THE islands of Uist, with Benbecula between, extend from the
Sound of Harris as far south as Barra, and appear to have originally formed one unbroken chain ; and still, indeed, at low ebbs, a person may walk dryshod from Loch Boisdale to Loch Maddy. On the eastern side, and here and there in the interior, there are high hills, such as Hecla and Ben Eva!; and everywhere on the eastern coast reach long arms of the sea, winding far into the land, and sometimes, as in the case of Loch Eport, reaching to the very fringe of the Western sea. The land is, for the most part, low and unfertile, but there are a few breezy uplands and fine moors. All along the western side of the islands stretches a blank coast-line unbroken by loch or haven, however small ; and above it rises a broad tract of hillocks, composed of snow-white sand and powdered sea-shells, and covered by dry green pasture. Washed and winnowed out of the deep bed of the ocean, driven in and piled up by the great waters, the sand and shells gather year after year ; and, mixing with the moister soil of the interior, yield an arable and fertile soil.
His must be a strange soul who, wandering over these hillocks and gazing westward and seaward in calm weather, is not greatly awed and moved. There is no pretence of effect, no tremendous- ness, no obtrusive sign of power. The sea is glassy smooth, the long swell does not break at all, until, reaching the smooth sand, it fades softly, with deep monotonous moan. Here and there, sometimes close to land, sometimes far out seaward, a horrid reef slips its black back through the liquid blue, or a single rock emerges, tooth-like, thinly edged with foam. Southward loom the desolate heights of Barra, with crags and rocks beneath, and although there is no wind, the ocean breaks there with one broad and frightful flash of white. The sea-sound in the air is faint and solemn ; it does not cease at all. But what deepens most the strangeness of the scene, and weighs most sadly on the mind, is the pale sick colour of the silent sands. Even on the green heights the wind and rain have washed out great hollows, wherein the powdered shells are drifted like snow. You are solemnized as if you were walking on the great bed of the ocean, with the serene depths darkening above you. You are ages back in time, alone with the great forces antecedent to man ; but humanity comes back upon you creepingly, as you think of wan- derers out upon that endless waste, and search the dim sea-line in vain for a sail.
Calm like this is even more powerful than the storm. Under that stillness you are afraid of something—nature, death, immor- tality, God. But at the rising of the winds rises the savage within you; the blood flows, the heart throbs, the eyes are pinched close, the mouth shut tight. You can resist now as mortal things resist. Lifted up into the whirl of things, life is all ; the stillness—nature, death, God—is naught.
Terrific, nevertheless, is the scene on these coasts when the storm wind rises,—
" Blowing the trumpet of Euroclydon."
Westward, above the dark sea line, rises the purple-black clouds, driving with a tremendous carry eastward, while fresh vapours rise swiftly to fill up the rainy gaps they leave behind them. As if at one word of command, the waters rise and roar, their white crests, towering heavenward, glimmering against the driving mist. Light- ning, flashing out of the sky, shows the long line of breakers on the flat sand, the reefs beyond, the foamy tumult around the rocks southward. Thunder crashes afar, and the earth reverberates. So mighty is the wind at times, that no man can stand erect before it ; houses are thrown down, boats lifted up and driven about like straw. A hen, rising into the air for an instant, has her brains beaten out furiously on the ground. The cormorants, ranged in rows along their solitary cliffs, eye the wild waters in silence, starving for food, and even the nimble seagull beats about screw- ing, unable to make way against the storm.
These are the winter gales,—the terror alike of husbandmen and fishers. The west wind begins to blow in October, and gradually increases in strength, till all the terrors of the tempest are achieved. Hailstorms, rainstorms, snow storms alternate, with the terrific wind trumpeting between ; but even in severe winters, so potent is the sea-salt breath that the lagoons seldom freeze and the snow will not lie. The wild wandering birds—the hooper, the beau-goose, the gray-lag, all the tribes of ducks—gather together on the marshes, sure of food here, though the rest of the north be frozen. The great Arctic seal sits on Haskier and sails through the Sound of Harris. Above the wildest winds are heard the screams of birds.
Go in December to the Sound of Harris, and on some stormy day gaze on the wild scene around you ; the whistling waters, sown everywhere with isles and rocks, here the tide foaming round and round in an eddy powerful enough to drag along the largest ship, there a huge patch of seaweed staining the waves and betray- ing the lurking reef below. In the distance loom the hills of Harris, blue-white with snow, and hidden ever and anon in flying mist. Watch the terrors of the great Sound—the countless reefs and rocks, the eddies, the furious wind-swept waters ; and pray for the strange seaman whose fate it may be to drive helpless thither. Better the great ocean, in all its terror and might. Yet through that fatal gap barks, though unpiloted, have more than once driven safely. Into Loch Maddy once, while we were lying there, drove a water-logged vessel, laden with wood from Norway. Caught by tempests off the Butt of Lewis, she had driven down the western coast of the Outer Hebrides, and was in dire distress when, as a last resource, it was determined to take the Sound. No man on board knew the place, and it was impossible to send on shore for a pilot. On they drove, the skipper working with his men, the lead-line constantly going, the look-outs, at bow and on mast- head, singing out whenever any dangerous spot loomed in view. All along the coast gathered the island people, expecting every moment to see the vessel driven to pieces ; and to the skipper's frenzied eye they were wreckers watching for their prey. But, for a miracle, the vessel went safely through, without so much as a scratch. The skipper, with bleeding hands and tearful eyes, brought his ship into Maddy. All his stores were gone, save a few barrels of gin, and these he contrived to exchange for common necessaries. Though it was still wild weather, and though his vessel was quite unseaworthy, he was bent on pushing forward to Liverpool. Off he went, and after a day's absence returned again, wild and anxious. Ile bad driven down to Barra Head, been checked there by a gale from the south-west, and been compelled to return as he had come. Again he drove forth, disappeared, and again lie reappeared, wilder than ever, but as indomitable. 'The wind had once more checked him off Barra, and hurled him back to Loch Maddy. He started a third time, and did not return. It is to be hoped that he reached his destination in safety, and that when he next goes afloat it will be in a better vessel.
