Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 38

The Highlands and Western Islands were in no respect so much affected by the union of the Crowns as the inhabitants of the Borders. The accession of James to the English throne was of little consequence to them, unless in so far as it rendered the King more powerful, and gave him the means of occasionally sending bodies of troops into their fortresses to compel them t order; and this was a measure of unusual rigour, which was but seldom resorted to.

The Highland tribes, therefore, remained in the same state as before, using the same dress, wielding the same arms, divided into the same clans, each governed by its own patriarch, and living in all respects as their ancestors had lived for many centuries before them. Or if there were some marks of softened manners among those Gaelic tribes who resided on the mainland, the inhabitants of the Hebrides or Western Isles, adjacent to the coast of Scotland, are described to us as utterly barbarous. A historian of the period says, “that the Highlanders who dwell on the mainland, though sufficiently wild, show some shade of civilisation; but those in the islands are without laws or morals, and totally destitute of religion and humanity.” Some stories of their feuds are indeed preserved, which go far to support this general accusation. I will tell you one or two of them.

The principal possessors of the Hebrides were originally of the name of MacDonald, the whole being under the government of a succession of chiefs, who bore the name of Donald of the Isles, as we have already mentioned, and were possessed of authority almost independent of the Kings of Scotland. But this great family becoming divided into two or three branches, other chiefs settled in some of the islands, and disputed the property of the original proprietors. Thus, the MacLeods, a powerful and numerous clan, who had extensive estates on the mainland, made themselves masters, at a very early period, of a great part of the large island of Skye, seized upon much of the Long Island, as the Isles of Lewis and Harris are called, and fought fiercely with the MacDonalds, and other tribes of the islands. The following is an example of the mode in which these feuds were conducted.

About the end of the sixteenth century, a boat, manned by one or two of the MacLeods, landed in Eigg, a small island, peopled by the MacDonalds. They were at first hospitably received but having been guilty of some incivility to the young women on the island, it was so much resented by the inhabitants, that they tied the MacLeods hand and foot, and putting them on board of their own boat, towed it to sea, and set it adrift, leaving the wretched man, bound as they were, to perish by famine, or by the winds and waves, as chance should determine. But fate so ordered it, that a boat belonging to the Laird of MacLeod fell in with that which had the captives on board, and brought them in safety to the laird’s castle of Dunvegan in Skye, where they complained of the injury which they had sustained from the MacDonalds of Eigg. MacLeod, in a great rage, put to sea with his galleys, manned by a large body of his people, which the men of Eigg could not entertain any rational hope resisting. Learning that their incensed enemy was approaching with superior forces, and deep vows of revenge, the inhabitants, who knew they had no mercy to expect at MacLeod’s hands, resolved, as the best change of safety in their power, to conceal themselves in a large cavern on the seashore.

This place was particularly well calculated for that purpose. The entrance resembles that of a fox-earth, being an opening so small that a man cannot enter save by creeping on hands and knees. A rill of water falls from the top of the rock, and serves, or rather served at the period we speak of, wholly to conceal the aperture. A stranger, even when apprized of the existence of such a cave, would find the greatest difficulty in discovering the entrance. Within, the cavern rises to a great height, and the floor is covered with white dray sand. It is extensive enough to contain a great number of people. The whole inhabitants of Eigg, who, with their wives and families, amounted to nearly two hundred souls, took refuge within its precincts.

MacLeod arrive with his armament, and landed on the island, but could discover no one on whom to wreak his vengeance — all was desert. The MacLeods destroyed the huts of the islanders, and plundered what property they could discover; but the vengeance of the chieftain could not be satisfied with such petty injuries. He knew that the inhabitants must either have fled in their boats to one of the islands possessed by the MacDonalds, or that they must be concealed somewhere in Eigg. After making a strict but unsuccessful search for two days, MacLeod had appointed the third to leave his anchorage, when, in the grey of the morning, one of the seamen beheld from the deck of his galley the figure of a man on the island. This was a spy whom the MacDonalds, impatient of their confinement in the cavern, had imprudently sent out to see whether MacLeod had retired or no. The poor fellow, when he saw himself discovered, endeavoured, by doubling, after the manner of a hare or fox, to obliterate the track of his footsteps on the snow, and prevent its being discovered where he had reentered the cavern. But all the arts he could use were fruitless, the invaders again landed, and tracked him to the entrance of the den.

MacLeod then summoned those who were within it, and called upon them to deliver up the individuals who had maltreated his men, to be disposed of at his pleasure. The MacDonalds, still confident in the strength of their fastness, which no assailant could enter but on hands and knees, refused to surrender their clansmen.

