Picture of Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

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Having waited some days at Armidel, we were flattered at last with a wind that promised to convey us to Mull.  We went on board a boat that was taking in kelp, and left the Isle of Sky behind us.  We were doomed to experience, like others, the danger of trusting to the wind, which blew against us, in a short time, with such violence, that we, being no seasoned sailors, were willing to call it a tempest.  I was sea-sick and lay down.  Mr. Boswell kept the deck.  The master knew not well whither to go; and our difficulties might perhaps have filled a very pathetick page, had not Mr. Maclean of Col, who, with every other qualification which insular life requires, is a very active and skilful mariner, piloted us safe into his own harbour.


In the morning we found ourselves under the Isle of Col, where we landed; and passed the first day and night with Captain Maclean, a gentleman who has lived some time in the East Indies; but having dethroned no Nabob, is not too rich to settle in own country.

Next day the wind was fair, and we might have had an easy passage to Mull; but having, contrarily to our own intention, landed upon a new Island, we would not leave it wholly unexamined.  We therefore suffered the vessel to depart without us, and trusted the skies for another wind.

Mr. Maclean of Col, having a very numerous family, has, for some time past, resided at Aberdeen, that he may superintend their education, and leaves the young gentleman, our friend, to govern his dominions, with the full power of a Highland Chief.  By the absence of the Laird's family, our entertainment was made more difficult, because the house was in a great degree disfurnished; but young Col's kindness and activity supplied all defects, and procured us more than sufficient accommodation.

Here I first mounted a little Highland steed; and if there had been many spectators, should have been somewhat ashamed of my figure in the march.  The horses of the Islands, as of other barren countries, are very low: they are indeed musculous and strong, beyond what their size gives reason for expecting; but a bulky man upon one of their backs makes a very disproportionate appearance.

From the habitation of Captain Maclean, we went to Grissipol, but called by the way on Mr. Hector Maclean, the Minister of Col, whom we found in a hut, that is, a house of only one floor, but with windows and chimney, and not inelegantly furnished.  Mr. Maclean has the reputation of great learning: he is seventy-seven years old, but not infirm, with a look of venerable dignity, excelling what I remember in any other man.

His conversation was not unsuitable to his appearance.  I lost some of his good-will, by treating a heretical writer with more regard than, in his opinion, a heretick could deserve.  I honoured his orthodoxy, and did not much censure his asperity.  A man who has settled his opinions, does not love to have the tranquillity of his conviction disturbed; and at seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest.

Mention was made of the Earse translation of the New Testament, which has been lately published, and of which the learned Mr. Macqueen of Sky spoke with commendation; but Mr. Maclean said he did not use it, because he could make the text more intelligible to his auditors by an extemporary version.  From this I inferred, that the language of the translation was not the language of the Isle of Col.

He has no publick edifice for the exercise of his ministry; and can officiate to no greater number, than a room can contain; and the room of a hut is not very large.  This is all the opportunity of worship that is now granted to the inhabitants of the Island, some of whom must travel thither perhaps ten miles.  Two chapels were erected by their ancestors, of which I saw the skeletons, which now stand faithful witnesses of the triumph of the Reformation.

The want of churches is not the only impediment to piety: there is likewise a want of Ministers.  A parish often contains more Islands than one; and each Island can have the Minister only in its own turn.  At Raasa they had, I think, a right to service only every third Sunday.  All the provision made by the present ecclesiastical constitution, for the inhabitants of about a hundred square miles, is a prayer and sermon in a little room, once in three weeks: and even this parsimonious distribution is at the mercy of the weather; and in those Islands where the Minister does not reside, it is impossible to tell how many weeks or months may pass without any publick exercise of religion.


After a short conversation with Mr. Maclean, we went on to Grissipol, a house and farm tenanted by Mr. Macsweyn, where I saw more of the ancient life of a Highlander, than I had yet found.  Mrs. Macsweyn could speak no English, and had never seen any other places than the Islands of Sky, Mull, and Col: but she was hospitable and good-humoured, and spread her table with sufficient liberality.  We found tea here, as in every other place, but our spoons were of horn.

The house of Grissipol stands by a brook very clear and quick; which is, I suppose, one of the most copious streams in the Island.  This place was the scene of an action, much celebrated in the traditional history of Col, but which probably no two relaters will tell alike.

