Picture of Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

places mentioned

The inhabitants of the islands

Next Selection Previous Selection

The inhabitants of Sky, and of the other Islands, which I have seen, are commonly of the middle stature, with fewer among them very tall or very short, than are seen in England, or perhaps, as their numbers are small, the chances of any deviation from the common measure are necessarily few.  The tallest men that I saw are among those of higher rank.  In regions of barrenness and scarcity, the human race is hindered in its growth by the same causes as other animals.

The ladies have as much beauty here as in other places, but bloom and softness are not to be expected among the lower classes, whose faces are exposed to the rudeness of the climate, and whose features are sometimes contracted by want, and sometimes hardened by the blasts.  Supreme beauty is seldom found in cottages or work-shops, even where no real hardships are suffered.  To expand the human face to its full perfection, it seems necessary that the mind should co-operate by placidness of content, or consciousness of superiority.

Their strength is proportionate to their size, but they are accustomed to run upon rough ground, and therefore can with great agility skip over the bog, or clamber the mountain.  For a campaign in the wastes of America, soldiers better qualified could not have been found.  Having little work to do, they are not willing, nor perhaps able to endure a long continuance of manual labour, and are therefore considered as habitually idle.

Having never been supplied with those accommodations, which life extensively diversified with trades affords, they supply their wants by very insufficient shifts, and endure many inconveniences, which a little attention would easily relieve.  I have seen a horse carrying home the harvest on a crate.  Under his tail was a stick for a crupper, held at the two ends by twists of straw.  Hemp will grow in their islands, and therefore ropes may be had.  If they wanted hemp, they might make better cordage of rushes, or perhaps of nettles, than of straw.

Their method of life neither secures them perpetual health, nor exposes them to any particular diseases.  There are physicians in the Islands, who, I believe, all practise chirurgery, and all compound their own medicines.

It is generally supposed, that life is longer in places where there are few opportunities of luxury; but I found no instance here of extraordinary longevity.  A cottager grows old over his oaten cakes, like a citizen at a turtle feast.  He is indeed seldom incommoded by corpulence.  Poverty preserves him from sinking under the burden of himself, but he escapes no other injury of time.  Instances of long life are often related, which those who hear them are more willing to credit than examine.  To be told that any man has attained a hundred years, gives hope and comfort to him who stands trembling on the brink of his own climacterick.

Length of life is distributed impartially to very different modes of life in very different climates; and the mountains have no greater examples of age and health than the low lands, where I was introduced to two ladies of high quality; one of whom, in her ninety-fourth year, presided at her table with the full exercise of all her powers; and the other has attained her eighty-fourth, without any diminution of her vivacity, and with little reason to accuse time of depredations on her beauty.

In the Islands, as in most other places, the inhabitants are of different rank, and one does not encroach here upon another.  Where there is no commerce nor manufacture, he that is born poor can scarcely become rich; and if none are able to buy estates, he that is born to land cannot annihilate his family by selling it.  This was once the state of these countries.  Perhaps there is no example, till within a century and half, of any family whose estate was alienated otherwise than by violence or forfeiture.  Since money has been brought amongst them, they have found, like others, the art of spending more than they receive; and I saw with grief the chief of a very ancient clan, whose Island was condemned by law to be sold for the satisfaction of his creditors.

The name of highest dignity is Laird, of which there are in the extensive Isle of Sky only three, Macdonald, Macleod, and Mackinnon.  The Laird is the original owner of the land, whose natural power must be very great, where no man lives but by agriculture; and where the produce of the land is not conveyed through the labyrinths of traffick, but passes directly from the hand that gathers it to the mouth that eats it.  The Laird has all those in his power that live upon his farms.  Kings can, for the most part, only exalt or degrade.  The Laird at pleasure can feed or starve, can give bread, or withold it.  This inherent power was yet strengthened by the kindness of consanguinity, and the reverence of patriarchal authority.  The Laird was the father of the Clan, and his tenants commonly bore his name.  And to these principles of original command was added, for many ages, an exclusive right of legal jurisdiction.

This multifarious, and extensive obligation operated with force scarcely credible.  Every duty, moral or political, was absorbed in affection and adherence to the Chief.  Not many years have passed since the clans knew no law but the Laird's will.  He told them to whom they should be friends or enemies, what King they should obey, and what religion they should profess.

When the Scots first rose in arms against the succession of the house of Hanover, Lovat, the Chief of the Frasers, was in exile for a rape.  The Frasers were very numerous, and very zealous against the government.  A pardon was sent to Lovat.  He came to the English camp, and the clan immediately deserted to him.

