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The Underground Life

David MacRitchie

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Tags: Great Britain

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The Underground Life by Scottish folklorist David MacRitchie was first published in 1892. In the book, MacRitchie discusses 'Scallags'; a group of men who lived 'in caves and dens of the earth' of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. He gives detailed evidence of this by way of historical accounts.

This book has 32 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1892.

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Excerpt from The Underground Life

In his Travels in the Western Hebrides: from 1782 to 1790, the Rev. John Lane Buchanan, ‘A.M., Missionary Minister to the Isles from the Church of Scotland’, has much to say of the wrongs and sufferings undergone at that time by ‘an unfortunate and numerous class of men known under the name of Scallags.’  This term is the Gaelic scalag or sgalag, signifying ‘a servant’ or, more primitively, ‘a slave’; and indeed Buchanan clearly regards this latter definition as best describing the condition of those people. ‘The scallags,’ he says, ‘are slaves de facto, though not de jure.’  ‘The slave is driven on to labour by stripes, so also is the scallag; who is even formally tied up on some occasions, as well as the negroe, to a stake, and scourged on his bare back.’ Very significant, too, is Buchanan’s testimony to the good nature of a certain minister in North Uist, of whom he says : ‘Never was the minister and tacksman [lease-holder] of Ty-Gheary known to kick, beat, or scourge, or in any shape to lift his hand against his scallags in the whole course of his life.’ Further evidence of the mean condition of this servile caste is afforded in these words: ‘The scallag, whether male or female, is a poor being, who, for mere subsistence, becomes a predial slave to another, whether a sub-tenant, a tacksman, or a laird. The scallag builds his own hut with sods and boughs of trees; and if he is sent from one part of the country to another, he moves off his sticks, and, by means of these, forms a new hut in another place.’ Sometimes, however, these wretched people, fleeing from the tyranny of the dominant caste, sought refuge in a different kind of habitation. ‘The only asylum for the distressed in the Long Island is the King’s forest, where severals are sheltered with their families and cattle for the Summer season; where they live in caves and dens of the earth, and subsist, without fire, on milk, the roots of the earth, and shell-fish. But in the Winter season cold and famine drive them back again to seek for subsistence and shelter under the same tyranny that had driven them to the forest.’

It is not unlikely that this caste of ‘slaves’ had inherited the blood of a different race from that of their masters, by whose forefathers their own had been subjugated. At any rate it is quite clear that, in one respect, they represented a way of living once followed in most parts of the British Islands, and indeed throughout the world. This was when they dwelt ‘in caves and dens of the earth’; and it is, in fact, for the sake of their dwellings rather than for themselves that I have here introduced the scallags of the Outer Hebrides.

By the word ‘cave,’ however, we need not necessarily infer a natural excavation. It is the common usage of Irish archaeologists to apply this term to underground structures of a wholly artificial character. An illustration of this usage will be seen in an interesting note on ‘Artificial Caves, Co. Antrim,’ by the Rev. Canon Moore, in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, where the ‘cave’ in question is an underground gallery corresponding to the ‘weems,’ or ‘earth-houses’ of Scotland. The Scotch terra, ‘weera,’ really illustrates also this comprehensive rendering of ‘cave,’ because ‘weem’ is simply a quickened pronunciation of the Gaelic uaim, ‘a cave.’

The way in which these places were made seems to have been this: First of all a deep trench or passage was dug, usually widening out at one end in varying shapes and degrees, and of very considerable length in some instances. Then its sides were lined with walls of unhewn and un-mortared stone, and the roof was formed by gradually approaching the upper tiers of the walls together until they almost met, when large slabs placed above them by way of keystone completed the whole. In some cases where the trench was only a long narrow passage, the walls rose up perpendicularly, and the roof was made by placing broad slabs horizontally across. At other times, a row of tall upright stones was placed on either side of the passage, and these inclined together at the top, so as to render any superimposed flag-stones almost or altogether unnecessary. But where the gallery widened into a chamber, such methods as the two last indicated could not be followed, and the only available plan left to those primitive builders was to bring the opposite sides gradually together in the manner described, so as to form a kind of arch—what is known as a ‘cyclopean’ arch. Sometimes where the space to be covered in was wide, and the roof was not intended to be high (as it seldom was), the area of roofing was circumscribed by introducing a concentric circle of pillars, forming in fact a rude cloister. But this seems to have been exceptional.

Writing in 1831, Logan gives the following account of these structures:—

‘In the North of Scotland numerous artificial caves are found, of a construction resembling those in Ireland. They are called Eird-houses in the Low Country, and are considered as the hiding-places of the aborigines. They are sometimes of considerable extent, being long and narrow; but many, to render the size more commodious, have in subsequent periods been built up at the farther end. The sides are usually built of small [?] stones, without cement, and the roof is composed of large thin stones resting on either side. The entrance to most of them appears now only a rude hole or opening, but some are more artificial. Near Tongue, in Sutherland, are some where the passage is formed by large stones inclined to and resting on each other.

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