Some time, in the obscure ages, Macneil of Barra married the Lady Maclean, who had the Isle of Col for her jointure.  Whether Macneil detained Col, when the widow was dead, or whether she lived so long as to make her heirs impatient, is perhaps not now known.  The younger son, called John Gerves, or John the Giant, a man of great strength who was then in Ireland, either for safety, or for education, dreamed of recovering his inheritance; and getting some adventurers together, which, in those unsettled times, was not hard to do, invaded Col.  He was driven away, but was not discouraged, and collecting new followers, in three years came again with fifty men.  In his way he stopped at Artorinish in Morvern, where his uncle was prisoner to Macleod, and was then with his enemies in a tent.  Maclean took with him only one servant, whom he ordered to stay at the outside; and where he should see the tent pressed outwards, to strike with his dirk, it being the intention of Maclean, as any man provoked him, to lay hands upon him, and push him back.  He entered the tent alone, with his Lochabar-axe in his hand, and struck such terror into the whole assembly, that they dismissed his uncle.

When he landed at Col, he saw the sentinel, who kept watch towards the sea, running off to Grissipol, to give Macneil, who was there with a hundred and twenty men, an account of the invasion.  He told Macgill, one of his followers, that if he intercepted that dangerous intelligence, by catching the courier, he would give him certain lands in Mull.  Upon this promise, Macgill pursued the messenger, and either killed, or stopped him; and his posterity, till very lately, held the lands in Mull.

The alarm being thus prevented, he came unexpectedly upon Macneil.  Chiefs were in those days never wholly unprovided for an enemy.  A fight ensued, in which one of their followers is said to have given an extraordinary proof of activity, by bounding backwards over the brook of Grissipol.  Macneil being killed, and many of his clan destroyed, Maclean took possession of the Island, which the Macneils attempted to conquer by another invasion, but were defeated and repulsed.

Maclean, in his turn, invaded the estate of the Macneils, took the castle of Brecacig, and conquered the Isle of Barra, which he held for seven years, and then restored it to the heirs.


From Grissipol, Mr. Maclean conducted us to his father's seat; a neat new house, erected near the old castle, I think, by the last proprietor.  Here we were allowed to take our station, and lived very commodiously, while we waited for moderate weather and a fair wind, which we did not so soon obtain, but we had time to get some information of the present state of Col, partly by inquiry, and partly by occasional excursions.

Col is computed to be thirteen miles in length, and three in breadth.  Both the ends are the property of the Duke of Argyle, but the middle belongs to Maclean, who is called Col, as the only Laird.

Col is not properly rocky; it is rather one continued rock, of a surface much diversified with protuberances, and covered with a thin layer of earth, which is often broken, and discovers the stone.  Such a soil is not for plants that strike deep roots; and perhaps in the whole Island nothing has ever yet grown to the height of a table.  The uncultivated parts are clothed with heath, among which industry has interspersed spots of grass and corn; but no attempt has yet been made to raise a tree.  Young Col, who has a very laudable desire of improving his patrimony, purposes some time to plant an orchard; which, if it be sheltered by a wall, may perhaps succeed.  He has introduced the culture of turnips, of which he has a field, where the whole work was performed by his own hand.  His intention is to provide food for his cattle in the winter.  This innovation was considered by Mr. Macsweyn as the idle project of a young head, heated with English fancies; but he has now found that turnips will really grow, and that hungry sheep and cows will really eat them.

By such acquisitions as these, the Hebrides may in time rise above their annual distress.  Wherever heath will grow, there is reason to think something better may draw nourishment; and by trying the production of other places, plants will be found suitable to every soil.

Col has many lochs, some of which have trouts and eels, and others have never yet been stocked; another proof of the negligence of the Islanders, who might take fish in the inland waters, when they cannot go to sea.

Their quadrupeds are horses, cows, sheep, and goats.  They have neither deer, hares, nor rabbits.  They have no vermin, except rats, which have been lately brought thither by sea, as to other places; and are free from serpents, frogs, and toads.

The harvest in Col, and in Lewis, is ripe sooner than in Sky; and the winter in Col is never cold, but very tempestuous.  I know not that I ever heard the wind so loud in any other place; and Mr. Boswell observed, that its noise was all its own, for there were no trees to increase it.

Noise is not the worst effect of the tempests; for they have thrown the sand from the shore over a considerable part of the land; and it is said still to encroach and destroy more and more pasture; but I am not of opinion, that by any surveys or landmarks, its limits have been ever fixed, or its progression ascertained.  If one man has confidence enough to say, that it advances, nobody can bring any proof to support him in denying it.  The reason why it is not spread to a greater extent, seems to be, that the wind and rain come almost together, and that it is made close and heavy by the wet before the storms can put it in motion.  So thick is the bed, and so small the particles, that if a traveller should be caught by a sudden gust in dry weather, he would find it very difficult to escape with life.

