“Until after the middle of the last century, the land appears to have been occupied exclusively by tacksmen, generally kinsmen or dependents of the proprietor, with sub-tenants, who held of the tacksmen, and by joint-tenants, who held farms in common, each having a stated share. About the time referred to, many of the farms held by tacksmen seem to have been taken directly from the proprietor by joint-tenants. They grazed their stock upon the pasture in common, and cultivated the arable land in alternate ridges, or ” rigs,” distributed annually, and called ” run-rig.” By this arrangement, each got a portion of the better and the worse land; but no one had two contiguous ridges, or the same ridge for two successive years, unless by accident. Since the commencement of the present century, the arable land has, in most cases, been divided into separate portions, of which one was assigned to each of the joint-tenants or crofters, the grazing, as formerly, remaining in common.”
Ref: Report to the Board of Supervision by Sir John McNeill, GCB, on the Western Highlands & Islands, 1851. page viii. (Further quotes are from this Report)
This system, which is known as ‘Ridge & Furrow’ in ‘South Britain’ (or England, as it is more usually named), received its first legal assault in the 1695 General Enclosure Act (Scotland) but, as the above article from ‘British Archaeology’ informs us, the eradication of this equitable system of agriculture took place at varying speed and over a considerable period of time in different parts of the British Isles.
What is interesting is that Sir John then goes on to explain that when crofting was introduced as the replacement for run-rig, it allowed for the sub-division of crofts, a situation that had been impossible when the arable land was held in common and the cultivation strips were rotated annually amongst the whole populace.
This new possibility to sub-divide what had been intended to be sufficient land to support one crofting family coincided with the kelp-fuelled population explosion. In the boom years of kelp-manufacture this was not an issue, indeed it was necessary for the workforce to expand to keep-up production with the ever-increasing demand, but the new mouths could only be fed because of the wages earned from this somewhat early branch of industrial-scale chemistry. As an aside, Sodium Carbonate (or Soda Ash or Washing Soda) was used in glass-making and the manufacture of Soap and it was a man who made his first fortune from selling soap, Lord Leverhulme, who would become the owner of Lewis & Harris within 70 years of Sir John’s report.
Crofting also allowed the architects of the Clearances to sub-divide crofts to ‘create space’ for those whom they were displacing from elsewhere thereby diminishing the livelihoods of two families for each Cleared family as described by the Sheriff-Substitute, Charles Shaw:
When boom turned to bust, and it was inevitable that it would as the price of kelp had been artificially inflated by the effect of the Napoleonic Wars to an unsustainable £30 a ton in 1815 compared to only £1 a ton before the wars began, then suddenly there were hungry mouths to feed but neither enough land to grow sufficient food nor the wages being earned to purchase it.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the third and final blow came in the form of the Potato Famines of 1846-51, these being exacerbated by the twin factors of people forced to attempt to grow food on land that could only be cultivated as ‘feannagan’ (a system requiring vast quantities of kelp as fertilizer) and the repeated planting of the crop on the same meagre patches of land.
Of course, there was one other factor at work during this time and that was the development of sheep-farming as a commercial venture, again something that the removal of Run-Rig made possible. Proprietors looking for the best return on their investment had wallowed in wealth during the years of the kelp-bubble but when it burst they were left with a populace living in poverty and no obvious alternate employment. Sheep-runs were the answer for the Farmer class that was connected to the Factors of Harris either by marriage or occupation, or both.
To add insult to injury, when those Cleared away from the fertile soil to make way for sheep were unable to grow sufficient produce to pay their rents, the blame was passed to them for being unable to do so! There was the attempt to re-settle the Borves on the West coast of Harris and John Robson Macdonald gives his side of that story in great detail. What is significant in that account is that he places the blame upon the failure of the 1848 project as due to the fact that the crofters had insufficient capital to be able to develop the land they were renting. He neglects to mention that the re-settlement was undertaken against his wishes (and those of his accomplices farming that area), that it took place during some of the worst years for crop failure all over the isles, and that there is no evidence that any consideration was given to providing a system whereby capital could be made available to the crofters. What Macdonald does do, however, is turn the failed project to his advantage by using it as proof that giving the crofters land is not going to solve the problem of their destitution.
