Lewis, pp.261-263.

[Gazetteer of Scotland Contents]

   LEWIS,1 one of the largest of the Hebrides, parted by two arms of the sea into two divisions, – the southern, called Harris, and the northern, Lewis. The whole island is 82 miles long from the sound of Bernera to the Butt of Lewis, in a direction running south-west and north-east; and the average breadth may be 11 miles; superficies 451,000 acres. The total length of Lewis is 40 miles, from the boundary-line to the Butt; and its greatest breadth is rather more than 20. Lewis belongs to Ross-shire; but Harris is annexed to the county of Inverness: see HARRIS. The surface of Lewis – which is of a triangular figure, with the apex to the north – is not so rugged and mountainous as the southern district; and the low grounds are covered with lakes, mosses, and swamps. On the coast, the land is of a sandy soil, but is tolerably fertile when well-manured with sea-weed. The numerous bays of Lewis, – Loch-Bernera, Loch-Roig, Loch-Carlowa, with their subordinate indentations, – Loch-Luerbost, Loch-Renhulavig, Loch-Seaforth, and Loch-Clay, afford great quantities of shell-fish; and the coasts are well-adapted for the white fish and herring fisheries, which are prosecuted to advantage. The rocky cliffs which form the Butt, or northern extremity of Lewis, rise to the height of 60 or 80 feet, and are broken into very rugged and picturesque forms. The loftiest mountain is that of Suaneval, which Dr. Macculloch supposes to be nearly equal in height to Clisseval in Harris, or about 2,700 feet. A group of hills, on the north side of Loch-Bernera, attain a height of about 800 feet. Gneiss is the predominant and fundamental rock. The rivers abound with trout and salmon. From the number of large roots of trees which are everywhere dug up, it would appear that, in former times, the island had been clothed with wood; but there is now scarce a tree to be seen, except in a small plantation of birch and hazel in the neighbourhood of Seaforth-house, the seat of Lord Seaforth. Every part of the island exhibits monuments of antiquity, as duns, fortified castles, Druidical edifices, cairns, and upright stones. The most remarkable one, which appears to have been subservient to the religious rites of the Druids, is near the small village of Calarnish, in the parish of Uig: see UIG. Besides the town of STORNOWAY [which see] there are several small villages. The chief employment of the inhabitants is the rearing of sheep and black cattle, and the fishery. Lewis is divided into four parishes; viz., BARVAS, LOCHS, STRONOWAY, and UIG: see these articles. A number of small adjacent islets and rocks belong to the district of Lewis, some of which are inhabited, but the greater number are too trivial to deserve particular notice. – Population, in 1801, 9,168; in 1831, 14,541. Houses 2,904. 

