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


Name.—The parish of Stornoway is situated in the island of Lewis, and derives its name from the point of land on which the town of Stornoway is situated. Stròn, in the language of the country, signifies a nose, Stròn-a bhaigh, the nose of the bay. It appears that the ancient orthography of the word was Stronoway, from which, by the transposition of the letter r, comes the modern name of the town and parish. In Dean Monroe's account of Lewis, the name of the bay is written Steornoway; and in Martin’s history of the Western Isles, it is called Sternbay and Stornbay. In the former Statistical Account, the ancient name of the parish is said to have been Uy, which in the Danish language signifies an isthmus or neck of land. Certain it is, that the only place of worship in the parish was built on an isthmus. But, from time out of memory, the parish consisted of three districts, viz. Stornoway, Gress, and Ui. In each district, there was a place of worship erected and the mined walls of two chapels are still remaining, one at Ui, the other at Gress. It was only within the last forty years, that the ancient place of worship in Stornoway was levelled, for the purpose of building a safer and more commodious church for the increasing population. The church of Stornoway was dedicated to St Lennan, that of Ui to St Collum, and that of Gress to St Aula. In the district of Ui the ruins of another chapel are visible; it was dedicated to St Cowstan. All these churches were sanctuaries in ancient times, within the walls of which all criminals were safe. (Vide Martin's Account.) Extent.-The length of this parish from the water of Creid to north Tolsta, is fully 16 miles; its breadth from Tuimpan head, including the broad bay to the top of Mournack hill, is 10 miles; giving at least 160 square miles of land and water.

Boundaries.-It is bounded by the parish of Barvas and the district of Ness, on the north; on the east and north-east, by the channel between Lewis and the mainland called the Minch and by the parishes of Lochs and Uig, on the south and west. The figure of the parish is irregular; it has some similarity to an inverted Italian h, the straight line extending from the Creid to Tolsta, the bent limb from Tuimpan-head round Chicken-head to the castle. There is only one hill of any note in this parish; its name is Mournack, or Mounac. It lies between Barvas and Stornoway. Though the coast is bold and rocky in some parts, in general there is a gentle acclivity; the ascent is rarely abrupt. This hill is the first land visible to those who cross the Minch to Stornoway from the mainland; its elevation above the level of the sea does not exceed 700 feet; it is of a spheroidal shape; its range is north-east and south-west.

Caves, &c.-There are several caves and fissures on the coast; but three are particularly worthy of notice. One at Garra-ghuism on the farm of Coll, has two chambers with vaulted roofs, and a finely sanded door. The sides of the chambers are beautifully and closely studded with small mussels, which reflect a variety of colours, in a clear day, to the eye of the observer. The entrance is 8 feet high, by 14 feet broad or wide; depth and length within, 15 by 30 feet; it is accessible only at spring tides. There are two caves about the distance of an English mile from Gress House, both of which are spacious; but the Seal cave is the most remarkable in the island. It is about a furlong in length from the entrance to high water-mark in the interior. Its height and breadth are variable. The cave at the mouth, is about ten feet wide it gradually decreases to four feet in breadth and after this, it widens and terminates in a spacious semicircle, irregularly arched, and containing a deep basin of water. Here, the roof is very lofty, and resplendent when viewed by torch-light. Beyond the margin of the basin, is a sandy and gravelly beach, very pleasant and acceptable after such a dark navigation. There is a small apartment in the interior, which by torch-light produces a fine effect; the pearly icicles of satalactite suspended from the roof, reflect the light as from so many diamonds. The sides and roof of the cave are lined with this concreted matter. The natives, and strangers who have visited the cave, broke and carried away many of the finest icicles; but with a short respite, the plastic power of nature can restore the injury done by man. This cave had been the rendezvous of the seals which frequented the Broad bay for ages; great shoals of which were seen about the entrance, by fishermen and herdsmen from the tops of the rocks. Curiosity, and the hope of securing the seals, induced some of the people to enter, armed with iron shod clubs and torches. By guarding the entrance as much as possible, the work of destruction commenced within, and vast numbers of these animals were killed. For several years, there was, about the Michaelmas term, an annual visit of the seals to the cave but finding their retreat discovered, and themselves so much disturbed, they now seldom enter the spacious hall of their ancestors. Through the kind attentions of Lewis M‘Iver, Esq., tacksman of Gress, several strangers had an opportunity of visiting this wonderful cave. Its celebrity is increasing: and it is supposed to be only second to the spar cave in Skye. The icicles and crustation are similar; the mouths of the caverns front each other, though distant eighty miles. Coast, &c The sea-coast is much indented. It is bold and rocky in many places; and should a person walk along the shore, the beaches, and headlands, he would at least travel the extent of fifty miles in the parish. The shore, where the beach is flat, consists of beautiful sand, as the sands of Tong, Melbost, Ui, Coll, Gress, and Tolsta. Blue and red clay are found on some parts of the coast. Of the red clay, the indigenous islanders make vessels called Craggans, in which they keep their milk and carry water from the springs. Where the coast is bold and rugged, it consists of shelving rocks, which form an angle of small inclination, as in the bight of Shelwick below Gress: in other parts of the coast, they lie in an horizontal position. Kneess is a bold lofty perpendicular wall of puddingstone, many fathorns in height.

