THREE MEN DROWNED AT STORNOWAY

Information has been received at Stornoway of the drowning of three Harris fishermen in the Sound of Harris. John M’Leod, Donald Gillies, and Angus M’Swain, all fishermen from Stroud, South Harris, were returning on Saturday afternoon from the island of Hermetry, in the Sound of Harris, where they had been lobster fishing. Their boat was under sail, and it was blowing a strong gale at the time. The boat was seen to capsize and go down with the crew. M’Leod and Gillies were unmarried, but M’Swain was married, and leaves a widow and family.’
The Dundee Courier and Argus, Monday October 9th 1882
(I have left all the spellings as in the original – ‘Stroud’ for Strond is a surprisingly common error.)
Looking for these three men in the 1881 Census returns from Strond we find only four fishermen who fit:
John Macleod, 36, son of Janet Macleod, 79, Crofter, and brother of Peggy, 34
John Macleod, 25, son of Mary Macleod, 60, Weaveress, Wool.
Donald Gillis, 38, son of Kenneth Gillis, 60, Crofter
Angus MacSween, 50, husband to Mary, 40 and father of Ann, 13, Marion, 10, John, 1 and Mary Ann, 1 month.
We can exclude the younger John Macleod for he is to be found still fishing and living with his mother in Strond in the census of 1891 whilst Janet Macleod is there with her daughter, Peggy.
Further corroboration comes in the form of these two details:
Angus MacSween’s widow, Mary, was the youngest child of Angus Kerr & Marion Mcsween of Strond.
Donald Gillies was the brother-in-law of Flora Morrison, whose mother, Christian Kerr, was the fifth of Angus Kerr and Marion Mcsween of Strond’s eight children. Thus these two fishers were linked by family.

Christian would later join her sister Mary in widowhood for, on the 25th of July 1890 her own husband, William Morrison, was lost with two colleagues from the unregistered vessel ‘Jessie & Margaret’. Fishing was then, and remains now, a perilous occupation: http://direcleit.blogspot.com/2010/06/drowned-at-sea-by-upsetting-of-boat.html

We may also note that, despite the fact that they had been fishing for lobsters, none of the men who perished in this tragedy were specifically listed as Lobster fishermen in the 1881 census – http://direcleit.blogspot.com/2010/07/lobster-fishermen-of-harris.html
Notes:
1) Some observations regarding ‘Hermetry’ may be seen in this earlier piece: http://direcleit.blogspot.com/2010/11/john-lanne-buchanan-1768-1828-his.html
2) I will be able to confirm various details by searching the ‘Minor Records’, Marine Register’ section of the Deaths index at ScotlandsPeople but that will have to wait for now.
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Crofting, Kelp, & Clearances

“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:

“The conversion of crofters’ farms into grazings in Harris, many years ago, before the estate came into the Dunmore family, without providing for the people removed from these farms in any other way than by giving them portions of the land occupied by other crofters— the same system followed recently in South Uist and Barra, with the addition of locating the ejected tenants on barren moss crofts—has also affected the circumstances of the people.”

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:

“In the spring of 1847, Lady Dunmore, from her private funds, supplied seed oats, and a considerable quantity of seed potatoes, to the tenants. Some have repaid their advances, but a greater number have not. Her Ladyship also provided materials for employing females in woollen manufactures, partly knitting and partly spinning. For these two purposes she expended above £1800. Nearly £1200 have also been expended on boats, fishing-gear, and the erection of a pier at West Tarbert, for the encouragement of the fishery.”
It is not entirely clear if the sum of £1800 refers solely to the knitting and spinning manufactures, or if it includes the seed oats and seed potatoes too, but the Board includes this total expenditure of £3000 some four years previously merely as evidence that “…the parish of Harris cannot be made self-sustaining, unless a portion of the people remove elsewhere.” They were using McNeill’s enquiry as a means of promoting emigration and supplying supporting evidence to suggest that it was merely a last resort rather than the inevitable consequence of the (man-made) factors that I have described.
I do not doubt that many of those who did emigrate and then thrived on the North American continent, in Australia, and in many other places too, felt that they had made the best choice in the circumstances. I am also aware that many readers are descendants of those same people and that the hunger of their ancestors has been replaced by a hunger to know as much as possible about the land they left.
And ‘land’ is the key for under the run-rig system one would have been reminded each year, in the allotting of the strips, that no man ‘owns’ the land, that it is the land supports us, that by sharing in communal activities we communicate & develop a sense of community, & that as soon as one person’s motivation is deemed superior to another’s & greed becomes the guiding principle, we sour the land, encourage disease and pestilence and are forced to turn our backs on the land to face the sea, and towards those other lands that lie far across the ocean…

