>’…and as many more in the adjacent Isles…’


The stimulus for this piece came from the ‘Parliamentary Abstracts; Containing The Substance Of All Important Papers Laid Before The Two Houses Of Parliament During The Session of 1825′.
In a table introduced by the sentence; ‘The following list shews the places at which churches have been directed to be built; most of them absolutely, a few provisionally:’ , I noticed that in the Parish of Harris on ‘Berneray Isle’ a church was to be built for the population of 500:
And as many more in the adjacent Isles of Pabbay and Killigray.’
Reading that, in 1825, the population of these three islands in the Sound of Harris was estimated to be 1000 souls I wanted to investigate further. Although a decennial census had been introduced in 1801, the first four of these only provide a figure for the population of the whole Parish.
For Harris, these figures were:
1801 2996
1811 3569
1821 3909
1831 3900
Our year, 1825, lies neatly between two censuses in which the population, despite all the displacements that were occurring, remained remarkably stable at circa 3900 people.
Thus the 1000 estimated to be living on our three islands were about one-quarter of the parish’s people reminding us that ‘Prior to the nineteenth century, the majority of the population of Harris lived on the machair of the west coast and on Pabaigh and its neighbouring islands (Berneray/Beàrnaraigh, Ensay/Easaigh and Killegray/Ceileagraigh)’ http://www.paparproject.org.uk/hebrides2.html
As an aside, we have this communication from the 18th of July 1832 which I think is illuminating.
The later censuses do provide figures for each island in the Parish of Harris and those for the years 1841-1871 are given below. I have shown the number of males and females and computed the average ‘people per hearth’ for each island with the trio of isles that are our focus shown in bold:
1841 – 7th June
Anabich 18 males and 23 females in 7 houses (41/7 = 5.9 people per hearth)
Bernera 335 males and 378 females in 130 houses (713/130 = 5.5pph)
Ensay 7 males and 9 females in 2 houses (16/2 = 8pph)
Hermitray 5 males and 3 females in 1 house (8/1 = 8pph)
Killigray 3 males and 2 females in 2 houses (5/2 = 2.5pph)
Pabbay 179 males and 159 females in 61 houses (338/61 = 5.5pph)
Scalpay 14 males and 17 females in 4 houses (31/4 = 7.8pph)
Scarp 60 males and 69 females in 23 houses (129/23 = 5.6pph)
Tarrinsay 38 males and 50 females in 16 houses (88/16 = 5.5pph)
There were 1056 living on our three islands which was almost 23% of the total of 4646 people in the Parish of Harris.
Five years later the first of the Potato Famines occurred and the response of the Factor can be seen in his letter of the 21st August 1846 to the Countess of Dunmore.
1851 – 31st March
Anabich 63 people in 12 houses (63/12 = 5.3pph)
Bernera 452 people in 89 houses (452/89 = 5.1pph)
Ensay 14 people in 3 houses (14/3 = 4.7pph)
Hermitray Uninhabited
Killigray 7 people in 1 house (7/1 = 7pph)
Pabbay 29 people in 6 houses (29/6 = 4.8pph)
Scalpay 282 people in 48 houses (282/48 = 5.9pph)
Scarp 145 people in 29 houses (145/29 = )
Tarrinsay 55 people in 11 houses (55/11 = 5pph)
Only 488 living on our three islands which was less than 12% of the Parish total of 4254.
Nine out of every ten people from Pabbay and one-in-three of the population of ‘Bernera’ had gone.
Just four days after the census, on the 4th of April 1851, the Factor John Robertson Macdonald in ‘Rodil’ was being ‘interrogated’ by Sir John McNeill and an earlier piece analyses his account.
We should also note the dramatic increase in the population of Scalpay that had occurred, the reasons for which are to be seen in this investigation.
1861 – 8th April
Anabich Not listed
Bernera 130 males and 185 females in 64 houses (315/64 = 4.9pph)
Ensay 10 males and 5 females in 2 houses (15/2 = 7.5pph)
Hermitray Not listed
Killigray 2 males and 3 females in 1 house (5/1 = 5.0pph)
Pabbay 10 males and 11 females in 4 houses (21/4 = 5.3pph)
Scalpay 199 males and 189 females in 71 houses (338/71 = 4.8pph)
Scarp 72 males and 79 females in 27 houses ( 151/27 = 5.6pph)
Tarrinsay 25 males and 30 females in 12 houses (55/12 = 4.6pph)
There were just 341 living on our three islands or about 8% of the 4174 people of Harris.
Once again, almost one third of the remaining people of Bernera had gone leaving just under half the hearths from the 130 of two decades earlier.
1871 – 3rd April
Anabich Not listed
Bernera 169 males and 204 females in 75 houses (373/75 = 5.0pph)
Ensay 4 males and 2 females in 1 house (6/1 = 6pph)
Hermitray Not listed
Killigray 3 males and 6 females in 1 house (9/1 = 9pph)
Pabbay 3 males and 5 females in 2 houses (8/2 = 4pph)
Scalpay 222 males and 199 females in 82 houses (421/82 = 5.1pph
Scarp 78 males and 78 females in 33 houses (156/33 = 4.7pph)
Tarrinsay 35 males and 33 females in 12 houses (68/12 = 5.7pph)
A small increase to 390 living on our three islands but still only just reaching double-figures again at 10% of the the people of the Parish.
Bernera’s population had risen by 18% but the island trio would have needed nearly three times as many residents to regain the proportion of the population that had led to the church being built there only four-and-a-half decades earlier…
Note: I have left all spellings as they appear in the original sources, except that those for the census lists are ‘standardised’ from the 1841 census rather than reflecting the variations that appear in some of the subsequent decades.