For natural curiosities, I was shown only two great masses of stone, which lie loose upon the ground; one on the top of a hill, and the other at a small distance from the bottom.  They certainly were never put into their present places by human strength or skill; and though an earthquake might have broken off the lower stone, and rolled it into the valley, no account can be given of the other, which lies on the hill, unless, which I forgot to examine, there be still near it some higher rock, from which it might be torn.  All nations have a tradition, that their earliest ancestors were giants, and these stones are said to have been thrown up and down by a giant and his mistress.  There are so many more important things, of which human knowledge can give no account, that it may be forgiven us, if we speculate no longer on two stones in Col.

This Island is very populous.  About nine-and-twenty years ago, the fencible men of Col were reckoned one hundred and forty, which is the sixth of eight hundred and forty; and probably some contrived to be left out of the list.  The Minister told us, that a few years ago the inhabitants were eight hundred, between the ages of seven and of seventy.  Round numbers are seldom exact.  But in this case the authority is good, and the errour likely to be little.  If to the eight hundred be added what the laws of computation require, they will be increased to at least a thousand; and if the dimensions of the country have been accurately related, every mile maintains more than twenty-five.

This proportion of habitation is greater than the appearance of the country seems to admit; for wherever the eye wanders, it sees much waste and little cultivation.  I am more inclined to extend the land, of which no measure has ever been taken, than to diminish the people, who have been really numbered.  Let it be supposed, that a computed mile contains a mile and a half, as was commonly found true in the mensuration of the English roads, and we shall then allot nearly twelve to a mile, which agrees much better with ocular observation.

Here, as in Sky, and other Islands, are the Laird, the Tacksmen, and the under tenants.

Mr. Maclean, the Laird, has very extensive possessions, being proprietor, not only of far the greater part of Col, but of the extensive Island of Rum, and a very considerable territory in Mull.

Rum is one of the larger Islands, almost square, and therefore of great capacity in proportion to its sides.  By the usual method of estimating computed extent, it may contain more than a hundred and twenty square miles.

It originally belonged to Clanronald, and was purchased by Col; who, in some dispute about the bargain, made Clanronald prisoner, and kept him nine months in confinement.  Its owner represents it as mountainous, rugged, and barren.  In the hills there are red deer.  The horses are very small, but of a breed eminent for beauty.  Col, not long ago, bought one of them from a tenant; who told him, that as he was of a shape uncommonly elegant, he could not sell him but at a high price; and that whoever had him should pay a guinea and a half.

There are said to be in Barra a race of horses yet smaller, of which the highest is not above thirty-six inches.

The rent of Rum is not great.  Mr. Maclean declared, that he should be very rich, if he could set his land at two-pence halfpenny an acre.  The inhabitants are fifty-eight families, who continued Papists for some time after the Laird became a Protestant.  Their adherence to their old religion was strengthened by the countenance of the Laird's sister, a zealous Romanist, till one Sunday, as they were going to mass under the conduct of their patroness, Maclean met them on the way, gave one of them a blow on the head with a yellow stick, I suppose a cane, for which the Earse had no name, and drove them to the kirk, from which they have never since departed.  Since the use of this method of conversion, the inhabitants of Egg and Canna, who continue Papists, call the Protestantism of Rum, the religion of the Yellow Stick.

The only Popish Islands are Egg and Canna.  Egg is the principal Island of a parish, in which, though he has no congregation, the Protestant Minister resides.  I have heard of nothing curious in it, but the cave in which a former generation of the Islanders were smothered by Macleod.

If we had travelled with more leisure, it had not been fit to have neglected the Popish Islands.  Popery is favourable to ceremony; and among ignorant nations, ceremony is the only preservative of tradition.  Since protestantism was extended to the savage parts of Scotland, it has perhaps been one of the chief labours of the Ministers to abolish stated observances, because they continued the remembrance of the former religion.  We therefore who came to hear old traditions, and see antiquated manners, should probably have found them amongst the Papists.

Canna, the other Popish Island, belongs to Clanronald.  It is said not to comprise more than twelve miles of land, and yet maintains as many inhabitants as Rum.

We were at Col under the protection of the young Laird, without any of the distresses, which Mr. Pennant, in a fit of simple credulity, seems to think almost worthy of an elegy by Ossian.  Wherever we roved, we were pleased to see the reverence with which his subjects regarded him.  He did not endeavour to dazzle them by any magnificence of dress: his only distinction was a feather in his bonnet; but as soon as he appeared, they forsook their work and clustered about him: he took them by the hand, and they seemed mutually delighted.  He has the proper disposition of a Chieftain, and seems desirous to continue the customs of his house.  The bagpiper played regularly, when dinner was served, whose person and dress made a good appearance; and he brought no disgrace upon the family of Rankin, which has long supplied the Lairds of Col with hereditary musick.