Fishing, which might alleviate the suffering in some ways, was never going to support a population that had perhaps doubled within as little as two generations, especially as those moved to ‘fishing crofts’ were not always in possession of boats etc and only some of those who lacked them were provided with the means to fish by the relief committee Even if the dreams of Captain Macleod and the desires of John Lanne Buchanan been realised, it would merely have meant that Tarbert would have temporarily shared in some of the wealth that went to Stornoway before the fishing fell into decline. The solution was simple. Move them off the better land, make their miserable existence even less unbearable and then portray yourself as a philanthropist by offering to offload them across the Atlantic at, in part, your own expense.
I doubt it was quite as calculated as that at first, but it seems significant that John Robson Macdonald in his evidence to McNeill clearly states that it was in 1847, the year after the first widespread failure of the potato crop, that the Countess of Dunmore offered to export some of her son’s excess population to North America and this was repeated the following year with the suggestion that a dozen families might like to emigrate to ‘there be settled on the property of the Honourable Charles Murray, uncle of the proprietor of Harris.’
Nice – the brother-in-law needs labour and you are happy to supply it for him!
Unsurprisingly, neither offer was met with any takers from the non-English speaking, half-starved, close-knit, Cleared and castigated islanders who had by then turned their backs on the Established Church of Scotland and fully-embraced the five-year-old Free Church.
If it is thought that I am being a little uncharitable regarding these gestures and the motivation that lay behind them, I would ask you to take into consideration the attitude of the widowed Countess’s late husband to his people, to the testimony given to the Napier Commission in 1883, to the profligate behaviour of Alexander Norman Macleod who had wasted the wealth that the kelp brought to the isle, to the similarly excessive activities of the 7th Earl of Dunmore that led to the 26 year-old having to sell the North Harris Estate in 1867, and to the lack of evidence that the early development of ‘Harris Tweed’ by the Countess was anything but a nice marketing tale spun much later by the Duchess of Sutherland, and that if any woman should be credited with the early promotion of the industry it should be ‘Mrs Thomas’, whom I have identified as Frances Bousfield Thomas, the wife of Lieutenant FWL Thomas RN.
It was Fanny Thomas who endowed the hospital at Manish, in the settlement where the Countess eventually, after protracted prevarication, allowed the first Free Church to be built, it was she who had depots in London as well as Leith and it was she who took-in the children of destitute (Free Church) Ministers and other families in order to enable them to benefit from the experience and, most intriguingly of all, it was she whose obituary appeared in a magazine of the ‘Quaker’ (Society of Friends) movement.
The Countess certainly did provide some early assistance as described in the letter from the Parochial Board of Harris:
Duncan Macdonald was a Kelp Maker in Orinsay.
His son Alexander’s family were Cleared from there in 1843 and settled in Steinish.
Here I show the families of their children down to my grandfather’s generation.
It is worth noting that, had the Clearance not occured, then none of the people in the final two columns would have been born! The shading of Annie Kerr and William Maciver indicates that they were cousins.
The friend who had alerted me to my Grandfather’s Cousin, Donald Kerr, serviing with the Canadian forces in WWI contacted me today to ask if a Malcolm Kerr Maciver who is recorded here might be related too?
In the course of confirming that this was indeed my Grandfather’s Half-Brother, I noticed a second name on the list and, having checked for the possibility that it might not be the case, confirmed that Malcolm’s brother Alex John was there too: http://lewis-canada.blogspot.com
I should point-out that I have devoted comparatively little resources to exploring the Maciver family (William & Annie had 7 children between 1882 and 1895) so have yet to see what became of them all.
William and Annie were cousins, their respective mothers being two Macdonald sisters who had come to Stornoway after the Clearance of Orinsay in 1843.
These mothers, and countless other people, were deemed not ‘profitable’ enough for those who lauded the land but their sons, and countless others, did not hesitate to heed the call to fight, even those of them who were to be found all the way across the Atlantic:
The quote below, from within evidence to the Napier Commission that graphically describes such Clearances, proved not to be prophetic and the isles can claim to have supplied proportionately more men to ‘The Great War’ than any other part of the British Isles:
“It would appear that, when Britain becomes involved in a struggle with another nation in the future, they must send for the deer and sheep of Harris as well as its young men, and then they can see which is the best bargain.”John Macleod, 13th June 1883, Tarbert, Harris
Lance Corporal Alex John Maciver b.16 January 1882
Last address in Lewis: 6 Plantation Road
Not married Next of kin: William Maciver, Father, of Stornoway
Canadian Engineers – Service number: 135382
Volunteered at Toronto on 29 July 1915
Twice wounded. Attestation papers not available*
(Note: the Front page is available, the second is missing)
Sapper Malcolm Kerr Maciver b.19 January 1890
Last address in Lewis: 14 Plantation Road
Current address: 61 Crawford St, Toronto
Not married Next of kin: Annie Maciver, Mother, of 14 Plantation Road
Canadians – Service number: 766056
Volunteered at Toronto on 6 December 1915
Update: I was delighted to discover that both my Great-Uncles survived the war and married in Canada.
