Parish of Barvas (1831-1845) - Topography and Natural History



The parish of Barvas is situated in the northern extremity of the Island of Lewis, extending from south-west to north-east, along the shore of the Atlantic, about 22 miles in length, and from the shore southward towards the interior of the island, about 7 miles in breadth. It originally embraced a district called Ness, at the eastern extremity, where there is a Government church, and which has been erected into a separate parish called Cross. Barvas, as now constituted, after the disjunction, is only 12 miles long, and 7 miles broad, making in all 84 square miles. The district of Cross, now formed into a separate parish quod sacra, in so far as the present account of Barvas does not apply to it, will be noticed hereafter.

Name.-Its name is thought to be Norwegian, in common with that of many other places in the Hebrides; but its signification is not known.

Boundaries--It is bounded on the west, by the parish of Lochs on the south, by the parishes of Stornoway and Lochs; on the east, by the parish of Cross and on the north, by the Atlantic ocean. Its figure is an irregular parallelogram, having the side to the north in nearly a straight line along the sea coast, indented by a few confined hays.

Topographical Appearances.-There are no hills or mountains that can be so called, the whole parish being almost one continued flat of mossy muir, with the exception of the cultivated inhabited part along the shore, which, upon an average, is not one mile in breadth. The vallies or glens, where the streams flow, are consequently of very inconsiderable depth. The coast being bold and rocky, there are some caves or fissures but none worthy of notice. The extent of the coast may be about 14 miles, all extremely rugged and inaccessible, except four small bays or creeks, where small boats can sometimes land; but no vessel can venture to anchor, on account of the surf, which is generally high, and with a north, north-west, and north-east wind rises most tremendously. The bays of Bragar and Barvas, having each a headland of short projection attached, are low and partly sandy; but the bay of Shadir, though low, is very difficult of access.

Meteorology.-There being no hilly ranges higher than gentle eminences, the country is the more exposed to the destructive violence of sea winds, which frequently carry, in their sweeping blasts, disappointment to the husbandman. The sea coast, the only arable portion of the parish, lies completely open to the north, west, and south winds; and when they come, in harvest, impregnated with the noxious vapours of the Atlantic, and often accompanied by heavy falls of rain, the crops, particularly the potato, suffer much injury. The air is temperately cold, moist, and salubrious, to natives; but the atmosphere is always densely charged with humid exhalations from the surrounding ocean, and from the mossy bogs, lochs, lakes, and water in every shape, with which the marshes are plentifully interspersed. From this cause, frost is seldom intense, and snow generally of short continuance. Dense fogs rarely occur. The luminous meteors, rainbow, halo, and Aurora Borealis or polar lights, are very frequent and brilliant. The glare of the latter sometimes may afford light for reading, and their warlike motions are often interesting. As they advance, at their first appearance, slowly and majestically, the fertile imagination may fancy the cool and stately motion of two mighty hosts approaching to the onset, then the hurry and confusion of the thickening fight, then the rout, the fugitive and pursuer emerging in one another, until a third party shoots forth as from ambuscade, ending the battle, and resigning the firmament to the stars and ancient night.

The prevailing winds are the south and south-west, and are always followed by rain, if of more than two days duration.

The common complaints are, colds, asthmas, and rheumatisms, incident to this, in common with all rainy climates; but a more uncommon ailment, for which no remedy has yet been discovered, is the five or seven nights sickness, a disease very fatal to infants, and so called from its attacking them on the fifth or seventh night.

Hydrography.--Perennial springs of excellent water are very numerous here, issuing for the most part from sand or gravel, several of them of a chalybeate nature. The moors abound in small shallow fresh water lakes and lochs, without surrounding scenery or beauty. The rivers take their origin from lochs and springs, generally at the distance of six or seven miles from the Atlantic, into which they fall. They are five in number, the Arnal, Glen,Torra, Shadir, and Borve, all which flow with uninterrupted smoothness, without cascade or cataract, to the ocean.