"…an immense shoal of herrings…"

In December 1837,
an immense shoal of herrings,
of a large size,
set into the lochs on the western coast of Harris.

One shoal entered a creek in the Sound of Harris,
the mouth of which dries at half-tide,
while the depth within the bar is seven fathoms;
and about 200 crans were caught in this pool alone.
(Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle, 16th December 1837.)  

John Lanne Buchanan (1768-1828?) & his ‘General View’

A brief but informative biography can be read here (please scroll down )and this PDF contains a reference to
the dates that I have included in the title of this entry.

I have not discovered any more biographical information but as I haven’t made reference to the third of his publications now seems to be a good time to do so:

Bibliography
Travels in the Western Hebrides (1793)
A Defence of the Scots Highlanders (1794)
General View of the Fishery of Great Britain (1794)

A ‘General View’ (as I shall refer to it henceforth) is one of those narratives that casts a broad sweep in time and place, making it a worthwhile read whatever aspect of history ‘floats your boat’, and so I shall concentrate upon some of the many references to Harris that it contains.

At the conclusion of the Preface JBL writes:

“It remains now that the author begs some allowance from the English Reader for the style and expression ; his chief attention being to make himself understood ; therefore he has followed a plain and pie style, without pomp or affectation”

This author will do his best to follow that example, too, although to the modern eye and ear Buchanan’s prose is at times rather convoluted!

Apparently (p17) in 1633 King Charles built several storage houses in the Hebrides ‘one at HERMITRA, in HARRIS, and another in LOCHMADDY, in North UIST, which lies about a league and a half South of HERMITRA…’

Now 5 miles is ‘about a league and a half’ and if we consult Bald’s 1805 map of Harris we find the island of ‘Hermetray’, complete with Harbour, lying in the Sound of Harris and on today’s OS maps the isle is shown variously as ‘Thernatraigh’ (1:50 000) and ‘Hermetray’ (1:25 000). There is, however, no sign of the Harbour nor of Charles’ construction but it might be worth a brief archaeological visit lying as it does a little over a mile from the coast of north-eastern North Uist.

Starting on p126 we are given an account of John Knox’s findings in which Buchanan is polite but firm in casting Knox as ‘…but a stranger, and at best but a speculative fisher…’ but goes on to put the blame for mis-siting fisheries firmly at the door of Knox’s superiors for accepting his suggestions without question.

By p156 we are into the nitty-gritty of Buchanan’s annoyance which is focussed upon Tarbert in Harris being overlooked as a place to establish a fishery. East Loch Tarbert, if a channel had been constructed linking it the 600 yards to the West Loch, would have been within an hours sailing from the Atlantic Herring fisheries to the West as well as perfectly sited for the whole of the Minch. It was Knox, influenced by the enthusiasm of ‘Mr Macleod’, the proprietor of Harris, who had proposed Tarbert for this purpose but later Knox had fallen under the spell of those supporting sites away from the Western Isles and Tarbert fell from his favour It is, I think, worth reminding ourselves that Captain Macleod had died four years prior to the writing of the ‘General View’ and that both Buchanan and Knox clearly held him in the very highest regard as an industrious and caring landlord. It was undoubtedly a huge loss to Harris when the Captain died 220 years ago.

