Born in Rodel. Died in Dunvegan, Skye
“Until after the middle of the last century, the land appears to have been occupied exclusively by tacksmen, generally kinsmen or dependents of the proprietor, with sub-tenants, who held of the tacksmen, and by joint-tenants, who held farms in common, each having a stated share. About the time referred to, many of the farms held by tacksmen seem to have been taken directly from the proprietor by joint-tenants. They grazed their stock upon the pasture in common, and cultivated the arable land in alternate ridges, or ” rigs,” distributed annually, and called ” run-rig.” By this arrangement, each got a portion of the better and the worse land; but no one had two contiguous ridges, or the same ridge for two successive years, unless by accident. Since the commencement of the present century, the arable land has, in most cases, been divided into separate portions, of which one was assigned to each of the joint-tenants or crofters, the grazing, as formerly, remaining in common.”
Ref: Report to the Board of Supervision by Sir John McNeill, GCB, on the Western Highlands & Islands, 1851. page viii. (Further quotes are from this Report)
This system, which is known as ‘Ridge & Furrow’ in ‘South Britain’ (or England, as it is more usually named), received its first legal assault in the 1695 General Enclosure Act (Scotland) but, as the above article from ‘British Archaeology’ informs us, the eradication of this equitable system of agriculture took place at varying speed and over a considerable period of time in different parts of the British Isles.
What is interesting is that Sir John then goes on to explain that when crofting was introduced as the replacement for run-rig, it allowed for the sub-division of crofts, a situation that had been impossible when the arable land was held in common and the cultivation strips were rotated annually amongst the whole populace.
This new possibility to sub-divide what had been intended to be sufficient land to support one crofting family coincided with the kelp-fuelled population explosion. In the boom years of kelp-manufacture this was not an issue, indeed it was necessary for the workforce to expand to keep-up production with the ever-increasing demand, but the new mouths could only be fed because of the wages earned from this somewhat early branch of industrial-scale chemistry. As an aside, Sodium Carbonate (or Soda Ash or Washing Soda) was used in glass-making and the manufacture of Soap and it was a man who made his first fortune from selling soap, Lord Leverhulme, who would become the owner of Lewis & Harris within 70 years of Sir John’s report.
Crofting also allowed the architects of the Clearances to sub-divide crofts to ‘create space’ for those whom they were displacing from elsewhere thereby diminishing the livelihoods of two families for each Cleared family as described by the Sheriff-Substitute, Charles Shaw:
When boom turned to bust, and it was inevitable that it would as the price of kelp had been artificially inflated by the effect of the Napoleonic Wars to an unsustainable £30 a ton in 1815 compared to only £1 a ton before the wars began, then suddenly there were hungry mouths to feed but neither enough land to grow sufficient food nor the wages being earned to purchase it.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the third and final blow came in the form of the Potato Famines of 1846-51, these being exacerbated by the twin factors of people forced to attempt to grow food on land that could only be cultivated as ‘feannagan’ (a system requiring vast quantities of kelp as fertilizer) and the repeated planting of the crop on the same meagre patches of land.
Of course, there was one other factor at work during this time and that was the development of sheep-farming as a commercial venture, again something that the removal of Run-Rig made possible. Proprietors looking for the best return on their investment had wallowed in wealth during the years of the kelp-bubble but when it burst they were left with a populace living in poverty and no obvious alternate employment. Sheep-runs were the answer for the Farmer class that was connected to the Factors of Harris either by marriage or occupation, or both.
To add insult to injury, when those Cleared away from the fertile soil to make way for sheep were unable to grow sufficient produce to pay their rents, the blame was passed to them for being unable to do so! There was the attempt to re-settle the Borves on the West coast of Harris and John Robson Macdonald gives his side of that story in great detail. What is significant in that account is that he places the blame upon the failure of the 1848 project as due to the fact that the crofters had insufficient capital to be able to develop the land they were renting. He neglects to mention that the re-settlement was undertaken against his wishes (and those of his accomplices farming that area), that it took place during some of the worst years for crop failure all over the isles, and that there is no evidence that any consideration was given to providing a system whereby capital could be made available to the crofters. What Macdonald does do, however, is turn the failed project to his advantage by using it as proof that giving the crofters land is not going to solve the problem of their destitution.
Fishing, which might alleviate the suffering in some ways, was never going to support a population that had perhaps doubled within as little as two generations, especially as those moved to ‘fishing crofts’ were not always in possession of boats etc and only some of those who lacked them were provided with the means to fish by the relief committee Even if the dreams of Captain Macleod and the desires of John Lanne Buchanan been realised, it would merely have meant that Tarbert would have temporarily shared in some of the wealth that went to Stornoway before the fishing fell into decline. The solution was simple. Move them off the better land, make their miserable existence even less unbearable and then portray yourself as a philanthropist by offering to offload them across the Atlantic at, in part, your own expense.
I doubt it was quite as calculated as that at first, but it seems significant that John Robson Macdonald in his evidence to McNeill clearly states that it was in 1847, the year after the first widespread failure of the potato crop, that the Countess of Dunmore offered to export some of her son’s excess population to North America and this was repeated the following year with the suggestion that a dozen families might like to emigrate to ‘there be settled on the property of the Honourable Charles Murray, uncle of the proprietor of Harris.’
Nice – the brother-in-law needs labour and you are happy to supply it for him!
Unsurprisingly, neither offer was met with any takers from the non-English speaking, half-starved, close-knit, Cleared and castigated islanders who had by then turned their backs on the Established Church of Scotland and fully-embraced the five-year-old Free Church.