To the mind of a seaman, such coasts as that of Uist can scarcely look attractive or kindly ; his quick eye perceives all the danger, all the ghastly plotting against his life. Yet in the sum- mer time, the broad and sandy western tracts are very beautiful in their luxuriant vegetation, covered with daisies, buttercups, and the lesser orchids, brightly intermingled with the flowers of the white clover. They are quite pastoral and peaceful, despite their proximity to the great waters.
Neither more nor less than we have described them are the Uists ; a few mountains!, endless stretches of peat bogs and small lagoons, a long tract or Rbell-sand hillocks, all environed, eaten into, and perpetually shapen afresh by the never-resting sea.—
Ilobrid isles, Sot far amid the melancholy main.
Like all such children of the sea, they flit from mood to mood, sometimes terrible, sometimes miserable, peaceful occasionally, but never highly gay. Half the year round they are misted ever by the moist ocean rains,—in winter the sea strews them anew with sea-weeds, shells, and drift timber,—and for a few days in the year they bask in a glassy sea and behold the midsummer sun.
As has before been noted, the people of these isles are very poor. Their chief regular occupation, not a very profitable one now, is the manufacture of kelp; but they work during a portion of the year at the cod, lin, and herring fisheries. In hard times they subsist almost entirely on shell-fish, such as cockles and mussels, which abound on the endless sea-coast. Most of them have small crofts, and a few of them are able to keep cows. Here and there
reside wealthy tacksmen, who rent large farms, and employ a good deal of labour.
Walk from one end of the Uists to the other and you will not meet a sniffing face. It is not that the people are miserable, though they might be happier, nor is that they are apathetic, though they could be more demonstrative. With one and all of them life is a solemn business ; they have little time for sport— indeed, their disposition is not sportive. You must not joke with them, they do not understand, not because they are stupid, not because they are suspicious of your good faith, but merely because their visions, unlike the visions of brilliant races, are steady rather than fitful—seeing the world and things under one changeless ray of light, instead of by wonderful flashes. From the beginning to the end they have the same prospect, without summer, without flowers. Wild mirth-making in such a world would look like mountebanking among graves.
Yet how tender they are ! how exquisitely fresh and kind ! They are the most home-loving people in the world ; that is one of the chief reasons why they do not venture more on the water at greater distances from the family croft. One meal under the dear old roof, with the women and the little ones gathered aroundabout, is sweeter than a dozen at a distance or on board ship ; hard fare and sorry sleeping in a hut on the waste, where the wife can rear her young and the old mother spin in the ingle, is to be preferred to fine service and good clothes anywhere else in the world. There is an old Gaelic saying common here, "A house without the cry of bairns is like a farm without rye or sheep." Next to this love of home, this yearning to be the centre of a little circle, there dwells in the people of the islands a passionate fondness for localities. Uist is brighter to most than any promised land, however abun- dant the store of milk and honey. They know the place is bare and desolate, they know that it becomes a sore, sore pinch to live on the soil, but they know also that their fathers lived here before them, wedded here, died here, and (they fervently believe) went virtuously to heaven from here. True, some of the younger and livelier spirits express their willingness to emigrate, and do emigrate occasionally, exhibiting under the influence of liquor plentifully distributed all the signs of exhilaration ; but such are exceptions, corrupted youngters, caught too early by the yellow itch of gold. Nothing is more noticeable in these islands than the demoralizing influence of civilization on the race. The further one recedes from the seaports, the large farms of the wealthy tacksmen, from the domain of the tourist and the school- master, the brighter do the souls of the cotters grow, the opener their bands, the purer their morals, and the happier their homes. Wherever the great or little Sassenach goes he leaves a dirty trail like the slime of the snake. He it is who abuses the people for their laziness, points sneeringly at their poor houses, spits scorn on their wretchedly cultivated snaps of land ; and he it is who, in- troducing the noble gods of greed and godlessness, turns the ragged domestic virtues into well dressed prostitutes, heartless and eager for hire. In the whole list of jobbers, excepting only the mean whites of the Southern States of America, there are few paltrier fellows than the little " betweenities " who stand by Highland dons and interpret between ignorance and the great proprietors. They libel the race they do not understand, they deride the affections they are too base to cultivate, they rob and plunder, and would exterminate wholly, the rightful masters of the soil. They are the agents of civilization in such places as the Uists ; so that, if God does not help the civilized, it is tolerably clear that the Devil will.
