>BY CAPT. F. W. L. THOMAS, R.N.
Neither the summits of the secondary nor extraordinary bows were ever very distinct.
The phenomenon lasted about half an hour.
Note: He had completed surveying ‘East Loch Tarbert’ 4 years earlier, and the West Coast from the ‘Sound of Harris to Lochs Tarbert & Resort’ in1860, so the precise purpose of this voyage is uncertain we can be sure that Fred Thomas had been putting the time to good use, perhaps even collecting Webs with his wife?
…By Sylvanus Urban, Gent. Vol III January-June 1860.
On page 481 of this fine publication (that was begun nearly 130 years earlier by Edward Cave using the same pseudonym that remained in use even after his death!) we have an account of a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries that had taken place on the 12th of March. The first communication to be read was this:
Notes of Antiquities in the Isle of Harris; with plans and drawings. By Captain F. W. L. Thomas, R.N., Corr. Mem. S.A. Scot.
You will have to forgive me for dancing a metaphorical jig upon discovering this document online at the
Archaeology Data Service
Department of Archaeology
University of York
York YO1 7EP
Proceedings of the Society, April 10, 1876
DID THE NORTHMEN EXTIRPATE THE CELTIC INHABITANTS OF THE HEBRIDES IN THE NINTH CENTURY ? BY CAPT. F. W. L. THOMAS, R.N., F.S.A. SCOT.
In his paper, Fred Thomas explores in great detail the Norse origins of the placenames of the isles and even lists the number of people with each surname found in North Uist & Harris.
(This gave me quite a surprise for he counts 46 Kerr folk on Harris in, presumably, 1876 yet the censuses of 1871 & 1881 returned merely 37 and 27 respectively whilst that of 1861 showed 56? A check of other names suggests that he used the 1861 Census figures for his table (he earlier alludes to this with respect to Lewis) and that ’46’ was simply a mis-transcription of the ’56’ then present.)
But I digress, this paper by the retired 60 year-old is a fascinating read and certainly the most thorough account of the placenames of Harris that I have yet found – and it’s only 135 years old!
(Source: As cited above – from the Archaeology Data Service (Copyright Statement) )
—I should think it would give land to the present population, if the land were distributed among the people. I think it is quite capable of bearing all the people in comfort.
This, from a man who had lived, worked and raised a family amongst the people of South Harris for at least the past twenty-eight years (including officiating at the wedding of one of my female cousins in Strond in 1867) stands in stark contrast with the prevailing view of the Proprietor, the past Factors and the present Farmers of the day for whom Emigration was the only ‘answer’ to the ‘problem’.
I was inspired to take a closer look at Alexander Davidson having been contacted by one of his descendants, as can be seen at the end of this piece on Harris Free Churchmen .
The church is described in these pages from Canmore and British Listed Buildings and this is its location as seen on the OS 1:25000 Map .
The accompanying Manse, which was the Davidson family’s home for many years, is similarly described on these pages from Canmore and British Listed Buildings and its precise location can be seen here .
In previous pieces I mentioned that Captain FWL Thomas and his wife, Mrs ‘Captain Thomas’, had at times taken-in the children of islanders including one of Alexander Davidson’s daughters and also of the widowed Fanny Thomas’s later endowment of the Manish Victoria Cottage Hospital .
I would like to end with a longer extract from the Reverend’s evidence to the Napier Commission, to which I have added notes & observation within the text:
13081. Do many of the young women go south?
The context here is that of the ‘Herring Girls’ of the islands who followed the fishing fleet in their progress around the coast of Scotland and England during the season.
13082. Have they never been in the habit of going much from Harris?
—No, they never went.
This is telling us that as far as Davidson was aware, the women of Harris did not participate in this work.
13083. A good many of the women in this island get employment in knitting and in spinning cloth ?
—Yes, kilt making. That is their principal employment, and of late years it has been very useful to them.
Knitting, Spinning and Weaving were clearly well-established by 1883 but whether ‘kilt making’ referred to an actual Tailoring activity or was Davidson’s shorthand for weaving a web of cloth is not clear. As far as I know, such tailoring was not performed in creating a product for export and my researches into tailoring certainly don’t indicate that it was ever a large-scale female activity on Harris.
13084. Who set that agoing?
—Well, the Countess of Dunmore takes some interest in it, as well as other parties. I see they get very much into the way of dealing with the local merchants in order to get meal.
The internal arrangements pertaining at the time between the producers and the local merchants are beyond the scope of this piece, but I am interested in Davidson’s phrase ‘takes some interest in it’ for that is hardly a ringing endorsement for the Countess’s commitment to the cause. It is just a pity that none of the ‘other parties’ were named!
13085. Are most of the women in the parish employed in that way?
A reminder that, unlike on neighbouring Lewis, Weaving on Harris was traditionally dominated by the women.
13086. I mean every family?
—Perhaps not every family, but very generally they are.
The extent to which these textile industries pervaded the population and were pivotal to their survival is clear.
13087. They knit a great many stockings and hose?
The size and importance of the knitting industry must have been very significant at this time so quite why it slipped into relative obscurity, especially in comparison with the international fame of Harris Tweed, is an interesting question that I have discussed in previous pieces.
13088. What price do they get for socks?
—Not very much—perhaps about 1s., but I can hardly say whether that is the fixed price.
That is only £2-£3 in today’s money
13089. And they manufacture a peculiarly coloured native cloth?
—Almost every kind of cloth.
13090. Native dyes?
—Yes, they use native dyes.
