Fore front of the Weavers' House near Bowmore on the Island of Islay, by James Miller.

The Weaver's Cottage in Islay

The members of Joseph Banks' voyage to Iceland in 1772 did not have to travel far to see the unusual. A humble dwelling on the Hebridean island of Islay provided a source of fascination for the expedition's artists, writes Nigel Leask.

This article discusses a group of images of a ‘Weaver’s Cottage in Islay’ based on drawings made in early August 1772 by John Frederick Miller and his brother James, two of three artists (the third being John Cleveley) who accompanied the English naturalist Joseph Banks on his voyage through the Hebrides to Iceland in that same year. Banks had recently returned from a voyage round the world on board Captain Cook’s Endeavour, but when his plans to accompany him on a second voyage were frustrated by a row with the Admiralty, he withdrew and decided to explore the North Atlantic instead. Although Banks kept a journal of the voyage, it was never published in his lifetime, and only a small portion of the rich visual documentation of his voyage was ever seen by the public.[1] One exception was Banks’ description of the basaltic island of Staffa, and its famous ‘Fingal’s Cave’, which he claimed to have discovered; alongside engravings of drawings by his artists, it was published in his friend Thomas Pennant’s Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772. In the summer of 1772 Pennant had explored the islands just a month or so before Banks’ briefer visit: he dedicated his volume to Banks, whose contribution turned out to be one of its main selling points.[2]

John Frederick Miller seems to have executed the original pencil drawing of a cottage interior on Islay, the most southerly of the Hebridean islands, which was worked up in pen, ink and wash, probably after the expedition’s return to London in November. Entitled Inside of the Weavers House near Bomore on the Island of Ilay, it bears his signature, unlike the unsigned drawing upon which it is based. Subsequently engraved by Charles Grignion, it was published in 1774 in Pennant’s Tour in Scotland.

A Weaver’s Cottage in Islay

Pencil sketch of a Weaver’s Cottage in Islay, by John Frederick Miller.

John Frederick Miller's original pencil sketch.

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Inside of a Weaver’s Cottage in Islay

Inside of a Weaver’s Cottage in Islay, by John Frederick Miller.

The watercolour based on the pencil sketch and signed by Miller.

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Inside of a Weaver’s Cottage in Islay

Inside of a Weaver's Cottage, by Charles Grignon after John Frederick Miller.

Charles Grignion's etching after Miller was used to illustrate Thomas Pennant's Tour in Scotland.

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Miller’s drawing is rather different in character from the painting and engraving, however. For a start it gives a lighter and more cheerful character to the interior: the fact that the kitten, puppy and roosting chickens are only faintly registered creates a relatively uncluttered and more homely aspect than the gloominess of the subsequent painting. This image represents an important milestone in the visual documentation of Highland culture. Art historian Anne Macleod has identified an earlier view of the outside of a Highland cottage, but no other published image of a Highland cottage interior is on record before Miller’s drawing.[3] 

Two exterior paintings of the same turf and stone cottage, known colloquially as a ‘blackhouse’ (or in Gaelic taigh-dubh), survive in the British Library collection, both in watercolour with pen and ink: the first is a ‘backfront’ view, signed by James Miller, the second a ‘forefront’ signed by John Frederick Miller. These situate the weaver’s house in what looks like an isolated, moorland environment, with Loch Indaal (an indentation of the sea) visible in the background. James Miller’s ‘backfront’ view was also engraved and published in the same volume of Pennant’s Tour in Scotland, giving both prints a large circulation.

Back front of the Weaver's House near Bowmore, on the Island of Islay

Back front of the Weavers' House near Bowmore on the Island of Islay, by James Miller.

Watercolour by James Miller.

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Fore front of the Weaver's House near Bowmore, on the Island of Islay

Fore front of the Weavers' House near Bowmore on the Island of Islay, by James Miller.

Watercolour by John Frederick Miller.

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The English travellers evidently considered the Weaver’s Cottage to be sufficiently primitive and exotic to make it worth illustrating: its impact must have been all the stronger considering that Islay was their first landfall in Scotland, and the weaver’s cottage probably the first dwelling they observed as they walked from their anchorage to ‘Kalara’ (Killarow) in the village of Bowmore on 3 August 1772. As Banks recorded in his journal: 

‘A highland house so miserably constructed that it tempted us to have drawings made of every particular in it. Twas built of stones so loosely laid together that wind & rain could scarcely be stopd in their course by them… Round [the fire] upon miserable benches sat the family consisting of a weaver his wife her mother a stranger women and six children. These had two beds to accommodate them. The rest of the furniture consisted of a loom & a lamp.’[4] 

