>The Board of Supervision and the Destitution in the Highlands

>(From a Correspondent) Glasgow Herald 23 April 1883 page 8

The special tour of inspection undertaken in the bitterly cold month of March by the two inspecting officers of the Board of Supervision, while it has fully corroborated the tales of distress from the Hebrides and the West Coast with which the public have for some time past been familiar, puts us in possession of nothing new regarding the deplorable condition of the able-bodied population in these regions.’
Thus begins a lengthy and very detailed article that proceeds to patiently, artfully and skilfully demolish the findings of the report published following the inspection. In this piece I am focussing upon the visit of ‘Mr Peterkin’ to Harris:
‘Mr Peterkin next visits Harris, North and South. A striking contrast appears between the two sections. In the North the proprietor, Sir Edward H. Scott, Bart., is doing everything needful for his people; while in the South, under the Dowager Countess of Dunmore as trustee, the people seem to be suffering, and have now been helped in money to the extent of £600 from the London Committee – evidently the result of Lord Dunmore’s recent visit to the metropolis to “beg aid for the distressed people.”’
A brief biography of Sir Edward H. Scott is to be found in this earlier piece which contains a link to further information on his family’s contribution to Harris. The visits of SS Dunara Castle to Harris, an innovation of the Baronet’s that did much for the island’s economy, are recorded in the censuses and may be read here , here and here . It is worth mentioning that the 1891 visit records Malcolm McNeill of the Board of Supervision as one of the passengers, reminding us that, even eight years after the publication of the article in the Glasgow Herald, the work of that Board in the islands remained very much ‘in progress’. (Those with an interest in ‘Society Gossip’ may also wish to read this from the Spring of 1899 regarding Sir Samuel Scott’s wife. )
The aspect that interests me the most is the identification of the suffering of the people in South Harris ‘…under the Dowager Countess of Dunmore as trustee…‘ . Firstly, why was the 42 year-old 7th Earl’s 69 year-old mother acting as trustee to the Estate at a time when her son was not performing military duties abroad as indicated by reference to his recent visit to London? Secondly, the fact that we are provided with a contrast between the situation in the North (thanks to the attitude and activities of the proprietor Sir E Scott) and the situation in the South (where we are told that the proprietor went to London “…to beg aid…”) is a clear statement as to where the writer considers the blame to lie.
A century earlier Rodel had been the powerhouse of development under Captain Alexander Macleod and Tarbert was no more than a small cluster of houses at the head of  the West Loch (as can be clearly seen in Bald’s 1804/5 map).
The Tarbert of the 1880s was a small yet thriving town strung mainly along the Northern shore of the East Loch whilst Rodel had been reduced to little more than an island retreat for an apparently absent landlord.
‘On this estate there are about 128 crofters, of whom 74 pay rents of from £4 to £5 each; 38 pay from £5 to £7 each; and 16 from £7 to £10 each. Some of these crofters are in arrears with their rents, and are now employed in working off this burden by roadmaking and trenching near the proprietor’s residence. It would have looked as well to have let the arrears to stand over in present circumstances and allowed the crofters to work their land and sow seed with a view to averting the calamities of famine next year.’
An interrogation of the 1881 census reveals 121 households headed by a Crofter which accords pretty well with the figure of 128 a couple of years later as given here. It is interesting to note that 58% of these were in the category paying the lowest rentals, 30% in the middle group and only 12% at the highest level as this gives us an indication of the distribution of rents, in this case one that is heavily ‘skewed’ towards the lower end.
The roadmaking was clearly limited to a small area around Rodel for, as can be seen in this evidence to the ‘recently appointed Royal Commission’ mentioned at the end of the article, the Bays were still in desperate need of a road and it would be another fourteen years before the ‘Golden Road’ was completed.
‘Mr Peterkin reports that some of them have poultry and some cattle and sheep, but that the crofters would not willingly sell any stock this season. He might have added that no one would buy them at this season.’
The writer was clearly unimpressed by the Edinburgh-born Mr Peterkin’s ignorance of island agriculture and ensures that we are made aware of it:
‘The Harris cattle possessed by crofters are not of a good stamp, and bring but poor prices at anytime. It is said, and there is little reason to doubt it, that they feed partly on sea-weed in winter and spring, and at this time they are fit neither for being eaten or being sold to advantage.’
We should remember that the Harris cattle possessed by others, notably those of the Stewart & McRa farming families, were prized beasts that won awards but, for some strange reason, the benefit of breeding wasn’t accorded to their crofting neighbours. I do have to take the writer to task on the matter of cattle consuming seaweed for my understanding is that this is actually beneficial to them and hence not a factor in their fitness for either sale or consumption?
The idea of poultry is rather comical. The poorest of the poor in the Highlands has two or three hens. If they are killed for food they will not last long, and there will be no eggs.
This is the writer’s final twist of his ‘pen/knife’ and he then ends with a prescient predication as to what the forthcoming Napier Commission would discover:
There seems to be a providence in the present state of matters, bringing the wretchedness of the people to the surface, to give plenty of scope to the recently appointed Royal Commission.
I would dearly love to learn who the author of this article was but meanwhile here is a compilation of ‘snapshots’ of his ‘target’, William Arthur Peterkin (1824-1906 ), taken from the censuses of 1851-1901 and with his occupation shown in bold:
1851 27, Senior Clerk board of Supervision, Lewis Castle, Stornoway Distillery, Stornoway, b. Nk
(As seen in this earlier piece )
1861 37, First Class Clerk, Civil Service Poor Law, 14 Grove Street, Edinburgh, b. Edinburgh
(Wife, 5 children aged 1 to 7, a Cook, a Nurse and a Nurse Maid)
1871 47, Civil Service Poor Law, General Superintendent of Poor, North District, Scotland. Inspecting Officer of Board of Supervision Under Public Health Act, Scotland, 9 Albert Street, Nairn, b. St Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh
(Wife, 7 children aged 3 to 17, a Domestic Cook and a Housemaid)
1881 57, H.M.C.S. Board of Supervision, Visitor, 25 Union Street, Inverness, b. St Cuthbert, Midlothian
(25 Union Street was a hotel kept by a 35 year-old, Donald Davidson, from Elgin)
1891 67, Civil Service – Inspector, Terry Road (North Side) Fairholm, Edinburgh, b. Edinburgh
(Wife, 4 children aged 25 to 31, 2 Domestic Servants and 2 Visitors)
1901 77, Annuitant (Retired from Civil Service), 7 Eildon Street, Edinburgh, b. Edinburgh
(Wife, 2 children aged 39 & 47, 2 General Servants (Domestic) and a Visitor)
His occupational titles of 1871 are certainly the longest that I have yet read in the censuses!
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>’…and as many more in the adjacent Isles…’

