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Samuel Johnson

English Writer

1709-1784

A selection from
A JOURNEY TO THE WESTERN ISLANDS OF SCOTLAND

Narrated by Ralph Cosham

Download mp3 file: A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland

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RAASAY

At the first intermission of the stormy weather we were informed, that the boat, which was to convey us to Raasay, attended us on the coast.  We had from this time our intelligence facilitated, and our conversation enlarged, by the company of Mr. Macqueen, minister of a parish in Sky, whose knowledge and politeness give him a title equally to kindness and respect, and who, from this time, never forsook us till we were preparing to leave Sky, and the adjacent places.

The boat was under the direction of Mr. Malcolm Macleod, a gentleman of Raasay.  The water was calm, and the rowers were vigorous; so that our passage was quick and pleasant.  When we came near the island, we saw the lairdís house, a neat modern fabrick, and found Mr. Macleod, the proprietor of the Island, with many gentlemen, expecting us on the beach.  We had, as at all other places, some difficulty in landing.  The craggs were irregularly broken, and a false step would have been very mischievous.

It seemed that the rocks might, with no great labour, have been hewn almost into a regular flight of steps; and as there are no other landing places, I considered this rugged ascent as the consequence of a form of life inured to hardships, and therefore not studious of nice accommodations.  But I know not whether, for many ages, it was not considered as a part of military policy, to keep the country not easily accessible.  The rocks are natural fortifications, and an enemy climbing with difficulty, was easily destroyed by those who stood high above him.

Our reception exceeded our expectations.  We found nothing but civility, elegance, and plenty.  After the usual refreshments, and the usual conversation, the evening came upon us.  The carpet was then rolled off the floor; the musician was called, and the whole company was invited to dance, nor did ever fairies trip with greater alacrity.  The general air of festivity, which predominated in this place, so far remote from all those regions which the mind has been used to contemplate as the mansions of pleasure, struck the imagination with a delightful surprise, analogous to that which is felt at an unexpected emersion from darkness into light.

When it was time to sup, the dance ceased, and six and thirty persons sat down to two tables in the same room.  After supper the ladies sung Erse songs, to which I listened as an English audience to an Italian opera, delighted with the sound of words which I did not understand.

I inquired the subjects of the songs, and was told of one, that it was a love song, and of another, that it was a farewell composed by one of the Islanders that was going, in this epidemical fury of emigration, to seek his fortune in America.  What sentiments would arise, on such an occasion, in the heart of one who had not been taught to lament by precedent, I should gladly have known; but the lady, by whom I sat, thought herself not equal to the work of translating.

Mr. Macleod is the proprietor of the islands of Raasay, Rona, and Fladda, and possesses an extensive district in Sky.  The estate has not, during four hundred years, gained or lost a single acre.  He acknowledges Macleod of Dunvegan as his chief, though his ancestors have formerly disputed the pre-eminence.

One of the old Highland alliances has continued for two hundred years, and is still subsisting between Macleod of Raasay and Macdonald of Sky, in consequence of which, the survivor always inherits the arms of the deceased; a natural memorial of military friendship.  At the death of the late Sir James Macdonald, his sword was delivered to the present laird of Raasay.

The family of Raasay consists of the laird, the lady, three sons and ten daughters.  For the sons there is a tutor in the house, and the lady is said to be very skilful and diligent in the education of her girls.  More gentleness of manners, or a more pleasing appearance of domestick society, is not found in the most polished countries.

Raasay is the only inhabited island in Mr. Macleodís possession.  Rona and Fladda afford only pasture for cattle, of which one hundred and sixty winter in Rona, under the superintendence of a solitary herdsman.

The length of Raasay is, by computation, fifteen miles, and the breadth two.  These countries have never been measured, and the computation by miles is negligent and arbitrary.  We observed in travelling, that the nominal and real distance of places had very little relation to each other.  Raasay probably contains near a hundred square miles.  It affords not much ground, notwithstanding its extent, either for tillage, or pasture; for it is rough, rocky, and barren.  The cattle often perish by falling from the precipices.  It is like the other islands, I think, generally naked of shade, but it is naked by neglect; for the laird has an orchard, and very large forest trees grow about his house.  Like other hilly countries it has many rivulets.  One of the brooks turns a corn-mill, and at least one produces trouts.

In the streams or fresh lakes of the Islands, I have never heard of any other fish than trouts and eels.  The trouts, which I have seen, are not large; the colour of their flesh is tinged as in England.  Of their eels I can give no account, having never tasted them; for I believe they are not considered as wholesome food.

It is not very easy to fix the principles upon which mankind have agreed to eat some animals, and reject others; and as the principle is not evident, it is not uniform.  That which is selected as delicate in one country, is by its neighbours abhorred as loathsome.  The Neapolitans lately refused to eat potatoes in a famine.  An Englishman is not easily persuaded to dine on snails with an Italian, on frogs with a Frenchman, or on horseflesh with a Tartar.  The vulgar inhabitants of Sky, I know not whether of the other islands, have not only eels, but pork and bacon in abhorrence, and accordingly I never saw a hog in the Hebrides, except one at Dunvegan.

