I have not discovered any more biographical information but as I haven’t made reference to the third of his publications now seems to be a good time to do so:
Travels in the Western Hebrides (1793)
A Defence of the Scots Highlanders (1794)
General View of the Fishery of Great Britain (1794)
A ‘General View’ (as I shall refer to it henceforth) is one of those narratives that casts a broad sweep in time and place, making it a worthwhile read whatever aspect of history ‘floats your boat’, and so I shall concentrate upon some of the many references to Harris that it contains.
At the conclusion of the Preface JBL writes:
“It remains now that the author begs some allowance from the English Reader for the style and expression ; his chief attention being to make himself understood ; therefore he has followed a plain and pie style, without pomp or affectation”
This author will do his best to follow that example, too, although to the modern eye and ear Buchanan’s prose is at times rather convoluted!
Apparently (p17) in 1633 King Charles built several storage houses in the Hebrides ‘one at HERMITRA, in HARRIS, and another in LOCHMADDY, in North UIST, which lies about a league and a half South of HERMITRA…’
Now 5 miles is ‘about a league and a half’ and if we consult Bald’s 1805 map of Harris we find the island of ‘Hermetray’, complete with Harbour, lying in the Sound of Harris and on today’s OS maps the isle is shown variously as ‘Thernatraigh’ (1:50 000) and ‘Hermetray’ (1:25 000). There is, however, no sign of the Harbour nor of Charles’ construction but it might be worth a brief archaeological visit lying as it does a little over a mile from the coast of north-eastern North Uist.
Starting on p126 we are given an account of John Knox’s findings in which Buchanan is polite but firm in casting Knox as ‘…but a stranger, and at best but a speculative fisher…’ but goes on to put the blame for mis-siting fisheries firmly at the door of Knox’s superiors for accepting his suggestions without question.
By p156 we are into the nitty-gritty of Buchanan’s annoyance which is focussed upon Tarbert in Harris being overlooked as a place to establish a fishery. East Loch Tarbert, if a channel had been constructed linking it the 600 yards to the West Loch, would have been within an hours sailing from the Atlantic Herring fisheries to the West as well as perfectly sited for the whole of the Minch. It was Knox, influenced by the enthusiasm of ‘Mr Macleod’, the proprietor of Harris, who had proposed Tarbert for this purpose but later Knox had fallen under the spell of those supporting sites away from the Western Isles and Tarbert fell from his favour It is, I think, worth reminding ourselves that Captain Macleod had died four years prior to the writing of the ‘General View’ and that both Buchanan and Knox clearly held him in the very highest regard as an industrious and caring landlord. It was undoubtedly a huge loss to Harris when the Captain died 220 years ago.
The extent of the loss to Harris is graphically described from p168 onwards including reference to Buchanan’s earlier writings where ‘a just parallel is drawn’ between the people living in LUSGINTIRE (Losgaintir in Gaelic) and African slaves. The account continues in an ever-more depressing manner and it is almost possible to see Buchanan’s compassionate tears flooding the pages with raw anger, albeit phrased with late 18thC politeness.
The influence of kelp-making is remarked upon on p193 for apparently on the East coast of Scotland ‘the thick column of disagreeable fog…has greatly diminished the fish on these shores.’ This is contrasted with the kelp smoke on the ‘Long Island’ where the strong winds ‘clear off that smell.’ Buchanan wasn’t to know that the kelp market would soon collapse but that does not diminish the point he makes that at the time the Hebrides had a distinct advantage in terms of the profusion of local fish stocks.
When we reach p203 onwards we find Buchanan castigating the silence of the Hebridean proprietors en masse for having ‘so little to say’ regarding the decisions taken regarding the siting of fisheries largely caused by Knox’ unknowledgeable recommendations. Basically, the proprietors had been keen to see fisheries established, after all, richer tenants make for richer landlords!, but rather strangely they did not challenge the recommendations and merely fell mute.
Buchanan proceeds to point out that, with the exception of the ‘narrow and at times dangerous sound of Harris’ the sites chosen on the mainland had no access to the Atlantic fish between Barra and the Butt of Lewis, a distance of some 200 miles.
‘As for the direct opposition given by the steel bowman at Lusgintire…his private interest would suffer by the village at TARBERT. For the paultry spot of Moor and Moss with the Kelp, not half a mile long and broad, out of the bay of DIRACLETT near the village, he made it appear…that he drew more money yearly from the division cut out of that paltry bay than the proprietor drew from the whole of that extensive lease…’
Buchanan suggests that the ‘steel bowman’ thus made a fool of the ‘sweet tempered gentleman’ Captain Macleod ‘a circumstance he never could forget while in life’. It might not be going too far to say that, in Buchanan’s view, Macleod died of a broken heart having learnt of the avarice and heartlessness of the farmers, those men who would in later years embark on the wholesale Clearance of the fertile West coast of Harris.
‘And there is not the least doubt, had he lived, but he would break this tyrant’s power, by depriving him of this extensive profitable lease…’ Not only would the Clearnces never taken place, but Tarbert would have become the fishing station of Buchanan’s vision, complete with horse-drawn carriages to portage boats between the lochs as demand required…
Buchanan concludes by describing in detail his plans for a necklace of fishing stations throughout the isles, making the case for each individually and their interconnectedness as a whole. Instead of which, by the time of his death in 1828, the tyranny of the farmers had become even greater and Tarbert remained a quiet backwater rather than the bustling hub of Buchanan’s scheme.