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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.
Sources:

>’A Fashionable Kettledrum’ – the Gentlewoman’s Self-Help Institute

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It is an evening in May1870 and we are in the company of one ‘Azamut-Batuk‘ who is gathering material for his publication, ‘A little book about Great Britain’, that will appear later in the same year.
In fact we are with Nicolas Leon Thieblin who wrote for the Pall Mall Gazette under the pseudonym of the ‘Turk’ and his article was first published in that newspaper on Friday the 13th of May under the title ‘A Meeting at Stafford House‘.
Stafford House was home to the Duke & Duchess of Sutherland and was the most valuable private house in London. We know it today as Lancaster House, home to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and the change of name occurred when it was bought in 1912 by a son of the county of Lancashire who had made himself a rather large fortune out of soap. His name, by the way, was William Hesketh Lever.
But I digress and we must return to the event that brought our ‘Turk’ to the ‘palace’ (as Queen Victoria is alleged to have described it when making a comparison with her own meagre residence in London) which was a meeting of the ‘Gentlewoman’s Self-Help Institute’ attended, as noted by Thieblin, by such men as the Earl of Shaftesbury and Mr Gladstone, the Prime Minister.
The Institute (to which I can find no further reference) had eight Patrons but it is the two who head the list that interest me the most; the Duchess of Sutherland and the Dowager Countess of Dunmore who had been a widow for almost a quater-of-a-century. . At this point I should make it clear that this Duchess of Sutherland was Anne Hay-Mackenzie and wife of the 3rd Duke of Sutherland. It was his Grandfather, the 1st Duke, who, with the encouragement of his wife (Elizabeth, Duchess of Sutherland, who inherited her title at the age of one) had been responsible for the appalling Clearances of Sutherland. The Duchess of Sutherland who wrote on The Revival Of Home Industries for The Land Magazine in 1899 was Millicent, the 3rd Duke and Anne’s daughter-in-law, whose husband the 4th Duke had inherited the title in 1892.
The aim of the Institute was to ‘seek to place within the reach of educated ladies, widows, and daughters of clergymen, barristers, military and naval officers, and professional men, who may have been reduced from easy circumstances to narrow means, an opportunity of turning their natural or acquired abilities to account. To this end it had acquired premises at Bessborough Gardens in Pimlico ‘…for the reception and sale of articles produced by ladies in reduced circumstances. These rooms are now crowded with a great variety of articles of every description — oil paintings, drawings, modelled waxwork, guipure and other lace, wool-work, embroidery, baby-clothes, and plain work of all sorts.’ It was an upper-class craft sale!
I say ‘upper-class’ because Any lady wishing to become a working member has to furnish two references as to respectability, certifying to her being a gentlewoman by birth and education, which will be laid before the ladies’ committee by the lady superintendent, Mrs. Howard, and, if approved, the lady so applying will be required to procure a nomination from a subscriber to the Institute, when she will become eligible to partake of the benefits of the institution in any way most advantageous to herself.’ A ‘subscriber’ paid a guinea a year (or donated ten guineas for life membership) to secure the right to nominate one of these ladies. They could pay multiples of these amounts and nominate more ladies accordingly.
I mentioned that this was the sole reference to the Institute that I could find however in ‘Webster’s Royal Red Book, or Court & Fashionable Register, 1897′ is listed the ‘Gentlewoman’s Self-Help Society’ at 20-22 Maddox Street, London. Whether or not this was related to the Institute of 1870 I cannot say but it is interesting to note the existence of, and therefore a perceived need for, this similar-sounding organisation some 27 years after that May meeting in palatial Stafford House.

