The Isle of Islay in 1703

From the book 'A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland' by Martin Martin

Martin Martin was a native Gaelic speaker from Skye who, in the 1690s, became convinced of the need for a first hand account of the society, the culture and the natural history of the Western Isles. He visited and mapped St Kilda in 1697, part of a larger project with John Adair to map the Hebrides more fully. The most important outcome of his travels was the publication in 1703 of his classic book: A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland.

Martin's book stayed in print for over a century after its initial publication, assisting later travellers like Thomas Pennant, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson. The book was revived, with a special edition being printed in 1884 as background for the members of the Napier Commission or the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands. It has since been republished in 1934, 1970, 1999 and, to mark the tercentenary of its original publication, in 2003. Martin Martin disappeared from sight for some time after the publication of his book. He reappeared when he registered to study medicine at Leiden University Netherlands in March 1710. After graduating, he practiced as a doctor in London until his death in 1719.

The Isle of Islay

The Isle of Islay lies to the west of Jura, from which it is separated by a narrow channel; it is twenty four miles in length from south to north, and eighteen from east to west; there are some little mountains about the middle on the east side. The coast is for the most part heathy and uneven, and by consequence not proper for village; the north end is also full of heaths and hills. The south-west and west is pretty well cultivated, and there is six miles between Killarow on the west, and Port Escock in the east, which is arable and well inhabited. There is about one thousand little hills on this road, and all abound with limestone; among which there is lately discovered a lead mine in three different places, but it has not turned to any account as yet. The corn growing here is barley and oats.

There is only one harbour in this isle, called Loch Indaal; it lies near the north end, and is of a great length and breadth; but the depth being in the middle, few vessels come within half a league of the land side.

There are several rivers in this isle affording salmon. The fresh-water lakes are well stocked with trouts; eels, and some with salmons: as Loch-Gorm, which is four miles in circumference, and hath several forts built on an island that lies in it.

Loch Finlaggan, about three miles in circumference, affords salmon, trouts, and eels: this lake lies in the centre of the isle. The isle Finlaggan, from which this lake hath its name, is in it. It is famous for being once the court in which the great Macdonald, King of the Isles, had his residence; his houses, chapel, etc., are now ruinous. His guards de corps, called Lucht-taeh, kept guard on the lake side nearest to the isle; the walls of their houses are still to be seen there.

The High Court of Judicature, consisting of fourteen, sat always here; and there was an appeal to them from all the Courts in the isles: the eleventh share of the sum in debate was due to the principal judge. There was a big stone of seven feet square, in which there was a deep impression made to receive the feet of Macdonald; for he was crowned King of the Isles standing in this stone, and swore that he would continue his vassals in the possession of their lands, and do exact justice to all his subjects: and then his father's sword was put into his hand. The Bishop of Argyll and seven priests anointed him king, in presence of all the heads of the tribes in the isles and continent, and were his vassals; at which time the orator rehearsed a catalogue of his ancestors, etc.

There are several forts built in the isles that are in fresh-water lakes, as in Ilan-Loch-Guirn, and Ilan-Viceain; there is a fort called Dunnivag in the south-west side of the isle, and there are several caves in different places of it. The largest that I saw was in the north end, and is called Vah-Vearnag; it will contain 200 men to stand or sit in it. There is a kill for drying corn made on the east side of it; and on the other side there is a wall built close to the side of the cave, which was used for a bed-chamber; it had a fire on the floor, and some chairs about it, and the bed stood close to the wall. There is a stone without the cave door, about which the common people make a tour sunways.

A mile on the south-west side of the cave is the celebrated well called Toubir in Knahar, which in the ancient language is as much as to say, the well that sallied from one place to another: for it is a received tradition among the vulgar inhabitants of this isle, and the opposite isle of Colonsay, that this well was first in Colonsay, until an imprudent woman happened to wash her hands in it, and that immediately after, the well being thus abused, came in an instant to Islay, where it is like to continue, and is ever since esteemed a catholicon for diseases by the natives and adjacent islanders; and the great resort to it is commonly every quarter-day.

