The first travel writer in the Scottish Highlands was Martin Martin, who wrote: ‘A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland’, published in 1703. There had been earlier works describing the region (such as Dean Munro and Robert Boyle). Still, these were more catalogues of the natural environment and trading output of the remote islands.
Martin Martin was born in Skye and advanced in education to the stage of graduating from Edinburgh University, where he continued to live and work as a private tutor and governor to the son of the clan chief of Harris. He later moved to Holland and then to London, where he met Hans Sloane, the secretary of the Royal Society, who became something of a patron. Martin Martin as a man of culture and education, yet a Gaelic-speaking native of the Isles, was seen as the ideal commentator on a region of the British Isles that had only recently come to the attention of the Natural Philosophers of the recently formed Royal Society.
He undertook several trips and wrote them up in the Society’s journal Philosophical Transactions. In 1698 he published the book ‘A Voyage to Saint Kilda’ which was well received and led to the eventual publication of ‘A Description of the Western Islands’ some five years later.
In 1703 Queen Anne was on the throne as monarch of the Union. This situation was beginning to become somewhat fractious as the Scottish Parliament tried, in the Act of Security of 1703, to reassert the nation’s right to choose its own monarch. At the same time, the Westminster parliament was working toward the Union of Parliaments in the knowledge that the failure of the Darien Scheme had irreparably damaged the Scottish parliament’s financial solvency. Martin Martin seems, in his writing, to be oblivious to the tensions between the two parliaments and underlying clan realignments stemming from the early seeds of Jacobitism forming in the political class.
Martin Martin was very much on the fringe of the scientific elite and, though he had the sponsorship of Sloane and was accepted at the dining tables of the respected members of the Royal Society, always went to great pains to emphasise his scientific approach and adherence to the facts to underline the credibility of his work. In a sense, his insecurity makes it easier for us, his readers, to be confident that he is a reliable narrator.
However, Martin Martin cannot resist adding elements of human interest to his descriptions of the islands. For example, when describing the clay of the rivers in Skye, he heads off on a tangent about the efficacy of a certain stone he calls “Lapis Ceranius” that the locals call the Cramp-Stone and use to cure the cramp in cows. The description suggests that the stones are some form of a fossilised shell.
Further on in his description, he describes the herring fisheries in general economic terms, describing the size of the catch and locations of the fleet. But here, he cannot resist telling some folk tradition behind the basic practicalities of this essential economic activity.
The ﬁshers and others told me that there is a big herring almost double the size of any of its kind, which leads all that are in a bay, and the shoal follows it wherever it goes. This leader is by the ﬁshers called the king of herring, and when they chance to catch it alive, they drop it carefully into the sea; for they judge it petty treason to destroy a ﬁsh of that name. The ﬁshers say that all sorts of ﬁsh, from the greatest to the least, have a leader, who is followed by all of its kind.
It is a general observation all Scotland over, that if a quarrel happen on the coast where herring is caught, and that blood be drawn violently, then the herring go away from the coast, without returning during that season. This, they say, has been observed in all past age, as well as at present; but this I relate only as a common tradition, and submit it to the judgment of the learned.
For the most part, though, the first commercially published travel writer sticks to a straightforward descriptive narrative of the regions he visits with a detached and scientific eye and an awareness of the opportunities that are presented that his readers might think to exploit in the future describing reserves of coal and useful minerals that may be better utilised by more sophisticated folk than the “vulgar inhabitants”. Though the book is written from a superior attitude referring to Gaelic as “the ancient language”, I think that Martin Martin did respect the local inhabitants as equals to himself. However, some of the tales stretch the limits of credibility to an uncomfortable degree.
And so we come to the meat of the dish, where Martin Martin devoted a chapter to a description of the Second Sight. As a native of Skye, he was familiar with several locals reputed to possess the gift. He described the various types and classes of visions with their interpretations in the same uncritical way that he had earlier described the rocks and soils of the landscape. Adult people can become seers, wrote Martin Martin, and babies and young children, cattle and indeed horses, evidenced in their behaviour.
That horses see it is likewise plain from their starting, when the rider or seer in company with him sees a vision of any kind, night or day. It is observable of the horse, that he will not go forward that way, until he be led about at some distance from the common road, and then he is in a sweat. A horse fastened by the common road on the side of Loch Skeriness in Skye, did break his rope at noonday, and ran up and down without the least visible cause. But two of the neighbourhood that happened to be at a little distance and in view of the horse, did at the same time see a considerable number of men about a corpse directing their course to the church of Snizort; and this was accomplished within a few days after by the death of a gentlewoman who lived thirteen miles from that church and came from another parish from whence very few came to Snizort to be buried.
The chapter continues to describe numerous examples of the Second Sight as seen by the author himself and reported to him “by persons of as great integrity as any are in the world”.
From the twenty-first century perspective in a much more sceptical and uncertain world, it is hard to believe these stories that are clearly believed by Martin Martin some three hundred years ago. Even then, knowing of the critical approach of his readership, the author spent time arguing through the possible objections we ourselves might raise to his reports.
When you visit the North Highlands and perhaps find yourself in Skye, you may well find that your doubts begin to fade as you absorb the mysterious landscape into your own soul. It is a mysterious place where strange things are possible.