>South Harris Estate – The Final Dunmore Years & A Review of 1834-1919

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You may recall that, in 1868, Charles Adolphus Murray, the 7th Earl of Dunmore, had relinquished ownership of the North Harris Estate to his bankers, in particular the Scott family.

Thus for the next forty years, until his death on the 27th of August 1907, the Earl’s interest in the island was confined to his South Harris Estate.

He was succeeded by his son, Alexander Edward Murray, but this 8th Earl of Dunmore was to finally sell the estate in 1919 marking the end of his family’s involvement in the island some 85 years after his great grandfather had initially bought Harris. (As an aside, the purchaser in 1919 was Lord Leverhulme who paid £20,000 for the Estate. Following his death only six years later it was sold at auction for £900.)

In fact, the 8th Earl was a soldier and it was really only the in years 1908-1914 that he was able to devote time to his Harris estate for he played an active and distinguished role in the First World War prior to lord Leverhulme’s purchase a year after the end of that bloody and, for the islands, especially debilitating conflict.

Thus ended the Murray family’s ownership that may be conveniently divided into seven eras:

The 5th Earl
1834 – 5th March, George Murray, 5th Earl of Dunmore buys Harris for £60,000
1834 – Duncan Shaw replaces Donald Stewart as Factor

The 6th Earl
1836 – Alexander Murray, 6th Earl of Dunmore, inherits Harris
1836/7 – Poor harvests, particularly of Potatoes
1838/9 – Seilibost, Big Borve, Middle Borve and Little Borve cleared
184? – Raa on Tarasaigh Cleared for John Macdonald, tacksman
1843 – Church of Scotland fragments in Disruption – islanders join Free Church of Scotland
1843 – 6th Earl of Dunmore considers a harbour at W Loch Tarbert, with a link to the E Loch
1844 – John Robson Macdonald becomes Factor of Harris

The Dowager Countess
1845 – Alexander, 6th Earl, dies and Catherine, his wife, is ‘Tutor’ for her son, 7th Earl of Dunmore
1846 – Potato Famines begin
1847 – Borve, Harris resettled.
1849 – Countess of Dunmore establishes the Embroidery School at An-t-Ob
1851 – Crofts at Direcleit and Ceann Dibig bisected to provide homes for people cleared from Borve on Berneray
1851 – Potatoes Famines end.
1852 – Highland and Islands Emigration Society(HIES) formed – 742 leave Harris for Australia
1853 – Borve, Harris cleared again
1853 – Manish Free Church built
1854 – Road from Stornoway to Tarbert completed

The 7th Earl’s Limited Period*
1857 – 24th March – 7th Earl of Dunmore’s 16th Birthday
1857 – Lady Dunmore and Mrs Thomas start Stocking-Knitting industry
1858 – ‘In 1858 Lady Dunmore was a mother to her people in Harris.’ – Duchess of Sutherland writing of ‘The Revival of Home Industries’ in ‘The Land Magazine’, Vol 3, 1899.
1860s – Direcleit and Ceann Dibig cleared

*This marks the period during which, although he was still five years away from being of ‘Full Age’, the Earl would have had enjoyed enhanced rights regarding his property under Scottish law.

The 7th Earl
1862 – 24th March – 7th Earl of Dunmore’s 21st Birthday
1863 – Ardvourlie Castle built as Hunting Lodge for North Harris Estate
1865 – Harris Hotel built by Earl of Dunmore and originally called Tarbert Hotel
1866 – Marriage of 7th Earl to Lady Gertrude Coke
1867 – Abhainnsuidhe Castle built by Earl of Dunmore
1867 – North Harris Estate sold to Sir Ernest Scott for £155,000 (over two-and-a-half times what the 5th Earl of Dunmore had paid for the whole of Harris 33 years earlier!)
1871 – Alexander Edward Murray (8th Earl) born

The 7th Earl – South Harris Estate
1873 – Dunmore’s restore St Clement’s church
1882 – Nov/Dec –Thomas Brydone becomes Lord Dunmore’s Factor
1884 – Direcleit and Ceann Dibig recrofted
1886 – Catherine, Countess of Dunmore (7th Earl’s mother) dies in February
1886 – Telegraph Cable from Port Esgein, Harris to North Uist laid
1888 – Assisted emigration to Canada established
1897 – Golden Road linking Tarbert and Rodel through the Bays is completed
1897 – Manish Victoria Cottage Hospital built & endowed by Mrs Frances Thomas

The 8th Earl
1907 – Death of Charles Adolphus Murray, 7th Earl of Dunmore
1919 – South Harris Estate sold for £60,000.