The Tacksmen of Col seem to live with less dignity and convenience than those of Sky; where they had good houses, and tables not only plentiful, but delicate.  In Col only two houses pay the window tax; for only two have six windows, which, I suppose, are the Laird's and Mr. Macsweyn's.

The rents have, till within seven years, been paid in kind, but the tenants finding that cattle and corn varied in their price, desired for the future to give their landlord money; which, not having yet arrived at the philosophy of commerce, they consider as being every year of the same value.

We were told of a particular mode of under-tenure.  The Tacksman admits some of his inferior neighbours to the cultivation of his grounds, on condition that performing all the work, and giving a third part of the seed, they shall keep a certain number of cows, sheep, and goats, and reap a third part of the harvest.  Thus by less than the tillage of two acres they pay the rent of one.

There are tenants below the rank of Tacksmen, that have got smaller tenants under them; for in every place, where money is not the general equivalent, there must be some whose labour is immediately paid by daily food.

A country that has no money, is by no means convenient for beggars, both because such countries are commonly poor, and because charity requires some trouble and some thought.  A penny is easily given upon the first impulse of compassion, or impatience of importunity; but few will deliberately search their cupboards or their granaries to find out something to give.  A penny is likewise easily spent, but victuals, if they are unprepared, require houseroom, and fire, and utensils, which the beggar knows not where to find.

Yet beggars there sometimes are, who wander from Island to Island.  We had, in our passage to Mull, the company of a woman and her child, who had exhausted the charity of Col.  The arrival of a beggar on an Island is accounted a sinistrous event.  Every body considers that he shall have the less for what he gives away.  Their alms, I believe, is generally oatmeal.

Near to Col is another Island called Tireye, eminent for its fertility.  Though it has but half the extent of Rum, it is so well peopled, that there have appeared, not long ago, nine hundred and fourteen at a funeral.  The plenty of this Island enticed beggars to it, who seemed so burdensome to the inhabitants, that a formal compact was drawn up, by which they obliged themselves to grant no more relief to casual wanderers, because they had among them an indigent woman of high birth, whom they considered as entitled to all that they could spare.  I have read the stipulation, which was indited with juridical formality, but was never made valid by regular subscription.

If the inhabitants of Col have nothing to give, it is not that they are oppressed by their landlord: their leases seem to be very profitable.  One farmer, who pays only seven pounds a year, has maintained seven daughters and three sons, of whom the eldest is educated at Aberdeen for the ministry; and now, at every vacation, opens a school in Col.

Life is here, in some respects, improved beyond the condition of some other Islands.  In Sky what is wanted can only be bought, as the arrival of some wandering pedlar may afford an opportunity; but in Col there is a standing shop, and in Mull there are two.  A shop in the Islands, as in other places of little frequentation, is a repository of every thing requisite for common use.  Mr. Boswell's journal was filled, and he bought some paper in Col.  To a man that ranges the streets of London, where he is tempted to contrive wants, for the pleasure of supplying them, a shop affords no image worthy of attention; but in an Island, it turns the balance of existence between good and evil.  To live in perpetual want of little things, is a state not indeed of torture, but of constant vexation.  I have in Sky had some difficulty to find ink for a letter; and if a woman breaks her needle, the work is at a stop.

As it is, the Islanders are obliged to content themselves with succedaneous means for many common purposes.  I have seen the chief man of a very wide district riding with a halter for a bridle, and governing his hobby with a wooden curb.

The people of Col, however, do not want dexterity to supply some of their necessities.  Several arts which make trades, and demand apprenticeships in great cities, are here the practices of daily economy.  In every house candles are made, both moulded and dipped.  Their wicks are small shreds of linen cloth.  They all know how to extract from the Cuddy, oil for their lamps.  They all tan skins, and make brogues.

As we travelled through Sky, we saw many cottages, but they very frequently stood single on the naked ground.  In Col, where the hills opened a place convenient for habitation, we found a petty village, of which every hut had a little garden adjoining; thus they made an appearance of social commerce and mutual offices, and of some attention to convenience and future supply.  There is not in the Western Islands any collection of buildings that can make pretensions to be called a town, except in the Isle of Lewis, which I have not seen.

If Lewis is distinguished by a town, Col has also something peculiar.  The young Laird has attempted what no Islander perhaps ever thought on.  He has begun a road capable of a wheel-carriage.  He has carried it about a mile, and will continue it by annual elongation from his house to the harbour.

Of taxes here is no reason for complaining; they are paid by a very easy composition.  The malt-tax for Col is twenty shillings.  Whisky is very plentiful: there are several stills in the Island, and more is made than the inhabitants consume.

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.

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