Cottar Heads of Households of Harris

I am looking at the number of households on ‘mainland’ Harris that were headed by a Cottar.

A Cottar is defined by Scotland’s People as a ‘Tenant with only a house and a little land’ but colloquially reference is often made to ‘landless cottars’. The point is that whilst a cottar would have had a patch, or patches, of mean ground to cultivate (predominantly by feannagan or ‘lazy-bed’) he or she was on the most precarious margin of subsistence.

I have ignored the other islands simply in order to gain an impression of the scale of cottar households over the period in question. I would like to look at each outlying island in detail at a later date.

1841 – None Listed
1851 – 51
1861 – 36
1871 – 42*
1881 – 24
1891 – 27
1901 – 42

I should point out that there were cottars who, because they had an additional occupation (and therefore source of income), do not appear in these figures. For example, I am descended from a Tailor who was also a cottar but his occupation ‘masks’ his status as a cottar in the censuses of 1851 and 1861.

I do have a relative amongst the cottar population of 1871, but he is recorded as a Shepherd in 1861 and 1881 (and as a ‘Retired Shepherd’ in 1891 and ‘Keeping at Home’ in 1901) so I am confused by this apparent anomaly.

However, these two examples do illustrate that this is not an exact science. We have no idea of the number of cottars existing in 1841 simply because they are not defined in that particular census.

If nothing else, we can say that on Harris itself there were an average of three-dozen cottar households throughout the second-half of the 19thC. Not a huge number in itself but still representing perhaps one-hundred and fifty islanders clinging-on to existence as firmly and precariously as limpets on a storm-swept rock.


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