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Hugh Miller on Eigg

Hugh Miller from Cromarty was a highly influential figure in the second quarter of the 19th century. He was a self-taught geologist, writer and editor of a key Edinburgh newspaper in the lead up to the tectonic changes in the Scottish church that culminated in the Disruption of 1843.

In 1844, Miller joined his boyhood friend the Rev Swanson, a keen supporter of the Disruption, who had been removed from his Small Isles parish and his manse on Eigg. Swanson used the Betsey as his ‘floating manse’ so that he was still able to serve his parishioners. The cruise was to visit Tobermory, Eigg, Rum, Glenelg and Isle Ornsay on Skye.

As well as detailed descriptions of the geology, palaeontology and landscapes encountered, Miller recorded much about the social circumstances they came across at a time when the area was experiencing real suffering in the aftermath of the Potato  Famine. 

Here are the social and cultural commentaries he made about Eigg: 

  • Hugh Miller on the Massacre cave

“The floor, for about a hundred feet inwards from the narrow vestibule, resembles that of a charnel-house. At almost every step we come upon heaps of human bones grouped together, as the Psalmist so graphically describes, "as when one cutteth and cleaveth wood upon the earth."They are of a brownish, earthy hue, here and there tinged with green; the skulls, with the exception of a few broken fragments, have disappeared; for travellers in the Hebrides have of late years been numerous and curious; and many a museum,—that at Abbotsford among the rest,—exhibits, in a grinning skull, its memorial of the Massacre at Eigg. We find, too, further marks of visitors in the single bones separated from the heaps and scattered over the area; but enough still remains to show, in the general disposition of the remains, that the hapless islanders died under the walls in families, each little group separated by a few feet from the others. Here and there the remains of a detached skeleton may be seen, as if some robust islander, restless in his agony, had stalked out into the middle space ere he fell; but the social arrangement is the general one. And beneath every heap we find, at the depth, as has been said, of a few inches, the remains of the straw-bed upon which the family had lain, largely mixed with the smaller bones of the human frame, ribs and vertebræ, and hand and feet bones; occasionally, too, with fragments of unglazed pottery, and various other implements of a rude housewifery. The minister found for me, under one family heap, the pieces of a half-burned, unglazed earthen jar, with a narrow mouth, that, like the sepulchral urns of our ancient tumuli, had been moulded by the hand without the assistance of the potter's wheel; and to one of the fragments there stuck a minute pellet of gray hair. From under another heap he disinterred the handle-stave of a child's wooden porringer (bicker), perforated by a hole still bearing the mark of the cord that had bung it to the wall.”

  • Hugh Miller's description of an island cottage

“We descended the Scuir together for the place of meeting, and entered, by the way, the cottage of a worthy islander, much attached to his minister. "We are both very hungry," said my friend: "we have been out among the rocks since breakfast time, and are wonderfully disposed to eat. Do not put yourself about, but give us anything you have at hand." There was a bowl of rich milk brought us, and a splendid platter of mashed potatoes, and we dined like princes. I observed for the first time in the interior of this cottage, what I had frequent occasion to remark afterwards, that much of the wood used in buildings in the smaller and outer islands of the Hebrides must have drifted across the Atlantic, borne eastwards and northwards by the great gulf-stream. Many of the beams and boards, sorely drilled by the Teredo navalis, are of American timber, that from time to time has been cast upon the shore,—a portion of it apparently from timber-laden vessels unfortunate in their voyage, but a portion of it also, with root and branch still attached, bearing mark of having been swept to the sea by Transatlantic rivers. Nuts and seeds of tropical plants are occasionally picked up on the beach. My friend gave me a bean or nut of the Dolichos urens, or cow-itch shrub of the West Indies, which an islander had found on the shore some time in the previous year, and given to one of the manse children as a toy.”

