Two centuries ago, in 1810, two brothers were living in Strond, on the shore of the Sound of Harris. Although probably not twins, their births were close enough for us to follow their divergent paths in parallel. The elder, John, and Angus his junior (although even that order is not altogether certain!) these sons of Malcolm Kerr and Effie Shaw were on the cusp between boy and manhood when ownership of the island they lived on was passed to another man’s son, called Alexander Norman Macleod.
This Macleod was the third of his family to own the island, his grandfather Captain Alexander Macleod of Berneray having bought Harris back in 1779. The Captain had spent the next 11 years in a flurry of activity to develop a harbour, associated fishing facilities and having a home built for himself at Rodel. He also had St Clement’s Church at Rodel restored but, on the eve of completion in 1784, it burnt down and had to be rebuilt. By 1786 Rodel House, the harbour and fishing facilities were finished.
Historically, Rodel was where the Clan owners of Harris alighted from their homelands in Skye. In those days, and for all the time that this tale relates to, it was the sea that was the highway and hence Harris and Skye were closer in terms of journey times than a map might make one think. It is this that partly explains why Harris, although the southern half of the Siamese-twins of the ‘Long-Island’ of Lewis with Harris, is an altogether separate part of that pairing.
July 19. Wind fair. After a passage of six hours reached Rowdil, in the isle of Herries, by 12 o’clock.
Visited captain Macleod of Herries’s operations at Portmore.
‘Piscator’, as the author of this 1787 account styled himself, is providing us with evidence of what had been undertaken by those ‘operations at Portmore’. Before progressing, I should say that this is the first, and only, time that I have encountered the name ‘Portmore’ in connection with Harris. If, as appears the case, it was Captain Macleod’s name for his ‘operations’ then the lesson of history regarding the renaming of parts of Harris was lost on the later Lord Leverhulme and his replication a couple of miles along the Sound at An-t-Ob at what became ‘Leverburgh’.
He has built a pier of 300 feet long, and 22 wide. He is building a second, to inclose the harbour.
Those piers remain to this day as testament to the vision of the Captain and, whilst fishing wouldn’t have saved Harris from all its problems in the 19thC, I am firmly of the opinion that had the ‘operations’ been continued with fervour by Alexander’s son and grandson then some of the suffering could, and would, have been ameliorated.
He has built a large storehouse, and over it a good inn, his present dwelling…made a good road from the harbour to a little town he is forming on the height…and a manufacturing house for teaching children the art of spinning…
The RCAHMS record for Rodel House describes it as ‘unusually tall’ so I think that when we are told of a ‘large storehouse, and over it a good inn’, we are indeed learning of the use to which each of the three storeys were being put. That ‘little town on the height’ ,which was connected to the harbour by a proper road, became the ‘Rodel Farm’ of half a century’s time rather than the ‘manufacturing’ centre that the Captain clearly had in mind. Maybe it was no bad thing that the children of Harris were spared the horrors of the factory system that might have been introduced had that particular aspect seen fruition.
…one of the upper rooms full of boys and girls, whom a schoolmaster was instructing in the arts of reading and writing.
I don’t know if any mainland mills were offering an education at this time but, if so, I have yet to hear of it.
The account continues for several pages, each containing little gems of detail, and to which I hope to return but, for now, we leave these scholars of whom, ‘an Englishman gentleman of the party said , few children at the schools in England, read with more correctness or less accent.’
This account comes from ‘The Bee’ which was published in Edinburgh from 1790-1794 by James Anderson who was born at Hermiston near Edinburgh in 1739. When only 15, his parents died and he ran the family farm. He attended lectures on Chemistry to improve his agricultural knowledge, introduced the Scotch Plough, wrote several essays on agriculture and, in 1788, received the degree of LLD from Aberdeen University. He died on 15 October 1808.
One of the Captain’s strategies was to import specific skills to Harris and it is likely that Malcolm Kerr and Effie Shaw, or perhaps their parents, were amongst the people he chose. The Captain died, a somewhat broken and deflated man, in 1790 which just happens to be around the time that Angus and John were born in Strond.
The Captain’s son, Alexander Hume Macleod, was as uninterested and uninspired by his inheritance of the island as it is possible to imagine. He demonstrated his disdain with his family’s historic roots by dropping the name ‘Macleod’ and prancing around as Alexander Hume. Not an altogether auspicious time for those starting, or enlarging a family.