It is common with sick people to make a vow to come to the well, and after drinking, they make a tour sunways round it, and then leave an offering of some small token, such as a pin, needle, farthing, or the like, on the stone cover which is above the well. But if the patient is not like to recover, they send a proxy to the well, who acts as above-mentioned, and carries home some of the water to be drank by the sick person.

There is a little chapel beside this well, to which such as had found the benefit of the water, came back and returned thanks to God for their recovery.

There are several rivers on each side this isle that afford salmon. I was told by the natives that the Brion of Islay, a famous judge, is according to his own desire, buried standing on the brink of the river Laggan, having in his right hand a spear, such as they use to dart at the salmon.

There are some isles on the coast of this island, as Island Texa on the south-west, about a mile in circumference; and island Ouirsa, a mile likewise in circumference, with the small isle called Nave.

The Names of the Churches in this Isle are as follows: Kil-Chollim Kill, St. Columbus his church near Port Escock, Kil-Chovan in the Rins, on the west side the isle; Kil-Chiaran in Rins, on the west side Nerbols in the Rins, St. Columbus his church in Laggan, a chapel in island Nave, and Kilhan Alen, north-west of Kilrow. There is a cross standing near St. Columbus's or Port Escock side, which is ten feet high. There are two stones set up at the east side of Loch-Finlagan, and they are six feet high. All the inhabitants are Protestants; some among them observe the festivals of Christmas and Good Friday. They are well proportioned and indifferently healthful. The air here is not near so good as that of Jura, from which it is but a short mile distant; but Islay is lower and more marshy, which makes it liable to several diseases that do not trouble those of Jura. They generally speak the Irish tongue; all those of the best rank speak English; they use the same habit and diet with those of Jura. This isle is annexed to the Crown of Scotland. Sir Hugh Campbell of Caddell is the King's steward there, and has one half of the island. This isle is reckoned the furthest west of all the isles in Britain. There is a village on the west coast of it called Cul, i.e., the back part; and the natives say it was so called because the ancients thought it the back of the world, as being the remotest part on that side of it. The natives of Islay, Colonsay, and Jura say that there is an island lying to the southwest of these isles, about the distance of a day's sailing, for which they have only a bare tradition. Mr. MacSwen, present minister in the isle Jura, gave me the following account of it, which he had from the master of an English vessel that happened to anchor at that little isle, and came afterwards to Jura, which is thus:

As I was sailing some thirty leagues to the southwest of Islay, I was becalmed near a little isle, where I dropped anchor and went ashore. I found it covered all over with long grass. There was abundance of seals lying on the rocks and on the shore; there is likewise a multitude of sea-fowls in it; there is a river in the middle, and on each side of it I found great heaps of fish bones of many sorts; there are many planks and boards cast up upon the coast of the isle, and it being all plain, and almost level with the sea, I caused my men (being then idle) to erect a heap of the wood about two stories high; and that with a design to make the island more conspicuous to seafaring men. This isle is four English miles in length, and one in breadth. I was about thirteen hours sailing between this isle and Jura. Mr. John MacSwen, above mentioned, having gone to the isle of Colonsay some few days after, was told by the inhabitants that from an eminence near the monastery in a fair day they saw as it were the top of a little mountain in the south-west sea, and that they doubted not but it was land, though they never observed it before. Mr. MacSwen was confirmed in this opinion by the account above-mentioned; but when summer was over, they never saw this little hill, as they called it, any more; the reason which is supposed to be this, that the high winds in all probability has cast down the pile of wood that forty seamen had erected the preceding year in that island, which, by reason of the description above recited, we may aptly enough call the Green Island.

Islay History | Standing Stones | Finlaggan | Islay Carved Stones | The Campbells | Walter Campbell | John Francis Campbell | Islay Clearances | Leaving Islay | Islay Genealogy | Islay in 1703 | 1869 Baptist Letter | Islay Shipwrecks | Exmouth Tragedy | Troopship Tuscania | Otranto and Tuscania | Dougie MacDougall | Ferry History | Cultoon and Ballinaby | Sunderland Flying Boat Tragedy | Kilchoman Bards


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