>An odd reference to Sir Walter Scott’s visit to Harris?

>I am happy to admit to having something of a fixation with the Census of 1851as regards what we can learn from it about the history of Harris. In part, this is because it is the first detailed record of the population (its predecessor of 1841 being comparatively ill-designed & poorly executed) but also because of the circumstances pertaining on the isle at the time.

By way of illustration we may consider what the Minister of Harris said in his comments regarding Rodel & Enumeration District 5. . Roderick Macdonald had been appointed to this role in 1847 by the ‘Tutor to the Earl of Dunmore’ aka Catherine, Countess of Dunmore.

“…There is a small thriving plantation in this District and a few patches of land improved by great labour by a former Proprietor  – but the rest of the land is un(?) – rocky and very ill adapted to agricultural purposes (Vid: Sir W. Scotts visit to Harris (indecipherable) ) so that the increase of population that is (indecipherable) to be expected can be but ill provided for here, unless the fishing can be prosecuted with better success(?) than here to fore.”

This is fairly typical of his comments on each of the Enumeration Districts and I cannot but compare his attitude with that displayed by the Ministers of the Free Church when giving their evidence to the Napier Commission a little over three decades later. Macdonald is clearly toeing his Master’s (or, rather, his Mistress’s!) line in emphasising the ‘problem’ of the population rather than the manner by which the population had been ripped from its fertile lands and forced into overcrowded and un-tillable townships that were still suffering from several years of famine due to the disease of the potato crop, a crop that they were forced to rely upon due directly to the agricultural consequences of the Clearances. (Oddly he states that District 4, which includes Strond, has the best soil on Harris but others say that the red soil of Rodel is the best?)

What is not typical is the reference to a visit made, by accident, some 37 years earlier by Sir Walter Scott and  which can be read about in Scotland Magazine,Issue 29. Why did the Minister choose to cite this celebrity source as one that gave weight to his argument? Who did he perceive his audience to be that would appreciate this bizarre decision? I can only think that it was be the Countess herself and that this was Macdonald attempting some kind of ‘intellectual’ flattery in pursuit of justifying her intention to solve the ‘problem’ by emigration, a wish that was fulfilled in part the following year when 742 departed Harris for Australia but exacerbated in 1853 when Borve was cleared for yet another time and many of its people sent to already overcrowded areas in the Bays.

Whatever the reason, Roderick Macdonald only served the parish for a further three years and on the 28th of December 1854 he became the Minister of South Uist. By then, many of his flock had already sought ‘sanctuary’ in the teachings of the newly constructed (after a protracted battle with the Countess) Free Church at Manish…

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