Geology--Along the whole arable ground, the most striking feature in the surface, as well as the composition of the soil, is the multitude of stones with which it is overrun, rendering it equally
injurious to vegetation as unfavourable for culture. The soil is of various kinds; but as the cultivated portion is no more than a narrow fringe, which outskirts the moor, the greatest proportion is mossy, varying from 2 to 12 feet deep, and resting on a hard stratum of clay. The inhabited portion consists either of black earth, gravel, or sand of the latter, there are banks between the manse and the shore, near 20 feet high, which are making gradual encroachments into the interior, from the constant action of the westerly winds, to which they lie exposed. The bank retains its depth as it advances, while it leaves behind a level expanse of sand, probably of greater depth than itself, and having its surface overspread with a vast variety of whelks, limpets, and the remains of shell-fish similar to those commonly found at present on the sea shore.

Zoology.--The more numerous species of animals in this parish, are the most common throughout Scotland, and to all appearance have undergone no change through the lapse of ages in increase or diminution. In the moors, are considerable flocks of red mountain deer (Cervus elaphus) otters (Lutra mustela,) in the rivers: and hares (L. timidus,) and rats (M. decumanus,) in the meadows.

Birds.-The land fowl are hawks (Falco,) ravens (C. corax) and carrion crows (C. corcone,) with the numerous smaller birds which abound in the western islands, such as the lark (Alauda arvemis,) land-rail (RalIus crex) lapwing (Tringa vanellus,) plover (Charadrius,) pigeon (Columba AEnas,) moorfowl (Tetrao Scoticus,) snipe (Scolopax gallinago,) curlew (S. arquata,) thrush (Turdus musicus,) starling (Sturnus vulg.) robin-red- breast (Motacilla rubecuIa,) Wren (M. Troglodytes,) wagtail (M. alba.) sparrow (Fringilla domestica,) swallow (Hirundo,) sand martin (H. riparia.) The waterfowl are the swan (Anas cygnus,) graygoose (A. anser,) teal (A. crecca,) duck (A. boschas,) raingoose, cormorant (Pelecanus carbo,) soland-goose (P. Bassanus,) gull (Larus canus, and marinus,) crane (Ardea grus.)

The domestic animals reared are, horses, black-cattle, and sheep, all of a very diminutive breed. The horses are well-shaped, hardy, and mettlesome, well adapted for carrying burdens of peat and ware through broken rugged ground, in creels suspended by the crook-saddle. The beef and mutton are of a superior quality.

The rivers contain well-flavoured trout in considerable numbers. Good salmon are caught, annually, on the Barvas river. They come up in June when access is open to them spawn towards the latter end of September, and return to the sea in the beginning of winter. Ling, cod, and dog-fish are sometimes fished. These, together with herring and every other variety of fish caught on the south side of the island, frequent this coast in great numbers; but the inhabitants are unable to benefit by them, without perilling their lives in the tempestuous ocean which surrounds them. With the exception of a very few days in summer and harvest, terrific surges, crested with foam, may be seen rolling to the shore, with unremitting violence.

The horse-fly and the common house-fly abound in their season; but the insect best known, from the torture it often inflicts, is a species of gnat commonly called the midge, which, without some safeguard covering on the face, will interrupt any out-door occupation. In such seasons of scarcity as the present, a great part of the sustenance of many of the natives for some weeks is the com- mon whelk, limpet, and crab,-the only shell-fish to be found on the coast.

Botany.-The botanist has here but little scope for his pursuits. Not a vestige of wood, or tree, and scarcely of a shrub except the wild heath, is visible on the surface of the earth. This gives the country a barren stunted appearance. Yet the deficiency cannot be altogether imputed to the poverty of the soil; for roots and trunks of fir, oak and hazel, with hazel-nuts, are frequently found imbedded in a great depth of moss, confirming the current opinion, that these northern countries, at some remote period, have undergone some sweeping and desolating revolution. Gardens, when properly cultivated, produce good culinary vegetables, and are capable of bringing fruit-bushes to maturity.

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