We are in an unidentified building in An-t-Ob at the end of May 127 years ago.
Present are five commissioners under the Chairman, Lord Napier and Ettrick, and amongst those giving evidence are a particularly significant pair of people and they are the subject of this and a subsequent piece.
Although there can be no substitute to reading the complete testimonies, so as to fully immerse oneself in the atmosphere of the past, I think there is a place for extracting parts that are of especial interest or that help to cast light into the shadowy corners of history:
Kenneth Macdonald, Farmer, Scarista-vore, – examined
13323. The Chairman.—You have a farm in South Harris1?—Yes, Scarista-vore.
The 1881 census shows him aged 64 and the ‘Farmer and Factor’ at Big Borve
13324. Have you been long resident in the country?—I came to Harris about fifty-one years ago.
He would have been aged 15 back in 1832 and from 1851-1881 he farmed at Borve
13325. Does your family belong to this country, or to another part of Scotland ?—I don’t belong to this part of the country. I am a Rossshireman.
13329. If, in your recollection, the land has been more subdivided and more exhausted, how do you account for the fact that the people are better fed and better dressed?
Do they earn more wages?—A great deal. I believe that £200 of money comes to Harris now for every pound that came in my first recollection. There was no such thing as herring fishing. There was in some places cod and ling fishing. There was no such thing as lobster fishing. I happen to be an agent of the first company that started for sending the lobsters to London. Then an enormous amount of money is brought in now for clothes by the Countess of Dunmore. I remember one year paying an account of her ladyship, £1235 for webs of cloth alone. They still go on manufacturing.
Firstly, it should be born in mind that, even if there had been this miraculous multiplication in island income, there is no accounting of inflation nor, most importantly, how it was divided amongst the population. Macdonald, happily for him, was an agent for the export of lobsters but he neglects to tell the commission of how the fishermen only got paid for those that were sold in London, not all that were sent there. The £1235 paid for webs of cloth must have been when he became Factor and, as John Robson Macdonald was still in that role in 1871, it must have been within the last dozen years
13330. Is it manufactured in hand-looms?—Yes.
13331. What material do they use?—Entirely wool grown in the island.
13332. And the dyes?—And the dyes.
No mechanisation, no imported wool and no synthetic dyes.
13333. Is there any of the wool of the primitive race of sheep – the old Highland sheep, or is it blackfaced and Cheviot ?—It is blackfaced and Cheviot. The old primitive sheep are done.
13334. Can we see a specimen?—Yes, if you go to St Kilda.
13335. Sheriff Nicolson.—I think we saw them in South Uist?—Yes, but you will not see them in Harris.
13336. The Chairman.—Was the wool of fine quality?—I cannot answer that, for I have never seen any.
His reply, ‘Yes, if you go to St Kilda’, followed by his retort to Sheriff Nicolson’s intervention, strikes me as symptomatic of someone who is somewhat contemptuous of the five figures in front of him.
13338. You spoke about the winters now not being so severe—that is to say that frost and snow are comparatively unknown. Are high winds now more prevalent than they used to be?—Decidedly. When there is very keen frost there is scarcely any wind at all; but now, since we have no frost and constant rains, we have blustering winds continually, principally from the S.S.W. and W.
The overall impression is that during the past 50 years Harris had become warmer, wetter and windier, an interesting if unsubstantiated claim worthy of more investigation?
13340. You are in constant communication with the people?—Yes. I remember seeing them going to church, and the difference between the clothing and attire of the families going to church then was as different as day is from night.
13341. Is it better in reality?—Better in reality.
13342. But one man, a country tailor, and should know better than others, at Dunvegan, called all the fine clothing the women wear ” south country rags,” as distinguished from their fine home-spun cloth. Do you agree with the tailor?—I should not agree with that, for they are proverbial in Harris for their good spinning, their good weaving, and their good making of clothes for themselves, not only over Great Britain, but over the whole Continent. You hear of Harris tweeds here, there, and everywhere. My coat was grown on the farm, woven on the farm, and made on the farm.
A slightly confusing exchange, for it is entirely possible that, despite them producing the finest of cloths, the women perhaps could not ‘afford’ to wear it themselves?
13343. But many of the people state here that for want of sheep, and being overcrowded, they are not able to spin, and they would like to go back to the old times?—Well, so far as South Harris is concerned, of the number of sheep I can say nothing. Of North Harris I can give every sheep every man has.
A neat side-stepping of the question!
13346. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh.—Have you any poets or bards among you ?—Yes, there was one celebrated poet, but he died about two years ago. The Harris bard, he was always called.
13347. What was his name?—Neil Mackinnon.
13348. Where did he stay?—Luscantire.
I have been unable to find him in any census, nor have I encountered other references to him so if anyone has any information please let me know!