  • Hugh Miller on Manx sheerwaters

The puffin, a comparatively rare bird in the inner Hebrides, builds, I was told, in great numbers in the continuous line of precipice which, after sweeping for a full mile round the Bay of Laig, forms the pinnacled rampart here, and then, turning another angle of the island, runs on parallel to the coast for about six miles more. In former times the puffin furnished the islanders, as in St Kilda, with a staple article of food, in those hungry months of summer in which the stores of the old crop had begun to fail, and the new crop had not yet ripened; and the people of Eigg, taught by their necessities, were bold cragsmen. But men do not peril life and limb for the mere sake of a meal, save when they cannot help it; and the introduction of the potato has done much to put out the practice of climbing for the bird, except among a few young lads, who find excitement enough in the work to pursue it for its own sake, as an amusement. I found among the islanders what was said to be a piece of the natural history of the puffin, sufficiently apocryphal to remind one of the famous passage in the history of the barnacle, which traced the lineage of the bird to one of the pedunculated cirripedes, and the lineage of the cirripede to a log of wood. The puffin feeds its young, say the islanders, on an oily scum of the sea, which renders it such an unwieldy mass of fat, that about the time when it should be beginning to fly, it becomes unable to get out of its hole. The parent bird, not in the least puzzled, however, treats the case medicinally, and,—like mothers of another two-legged genus, who, when their daughters get over-stout, put them through a course of reducing acids to bring them down,—feeds it on sorrel-leaves for several days together, till, like a boxer under training, it gets thinned to the proper weight, and becomes able not only to get out of its cell, but also to employ its wings.

  • Hugh Miller on the Shieling at Stro

Let the Edinburgh reader imagine the fine walk under Salisbury Crags lengthened some twenty times,—the line of precipices above heightened some five or six times,—the gravelly slope at the base not much increased in altitude, but developed transversely into a green undulating belt of hilly pasture, with here and there a sunny slope level enough for the plough, and here and there a rough wilderness of detached crags and broken banks; let him further imagine the sea sweeping around the base of this talus, with the nearest opposite land—bold, bare, and undulating atop—some six or eight miles distant; and he will have no very inadequate idea of the peculiar and striking scenery through which, this evening, our homeward route lay. I have scarce ever walked over a more solitary tract. The sea shuts it in on the one hand, and the rampart of rocks on the other; there occurs along its entire length no other human dwelling than a lonely summer shieling; for full one-half the way we saw no trace of man; and the wildness of the few cattle which we occasionally startled in the hollows showed us that man was no very frequent visitor among them. About half an hour before sunset we reached the midway shieling.