According to Banks’ servant James Roberts, the following day, 4 August, ‘Mr Miller’ ‘went into a weavers house and made a drawing of it’ on a return visit to record antiquities in the churchyard of Killarow.[5] The fact that Miller was sent back to draw the interior the following day suggests that the cottage might have been the subject of discussion the night before, and Banks decided to act on the ‘temptation …to have drawings made of every particular in it’. Banks had just returned from exploring the southern ocean, and in his journal he compares the Weaver’s cottage with the primitive huts he had seen in Tierra del Fuego, or in the Pacific: 

‘the [Hebrideans] live but very poorly. Their huts are poor to admiration. I have seen few Indians live in so uncomfortable manners nor could I have thought that any thing but flies could induce men to live in houses without chimnies which many houses are without’.[6] 

At 55 degrees south, Tierra del Fuego is about the same latitude south as Islay is north, a fact of which Banks was doubtless aware.

So what was the nature of this ‘exotic’, primitive dwelling? Daniel Maudlin writes that the ‘single-storey, low walls of a blackhouse were typically constructed of field-cleared stones and turf, often in a double-wall construction with an insulated central core of in-filled earth’.[7] Cattle, sheep or goats were kept in a byre at one end, under the same roof as the space for human dwelling: only a wicker partition separated the living quarters from the byre. The central hearth was the pivot of familial and social life, and despite the clouds of peat smoke which filled the interior (in the absence of a chimney), it was the warmest place in the dwelling, as can be clearly seen. 

18th-century travel writers to the Highlands were deeply shocked to find such primitive conditions in modern Britain. In the 1730s, Londoner Edmund Burt likened blackhouses to ‘so many heaps of dirt’, while in his 1769 Tour, Pennant wrote that ‘the houses of the common people in these parts are shocking to humanity, formed of loose stones, and covered with clods, which they call devots, or with heath, broom, or branches of fir: they look at a distance, like so many black mole-hills.’[8] Nevertheless, Maudlin suggests that, given the harsh climatic conditions of the Hebrides, ‘while undoubtedly a dirty and therefore unhealthy environment, a winter passed inside a blackhouse was a much warmer and cosier experience than that provided by an improved cottage’.[9]

The Millers’ paintings of the ‘backfront’ and ‘forefront’ of the ‘Weaver’s House’ clearly display all the characteristic architectural features of the blackhouse, including the byre extension at one end of the dwelling (the ‘forefront’ view represents the turf and thatched gable of the byre as somewhat higher than the human dwelling, although this is less evident in James Miller’s back view); they also reveal two small windows on the front wall, and one at the back, not visible in the interior view, devoid as it is of natural light. Interestingly, it is notable that both exterior images suggest that the gable ends have been build up with new stones to increase the height of the roof, which may have been to create more space for the weaver’s loom. I want to focus on the rather unremarkable figure of the weaver in the remainder of my essay.

As we have seen, Pennant inserted the two engravings of the ‘Weavers Cottage’ to illustrate his own account of Islay (which he visited between 1–6 July 1772), although because these were actually the work of Banks’ artists, they have only general reference to his description of the island. In Pennant’s Tour 1772, Miller’s exterior image of the weaver’s cottage appears underneath a plate of Sheelins in Jura (based on a drawing by Pennant’s artist Moses Griffith), illustrating the ‘grotesque’ teepee-shaped dwelling used by transhumance animal herds in the traditional Gaelic pastoral system, one of the few contemporary descriptions of its kind.[10] In comparison, James Miller’s Cottage in Islay (above) looks quite modern, with its trim shape and turf roof anchored with heather ropes. But this impression is belied by his brother John Frederick’s depiction of the interior of the same cottage published a few pages later in Pennant’s Tour, which as we have seen, looks curiously chaotic and primitive, even if, as Anne Macleod notes, it is ‘rich in ethnographic detail, from the boxed-in bed to the iron pot-chain, or slabhraidh, hanging above the fire in the centre of the floor’.[11] The fire-lit living space is cluttered with children and cats, hens roosting in the smoky rafters, and a heavy creel hanging from a peg on the right wall: it is an appropriate illustration to Pennant’s text on the facing page:

‘A set of people worn down with poverty: their habitations scenes of misery, made of loose stones; without chimneys, without doors, excepting the faggot oppose to the wind at one or other of the appertures, permitting the smoke to escape through the other, in order to prevent the pains of suffocation. The furniture perfectly corresponds: a pothook hangs from the middle of the roof, with a pot pendent over a grateless fire, filled with fare that my rather be called a permission to exist, than a support of vigorous life: the inmates, as my be expected, lean, withered, dusky and smoke-dried. But my picture is not of this island only’.[12]

