Charles Shaw (1812-1885) & the Napier Commission in Inverness in 1883

My friend and fellow researcher  whose prolific output I listed a while agohas brought to my attention a statement given by 72 year-old  Charles Shaw, W.S., late Sheriff-Substitute of Inverness-shire, at Lochmaddy to the Napier Commission in Inverness.

The testimony (‘a simple narrative’)exceeds 10,500 words so I have chosen to divide it into several entries. Ineach of  these I shall scrutinise some selectedextracts (in italics) following eachextract with my observations regarding the content of Charles Shaw’s carefullyconstructed piece. (Phrases of particular significancehave been emboldened)
A full analysis of Shaw’s essay (itis worthy of the name!) could easily form the basis of a thesis!
 It has…occurredto me that a simple narrative of a few facts within my knowledge may be usefulto the Commissioners, and without anydesire to challenge the veracity of any man, and in bringing to light the actualfacts as they presented themselves at the time to one who was equallyinterested in all.
Whether he manages to avoid makingany such challenges we shall soon see!
I began business in 1835, by receiving from Lord Macdonald a joint commission with my father as factor of North Uist. I also tosome extent assisted him in the management of Lord Dunmore’s estate of Harris,and of Clanranald’s estate of South Uist.
This linkage of the traditionallyMacDonald land of North Uist with that of the  traditionally MacLeod land of Harris issignificant and, I contend, one that was maintained for half-a-century.
I was also factor during part of 1836 and 1837 forthe trustee on the sequestrated estate of General MacNeill of Barra.
For two years then father & sonwere exerting their power & influence over all of the Western Isles withthe exception of Lewis. I suggest this included a degree of power and influenceover the absentee landlords at this time, a time that saw the first failure ofthe potato crop in the isles.
At Whitsunday 1838 I was appointed factor on LordMacdonald’s estate in Skye, which then included the large property nowpossessed by Major Fraser of Kilmuir.
For the next here years, the pairheld sway in Skye, Harris, North & South Uist.
 I held thislast office till I was appointed Sheriff-Substitute of the Long Island inNovember 1841, and I remained there till 1881, when I left the Long Island.
He was the Sheriff-Substitute for theInverness-shire islands from Harris in the north to Barra in the south withonly the Ross-shire Isle of Lewis outside his jurisdiction and he held officefor 40 years.
Myearliest recollection goes back to 1817, and the great famine of that year.This famine was not owing to a failure of the potato crop in particular, but toa generally very bad and late harvest in 1816 over all Scotland. The spring of1817 was also bad and backward, and of both these the Highlands had more thantheir proportion.
He was 5 years-old and, whilst it isentirely plausible that he was aware that his neighbours were suffering fromthat famine, his subsequent analysis is obviously the result of research ratherthan recollection. It’s a rhetorical trick, and one that I think we mustapplaud the retired lawyer for employing!
The proprietors of the Long Island imported meallargely for the crofters, and Government supplied a considerable quantity ofoat seed, which gave the year the name of the ” the year of the bigseed,” and it is, I have no doubt, still known by that name to a few oldpeople. The seed was of no use in the outer islands for the purpose for whichit was sent, being unsuitable for the soil. The people got it ground into meal,and in this way it was of service. The crofters were due to the proprietors aconsiderable portion of the price of that seed, when I ceased to have anything to do with Long Island estates in 1838.
Apart from being in charge of the lawfor 40 of the next 43 years…
When in Edinburgh learning my profession in 1828-35,I made the acquaintance of Mr Robert Brown, at that time factor for the Duke ofHamilton at Hamilton. Mr Brown had goneto Uist as Sheriff-Substitute of the Long Island District, and factor forClanranald, I think in 1796, and remained there till he went to Hamilton in1811. My father succeeded him at Nuntonin Benbecula in both offices.
Not only is it extremely questionablethat one single person should hold these two particular offices simultaneously,but this is the first time that I have seen it revealed that Charles Shaw’sfather, Duncan Shaw, was also a legal practitioner. This invites furtherinvestigation.