The extent of the loss to Harris is graphically described from p168 onwards including reference to Buchanan’s earlier writings where ‘a just parallel is drawn’ between the people living in LUSGINTIRE (Losgaintir in Gaelic) and African slaves. The account continues in an ever-more depressing manner and it is almost possible to see Buchanan’s compassionate tears flooding the pages with raw anger, albeit phrased with late 18thC politeness.

The influence of kelp-making is remarked upon on p193 for apparently on the East coast of Scotland ‘the thick column of disagreeable fog…has greatly diminished the fish on these shores.’ This is contrasted with the kelp smoke on the ‘Long Island’ where the strong winds ‘clear off that smell.’ Buchanan wasn’t to know that the kelp market would soon collapse but that does not diminish the point he makes that at the time the Hebrides had a distinct advantage in terms of the profusion of local fish stocks.

When we reach p203 onwards we find Buchanan castigating the silence of the Hebridean proprietors en masse for having ‘so little to say’ regarding the decisions taken regarding the siting of fisheries largely caused by Knox’ unknowledgeable recommendations. Basically, the proprietors had been keen to see fisheries established, after all, richer tenants make for richer landlords!, but rather strangely they did not challenge the recommendations and merely fell mute.

Buchanan proceeds to point out that, with the exception of the ‘narrow and at times dangerous sound of Harris’ the sites chosen on the mainland had no access to the Atlantic fish between Barra and the Butt of Lewis, a distance of some 200 miles.

‘As for the direct opposition given by the steel bowman at Lusgintire…his private interest would suffer by the village at TARBERT. For the paultry spot of Moor and Moss with the Kelp, not half a mile long and broad, out of the bay of DIRACLETT near the village, he made it appear…that he drew more money yearly from the division cut out of that paltry bay than the proprietor drew from the whole of that extensive lease…’

Buchanan suggests that the ‘steel bowman’ thus made a fool of the ‘sweet tempered gentleman’ Captain Macleod ‘a circumstance he never could forget while in life’. It might not be going too far to say that, in Buchanan’s view, Macleod died of a broken heart having learnt of the avarice and heartlessness of the farmers, those men who would in later years embark on the wholesale Clearance of the fertile West coast of Harris.

And there is not the least doubt, had he lived, but he would break this tyrant’s power, by depriving him of this extensive profitable lease…’ Not only would the Clearnces never taken place, but Tarbert would have become the fishing station of Buchanan’s vision, complete with horse-drawn carriages to portage boats between the lochs as demand required…

Buchanan concludes by describing in detail his plans for a necklace of fishing stations throughout the isles, making the case for each individually and their interconnectedness as a whole. Instead of which, by the time of his death in 1828, the tyranny of the farmers had become even greater and Tarbert remained a quiet backwater rather than the bustling hub of Buchanan’s scheme.

‘Jessie’ in Stornoway in 1886?

Yesterday I contacted the Ballast Trust regarding a photograph taken by the late Dan McDonald that appears on page 33 of Robert Simper’s excellent book, ‘Scottish Sail – A Forgotten Era’, ISBN 071536703X. They located the image, a glass plate negative, and have added it to their Flickr site as can be seen here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ballasttrust/4909702307/

The description in the book tells us that the two vessels in the centre are the Advance and Jessie of Stornoway and that the Jessie, of 30 tons, was built at Fraserburgh in 1850 whilst the Advance was built in 1884. Given this information, the date on the image, which appears to read ‘1866’, would have to be 1886?

My previous research, as seen here , places the Jessie in my family’s hands from at least 1876 and the fact that her Crew Agreements cease in 1897, the year that they bought the Crest, leads me to believe that she was theirs for the whole of the period 1876-1897. Corroboration is to be found in this obituary from the Stornoway Gazette of 1922.

I am absolutely delighted to be able to share with you an evocative image (albeit somewhat indistinct!) of one of my ancestors’ ships taken at the time that they were sailing her in plying the coastal trade of the West coast of Scotland.

