I am reflecting on my foraging forays into the past of Harris. My aim has always been to attempt to shed a little more light into the dark recesses of the past. If we imagine ourselves journeying to the island from the mainland in the late 18thC, we do so most likely from Skye or Mallaig with Rodel as our destination.
Rodel offers the nearest safe harbour for, although we know of a few fishers and kelp-workers in the Bays of Harris, it is the agricultural areas that our attention is drawn to. The farms lie in a sweep, from Rodel and Strond, through the treacherous Sound of Harris and up the Western, Atlantic seaboard where there are no harbours on Harris to house our vessel. We might choose to see the island farms on Pabay and Taransay but can do so using smaller boats from the shell-sand shores without risking our ship.
Fortunately, we have horses at our disposal so are able to traverse the terrain with comparative ease, compared, that is, to the mass of the population for whom walking is the normal mode of transport. There are certainly many tracks and paths, but no roads as such so whether we will encounter any wheeled conveyance remains to be seen.
In many ways, I am reminded of two books that I read many years ago. The first is Barbara Tuchman’s ‘A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century’, the first history book that awakened my long-dormant interest in the past, a wonderfully evocative account of life in medieval times in Europe. The second, ‘The Medieval Economy and Society’ by M M Postan was an antidote to the ‘Dark Ages’ myth that had been foistered upon me as a child. These two tomes revealed the truth of pre-industrial societies as complex, technologically literate and evolving. Those ‘Dark Ages’ were brimming full of the ‘stuff’ that was a prerequisite for later developments, just as the medieval technologies were the distant cousins for those that led to our society today.
The significance for Harris is in the change and continuity, from ‘Norse-Mill’ to ‘Carding-Mill’, from sea-ware as fertilizer to kelp as pre-industrial alchemy, from the agricultural revolution of the introduction of potato to the catastrophic failures of the potato famines, from Captain Alexander Macleod’s 1786 creation of Rodel House, harbour and fishing facilities to Lord Leverhulme’s misguided misunderstandings of the topography, climate and, most importantly, values of the island.
Indeed, one might well say that he was a man who knew the value of labour but the values of none of these particular potential labourers.
Disembarking at Rodel, and exchanging our sea-legs for four legs, we allow our small but sure-footed steeds to further our investigations. We would ideally have a copy of ‘The Rough Guide to Post-Culloden Harris’ but, alas, these turbulent-times have scant written records and it is the rich, sonorous language of the people that acts mainly as the medium for the transmission of culture.
Gaelic is the language with a few men, mainly those have been imported to perform particular roles, whether shepherding sheep or souls, who have any knowledge of the English tongue. Even these few who did contract their business in the language of the Union appear to have been at best negligent and, at worst, steadfastly obtuse, in keeping their records. Worst still, it will not be until the start of the 19thC that a reasonably accurate and detailed map is made.
Rodel Farm will present us with our first, and only, encounter with recognisably rich red soil. The ‘Red Dale’ lives-up to its Norse name and provides a bounty of barley, a cow-shed of cattle and a scattering of sheep. No great surprise that this is where we find the magnificent medieval church, although its precise location is a statement of both heavenly and earthly power for it commands a view of any attempt at inward invasion from the sea. If you’ve got to build a tower to get closer to your maker, you might as well take advantage of the vantage-point provided.
We could trek further into the Bays but, although there are those fisher-folk and kelp-workers, the path is difficult and dangerous and passage from Rodel far easier by boat. Retracing our steps past the church we can either take the sparsely populated pass that lies inland to the settlement at An-t-Ob but elect instead the track over the hill to the sea at Borisdale.
This brings us to the Farm of Strond stretching from the diminutive, but useful, Port Esgein to Strond itself. Inland of the inlet of Esgein we see a settlement. A group of ‘blackhouses’ as they came to be called, arranged in a cluster, a ‘township’. People live together for comfort, companionship and convenience. If we have a common purpose, whether it be fuelling a factory or feeding a farm, we live in a community. The suitability of the site, the availability of building materials, the supply of safe water and the impact of the environment are amongst the factors determining where we commune, but commune we will.
We need people to labour on the land, to build our shelters, to shoe us and our horses, to fish our seas, to shepherd our sheep, to mill our meal, to weave our webs and all the other different tasks that give us food and shelter. Even our hunter-gathering ancestors evolved some degree of differentiation, albeit of contribution rather than consumption.
This Farm of Strond extends along a thin coastal cultivatable strip, backed by thinly soiled, rock hard grazings and at Carminish, we find what may well be the earliest sites of habitation. Carminish is a Hammer-head shark’s head of a peninsular, a thin, defend-able and dependable neck of land joining the parallel-place to the precious soils of Strond. The presence of the ruins of a Dun/Broche,
a defensive refuge sitting Keep-like in the sea-moated castle of Carminish, speaks to me of ancient ancestors and it must feature high on any archaeologists agenda.
In fact, given the relative lack of other ‘concrete’ sources of information, the whole of Harris is deserving of intensive archaeological investigation, as are all the Western Isles.
Approaching An-t-Ob we can see the ‘Ob’ itself, the bay that looks rather like the piece of the land jigsaw that was removed to form Carminish. Perhaps it was. Some Norse giant tore a hammer from the land and, like many a man before and since, ‘forgot’ to put it back after he’d finished using it?
The cluster of houses here are in An Clachan and their name lives on in the community-run shop that now sits on the site. Most apposite.
However, the thing that strikes us most is how small An-t-Ob is but then we are reminded that, despite it providing shelter from the sea, the sea beyond is the Sound of Harris, an island and shoal-strewn stretch that taxes even the most experienced and knowledgeable of local seamen, including a relative of mine who’s vessel foundered there in a late-19thC storm on its way from Stornoway to Carloway.
From Stornoway to Carloway. The modern motorist must look at the map and wonder why? But that is to see the sea with road-tinted spectacles.
I see the horses are tired and, as the weather is looking threatening, it is time to rest awhile before continuing this tale…
(Note: By their nature, these are merely my current perceptions and any significant errors or omissions are apologised for in advance.)