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Issue 84 - Martin Martin's Islands

Scotland Magazine Issue 84
December 2015


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Martin Martin's Islands

John Hannavy continues in the footsteps of Scotland's first travel writer

Some of Martin Martin’s stories still have a resonance today – binge drinking apparently has a history going back centuries. ‘The manner of drinking used by the chief men of the isles, is called in their language Streath, i.e. a round, for the company sate in a circle, the cup-bearer filled the drink round to them, and all was drank out, whatever the liquor was, whether strong, or weak; they continued drinking sometimes twenty hours, sometimes forty eight hours. It was reckn’d a piece of manhood to drink until they became drunk, and there were two men with a barrow attending punctually on such occasions. They stood at the door until someone became drunk, and they carried them upon the barrow to bed, and returned again to their post as long as any continued fresh, and so carried off the whole Company one by one as they became drunk.’

Martin's native Skye of course – came in for an especially detailed account, and in describing the islands he focused on the local folklore which played a large part in the life of islanders – and while some of traditional beliefs and superstitions were born of fear, others were based on simple pure and common sense.

‘The fishers and others told me’ reported Martin, ‘that there is big herring almost double the size of any of its kind, which leads all that are in a bay, and the shoal follows it wherever it goes. This leader is by the fishers called the ‘King of Herring,’ and when they chance to catch it alive, they drop in carefully into the sea, for they judge it petty treason to destroy a fish of that name.’

Local folklore provided further insights. ‘It is a general observation all Scotland over, that if acquarrel happen on the coast where herring is caught, and that blood be drawn violently, then the herring go away from the coast without returning, during that season. This they say has been observ’d in all past ages, as well as at present; but this I relate only as a common tradition, and submit it to the judgment of the learned.’

What we, today, know as ‘brochs’ also caught his eye, and there were several still in evidence on Skye in his day. He surmised they were forts, and signal beacons and that ‘they are called by the name of dun from dain, which in the ancient language signify’d a fort; they are round within the wall, the door of ‘em is low, and many of the stones are of such bulk that no number of the present inhabitants could raise them without an engine. All of these forts stand upon eminences, and are so disposed, that there is not one of them, which is not in view of some other; and by this means when a fire is made upon a beacon, in any one fort, it’s in a few moments are communicated to all the rest, and this hath been always observed upon sight of any number of foreign vessels, or boats approaching the coast.’

Historians argue as to the purpose of brochs – defensive structures against invasion or the forerunners of the castles of local aristocracy, but they are known to date from between 200BC and 400AD.

Of the Isle of Bute – or ‘Boot’ – he made the strange observation that ‘The natives here are not troubled with any epidemical desease’ before adding that ‘the small pox visits them commonly once every sixth or seventh’year.”

Everything is relative, one supposes, but there would appear to be quite a contradiction there! Or perhaps an outbreak of smallpox was just considered a minor inconvenience?

Martin then described the landscape, people and customs of Arran, Islay and Jura, but some of the places he described are difficult to identify either because of radically different spellings, or the use of names which have been forgotten over the past two and a half centuries.

Of Islay, he noted that ‘There is only one harbour in this Isle called Loch-Dale, it lies near the north end and is of a great length and breadth; but the depth being in the middle, few vessels come within half a league of the land side.’

That observation was repeated more than half a century later in Samuel Leigh’s 1829 publication
Leigh’s New Pocket Road-Book of Scotland which claimed to include a ‘Description of every remarkable place’ in the country. We can only surmise that what Martin and Leigh referred to as ‘Glen-dale’ was Loch Gruinart. Later accounts of the island would note small harbours at Port Ellen, Port Charlotte and Bowmore.

Sailing north, his account continued – ‘About two leagues to the north of Ila lies the Isle Oronsay, it is separated from Collonsay, only at the tide of flood, this peninsula is four miles in circumference, being for the most part a plain arable dry sandy soil, and is fruitful in corn and grass.’

He believed the ruins of Oronsay Priory were the remains of a monastery ‘Built by the famous St. Columbus,’ rather than by a group of Augustinian canons sent from Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh some centuries later. An earlier Celtic foundation almost certainly did stand on the same remote site, but Martin would have seen no trace of that. Of the farming on Colonsay, he noted that ‘The cattle bred here are cows, horses and sheep, all of a low size’ – a use of the word ‘cattle’ to describe all livestock.

Moving to Mull, Martin was told stories of the Spanish Armada, the sinking of the
Florida and some ‘Pieces of eight, teeth, beads and pins that had been taken out of that ship.’

Although he gave a remarkably slight account of the island, he did note that in some of the rivers on Mull there was an abundance of salmon and trout, while others ‘abound with the muscle that breeds pearl.’ He devoted a great deal more space to an account of Iona.

One of the stories he told was that, ‘The inhabitants have a tradition, that Columbus suffer’d no women to stay in the Isle except the nuns; and that all the tradesmen who wrought in it, were oblig’d to keep their wives and daughters in the opposite little Isle called on that account Womens-Isle.’

That was Eilean nam Ban, just offshore north of Fionnphort, and it is said that the location of their cottages can still be made out on the landscape. Intriguingly, Iona has also been referred to in Gaelic as ‘Ì nam ban bòidheach’ – the isle of beautiful women – throwing that bit of folklore into question.

Martin’s accounts of the islands of Coll and Tiree followed his usual format – people, agriculture, fish, folklore – but his descriptions of Muck and Rum are just brief summaries. More detailed descriptions of Canna and Eigg are followed by a lengthy account of a visit to Hirta, St. Kilda, something few even today get the chance to experience.

He then moved on to describe the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and despite the distances this would have required Martin to travel, his account does read as if it is based on personal experience, rather than the reported observations of others.

The beautiful St. Magnus cathedral in Kirkwall, and the adjacent Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces gave Martin much to write about, but of the earlier monuments – with the exception of the stone circles at Stenness and Brodgar – he said very little. Perhaps surprisingly, the massive remains of the Broch of Gurness were not even mentioned.

However limited, Martin Martin’s account of the islands may appear to be today, it represented a massive and significant undertaking two and a half centuries ago. To be the first to do something is to step into the unknown, and it would be a long time before anyone attempted anything as detailed again.

The great travel writers who followed him would only rarely venture beyond the islands closest to the mainland – Mull, Iona and Skye. Even Boswell and Johnson’s island tour was limited to just a few.

That makes Martin’s account especially interesting, both by being a ‘first’ and by being a first-hand account of parts of Scotland which would remain remote for some quite few further centuries.