On the 28th March 1921, 39 tear-old Alexander John Maciver wed an Englishwoman, Annie Darch age 35, in York, Ontario. Her father was a Carpenter from London. Malcolm Kerr Maciver married Philadelphia-born Charlotte Mary Flavelle on the 28th June 1924. Her father, who was working in a Carpet Mill in 1910, came from Ireland whilst her England-born mother was the daughter of Scottish parents.
Alexander John and Annie had a son, William who was born on the 13 April 1923.
He, like his father before him, went to war but unlike him young William never got to return home.
On the 25th July 1944 he was killed in France and is buried alongside nearly 3,000 fellow Canadians who fell during the battle for Normandy… http://www.canadiansoldiers.com/history/campaigns/northwesteurope/normandy.htm
(Operation SPRING, ‘the costly attacks on the Verrieres Ridge’, began on 25 July 1944)
RIP William Alexander Maciver (1923-1944)
of, according to http://lewiswwar2.blogspot.com/2008/01/stornoway-steornabhagh.html , 3 Westview Terrace, Stornoway.
Update 2: Investigating further, it appears that William Alexander Maciver’s mother, Annie Darch, had a brother who emigrated to Michigan where he met and, in 1919, married Adolphina Hemberger from Erling near Munich in Germany. In 1933 Annie and the 9 year-old William made the 350-mile trip to visit her brother, Adolphina and their 13 year-old son, Robert.
The 21 year-old Musician Robert Darch enlistedwith the US Army in 1941 and appears to have survived.
It must have been a terrible time for Adolphina, the migrant from Germany, and made all the worse when the news reached them of her husband’s nephew’s death in the Battle for Normandy.
Taransay, lying just a mile off the West coast of Harris, must have been a beautiful place to live for the 140 people who called it home in the late 18thC. It had acres of fertile land, beautiful Atlantic beaches and safe anchorage for boats. The three townships of Uidh, Paibeil and Raah must have been some of the happiest in Harris.
Raah, which had been Crofted in 1826, was Cleared in 1840 for the Tacksman, John Macdonald.
The 1841 census shows the 60 year-old Farmer living on ‘Tarrinsay’ with his wife, six children, a Tutor and several servants. In all there were 72 people recorded there including an 80 year-old Hand Loom Weaver, Chirsty Kerr.
In ‘Rha’ there remained just sixteen people, including the family of 41 year-old Roderick Kerr who is classed as ‘Independent. His wife, Margaret, was 30 and their daughters Ann and Mary were 12 and 3 respectively. Chirsty, the weaver, might well have been his mother.
The other three households in Raah were those of Kenneth Campbell, a 60 year-old Farmer with his wife and five children; Mary Macleod, a 41 year-old Hand-Loom-Weaver with three children, and sixty-one year old Marion Morrison who was a fellow weaver. They had been allowed to stay after their neighbours were forced from their homes, presumably because they were still of utility to the tacksman.
A decade later, the population of Taransay was reduced from these 88 people to a mere 55, a decrease of nearly 40%. Over on Harris itself, Borve (which overlooks Taransay) had been Cleared in 1839 and was subject to an experiment in re-settlement in 1847. At least one on the families from Taransay moved there.
So it was that the 1851 census for Borve records Roderick Kerr, 48, Labourer, Margaret, 47, Mary, 16, Flora 14, Donald, 9, Cathi, 4 and Janet, 1. Despite the apparent discrepancies in ages and names, my researches indicate that this is the family from Raah.
Back on Taransay, ‘John Macdonald, 70, Farmer of 150 acres employing 7 labourers’ is one of the 55 people in 11 different households that remain.
In 1852 the Highlands & Islands Emigration Society was formed and 742 people left Harris for Australia. The next year saw the plug-pulled on the experiment in Borve and it was Cleared for a second time.
Significantly, there is no further record of Roderick, Margaret and their family and it is to be assumed that they emigrated, but may not have survived the journey…
(Note: It is possible that one, or both, of the elder daughters married, but if so it was before 1855 for there is no record of such a marriage.)