Travels in the Western Hebrides, by John Lane Buchanan

I have a volume containing two books by John Lane Buchanan. I was attracted to the second book, as bound, titled A Defence of the Scots Highlanders (1794), but it turned out that the first book, Travels in the Western Hebrides: from 1782 - 1790 (1793) was the real gem. My main interest is in the far North-West of Scotland, specifically Sutherland and Wester Ross on the mainland, for that was the most inaccessible region. Accounts of the Hebrides are far more numerous, as the islands could relatively easily be reached by boat. However, Buchanan's travels reveal a huge amount about the way of life on the islands, and whilst some of this detail is particular to each island, I suspect much of it reflects the way of life on the mainland as well. 

Buchanan worked as an assistant to the Minister of Comrie, Robert Menzies, and it was missionary work that took him regularly to the Western Isles. His sympathies are with the poorer tenants, whose situation he frequently compares to that of negro slaves, but he gives a fair assessment of the main landowners at the beginning of the book. MacNeil of Barray, for example "manages with equal humanity and prudence," and Macdonald of Boisdale he describes as "a great land-holder and a most honourable gentleman." He also has good words for Lord Macdonald, who held land in N. Uist and Skye: "His tenants in a state of affluence...He is very attentive to the equal and prompt distribution of justice..." On the other hand, Macdonald of Clanronald, (S. Uist) he thinks has been led astray by "a set of men [who] have unfortunately led him to turn several hundred of souls...out of their possessions, and bestowed their farms, by large tracts of country, on a few favourites." Macleod of Harris is "at present in India." Buchanan records that his father "spent much time and money in making piers and harbours...He repaired old churches, built new houses and repaired old ones." But "he found himself fighting against the stream, for the tacksmen counteracted his well-intended schemes..." It is these tacksmen, the 'middle-men' in the heirarchy, that Buchanan blames for many of the problems in the social fabric of the Western Isles. Only Mackenzie of Seaforth (Lewis) seems able to control them: "should he [his tacksman] commit any considerable act of violence or injustice to his inferior cottagers, he would soon be removed from his master's good graces, and from his office."

Below I post passages from Buchanan's text that caught my eye, but if you are interested in old Highland ways, I suggest you seek out the whole book as there is much more that might be of interest to you.


"The men wear the short coat, the feilabeg [kilt], and the short hose, with bonnets sewed with black ribbons around their rims, and a slit behind with the same ribbon in a knot. Their coats are commonly tartan with black, red, or some other colour, after a pattern made, upon a stick, of the yarn, by themselves, or some other ingenious contriver. Their waistcoats are either of the same, or some such stuff; but the feilabegs are commonly of breacon, or fine Stirling plaids if their money can afford them" (pages 84-85).

"At common work they use either short or long coats and breeches made of striped cloth, and many of them very coarse, according to their work. Their shirts are commonly made of wool...When they go in quest of herring, they dress something like the sailors, but of coarser cloth, with hats over their eyes, to mark the fish better." (page 85).

"Their brogues (shoes) are made of cow or horse leather, and often of seal skins, that are commonly well tanned by the root of tormintile, which they dig out from the hillocks and uncultivated lands, about the sea-side...They never use tan-pits, but bind the hides fast with ropes, and hold them for several days in some remote solitary stream until the hair begins to come off, of its own accord; and after that the tormintile roots are applied..." (page 86). 

"Such of the men as can afford them, wear large forest coats...or a coarse breacon (i.e. the plaid) with their best apparel...on these solemn occasions [weddings, funerals, etc.], but many of those who are poor, and cannot afford it, often do, and must appear in their tattered clothes and dirty shirts, without either stockings or brogues, quite bare-footed, even in frost and snow." (pages 86-87).

Women's Clothes: "The women wear long or short gowns, with a waistcoat and two petticoats, mostly of stripes or tartan...except the lower coat, which is white. The married wives wear linen mutches, or caps, either fastened with ribbons of various colours, or with tape straps, if they cannot afford ribbons. All of them wear a small plaid, a yard broad, called guilechan about their shoulders, fastened by a large broach. The arrifats are quite laid aside in this country...being the most ancient dress..." (pages 87-88).