Next in dignity to the Laird is the Tacksman; a large taker or lease-holder of land, of which he keeps part, as a domain, in his own hand, and lets part to under tenants.  The Tacksman is necessarily a man capable of securing to the Laird the whole rent, and is commonly a collateral relation.  These tacks, or subordinate possessions, were long considered as hereditary, and the occupant was distinguished by the name of the place at which he resided.  He held a middle station, by which the highest and the lowest orders were connected.  He paid rent and reverence to the Laird, and received them from the tenants.  This tenure still subsists, with its original operation, but not with the primitive stability.  Since the islanders, no longer content to live, have learned the desire of growing rich, an ancient dependent is in danger of giving way to a higher bidder, at the expense of domestick dignity and hereditary power.  The stranger, whose money buys him preference, considers himself as paying for all that he has, and is indifferent about the Laird's honour or safety.  The commodiousness of money is indeed great; but there are some advantages which money cannot buy, and which therefore no wise man will by the love of money be tempted to forego.

I have found in the hither parts of Scotland, men not defective in judgment or general experience, who consider the Tacksman as a useless burden of the ground, as a drone who lives upon the product of an estate, without the right of property, or the merit of labour, and who impoverishes at once the landlord and the tenant.  The land, say they, is let to the Tacksman at sixpence an acre, and by him to the tenant at ten-pence.  Let the owner be the immediate landlord to all the tenants; if he sets the ground at eight-pence, he will increase his revenue by a fourth part, and the tenant's burthen will be diminished by a fifth.

Those who pursue this train of reasoning, seem not sufficiently to inquire whither it will lead them, nor to know that it will equally shew the propriety of suppressing all wholesale trade, of shutting up the shops of every man who sells what he does not make, and of extruding all whose agency and profit intervene between the manufacturer and the consumer.  They may, by stretching their understandings a little wider, comprehend, that all those who by undertaking large quantities of manufacture, and affording employment to many labourers, make themselves considered as benefactors to the publick, have only been robbing their workmen with one hand, and their customers with the other.  If Crowley had sold only what he could make, and all his smiths had wrought their own iron with their own hammers, he would have lived on less, and they would have sold their work for more.  The salaries of superintendents and clerks would have been partly saved, and partly shared, and nails been sometimes cheaper by a farthing in a hundred.  But then if the smith could not have found an immediate purchaser, he must have deserted his anvil; if there had by accident at any time been more sellers than buyers, the workmen must have reduced their profit to nothing, by underselling one another; and as no great stock could have been in any hand, no sudden demand of large quantities could have been answered and the builder must have stood still till the nailer could supply him.

According to these schemes, universal plenty is to begin and end in universal misery.  Hope and emulation will be utterly extinguished; and as all must obey the call of immediate necessity, nothing that requires extensive views, or provides for distant consequences will ever be performed.

To the southern inhabitants of Scotland, the state of the mountains and the islands is equally unknown with that of Borneo or Sumatra: Of both they have only heard a little, and guess the rest.  They are strangers to the language and the manners, to the advantages and wants of the people, whose life they would model, and whose evils they would remedy.

Nothing is less difficult than to procure one convenience by the forfeiture of another.  A soldier may expedite his march by throwing away his arms.  To banish the Tacksman is easy, to make a country plentiful by diminishing the people, is an expeditious mode of husbandry; but little abundance, which there is nobody to enjoy, contributes little to human happiness.

As the mind must govern the hands, so in every society the man of intelligence must direct the man of labour.  If the Tacksmen be taken away, the Hebrides must in their present state be given up to grossness and ignorance; the tenant, for want of instruction, will be unskilful, and for want of admonition will be negligent.  The Laird in these wide estates, which often consist of islands remote from one another, cannot extend his personal influence to all his tenants; and the steward having no dignity annexed to his character, can have little authority among men taught to pay reverence only to birth, and who regard the Tacksman as their hereditary superior; nor can the steward have equal zeal for the prosperity of an estate profitable only to the Laird, with the Tacksman, who has the Laird's income involved in his own.

The only gentlemen in the Islands are the Lairds, the Tacksmen, and the Ministers, who frequently improve their livings by becoming farmers.  If the Tacksmen be banished, who will be left to impart knowledge, or impress civility?  The Laird must always be at a distance from the greater part of his lands; and if he resides at all upon them, must drag his days in solitude, having no longer either a friend or a companion; he will therefore depart to some more comfortable residence, and leave the tenants to the wisdom and mercy of a factor.

Of tenants there are different orders, as they have greater or less stock.  Land is sometimes leased to a small fellowship, who live in a cluster of huts, called a Tenants Town, and are bound jointly and separately for the payment of their rent.  These, I believe, employ in the care of their cattle, and the labour of tillage, a kind of tenants yet lower; who having a hut with grass for a certain number of cows and sheep, pay their rent by a stipulated quantity of labour.

The condition of domestick servants, or the price of occasional labour, I do not know with certainty.  I was told that the maids have sheep, and are allowed to spin for their own clothing; perhaps they have no pecuniary wages, or none but in very wealthy families.  The state of life, which has hitherto been purely pastoral, begins now to be a little variegated with commerce; but novelties enter by degrees, and till one mode has fully prevailed over the other, no settled notion can be formed.

Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland (London: W. Strahan and T.Cadell, 1775) Text transcribed from the 1775 edition by David Price, including the corrections noted in the 1785 errata. Placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall.

Next Selection Previous Selection