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Martin, Martinlocked

(d. 1718)
  • Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart

Martin, Martin (d. 1718), traveller and author, was probably born in Bealach, Isle of Skye, the third of the three children of Donald Martin, chamberlain of Trotternish, and Mary, daughter of Alexander, son of Donald MacDonald (Domhnall Gorm Òg) of Sleat, first baronet. The Martins of Bealach (clann Mhàrtainn a'Bhealaich) were a minor but distinguished gentry family closely associated with the local chiefs, the MacDonalds of Sleat. Martin spent much of his adolescence away from his native island at Edinburgh, where he entered the university in 1679. After graduating in 1681 he served as tutor in turn to each of the heirs of the two major Skye chiefships, Donald MacDonald of Sleat, later fifth baronet (known as Domhnall a'Chogaidh), and Roderick MacLeod of Harris (Ruairidh Òg). Following the death of the latter—'the kindest friend I had on earth' (NL Scot., MS 1389, fol. 74)—on 24 June 1695, Martin departed on clan business to the Netherlands and thence to London.

Once in London, with the support of fellow episcopalians such as George Mackenzie, Viscount Tarbat, and George Garden, Martin made contact with the virtuosi who were to prove so crucial to his future, above all David Gregory, Walter Curleton or Charleton, and Hans Sloane. For them, as well as for Robert Sibbald in Edinburgh, Martin undertook to collect curiosities from and observations concerning his native Western Isles. Despite the rather credulous nature of the 'observables', he dispatched to the Royal Society in August 1696, Martin was nevertheless voted financial encouragement to enable him further to prosecute his interests. He had also begun a degree in divinity; although he never completed his studies, it was through this that Martin was able to carry off his greatest coup, embarking 'at the Isle Esay in Harries the 29th. May, at Six in the Afternoon, 1697' (Martin, Late Voyage, 3) as assistant to the Revd James Campbell on a mission to pacify the recalcitrant inhabitants of the most remote island in the Hebrides.

Martin subsequently went back to London, where he published 'Several observations in the western islands of Scotland' in Philosophical Transactions, 19 (October 1697), and wrote up The Late Voyage to St. Kilda, an account published to some success in May the following year. Despite his participating in the disastrous surveying expedition under the geographer John Adair that summer—their ship eventually ran aground and had to be abandoned—Martin's star continued to rise among the virtuosi. Sloane organized a subscription on his behalf on condition that he provide 'samples of such curiosities as he finds & useful remarks he makes in his travels' (BL, Sloane MS 4068, fol. 18). This, together with a £25 grant from the Treasury, allowed Martin to make a series of more protracted journeys throughout the Hebrides. He then spent over a year in London assembling his most celebrated work, the compendious Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, published in July 1703. Subsequently, however, he would come to regard the book as 'the most capital error as well as the greatest Misfortune of my life' (NL Scot., MS 1389, fol. 100), which had 'abated the Career of my thoughts from so much as thinking to trouble the press any more all my days' (Bodl. Oxf., MS Ashmole 1816, fol. 336). Despite being promised £60 by the exchequer the money remained unpaid. This apparently is the reason behind Martin's rather precipitate flight back to his native Skye 'where no books nor converse are to be looked for'. There he spent the next four years rather restlessly as tutor to Donald MacDonald, the son of his old charge. Seemingly on the very day he heard the government money was finally disbursed Martin left Skye for good 'to push his fortouns in England' (NL Scot., MS 1307, fol. 247).

Despite Martin's evident hope for a post under the new united parliament—his second article in the Philosophical Transactions for 1707, 'A relation of a deaf and dumb person', is something of a calling card—he was disappointed. He spent the next two years as a tutor, mainly at Leiden University with George, son of the lawyer John Mackenzie of Delvine. Building upon a long-standing interest in medicine Martin himself studied at Leiden for a short time, having matriculated in March 1710 aged forty-one. On his return to England he began to practise as a doctor in Middlesex, where he passed the apparently unremarkable last years of his life. His final two years were taken up in an attempt to salvage the money owed by Sir Donald to his brother John Martin and lost with the forfeiture of the MacDonald estate following the 1715 rising. Martin himself, however, appears to have taken advantage of the renewed interest in the Scottish Gàidhealtachd by publishing a second edition of the Description in 1716, an enterprise which may have given him enough funds to finally graduate MD at Rheims in October that year. Martin died 'of an Asthma' at his lodging in Knightsbridge, London, on 9 October 1718 (NL Scot., MS 1389, fol. 159). Three days later he was buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Martin's ambition to succeed as a ‘British Gael’ was not unusual among gentry of his generation from the Scottish Gàidhealtachd. His chosen path as collector of curiosities, natural historian, and ethnographer most certainly was. Martin ascribed his success to his 'regard of the Languadge [as a native Gael] & my Interest in those of the first rate in these places' (BL, Sloane MS 4037, fol. 127). We might add his evident energy and gifts in negotiating various clientage networks. Although his lasting value is as a chronicler of customs and beliefs even then fast disappearing, Martin himself was hardly sympathetic to them. For him their passing marked a milestone in islanders' progression to become a useful part of the British state: he was convinced that he had an important role to play in facilitating such development. Nevertheless, his naïve style, his apparent credulousness, his eagerness to relate outlandish medical observations, and above all his belief in the second sight, led to his being ridiculed by literati such as Viscount Molesworth and John Toland. Despite widespread interest in his writings, Martin himself was little more than a curiosity among the metropolitan virtuosi. His ambition for economic and social independence could only be achieved in London; yet in doing so he had forfeited his erstwhile patrons.


  • M. Martin, A description of the western islands of Scotland (1703)
  • M. Martin, A late voyage to St. Kilda (1698)
  • NL Scot., MS 1389, fols. 67, 73–159
  • BL, Sloane MSS 4036, fols. 338, 358; 4037, fol. 127; 4039, fol. 165; 4040, fol. 384; 4044, fol. 220; 4059, fol. 314; 4068, fol. 18
  • RS, LBC 11(2).160; 12.409–10; 12.334; ELM.2.17
  • Bodl. Oxf., MS Ashmole 1816, fols. 326–343
  • BL, Stowe MS 748, fol. 4
  • TNA: PRO, PROB 11/566, fol. 108v
  • A. MacDonald and A. MacDonald, The clan Donald, 3 (1904), 559–60
  • Leiden records, Archief Senaat en Curatoren, Actorum Facultatis Medicæ, 12, vol. 13 (6 March 1710)
  • matriculation roll, arts, law, and divinity, U. Edin. L., university archives [transcribed by A. Morgan, 1933–4], p. 78
  • U. Edin. L., MS Da.2.1, p. 26
  • NA Scot., CC 8/8/80, fol. 196
  • copy of MS list of doctors, 1550–1794, Rheims


  • NL Scot., corresp. and papers, MS 1389
  • BL, Sloane MSS, letters to Sir Hans Sloane

Wealth at Death

£150 owed to Martin; estate includes trunk and contents, books, and clothes: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/566, fol. 108v

National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh
University of Edinburgh Library
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Royal Society, London
Bodleian Library, Oxford