Pennant’s description of the primitive conditions endured by the local islanders here gives a sense of a primitive Gaelic society insulated from the modern developments that were transforming much of mainland Britain in the 18th century. Yet although Pennant certainly was not exaggerating the poverty of the islanders, this impression is rather deceptive. Local historian Margaret Storrie describes how at the time of Pennant’s visit, Islay was undergoing substantial social and economic modernisation at the hands of its proprietor, a rich Glasgow merchant and MP called Daniel Campbell of Shawfields. She underlines two major innovations: the introduction of a flax industry (including linen weaving), and the establishment of the new village of Bowmore in 1768.[13] Given the importance of this development, it is curious that Pennant makes no reference to the figure of the blue-bonneted linen weaver busily plying his loom on the left of Miller’s print, despite his reference to the quantity of flax grown on the island, and his regret that so much yarn was exported rather than worked by local people.[14] We would never guess from this image, nor the companion print of the cottage exterior, that the blackhouse was part of Daniel Campbell’s plan to introduce industry to his new ‘model village’ of Bowmore and its environs, established only four years before, and in which linen weaving was the major non-agricultural occupation.[15]

Looking closely at the image in the light of this information, we become aware that, despite the primitive chaos and darkness of the cottage interior (one wonders how the weaver could even see his loom), Miller is actually depicting a scene of economic modernity, rather than the traditional Hebridean blackhouse described by most travellers. The image is extremely revealing: perhaps his empirical training as an artist/draughtsman obliged him to register the presence of the all-important figure of the weaver as a sign of economic progress, even if he gets rather lost in the ‘primitive’ cottage interior, as well as in the accompanying verbal descriptions of the cottage by Pennant and Banks. This is somewhat ironic, given that Pennant’s book aimed at communicating exactly the same impression of the Hebrides, both in outlining the progress that had already been made, but also casting a critical eye on the social backwardness that made prosperity seem still a long way off for the impoverished inhabitants of the Weaver’s Cottage and their like.

Thanks to John Bonehill, Stephen Daniels, Harriet Guest and Ailsa Hutton for their helpful suggestions with this article.


[1] The fullest account of this complicated history is John Bonehill’s fine essay ‘New Scenes drawn by the pencil of truth’: Joseph Banks’ Northern Voyage’, in Journal of Historical Geography, 43 (2014), pp. 9–27.

[2] Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772, intro. by Charles W.J. Withers, ed. by Andrew Simmons, (Edinburgh: Birlinn 1998), pp. 255–268.

[3] Anne Macleod, From an Antique Land: Visual Representations of the Highlands and Islands 1700-1880 (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2012), pp. 112, 115. She identifies the earliest external view as ‘A Highland Township’, published in Edmund Burt’s Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland (1754).

[4] Roy A. Rauschenberg, ‘The Journals of Joseph Banks’s Voyage up Great Britain’s Coast to Iceland and the Orkney Isles, July to October 1772’, in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 117, 3 (June 1973), pp. 186–226, 201.

[5] James Roberts, ‘Journal of a Voyage to the Hebrides, Iceland, and the Orkneys, Undertaken by Joseph Banks, Esq., in 1772’ (State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, CY 265, f.14b). Thanks to John Bonehill for a xerox copy of this MS account.

[6] Rauschenberg, ‘Journal’, p. 212. Banks’ ‘Indians’ here includes the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego.

[7] Daniel Maudlin, The Highland House Transformed: Architecture and Identity on the Edge of Britain, 17001850 (Dundee: Dundee University Press, 2009), p. 13.

[8] Edmund Burt, Letters from the North of Scotland (1754), ed. Andrew Simmons, (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1998), p. 204; Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Scotland, 1769, 3rd ed., (Warrington, 1774), p. 117.

[9] Maudlin, Highland House, p. 7.

[10] Transhumance is defined by the OED as the ‘seasonal moving of livestock to a different region’, usually to mountain pastures in summer.

[11] Macleod, From an Antique Land, p. 112.

[12] Pennant, A Tour in Scotland, 1772, p. 217.

[13] Margaret C. Storrie, Islay: Biography of an Island (Islay: Oa Press, 1981), p. 72.

[14] Pennant, Tour, 1772, pp. 215–7.

[15] Ibid.

  • Nigel Leask
  • Nigel Leask holds the Regius Chair of English Language and Literature at the University of Glasgow. He has published widely in the area of Romantic literature and culture, with a special emphasis on empire, India, and travel writing, as well as Scottish literature and thought.

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