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Issue 29 - Scott in the Hebrides

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Scotland Magazine Issue 29
October 2006


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Scott in the Hebrides

This issue, Ian Mitchell looks at Sir Walter Scott's experiences on the islands of Harris and Eigg on Scotland's west coast

In 1814, the poet and novelist Walter Scott accepted an invitation from the engineer Robert Stevenson, to accompany him on a ship of the Northern Lighthouse Commissioners which was circumnavigating Scotland to inspect the condition of maritime safety installations.

Scott later confessed that “so far as I could be said to have any,” his aim was to collect materials for his forthcoming poem of Celtic Romance, The Lord of the Isles.

Coming south from Shetland, the boat anchored off the island of Harris. There had been no intention to visit Harris at all, except that a contrary wind had forced them to creep down the east coast of the island, instead of crossing directly to Skye.

This Harris coast, Scott felt “is of a character which sets human industry at utter defiance, consisting of high sterile hills, covered entirely with stones. Few and evil are the patches cultivated in Harris, so far as we have seen.” And the wind-enforced diversion gave Scott and company the opportunity to see “the little harbour and village of Rowdill (sic)” whose remains delighted – and appalled – Scott. The village itself was not the problem. It was composed of about 40 houses “of the common construction, a low circular wall of stones without mortar, surmounted by a thatched roof without any chimney.” (The village was cleared of all its inhabitants a few years after Scott’s visit). It was the church above the village that disturbed Scott.

The Church of St Clement’s at Rodel is the finest of its kind in the Western Isles, its cruciform structure unique, and much of it dating from the early 16th century.

It was the burial place of the Macleods of Dunvegan and Harris, and the interior of the building contains carved tombs of the chiefs of the clan. Scott particularly admired one of Alexander Macleod of Dunvegan, dated 1528 (though the said Alasdair Crotach allegedly lived for another 20 years), with its decorations of Dunvegan Castle and a galley under sail amongst others.

By other carvings, on the exterior of the building, the prudish, Lowland-born Walter was horrified, referring obscurely to “certain species of sculpture, of a kind the last which one would have expected on a building dedicated to religious purposes.” This was the sheila-na-gig, a nude female figure, crouched so that her vagina was displayed.

Scott comments that certain of these sculptures “have lately fallen in a storm,” though another tale has it that a figure with an erect penis was blasted from the building by a local keeper at the orders of the lady of the manor – so take your pick!

Though interesting survivals of pre- Christian beliefs and rites, such things had no interest for Scott, who preferred his Celtic nymphs and swains chaste and pure.

Despite his Romanticism, for the real Gael, Scott often had harsh words for them. At Rodel Harbour, he observes some carpenters repairing a boat, and comments that it was being done “in such a style of Highland laziness that I suppose she may float next century.” Scott himself had the work-ethic, and his companion Stevenson commented that “He was the most industrious occupier of time; he was literally never in a state of doing nothing.” Illicit distilling and smuggling were at their height at this time, Highland tenants often using the revenues to pay their rents, sometimes with the connivance of the local lairds who benefited from the cash – and the whisky itself.

The exciseman stationed at Rodel, and who guided Scott and his companions around, had them in exchange deceive the locals, who thought the Lighthouse Commissioners’ vessel was an armed excise sloop. The poor gauger found “the natives so much irritated against him, that he found it necessary to wear a loaded pair of pistols in each pocket, while exercising so obnoxious a duty in the midst of a fierce tempered people.” The excise officer had indeed just made “a seizure of a still upon a neighbouring island, after a desparate (sic) resistance.” After visiting Harris, Scott sailed for the Isle of Skye, which we covered in last issue.

Leaving Skye, Stevenson transported him to Eigg, one of the Small Isles, which held subterranean delights for the literary guest on board.

“Caverns still being the order of the day, we man the boat and row along the shore of Egg (sic) in quest of that which was the memorable scene of a horrid feudal vengeance,”wrote Scott on August 26, 1814. Landing on the island, they found a guide who took them to the entrance to a cavern “through which one can hardly creep on hands and knees,” which then rose to a greater height, and the floor of which “is strewed with the bones of men, women and children, being the sad relics of the ancient inhabitants of the island, 200 in number who were slain.” Estimates as high as twice that number of casualties buried in this natural catacomb, exist for an atrocity hardly paralleled in the history of the Hebrides, and one which virtually depopulated the island.

A dispute had occurred between the MacDonalds of Eigg and the Macleods of Dunvegan, which the latter sought to avenge.

Arriving on Eigg with a formidable force, the Macleods at first found the island deserted and prepared to leave frustrated. But from the sea a man was spied, and his footprints followed back to the cave, where a fire was lit at its mouth and smothered all the occupants.

Scott appears unaware that the date of this massacre was 1577, and comments that from the fresh appearance of the relics, it “must have been recent.” Despite his horror at the sexual explicitness he had come across in Rodel, Scott loved grizzly remains and wrote: “I brought off, in spite of the prejudices of our sailors, a skull, which seems to be that of a young woman.” More contemporary taste would probably reverse Scott’s preferences.

Appearing off Eigg, Stevenson’s vessel was initially taken for a revenue cutter, one of which had recently “seized all the stills &c., in the neighbouring isle of Muck, with so much severity as to take even the people’s bedding.” But the Lighthouse Commissioners had their own worries. Britain was at war with the United States of America at this point, and American ships were operating in the western seaboard. After examining the islet of Skerry Vhor (sic) for the location of a possible lighthouse (which was eventually built by Stevenson’s son, the father in turn of the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson), Scott records seeing: “a large, square rigged vessel, supposed an American.” Though Stevenson’s vessel was armed (which was why the locals believed it to be a customs vessel), the guns were not needed.

Later Scott was to comment on the romantic “dignity of danger” which this incident had brought to the voyage, and “to consider what a pretty figure we should have made had the voyage ended in our being carried captive to the United States.” Luckily for Scott, however, his swashbuckling was to remain confined to the world of literary imagination and he continued towards Mull and Iona, which we shall deal with in the last of this series in the next edition.

Sailing to Harris or Eigg is not as hazardous as it was in Scott’s day. For details of ferry-sailings contact Caledonian MacBrayne: Rodel Hotel was formerly Rodel House and built by the Macleods in the 1780s. After many vicissitudes, it has been saved from dereliction and has been sensitively restored as a modern hotel within its historic shell. The dining room must have one of the greatest views in the world.

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