The Small Isles
THE ISLANDS 300 YEARS AGO: Martin Martin's description of 1703
Martin Martin, a native Gaelic speaker born in Skye, was in a unique position to describe the islands from the inside. His "Description of the Western Islands of Scotland" first published in 1703, offers fascinating information that attracted many future travellers. Samuel Johnson carried a copy of Martin on his famous visit with James Boswell to the Hebrides in 1773, and reading it was an important factor in his decision to see the islands.
This isle lies about four leagues south from Skye; it is mountainous and heathy, but the coast is arable and fruitful. The isle is five miles long from south to north, and three from east to west; the north end produces some wood. The rivers on each side afford salmon. There is plenty of land and sea-fowl; some of the latter, especially the puffin, build in the hills as much as in the rocks on the coast, in which there are abundance of caves: the rock facing the west side is red, and that on the east side grey. The mountains have some hundred of deer grazing in them. The natives gave me an account of a strange observation, which they say proves fatal to the posterity of Lachlin, a cadet of MacLean of Coll's family; that if any of them shoot at a deer on the mountain Finchra, he dies suddenly, or contracts some violent distemper, which soon puts a period to his life. They told me some instances to this purpose: whatever may be in it, there is none of the tribe above-named will ever offer to shoot the deer in that mountain.
The bay Loch-Scresord on the east side is not fit for anchoring, except without the entry.
There is a chapel in this isle; the natives are Protestants; MacLean of Coll is proprietor, and the language and habit the same with the northern isles.
It lies a little to the south-west of Rum, being four miles in circumference, all surrounded with a rock; it is fruitful in corn and grass; the hawks in the rocks here are reputed to be very good. The cattle, fowls, and amphibia of this island are the same as in other isles; the natives speak the Irish tongue only, and use the habit worn by their neighbours.
This isle lies about half a mile off Rum; it is two miles from south to north, and one from east to west. It is for the most part surrounded with a high rock, and the whole fruitful in corn and grass: the south end hath plenty of cod and ling.
There is a high hill in the north end, which disorders the needle in the compass: I laid the compass on the stony ground near it, and the needle went often round with great swiftness, and instead of settling towards the north, as usual, it settled here due east. The stones in the surface of the earth are black, and the rock below facing the sea is red; some affirm that the needle of a ship's compass, failing by the hill, is disordered by the force of the magnet in this rock: but of this I have no certainty.
The natives call this isle by the name Tarsin at sea; the rock Heisker on the south end abounds with wild geese in August, and then they cast their quills. The church in this isle is dedicated to St. Columbus. All the natives are Roman Catholics; they use the language and habit of the other isles. Allan Macdonald is proprietor. There is good anchorage on the north-east of this isle.
This isle lies to the south of Skye about four leagues; it is three miles in length, a mile and a half in breadth, and about nine in circumference; it is all rocky and mountainous from the middle towards the west; the east side is plainer, and more arable: the whole is indifferent good for pasturage and cultivation. There is a mountain in the south end, and on the top of it there is a high rock called Skur Egg, about an hundred and fifty paces in circumference, and has a fresh-water lake in the middle of it; there is no access to this rock but by one passage, which makes it a natural fort. There is a harbour on the south-east side of this isle which may be entered into by either side the small isle without it. There is a very big cave on the south-west side of this isle, capable of containing several hundreds of people. The coast guarding the north-west is a soft quarry of white stone, having some caves in it. There is a well in the village called Fivepennies, reputed efficacious against several distempers: the natives told me that it never fails to cure any person of their first disease, only by drinking a quantity of it for the space of two or three days; and that if a stranger lie at this well in the night-time, it will procure a deformity in some part of his body, but has no such effect on a native; and this they say hath been frequently experimented.
There is a heap of stones here, called Martin Dessil, i.e., a place consecrated to the saint of that name, about which the natives oblige themselves to make a tour round sunways.
There is another heap of stones, which they say was consecrated to the Virgin Mary.
In the village oil the south coast of this isle there is a well, called St. Katherine's Well; the natives have it in great esteem, and believe it to be a catholicon for diseases. They told me that it had been such ever since it was consecrated by one Father Hugh, a Popish priest, in the following manner: he obliged all the inhabitants to come to this well, and then employed them to bring together a great heap of stones at the head of the spring, by way of penance. This being done, he said mass at the well, and then consecrated it; he gave each of the inhabitants a piece of wax candle, which they lighted, and all of them made the dessil, of going round the well sunways, the priest leading them: and from that time it was accounted unlawful to boil any meat with the water of this well.
The natives observe St. Katherine's Anniversary; all of them come to the well, and having drank a draught of it, they make the dessil round it sunways; this is always performed on the 15th day of April. The inhabitants of this isle are well proportioned; they speak the Irish tongue only, and wear the habit of the islanders; they are all Roman Catholics, except one woman, that is a Protestant.