Donald Stewart, Factor of Harris, and the Church on Berneray

Donald Stewart has been described as ‘the worst thing to happen to Harris’ (I apologise for not currently being able to locate the source of that comment) and this little letter from 1832 suggests that his arrogant attitude extended well beyond merely those who suffered the most at his ‘improving’ shenanigans:

COPY of a LETTER from Mr. Joseph Mitchell, Inspector of Highland Churches, describing the present State of the New Churches and Manses in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, 18th July 1832

The Minister in the Island of Berneray mentions, that many slates are off the Church, and that the Factor of Harris refused to be at the expense of replacing them.

I shall be glad to know in such cases how I am to act, where there are no seat-rents, and where the individual becoming bound for the maintenance of the Buildings (as in this instance) refuses to attend to the necessary repairs. The Act provides that they shall be compellable in such manner as Heritors are compellable for Parish Churches by the Law of Scotland.

I wrote to Mr. Stewart, the Factor for Harris, some six weeks ago, but have had no answer. I shall write again, however, urging him more strongly.

I do not know the outcome of this particular case, but a couple of years later the Court in Inverness found against Stewart for trying to withhold payment for improvements made by one Alexander Macrae, a tenant of the Estate, despite the tenancy agreement’s clear stipulation that they should be made so I doubt that ‘urging him more strongly‘ would have seen the slates replaced in any great hurry.

Ref: Accounts and Papers of The Church 1831-32

22 May 2009 – A Berneray Day

Arriving at the Berneray Hostel, another Gatliff Trust property, I was astounded to find just how precisely ‘on the beach’ it is – the bunkroom I chose was a narrow path away from the boulder-strewn little cliff that was washed twice-daily by the Sound of Harris sea.

Even at 10 in the morning, you could tell that it was going to be a beautiful day so I set-off immediately to explore the jewel that is perched at the very tip of the southern archipelago. I walked the three sides of the almost square Loch a Shaigh, pausing only twice: once, to read the information plaque about Grey and Common Seals and the second time to pop into the Post Office to see if the elusive bus timetables had appeared but, alas, they were still anxiously awaited.

Continuing along the rectangular way, I noticed a series of rock-lined inlets which are the clear remains of moorings and possibly, boat houses.

A little further on is a larger such inlet, more of a mini-marina, and as I was taking a few snaps three people hove into view, into my field of view, the image I was attempting to capture. The male was carrying the largest-lensed camera imaginable whilst the two females each lugged a three-legged monstrosity. The impression was of a hunter and his two Sherpas. I later met them in the cafe and it transpired that they were on a landscape photography course based in Harris and had been sent to Berneray with a list of locations to shoot.

There is an Historical Centre and Internet Access Building here but unfortunately it doesn’t open until June ,although given the number of visitors already this season I expect that may be extended?

‘The Lobster Pot’ cafe and shop gave me the chance to have a coffee and garner my thoughts for the rest of the day. It also provided me with my first 1:50,000 OS map of my travels, a sheet which very usefully covers North Uist, Berneray and the most southerly part of Harris. I decided to retrace my steps a little and walk to the long beach on the west coast.

Turning left towards Borve, the road rises a little before sweeping down to the broad swathe of machair starting at the Community Centre. In front of this large, modern facility, is a lovely walled commemorative space with three plaques naming past Borveans in English as well as Gaelic. From this roll, I learnt that the Gaelic for Peter is Padruig, not Padraig as I had previously thought.

Passing through the gate and proceeding on the road that winds itself across the fertile fields to the dunes, I was frequently under fire from the lapwings defending their nests. They would do so with a display of aerobatic agility that was as impressive aurally as it was visually. The calls and cries accompanying each manoeuvre and ,in particular, the sound of the air whooshing past their wingtips when, having made a hight speed run straight towards me they would peel-off at the the last moment with a final warning cry , was a dramatic delight.

The ewe’s, with their ‘bonny’ bouncing babes, were similarly wary of my presence but strangely unconcerned by the far greater danger posed by the occasional car the passed on it’s way to or from the dune-side car park. The lambs looked extremely healthy, fed on the lush machair grass in this peaceful (lapwings notwithstanding) plain. Upon reaching the car park with it’s line of picnic benches, I rested awhile before setting off through the path through the dunes towards the beach.

The sun was high in the blue and suddenly a deeper blue came into sight as the Atlantic arose before me. I stopped, breathless, not from the walk but from the serene beauty of the beach, the sea and the islands beyond. Shell-shard sand glistened at my feet, the fragmented facets of the crushed crustacean carapaces reflecting the rays of light into a myriad sparkling flashes.

Pockets of seaweed sat glistening on the sand, razor-shells punctuating the spaces between, and the water bubbled benignly as it slowly retreated back towards Canadian shores.
Heaven on Earth.