14. Social and domestic life

The social and domestic life of the Lewis peasantry may be characterised as quiet and uneventful in the extreme. Few subjects of a public nature withdraw their attention from their daily avocations. They celebrate the New Year; and a wedding is the occasion for great rejoicing. Death on the other hand usually brings a cloud of sorrow over a whole district; and funerals are largely attended.
Formerly, in the Western Islands, funerals sometimes became orgies, and an old saying illustrative of this is that one funeral is better than twelve Sacramental gatherings. (Is fhearr aon torradh na da chomanachadh dhiag.) The Lewis funeral of to-day is, however, most decorous, and in_every way in harmony with the situation.

The Sacramental gathering is also an event that moves the rural life of Lewis. Some people consider it a duty to attend most of the Communion services in the island. These last from Thursday till Monday in each district; and during their continuance every house within a radius of some miles from the church is filled with visitors from other districts.

The Lewis Islanders are indeed a quiet, serious people, and not given in any large degree to amusements. Games such as jumping, shinty, putting the stone, &c., are described as having “ gone out of use” among adults prior to 1833. Martin mentions that in his time (circa 1695) the Lewis people were “ very dexterous in the exercises of swimming, archery, vaulting or leaping.” He also says they were great lovers of music, and that when he was in the island he got an account of eighteen men who could play the violin well without having been taught.

The Lewisman of a hundred years ago does not appear to have had the same gravity of demeanour as his descendant of to—day, if we accept the statement of the Rev. John Lane Buchanan, who was “ Missionary Minister to the Isles from the Church of Scotland from 1782 to 1790. In a volume published in 1793, in which he describes his Hebridean experiences, he says the British laws had been introduced by the Seaforth of that period to the Island of Lewis. Referring to the manners and customs of the people, he praises their music and dancing. “In Lewis” he says, “ since their late happy change from servitude to freedom by the present noble minded proprietor, they are animated with such life as to meet in companies, regularly every week, at stated places, where both old and young take their turn at this agreeable past—time (dancing), when they exercise themselves with amazing alertness and spirit. [“ Travels in the Hebrides 1782 to 1790,” p. 81.]

These weekly dances have long since been discontinued-probably at a date beyond living memory—and in neither of the Statistical Accounts is mention made of them. Rev. Wm. MacRae, Minister of Barvas, writing in the New Statistical Account (1836), gives a description of his parishioners which it is believed was applicable to all the country districts of the island at that time. After stating that in their habits much cleanliness can scarcely be expected, considering their poverty and the wretchedness of their habitations, he proceeds
—“ Their mode of living most closely approaches the pastoral, without arts, trade, or manufacture, navigation or literature, their whole round of duty consists in securing fuel, in sowing and reaping their scanty crops. and in rearing their flocks, and tending them at pasture. Yet in these limited circumstances, while supplied with food and clothing of the plainest description, and able to pay their rents, their simple cottages are abodes of happiness and contentment. Blue kelt is almost the only dress worn by the men, and stuffs, variously striped, by the women, with under dresses of plaiding, all home-made; In many instances, however, cotton shirts and print gowns are beginning to supersede the use of some of these articles.”... “Their ordinary food consists of oat and barley meal, potatoes and ilk, variously prepared. Their domestic economy is frugal and moderate beyond conception. The produce of a foreign soil, as tea, coffee, and sugar, and the common conveniences of art, as knives, forks, &c., are to them altogether alien.” (Ross and Cromarty, p. 147.)

In 1841 Mr. Thomas Knox, the then factor for Seaforth in the Island of Lewis, was examined before the Select Committee of the Houses of Parliament previously mentioned. Mr. O’Brien, a member of the Committee, asked him what were the ideas of comfort with respect to residence and food entertained by the Lewis people. He replied, “ that they should have, of course, a house and plenty of firing, which is very easily procured in all parts of Lewis; and potatoes, some grain, one to five cows, and a few sheep.” (Q. 2270.)

In answer to further questions, Mr. Knox stated that such of them as fished had plenty of fish. That, with potatoes, was the common diet of the country.
Lord Teignmouth.—What sort of fish?
Mr Knox. —The smaller sort of fish, haddocks, and the heads of the cod and ling.
Mr. O’Brien.—Do they ever eat of meat ?
Mr. Knox.—Not generally. I have seen dried mutton, a sort of ham.
Mr. O’Brien.—Do you conceive that a person living in a house, without a chimney, and with scarcely a window, and eating potatoes, with fish occasionally, is not a poor person ?
Mr Knox.—He is not accounted a poor person in Lewis; they do not among themselves consider a person in those circumstances to be poor.”