In 1792, the first Statistical Account of Scotland was published and the entry for Harris was submitted by the Minister, the Reverend John Macleod. He tells us that the population was ‘2536’. When he had arrived in Harris he had found virtually no paperwork records of his flock and he diligently set about addressing this problem. However, it has to be said that the pre-1855 ‘Old Parish Records’ for the island are almost non-existent so either he was thwarted in the task or perhaps a latter hand destroyed the evidence? They would, as we shall see, have had plenty of reasons for doing so.
The net result is that it is not until Angus and John have attained middle-age that we get to see their names recorded, one remaining in Strond and the other in the Bays of Harris at Direcleit. We can, however, relate some of the events that shook Harris during that half-century.
‘General View of the Natural Circumstances of those Isles, adjacent to the North-West coast of Scotland, which are distinguished by the common name of Hebudae or Hebrides:- of the various means which have been employed to cultivate and improve them:- and of some other means, which are humbly proposed, as likely to contribute to their farther improvement’
Drawn up for the consideration of the Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement.
By Robert Heron 1794
I don’t know for sure that this is the longest-ever title of a book on the Western Isles, but it certainly must rank amongst their number! The tone appears to be the all too familiar one of ‘Improvement’ to be imposed by incomers, albeit with a greater degree of appreciation of the indigenous inhabitants plight than has often been the case.
He make the interesting observation that the social organisation of the islands provided an insight into the circumstances prevailing under medieval feudalism or, ‘a person may acquire a very clear notion of what the feudal establishments of Europe were in their origin’. 125 years later, those returning from the ‘Great War’ faced further, ongoing, battles to remove that same yoke. In introducing his ideas for ‘Improvement’, Robert Heron writes the following:
‘The true perfection of the cultivation of any territory is, when it affords the means of subsistence, of social intercourse, of moral and intellectual improvement to the greatest possible number of rational beings, at the same time, and those of the highest possible corporeal and mental excellence.’
A rather fine sentence in my humble opinion! However, a taste of the prevailing view of Highlanders and Islanders may be had from ‘A Defence of the Scots Highlanders,…
…in General; and some Learned Characters in particular’ written by the Rev John Lanne Buchanan in that same year:
AFTER reading an enquiry into the History of Scotland, written by Mr. John Pincarton, and considering the asperity of that author, with the injurious, unsupported, and illiberal reflections thrown out against the Highlanders in general, and Learned Characters in particular, I was prompted to make a few remarks on his acrimony against them, and to state facts in their true light, as far as consists with my own knowledge, and these supported by the authority of gentlemen of veracity and candour, in favour of the injured country and people so outrageously insulted.
A wonderful opening sentence! John Lanne Buchanane also wrote of his ‘Travels in the Western Hebrides from 1782 to 1790’, a book that remains in print today.
‘…almost bewildered in the view…’ – A Description of the Sound of Harris from The Statistical Account of Scotland, 1794
From an eminence near the Sound may be had a very curious view of the odd intermixture of land, rock, and water, which fills the space betwixt the mainland of Uist and the mainland of Harris.
Standing on this eminence, at lowest ebb in spring tides, and in calm weather, one contemplates with amazement the vast variety of islands, rocks, banks, shoals, and straights, before him, compares them to the stars in the galaxy, and is almost bewildered in the view.
‘ Credas innare revulsai Cycladas’
Here the tide rises to a great height; the current runs with, amazing rapidity ; the surge, when the wind blows against the tide, swells prodigiously ; and the roar of the breakers, foaming over the banks and shoals to an immense distance, seems to threaten the islanders with a general deluge. In winter storms, the view is tremendous and grand beyond the power of description. One would hardly expect to find a safe course of navigation through such a Sound; yet the writer hereof recollects to have counted in one day upwards of sixty sail of herring busses, which found their way through it without an accident, bound northward to the Loch-Rogue fishing.
He has even seen some ships of burden, which were driven in by stormy weather from the Western Ocean, piloted in safety, by the people of the islands, through this seemingly impervious course.
The Latin quote is from Virgil’s Aeneid and refers to a fleet of ships appearing like an armada of islands, the Cyclades, torn from their anchors. Loch Rogue is Loch Roag on West coast of Lewis in Uig.