Rarely have I seen a more interesting spot, or one that, from its utter loneliness, so impressed the imagination.The shieling, a rude low-roofed erection of turf and stone, with a door in the centre some five feet in height or so, but with no window, rose on the grassy slope immediately in front of the vast continuous rampart. A slim pillar of smoke ascends from the roof, in the calm, faint and blue within the shadow of the precipice, but it caught the sun-light in its ascent, and blushed, ere it melted into the ether, a ruddy brown. A streamlet came pouring from above in a long white thread, that maintained its continuity unbroken for at least two-thirds of the way; and then, untwisting into a shower of detached drops, that pattered loud and vehemently in a rocky recess, it again gathered itself up into a lively little stream, and, sweeping past the shieling, expanded in front into a circular pond, at which a few milch cows were leisurely slaking their thirst.  The whole grassy talus, with a strip, mayhap a hundred yards wide, of deep green sea, lay within the shadow of the tall rampart; but the red light fell, for many a mile beyond, on the glassy surface; and the distant Cuchullin Rills, so dark at other times, had all their prominent slopes and jutting precipices tipped with bronze; while here and there a mist streak, converted into bright flame, stretched along their peaks, or rested on their sides. Save the lonely shieling, not a human dwelling was in sight. An island girl of eighteen, more than merely good-looking, though much embrowned by the sun, had come to the door to see who the unwonted visitors might be, and recognised in John Stewart an old acquaintance. John informed her in her own language that I was Mr Swanson's sworn friend, and not a Moderate, but one of their own people, and that I had fasted all day, and had come for a drink of milk. The name of her minister proved a strongly recommendatory one: I have not yet seen the true Celtic interjection of welcome,—the kindly "O o o,"—attempted on paper; but I had a very agreeable specimen of it on this occasion, viva voce. And as she set herself to prepare for us a rich bowl of mingled milk and cream, John and I entered the shieling. There was a turf fire at the one end, at which there sat two little girls, engaged in keeping up the blaze under a large pot, but sadly diverted from their work by our entrance; while the other end was occupied by a bed of dry straw, spread on the floor from wall to wall, and fenced off at the foot by a line of stones. The middle space was occupied by the utensils and produce of the dairy,—flat wooden vessels of milk, a butter churn, and a tub half-filled with curd; while a few cheeses, soft from the press, lay on a shelf above. The little girls were but occasional visitors, who had come out of a juvenile frolic, to pass the night in the place; but I was informed by John that the shieling had two other inmates, young women, like the one so hospitably engaged in our behalf, who were out at the milking, and that they lived here all alone for several months every year, when the pasturage was at its best, employed in making butter and cheese for their master, worthy Mr M'Donald of Keill. They must often feel lonely when night has closed darkly over mountain and sea, or in those dreary days of mist and rain so common in the Hebrides, when nought may be seen save the few shapeless crags that stud the nearer hillocks around them, and nought heard save the moaning of the wind in the precipices above, or the measured dash of the wave on the wild beach below. And yet they would do ill to exchange their solitary life and rude shieling for the village dwellings and gregarious habits of the females who ply their rural labours in bands among the rich fields of the Lowlands, or for the unwholesome back-room and weary task-work of the city seamstress. The sun-light was fading from the higher hill-tops of Skye and Glenelg, as we bade farewell to the lonely shieling and the hospitable island girl.

  • Hugh Miller on the Eigg Free church congregation

We set out for church a little after eleven, the minister encased in his ample-skirted storm jacket of oiled canvass, and protected atop by a genuine sou-wester, of which the broad posterior rim sloped half a yard down his back; and I closely wrapped up in my gray maud, which proved, however, a rather indifferent protection against the penetrating powers of a true Hebridean drizzle. The building in which the congregation meets is a low dingy cottage of turf and stone, situated nearly opposite to the manse windows. It had been built by my friend, previous to the Disruption, at his own expense, for a Gaelic school, and it now serves as a place of worship for the people.

We found the congregation already gathered, and that the very bad morning had failed to lessen their numbers. There were a few of the male parishioners keeping watch at the door, looking wistfully out through the fog and rain for their minister; and at his approach nearly twenty more came issuing from the place,—like carder bees from their nest of dried grass and moss,—to gather round him, and shake him by the hand.The islanders of Eigg are an active, middle-sized race, with well-developed heads, acute intellects, and singularly warm feelings. And on this occasion at least there could be no possibility of mistake respecting the feelings with which they regarded their minister. Rarely have I seen human countenances so eloquently vocal with veneration and love. The gospel message, which my friend had been the first effectually to bring home to their hearts,—the palpable fact of his sacrifice for the sake of the high principles which he has taught,—his own kindly disposition,—the many services which he has rendered them, for not only has he been the minister, but also the sole medical man, of the Small Isles, and the benefit of his practice they have enjoyed, in every instance, without fee or reward,—his new life of hardship and danger, maintained for their sakes amid sinking health and great privation,—their frequent fears for his safety when stormy nights close over the sea,—and they have seen his little vessel driven from her anchorage, just as the evening has fallen,—all these are circumstances that have concurred in giving him a strong hold on their affections.