MacLeod next commenced a dreadful work of indiscriminate vengeance. He caused his people, by means of a ditch cut above the top of the rock, to turn away the stream of water which fell over the entrance of the cavern. This being done, the MacLeods collected all the combustibles which could be found on the island, particularly turf and quantities of dry heather, piled them up against the aperture, and maintained an immense fire for many hours, until the smoke, penetrating into the inmost recesses of the cavern, stifled to death every creature within. There is no doubt of the truth of this story, dreadful as it is. The cavern is often visited by strangers; and I have myself seen the place where the bones of the murdered MacDonalds still remain, lying as thick on the floor of the cave as in the charnel-house of a church.

The MacLeans, in like manner, a bold and hardy race, who, originally followers of the Lords of the Isles, had assumed independence, seized upon great part both of the isle of Mull and the still more valuable island of Ilay, and made war on the MacDonalds with various success. There is a story belonging to this clan, which I may tell you, as giving another striking picture of the manners of the Hebrideans.

The chief of the clan, MacLean of Duart, in the isle of Mull, had an intrigue with a beautiful young woman of his own clan, who bore a son to him. In consequence of the child’s being, by some accident, born on a heap of straw, he received the name of Allan-a-Sop, or Allan of the Straw, by which he was distinguished from others of his clan. As his father and mother were not married, Allan was of course a bastard, or natural son, and had no inheritance to look for, save that which he might win for himself.

But the beauty of the boy’s mother having captivated a man of rank in the clan, called MacLean of Torloisk, he married her, and took her to reside with him at his castle of Torloisk, situated on the shores of the sound, or small strait of the sea, which divides the smaller island of Ulva from that of Mull. Allan-a-Sop paid his mother frequent visits at her new residence, and she was naturally glad to see the poor boy, both from affection, and on account of his personal strength and beauty, which distinguished him above other youths of his age. But she was obliged to confer marks of her attachment on him as privately as she could, for Allan’s visits were by no means so acceptable to her husband as to herself. Indeed, Torloisk like so little to see the lad, that he determined to put some affront on him, which should prevent his returning to the castle for some time. An opportunity for executing his purpose soon occurred.

The lady one morning, looking from the window, saw her son coming wandering down the hill, and hastened to put a girdle cake upon the fire, that he might have hot bread for breakfast. Something called her out of the apartment after making this preparation, and her husband, entering at the same time, saw at once what she had been about, and determined to give the boy such a reception as should disgust him for the future. He snatched the cake from the girdle, thrust it into his step-son’s hands, which he forcibly closed on the scalding bread, saying, “Here, Allan — here is a cake which your mother has got ready for your breakfast.” Allan’s hands were severely burnt; and being a sharp-witted and proud boy, he resented this mark of his step-father’s ill-will, and came not again to Torloisk.

At this time the western seas were covered with the vessels of pirates, who, not unlike the Sea–Kings of Denmark at an early period, sometimes settled and made conquests on the islands. Allan-a-Sop was young, strong, and brave to desperation. He entered as a mariner on board of one of these ships, and in process of time obtained the command, first of one galley, then of a small flotilla, with which he sailed round the seas and collected considerable plunder, until his name became both feared and famous. At length he proposed to himself to pay a visit to his mother, whom he had not seen for many years; and setting sail for this purpose, he anchored one morning in the sound of Ulva, and in front of the house of Torloisk. His mother was dead, but his step-father, to whom he was now as much an object of fear as he had been formerly of aversion, hastened to the shore to receive his formidable step-son, with great affectation of kindness and interest in his prosperity; while Allan-a-Sop, who, though very rough and hasty, does not appear to have been sullen or vindictive, seemed to take his kind reception in good part.

The crafty old man succeeded so well, as he thought, in securing Allan’s friendship, and obliterating all recollections of the former affront put on him, that he began to think it possible to employ his step-son in executing his own private revenge upon MacQuarrie of Ulva, with whom, as was usual between such neighbours, he had some feud. With this purpose, he offered what he called the following good advice to his son-in-law: “My dear Allan, you have now wandered over the seas long enough; it is time you should have some footing upon land, a castle to protect yourself in winter, a village and cattle for your men, and a harbour to lay up your galleys. Now, here is the island of Ulva, near at hand, which lies ready for your occupation, and it will cost you no trouble, save that of putting to death the present proprietor, the Laird of MacQuarrie, a useless old carle, who has cumbered the world long enough.”