With the dawn of the 19thC, light was shone upon Harris in the form of the first reliable mapping of the island. Bald’s map of 1804/5, when Angus and John were in their early teens, is full of details that illuminate the past. Starting with Strond, Bald shows a cluster of houses in the far South-East, nearer to what became known as Borrisdale than to the present-day string of houses that line the road from An-t-Ob. Bald’s Strond sits between Loch Roghadal to the East, the site of Captain Macleod’s harbour and home, and Port Esgein in the Sound of Harris. Now at this time the Farm of Strond, again clearly delineated on the map, ran along the Sound to An-t-Ob, then northwards following the Rivers A, Dubnha and A Vouniusdale,running along the shore off Loch Langavate before zigzagging Southwards to Loch Roghadal. The farm had been rented by a Mrs Ann Campbell since 1770 and in the year of the map she took a new 30-year lease on the land. In fact, a Mrs Campbell held the ‘tack’ of Strond and Killegray (one of the islands in the Sound) in 1851 but, even with the renowned longevity of islanders, this must surely have been another individual?
It was in one of this small township’s ‘blackhouses’ that the Kerr family lived. What Malcolm did for a living is unknown and if he and Effie had any daughter’s could only be discovered by examining the Death Certificate of every female born between say 1780 and 1820, a task I do not intend to attempt!
In 1810, the West Coast township of Horgabost, on the farm of Nisibost, was cleared and a year later Alexander Hume was dead, leaving Harris in the hands of his son Alexander Norman Macleod. He appointed a mainland farmer Donald Stewart, who had previously wreaked havoc in Pairc on neighbouring Lewis, as his Factor. This put Stewart in a position of extreme power, not least because this Macleod, like his father before him, was predominantly an absentee landlord relying upon his Factor to run affairs in his behalf. And Stewart certainly did run affairs on HIS behalf! He was able to pursue a campaign of land-grabbing regardless of the consequences for the men, women and children that he replaced with dumb, and more profitable, sheep.
He employed other means to increase income, such as dividing the township of Seilibost, on his own farm of Luskentyre, into crofts. This maximised the population available to work for him and simultaneously increased the rental income from Seilibost. A win-win situation.
The main cash-crop at this time was Kelp, a product not of the land but of the sea. It was Kelp-making that brought the Macleods the money that sustained their mainland lifestyle, that gave some islanders much-needed employment but that had also created rent-inflation. This combination, reliant upon a single industry, was a disaster waiting to happen and, when the Napoleonic Wars ended, disaster occurred. Kelp had only become profitable due to the unavailability of imports during wartime and, once imports resumed from 1815 onwards, the price of Kelp plummeted with devastating results.
We have a description from 1821 of Kelp-Making in Strond and the tone of that account suggests that its author, Mrs Anne Campbell’s Factor on the farm, another Alexander Macleod, was desperate to persuade his readership of the quality of the product.
However, between the end of the wars and this account of Kelp, another awful act took place. In 1818, and on one of the rare occasions that Alexander Norman Macleod was in residence at Rodel House Rodel itself was Cleared. The house would later become home to a later Factor but the current one, clearly with the knowledge and compliance of his master, threw the people of Rodel from their homes on Rodel Farm.
Angus and John’s paths in life must have diverged around this time for, by 1821, Angus had married and had a daughter in An-t-Ob/Strond whilst John had become a Tailor, moved to Direcleit where he had married and now had a son. It is impossible for me to know why one of the two was able to remain along the Sound whilst the other was displaced. It might, however be explained by John’s marrying a daughter of Direcleit. As a tailor, he probably travelled around the island touting for trade so, although I once assumed that he was a victim of the Factor Donald Stewart’s Clearances, it is equally likely that marital harmony was the factor at play!
Direcleit, on the shore of East loch Tarbert a couple of miles from Tarbert, was uninhabited at the time of Bald’s map. It is believed to have first been settled in the 1820s, which might tip the balance back towards John being a Clearance victim?, and is the first township to be encountered if you enter the Bays from Tarbert. The name’ Direcleit’ comes from the Norse and means ‘Deer Cliff’. It had been part of the grazing land for Donald Stewart’s farm at Luskentire but the name indicates the nature both of the terrain and of its indigenous inhabitants.