Bays.- The principal bays are Broad bay, Loch or bay of Stornoway, Loch Ure, Bayble and Tolsta bay. The Broad bay is not safe for stranger vessels, as there is a sunken reef branching from Gress to the Aird of Tong, and Isthmus of Ui; but vessels belonging to the island, and others, once acquainted with the mooring stations, are often sheltered here from the south and south-east winds. By moonlight, strangers are often deceived when going to the southward. The isthmus of Ui lies low, and is not 200 yards broad in some parts. The water in Loch Ui seems to be one continued sheet with the Broad bay. Several vessels have been wrecked in consequence of this illusion,-supposing they were sailing all the while between the Schante islands and the Harris land. The loch or bay of Stornoway is a safe harbour; two hundred vessels of any burden can safely anchor in it. The ground is good, and no heavy sea can injure vessels. The hills and town, which surround the harbour, shelter them from the west and north; the Point of Arnish and Island Gowell, form a breakwater and shelter, on the south. The headlands are five, Tolsta head, Kneess near Gress, Tuimpan-head, Chicken-head, and Holm-point. There are no islands of any size on the coast, in the parish; but there are two small ones at Holm and Island Gowell, at the mouth of the harbour of Stornoway.

Meteorology-- The temperature of the atmosphere is variable, the climate very rainy,-and the air extremely moist, insomuch that when a person walks by the sea side, in a hazy atmosphere and under a cloudy sky, the saline particles rest like dew on the pile of his coat. The dampness of the air is such, that in rooms wherein tires are not constantly kept, the walls emit a hoary down of a brinish taste, resembling pounded saltpetre, when brushed off. The climate is an enemy to polished iron and to books. Fire-irons rust in the space of twenty-four hours without constant fire; and books are covered with a greyish-yellow mould, unless frequently wiped. Frequent and heavy rains fall at all seasons, especially after the Lammas term, whereby the hopes of the husbandman are often blasted, and the fruit of his toil and industry in a great measure lost. But such a climate may be naturally expected in an island lying so far north, in latitude 58°, and surrounded by the Atlantic on the west and south; and by the Pentland Frith on the north-east. And though there are few high hills on the north-east part of the island, to break or attract the clouds, still the extensive and deep tract of moss, many miles in length and breadth, with the combined influence of a hundred fresh-water lakes, continually emitting exhalations, attract the passing clouds as effectually as lofty mountains do in other places. The drapery of the morning and evening clouds is strikingly rich and grand. The luminous meteors are uncommonly splendid. The halo around the moon is sometimes of a very large diameter, and is almost weekly visible, during the winter. The Aurora Borealis in brilliancy far surpasses any appearance of the kind seen on the mainland. The prevailing winds are the south-west and the west. They invariably bring torrents of rain, if continuing forty-eight hours from these points. The north and north-east winds are cold and dry, in the end of spring and beginning of summer; at the latter season they prevail for a month or six weeks; and if from the northeast the gardens are infested with caterpillars.