In the islands, beware of the civilized. The civilized islander, like the Sassenach, gives you nothing in kindliness, charges you double for everything, and sees you go without any grief save that of half-satisfied greed. Recollect, nevertheless, that he is doing well, tills his ground well, and by and by, perhaps, will keep a little store, going on from little to big trading, till he owns both land and boats. The poor uncivilized islander, on the other hand, makes you welcome to his hearth, gives you bite and sup of the best, talks to you with free heart and honest sympathy, and is only hurt and pained if you try to repay hospitality with money. N o matter how poor the hut, the stranger must have something—if not a drink of milk, the croft being too poor to support a cow, at least a draught of water in a clean basin. And the smile that sweetens such gifts is like Christ's, turning water into wine. We shall not soon forget the pain and indignation of an old islander, while telling of his experience once in the Lowlands. He had been walking far, and was very thirsty, when he descried a snug cottage, with a clean, sway housewife standing on the threshold. "Good wife," he said, after the usual greeting, I am very dry, can you give me a drink
of milk ?" "We have nae milk," was the reply. "A drink of I you know, like Moses, the meekest of men, and rarely answer an I water then," said the wanderer. "Awed," said the woman, "if you like I'll show ye the well, but we hae to fetch the water oursets !" "My father and my mother," said our informant, after recounting the anecdote, "my father and my mother would have risen screeching from their graves, had I greeted the stranger at their door with such a speech."
Such are some of the people's virtues—philoprogenitiveness (rather a doubtful virtue this in the eyes of some political econo- mists), honesty, hospitality. Note,:too, a few of their faults—or, as some would say, their vices. Their staunchest friend cannot say that they are over-clean. They will sometimes litter like pigs, lihen by a little trouble they might live like human beings ; and they seldom comb their hair. Then, again, they don't and won't go in for "improvements." The house their parents lived in is good enough for them—a herring barrel is good enough for a .chimney, clay is good enough for a floor. They would feel chilly in a bigger dwelling. They are used to the thick peat smoke, the pig by the fire, the hens on the rafters—perhaps, too, in the season, the calf in a corner. A philosopher may say- " why not ?"
A stranger, wandering here, will be struck by the fact that, although the dwellings are so poor, the dress of the poor is re- markably good, showing few signs of poverty. Almost all wear good homespun, and as much of it as possible—stout coarse tweeds for the men, and thick flannels for the women. Nearly every house has a spinning wheel, many houses possess a loom ; a few have both ; and a busy sight it is to see the comely daughter working at the loom, while the mother spins at her side, and even the man knits himself a pair of stockings while he smokes his pipe in the corner. Another point that will strike a stranger is the enormous number of ponies in the Uists. Where they come from, what they are useful for, we have been unable to find out ; but they literally swarm, and must be a serious drag to the population_ We were offered a splendid little filly for 30s.
Thus far nothing has been said of the deep inner life of this people ; little as we have seen, and less as we understand, of that, we see and understand enough for great emotion. Put the spiritual nature aside in estimating capabilities, and you exclude all that is greatest and most significant. Now, directly the mental turn of the islanders is apprehended, it is clear at a glance why they must inevitably sink and perish in the race with the south- erner or east-countryman. They are too ruminant by nature, toe slow to apprehend new truths. They are saddened by a deep clinging sense that the world is haunted. They have still faith in witchcraft, in prophecy, in charms. If a stranger looks too keenly at a child, they pray God to avert "the evil eye." They believe that gold and gems are hidden in obscure corners of the hills, but that only supernatural powers know where. They have seen the "Men o' Peace," or Scottish fays, with blue bonnets on their heads, push- ing from shore the boat that is found adrift days afterwards. Some of their old women retain the second sight. Strange sounds—some- times like human voices, at others like distant bagpipes—are heard about their dwellings when any one is going to die. They have the Gruadhach, or Banshee. In short, they have a credulous turn of mind, not entirely disbelieving even when they know the evidence to be very doubtful,—for they aver that time world is fuller of wonders than any one man knows. in their daily life, at births, at weddings, at funerals, they keep such observances as imply a deep sense of the pathetic nature of human ties. The voices of winds and waters are in their hearts, and they passionately believe in God.
With such a people, religion is naturally a vital thing, imn- portant as life itself. The poor women will travel miles on miles to hear mass, or (if Protestants) to take the communion. It is held an evil thing altogether to miss religious ceremonial on the Sabbath. In all affairs of joy or sorrow there is one straight appeal to the fountain-head—the Lord God who reigns in heaven. Dire is the suffering that can be borne when the sufferer is told by the priest that it is " God's will."
What dullness! what a civilization ! How inferior are these benighted beings to their instructors—the petty tradesmen and the small factors ! How blessed will the islands be when the present demoralizing influences are withdrawn, and the paupers possess in their place the huckster's scales and the grocer's tallow-candle !