The first point that I need to make is that, as a result of the estate(s) being owned by four successive Earls punctuated by the Dowager Countess’s period as ‘Tutor’, there is a degree of confusion to be found in some writing about Harris (Yes, including my own!) and I hope that the selected extract from my Timeline shown above helps to clarify things.

(A similar problem exists with the previous dynasty of owners where we have, in turn, Captain Alexander Macleod, Alexander Hume Macleod & then Alexander Norman Macleod owning the island from 1779-1790, 1790-1811 & 1811-1834 respectively!)

Secondly, it is really the role of two generations, those of the 6th & 7th Earls from 1836-1845 and 1845-1907 respectively, upon which we should focus:

1836-1845
Alexander Murray, 6th Earl of Dunmore, inherits the island and with it the first hint of the food crises that would, coincidentally, start the season after his death and dominate the early years of his widow’s control of the estate. He appears to do the islanders a favour in replacing the hated Factor Donald Stewart with Duncan Shaw Factor but the series of Clearances that Shaw oversaw suggests otherwise. The one good thing that the 6th Earl did consider doing was a revival of Captain Alexander Macleod’s plan to link East & West Loch Tarbert but he, just like the good Captain before him, died soon after having had this notion.

1862-1907
No, this is not an error but I want to look at these years before returning to what I believe to be the defining decades of the Dunmore dynasty.

The first five years see the finally fully fledged 7th Earl embark on an overambitious building program, gain a wife and lose an estate. I say ‘lose’ because, although it might appear that having sold North Harris for 250% of the sum his grandfather had paid for the whole island he had done rather well in the deal, it is believed that little or no cash was actually exchanged. The estate was provided in payment of monies that were owing to the Earl’s bankers.

It is worth noting that he wasn’t the first grandson to have to ‘sell’ land on Harris for Alexander Norman Macleod had preceded him in this regard when being forced to sell the whole island. In his case, the purchaser had been…the 5th Earl of Dunmore. It was also this Macleod who had brought Donald Stewart to Harris to act as his Factor.

The consequence of this was that, for the final forty years of his life, the 7th Earl only owned the South Harris Estate and thus could focus his attention upon that part of the island. There is, frankly, scant evidence of him paying the island any attention at all other than as a plaything and virtually none after his mother’s death in 1886. The few developments that did take place can all be ascribed to sources other than him.

1845-1862
As alluded to above, the Dowager Countess was greeted in the year following her husband’s death by the first of the Potato Famines that would last through to 1851 and lead, in part, to 742 people leaving Harris for Australia the following year. Borve on Harris was resettled, and then it & Borve on Berneray were Cleared. In amongst this turmoil the Countess decided to establish her Embroidery School at An-t-Ob which seems to have more in common with a child-labour sweat-shop than a serious attempt at addressing the economic issues facing the islanders.

She met their spiritual needs by finally acceding to demands for a Free Church to be built (although the site at Manish was not their first-choice) having claimed ignorance of all previous requests.

In the year of her son’s sixteenth birthday she and Mrs Thomas started the Stocking Knitting industry which appears to have been more financially robust for the women of the island than the Embroidery School of the previous decade. This event marks our first record of the latter lady’s presence on the isle, a presence that in my opinion was of great significance especially with regard to the early marketing of what was to become known as Harris Tweed.

Finally, in 1860, Direcleit and Ceann Dibig were cleared with a favoured few being allowed to dwell there as cottagers…

Overall what strikes me is not what the four Earls and one Countess are remembered for having done, but rather all that they failed to do and chief amongst these must be their not having established Tarbert as a fishing station with the two lochs linked by canal or rail.
One can only guess at the income it would have generated for the island and its owners and at what it might have cost, but it would certainly have been a wiser investment than the 7th Earl’s castle which was to prove so dear…

