is the common talk of the Lowland Scots, that the notion of the Second Sight is wearing away with other superstitions; and that its reality is no longer supposed, but by the grossest people.  How far its prevalence ever extended, or what ground it has lost, I know not.  The Islanders of all degrees, whether of rank or understanding, universally admit it, except the Ministers, who universally deny it, and are suspected to deny it, in consequence of a system, against conviction.  One of them honestly told me, that he came to Sky with a resolution not to believe it.

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 ignorant.

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 verification.

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.

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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