>About the Hebrides No VIII

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‘Tarbert in Harris, to which the Clansman conveyed us from Loch Maddy in North Uist, was described to us by a residenter of the place, though not a native, as consisting of 26 dwelling-houses and 13 shops – he begged pardon, business premises of “merchants”. This is possibly a rather rough-and-ready summing-up, but it is correct enough in so far as indicating that the number of the latter is distinctly out of proportion to the number and requirements of the former.

The village stands at the head of East Loch Tarbert, that indentation of the sea that cuts into the land from the Minch to about a quarter of a mile from the head of West Loch Tarbert, similarly indenting it from the Atlantic, the so close approach of the two all but constituting the southern portion of Harris an island. As it is, the march between the two districts is here, the proprietor of North Harris being Sir Edward H Scott, Bart., and of South Harris the Earl of Dunmore.

The houses are all on the north or right hand side as you enter by the steamer, ust where the loch or bay becomes a creek of 300 or 400 yards in length, and narrowing to less than 50 yards at the top. The first structure to catch the eye is the Free Church, a plain enough building, erected on the summit of an eminence jutting into the sea immediately eastward of the pier. Close at hand, but standing a little lower, is the manse, a comfortable-looking, white-washed house, with a neatly-kept kitchen garden in front and sheltered so far from the wind and spray by some trees – the latter not of any dimensions, truly, but still forming a show of “wood” surpassing what we had seen as yet in working up the Long Island. Then comes the wooden pier, up from which, by a path that winds round to westward, you pass the schoolhouse (the of teacher which is also the registrar for the district, &c.), and get onto the main road or street, on the right of which stand the houses and stores of which, as above mentioned, the village consists. To right and left respectively of the pierhead is a row of eight or ten of these, some slated and others roofed with zinc, and all of one storey only.

Beyond these, going on to the head of the loch, there is a hiatus, to which succeeds a row of about a dozen newer-looking houses, two or or three of which are of two storeys and “semi-detached” from their neighbours. At the very head of the bay is the old Tarbert Inn , now disused as such; and across the road from this, almost down on the shore, the modern post and telegraph office. Following the road westwards two minutes’ walk brings you to the new Tarbert Hotel, in the very centre of the isthmus, and 30 or 40 yards further on is the house of the medical man of the district, Dr Stewart, which commands the view away down West Loch Tarbert.’
This is a gem of a description of Tarbert from 130 years ago and I only wish that I could name the author! However, we can identify ‘…Dr Stewart…’ as James Stewart for this young ‘Physician and Surgeon’ from Perthshire is found living in Kintulavig in 1881 and at 15 West Tarbert a decade later
Similary, we can be sure that the teacher who was ‘…also the registrar for the district, &c.’ was the Glaswegian Donald Bethune, he being the Schoolteacher in Tarbert in 1881 & 1891 , and that the Minister in the Manse was Roderick Mackenzie from Assynt in Sutherland who a few months after the publication of this article was giving his evidence to the Napier Commission where he makes particular reference to the work of Fanny Thomas .
We are especially fortunate in having the 1882 6-inch Ordnance Survey map (surveyed in 1878) on which to follow in the footsteps of our unknown author and then we should perhaps refresh ourselves at the ‘…new Tarbert Hotel …’ before returning later to examine the remainder of his piece…
Source: Glasgow Herald 16th September 1882 p3