Diseases.-There is one peculiar distemper prevalent in this island, which seizes infants about the fifth night after their birth, and carries them off in convulsive fits. Alexander M‘Iver, Esq. surgeon, has favoured me with the following statement: The climate of Lewis is chiefly remarkable for its extreme humidity, and for the change which, within the last twenty years, has taken place in it, in regard to mildness. Even in winter, excessive cold is now unknown, it being a rare occurrence for snow to remain three successive days on the ground, although formerly this season was very frequently rigorous. The proximity of the western ocean, the mossy nature of the soil, and the almost invariable flatness of the surface, combine to impress these characters on the climate of this island. The diseases to which the inhabitants are most liable, are those which proceed from exposure to dampness and cold, as inflammatory diseases and those which are produced by the continued use of vegetable diet, such as dyspepsia and dropsy. These distempers, the unceasing hardships and toil to which the people are subjected from their youth, and the want of that vigour which nutritious food gives to the frame, being inimical to longevity, the lower classes, but more particularlv the male portion of them, may be said to die, in general, at an early age. The disease incident to infants, which is vulgarly called by the name of the fifth night’s sickness,’ is the Trismus infantum, or infant lock-jaw. It appears most frequently in mountainous districts, and seldom admits of cure.

Hydrography-Friths.-No Friths intersect the parish, but the Broad-bay, which, at the entrance between Tuimpan-head and Kneess, is four miles broad. It runs inland about ten miles and at spring tides, its water reaches within half a-mile of Stornoway to the north of Bay-head. Its colour is a dark green with a bluish tinge; its depth varies from four to twenty fathoms. Luminous globules appear on the surface when agitated; the fishermen’s oars at night seem of a golden brilliancy; and a flaming stream rushes from the helm of the vessel or boat. In shallow water on the sands of Tong, by the motion of my horse's feet, beautiful golden stars, of the size of half a-crown, are made to float on the surface, for a few seconds; these disappear, and are succeeded by others, often to the terror of the animal. It is probable these appearances arise from the decaying particles of fish which heat on the surface; and when the water is troubled, the air escaping forms a globule, which emits a phosphorescent light before it bursts. The brine must be strong, for the water left in shallow basins on the rocks is converted into salt, when the summer heat is strong. The current in the Broad-bay flows south and ebbs north, though in the Minch the flood is to the north, and the ebb to the south. Springs.-There are perennial springs in the parish, the water of which is most excellent; but many of the natives, rather than be at the trouble of for wells, drink messy and surface water. Martin relates, that the well St Cowstans in Garrabost never boils any kind of meat, however long subjected to the fire; and this holds true, I presume, of every water, when the fuel is wet and the fire of insufficient strength.

Lakes.-Lakes or lochs are numerous, and cover many acres; but the largest does not exceed three miles in circumference the greatest depth, two fathoms. The scenery is bleak and dreary. Water occupies 204 acres. There are six streams of considerable size in the parish, viz. the Creid, Laxdale, Tong, Upper and Nether Coll rivers, and the Gress. The course of the longest, from its source to the sea, is about ten miles. The Creid and Gress are the largest and most rapid. The velocity of these is seven miles an hour; breadth 30 feet depth 4 feet at low water. The tide enters all these. The Creid joins the sea in Loch Stornoway. Laxdale, Coll, Tong, and Gress, discharge their waters into the Broad bay.

Geology and Mineralogy.-The island of Lewis was not inappropriately compared to a gold laced hat in the former Statistical Account; for the cultivated parts of the coast bear the same proportion, as yet, to the bleak moss in the interior, as the gold lace on the rim of the hat, to the whole superficies of the chapeau. There is abundance of sand on the sea-shore; some clay, and a little lime at Garrabost. There is also a great appearance of hogiron, if we may judge from numerous chalybeate springs. There is a large whinstone dike with parallel walls, on the farm of Gress. It is supposed to run across the island, as a similar dike is seen at the Butt of Lewis on the north, and at Garrabost in a southerly direction. The peat is the best in the world, hard and black; when thoroughly dried, it gives light and heat equal to those of coals.

Soils. The soil is of different kinds, some sandy, gravelly, or of black earth,-but the greater part mossy,-all lying on a hard red clay bottom, so very impenetrable, that the pick will scarce pierce it. Moss, red clay, and sand, especially shelly sand, when properly mixed, drained, and well manured, make good soil, and give a fair crop. But the wet winters and springs take the pith out of the soil. The rain is not absorbed rapidly by the red clay tilly bottom; and when the field is a flat level, it is quite inundated; and where it slopes, the soil is gradually washed away from the top of the field to the bottom. The plants most frequently found in the arable ground are the sorrel, Rumex acetosella, sealbhag, thistle, carduus, cluaran, chickweed, mouse-ear, cerastium, horse-tail, equisetum, and wincopipe. The island of Lewis is a full century behind other parts of Scotland, in agricultural and domestic improvements, the town and inhabitants of Stornoway excepted, and a few tacksmen. With respect to agricultural improvement, it is the most backward of all the Hebrides. A great deal has been done, during the last twelve years, by consuming the moss, draining and trenching; and if these operations be continued with vigour, very great improvement may be expected.