>Scalpaigh (Scalpay) Population Data 1841-1901

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Here, with some comments, are the figures as found in the censuses:
1841
5 households with 31 people – 6.2 people per hearth
In the 1840s the 338 people of Pabbay were Cleared, many to Scalpay. A figure of 20 families being sent there by Captain Sitwell , who was a Commissioner to the 7th Earl of Dunmore, indicates that this was the influx of 1846, just a year after the death of the 6th Earl and hence during the Dowager Countess’s time as her son’s Tutor. These 20 families had been preceded by an earlier group of 20 in 1842/3:
1851
45 Households with 282 people – 6.3 people per hearth
In his Report of 1851, Sir John M’Neill used a figure of 5.2 people per household in his calculations so the average for Scalpaigh in that year, 6.2 people per hearth, is significantly larger.
1861
69 Households with 371 people – 5.4 people per hearth
1871
82 households with 419 people – 5.1 people per hearth
1881
96 households with 532 people – 5.5 people per hearth
1891
87 households with 484 people – 5.6 people per hearth
1901
122 households with 582 people – 4.8 people per hearth
There is plenty more to be investigated here, such as occupational change during this period, but I think it is clear that, apart from the brief interlude of 1891, Scalpaigh’s overcrowding grew steadily worse as the century progressed. The population had more than doubled within 50 years of 1851, a time when there had already been insufficient land to support its 45 families, so the circumstances in which those people found themselves at the dawn of the 20th Century must have been truly desperate.
Pabbay, the island where so many had originated, had once been known as ‘the granary of Harris’. It’s people were cleared to feed sheep and perhaps as many as a third of its human mouths sent to face potential starvation on Scalpaigh…