"The married women bind up their hair with a large pin into a knot on the crown of their heads below their linens; and the unmarried frequently go bare-headed with their hair bound up with ribbons, or garters. They often wear linen caps, called mutches, particularly on Sabbaths. Many of the more wealthy appear at church with a profusion of ribbons and head-dresses, with cloaks, and high-heeled shoes. Those whose circumstances cannot admit of that, must appear with one of their petticoats, either tartan, or of one colour, around their shoulders, on Sundays, as well as on week days. They seldom travel anywhere without their would be thought naked in a woman to go without it: it also defends them from the inclemency of the weather." (pages 88-89).

"Most of the poorer tenants cannot afford to wear brogues in summer, unless they are obliged to be treading among the sharp rocks on the shores, at their master's kelp, when the master must supply them." (page 89).

Food and Food Preparation:

The Black Cormorant is not held in much estimation by the islanders; but such as have white feathers in their wings, and white down on their bodies, are famous for making soup or broth of a very delicate taste and flavour." (page 18)

Thieves "saw up the extremity of the great gut" of eaglets "so that the poor creatures, tortured by obstructions, express their sense of pain in frequent loud screams. The eagle, imagining their cries to proceed from hunger is unwearied in the work of bringing in fresh prey...But all that spoil is carried home by thieves in the night." (page 17).

"They...have some of the old Highland mills, that are driven about by water....These mills are slow, and at such distances from the huts of the tenants, that in general they prefer their braahs or querns." (page 104).

"The poor women are at the querns,  or baking cakes, long before day-light, and all the while singing with surprising spirits." (page 161).

"The people eat twice a day...they seldom breakfast...before eleven o'clock. Potatoes and fish generally make up their first meal, and the whole family commonly eat out of one dish called the claar. This large dish is between three and four feet in length, and a foot and a half in breadth, made up of deal. They place the straw or the grass in the bottom, and pour out the potatoes and fish above that stratum, which they generally collect carefully, with the fragments, for some favourite cow. Their last meal is generally made up of brochan (a kind of water gruel), boiled mutton, with bread and potatoes." (page 105)

Drink and Tobacco: 

"The men are extremely fond of spirituous liquors, when they can fall in with them. When they can meet with a cask, they seldom part with it, till it is emptied....In Lewis, the islands of Harris and the Uists, they make whiskey of oats, but not of barley." (page 113).

"Both men and women are fond of tobacco; the men commonly chew it, and beg a little from every gentleman...The gentlemen fill their nostrils with long quids of it." (page 107).

"The men keep their tobacco in leather bags made of seal skin." (page 108).

"The old women make use of their tobacco in snuff made into graddan ['gradan' was a Scottish method of drying grain for the quern]...which they generally keep in sea nuts that grow on the large tangles or red sea-ware (seaweed), and which are sometimes found upon the shores. This nut is about seven inches in circumference, and one half inch thick, full of kernel, which is carefully digged out through a small round hole made on purpose. Out of this hole the snuff is taken with a pen made for the purpose." (page 108).


"The huts of the oppressed tenants are remarkably naked and open; quite destitute of furniture, except logs of timber collected from the wrecks of the sea, to sit on about the fire, which is placed in the middle of the house...(page 91).

"The cows, goats and sheep, with the ducks, hens and dogs,  must have the common benefit of the fire...the filthy sty is never cleaned but once a year, when they place the dung on the fields as manure for barley crops. Thus, from the necessity of laying litter below these cattle to keep them dry, the dung naturally increases in height almost mid-wall high, so that the men sit low about the fire, while the cattle look down from above upon the company." (pages 91-92).

"It is true they are at pains to keep the sty as dry as possible, by attending on their cows with large vessels to throw out the wash; but still it must be wet and unwholesome, and no argument can prevail on them to turn out the dung on a dunghill daily, as they have got the idea impressed on their minds, that the air carries off the strength if much exposed." (page 92).