Zoology-- Many animals common in other places are unknown in this parish, viz. frogs, toads, foxes, and partridges. One frog was thrown, last summer, on the quay, from the hold of a ship which brought potatoes from the mainland, and curiosity brought many to see the reptile stranger. Serpents, two feet long and one inch diameter, are frequently met with by herds, in the moors. They sting or bite the cattle, by which they swell, and sometimes die. The usual cure for this swelling, is water in which the preserved head of a serpent has been put, and which is given to the animal affected, and its whole body washed with it. When serpents are killed, their heads are chopped off and preserved for this purpose. The Linnaean second class of natural history, viz. Aves, is complete here. The six orders are found: Accipitres, or the falcon-kind; Picae, sea-pies; Anseres, Grallae, Gallinae, and Passeres. Eagles, falcons, and hawks are numerous; the raven and grey carrion crow are destructive to lambs and weak sheep. I lately saw two ravens rest on a sheep’s back while the animal was feeding; pierce a hole above the hind haunch, and pull out the intestines before it fell. The wild goose, rain-goose, swan, teal-duck, common wild duck and drake, wigeon, sheldrake, puffins, guillemots, solan goose, plover, wild pigeons, and grouse in abundance are found here. A few robins, numerous larks, thrushes and starlings. The cuckoo visits us, but makes a very short stay. The sand-martin is the only one of the swallow tribe that visits the island the songsters of the grove are few. The common house-sparrow, Fringilla domestica, has only of late visited the island. There are two pair just now in Stornoway, hatching. The gardens miss them very much, for the caterpillar, which has been unknown in this parish twenty years ago, is now a great plague. If this small bird could thrive in Stornoway, it would be a considerable boon, for it has been found, by actual observation, that two sparrows carried to their nest forty caterpillars, in an hour. The late Lord Seaforth imported partridges, but they are now extinct. Whether they were killed, died, or did not like the climate, is uncertain. The hares which were brought along with them, are very numerous. The black-cattle, horses, and sheep, are rather of a diminutive size. They are too numerous by one-half a small tenant that pays annually L. 8 Sterling, keeps seven or eight beasts. One farm yields L. 40 of rent. It is occupied by ten families, who have eighty head of cattle, miserable starved beasts. In winter, they can gather very little pasture on the moor; and during snow, they are driven to the shore to feed on ware, Alga marina. It is a mistaken kindness in the proprietor to permit the small tenants to keep so many beasts, for one would be better than two; it would be better fed, and bring more cash at the tryst. The farmers or tacksmen keep a larger breed of horses for riding and for the cart; but, in general, the horses are not much higher than the Shetland ponies. They are firm and strong, fit for the mossy soil and rocky shore. Their principal work is in carrying peats and sea-ware in creels, one hung on each side from the crook-saddle. Many of them are of beautiful symmetry (Mr S. McKenzie sent four from Lewis to his late Majesty George IV. as a present, and a specimen of insular strength and symmetry in small compass, “mulltum in parco”). The sheep are principally of the black-faced breed, rather small; but the mutton good, and very sweet; and Lewis beef, when for a short time on mainland pasture, is proverbial for delicacy and fineness. Hogs are not numerous, as the natives have a strong antipathy to them and their flesh. More swine and fewer horned cattle would be more profitable for a Lewis man, in the present state of the market; because, for his two year old stots, he will sometimes not get above L. 1; and for a pig one year old, he will get the same, and a ready market for ship stores. Besides, one pig for making manure is better than two stots. Black cattle are sold from L. 1 to L. 6 per head; sheep from L 3. to 10s. per head; -lambs from ls. 6d. to 4s. 6d. horses from L. 3 to L. 7 of the small kind,-others used by the farmers from L. 10 to L. 20. The fresh water lochs are numerous, and contain black trout of a small size. In the three rivers, the Creid, Tong, and Gress, a few salmon and sea-trout are caught, by the trawl.