>About the Hebrides No VII

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‘At the inn here we met again with one of the commercial gentlemen whom we had encountered at the different markets coming north. He was a travelling agent of the Singer’s Sewing Machine Company; and in proof of how general is becoming the adoption of these useful instruments everywhere, he told me that since leaving Barra he had sold ten machines in the Long Island; and, after paying all his own travelling expenses, had remitted over £70 to headquarters, in payment or part payment of machines sold by him on his last journey in these parts. He added that now-a-days it is quite common, in what we should call little Highland tailors’ shops, to find two machines going in full swing. We had had no idea previous to this time of the amount of business generally done by southern firms with the people of the Outer Hebrides, and therefore might well be surprised by one fact, among others, told us by this same gentleman – namely, that a well-known tea merchant hailing from Edinburgh, who regularly makes exhaustive journeys through the Long Island on his own account, will take home with him as the “collection” of one such visit about £1000. True, he has the great advantage of being thoroughly au-fait in the language of the natives, and he supplies numerous private customers as well as the merchants; but still – the statement surprised us.’
Before examining this account, I should like to look a little at the inn’s location which was in ‘…Tigharry, a township not far from Griminish Point…’ on North Uist where the ‘…somewhat humble but snug hostelry…’ was kept by ‘Mr Roderick Macaulay and his most capable and willing help-meet…’.
In 1841, the innkeeper at Tigh a’ Gerraidh (Tigharry) was 40 year-old Donald Macaulay who remained there in 1851 & 1861 but with the inclusion of ‘Farmer of 16 acres’ & then ‘Farmer of 14 acres’ as additional occupations.
In fact some 33 households are shown with the address of ‘Tigheary Inn’ in 1861, the Enumerator presumably considering this it to be the appropriate means of identifying the settlement as a whole?
Unfortunately the censuses of 1871 & 1881 return no clear indication of those (if there were indeed any?) living at, or keeping, the inn but the location can easily be seen on the 1881 OS 6-inch map.
In 1891 a Roderick Macaulay aged 54 was a Farmer in the township but, once again, the inn is not mentioned so whether he is the same person who nine years earlier had been the inn-keeper I cannot say.
Returning to the article itself, it is the information to be gleaned from the agent of the Singer Sewing Machine Company that demands our attention.
Firstly, a sum of £70 in 1882 equates to at least £5200 today (and quite possibly a lot more), the figure representing a combination of full and part payments for machines and after all the agent’s own expenses had been deducted from the sales. Small wonder that he had returned for another tour! I cannot find a price for a Singer sewing machine in 1882 but a close rival was on the market for about £4, equating to around £300 today.
Secondly, the image of a couple of Singer sewing machines ‘going in full swing‘ in many ‘little Highland tailor’s shops‘ is, at one and the same time, both reassuringly ‘cosy’ and also a pleasing antidote to the more-usual portrayal of island folk as automatically rejecting all such innovations.
Finally, the “collection” of £1000 by the Edinburgh tea merchant perhaps comes as no particular surprise until you update it to about £75,000 in today’s money. That’s a lot of tea (although precisely how much I cannot say) and the wily mainland merchant maximised his return by selling directly to his thirsty ‘Long Island’ customers as well as to the local merchants.
There we shall have to leave these travellers for now, enjoying their refreshments in Roderick Macaulay’s inn, but perhaps we’ll meet them again soon for they have many more interesting insights to provide us with into late 19thC life on the Long Island…
Source: Glasgow Herald September 1882

>What Became Of This Model of a Norse Mill?

