Kerrs of the Highlands and Islands

I have looked at those bearing the family name Kerr in each of four counties in the 1841-1901

Within the returns for Inverness-shire and Ross-shire, I have extracted those on Harris and Lewis who are members of, or descended from, the 65 people on Harris in 1841.

Census   Inverness    Harris    Ross    Lewis    I&R    H&L     Argyll     Sutherland

1841          94          65          28         0         122     65         198           242

1851          93          47          23         3         116     50         255           171

1861        116          47          43         7         159     50         251           225

1871        104          36          20         6         124     42        169            225

1881          97          24          19         6         116     30        249            217

1891          74          23          35       10         109      33       220            193

1901           60         17          37        11          97      28       196            159

The first thing that strikes me is that neither Inverness-shire nor Ross-shire were home to large numbers of ‘us’. If we consider these two counties together, which I am doing due to the significance of the Lewis contingent as they are my own ancestors, then we see that the Western Isles families are between one-third and one-half of the total population. This, together with the 1841 population on Harris representing two-thirds of those in Inverness-shire, suggests to me that I must look elsewhere for a likely origin.

It would certainly help enormously if I were able to search for ‘Gaelic’, and use this to focus-in upon likely areas, but alas that option is not currently available to me.

Therefore I chose to look at the returns for Argyll-shire on the West Coast and Sutherland in the Highlands. In 1841 there were 562 people in all four counties, as compared to 1043 in Ayrshire, and by 1901 the corresponding figures were 452 and 2037. (In 1871 they were 418 and 1433).

It is difficult to be precise about what is going-on here, particularly given such factors as Clearances, Emigration, Famine, Industrialisation and Population Growth, all of which interacted in complex ways over the 60 years under consideration, but the contrast between the decline in the Highlands and Islands with the doubling in Ayr-shire is noticeable.

However, if I accept the hypothesis that the Kerr families of Harris were ‘incomers’ who migrated to the island with a particular set of skills that were required by an historic owner, then I think it is reasonable to say that they could have originated from either Argyll-shire or Sutherland-shire.

In one sense, it doesn’t really matter, for I will never be able to discover the details of any earlier ancestors, but in terms of using this singular example of an unusual name’s appearance (and relatively rapid decline) in the Western Isles I hope to have posed questions, and perhaps a few answers, regarding aspects of life during the 19thC in a part of the world for which broad sweeps of knowledge exist but that lack written records of much of the fine detail.

I have seen mixed fortunes, with some apparently being ‘in’ with the Factor John Robson Macdonald, or becoming Merchants and even a Minister, others Emigrating, some being moved around Harris at the apparent whim of those with power, and others remaining relatively static whether as a Tailor, Shoemakers, a Midwife or Post-Runner; and one moving to Lewis and, latterly with one of his sons, plying the ‘coastal trade off the West Coast of Scotland’.

They may have been an insignificant proportion of the population of Harris and Lewis, but they certainly represent many varied aspects of island life as lived in the last six decades of the 19thC’

Including an intimate connection with Lady Dunmore’s successful merchandising and marketing of Harris Tweed and her less successful attempt with stockings!

Inevitably much, but hopefully not all, of my research will contain errors and omissions, but if it stimulates others to continue with related endeavours then I hope that those faults will be forgiven me.

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