Allan-a-Sop thanked his step-father for so happy a suggestion, which he declared he would put in execution forthwith. Accordingly, setting sail the next morning, he appeared before MacQuarrie’s house an hour before noon. The old chief of Ulva was much alarmed at the menacing apparition of so many galleys, and his anxiety was not lessened by the news that they were commanded by the redoubted Allan-a-Sop. Having no effectual means of resistance, MacQuarrie, who was a man of shrewd sense, saw no alternative save that of receiving the invaders, whatever might be their purpose, with all outward demonstrations of joy and satisfaction; the more especially as he recollected having taken some occasional notice of Allan during his early youth, which he now resolved to make the most of. Accordingly, MacQuarrie caused immediate preparations to be made for a banquet as splendid as circumstances admitted, hastened down to the shore to meet the rover, and welcomed him to Ulva with such a appearance of sincerity, that the pirate found it impossible to pick any quarrel, which might afford a pretence for executing the violent purpose which he had been led to meditate.

They feasted together the whole day; and, in the evening, as Allan-a-Sop was about to retire to his ships, he thanked the laird for his hospitality, but remarked, with a sigh, that it had cost him very dear. “How can that be,” said MacQuarrie, “when I bestowed this entertainment upon you in free good-will?” — “It is true, my friend,” replied the pirate, “but then it has quite disconcerted the purpose for which I came hither; which was to put you to death, my good friend, and seize upon your house and island, and so settle myself in the world. It would have been very convenient for me this island of Ulva; but your friendly reception has rendered it impossible for me to execute my purpose: so that I must be a wanderer on the seas for some time longer.” Whatever MacQuarrie felt at learning he had been so near to destruction, he took care to show no emotion save surprise, and replied to his visitor, — “My dear Allan, who was it that put into your mind so unkind a purpose towards your old friend; for I am sure it never arose from your own generous nature? It must have been old Torloisk, who made such an indifferent husband to your mother, and such an unfriendly step-father to you when you were a helpless boy; but now, when he sees you a bold and powerful leader, he desires to make a quarrel betwixt you and those who were the friends of your youth. If you consider this matter rightly, Allan, you will see that the estate and harbour of Torloisk lie to the full as conveniently for you as those of Ulva, and that, if you are disposed (as is very natural) to make a settlement by force, it is much better it should be at the expense of the old churl, who never showed you kindness or countenance, than at that of a friend like me, who always loved and honoured you.”

Allan-a-Sop was struck with the justice of this reasoning; and the old offence of his scalded fingers was suddenly recalled to his mind. “It is very true what you say, MacQuarrie,” he replied, “and, besides, I have not forgotten what a hot breakfast my step-father treated me to one morning. Farewell for the present; you shall soon hear news of me from the other side of the sound.” Having said thus much, the pirate got on board, and, commanding his men to unmoor the galleys, sailed back to Torloisk, and prepared to land in arms. MacLean hastened to meet him, in expectation to hear of the death of his enemy, MacQuarrie. But Allan greeted him in a very different manner from what he expected. “You hoary old traitor,” he said, “you instigated my simple good-nature to murder a better man than yourself! But have you forgotten how you scorched my fingers twenty years ago, with a burning cake? The day is come that the breakfast must be paid for.” So saying, he dashed out the old man’s brains with a battle-axe, took possession of his castle and property, and established there a distinguished branch of the clan of MacLean.

It is told of another of these western chiefs, who is said, upon the whole, to have been a kind and good-natured man, that he was subjected to repeated risk and injury by the treachery of an ungrateful nephew, who attempted to surprise his castle, in order to put his uncle to death, and obtain for himself the command of the tribe. Being detected on the first occasion, and brought before his uncle as a prisoner, the chief dismissed him unharmed; with a warning, however, not to repeat the offence, since, if he did so, he would cause him to be put to a death so fearful that all Scotland should ring with it. The wicked young man persevered, and renewed his attempts against his uncle’s castle and life. Falling a second time into the hands of the offended chieftain, the prisoner had reason to term him as good as his word. He was confined in the pit, or dungeon of the castle, a deep dark vault, to which there was no access save through a hole in the roof. He was left without food, till his appetite grew voracious; the more so, as he had reason to apprehend that it was intended to starve him to death. But the vengeance of his uncle was of a more refined character. The stone which covered the aperture in the roof was lifted, and a quantity of salt beef let down to the prisoner, who devoured it eagerly. When he had glutted himself with this food, and expected to be supplied with liquor, to quench the raging thirst which the died had excited, a cup was slowly lowered down, which when he eagerly grasped it, he found to be empty! Then they rolled the stone on the opening in the vault, and left the captive to perish by thirst, the most dreadful of all death.