   The reports of the Glenkens society state, that the huts of the peasantry of Lewis “are, in general, indescribably filthy. There is only an annual sweeping of their houses. The people and cattle are under the same roof, and on the same area. Very few of the country dwellings have a single pane of glass. There is one hole in the roof to allow the excess of smoke to escape, and another on the top of the wall; the latter at night, or during a storm through the day, being stopped with a wisp. Wood is so scarce and so dear that it cannot be had in sufficient quantity to make, a good roof. The roofs have no eaves. The thatch in general is made of stubble or potato-stalks, which are spread on the scanty wooden roof, and bound by heather or straw ropes, which again are at each side of the roof fastened by stones, called anchors, resting on the top of the broad wall. On this wall it is no unusual sight to see sheep and calves feeding, and making a short passage into the byre through the roof! The doors of the houses are so low, that whoever would gain admittance must humble himself, and continue in that posture till he reach the fire, which is always in the middle of the floor, and very often he must grope his way, or be led by the hand. From the slightness of the wooden rafters, much straw or stubble cannot be laid for thatch, but just sufficient to exclude the daylight. The thatch is not expected at first to keep out much rain until it is properly saturated with soot; but to compensate for this defect, the inmates are practical chemists; they keep plenty of peats on the fire; the interior is soon filled with smoke; the smoke and increasing heat repel the rain, for a great proportion of what falls on the roof is returned to the atmosphere by evaporation. These houses, after a smart shower, appear like so many salt-pans or brew-houses in operation.” This account is said to apply very generally to the habitations of the whole of the small farmers. Good management of any kind is not to be expected from people whose domestic habits are so barbarous. They depend upon the produce of the place for almost every thing. Even their clothing is almost exclusively of their own manufacture. Their time, when occupied at all, is “devoted indiscriminately to the mixed avocations of husbandry, fishing, kelp-making, grazing,” &c. Their agriculture is wretched. “The women are miserable slaves; they do the work of brutes, carry the manure in creels on their backs from the byre to the field, and use their fingers as a five-pronged grape to fill them. The thatch of the houses saturated by the smoke with sooty particles is considered valuable, for every summer the roof is stripped, and the inner layer of straw, which contains the soot, is carried carefullv to the potato or barley field, and strewed on the crop. Small tenants and cottars generally till the ground by the Chinese plough of one stilt or handle, and the cas-chrom, a clumsy instrument like a large club shod with iron at the point, and a pin at the ancle for the labourer’s foot. It is a disgrace to see women working with it. No sickle is used for the barley among the small tenants: the stalk is plucked, the ground is left bare.” The return is very scanty in some places, occasionally insufficient for the consumption of the population. It can excite no surprise that, with all these discomforts, the inhabitants of the Lewis, in the opinion of a medical man resident on the spot, “may be said to die at an early age.” Still they are deeply attached to the land of their birth; a great proportion of them are altogether uneducated; and it is said that the people of Barvas even keep their children from school, lest, being thus made acquainted with better countries, they should be induced to leave their own inhospitable home. – Macculloch made here a discovery of a race of people entirely different from the ordinary Highlanders. We shall allow him to tell the circumstance in his own words:- “At the Butt, which forms the northern headland, we found many boats employed in fishing; and their whole style appeared so new, that we lay to for the purpose of bringing one of them alongside. They were manned by nine men, having eight rowers in double banks, – a practice nowhere else in this country. We found them a lively, good-humoured people, totally unlike, in manners as well as persons, to their neighbours. They present an interesting singularity in the population of these islands, being of pure Danish origin, although speaking unmixed Gaelic, as our seamen assured us. It would not have been easy to mistake them for Highlanders; as they resembled exactly the people whom we had every day met manning the northern timber-freighted ships. Fat and fair, with the ruddy complexions and the blue eyes of their race, their manners appeared peculiarly mild and pleasing, although their aspect seemed, at first sight, rude enough; their hair being matted, as if from their birth it had never been profaned by comb or scissors; and their dress being of woollen only, with conical caps, and without handkerchief or vestige of linen. We found, on subsequent inquiry, that they constituted an independent colony, if it may so be called; scarcely mixing with their neighbours, and never indeed but when brought unavoidably into contact with them, as at markets: the other inhabitants, in return, considering them in the light of foreigners, and maintaining no voluntary communication with them. They were, however, well-spoken of, as acute and intelligent, and as being very industrious fishermen. They possess this green northern extremity of the island in joint tenantry; and their agriculture appeared to be carried on in the same slovenly manner that it usually is upon this system. Judging from their aspect, however, we considered them as much better fed than their neighbours, and understood that they only fished for their own consumption. The existence of a detachment of the original Northmen who so long possessed a large share in these islands, in a state of such purity, and of a separation which is almost hostile, appears a remarkable circumstance; but it is, perhaps, more remarkable that it should be the case nowhere else, and that the breed should, throughout all the rest of the islands, have so completely coalesced with the native Celts. Even in Shetland and Orkney, where a separate northern breed might have been more naturally expected, nothing of this kind occurs, nor do the natives of these islands present, by any means, such distinct traces of a Scandinavian origin as this little community. The characteristic circumstance of the matted hair, is peculiar to these few individuals, yet scrupulously preserved; and it must have descended, with them, from the most ancient times. That the whole of this island, or at least the greater part, was originally Norwegian, is not improbable; and Macleod, to whom, as chief, it belonged, was unquestionably of northern descent.” 

1  The etymology of this name is very doubtful. It is commonly used with the article, ‘The Lewis.’ 

3 thoughts on “Lewis, pp.261-263.

Leave a Reply