On the Natural History of Lewis, 1865-66

A paper published by The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Session 1865-66 (Vol 5), on the natural history of Lewis. However complete it may have been at the time, this cannot be taken as fully accurate now – rabbits and frogs now abound in some districts, for example. The substantial bird list and commentary has its own page here.

On the Natural History of Lewis
by Professor Duns, DD, FRSE


Comparatively little attention has been given to the natural history of Lewis. Stray notices of the geology, botany, and zoology of the Outer Hebrides are to be met with, but, with one or two exceptions, these are not of much value. Martin’s ‘Description of the Western Islands (1703)’ is chiefly interesting for its full account of the industrial and moral conditions of the people. Little, however, can be made of his incidental references to the natural history of the islands.

Two volumes if the ‘Economical History of the Hebrides’ by Rev Dr Walker, Professor of Natural History in the University of Edinburgh, were published in 1808, after Dr Walker’s death. This work contains a good deal of information on indigenous plants, but almost none on zoology. Dr Maculloch’s ‘Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (3 vols, 1819)’ is in every way an abler and better work than either of the two now names. Its notices of the geology and mineralogy of the Outer Hebrides are even still valuable.

The only other work calling for notice here is the late Mr James Wilson’s ‘Voyage round the Coast of Scotland and the Isles (2 vols, 1842)’. Mr Wilson spent a short time at Stornoway, but the work contains only one brief reference to the zoology of the district. He names starlings, redbreasts, larks, thrushes and sand-martens as the only land birs seen by him near that town.

In addition to these works, there are several separate papers ont he natural history of the Long Island, which should be names. Two were published by the late Professor Macgillivray, in the second volume of the ‘Edinburgh Journal of Natural and Geographical Science (1819)’ and another by Mr John Macgillivray, on the ‘Zoology of the Hebrides’ in the ‘Annals of Natural History (vol viii, 1840)’.

These papers are chiefly devoted to the zoology of Harris, and are very imperfect. In teh ‘Transactions of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh (1841),’ Dr Balfour published a very complete list of the plants of the ‘Outer Hebrides and Skye.’ Captain Thomas’s interesting paper of ‘The Geologic Age of the Pagen Monuments of the Outer Hebrides (Proc Royal Phys Soc, 1862),’ contains valuable particulars as the supposed rate of growth of peat, changes itn eh surface deposits of the localities referred to, &c.

Zoology of Lewis in 1865-66

I visited Lewis last summer, chiefly with the view of looking at its zoology and surface geology. In the present paper, attention is limited to the mammals, birds, reptiles and land mollusca.

These lists are not a little suggestive, when regarded from the point of view of the geographical distribution of animals. Taking into account the climatal condition of Lewis, its relation to the mainland and to the islands of the Outer Hebrides group, it will be seen that its fauna contains forms which could scarcely have been looked for there, and that others are absent which we might have expected to find. Its climate is comparatively mild, and not so humid as many believe. The mean annual temperature is 46°5′ F and the average annual rainfall is not more than 30.2 inches. The greatest cold is seldom more than 35°F and the greatest heat 65°F.


In the list of Mammalia:


The Mustelidae are represented by two genera, Lutra and Martes.

Weasel, Stoat and Polecat

It is, however, remarkable, that neither the common weasel, the stoat nor the polecat should be met with in a locality which still shelters one of the least common Scottish forms of this family – the rapidly decreasing Martes foina [common martin].
This animal, whose skin still sells at a price varying from 14s. to 20s., occurs in Sir James Matheson’s deer forest, Mhorsgail.


Under the family Phocidae,

Seal and Grey Seal

The common seal and the grey seal are named as known to breed on the west coast of Lewis. When Martin visited the district more than 160 years ago, he wrote – “Seals are eaten by the vulgar, who find them to be as nourishing as beef and mutton.”


Two species of Muridae occur

Common Mouse and the Norway Rat

The common mouse and the Norway rat. In almost all other districts these species are found associated with the shrews, the voles, and the field mouse, none of which are met with in Lewis.

Alpine Hares

It is curious, too, that while the common and Alpine hares abound, there are no rabbits. Several attempts to introduce them have failed.

Fox, Hedgehog, Mole and Badger

The fox, hedgehog, mole and badger are also absent, yet these, I believe, all occur in Skye.

The number of species of Mammalia which fall to be associated with Lewis is thirteen. In the same way the number of species of birds is 110. Many of these, however, are occasional visitors. The number of reptiles is one, and of land mollusca seven. A careful examination may add some forms to the last; but I do not anticipate that the list of birds will have many names added.


This section has its own page here.


Common Adder

Under Reptilia, I have set down the common adder; but its occurrence in Lewis is apocryphal, though assured by several that they had seen what must have been an adder.

The Slow Worm

The only reptile is the slow worm, of which the people have a great and superstitious dread, though it is perfectly harmless.

The frog, The toad and The Newt

The frog, the toad and the newt are absent. On this account, the people call Lewis a blessed country, in being so free from the evil creatures that about in the south.

From the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol 5.

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