The rude turf-building we found full from end to end, and all a-steam with a particularly wet congregation, some of whom, neither very robust nor young, had travelled in the soaking drizzle from the farther extremities of the island. And, judging from the serious attention with which they listened to the discourse, they must have deemed it full value for all it cost them. I have never yet seen a congregation more deeply impressed, or that seemed to follow the preacher more intelligently; and I was quite sure, though ignorant of the language in which my friend addressed them, that he preached to them neither heresy nor nonsense. There was as little of the reverence of externals in the place as can well be imagined: an uneven earthen floor,—turf-walls on every side, and a turf-roof above,—two little windows of four panes a-piece, adown which the rain-drops were coursing thick and fast,—a pulpit grotesquely rude, that had never employed the bred carpenter,—and a few ranges of seats of undressed deal,—such were the mere materialisms of this lowly church of the people; and yet here, notwithstanding, was the living soul of a Christian community,—understandings convinced of the truth of the gospel, and hearts softened and impressed by its power.

  • Hugh Miller on the Sheep stealer's dwelling at Kildonnan

“at length, tired out, the ragged little crew took to their oars, and rowed into a shallow bay at the lower extremity of the glebe, with a cottage, in size and appearance much resembling an ant-hill, peeping out at its inner extremity among some stunted bushes. I had marked the place before, and had been struck with the peculiarity of the choice that could have fixed on it as a site for a dwelling: it is at once the most inconvenient and picturesque on this side the island. A semicircular line of columnar precipices, that somewhat resembles an amphitheatre turned outside in,—for the columns that overlook the area are quite as lofty as those which should form the amphitheatre's outer wall,—sweeps round a little bay, flat and sandy at half-tide, but bordered higher up by a dingy, scarce passable beach of columnar fragments that have toppled from above. Between the beach and the line of columns there is a bosky talus, more thickly covered with brushwood than is at all common in the Hebrides, and scarce more passable than the rough beach at its feet. And at the bottom of this talus, with its one gable buried in the steep ascent,—for there is scarce a foot-breadth of platform between the slope and the beach,—and with the other gable projected to the tide-line on rugged columnar masses, stands the cottage. The story of the inmate,—the father of the two ragged boys,—is such a one as Crabbe would have delighted to tell, and as he could have told better than any one else.