>Clearance of Borve, Harris 1839

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This is an unusually long piece purely because I have attempted to combine in one place all that can be gleaned from published accounts relating to this particular Clearance.
We start with the First Report from the Committee on Emigration, Scotland 1841 which is contained in the House of Commons Papers Volume 6 Thursday 19th March 1841 (I have provided the full text of this examination in a previous piece so what follows is an analysis of information specifically related to the events of 1839 contained in Duncan Shaw’s responses):
Henry James Baillie, Esq, in the Chair
Mr. Duncan Shaw, called in ; and Examined.
At the time he was Factor for Harris and North Uist having earlier been the Factor for South Uist. Shaw came to the ‘Long Island’ at Whitsuntide 1811 (or 12, depending on which part of his account you take the year from!) having previously spent six years on Skye since leaving his native Perthshire. He quotes a figure of £11,500 for the value of the Kelp made on Clanronald’s South Uist estate in one year alone. He remarks on the large population growth that has taken place on the isles since that time but was unable to give an estimate of the extent.
He cites the fall in the price of kelp and the lack of public works as key components leading to the present poverty of the population and informs us that the money made in kelp manufacturing was used by the people to pay their rent so that arrears were a relative rarity. The people were wholly dependant upon one industry to afford them the means to pay their rent and were actually more profitable tenants than the grazing farms. He actually makes the astonishing admission that ‘We got of course higher rents from the small tenants employed in the manufacture of kelp in labour, than they would have paid in money.‘ The word for this is exploitation…
Returning to the expanding population, he reminds us that ‘In 1803 there was a very great disposition on the part of the people in the Long Island to emigrate, and the Government became alarmed at the extent of the emigration. An Act was passed, regulating the terms of sending emigrants to America, which raised the freights so much that few could emigrate, owing to the expense. For the purpose, I believe, partly of keeping the people in the country, the Caledonian Canal and the Highland Road and Bridge Acts were passed, and this regiment of local militia furnished the people with so much employment, and brought so much money into their hands, that along with the kelp manufacture, then flourishing, it put an end to the desire to emigrate.’
Whatever one thinks about Shaw’s actions, he deserves grudging admiration for reminding the Government that it was their legislation, introduced at the height of the country’s demand for home-made kelp, that was in part to blame for the present situation.
As regards Harris, he gives figures of ‘about 440 families of crofters holding directly from Lord Dunmore, and I should think 2,300 people that do not hold of him, if at all.’
The context of this is that there were 4,300 people living on the island so by implication less than half the population were generating income directly for the 6th Earl.
A brief interlude in which we are informed that of the famine relief provided by the Lord about 1/3 will be repaid, and then he delivers his (prepared) account of the circumstances around events in 1839:(Please noteI have added a commentary within the statement)
“The small farm of Borve, in the Island of Harris, lately possessed by crofters, lies in the the middle of one of the largest and best grazing farms in the West Highlands.
This being the ever-expanding farm that Donald Stewart has rented for at least 30 years.
Borve is ill-suited for crofters, having no sea-weed for manure; no fishing, not even as much as a creek where, for a great part of the year, a boat could land, constant disputes occurred between the tenant of the surrounding grazings and the crofters.
The fertility of the area results from that unique combination of peat and shell-sand that is known as machair. One reason for a lack of sea-weed throughout the isle was, of course, the fact that it had been the raw-material in the manufacture of kelp. Fishing is a red-herring for it was the ‘improving’ of agriculture that had pushed the people into what had previously not been a major source of food or income. However, in referring to the ‘constant disputes’ that took place between Donald Stewart and those on the land that he craved, Duncan Shaw is inadvertently supporting the argument that it was the expansion of the sheep-farm that was the root cause of the call Clearance.
They were miserably poor; payment of rent, except by labour, was out of the question, and labour was unproductive : they were much in arrears, even for the price of meal annually imported.
Mr. N. McLean, an eminent land valuator from Inverness, who inspected and valued the estate of Harris, strongly recommended the removal of the tenants.
The extent of the poverty is not in question but the inhuman opinion of a land valuator, however ’eminent’, in recommending uprooting people from their ancestral land is simply disgusting.
The tenant of the large farm refused to renew his lease if Borve were not included in it. The proprietor, the Earl of Dunmore, could not afford to lose so good a tenant for a farm paying 600L a year in so remote a corner as Harris; it was determined to remove the crofters, providing for them elsewhere.
£600 was 1% of the price paid for the island in 1834 and about 17% of the total rental income. Nevertheless, the Earl could easily have advertised for a new tenant to replace this one man.
Three years were allowed them to prepare.
If this dates the decision to 1836 (and his next sentence suggests that this was so) then we can firmly place it in the hands of the 6th Earl of Dunmore who had inherited that island that very year. This is important and we have a letter from his wife, Catherine Countess of Dunmore, dated the 15th of April 1836 in which she complains about the rates paid by islanders for mainland roads. This informs us that the 21 year-old was already involved in matters relating to the running of the estate.
1836 was also the first of two consecutive years of poor harvests with the potato crop suffering particularly badly. It also happens to be the year that the 7th Earl, who was five years away from being born, alleged saw his mother start the Harris Tweed industry.
At Martinmas 1838, they were told they must remove at Whitsuntide 1839.
In 1838 their neighbours in Seilibost were not so lucky for it was then that they were Cleared.
Such of them as from age or other infirmities were unfit subjects for emigration, were offered better lands elsewhere in Harris; those able to emigrate were informed their whole arrears would be passed from, that they and their families would be landed free of expense, with the proceeds of their crop and stock of cattle in their pockets, either at Cape Breton, where their friends and countrymen were already settled, or in Canada, at their choice; these offers were then considered generous, and no objection was made to them.
Firstly, any talk of ‘better lands elsewhere in Harris’ has to be questioned for, as we know from Donald Stewart’s coveting of Borve and his existing holdings at Luskentyre, this are a mirage. Secondly, the fact that objections were not raised publicly by powerless individuals is not proof that they had no such objections. It merely confirms that they were too scared to raise them.
In the meantime, however, occurrences of an unpleasant nature had taken place in the neighbouring island of Skye. Some people on the estate of Macleod fearing a removal, wrote threatening letters to Macleod, of Macleod, and his factor. Inflammatory proclamations of the same description were posted on the church doors, and some sheep belonging to a sheep grazier were houghed and killed. Those guilty of these outrages eluded detection.
Duncan Shaw would have had a particularly intimate knowledge of these events because his son, Charles Shaw, began being an apprentice Writer of the Signet on the 11th of December 1834 and was assisting his father’s work on Harris from Whitsuntide of that year until Whitsuntide 1838. He would rise to Sheriff-Substitute of the Inverness isles by the end of 1841. He also just happened to be the Factor on Skye.
Exaggerated accounts of these occurrences soon reached Harris, and joined with bad advices from those who ought to have known better, wrought an immediate change on the tempers of the people; assured that no military would be sent to so remote a corner, they were advised to refuse the offer which had been made to them, and to resist the execution of the law.
Here he appears to suggest that the people were in his view erroneously ‘fired-up’ by a combination of factors but whether this stems from a certain respect for the normally quiescent nature of the islander or was included for some other reason I am unsure.
Every argument was used to bring them to reason, but without effect; they defied and severely maltreated the officers of the law.
A few years later the ladies of Loch Shell would be ‘de-bagging’ the officers of the law but in what way these ones were ‘severely maltreated’ is not recorded!
It was now ascertained that a conspiracy for resisting the law existed in all this quarter of the West Highlands, which, if not at once checked, would lead to consequences no lover of order would care to think of.
This is an outrageous allegation and his use of the word ‘ascertained’ seems to me to suggest that the existence of any such conspiracy was never proven. Shaw is retrospectively justifying the decision to bring in the troops.
An investigation took place before the sheriff, to which it was, however, impossible to bring any of the rioters; application was made to Government for military aid, which, under proper precautions, was granted; a lieutenant and a party of 30 men under the charge of the sheriff-depute of the county were sent to Harris.