"The walls...are six feet thick, packed with moss or earth in the middle, with a facing of rough stones built on both sides....The side rafters are fastened with ropes to [the] beams pretty fast, and the rows of ropes wrought very close. so as to keep the stubble with which the houses are thatched from falling through...They secure this thatch with heather ropes thrown across the roof of the huts, and these are fastened below with large stones which are fixed to their ends and hang dangling over the sides of the walls to keep all fast..." (page 94).

"These huts, being thus without locks to their doors, and without separate appartments, we need not be surprised to find the virtue of their women severely tried." (pages 95-96).

Agriculture and Farming:

"The furniture of the horses is a kind of rope made of benty grass, which is brought round a wooden saddle, called a cart-saddle, under the animal's belly." (page 147).

Ploughs, etc.: "The little old Scotch plough is quite simple, and has a sock and coulter, with two handles almost like the English plough, drawn by four little horses; but so weak that another kind of simpler plough, called the rustle, with a crooked iron resembling a hook, passing through a stick of four feet long, and drawn by one horse, cuts the furrow before that drawn by four horses, to make it easy for that plough. Crommam-gadd is a simpler plough than the old Scotch, and drawn by two or more little horses. It has only one handle, and the ploughman goes with his left side foremost." (page 153)

"The cass chrom is a kind of plough somewhat like a spade that is only driven by men's feet. The head of this plough is four feet long, with an iron sock, and with a handle of six feet long, that is fastened in the head with a peg for the man's foot to push it under the furrow, which is turned as well as with the other plough. Before this the rustle must cut also." (page 153).

"The cass direach, or straight spade, is commonly used for cutting the turf on the top, or trenching, which a woman or man lifts and places on the ridges, above the sea-ware [seaweed]. This is called in their language taomadh." (page 153).

"They never reap their barley, but pluck it by the root, and after it is stacked, and fit to be dried, they cut off the roots for thatch. But the oats are cut with sickles, and the grass carefully shaken out of every handful, lest the sheaf should be long a-drying." (page 154).

"The grass for hay is commonly cut with sickles, from the left to the right, contrary to the manner of cutting corn in England, and the southern and inland parts of Scotland...The stacks are built mostly conical, every row being bound fast with heather ropes from bottom to top, and they are covered with no thatch through the winter." (page 155).

The Flail "consists of a hand-staff and a short thick supple, either of wood, or tangle [seaweed], bound to the staff by a thong, six inches distant. With this implement dangling round their right arm, they thrash the oats and barley. They never fling the flail around their heads; nor stand upright at this work. The women are generally employed at thrashing..." (page 155).

Kilns "are small...They cut the heads of the barley and lay them in order upon the bare ribs. When they are dried, they are hauled down on the floor, and immediately thashed and winnowed, and clapt up hot in plates, ready for the quern. So that a man can cut the sheafs dry, and thrash the barley, clean it for the quern, and make his breakfast thereof after it is ground." (page 156). 

Sieves: "The tenants make sieves of sheep-skins and sift the meal on plates made of grass, or on large goat-skins placed on the floors...This is done evening and morning, when they quern as much grain as their diets require.""(page 157).

Kelp: "Kelp is cut with sickles every third year...The kelp kilns are from eight to twelve feet long, and three feet broad. After one floor full is burnt of the kelp, or ware, two men work the red-hot liquid with irons made for the purpose, until it becomes hard; and then they burn another stratum above, and the same operation is gone through...And then it is covered with turf, to keep out the rain, until a vessel arrive to carry it to the market." (page 158).

Buchanan points out that "this is the hardest labour which the people have throughout the year, and at the time when they are worst fed; because their own potatoes, or little grain, are, by this time, mostly consumed." (page 159).

Peats: "Five people are employed. One cuts the peat; another places it on top of the ditch where it is dug; a third spreads it on the field; a fourth pairs and cleans the moss; and a fifth is resting, and ready to relieve the man that cuts...the women are seldom t this work." (page 161).