He had been, after a sort, a freebooter in his time, but born an age or two rather late; and the law had proved over strong for him. On at least one occasion, perhaps oftener,—for his adventures are not all known in Eigg,—he had been in prison for sheep-stealing. He had the dangerous art of subsisting without the ostensible means, and came to be feared and avoided by his neighbours as a man who lived on them without asking their leave. With neither character nor a settled way of living, his wits, I am afraid, must have been often whetted by his necessities: he stole lest he should starve. For some time he had resided in the adjacent island of Muck; but, proving a bad tenant, he had been ejected by the agent of the landlord, I believe a very worthy man, who gave him half a boll of meal to get quietly rid of him, and pulled down his house, when he had left the island, to prevent his return. Betaking himself, with his boys, to a boat, he set out in quest of some new lodgment. He made his first attempt or two on the mainland, where he strove to drive a trade in begging, but he was always recognised as the convicted sheep-stealer, and driven back to the shore. At length, after a miserable term of wandering, he landed in the winter season on Eigg, where he had a grown-up son a miller; and, erecting a wretched shed with some spars and the old sail of a boat placed slantways against the side of a rock, he squatted on the beach, determined, whether he lived or died, to find a home on the island. The islanders were no strangers to the character of the poor forlorn creature, and kept aloof from him,—none of them, however, so much as his own son; and, for a time, my friend the minister, aware that he had been the pest of every community among which he had lived, stood aloof from him too, in the hope that at length, wearied out, he might seek for himself a lodgment elsewhere. There came on, however, a dreary night of sleet and rain, accompanied by a fierce storm from the sea; and intelligence reached the manse late in the evening, that the wretched sheep-stealer had been seized by sudden illness, and was dying on the beach. There could be no room for further hesitation in this case; and my friend the minister gave instant orders that the poor creature should be carried to the manse. The party, however, which he had sent to remove him found the task impracticable. The night was pitch dark; and the road, dangerous with precipices, and blocked up with rough masses of rock and stone, they found wholly impassable with so helpless a burden. And so, administering some cordials to the poor hapless wretch, they had to leave him in the midst of the storm, with the old wet sail lapping about his ears, and the half-frozen rain pouring in upon him in torrents. He must have passed a miserable night, but it could not have been a whit more miserable than that passed by the minister in the manse. As the wild blast howled around his comfortable dwelling, and shook the casements as if some hand outside were assaying to open them, or as the rain pattered sharp and thick on the panes, and the measured roar of the surf rose high over every other sound, he could think of only the wretched creature exposed to the fury of a tempest so terrible, as perchance wrestling in his death agony in the darkness beside the breaking wave, or as already stiffening on the shore. He was early astir next morning, and almost the first person he met was the poor sheep-stealer, looking' more like a ghost than a living man. The miserable creature had mustered strength enough to crawl up from the beach. My friend has often met better men with less pleasure. He found a shelter for the poor outcast; he tended him, prescribed for him, and, on his recovery, gave him leave to build for himself the hovel at the foot of the crags. The islanders were aware they had got but an indifferent neighbour through the transaction, though none of them, with the exception of the poor creature's son, saw what else their minister could have done in the circumstances. But the miller could sustain no apology for the arrangement that had given him his vagabond father as a neighbour; and oftener than once the site of the rising hovel became a scene of noisy contention between parent and son. Some of the islanders informed me that they had seen the son engaged in pulling down the stones of the walls as fast as the father raised them up; and, save for the interference of the minister, the hut, notwithstanding the permission he gave, would scarce have been built.

  • Hugh Miller on Eigg paupers.