Note: The fishing fleet is a mixture typical of the time, including vessels from both the East coast and the Clyde.

Lobster Fishermen of Harris

In his evidence to the Napier Commission Kenneth Macdonald boasts that:

“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.”

I thought I’d look to see what the census records have to tell us regarding his claim by researching those who gave their occupation as ‘Lobster Fisher’ from 1841-1901:

1851 – Kenneth Macdonald, 35, Factor’s Clerk, Rodil, b. Applecross, Ross-shire
NORTH (1)
Donald Maclean, 30, ED21, b. Harris
TOTAL 1

1861 – Kenneth Macdonald, 43, Sheep Farmer, Big Borve, b. Applecross, Ross
NORTH (10)
John Martin, 30, Little Urgha, b. Harris
John Martin, 21, Little Urgha, b. Harris
Angus Mcdearmid, 29, Little Urgha (Visitor), b. Harris
Malcolm Kerr, 48, West Tarbert, b. Harris
Dougald Macdonald, 43, West Tarbert, b. Harris
Donald Kerr, East Tarbert, b. Harris
Donald Mcleod, 27, East Tarbert, b. Harris
Malcolm Shaw, 40, East Tarbert, b. Harris
Angus Shaw, 36, East Tarbert, b. Harris
BAYS & SOUTH (4)
Roderick Mclennan, 52, Direcleit, b. Harris
Donald Mckay, 29, Cregstore, b. Harris
Malcolm Morrison, 34, Struth, b. Harris
Alexander Mcleod, 22, Obe, b. Harris
John Mcleod, 22, Obe, b. Harris
TOTAL 14


1871 – Kenneth Macdonald, 54, Farmer, ED5, b. Applecross, Ross-shire
No Lobster Fishermen recorded (Fishers of Harris has numbers of ALL the Fishermen for that year)


1881 – Kenneth Macdonald, 64, Big Borve, Farmer and Factor, b. Applecross, Ross-shire
BAYS & SOUTH (5)
Kenneth Mcaskill, 32, ED5, b. Harris
Donald Mcaskill, 27, ED5, b. Harris
Lachlan Macdonald, 29, ED5, b. Harris
Christopher Morrison, 28, ED5, b. Harris
Hector Morrison, 23, ED5, b. Harris
TOTAL 5


1883 – Napier Commission


1891 – Kenneth Macdonald, 79, Farmer, Hamlets Scaristavore, b. Applecross
BAYS & SOUTH (3)
John Mcaskill, 23, Kyles Stockinish, b. Harris
Kenneth Mckinnon, 45, Kyles Stockinish, b. Harris
John Morrison, 20, Leac a Li, b. Harris
TOTAL 3


1901 – Kenneth Macdonald, not found…
BAYS & SOUTH (28)
Direcleit
Stockinish (10)
ED7 (10)
Obe
Kintulavig (2)
TOTAL 28

Kenneth Macdonald may well have been single-handedly responsible for creating the Lobster Fishing on Harris, and presumably profiting nicely in his role as an agent, but if we look at the figures then there is plenty to consider.

Firstly, considering the years 1861, 1881 and 1891 we have a total of 22 Lobster Fisherman giving an average of a little over six such persons per year. In 1901 there were nearly four times that number.
Secondly, if we take 1861 then we see that there were 14 Lobster Fishermen which is still only half the number in 1901.
The significance? Well, by 1901 Kenneth Macdonald was gone yet the Lobster Fishing appears to have gained hugely in popularity amongst those risking their lives in its pursuit. For Macdonald to have the cheek in 1883 to talk of that industry as if it was playing a significant part in alleviating the poverty that he himself had inflicted upon the populace in attempting to assuage his endless appetite for land upon which to graze his sheep, when in fact just two years earlier there had been but a handful of Lobster Fishermen in the whole of Harris, leaves a disgusting taste in one’s mouth far-removed from that of the fruits of those brave fishermens’ labour…