If it is thought that I am being a little uncharitable regarding these gestures and the motivation that lay behind them, I would ask you to take into consideration the attitude of the widowed Countess’s late husband to his people, to the testimony given to the Napier Commission in 1883, to the profligate behaviour of Alexander Norman Macleod who had wasted the wealth that the kelp brought to the isle, to the similarly excessive activities of the 7th Earl of Dunmore that led to the 26 year-old having to sell the North Harris Estate in 1867, and to the lack of evidence that the early development of ‘Harris Tweed’ by the Countess was anything but a nice marketing tale spun much later by the Duchess of Sutherland, and that if any woman should be credited with the early promotion of the industry it should be ‘Mrs Thomas’, whom I have identified as Frances Bousfield Thomas, the wife of Lieutenant FWL Thomas RN.
It was Fanny Thomas who endowed the hospital at Manish, in the settlement where the Countess eventually, after protracted prevarication, allowed the first Free Church to be built, it was she who had depots in London as well as Leith and it was she who took-in the children of destitute (Free Church) Ministers and other families in order to enable them to benefit from the experience and, most intriguingly of all, it was she whose obituary appeared in a magazine of the ‘Quaker’ (Society of Friends) movement.
The Countess certainly did provide some early assistance as described in the letter from the Parochial Board of Harris:
On a par with my favourite map of Harris (the 1804/1805 one produced by Bald) is this chart from 1857 .
I have referred to each of these several times, the map’s subtitle being ‘The property of Alexander Hume Esq surveyed by William Bald, Assistant to Mr Ainslie, in 1804-5’ whilst the chart was ‘surveyed by Lieut. F.W.L. Thomas, R.N. Assisted by W.T. Clifton 2nd Master’.
I wish to compare Bald’s view of ‘Dieraclate’ with that of Thomas’s ‘Dhiracleit’ both to see what had altered in the intervening half-century, both in terms of Harris itself, of cartographic techniques and the motivation for making maps. I have attempted to provide links that display as closely as possible the same area but not precisely so.
Starting with Bald’s map (this particular copy of which apparently dates from 1829), the man who probably commissioned it, Alexander Hume Macleod, had inherited the island from his father, the successful seaman Captain Macleod, in 1790 and would soon pass it on to his own son, Alexander Norman Macleod in 1811. Ignoring the pencilled annotations, which I believe to have been made during the ownership of the 7th Earl of Dunmore, the map is clearly intended to inform the landlord in some detail of the agricultural arrangements of the island. It itemises the holdings of no less than 25 separate parts and displays the location and boundaries pertaining to each of these. Additionally, major landmarks are identified as are settlements and routes for communication. There is a compass cross indicating North and scales in both ‘Scotch Chains 74 feet each’ and in ‘Miles’ as well as some soundings dotted around the casts and islands but whose unit of measure is not defined. The only other navigational information is a single ‘Bearing to Gasgheir distance from Ru Hinigha 10 miles’ although why we have this indication of where the island of Gaisgeir (Gasker in English) lies is a mystery. On the modern OS map this tiny island sits in splendid isolation neatly within the square kilometre at NA875116 so whether Bald included it as a useful navigational aid or simply in the interest of completeness is unknown.
Returning to the detailed section of the map around Direcleit, I want to consider the settlements that are indicated beginning with ‘Tarbet’. Here we see a cluster of perhaps nine buildings bounded by a dotted-enclosure and West Loch Tarbert. Only a pair of buildings are shown in the area to the East where the present-day village is found. The settlement at the West Loch must surely indicate a link to the fishing grounds of the Atlantic for the harbour is the safest on the whole of that side of ‘mainland’ Harris and Captain Macleod definitely perceived the economic future of the isle to lie within the sea rather than upon the land. Moving away from ‘Tarbet’ towards ‘Loch Dieraclate’ we encounter no signs of habitation within this part of the Farm of Luskentyre until reaching ‘ Ken Diebeck’. If we assume that Bald only marked houses that were in occupation then if there had been any people living in that area he missed them but if he marked all buildings regardless of their status then the area had yet to be settled. Whichever is the case we are reasonably safe to say that whilst people were living in Kendebig at the time there were none at Direcleit.
Compare that with the situation in 1857 where the chart still shows some six houses at ‘Ceann Dhibig’ but then another two-dozen scattered from ‘Baille Dhiracleit’ via the peninsular of ‘Dhiracleit Pt’ and up to ‘Craobhag’. As clear an indication as one could wish for of the effect of the Clearances that took place during the first-half of the nineteenth-century in Harris.
One of those houses is of especial interest to me. If you start at ‘Baille Dhiracleit’, sitting on the narrow slice of land between the waters of sea and the inland loch, and let your eye traverse diagonally upwards and to the left you will reach a triangular mark with a dot inside it. This ‘Trig Point’ (short for ‘Triangulation Point’) is a fixed point whose precise location is known from other similar points that lie within sight of it and whose height above the sea has been measured to a great degree of accuracy. It is the secret behind all the work of cartography since the formation of the Ordnance Survey but whether this particular one was the work of that organisation of of Thomas himself I cannot say. This Trig Point lies within a defined parcel of land with two houses and it is the one nearest to ‘Coal I’ and ‘Big I’ that is our destination for there, some thirty-five years before the chart was constructed, my great, great grandfather Malcolm Kerr had been born.
As can be seen from this list , a school was erected at by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge at Scarista on October the 11th 1732.
At the time that the list was compiled in 1748 there were 13 boys and 9 girls attending the school.
The other three schools in the Presbytery of Uist were on the islands of St Kilda and Benbecula and at ‘Borbh’ which I presume to refer to the Borve on North Uist?
The 22 scholars of Scarista are the earliest that I have discovered thus far.