On our return to the Betsey, we passed through a straggling group of cottages on the hill-side, one of which, the most dilapidated and smallest of the number, the minister entered, to visit a poor old woman, who had been bed-ridden for ten years. Scarce ever before had I seen so miserable a hovel. It was hardly larger than the cabin of the Betsey, and a thousand times less comfortable. The walls and roof, formed of damp grass-grown turf, with a few layers of unconnected stone in the basement tiers, seemed to constitute one continuous hillock, sloping upwards from foundation to ridge, like one of the lesser moraines of Agassiz, save where the fabric here and there bellied outwards or inwards, in perilous dilapidation, that seemed but awaiting the first breeze. The low chinky door opened direct into the one wretched apartment of the hovel, which we found lighted chiefly by holes in the roof.  The back of the sick woman's bed was so placed at the edge of the opening, that it had formed at one time a sort of partition to the portion of the apartment, some five or six feet square, which contained the fire-place; but the boarding that had rendered it such had long since fallen away, and it now presented merely a naked rickety frame to the current of cold air from without. Within a foot of the bed-ridden woman's head there was a hole in the turf-wall, which was, we saw, usually stuffed with a bundle of rags, but which lay open as we entered, and which furnished a downward peep of sea and shore, and the rocky Eilan Chasteil, with the minister's yacht riding in the channel hard by. The little hole in the wall had formed the poor creature's only communication with the face of the external world for ten weary years. She lay under a dingy coverlet, which, whatever its original hue, had come to differ nothing in colour from the graveyard earth, which must so soon better supply its place. What perhaps first struck the eye was the strange flatness of the bed-clothes, considering that a human body lay below: there seemed scarce bulk enough under them for a human skeleton. The light of the opening fell on the corpse-like features of the woman, —sallow, sharp, bearing at once the stamp of disease and of famine; and yet it was evident, notwithstanding, that they had once been agreeable,—not unlike those of her daughter, a good-looking girl of eighteen, who, when we entered, was sitting beside the fire. Neither mother nor daughter had any English; but it was not difficult to determine, from the welcome with which the minister was greeted from the sick-bed, feeble as the tones were, that he was no unfrequent visitor. He prayed beside the poor creature, and, on coming away, slipped something into her hand. I learned that not during the ten years in which she had been bed-ridden had she received a single farthing from the proprietor, nor, indeed, had any of the poor of the island, and that the parish had no session-funds. I saw her husband a few days after,—an old worn-out man, with famine written legibly in his hollow cheek and eye, and on the shrivelled frame, that seemed lost in his tattered dress; and he reiterated the same sad story. They had no means of living, he said, save through the charity of their poor neighbours, who had so little to spare; for the parish or the proprietor had never given them anything. He had once, he added, two fine boys, both sailors, who had helped them; but the one had perished in a storm off the Mull of Cantyre, and the other had died of fever when on a West India voyage; and though their poor girl was very dutiful, and staid in their crazy hut to take care of them in their helpless old age, what other could she do in a place like Eigg than just share with them their sufferings? It has been recently decided by the British Parliament, that in cases of this kind the starving poor shall not be permitted to enter the law courts of the country, there to sue for a pittance to support life, until an intermediate newly-erected court, alien to the Constitution, before which they must plead at their own expense, shall have first given them permission to prosecute their claims. And I doubt not that many of the English gentlemen whose votes swelled the majority, and made it such, are really humane men, friendly to an equal-handed justice, and who hold it to be the peculiar glory of the Constitution, as well shown by De Lolme, that it has not one statute-book for the poor, and another for the rich, but the same law and the same administration of law for all. They surely could not have seen that the principle of their Poor Law Act for Scotland sets the pauper beyond the pale of the Constitution in the first instance, that he may be starved in the second. The suffering paupers of this miserable island cottage would have all their wants fully satisfied in the grave, long ere they could establish at their own expense, at Edinburgh, their claim to enter a court of law. I know not a fitter case for the interposition of our lately formed "Scottish Association for the Protection of the Poor" than that of this miserable family; and it is but one of many which the island of Eigg will be found to furnish.

  • Hugh Miller's description of homemade shoes on Eigg

“Among the various things brought aboard this morning, there was a pair of island shoes for the minister's cabin use, that struck my fancy not a little. They were all around of a deep madder-red colour, soles, welts, and uppers; and, though somewhat resembling in form the little yawl of the Betsey, were sewed not unskilfully with thongs; and their peculiar style of tie seemed of a kind suited to furnish with new idea a fashionable shoemaker of the metropolis. They were altogether the production of Eigg, from the skin out of which they had been cut, with the lime that had prepared it for the tan, and the root by which the tan had been furnished, down to the last on which they had been moulded, and the artizan that had cast them off, a pair of finished shoes. There are few trees, and, of course, no bark to spare, in the island; but the islanders find a substitute in the astringent lobiferous root of the Tormentilla erecta, which they dig out for the purpose among the heath, at no inconsiderable expense of time and trouble. I was informed by John Stewart, an adept in all the multifarious arts of the island, from the tanning of leather and the tilling of land, to the building of a house or the working of a ship, that the infusion of root had to be thrice changed for every skin, and that it took a man nearly a day to gather roots enough for a single infusion. I was further informed that it was not unusual for the owner of a skin to give it to some neighbour to tan, and that, the process finished, it was divided equally between them, the time and trouble bestowed on it by the one being deemed equivalent to the property held in it by the other. I wished to call a pair of these primitive-looking shoes my own, and no sooner was the wish expressed than straightway one islander furnished me with leather, and another set to work upon the shoes. When I came to speak of remuneration, however, the islanders shook their heads. "No, no, not from the Witness: there are not many that take our part, and the Witness does." I hold the shoes, therefore, as my first retainer, determined, on all occasions of just quarrel, to make common cause with the poor islanders.



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