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Readers of the Glasgow Herald on the 14th of April 1886 may have noticed an article relating the events of the monthly meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland that had taken place on the previous Monday evening. The Herald records that the Treasurer of the Society, Gilbert Goudie, presented a paper on the horizontal water mills of Shetland and that a ‘model of one still existing in Taransay, Harris was exhibited’. Intrigued by this, I looked for Goudie’s original paper where we learn that:
‘Mr Duncan Macdonald, who is intimately acquainted with the Harris district, has described to me an old mill which he has frequently seen in use in the island of Taransay. I am indebted to his kindness for the carefully executed model now exhibited.’
The site of the mills in Taransay that Duncan Macdonald had observed in operation and upon which his model was based is described as lying ‘...on the Allt a’Mhuilinn, just above the point where it turns to the west along the edge of the machair at the back of Paibeil.‘ as can be seen in this page from The Papar Project .
Goudie’s paper, which is a most interesting read and has several lovely line-drawings illustrating the text, unfortunately has neither a description nor a sketch of the model itself which leads me to wonder whatever became of Duncan Macdonald’s ‘carefully executed model’?
One other snippet of note is that ‘Mr Alexander Carmichael, an authority on all matters relating to social economics and local characteristics in the Western Isles, tells me he has seen several such mills at work in Harris and the Lews.’ but I do not know whether Carmichael recorded their location within his extensive writings?
Notes:
Gilbert Goudie has a page on his life & work here: http://shetlopedia.com/Gilbert_Goudie
We find the 57 year-old Bank Inspector from Dunrossness, Shetland, living in 1881 at 39 Northumberland Street, Edinburgh, along with his sister, her son, a Housemaid and a Cook.
Sources:
Glasgow Herald 14th April 1886
Proceedings of the society of Antiquaries of Scotland Volum 20 1885-86 page 285 http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/ARCHway/toc.cfm?rcn=1340&vol=20
The Papar Project – Taransay http://www.paparproject.org.uk/hebrides7.html
Further Reading:
‘The Norse Influence on Celtic Scotland’ – http://digital.nls.uk/archive/pageturner.cfm?id=80822037
‘The Norse Mills of Lewis’ – CE Uig – http://www.ceuig.com/archives/1138

>Glasgow International Exhibition 1888

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‘The Glasgow Exhibition was yesterday visited by upwards of 66,000 persons.’
The total number of visitors to the Exhibition exceeded five-and-a-half million (slightly more than visited the London Exhibition) and amongst the exhibits available to them, in the Women’s Industries Section, was a section from the Home Arts and Industries Association:
‘An interesting and important part of the society’s work at present is the developing and improving of the wool-spinning and weaving industries in the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Nearly 2000 women are employed under one class holder, Mrs Thomas, in spinning, dyeing and weaving; and in this exhibit is shown how the heavy woollen fabrics woven by them may be used for curtains, portieres, etc. Specimens of cloth and also of knitted socks, etc, are shown in a wall case outside the stand.’
This is tantalising for I have only come across one ‘Mrs Thomas’ involved with ‘heavy woollen fabrics’ and ‘knitted socks’ in the region. We know that in 1883 Fanny Thomas had still been taking boat trips to Taransay in connection with her work on the islands , that in 1897 she had endowed the Manish Victoria Cottage Hospital and that she appears to have maintained her interest until her death in Edinburgh in 1902 . The figure of ‘nearly 2000 women’ is astounding but, if this obituary is accurate, then at one time she had 400 stocking knitters on Harris alone!
‘Mrs Muir, of Lerwick, has brought with her three workers, who may be seen carding, spinning and knitting Shetland wool at her stand. This lady shows also a quantity of work knitted in the Fair Isles which is entirely different to the ordinary Shetland work, being bright and gay in colouring, and some of it very intricate in pattern. This kind of work is said to have been introduced into the islands by some of the Spaniards who were wrecked there at the time of the Spanish Armada. Not far from Mrs Muir’s stand is that of the Harris weaver, who, upon a very primitive loom, occasionally illustrates the weaving of the now famous and fashionable Harris tweeds. This loom was sent by Lady Scott, who takes great interest in the “homespun” industry of the Hebrides; and to the exertions of this lady and several others these textile industries owe their revival and recent development.’
I have included the Fair Isle section because, whilst straying outside my usual territory, it includes the story of wrecked sailors from the Armada and other similar tales are heard on the Western Isles.
The ‘Lady Scott’ referred to in regard to the loom upon which the (sadly un-named) Harris weaveress was working was Emilie, widow of Sir Edward Henry Scott and who, coincidently, had become a widow in 1883 which was the same year that Fanny Thomas’s husband Captain FWL Thomas had also died. This is the first direct reference I have found to the work of Lady Scott and it is entirely in keeping with the high regard with which the Scott family are held as proprietors of the North Harris Estate.
Finally, the use of the phrase ‘their revival and recent development‘ with reference to the ‘homespun’ textile industries of the Hebrides fits the pattern seen in the census data on Harris Weavers. .
Source: Glasgow Herald 10th November 1888 page 4
Note: The Home Arts & Industries Association, founded in 1884 by Eglantyne Louisa Jebb, was yet another organisation associated with the burgeoning arts & crafts movement in Britain and was functioning alongside others such as the Scottish Home Industries Association.