Such was Mr. Knox’s views as to the standard of comfort prevailing in his time. Matters have greatly changed since the minister of Barvas wrote in the New Statistical Account and Mr. Knox gave his evidence, but it cannot be said that all thef changes have tended to promote the health of the people. In the matter of underclothing, cotton fabrics have in a large measure superseded the old woollen home-spuns, and rheumatism in an increasing degree has followed the change. With regard to food, the potato still holds its place. It is probably the only native product that has not had to yield to imported articles. Porridge is not so much a staple article of food as formerly, and the home—made barley bannocks have in a large measure been supplanted by loaf bread. While the population increased to the extent previously shown, the land in occupation of the peasantry has practically remained the same. This in itself necessitated the importation of food. The cottar population having no right to keep stock, are, as a rule, without cows and accordingly without milk for their children. Eggs are very little eaten by the peasantry. Indeed the egg passes as a coin of the realm, and may be seen handed over the counter in a country shop in exchange for a newspaper or a postage stamp. The local merchants take eggs in barter for tea, sugar, tobacco, paraffin, &c. The tea-pot is constantly at almost every fire-side, and excessive tea-drinking has led to dyspepsia and nervous diseases.

In the matter of light, bog fir dried and cut into small splinters, supplemented by the peat fire on the middle of the floor, formerly lit the home during the winterevenings. It gave way long ago to the cvmizie with its primitive wick and fish-oil; while the cruisie, in turn, is now rarely to be seen, paraffin being used in every house. On the subject of clothing, it is of interest to add that the wearing of caps and shoes by the south of the island is a change which Dr. Ross, the medical officer for Barvas, regards as detrimental. “ In former generations,” he says, “ neither boys or girls wore caps or shoes till they were grown up in most cases, and neither their heads nor feet, nor their general health seemed to suffer in consequence. Even nowadays in the case of people who are so poor as not to be able to provide such luxuries for their children, it is a fact that such children are, as a rule, healthier and stronger than their better favoured neighbours, even though they may be worse off as recrards food and other necessaries. At any rate there can be no doubt that the changes referred to, both as regards food and clothing, have been prominent factors in bringing about the marked increase which has taken place of late years in such diseases as phthisis, dyspepsia. rheumatism, and nervous diseases.” (Medical Officer’s Report for 1892.)

As to the avocations of the people—fishing and crofting, as also the Militia and the Naval Reserve, have already been referred to. The Militiamen receive their annual instruction away from the island, and the training is in many ways highly beneficial. But it is said by those who are able to judge that it is not an unqualified blessing. The barrack room and the canteen do not tend to elevate character, or raise the standard of morals; and the youth who has not got backbone enough to resist temptation sometimes acquires irregular habits.

A similar observation falls to be made with regard to herring-gutting. The women who are employed at that work do well financially, both in Stornoway and Shetland and on the East Coast; but when away from home restraints some of them are apt to err.On this subject Dr. Ross is emphatic. He does not regard employment at gutting as favourable in any sense. “ Some seasons,” he says, “ they earn a good deal of money, but only, for most, to spend it on trifles. But the effects on their habits, morals, and general health are undoubtedly injurious.”

The labour required for the cultivation of the land falls to a large extent on the women. “ In this and in all other parts of the island,” says the Minister of Stornoway in the Old Statistical Account, “ the women carry on as much of the labour of agriculture as the men.”
[James Macdonald, writing of Lewis in 1811, says :—“ Women undergo fatigues in the labour of agriculture totally incompatible with their sex. They are seen barefooted and barelegged carrying manure and peats in creels upon their backs, and even dragging harrows over ploughed ground; which harrows are fastened by hair ropes round their necks and shoulders.”—(Agriculture of the Hebrides, pp. 812-3.)]

Women engage in outdoor work throughout the Highlands as well as in Lewis. But it will be found as a rule that more of the rough work of the holding devolves upon the women in those places where the Norse element is strong than in the places that are purely Celtic. The reason for this is obvious. The Norseman is fond ofthe sea and occupies a large part of his time in sea-faring pursuits. Accordingly, much of the agricultural work in connection with his home of necessity devolves upon the women.The Celt, on the other hand, is a landsman, and when he can get land does not take kindly to the sea. He is accordingly more at home than his Norse brother, and naturally relieves the female members of his household from the rougher kinds of land work.

This appears to have been the case among the Norse people from Viking times. The men then engaged in field sports, fishing, Viking expeditions, &c. They also had chess and various in-door games. The higher class of women did embroidery and other fancy work, but “ the general occupation of ordinary women was to milk cows prepare food and drink, serve the men, work in the field, and specially make the hay card wool, attend to the clothes, wash the men’s heads, and pull off their clothes when they went to bed.” (Du Chailly’s Viking Age, Vol. II., p. 363.)

