>’…and as many more in the adjacent Isles…’


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.

>Factors linking Factors


In an earlier piece we saw that Alexander ‘Fear Huisinis’ McRa and Mrs Donald Stewart were 1st Cousins and that Donald Stewart’s son, John Stewart, and his wife Jessy Macrae were 2nd Cousins.
The connection was the Macrae family of Ardintoul who were Roman Catholics (Hence in 1861 ‘Fear Huisinis’s sons Archibald Alexander & John were boarding with the Rev William Davison, a Roman Catholic Priest, at St Mary’s Church in Huntly St, Inverness) and this leads me to think that the Stewart’s were possibly of the same faith?
Donald Stewart was the Factor of Harris for Alexander Norman Macleod who inherited the isle in 1811 (I am unsure whether he inherited the Factor, too) and it was in 1834, when he purchased Harris, that the 6th Earl of Dunmore appointed Duncan Shaw to the role.
There is a reference to his successor, John Robertson Macdonald who died in 1874, having been the Dunmore family’s Factor for 35 years implying that he was in the role by 1839 but the census of 1841 only confirms that he was farming from, I believe, Rodel House. The Estate Officer living in Rodel was John Lindsay.
By 1881 the Factor for South Harris was Kenneth Macdonald and he had become Factor for North Harris by 1883. He was Assistant Factor of Harris in 1847.
Let us look at where each of these men were in 1841:
Donald Stewart – Farmer of Luskentire (Previously Factor of Harris)
Duncan Shaw – Factor of North Uist (Previously Factor of Harris)
John Robertson Macdonald – Farmer of Rodel (Later? Factor of Harris)
Alexander ‘Fear Huisinis’ McRa – Not found, but by circa 1844 he was in Harris.
Kenneth Macdonald – Not found, but by 1832 according to his evidence to the Napier Commision.
Hence we can place the Catholic Alexander McRa joining his cousin’s husband, Donald Stewart, as a fellow farmer on the fertile West Coast near the time that John Roberton Macdonald became Factor. John Robertson Macdonald’s sister, Isabella Maria Macdonald, was wife of the Rev Finlay MacRae, Minister of North Uist, who was a son of Donald Macrae of Achintee, Lochcarron.
The Factor of North Uist was Duncan Shaw whose son, Charles Shaw, informed the Napier Commission of 1883 that he assisted his father in that role from ‘Whitsuntide 1834 to Whitsuntide 1838’ which provides us with the earliest date for John Robertson having become Factor and that is a good match for the 35 years alluded to above. Charles Shaw, whos was already a ‘Writer to the Signet’ by 1841, had married John Robertson’s niece circa 1844.
Another person interviewed in 1883 was Kenneth Macdonald from Applecross who by that time was farming at Scaristavore but had been the Farmer of Borve, Harris at the time of the Clearances. In 1881 he was Factor of South Harris, a role that he had relinquished by the time he was interviewed. His wife, Mary Macrae, was of a Lochcarron family from Achintee. She was, in fact, a niece of Finlay Macrae, the Minister of North Uist.
Donald Stewart was married to a Catholic Macrae of Ardintoul descent and John Robertson Macdonald’s sister was similarly attached to a Macrae of the Achintee lineage and through them to the Established Church of Scotland.
Kenneth Macdonald had also married into that same Achintee Macrae family and Charles Shaw was married to John Robertson Macdonald’s niece which appears to rather neatly connect these three men. Alexander ‘Fear Huisinis’ McRa had been in the 75th Highlanders and John Robertson Macdonald a Lieutenant in three regiments. There were 20 years & a religious divide between these two men but they had the Army (whose force they could resort to) in common.
These factors linking Factors seem to me to be important in understanding their respective roles in the history of Harris.There were several family ties between these Factors (& Farmers) and one could, if so desired, continue to explore them further but I hope to have shown that the Messrs. Stewart, Shaw, Macdonald(s) and McRa had plenty of personal (as well as professional) incentives to ensure that they acted in unity.

