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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

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Christian Auer

VI. The Highlands

34. Inhabitants of Skye, 1775

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1Samuel Johnson (1709-84) was a literary scholar and a critic much celebrated in his time for his brilliant and witty conversation. After working as a teacher he moved to London, where he began to write essays for The Gentleman’s Magazine. The work that permanently established Johnson’s reputation was his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), the first comprehensive lexicographical work on English, which had taken him nearly nine years to complete. In 1763 he met James Boswell, who was to write a biography of Johnson in which Johnson is presented in exhaustive and fascinating detail. In the late summer and autumn of 1773 Johnson toured the Hebrides with Boswell and published his account of the tour in 1775, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.

2Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), London: Wallis, 1800, p. 143-148.

The inhabitants of Sky, and of the other islands, which I have seen, are commonly of the middle stature, with fewer among them very tall or very short, than are seen in England, or perhaps as their numbers are small, the chances of any deviation from the common measure are necessarily few. The tallest men that I saw among them are of the higher rank. In regions of barrenness and scarcity, the human race is hindred in its growth by the same causes as other animals.

The ladies have as much beauty here as in other places, but bloom and softness are not to be expected among the lower classes, whose faces are exposed to the rudeness of the climate, and whose features are sometimes contracted by want, and sometimes hardened by the blasts. Supreme beauty is seldom found in cottages or work shops, even where no real hardships are suffered. To expand the human face to its full perfection, it seems necessary that the mind should co-operate by placidness of content, or consciousness of superiority.

Their strength is proportionate to their size, but they are accustomed to run upon rough ground, and therefore can with great agility skip over the bog, or clamber the mountain. For a campaign in the wastes of America, soldiers better qualified could not have been found. Having little work to do, they are not willing, nor perhaps able to endure a long continuance of manual labour, and are therefore considered as habitually idle.

Having never been supplied with these accommodations, which life extensively diversified with trades affords, they supply their wants by very insufficient shifts, and endure many inconveniencies, which a little attention would easily relieve, I have seen a horse carring home the harvest on a crate. Under his tail was a stick for a crupper, held at the two ends by twists of straw. Hemp will grow in their islands, and therefore ropes may be had. If they wanted hemp, they might make better cordage of rushes, or perhaps of nettles, than of straw.

Their method of life neither secures them perpetual health, nor exposes them to any particular diseases. There are physicians in the islands, who I believe, all practise chirurgery, and all compound their own medicines.

It is generally supposed that life is longer in places where there are few opportunities of luxury; but I found no instance here of extraordinary longevity. A cottager grows old over his oaten cakes, like a citizen at a turtle feast. He is indeed seldom incommoded by corpulence. Poverty preserves him from sinking under the burden of himself, but he escapes no other injury of time. Instances of long life are often related, which those who hear them are more willing to credit than examine. To be told that any man has attained a hundred years gives hope and comfort to him who stands trembling on the brink of his own climacterick.

Length of life is distributed impartially to very different modes of life in very different climates; and the mountains have no greater examples of age and health than the low lands, where I was introduced to two ladies of high quality; one of whom, in her ninety-fourth year, presided at her table with the full exercise of all her powers; and the other has attained her eighty-fourth, without any diminution of vivacity, and with little reason to accuse time with depredations on her beauty.

In the islands, as in most other places, the inhabitants are of different rank, and one does not encroach here upon another. Where there is no commerce nor manufacture, he that is born poor can scarcely become rich; and if none are able to buy estates, he that is born to land cannot annihilate his family by selling it. This was once the state of these countries. Perhaps there is no example, till within a century and a half, of any family whose estate was alienated, otherwise than by violence or forfeiture. Since money has been brought amongst them, they have found like others, the art of spending more than they receive; and I saw with grief, the chief of a very ancient clan, whose island was condemned by law to be sold for the satisfaction of his creditors.

The name of the highest dignity is Laird, of which there are in the extensive Isle of Sky only three, Macdonald, Macleod, and Mackinnon. The Laird is the original owner of the land, whose natural power must be very great, where no man lives but by agriculture; and where the produce of the land is not conveyed through the labyrinths of traffic, but passes directly from the hand that gathers it, to the mouth that eats it. The Laird has all those in his power that can live upon his farms. Kings can, for the most part, only exalt or degrade. The Laird at pleasure can feed or starve, can give bread or withhold it. This inherent power was yet strengthened by the kindness of consanguinity, and the reverence of patriarchal authority. The Laird was the father of the Clan, and his tenants commonly bore his name. And to these principles of original command was added, for many ages, an exclusive right of legal jurisdiction.

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