There is a church here on the east side the isle, dedicated to St. Donnan, whose anniversary they observe.
About thirty yards from the church there is a sepulchral urn under ground; it is a big stone hewn to the bottom, about four feet deep, and the diameter of it is about the same breadth; I caused them to dig the ground above it, and we found a flat thin stone covering the urn: it was almost full of human bones, but no head among them, and they were fair and dry. I inquired of the natives what was become of the heads, and they could not tell; but one of them said, perhaps their heads had been cut off with a twohanded sword, and taken away by the enemy. Some few paces to the north of the urn there is a narrow stone passage under ground, but how far it reaches they could give me no account.
The natives dare not call this isle by its ordinary name of Egg when they are at sea, but island Nim-Ban-More, i.e., the isle of big women. St. Donnan's Well, which is in the south-west end, is in great esteem by the natives, for St. Donnan is the celebrated tutelar of this isle. The natives do not allow Protestants to come to their burial.
The proprietors of the isle are Allan MacDonald of Moydart, and Allan MacDonald of Morar.
The Small Isles, a unique cultural heritage
The Small Isles' culture is rooted in the Gaelic heritage of the Hebridean culture. The Hebrides, or Innsegall in Gaelic – the islands of the strangers, ie the Vikings - have themselves a strong Norse flavour, which can be traced in the islands’ place-names: the Rum Cuillin names of Ainshival, Trollaval, Askival are one striking example. It is this ancient culture that have formed the bedrock of the Small Isles identity.
They have shared the fortunes of the clans they followed, the MacDonalds of Clanranald in Eigg and Canna, the Macleans on Muck and Rum, hanging on to their beliefs and their loyalties, islands where clan chiefs were always sure to count on hardy fighters. Even today, Eigg and Canna have maintained that unbroken allegiance to the Catholic faith which made them stand out places of unique interest in the 17th and 18th century.
It is in the last 100 years that the Small Isles have had grafted on this tenacious Gaelic rootstock, a new culture brought by the freedom and wildlife lovers of all horizons and origins who have found in the Small Isles a congenial home.
Strong Hebridean roots
Their Hebridean roots make the Small Isles warm, caring and close knit communities which are also friendly and safe: more in tune with nature, relaxed and contented with the slower rhythm of life of the islands. People will go out of their way to help you and have the time to be genuinely interested in what you have to say.
Although Gaelic is no longer now the language of the Small Isles communities, the love of the Gael for the Ceilidh and pure traditional music lives on, with Feisean, traditional music events, summer dances and music sessions.
Visitors have the chance to join in with the locals at the Small Isles games which rotate yearly between the islands, or in events like Feis Eige or Feis Chanaidh, where the tradititional Gaelic arts are taught by well known musicians or singers.
A love for tradition
Tradition is also important in the Small Isles and this means sharing stories and heritage by making it available in local exhibitions (the Old Laundry, the Old Shop, Muck Community Hall, Eigg archive) and small museums such as Eigg's museum of Crofting life.
On Canna, there is also a strong feeling about the need to care for the home and legacy of the islands cultural icons, John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw. On Rum, it is the unique collections in Rum’s Kinloch Castle, and the fabric of the castle itself that the islanders are mindful of preserving.
On Muck, 150 years of family farming has created such a strong attachment for the way the land needs to be cared for to make it thrive, that it has seeped unconsciously into everyone’s mind.
It is the Small Isles' tradition of hospitality and openness to the stranger which has made them home to a people who have given their time and energy to rebuilt communities often depleted by economic migration. They have developed a new culture based on the outdoors and self-sufficiency, embracing crofting values, manifesting as resilience, stewardship of the environment and an ability to turn your hand at anything.
Creativity is the mark of the new Small Isles culture: whether it is turning a dilapidated old church into a theatre and art centre on Canna, or encouraging local artisans and musicians into forming a creative hub like the Eigg Box project. Making crafts is part of the fabric of life, with island women in particular producing beautiful knitwear and rugs of local wool. Upcycling and raw art and fine art can also be found in the Small Isles which now boast its own small gallery.
Love of nature and a greener ethos
Love of the natural environment is paramount, with crofters and farmers closely involved in wildlife conservation. Ranger services help share the islands’ outstanding wildlife resources with the visitors.
Love of good food is widespread too, with an interest in each island in offering the best in the Small Isles larder. Gardening and home produce are now on the increase, so look out for what's on offer at the farmer's market and the island shops.
A new way of reconnecting with nature and the environment is also developing, with islanders practicing archery, singing, yoga, meditation or chi kung and offering the visitors the chance to share their passions with regular practice sessions or specific courses.
The Small Isles are Islands Going Green, each of them having developed or developing their green electricity grid. They are now looking at ways to tread more lightly on their environment and they are interested in sharing that effort with the people that visit them.