The foregoing description of the duties ‘of women during the Viking period pretty correctly describes those of the Lewis woman of to-day. She carries the seaware or other materials for manure in a creel on her back, and sometimes tills the land; she weeds and reaps, and carries the corn and hay to the barn in autumn; she likewise carries the domestic fuel on her back from the moor, and knits her stockings as she goes in the same way as her Shetland sister knits her caps or hosiery while similarly occupied. She goes with her cattle in the summer to the shieling and stays there for a few weeks in the same way as is being done in the case of the Norse Saeters (or Shielings) to the day. In her home she attends to the domestic requirements of her family. In particular she is busy at the end of autumn and the beginning of winter carding and spinning for the annual web of cloth, or the season’s blankets and plaidings. The able-bodied men do most of the delving in spring, and afterwards cut the peats. Peat-cutting is usually done in companies. A few families combine, engage one day in cutting peats for one family, the second for another, and so on until the year’s supply has been cast.

Peat-cutting generally concludes the home occupation of the able-bodied men at that season of the year; for whenever that operation is over all betake themselves to fishing, or to whatever other pursuit forms their means of livelihood.

By Martinmas nearly all are back to their homes, and there they remain (their time being largely unoccupied) until next season’s work is begun.

During this period the ceilidh—an old Celtic word for which there is no precise equivalent in English—forms the principal means of recreation and instruction, and may be described as an unconventional “at home” to which all are welcome. It may be held in any house, but the favourite resorts are those where the head of the house is an intelligent, communicative man, or where there are a number of daughters. To such a house or houses young men and women repair in large numbers after nightfall. Here old tales are rehearsed and songs sung, or the public questions of the time are discussed. Thus these gatherings frequently afford instruction as well as amusement, and in many respects are a species of evening continuation schools. It ought to be added that no industrious woman goes to a Ceilidh Without having with her such an amount of sewing or knitting as will occupy her time throughout the evening.

The popular concerts so common throughout the rural districts of the mainland have not yet obtained a solid footing in the country parts of Lewis; but the ceilidh provides an alternative which satisfies the wa.nts of the people in respect of amusements. Among the social usages a courting custom which prevails to a considerable extent in Lewis, and appears to be a heritage from the time of the Norse occupation of the island, may be mentioned. Du Chaillu found the same custom in Sweden, and makes reference to it in the Land of the Midnight Sun thus :—“Among the ancient customs of the rural population that still prevail in many parts of the country is that of ‘ bundling,’ called here frieri, which really means ‘ courtship.’ I have occasionally witnessed it, and it has afforded me at times much amusement. On Saturday it is usual for the parents who wish to have a good night’s rest, and do not want to be kept awake by constant knockings, to leave the doors open; for, if they are blessed with many daughters, they may be sure that there will be no end of visitors.”... “ It is generally arranged that the hour of arrival [of the young men] shall be after the old
folks have retired” (Vol. 1., p. 430).

Elsewhere he says, “Elsa Karolina and one of the daughters slept together, while the eldest daughter slept near me, bundling with her sweetheart, this being the lovers day” (II., p. 66).

The custom is general in Shetland, is met with in Orkney, and is also common in Lewis. Among the peasantry of Shetland and Lewis it has continued notwithstanding the strictures passed upon it by many, and is now a recognised custom, rarely abused. Writers on Shetland deal with it, and also with the “Flatchies” or “lang beds” in the barns, in which male and female sleep after a wedding. Dr. Robert Cowie in his volume
on Shetland speaks of the latter as follows :—

The dancers, instead of returning to their homes [after the wedding festivities], adjourn to the barn of their host’s cottage, which serves as a dormitory, the members of each sex being alternately ranged along the floor on a huge couch of straw.”... The people enter quite innocently into these ‘barn bundlings,’ as they are termed, and both statistics and the testimony of respectable persons who have taken part in them, prove that nothing immoral occurs” (p. 102). In a note to this passage Dr. Cowie says;—“Perhaps the most marked feature in the character of the female Shetlander is her extreme modesty and delicacy. Rudeness and coarseness of language are unknown” (p. 305.)

The statistics published by the Registrar General go to show that in so far as the relations of the sexes are concerned, the same high standard of morality referred to by Dr. Cowie among the Shetlanders, prevails also among the Lewis peasantry. Taking every fifth year from 1880 to 1899 (the Report for 1899 being the last published), it is found that the percentage of illegitimacy to the total number of births in Lewis varies from 1.9 to 3.2; while on the mainland of Ross and Cromarty the lowest corresponding figure during the same years is 6.3 and the highest 7.0.