No evidence, no arrests but still the military were summoned.
The people expecting nothing of the kind were taken by surprise.
Five of the ringleaders were taken into custody without opposition. The stay of the military in the island did not exceed a few hours. The only object Lord Dunmore and his agents had in view in applying for military aid, was the vindication of the authority of the law. This having been done by the seizure of the leaders in the riot, the tenants were at once forgiven ; they were allowed to continue in possession for another year, on the same terms as formerly.
Thus it was that five men were arrested and those left forced to accept the terms.
His Lordship solicited the liberation of the five prisoners, and sent money to defray the expense of their journey home.
This is odd – on the one-hand these men were supposedly some of those involved in a conspiracy to ferment revolt across the West Highlands and on the other their landlord got them freed and repatriated?
Thus terminated an outbreak which, but for the prompt measures of Government in sending the military, would have thrown the whole West Highlands into confusion for many years.”
I think the phrase we would use is ‘setting an example’ and I suspect that the rescue of the Borve Five had more to do with a lack of them having committed any provable crime rather than anything else.
Once the statement had been read, the questioning continued and we learn that the next year the ‘removal’ took place. A few stayed in Borve to service the farm, some were scattered elsewhere on the island either to land ‘from Lord Dunmore’ or to that of their families and none emigrated.
Despite all that they had been through, the people had refused to leave the land. However, and bearing in mind that he was addressing a committee on Emigration, Shaw then gives his interrogators assurances that now the situation is such that ‘…even in Harris the people are now willing to emigrate.’ He suggests removing 2,500 from North Uist and ‘…about the same number from Harris.’!
He, in all seriousness, wants to reduce the population by more than half. The motive for this is clear for it is the two proprietors who foot the bill to provide famine relief although when asked if the recipients are expected to eventually reimburse them, he stated ‘most certainly we expect it to be paid for in more prosperous years.’ This revelation produces from a Mr Dunbar the following response: ‘You hold the settlement over their heads?’ but whether he exclaimed it in horror or not is not recorded.
I do not want to continue with this examination for, although it certainly has much of value in the context of later actions on the estate, it takes us away from our focus which a contemporary account called a ‘Disturbance in the island of Harris‘.
The Inverness Courier in 1839 described it as ‘A circumstance of very rare occurrence in the remote and peaceful islands of the Hebrides…’ It continues by explaining that the Earl ‘…contemplating some extensive improvements in the culture and management of the land, had given notice to a number of the cottars, about fifty families, to remove their huts and little patches of ground.’
No mention of the duress applied by Donald Stewart but useful in providing the number of families involved although the image of them having ‘…to remove their huts and little patches of ground.’ is perhaps even more alarming than the reality of what they faced! The article proceeds and, in somewhat intemperate language states that ‘It was feared also that violent measures might be resorted to, and blood shed in the struggle.’ Those sent are then identified as ‘…a detachment of the 78th regiment…’ accompanied by ‘Mr Fraser Tytler, sheriff of the county, Mr A. Fraser, sheriff-substitute of the Fort William district, Mr Mackay, procurator fiscal, and Mr John Macbean, an active criminal officer of Inverness.’ The account was written before the ‘action’ took place and the article ends on a depressingly familiar note, reminding us that ‘Nothing can be more miserable than the condition of these poor highlanders, living in the most wretched huts, destitute of employment, and forever on the brink of famine. Emigration to America or Australia would be the greatest boon that would be conferred upon them. This is a point on which all well-wishers of the Highlands are agreed; and we sincerely trust that arrangements may be made for this purpose, of such a nature as to overcome, by moral force, the repugnance natural to our poor countrymen at quitting the land of their fathers.’ followed finally by the fact that ‘The population of the Island of Harris, according to the census of 1831, is 3900.
The story was taken up by the Aberdeen Journal which, on the 31st of July 1839, published in full the account from the Inverness Courier and then added the following update:
‘Subsequent accounts state that, after an absence of nine days, the party, which consisted of twenty-nine men and a searjeant, under the command of Lieutenant Neill, returned to Glasgow on Saturday last, having executed their mission – painful though it was – firmly, yet peacefully.
At Portree, the party was joined by the Sheriff of the County, Mr Mackay, Procurator Fiscal, and Mr Macbean, and active criminal officer from Inverness.
six the same evening. All the cottars or small farmers implicated in the deforcement, were requested to assemble at the village, and from the body five men, who had been most active in the illegal proceedings, were selected, and carried prisoners to Portree. Before leaving, arrangements were entered into for the tenantry finally leaving the island at a convenient term.
The visit of the military excited the deepest alarm among the poor islanders, who were heard to express in Gaelic their terror that the scene of Glencoe was about to be enacted over again.
Their condition is represented as being very miserable indeed; and though it may be bitter to break the tie that binds these poor people to the rugged land of their fathers, yet emigration anywhere would absolutely be a boon.
Agricultural improvement, too, is out of the question so long as the crofters are next to starvation on the very lands which they till, and this is still unfortunately the case in many parts of the Highlands, which would otherwise be fruitful and productive.’
So some fifty families, probably equating to about 260 men, women and children, were in ‘terror‘ as their homes were rendered uninhabitable and hence forced to break the tie that binds them to the ‘land of their fathers‘ and into emigration.
Why?
Because ‘Agricultural improvement…is out of the question…and this is…the case in many parts of the Highlands, which would otherwise be fruitful & productive.’
One can debate the ‘niceties’ as to what extent the Clearances were an economic inevitability, or whether they were as extensive or forced or terrible as I believe them to have been, but one cannot silence the cries of terror in the Gaelic tongue, dry the the tears of the terrified women and children, avoid the stench of the burnt milk on the quenched hearths, excuse the wilful destruction of the priceless roof timbers, feel the pain of separation and emigration, witness the grief of funerals and burials at sea of those who never reached those ‘promised’ lands, nor excuse the failure of future generations of the rich and powerful to restore to the people the use of the land that had been so cruelly and inhumanely taken from them.
Angus Macleod would later give us a description which I shall leave as the last words on the matter:
Donald Stewart of Luskentyre had a reputation of being an oppressor of the crofters of Park when he was there, but it was in Harris that he excelled himself by ruthlessly clearing the crofters from the West Coast of Harris.
In Borve, Harris, in 1839 he caused the fires on the hearths to be drowned with domestic milk while the thatch was ripped off the houses with hooks and even the roof timbers and the thatch was collected and burnt, until there was nothing left but the blackened shells of the once hospitable homes.”
Angus Macleod – ‘Lewis Maciver of Gress’ in the Angus Macleod Archive
Refs (Chronological by event):
NAS Reference GD46/13/45 Letter by Lady Dunmore per James Campbell Tait, her agent, to J A Stewart Mackenzie, M P relating to the injustice of assessments laid on the proprietors of the Western Isles for roads on the mainland and enclosing copy letters from Mr Duncan Shaw, Benbecula, factor on the Harris estate, and Mr Robert Brown, Hamilton. 15 Apr 1836
NAS Reference GD201/4/97 Duncan Shaw to Alexander Hunter, Esq. W.S. Dealing with the matter of application to the Government for assistance in sending the extra population of Benbecula to America. The proprietors should have influence in selecting the emigrants. Wishes to clear two parts of Clanranald’s estate for pasture where the poorest of the people and most of the subtenants reside. Refers to the miserable state of the tacksmen and subtenants. The emigrants wish to go to Cape Breton. Refers to unsatisfactory state of kelp and fishing industries, and to expense of emigration. Report on Canna 25 Feb 1827
NAS Reference GD201/1/338 Report by Duncan Shaw, dealing with arrears of rents on Clanranald estates sold in Ardnamurchan and the Small Isles: necessity of arranging remaining estates so as to draw a revenue independent of kelp; suggested arrangements for Benbecula and South Uist. At Edinburgh 19 Nov 1827
Register of Society of Writers to the Signet
Charles Shaw, apprentice to William Mackenzie 11 Dec 1834
NAS Reference GD46/13/45 Letter by Lady Dunmore per James Campbell Tait, her agent, to J A Stewart Mackenzie, MP relating to the injustice of assessments laid on the proprietors of the Western Isles for roads on the mainland and enclosing copy letters from Mr Duncan Shaw, Benbecula, factor on the Harris estate, and Mr Robert Brown, Hamilton. 15 Apr 1836
Previous Pieces that contain other references:
An article that is on my(pending) reading list:
TGSI 52 1980-82 Morrison Alick, ‘The Grianam Case, 1734-1781, The Kelp Industry, and the Clearances in Harris, 1811-1854 p20-89