It is a difficult area to describe but I will do my best. If you leave Tarbert on the ferry to Uig in Skye, you will pass it on the starboard side. A line of broken islands, which would form a narrow peninsular should the sea level fall, announces the start of the territory. Between this minor archipelago and the bloated form of its rotund and robust neighbour, Aird Direcleit, lies a bay called Ob liceasto. It is huddled around the shore of this Ob that the township was built at the foot of the deer cliff. There is no flat, obviously cultivatable land anywhere to be seen but a small stream enters the sea at the start of the archipelago and that, I presume, was a source of fresh drinking water.
This stream, I hesitate to call it a river purely for fear of providing an over-bounteous impression, is the overflow of the loch that lies hidden behind the cliff. Loch Direcleit sits 140 yards from the sea and some 40 yards above it but is unusually deep, plunging down to 27 yards at its deepest. Roughly 1000 yards long and averaging perhaps 200 yards wide, it would become an awesome chasm should its deep, dark waters ever drain away.
A few hundred yards from the loch at its southern extremity, is the township of Ceann Dibig. I mention it for two reasons. Firstly, because it and Direcleit, although distinct, form a close pair of townships and secondly, because, although tradition has it that Ceann Dibig was also first settled in the 1820s, the map of 1804 clearly indicates a trio of buildings there. They site, at the head of Bay Dirceleit, may indicate that it was the spot where boats made landfall on the East side of the farm of Luskentyre but that is pure conjecture on my part.
Several hundreds of miles away, in the church of St Peter at Frimley in Surrey, a baby girl named Frances Sarah Thomas Bousfield, the daughter of a Solicitor, George Bousfield, and his wife Elizabeth, was being Baptised on the 27th June 1821.
In 1824, on the island of Scalpay that lies between Direcleit and the shore of North Harris, the present Eilean Glas Lighthouse was built. I find this significant because it tells us that sufficient seafaring was taking place in the area for the expense of such a construction to be deemed necessary. It must be remembered that it was Rodel and the Sound of Harris that was the historic home to shipping yet it was here, on the route into the as yet undeveloped port of Tarbert, that a light was shone. There has never been a lighthouse constructed on the Isle of Harris itself.
Two years later, and across the water at Direcleit, John and Margaret had a daughter who they named Marion whilst, in the Sound ,Angus and Marion’s son Malcolm was born.
A flavour of the world that they were born into may be gain from The Baptist Magazine, Volume 19, 1827 where, on pages 324-325, there is an article on the ‘Baptist Highland Mission’:
The following extracts are taken from the journal of Mr Campbell, one of the Itinerants employed by this important and useful Institution:
July 2nd, Sabbath day: Having, during the previous week, intimated as extensively as possible our intention to preach at Tarbert on Sabbath, a great number of boats full of people assembled from all quarters, besides many people who came by land. We both preached to an audience of about 350…
3rd – Travelled this day to Caolas: The road was the worst imaginable: indeed there was no track or road of any sort, but rugged rocks and moss, and lakes of water. At times we did not know whither we were going…
5th – Preached at Strand to 60, some of whom followed us for two days, and in the evening at Roudel to 35. Most of the inhabitants here were from home, as mentioned above, otherwise three times the number would have attended. Had a long conversation with a blacksmith, of the name of Morrison, a native of the place. He preaches to the people of Strand, and appears to be a good man, and well acquainted with his bible. It would appear he has been very useful in this place, both by preaching and writing. He is one of the best poets in the Highlands of Scotland,; his conduct exemplary; possesses excellent talents, and a sound judgement. The people told us, he can communicate his ideas with facility and force. They have built a large meeting-house for him, where he preaches three times every Lord’s day, and Wednesday evening. The people of the south would feel it not an easy task to attend his three lectures on Sabbath. We are told, he begins at seven, and continues till ten – again at eleven, and insists till five – lastly, at six, and concludes the services of the day between nine and ten. This is certainly going to an extreme; meanwhile it evinces the good man’s zeal.
There is much to interest us here. What a wonderful picture is evoked of an armada of boats arriving in Tarbert on that particular Sunday! It is also a valuable reminder of the transport of (somewhat limited) choice of the people, and the description of the journey to Caolas (which I think is Kyles Stockinish, not Kyles Scalpay) emphasises the point.