13349. I wish to put a question or two in regard to the proprietors of this estate, so far as you know, from the time it left the M’Leods. Who was the first proprietor from the main branch?—Captain M’Leod, son of Sir Norman M’Leod.
13350. Was he a purchaser ?—He was the first purchaser. He was the first purchaser from M’Leod of M’Leod.
13351. How many generations of these M’Leods were’there?—There were three. Captain M’Leod’s son was Mr Hugh M’Leod, but he took his mother’s name of Hume, and his son Alexander was the last proprietor of Harris, who sold it to the present Lord Dunmore’s grandfather.
13352. How far back was that1?—Lord Duumore bought it forty-nine years ago.
13353. What was the price? Do you know the price?—£60,000 for the estate, and £500 for the purchase of the patronage = £60,500. Tradition said that £15,000 was the price originally paid for it to M’Leod of M’Leod.
13354. We have been told there is a small portion of Harris – the lands of Ensay and Pabbay – belonging to Mr Stewart. When were they sold ? —By the present Lord Dunmore, not very many years ago.
13355. And he also sold North Harris ?—Yes.
13356. It was the present Lord Dunmore who sold the whole?—Yes.
13357. To Sir Edward Scott?—Yes.
Sir Edward Scott bought North Harris in 1867 but what is memorable is Macdonald’s mastery of the sequence of ownership and the sums exchanged for his memory is not always as reliable as here.
13362. Sheriff Nicolson.—Were there some evictions which you remember, from the place where you are now living ?—Yes.
13363. When was that?—I can hardly condescend upon the date. It is over forty years ago, I believe.
13364. Were there not very severe measures resorted to for removing the people ?—Decidedly – very severe.
13365. Was not the Black Watch actually called upon to take part in that unpleasant work? – No, it was not the Black Watch, it was the 78th.
13366. Where did they come from?—They were brought all the way from Fort George.
If he is talking of the Clearance of Borve, then that was in 1839, some 44 years earlier and the regiment would have been the 78th Highlanders also called the Ross-Shire Buffs but the severity of the action doesn’t appear to cause him any disquiet.
13367. And where were the people transported to?—I cannot tell, but I believe they were scattered and transplanted here and there in the country.
13368. You don’t think they were carried to the colonies?—Oh, no.
13369. The Chairman.—They may have emigrated?—I cannot remember. I believe a few of them did emigrate, but I cannot say how many.
Having conveniently forgotten whether any emigrated, he then went on to mention a couple of ‘success stories’ from Canada!
13376. Had you ever to do with this estate at any time?—I had.
13377. Were you factor?—For a short time.
13378. Who stays at Rodel now ?—I believe the house is being prepared for his Lordship.
13379. There is no resident tenant now?—No.
So he had been the Factor of the South Harris Estate, although not resident at Rodel House, and confirms that no-one lives there now. I am particularly interested as my relative was the Farm Manager at Rodel in 1881 and I am sure that he had been a resident of Rodel House in previous years.
In conclusion, Kenneth Macdonald has provided us with further pieces of the jigsaw, some containing clearer images than others, yet who leaves me with the impression of a man from the mainland who, despite living in Harris for over half-a-century, has singularly failed to engage with the plight of his fellow men. His attitude to the Clearances and to Emigration clearly put him in the same league as those more notorious Factors of Harris, Donald Stewart and John Robson Macdonald, yet he remains less well-known.
And, of course, I do not know what part was played by my relative who once shared a roof with John Robson Macdonald…
Update: One aspect of this account is puzzling me. In 13351, he speaks of THREE generations of Macleods, interspersing ‘Mr Hugh Macleod’ between the Captain & Alexander Hume Macleod. As far as I can ascertain, Alexander Hume was the Captain’s son so where ‘Mr Hugh Macleod’ fits in is a mystery. The third generation was Alexander Norman Macleod who inherited Harris in 1811 from his father, Alexander Hume Macleod. However, in 13354 we have confirmation that Ensay and Pabbay were sold to Mr Stewart (of Ensay) by the 7th Earl of Dunmore ‘not very many years ago’ thus allowing us to date the annotations to Bald’s map of Harris to having been made after those sales & possibly in or around the 1870s?
It is very easy for one to make mistakes with the generations and I am fairly sure that I have made a few, despite my efforts to avoid replicating such errors!
Update 2: A full account from ‘The Scottish Jurist’ regarding Alexander Norman Macleod’s inheritance and what became of it can be read here: 17th January 1838.
‘Mr Hugh Macleod’, whose identity so vexed me, was obviously Alexander HUME Macleod, son of the Captain and father of Alexander Norman Macleod, these being the three generations of 13351.