>The Board of Supervision and the Destitution in the Highlands

>(From a Correspondent) Glasgow Herald 23 April 1883 page 8

The special tour of inspection undertaken in the bitterly cold month of March by the two inspecting officers of the Board of Supervision, while it has fully corroborated the tales of distress from the Hebrides and the West Coast with which the public have for some time past been familiar, puts us in possession of nothing new regarding the deplorable condition of the able-bodied population in these regions.’
Thus begins a lengthy and very detailed article that proceeds to patiently, artfully and skilfully demolish the findings of the report published following the inspection. In this piece I am focussing upon the visit of ‘Mr Peterkin’ to Harris:
‘Mr Peterkin next visits Harris, North and South. A striking contrast appears between the two sections. In the North the proprietor, Sir Edward H. Scott, Bart., is doing everything needful for his people; while in the South, under the Dowager Countess of Dunmore as trustee, the people seem to be suffering, and have now been helped in money to the extent of £600 from the London Committee – evidently the result of Lord Dunmore’s recent visit to the metropolis to “beg aid for the distressed people.”’
A brief biography of Sir Edward H. Scott is to be found in this earlier piece which contains a link to further information on his family’s contribution to Harris. The visits of SS Dunara Castle to Harris, an innovation of the Baronet’s that did much for the island’s economy, are recorded in the censuses and may be read here , here and here . It is worth mentioning that the 1891 visit records Malcolm McNeill of the Board of Supervision as one of the passengers, reminding us that, even eight years after the publication of the article in the Glasgow Herald, the work of that Board in the islands remained very much ‘in progress’. (Those with an interest in ‘Society Gossip’ may also wish to read this from the Spring of 1899 regarding Sir Samuel Scott’s wife. )
The aspect that interests me the most is the identification of the suffering of the people in South Harris ‘…under the Dowager Countess of Dunmore as trustee…‘ . Firstly, why was the 42 year-old 7th Earl’s 69 year-old mother acting as trustee to the Estate at a time when her son was not performing military duties abroad as indicated by reference to his recent visit to London? Secondly, the fact that we are provided with a contrast between the situation in the North (thanks to the attitude and activities of the proprietor Sir E Scott) and the situation in the South (where we are told that the proprietor went to London “…to beg aid…”) is a clear statement as to where the writer considers the blame to lie.
A century earlier Rodel had been the powerhouse of development under Captain Alexander Macleod and Tarbert was no more than a small cluster of houses at the head of  the West Loch (as can be clearly seen in Bald’s 1804/5 map).
The Tarbert of the 1880s was a small yet thriving town strung mainly along the Northern shore of the East Loch whilst Rodel had been reduced to little more than an island retreat for an apparently absent landlord.
‘On this estate there are about 128 crofters, of whom 74 pay rents of from £4 to £5 each; 38 pay from £5 to £7 each; and 16 from £7 to £10 each. Some of these crofters are in arrears with their rents, and are now employed in working off this burden by roadmaking and trenching near the proprietor’s residence. It would have looked as well to have let the arrears to stand over in present circumstances and allowed the crofters to work their land and sow seed with a view to averting the calamities of famine next year.’
An interrogation of the 1881 census reveals 121 households headed by a Crofter which accords pretty well with the figure of 128 a couple of years later as given here. It is interesting to note that 58% of these were in the category paying the lowest rentals, 30% in the middle group and only 12% at the highest level as this gives us an indication of the distribution of rents, in this case one that is heavily ‘skewed’ towards the lower end.
The roadmaking was clearly limited to a small area around Rodel for, as can be seen in this evidence to the ‘recently appointed Royal Commission’ mentioned at the end of the article, the Bays were still in desperate need of a road and it would be another fourteen years before the ‘Golden Road’ was completed.