They preached at Geocrab, Manish and Finsbay before arriving at ‘Strand‘ and their choosing the Bays of the East in 1827 reminds us that these were turbulent times in Harris and that many of the population hade been Cleared to the East coast. The phrase ‘some of whom followed us for two days’ is simply stunning – they must have thought themselves on the shore of the Sea of Galilee rather than that of the Sound of Harris!
‘most of the people here were from home’ is somewhat ambiguous. Did he mean that they were away, perhaps engaged in fishing or at the sheilings, or did he mean that people hadn’t travelled to hear them preach but were in their homes? The answer would lie in ‘as mentioned above‘, but for the fact that there is no such mention within the document that I can discern.
Finally, we have a description of his meeting with ‘a blacksmith, of the name of Morrison‘ , who would become known as ‘Gobha na Hearadh’ and play a pivotal part in the religious history of Harris. For a missionary Baptist to describe John Morrison’s Sabbath activities as ‘going to an extreme‘ certainly explains why ‘The people of the south would feel it not an easy task to attend his three lectures on Sabbath‘.
Meanwhile, Donald Stewart was continuing to expand his empire and in 1828 it was the people of Scarista’s turn to suffer, swiftly followed by their neighbours in Seilibost the following year. From Horgabost in the North to Scarista in the South, only the townships of Borve remained peopled along the whole of the fertile machair of the island’s West coast. But there was also something else in the hills behind that coat.
On Bald’s map of 1804, inland of the three settlements of Big, Middle and Little Borve, is marked an ‘Abislos Quarry‘ and nearby a later hand has marked an ‘X‘ with the word ‘asbestos‘. Digging further, I discovered this entry in The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal Vol 4, 1828, p150, footnote to: Account of Harris, one of the Districts of the Outer Hebrides:
Dr MacCulloch mentions the occurrence of asbestos at Nishishee… which he conjectures to have been derived from a bed of serpentine…I found neither asbestos nor serpentine ; but of the former I have seen enough in the country to load an Indiaman. It occurs in a large perfectly isolated mass in granite in the hills of Little Borg, with fragments of gneiss, and their lower parts with peat, upon a subsoil of clay or angular gravel .
This account from 1828 matches precisely the location identified by the later-hand on Bald’s map of 1804. I cannot say if the ‘Abislos Quarry’ (written by the original hand) indicates asbestos quarrying occurring as far back as 1804but this is clearly corroborating evidence of the existence of asbestos on Harris.
On the south coast in 1829, Angus had a new son called Angus whilst at Direcleit Johns’ wife produced another daughter whom they called Mary.
Stewart’s insatiable appetite for land continued unabated and in 1830 both Angus and John witnessed it first-hand. Direcleit and Ceann Dibig, in the farm of Luskentyre, were broken into crofts and the whole of the farm of Strond followed suit. This must have been forced upon Mrs Anne Campbell, who’s 30-year lease still had 5 years to run, unless there is an error in the date given?
Despite all these upheavals, the census of 1831 states that the population of Harris had grown to 3810. Only 40 years earlier it had been 2536 so in that time it had grown by 50%. Yet, despite this stark fact, Donald Stewart deemed it appropriate to expand his sheep farms and push the people into
the mean bleakness of the Bays.
In Direcleit at the start of those Bays, John’s third daughter, daughter Ann appeared in 1831 and Angus’s third son Roderick was born in the same year.
If it be thought that I am painting the Factor in an unfair light, let me give another couple of insights into the character of and ways of Donald Stewart. In 1832 he refused to replace damaged and missing slates on the church on Berneray although he had a clear, legally defined, obligation to do so. The Minister records that he wrote to Stewart and, having received no reply, was to write again but in stronger terms.
1833 saw another pair of births for the brothers, Angus’ new daughter named Christian born and John’s called Catherine.
Donald Stewart has been described as ‘the worst thing to happen to Harris’ and a piece from 1834 suggests that his arrogant attitude extended well beyond merely those who suffered the most at his ‘improving’ shenanigans. On the 12th of November 1834 the Court of Session in Inverness heard a case brought by Donald Stewart, Factor of Harris, against a Mrs Ann Campbell. In 1770 Mrs Campbell was granted a 42 year lease which would terminate in 1812 but in 1805 a new lease for 30 years ‘from and after 1804’ was entered into. Clearly that was why the case took place in 1834.