The percentage of illegitimate to the total births in the seven crofting counties during 1899 was as follows:— Argyll, 7.5; Inverness, 8.4; Ross and Cromarty, 4.6; Sutherland, 4.2; Caithness, 11.1; Orkney, 6.3; and Shetland, 3.0. In contrast with these figures, it may be stated that the percentage for Morayshire in the same year was 12.7; for Banffshire, 13.5, and for Wigtownshire, 14.6. It will be observed that the standard of morality shown by the Lewis peasantry brings down the rate of illegitimacy for the County of Ross and Cromarty as a whole. The figures applicable to 1899 for Lewis alone being 1.9; for the mainland only, 7.0; but for the whole County, including Lewis, 4.6.

In the following Table the rate of illegitimacy to total births is given as regards Lewis in the first column, and as to the mainland of Ross and Cromarty in the second, in every fifth year since 1880:—

TABLE showing Percentage of Illegitimacy to Total Births in Ross-shire in 1880, 1885, 1890, 1895, and 1899 (being the last published), distinguishing between (a) the Island of Lewis and (b) the Mainland.

(a) Island of Lewis
1880: 2.1
1885: 2.2
1890: 1.9
1895: 3.2
1899: 1.9

(b) Mainland of Ross and Cromarty
1880: 6.3
1885: 6.6
1890: 6.4
1895: 6.3
1899: 7.0

Analysing the figures applicable to Lewis, it is found that the rate of illegitimacy in the rural districts where “bundling” (or, as it is locally known, leapachas i.e., bed-fellowship) mainly prevails is considerably lower than in the registration district of Stornoway. In the rural districts the percentage of illegitimacy to the total number of births varies from 1.2 to 1.8, and in the Stornoway registration district from 2.1 to 3.8.

The figures in detail may be tabulated thus :—

TABLE showing the Percentage of Illegitimate to Total Births in the Island of Lewis in the years 1880, 1885, 1890, 1895, and 1899 (being the last published), distinguishing between (a) the Rural Registration Districts and (b) the Stornoway Registration District.

(a) Rural Registration Districts.
1880: 1.8
1885: 1.5
1890: 1.7
1895: 2.8
1899: 1.2

(b) Stornoway Registration District
1880: 2.4
1885: 3.2
1890: 2.1
1895: 3.7
1899: 2.8

Dealing with Shetland in the same manner, the percentage of illegitimacy to total births in the rural districts in 1899 was 2.6, and in the registration district of Lerwick 5.0. In the following Table the number of births, including illegitimate, and the number of illegitimate births in each of the registration districts of Lewis, and also on the mainland of Ross and Cromarty during the five years named, are given :—

Total births




All rural districts




In connection with the social condition of the people, a passing reference may be made to the ecclesiastical controversies which have in recent years interfered with the peace of the inhabitants. Prior to the Disruption, dissent in any form did not obtain a footing in Lewis. At the Disruption, however, an overwhelming majority of the population cast in their lot with the Free Church of 1843. The Declaratory Act passed by the Free Church Assembly a few years ago led to another disruption, a considerable number of people having joined the religious body popularly known as “the Seceders.” They have a minister in Stornoway and a considerable following throughout the island.

The union of the Free Church and the United Presbyterian Church in 1900 led to fresh divisions. All the Free Church clergymen of the island, except those of Back and Park, joined the United Church, but their flocks got divided; and, according to the current issue of Oliver & Boyd’s Almanac, there are the following charges in connection with the various denominations throughout the island :—

Established Church.—Barvas, Cross, Knock, Lochs, Carloway, Uig, Bernera, and Stornoway.

United Free Church.—Back (vacant), Barvas, Carloway, Cross, Kinloch, Knock, Lochs, Park (vacant), Shawbost, Stornoway, and Uig. (There are three congregations adhering to this denomination in Stornoway.)

Free Church.—Back, Park, Barvas, Carloway, Cross, Kinloch, Knock, Lochs, Shawbost, Stornoway, and Uig. (Except Back and Park, all these are returned as vacant.)

Free Presbyterian Church.—(Popularly known as “the Seceders ”) Stornoway.

Scottish Episcopal Church.—Stornoway.

The zeal with which some of the contending sects maintain their respective interests may be illustrated by reference to a recent case before the Commission. The proprietor of Lewis applied to resume a small piece of common ground in the occupation of crofters, in order that the same might be feued to one of the dissenting denominations for the building of a church thereon, in the neighbourhood of an existing church. A section of the crofters interested favoured the application, while another opposed it, giving the following as one of their reasons :—“ The two churches, if placed near each other, would lead to offence and possibly to a breach of the peace.”

The rancour and bitterness with which these ecclesiastical controversies are conducted have tended to break up old friendships and to disturb the peace of the social life of the people where they prevail.

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