It was inevitable that the focus of my early interest was is in 19thC Harris for that were where I found the information for most of my early pieces. As I started to discover a richer, more varied seam of sources I was able to develop a longer-term context within which to place my findings and, quite frankly, some of the earlier pieces make me cringe with their now-obvious ignorance & naivety!
Nonetheless, they remain as records of the stumbling progress that I believe I have made and when I look at my mentor Angus Macleod’s work I perceive a similarly non-linear and, at times, perceptibly perplexed collection of writings.
There are several more modern studies that, with hindsight, I should perhaps have read first but on the other hand it is good to travel on one’s own path -even if on reaching the destination a pre-existing short-cut is discovered!
A common theme in all that I have read is the bias between those for whom the islander was perceived as a feckless, lazy and out-dated individual and those who understood the islands as integrated communities with values extending into realms far beyond mere monetary value.
Kelp was the late 18thC cash-crop that fuelled seasonal migration & continual population growth without the profits from the boom years being reinvested within the island to develop alternative forms of employment for when the inevitable bust occurred.
Captain Macleod’s attempts at developing fishing were the nearest that anyone got to in thinking about this and, had he lived to see his plans come to full fruition, it is just possible that Tarbert, Harris could have grown & prospered in the 19thC on a par with, or perhaps at the expense of, Stornoway.
But that, too, would have foundered with the over-fishing and changes elsewhere in the economy so that once again reliance upon a single engine for the economy would have seen boom turn to bust.
All this, however, is to lose sight of the situation on the isles before the fishing, before the kelp, before the Captain and before Culloden. If any single turning-point exists for the problems that dogged the isles for all of the 19thC, and much of the 20thC, it is surely the destruction of the clan system and the ongoing denigration of the Highlander and Gaelic culture that had started in 1745.
I shall leave it to Angus Macleod to explain this in what I think is the most succinct yet complete of his writings on this subject (and from which the title of this piece was taken): The Highland and Islands Clan System
and will merely add that all that I have written fully supports his assertion that:
‘The real philosophy behind these events was the unrestricted accumulation of wealth in the hands of the privileged few, by exploiting the land as well as any other basic resource available.’
Angus Macleod – born 25 August 1916, Calbost, Pairc, Lochs, Isle of Lewis, died 2002.