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‘He shot a sea bird, and we landed on a sand bank where I obtained specimens of shell fish. In the evening we reached Kyles of Uist.’

William MacGillivray was Scotland’s foremost 19th century ornithologist. Aged just 21, on the verge of his career as an outstanding naturalist and bird artist, he left Aberdeen to spend a year at his childhood home at Northton on the Hebridean island of Harris. In that year he kept a detailed journal that provides a rare insight into rural life in Scotland.

Extract from Travels With A Hebridean Naturalist
By William MacGillivray
Edited by Dr Robert Ralph

Published by Acair

North Town, Tuesday, 14th October, 1817

On Sunday, the 5th, I left Luachar about mid day. As the deer lay near the way I intended to take, I proposed to decapitate them, & carry the spoils on my back to North town, and this I did. Ewen accompanied me as far as Strom nan Scurt, a prodigious rock in the pass of Miavag. Between this and Tarbert, the road, or rather rout, for there is scarcely any appearance of a foot path, lay over hills and heaths, rivers and bogs. The Common Ling is the predominant plant in these regions. The sun had set before I reached Tarbert, and night fell long before I attained the summit of Benluskentir. In course I made but slow progress upon the hill; and it was after twelve when I found myself seated upon a chair in my bedroom at North town.

On the evening of Monday the 6th word came from Rodell that Miss Jessy Macdonald of Ord, a cousin of Mrs McGillivray’s, had arrived from Skye, my uncle in consequence went to meet her. I should have gone, had not my late journey put me completely out of trim. Mr Finlay MacRae came to the house in the dusk. The evening was spent agreeably. We conversed upon poetry and religion, and drank a little Rum punch.

On Tuesday, the 7th, my uncle arrived in the morning with Miss MacDonald, and Mr Finlay departed. After breakfast, I accompanied my uncle to Ard Nisbost, where there was to be an exhibition of stallions. Here I saw Messrs Stewart, Torrie, McKinlay, D. McLellan, Archd. Stewart & McLean the schoolmaster. Stewart gave me leave to shoot a deer. My uncle, the Doctor, and I are to form a party, on our way we called at Borve.

On Thursday, the 9th I was sent for by Duncan MacLellan of Ensay to visit a sick servant of his. As my uncle was anxious that I should go, I gave my assent. On the way I met my aunt MarciIla, with two of her children, from Glasgow. On arriving at Ensay I found a robust woman in her bed, senseless, motionless, speechless – pulse regular, slow and weak, breathing apparently easy. She had been but lately delivered of her first child, had gone out the evening before, taken milk at the fold, returned, sickened and complained of intense pain in her head. She had not spoken since ten o’ clock of the preceding night, a lancet was thrust into her arm and about eight ounces of blood obtained. Shortly after she revived, spoke quite sensibly, recognized her friends, said she felt easy, excepting that she had a slight pain in her forehead. By the bye, a little gruel and whisky with caraway seeds had been given immediately after the bleeding. About nine at night she became delirious, and ten or twelve ounces of blood were taken. This again restored her to her senses. I lodged with Duncan – we played at cards. On the morning of Friday I got over to Kyles in Archibald Campbell’s boat, and reached North town about nine o’ clock.

On Saturday, the 11th my uncle and I sailed through the islands of Ensay on our way to Berneray. He shot a sea bird, and we landed on a sand bank where I obtained specimens of shell fish. In the evening we reached Kyles of Uist. The family here consists of Mr & Mrs McNiel, Masters William & Ewen and Miss Mary – The good man is a polite, well-formed, agreeable man, about fifty – He is suspected however of dishonesty, and does not bear a good character in regard to equity and humanity. Mrs McNiel is of the same age, has a curious phiz, (face) semicircular in profile, a rough voice, and not very agreeable manner – though she is said to have been handsome. This I deny: for her face, and person are quite at variance with the laws of proportion. Miss Mary is a pale faced, wry-necked, ackward girl – poor creature! She looked like one dying of love, or troubled with amenorrhoea. As to William & Ewen, the latter is a boy, the former a gigantic raw-boned, rough, illiterate, impolite yet good hearted: and possibly honest fellow.

On Sunday, some business brought my uncle to the preaching – at about three miles distance from Kyles. Mr MacNiel and I accompanied him. Mr MacRae preached. The meeting house was thatched: yet having some good seats, and being well filled with a very decent and well-dressed congregation, appeared far superior to our parish church in Harris. After sermon Mr MacRae treated us with a mutchkin of aqua-vita. We returned  in the evening. Mr MacNiel and my uncle retired to a tippling house at Kyles, while I walked into the parlour or dining-room, for it is both. Here I found Mary, and spoke a little to her.


Travels With A Hebridean Naturalist by William MacGillivray is out now published by Acair priced £15.00.

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