This new lease stipulated that:
‘at the expiry of the lease the tenant should be entitled to such reasonable sum, by way of meliorations, as may have been already laid out under the former lease, or that may be laid out by them, during the currency hereof, in building or repairing proper dwelling-houses or office-houses on the said lands and others &c’.
A clear statement that whatever improvements Mrs Campbell made would be repaid to her.
The house and offices were erected during the former lease, and in 1813 they were completely repaired. The tenant had also built a mill, and in 1818 the proprietor wrote to her:
‘I this day received your missive letter regarding the mill you built at Oab, and hereby signify my full approbation of the sufficient manner in which it is built.
I accordingly hereby, by this my missive letter, bind and oblige myself, my heirs, executors or assignees whatsomever, to pay back to you the expense of building said mill, say L.230, at the expiration of your tack of the lands you hold from me, provided you uphold and deliver over to me the said mill in the same good order it now stands.’
So, sometime between 1770 and 1813 a ‘house and offices‘ were built by Mrs Campbell and we may presume that they were constructed early in the lease as otherwise they would not have required to be ‘completely repaired’ in 1813.
Further, we see that by 1818 Mrs Campbell had also had a Mill built at ‘Oab‘. I presume, therefore, that she held the tack of the Farm of Strond from 1770 until 1834 during which time she oversaw the establishment of the mill at An-t-Ob. It is known that a Mrs Campbell held that same tack in 1851 but whether she was related to this Mrs Ann Campbell I do not know.
The Court report then states:
The tenant…pleaded retention of the rent to meet these meliorations, and the Lord Ordinary found that the defender is entitled to the amount of the meliorations specified in the clause of the lease 1805.
So Mrs Campbell won but,
Finds, That the claim for the value of the mill erected by the tenant does not fall under that description.
It appears that the mill, despite the letter, was excluded from the settlement?
Judgement. And to this interlocutor the Court adhered.
The other point of interest is that this case took place in November 1834 and George Murray, 5th Earl of Dunmore, had completed his purchase of Harris in March of that same year. It would be interesting to know if the Earl had any personal involvement in cases such as these where his Factor is attempting to avoid to pay for ‘ameliorations’ made by his tenants, but I suspect that Donald Stewart was pursing them purely for his own ends.
Either way, at least they allow us to glean information about the past that might otherwise not have been recorded. That is the last that I have to tell of Donald Stewart for, as mentioned, on the 5th March 1834 George Murray, 5th Earl of Dunmore bought Harris for £60,000 and one of his first actions was to appoint a new Factor called Duncan Shaw.
If this change had been intended to indicate a change in the treatment of his tenants, then perhaps the replacement of one ‘DS’ with a second bearing the same initials should have served as a warning! However, the significance of the ending of the Macleod era of ownership cannot be overstated for the new landlord had every intention of making Harris habitable for himself and his family. It was not to be for, only two years after making his purchase, the 5th Earl would be dead.
In 1835 and for the sixth consecutive time since 1821, the brothers each added to their respective families. Angus and Marion had their third daughter, Effy, whilst John and Margaret produced a second son, Angus.
1836 and 1837 saw two poor harvests, particularly of potatoes, and were a warning of worse to come. It is also in 1836 that some claim that the Countess of Dunmore began her marketing of tweeds but, whilst it is presumed true that at some point her husband had commissioned Murray Tartan cloth to be made for himself and his household, there is no supporting evidence of this very early date.
Angus, somewhat sneakily, produced yet another son, William, in 1836 but normal service was resumed the following year in the form of John’s daughter Effy and Angus’ eighth and final offspring, Mary.
Duncan Shaw, having apparently kept a low profile for his first four years as Factor, swept into action. In 1839 he completed the clearance of the machair, sweeping the people from Big, Middle and Little Borve. He then turned his attention to Taransay, clearing Raah on behalf of the island’s tacksman, one John Macdonald. In fact, the majority of Taransay, comprising the townships of Uidh and Paible, had already been cleared but, as the precise date is unclear, I felt it unfair to ascribe it to any particular Factor, save to say that that his initials were ‘DS’.
The end of the 1830s saw John’ third son, also called John, born in 1839 giving him, like his brother, a family of eight. The census of 1841 beckoned…