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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

VI. The Highlands

36. The Celtic Slave, 1796

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1John Lane Buchanan was a Church of Scotland minister in Harris for eight years between 1782 and 1790. In 1793 he wrote an account of the time he spent there (Travels in the Western Hebrides: from 1782 to 1790) in which he recorded all aspects of life on the island. His later writings show him to have been a keen advocate of the rights of the poor.

2John Lane Buchanan, Travels in the Western Hebrides: from 1782 to 1790, London: 1793, p. 194-199.

On a general survey of the western Hebrides, as we have seen, the picture that is oftenest presented, and which recurs again and again to the mind, is that of melancholy and depression. Those isles are, in general, the melancholy abodes of woe, of suffering in various forms, where the people are treated merely as beasts of burthen, and worse than beasts of burthen. If want and stripes leave any room for sensibility to a state of slavish dependence and cruel revilings and mockery, surely the tears, the cries, the groans, of so great a number of oppressed, though lively and acute people, call for pity and relief at the hands of Government

The public attention has of late been called to the situation of the African cultivators of the soil in the West-Indies, God forbid that I should insinuate a disapprobation of any mode of conduct, whose object is mercy. Let me, however, observe, that there are certain divisions, classes, and tribes of men, that have a claim to our sympathy and aid, in preference to others; both by the laws of natural, and those of revealed religion: and, having made this observation, let me institute a comparison of the African in the West-Indies with that of the Celtic slave or scallag in the Western Hebrides, in the neighbourhood of Luskintire in particular.

First, then, with regard to the respective conditions of their life, in general, it is none of their own chusing. The African, when he is not sold on account of some crime, is bereftof his freedom, and forced into slavery by fraud or violence. The Hebridean slave is neither, indeed, trepanned into slavery by guile, nor compelled by physical compulsion; but he is drawn into it by a moral necessity, equally invincible; by a train of circumstances which are beyond his power to control; and leave him no option, but either to serve some master as a scallag, or often to protract a miserable existence for some time, in the forest, and near the uninhabited seashores, where he may pick up some shell-fish, to perish, with his wife, perhaps, and little ones, through cold and hunger.

Second. With regard to labour. The negroe works only from six o’clock in the morning to six in the evening: and out of that time he has two complete hours for rest and refreshment. The scallag is at work from four o’clock in the morning to eight, nine, and sometimes ten in the evening.

Third. With regard to respite from labour. The negroe is allowed only one day in the week for himself. And this, too, is the portion of time allowed to the scallag.

Fourth. With regard to food. The negroe has a plentiful allowance of such common fare as is sufficient to nourish him; besides his little property in land, or peculium, which he cultivates for himself, on the evenings, after he is done his master’s work; and on Sundays, and other holidays. The scallag is fed only twice a day, when at hard labour for his master, with water-gruel, or as they call it, brochan; or kail, or coleworts; with the addition of a barley cake; or potatoes: and all this without salt. But, for his family, and for himself, on Sundays, or when unable to work through bodily indisposition, he has no other means of subsistence than what he can raise for himself by the labour of one day out of seven, from a scanty portion of cold and moorish soil:—Barley, potatoes, coleworts, and a milch cow, or a couple of ewes, perhaps, forgiving milk to his infants: though it often happens that he is obliged to kill these household goods, as it were, in order to prevent his family from starving. At certain seasons, he has fish in abundance; but this he is, for the most part, obliged to eat without bread, and often without salt. The negroe, if he be tolerably industrious, can afford, on Saturdays, and other holidays, with pepper-pot, a pig, or a turkey, and a can of grog. Nay, many a negroe, I am well assured, has been known to clear, besides many comforts for his own family, by the produce of his little property, from twenty to thirty, and even forty pounds a year: so that there is a fair probability, that any negroe would soon be enabled to gain the price of his liberty, if he desired and deserved it. Of relief from bondage, and woe, the scallag has not a single ray of hope on this side of the grave.

Fifth. With regard to lodging and clothing. The negroe is comfortably lodged and fed in a warm climate: the scallag is very poorly clothed, and still more wretchedly lodged, in a cold one. And, as the negroe is provided by his master with bedding and body clothes, so he is also furnished by him with the implements of husbandry. The scallag, with sticks and sods, rears his own hut; procures for himself a few rags, either by what little flax or wool he can raise; or by the refuse or coarser parts of these articles furnished by his master: and provides his own working tools, as the spade, called cass direach, the cass chrom, &.c.

Sixth. With regard to usage or treatment. The slave is driven on to labour by stripes, so also is the scallag; who is even, as we have seen, formally tied up, on some occasions, as well as the negroe, to a stake, and scourged on his bare back. The owner of the slave, it may farther be observed, has a strong interest in his welfare: for if he should become sick, or infirm, he must maintain him; or if he should die, he must supply his place at a considerable expence. There is no such restraint on the peevish humours, or angry passions of a Hebridean laird or tacksman. The scallag, under infirmity, disease, and old age is set adrift on the wide world, and begs from door to door, and from island to island. Nor is it necessary, in order to supply the place of a scallag, to be at any expence: for the frequent failure of subtenants affords but too many recruits to the wretched order of scallags.

Seventhly, and lastly. As there is nothing so natural as the love of liberty, and an aversion to restraint and oppression, the scallag, as well as the negroe, sometimes attempts emancipation, by fleeing to the uninhabited parts of the country: though such attempts are not so often made by the scallags after they are enured to slavery, as when they feel themselves on the verge of sinking into that dreadful and deserted condition of existence.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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