‘Mr Peterkin reports that some of them have poultry and some cattle and sheep, but that the crofters would not willingly sell any stock this season. He might have added that no one would buy them at this season.’
The writer was clearly unimpressed by the Edinburgh-born Mr Peterkin’s ignorance of island agriculture and ensures that we are made aware of it:
‘The Harris cattle possessed by crofters are not of a good stamp, and bring but poor prices at anytime. It is said, and there is little reason to doubt it, that they feed partly on sea-weed in winter and spring, and at this time they are fit neither for being eaten or being sold to advantage.’
We should remember that the Harris cattle possessed by others, notably those of the Stewart & McRa farming families, were prized beasts that won awards but, for some strange reason, the benefit of breeding wasn’t accorded to their crofting neighbours. I do have to take the writer to task on the matter of cattle consuming seaweed for my understanding is that this is actually beneficial to them and hence not a factor in their fitness for either sale or consumption?
The idea of poultry is rather comical. The poorest of the poor in the Highlands has two or three hens. If they are killed for food they will not last long, and there will be no eggs.
This is the writer’s final twist of his ‘pen/knife’ and he then ends with a prescient predication as to what the forthcoming Napier Commission would discover:
There seems to be a providence in the present state of matters, bringing the wretchedness of the people to the surface, to give plenty of scope to the recently appointed Royal Commission.
I would dearly love to learn who the author of this article was but meanwhile here is a compilation of ‘snapshots’ of his ‘target’, William Arthur Peterkin (1824-1906 ), taken from the censuses of 1851-1901 and with his occupation shown in bold:
1851 27, Senior Clerk board of Supervision, Lewis Castle, Stornoway Distillery, Stornoway, b. Nk
(As seen in this earlier piece )
1861 37, First Class Clerk, Civil Service Poor Law, 14 Grove Street, Edinburgh, b. Edinburgh
(Wife, 5 children aged 1 to 7, a Cook, a Nurse and a Nurse Maid)
1871 47, Civil Service Poor Law, General Superintendent of Poor, North District, Scotland. Inspecting Officer of Board of Supervision Under Public Health Act, Scotland, 9 Albert Street, Nairn, b. St Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh
(Wife, 7 children aged 3 to 17, a Domestic Cook and a Housemaid)
1881 57, H.M.C.S. Board of Supervision, Visitor, 25 Union Street, Inverness, b. St Cuthbert, Midlothian
(25 Union Street was a hotel kept by a 35 year-old, Donald Davidson, from Elgin)
1891 67, Civil Service – Inspector, Terry Road (North Side) Fairholm, Edinburgh, b. Edinburgh
(Wife, 4 children aged 25 to 31, 2 Domestic Servants and 2 Visitors)
1901 77, Annuitant (Retired from Civil Service), 7 Eildon Street, Edinburgh, b. Edinburgh
(Wife, 2 children aged 39 & 47, 2 General Servants (Domestic) and a Visitor)
His occupational titles of 1871 are certainly the longest that I have yet read in the censuses!

>’A Traveller’s Guide to Literary Scotland’

>Visit Scotland, in collaboration with the University of Glasgow and The Association for Scottish Literary Studies, has produced this very attractive introductory guide which is available for download from the ASLS site .

The guide displays the writers by region and then provides brief biographies (listed alphabetically) before displaying all the locations on a map.

A very useful, informative & handy publication.

>’Listening For The Past’

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‘On the Machair’ and ‘Tweed’ are two pieces of ‘docu-music‘ composed by Cathy Lane.
Cathy is Co-Director of  CRiSAP (Creative Research into Sound Arts Practice) at the University of the Arts, London. Her article ‘Listening For The Past‘ – ‘A composer’s ear-lead approach to exploring island culture past and present in the Outer Hebrides’ is published in the current issue of the journal Shima and can be read here: Volume 5 Number 1 2011 p114-127.
Enjoy!
Note: More of Cathy Lane’s work is available online: http://soundcloud.com/playingwithwords