Many similar stories could be told you of the wild wars of the islanders; but these may suffice at present to give you some idea of the fierceness of their manners, the low value at which they held human life, the cruel manner in which wrongs were revenged, and the unscrupulous violence by which property was acquired.

The Hebrideans seem to have been accounted by King James a race whom it was impossible to subdue, conciliate, or improve by civilisation; and the only remedy which occurred to him was to settle Lowlanders in the islands, and drive away or extirpate the people by whom they were inhabited. For this purpose, the King authorized an association of many gentlemen in the county of Fife, then the wealthiest and most civilized part of Scotland, who undertook to make a settlement in the isles of Lewis and Harris. These undertakers, as they were called, levied many, assembled soldiers, and manned a fleet, with which they landed on the Lewis, and effected a settlement at Stornoway in that country, as they would have done in establishing a colony on the desert shores of a distant continent.

At this time the property of the Lewis was disputed between the sons of Rory MacLeod, the last lord, who had two families by separate wives. The undertakers, finding the natives thus quarrelling among themselves, had little difficulty in building a small town and fortifying it; and their enterprise in the beginning assumed a promising appearance. But the Lord of Kintail, chief of the numerous and powerful clan of MacKenzie, was little disposed to let this fair island fall into the possession of a company of Lowland adventurers. He had himself some vies of obtaining it in the name of Torquil Connaldagh MacLeod, one of the Hebridean claimants, who was closely connected with the family of MacKenzie, and disposed to act as his powerful ally desired. Thus privately encouraged, the islanders united themselves against the undertakers; and, after a war of various fortune, attacked their camp of Stornoway, took it by storm, burnt the fort, slew many of them, and made the rest prisoners. They were not expelled, you may be sure, without bloodshed and massacre. Some of the old persons still alive in the Lewis, talk of a very old woman, living in their youth, who used to say, that she had held the light while her countrymen were cutting the throats of the Fife adventurers.

A lady, the wife of one of the principal gentlemen in the expedition, fled from the scene of violence into a wild and pathless desert of rock and morass, called the Forest of Fanning. In this wilderness she became the mother of a child. A Hebridean, who chanced to pass on one of the ponies of the country, saw the mother and infant in the act of perishing with cold, and being struck with the misery of their condition, contrived a strange manner of preserving them. He killed his pony, and opening its belly, and removing the entrails, he put the new-born infant and the helpless mother into the inside of the carcass, to have the advantage of the warmth which this strange and shocking receptacle for some time afforded. In this manner, with or without assistance, he contrived to bear them to some place of security, where the lady remained till she could get back in safety to her own country.

The lady who experienced this remarkable deliverance, became afterwards, by a second marriage, the wife of a person of consequence and influence in Edinburgh, a judge, I believe, of the Court of Session. One evening, while she looked out of the window of her house in the Canongate, just as a heavy storm was coming on, she heard a man in the Highland dress say in the Gaelic language, to another with whom he was walking, “This would be a rough might for the forest of Fanning.” The lady’s attention was immediately attracted by the name of a place which she had such awful reasons for remembering, and, on looking attentively at the man who spoke, she recognised her preserver. She called him into the house, received him in the most cordial manner, and finding that he was come from the Western Islands on some law business of great importance to his family, she interested her husband in his favour, by whose influence it was speedily and successfully settled; and the Hebridean, loaded with kindness and presents, returned to his native island, with reason to congratulate himself on the humanity which he had shown in so singular a manner.

After the surprise of their fort, and the massacre of the defenders, the Fife gentlemen tired of their undertaking; and the Lord of Kintail had the whole advantage of the dispute, for he contrived to get possession of the Lewis for himself, and transmitted it to his family, with whom it still remain.

It appears, however, that King James did not utterly despair of improving the Hebrides, by means of colonization. It was supposed that powerful Marquis of Huntly might have been able to acquire the property, and had wealth enough to pay the Crown something for the grant. The whole archipelago was offered to him, with the exception of Skye and Lewis, at the cheap price of ten thousand pounds Scots, or about L.800; but the marquis would not give more than half the sum demanded, for what he justly considered as merely a permission to conquer a sterile region, inhabited by a warlike race.

Such was the ineffectual result of the efforts to introduce some civilisation into these islands. In the next chapter we shall show that the improvement of the Highlanders on the mainland was not much more satisfactory.


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