Insects.-The common fly is here abundant; and the midge or Hebridian musquito is most annoying before rain. Out-door labourers find it impossible to work, without being veiled. Bees in general are not numerous; there are only three hives in the island; the first was imported three years ago from Ferrintosh, and they have not increased much. Wet winters and springs drown the wild bees’ nests. The bees most commonly met with, are the Apis muscorum, or cording-bee, and the Apis lapidaria or red-tailed bee. It is really surprising to find any field or wild honey here, since Flora's flowery mantle is so very bare. There are very few fruit trees in the parish to be a prey to insects.

Shellfish.-At Tong, Coll, Gress, and Melbost sands, in the broad bay, a great variety of shell-lish is found;-clams, mussels, limpets, whelks, razor-fish, and cockles. ’All these kinds are found on the Melbost sands, after a severe storm. The natives expect a bursting of the shellfish banks, once in seven years; then, immense masses are thrown up and found at low water; but this bursting happens oftener than once in the seven years. The reporter has seen huge heaps thrown ashore, twice during that period,-which employed many carts and creels, for several days, in carrying them away for food and manure; the sea-fowl screaming for the depredations committed on their provision and territory. In the sands of Tong, fine large blue cockles are found, very little inferior to oysters. Scores of children are employed gathering them for the hand-line bait; the fishers parboil them; they adhere well to the hook, and the fish seem ‘to relish them. Lobsters are caught and sold at 4d. each. Limpets and the whelk or common buckie are fished in deep water, and sold to the cod smacks for bait at 6d. per peck. The manner of fishing them in deep water, where the tide does not fall much, is this: Two men or boys go out with their boat, having as many cod heads as they can collect. A cord is drawn through the lip, and fastened so that the head may not slip off. Another head is similarly fastened at the distance of one yard or fathom, according to the number of heads used, and the length of the line; the whole line then run out, sunk, and allowed to remain for an hour or two. Afterwards, they begin to raise the heads, and scrape off the buckies which stick to the cod's head,-which is then, again let down, as near to the same spot as may be, for many more whelks were on their way to the feast, that could not be accommodated at the first course,-but in succession these are taken by the process now described. The boatmen are kept busy while they remain. Botany.- Nature has not been bountiful to this region, in regard to plants. The scarcity of money prevents the natives from purchasing various articles which might lessen their labour in do- mestic purposes, especially in the dyeing of wearing apparel and blankets. Till of late, and even now, the dyes in use are made from Erica or heather, or from Senecio jacobaea, common ragwort. These boiled with woollen yarn make a yellow dye, or ground for blue. Both these bind the colour, so that the blue colour improves when washed. The Tormentilla reptans, trailing tormentil or Bar-braonan-nan-con cbact-bhlar, is used for barking herring-nets and hides for leather. The Tussilago hybrida, butter-bur, or gallan-mor, and Rumex acetosella, sorrel or sealbhag, are used for a black dye. Dr M‘Iver, before-mentioned, gives me the following notice: The medicinal plants discovered in this island have been so very few, and the quantity in which they were found so trifling, that they are wholly undeserving of notice. Indeed heather, of which there are many, kinds, seems to be the only indigenous production of its soil." All the culinary plants in common use, in other parts of Scot- land, can be raised, if the soil be previously enriched, and due attention paid to the cultivation. Mugwort and wild spinagc, betony, colts-foot, Plantaga major (baash phadice,) Plantago lan- ceolata, ribwort, plantain or slan-lus, are occasionally used for healing external and internal bruises. There is scarcely any wood in the island, except a few bark- hound birches in the parish of Lochs. A few trees, for trial, were planted on a burn-side, Alta-na-brog; near Seaforth These seem in a thriving state; but they are sheltered. Out of Stornoway, there is scarcely anything like a tree seen, except a few wil- lows in gardens, and even these bccome stunted when they overtop the wall. The greater part of the island seems to have been wooded in ancient times, as roots of trees are dug out of the moss hazel nut shells are found, when the people cut their peats, at the depth of 154 feet. According to tradition, the Norwegians, to monopolize the timber trade, had set all the wood on fire, when they landed in the North Hebrides. But another account is more probable, which bears, that, when the invaders were often surprised by the natives lying in ambush and sallying forth upon them, they burnt the woods that they might see their opponents at a distance in open field, and attack them in aperto loco.

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