Raasay has wild fowl in abundance, but neither deer, hares, nor rabbits.  Why it has them not, might be asked, but that of such questions there is no end.  Why does any nation want what it might have?  Why are not spices transplanted to America?  Why does tea continue to be brought from China?  Life improves but by slow degrees, and much in every place is yet to do.  Attempts have been made to raise roebucks in Raasay, but without effect.  The young ones it is extremely difficult to rear, and the old can very seldom be taken alive.

Hares and rabbits might be more easily obtained.  That they have few or none of either in Sky, they impute to the ravage of the foxes, and have therefore set, for some years past, a price upon their heads, which, as the number was diminished, has been gradually raised, from three shillings and sixpence to a guinea, a sum so great in this part of the world, that, in a short time, Sky may be as free from foxes, as England from wolves.  The fund for these rewards is a tax of sixpence in the pound, imposed by the farmers on themselves, and said to be paid with great willingness.

The beasts of prey in the Islands are foxes, otters, and weasels.  The foxes are bigger than those of England; but the otters exceed ours in a far greater proportion.  I saw one at Armidel, of a size much beyond that which I supposed them ever to attain; and Mr. Maclean, the heir of Col, a man of middle stature, informed me that he once shot an otter, of which the tail reached the ground, when he held up the head to a level with his own.  I expected the otter to have a foot particularly formed for the art of swimming; but upon examination, I did not find it differing much from that of a spaniel.  As he preys in the sea, he does little visible mischief, and is killed only for his fur.  White otters are sometimes seen.

In Raasay they might have hares and rabbits, for they have no foxes.  Some depredations, such as were never made before, have caused a suspicion that a fox has been lately landed in the Island by spite or wantonness.  This imaginary stranger has never yet been seen, and therefore, perhaps, the mischief was done by some other animal.  It is not likely that a creature so ungentle, whose head could have been sold in Sky for a guinea, should be kept alive only to gratify the malice of sending him to prey upon a neighbour: and the passage from Sky is wider than a fox would venture to swim, unless he were chased by dogs into the sea, and perhaps than his strength would enable him to cross.  How beasts of prey came into any islands is not easy to guess.  In cold countries they take advantage of hard winters, and travel over the ice: but this is a very scanty solution; for they are found where they have no discoverable means of coming.

The corn of this island is but little.  I saw the harvest of a small field.  The women reaped the Corn, and the men bound up the sheaves.  The strokes of the sickle were timed by the modulation of the harvest song, in which all their voices were united.  They accompany in the Highlands every action, which can be done in equal time, with an appropriated strain, which has, they say, not much meaning; but its effects are regularity and cheerfulness.  The ancient proceleusmatick song, by which the rowers of gallies were animated, may be supposed to have been of this kind.  There is now an oar-song used by the Hebridians.

The ground of Raasay seems fitter for cattle than for corn, and of black cattle I suppose the number is very great.  The Laird himself keeps a herd of four hundred, one hundred of which are annually sold.  Of an extensive domain, which he holds in his own hands, he considers the sale of cattle as repaying him the rent, and supports the plenty of a very liberal table with the remaining product.

Raasay is supposed to have been very long inhabited.  On one side of it they show caves, into which the rude nations of the first ages retreated from the weather.  These dreary vaults might have had other uses.  There is still a cavity near the house called the oar-cave, in which the seamen, after one of those piratical expeditions, which in rougher times were very frequent, used, as tradition tells, to hide their oars.  This hollow was near the sea, that nothing so necessary might be far to be fetched; and it was secret, that enemies, if they landed, could find nothing.  Yet it is not very evident of what use it was to hide their oars from those, who, if they were masters of the coast, could take away their boats.

A proof much stronger of the distance at which the first possessors of this island lived from the present time, is afforded by the stone heads of arrows which are very frequently picked up.  The people call them Elf-bolts, and believe that the fairies shoot them at the cattle.  They nearly resemble those which Mr. Banks has lately brought from the savage countries in the Pacifick Ocean, and must have been made by a nation to which the use of metals was unknown.

The number of this little community has never been counted by its ruler, nor have I obtained any positive account, consistent with the result of political computation.  Not many years ago, the late Laird led out one hundred men upon a military expedition.  The sixth part of a people is supposed capable of bearing arms: Raasay had therefore six hundred inhabitants.  But because it is not likely, that every man able to serve in the field would follow the summons, or that the chief would leave his lands totally defenceless, or take away all the hands qualified for labour, let it be supposed, that half as many might be permitted to stay at home.  The whole number will then be nine hundred, or nine to a square mile; a degree of populousness greater than those tracts of desolation can often show.  They are content with their country, and faithful to their chiefs, and yet uninfected with the fever of migration.

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