>HARRIS – EMBROIDERY SCHOOL

>

On Wednesday last, the girls attending the Countess of Dunmore’s school for embroidery at Obbe, assembled to receive payment for the work done by them during the past half-year.
Many of the ladies of Harris were present, who were much gratified by witnessing the progress made by the children, and in examining their beautiful work.
After the business of the day had been transacted, the children were regaled upon tea, cake, and many other good things of a more substantial kind, for which treat they were indebted to the liberality of Mrs Macrae, Hushinish.
The school is of great benefit to the island, as girls who otherwise would be idle for most part of the year, were here taught a useful and elegant art by which they can not only support themselves in a respectable manner, but also contribute to the support of their families.
The poor of Harris cannot be sufficiently grateful to Lady Dunmore for the interest she always takes in their welfare.
One proof of this is the institution under notice, which is under the management of Mrs Galbraith, whose untiring exertions for its benefit are deserving of the highest commendation.
Inverness Advertiser Thursday, 3rd June 1856 (via Am Baile and the Inverness Reference Library)
The school had been opened in 1849 and this account informs us that Mary Galbraith, the 32 year-old from Ireland, was already in charge. Her husband, Henry Galbraith, was Gardener for the Dunmores and in 1861 we find the couple living in the house at An-t-Ob that had been built for the gardener in 1850.
The tea-party was provided by no less a person than the wife of Alexander McRa, ‘Fear Huisinis’, and one wonders what the parents really thought of her ‘liberality’!
It doesn’t appear as if the Dowager Countess herself was present on this occasion (which took place on Wednesday, 28th May 1856) presumably, although it not made explicit, at the school in ‘Obbe’?
Nevertheless, another little window into the world of 19thC Harris has presented itself and I think we should leave the children to enjoy their ‘tea, cake, and many other good things…’!