In the next few passages Shawdescribes Robert Brown’s view that Clanranald treated his tenants well, that ‘My connection with North Uist began in 1829,when my father got the management of it from Lord Macdonald in succession to MrCameron.’ and that rents were reduced slightly after a valuation in 1830and were held stable for the next 50 years. This last point being made to rebutthe allegation that throughout the Hebrides rents were raised to more thandouble on account of the peoples increased income from kelp. It is impossibleto know for sure what period is being compared here but it is quite possiblefor both descriptions to be true IF there had been an increase in the number ofhouseholds paying rent due to the demand for kelp workers. The rental of theestate could thus have increased whilst the rent from each householder wasfrozen. I shall have to see if further corroboration for either side of the argumentcan be found.
Whenin 1842 it became evident that the kelp manufacture must be abandoned, and thatthe potatoes were beginning to fail, Godfrey Lord Macdonald brought toNorth Uist from Perthshire a man to superintend the making of drains on thecrofts.
It is good to have a definitive datefor the decision to cease kelp making in North Uist but equally, unless hismemory was playing tricks, the suggestion that the potato crop was alreadysuffering in 1842 is in itself interesting. Was there a weakening of the plantsalready taking place that may have allowed the blight an easy place to gain ahold in 1846, perhaps?
During the famine of 1836, George Earl of Dunmore sentabout 700 bolls of meal to the crofters in Harris, and in 1837, his sonAlexander Edward Earl of Dunmore sent 1000 bolls all at prime cost and oncredit, and larger quantities insubsequent years, as to which I am not able to speak, having ceased to haveofficial connection with Harris
The traditional responsibility forthe territorial chief to provide for his people was still being undertaken bythe landlords who usurped them and this, even before it became enshrined inlaw, clearly caused concern amongst the landowners and their factors. It must,however, be remembered that such emergency relief was provided on theunderstanding that, eventually, its recipients would pay it back thus adding tothe woes to many already impoverished and hungry people.
There was a medical man on the estate, paid much inthe same way as in North Uist, and there were three or four schools besides theparish school, all contributed to by Lord Dunmore, and a sewing school kept upby the Countess.
Harris had some medical provision,then, but the thought of just one ‘medical man’ having responsibility for theseveral thousand scattered souls of Harris and the accompanying isles can havebeen of little comfort. I have discussed education in Harris elsewhere butwould remind readers that the ‘sewingschool’ referred to was the embroidery school at An-t-Ob established by theDowager Countess and Fanny Thomas in 1857. Some say it was essentially asweat-shop.
Duringthe minority of the present Earl, the Countess, who was his guardian, wasunremitting in her attention to the wants of the crofters, and in the tryingtimes that began with the famine of 1846, expended large sums out of her ownprivate means in improving their condition. At an early stage of her connectionwith the estate, she expended large sums in the purchase of wool and in theemployment of the females on the estate in various kinds of manufactures, andexerted herself to an extraordinary extent in the sale of these manufactures.
The implication being that theseactivities ceased once the 7th Earl took control on his 21stbirthday.
Charles Shaw, as I think we caneasily see, chose each of his thousands of words most carefully and thus hisphrases ‘During the minority’ and ‘At an early stage’ surely point atthese having been relatively short-lived rather than ongoing endeavours? Myresearch generally supports this view.
I regret that, owing to the distance of my residence at Lochmaddy and the indifferentcommunication then between these parts of my jurisdiction, I am unable togive such full particulars as I should wish of a work so deserving of beingbetter known.
Clearly wanting to distance himselffrom Harris, he rather overstates the situation for Lochmaddy and Rodel areless than 15 maritime miles apart, and each of them had regular postal services,the Harris mail boat itself being sited in Strond in 1851  . Certainly Mrs Charles Shaw can be expectedto have been in contact with her uncle in Rodel, John Robertson MacDonald theFactor of Harris…
We next get a lengthy description ofthe circumstances leading to the evictions at Sollas, North Uist, thesubsequent sailing of the ‘Hercules’ for Australia and an amazinglyself-serving account of correspondence received from grateful emigrants inlater years, but these are too large subjects in themselves for inclusion inthis piece.
He then turns his attention tocommunication within the islands and contrasts the relatively infrequentservices of past years with the current provision which is described here:
When I left Lochmaddy, a little more than two yearsago, there were three steamers in the week trading along the whole of my oldjurisdiction, and doing a fair amount of business. The advantages which thevisits of these steamers have conferred on these far-away islands it is noteasy to overrate. They have given an easy and rapid means of sending all theirproduce, cattle, sheep, eggs, lobsters, whelks, &c, to all the markets inthe kingdom. The men can now get with ease, and at little expense, to the eastcoast fishing, where they seldom went before, and also to the training ships.  Men and women can, and do continually, go tothe south for service, on the other hand, meal and flour, which they now standso much in need of, they can get rapidly imported, and in fact a new world hasbeen created in these distant islands.
This image of hustle & bustle isnot lost on the Commissioners but he has also fed the myth of the supposed remotenessof ‘these far-way islands’, ignoringthe fact that a flotilla of sailing vessels plied the coastal waters ofScotland’s West coast throughout the period making for much more effective communications than Shawwould have us believe.
Another source for making money which, withinrecent years, young men from these islands have largely availed themselves of,is the militia service. There are rathermore than 1000 men in the militia regiment, embodied from the counties ofBanff, Elgin, Nairn, and Inverness. Ofthat number sometimes as many as 700 are said to be natives of the threeparishes of North and South Uist and Harris, and the number from these islandsis, I am told, seldom less than 600.
About two-thirds of the manpowerrecruited from four Counties came from just three Parishes withinInverness-shire. This is a far from unfamiliar kind of statistic regarding thehuge contribution made by islanders to the fighting-forces but Shaw paints itmerely as being ‘Another source of makingmoney’ rather than as a reminder of a long and honourable tradition.
Another long passage argues against someof the evidence that the Commission had heard in both North and South Uist,even pointing out that one man was born four years after the evictions andsuggesting that his testimony was mere ‘hearsay’ which neatly ignores the factthat those appearing at the Commission were selected by local people and giventime to prepare their evidence. It is therefore entirely plausible that someone would bechosen for their confidence in reading and speaking English rather than becausethey were able to give an eyewitness account. The term ‘hearsay’ is revealingly patronising to a preominantly oral culture.
Of another witness Shaw says:
Then the delegate mentions that Mr Cooper states ina pamphlet that Mr Macdonald telegraphed to Earl Grey for a regiment ofsoldiers. What Mr Cooper says in his pamphlet I really do not know, but whatthe delegate says is not correct SirGeorge Grey and not Earl Grey was Home Secretary. Mr Macdonald neithertelegraphed nor did anything else about soldiers or evictions. There was no telegraph in North Uist formore than twenty years after these evictions. There was no emigrant shipbrought to Lochmaddy to take families to Australia.
The first two points, namely theconfusion between the two Greys and the anachronism regarding the alleged useof a telegraph two decades before the undersea cable link had been established,are, perhaps, mildly amusing in themselves but hardly strong evidence fordoubting the general circumstances that the witness had described.
The final point is interesting in confirming that those emigrating to Australia, at least prior to 1883, wouldhave had to have met their ocean-going vessel elsewhere (most likely in Glasgowor Liverpool).
We are someway past the halfway markof Charles Shaw’s statement and I think a pause is required before looking atwhat he has to say about the kelp industry and also of the land issue in theislands.
These links to previous entries thatare about, or mention, the roles of Charles Shaw and his father may be ofinterest. The timeline is useful for observing the sequence of events in Harris during theperiod.
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2 thoughts on “Charles Shaw (1812-1885) & the Napier Commission in Inverness in 1883

  1. Excellent piece on Charles Shaw, and I'm pleased to have brought this to your attention, Peter. One thing jumps out at me: he was, like Donald Munro at Stornoway in the middle of the 19th C, a man wearing too many hats at the same time, as you point out. The appendices to the Outer Hebrides evidence to the Napier Commission contain some good examples of that self-serving correspondence from 'grateful' emigrants.

  2. Thanks, and the situation either side of the Sound of Harris does indeed resemble Donald Munro's 'Scottish Legal Mafia' (as the late James Shaw Grant phrased it) in Lewis.More details on the connections in North Uist & Harris to follow!Peter

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