Ignoring the slightly pejorative-sounding ‘peculiarly coloured’, we learn that the women were producing a variety of different cloths using ‘native dyes’. It is worth noting, however, that the word ‘Tweed’, let-alone the two words, ‘Harris Tweed’, are conspicuous by their absence. It wasn’t until the later marketing of the brand that they assumed common usage.
Ref: The full transcript of this evidence may be read here .
Anyone wishing to learn more about the Free Church Ministers at this time should consult the Annals of the Free Church of Scotland 1843-1900 (which may be available as in inter-library loan).
On a par with my favourite map of Harris (the 1804/1805 one produced by Bald) is this chart from 1857 .
I have referred to each of these several times, the map’s subtitle being ‘The property of Alexander Hume Esq surveyed by William Bald, Assistant to Mr Ainslie, in 1804-5’ whilst the chart was ‘surveyed by Lieut. F.W.L. Thomas, R.N. Assisted by W.T. Clifton 2nd Master’.
I wish to compare Bald’s view of ‘Dieraclate’ with that of Thomas’s ‘Dhiracleit’ both to see what had altered in the intervening half-century, both in terms of Harris itself, of cartographic techniques and the motivation for making maps. I have attempted to provide links that display as closely as possible the same area but not precisely so.
Starting with Bald’s map (this particular copy of which apparently dates from 1829), the man who probably commissioned it, Alexander Hume Macleod, had inherited the island from his father, the successful seaman Captain Macleod, in 1790 and would soon pass it on to his own son, Alexander Norman Macleod in 1811. Ignoring the pencilled annotations, which I believe to have been made during the ownership of the 7th Earl of Dunmore, the map is clearly intended to inform the landlord in some detail of the agricultural arrangements of the island. It itemises the holdings of no less than 25 separate parts and displays the location and boundaries pertaining to each of these. Additionally, major landmarks are identified as are settlements and routes for communication. There is a compass cross indicating North and scales in both ‘Scotch Chains 74 feet each’ and in ‘Miles’ as well as some soundings dotted around the casts and islands but whose unit of measure is not defined. The only other navigational information is a single ‘Bearing to Gasgheir distance from Ru Hinigha 10 miles’ although why we have this indication of where the island of Gaisgeir (Gasker in English) lies is a mystery. On the modern OS map this tiny island sits in splendid isolation neatly within the square kilometre at NA875116 so whether Bald included it as a useful navigational aid or simply in the interest of completeness is unknown.
Returning to the detailed section of the map around Direcleit, I want to consider the settlements that are indicated beginning with ‘Tarbet’. Here we see a cluster of perhaps nine buildings bounded by a dotted-enclosure and West Loch Tarbert. Only a pair of buildings are shown in the area to the East where the present-day village is found. The settlement at the West Loch must surely indicate a link to the fishing grounds of the Atlantic for the harbour is the safest on the whole of that side of ‘mainland’ Harris and Captain Macleod definitely perceived the economic future of the isle to lie within the sea rather than upon the land. Moving away from ‘Tarbet’ towards ‘Loch Dieraclate’ we encounter no signs of habitation within this part of the Farm of Luskentyre until reaching ‘ Ken Diebeck’. If we assume that Bald only marked houses that were in occupation then if there had been any people living in that area he missed them but if he marked all buildings regardless of their status then the area had yet to be settled. Whichever is the case we are reasonably safe to say that whilst people were living in Kendebig at the time there were none at Direcleit.
Compare that with the situation in 1857 where the chart still shows some six houses at ‘Ceann Dhibig’ but then another two-dozen scattered from ‘Baille Dhiracleit’ via the peninsular of ‘Dhiracleit Pt’ and up to ‘Craobhag’. As clear an indication as one could wish for of the effect of the Clearances that took place during the first-half of the nineteenth-century in Harris.
One of those houses is of especial interest to me. If you start at ‘Baille Dhiracleit’, sitting on the narrow slice of land between the waters of sea and the inland loch, and let your eye traverse diagonally upwards and to the left you will reach a triangular mark with a dot inside it. This ‘Trig Point’ (short for ‘Triangulation Point’) is a fixed point whose precise location is known from other similar points that lie within sight of it and whose height above the sea has been measured to a great degree of accuracy. It is the secret behind all the work of cartography since the formation of the Ordnance Survey but whether this particular one was the work of that organisation of of Thomas himself I cannot say. This Trig Point lies within a defined parcel of land with two houses and it is the one nearest to ‘Coal I’ and ‘Big I’ that is our destination for there, some thirty-five years before the chart was constructed, my great, great grandfather Malcolm Kerr had been born.
The article in this newspaper is another interesting read that is best read in full, but here’s a sample:
‘…There being no English service in the school-house, our landlord, Mr Norman Macleod, requested Mr McKie, the parish minister, to preach a sermon to us in English…The congregation was a mere handful – the Harris doctor, the first mate of the surveying cutter Woodlark, his spouse, and five or six men, three old wives, and four or five little boys and girls…’
Now, this nicely places the Woodlark in Tarbert in the Autumn of 1858 (although I believe it to have been under the command of FWL Thomas at this time so unfortunately it is not he and Fanny Thomas who are amongst this congregation) as well as giving us the names of the both the ‘landlord’ in the schoolhouse (perhaps the Merchant of that name?) and the Minister, who I have not mentioned previously. Was the doctor still Robert Clark from Argyll or had he left by this time?
The next section includes a description of the current progress in building the Free Church in Tarbert, again another useful piece of information, it being complete bar the ‘seating and finishing’.
Although the tone of the article is the depressingly familiar one in which ‘lowland’ prejudices predominate it is a valuable titbit that I hope you enjoy reading .