>Friday, 4th April 1851 – Sir John McNeill


In the previous piece, I gave a brief indication of Sir John McNeill’s progress through the islands beginning with his overnight stay with the Mathesons at Lews Castle on Sunday the 30th of March. He was in Carloway, Lochs on the Monday, had reached Uig by Tuesday and Harris by Thursday. The next day he was:
At Rodil, Harris, 4th April 1851
Meaning that he’d covered half of the four Parishes of Lewis in just three days!
John Robertson Macdonald, Esq., being interrogated, replied :
I am factor on the Harris estate of Lord Dunmore, and I have been so for nearly eight years-since 1844.
This was the last year of the 6th Earl’s life & ended Duncan Shaw’s decade as Factor of Harris.
Sixty-four crofters have been removed from the lands they had previously occupied, with a view to improve their own condition and that of the crofters remaining in the farms from which they were removed. At Whitsunday 1848 forty crofters were removed from the island of Bernera, then occupied by eighty-one, and the lands thus vacated divided amongst the forty-one who remained. Those who were removed, with two or three exceptions, were placed in crofts upon lands previously occupied by tacksmen. Six of the number who, with one exception, had occupied crofts of about five acres in Bernera, were settled in the Borves, on crofts of ten acres of arable, and hill-grazing for four milk cows, and followers till two years old, with forty sheep and a horse—about double the amount of stock which, with one exception, they had in Bernera. The exceptional case referred to, was that of a man who had a ten-acre croft in Bernera, with an amount of black cattle stock equal to that for which he got grazing in the Borves, but who had no sheep. They are all in arrear of rent, and, on an average, for upwards of two years. These six tenants were selected as the best in Bernera in respect to their circumstances. I attribute their want of success to the depreciation in the price of black cattle, and to their not having had sufficient capital to put upon their lands a full stock when they entered. Their stipulated rent in the Borves is on an average L.12.
This resettlement of Borve on Harris had been at the behest of a commissioner for the ‘Tutor’ of the 6th Earl (charged with looking after the boy’s Estate until he was old enough to manage his own affairs), one Captain Sitwell. Macdonald was against the idea from the start but it is significant that he cites the state of the market and the crofter’s lack of finance as the reason for the failure. The fall in price of the cattle is an unfortunate fact of life in market economies but the lack of capitalisation meant that the experiment was pretty well doomed from the start. Hardly the displaced crofters’ fault, either of these factors, Factor!
Of the forty-one who remained with enlarged crofts in Bernera, the whole are now largely in arrears, and have increased their arrears since their holdings were enlarged. I attribute their want of success to the same causes as that of the people removed to the Borves.
And I repeat the comment made previously, too.
The result of this attempt to improve the condition of these crofters, by enlarging their crofts, while it has failed to accomplish that object, has at the same time entailed a considerable pecuniary loss on the proprietor.
Here we are getting a little closer to the cause of the ‘problem’ – namely the conflict of interest between the (frequently absent) landed gentry owning the land and those who live upon the land & call it home.
I am quite satisfied, from experience, that it is impossible to improve the condition of crofters generally by enlarging their holdings, unless they have capital enough to put the full stock upon their lands when they enter on their occupancy.
This, again, seems to be a perfectly reasonable (or blindingly obvious) conclusion to draw but, sadly, I can find no further mention of it as something worth exploring.
About thirty of the persons removed from Bernera had fallen so much into arrear as to be unable to continue in the occupation of their crofts there. These were settled upon fishing crofts of about two acres of arable, and grazing for one or two cows, and a few from four to six sheep, and charged with rents of from L.l to L.2. A considerable number of them had boats, and some had fishing-gear. Some were supplied with gear by the relief committee; but I am not prepared to say that they were all adequately provided with the means of prosecuting the cod and ling fishing, though many of them were; all of them are now in arrear with their rents for the fishing crofts. Not one of them, since entering on the fishing croft, has paid an amount equal to his rent.
So, these poor people were ‘moved’ for a second time and this time told to go fishing, but not necessarily given the means (presumably, boats, nets, etc) to do so. A bit like not making sufficient cattle available to them following their first removal?
The attempt to improve the condition of these men, who had previously been unsuccessful as agricultural crofters, by placing them in a position favourable for fishing, has also failed, and this experiment also has entailed a considerable pecuniary loss upon the proprietor, who is not now receiving from these fishermen one-fourth of the rent he formerly received from tacksmen for the same lands.
Here we are back to the real issue – it’s the rent that the landlord receives that’s important, not the feeding of the people. The reason the tacksmen were able to provide such a large rental was simply because they had converted the places that were populated into sheep farms in the process called the Clearances. I should also point out that these ‘two acres of arable’ were usually two acres of feannagan which required a herculean effort to maintain as efficient ground for crops.
I therefore state confidently, that in Harris, the proprietor cannot convert lands held by a tacksman into small holdings, either for the purposes of agriculture or fishing, without a great pecuniary sacrifice, and that this will continue to be the case unless potatoes should again be successfully cultivated.
A reminder that 1851 was preceded by several years of Potato famine due to blight and that, because the feannagan were better suited to that crop than to any other, it had become the staple food of most people. As before, a factor wholly outside the control of the crofter was being used by this Factor as a weapon against them.
I cannot estimate the loss that would be entailed on the proprietor by such a change at less than two-thirds of the rental paid by the tacksmen. The results of the experiments that have been made on this property would in every case fully bear out this estimate.
This is interesting because, although it suggests a vast reduction in the rents received by the Proprietor, it implies that reduced rents could be paid and thus people able to remain on the land.
It is my conscientious belief, and firm conviction, that if this property were all divided into small holdings amongst the present occupants of land, the result would be, that in a few years the rent recoverable would not be sufficient to pay the public burthens on the property, if the potatoes continue to fail, and the price of black cattle does not materially improve.
Which is not the same as saying that it couldn’t be done, merely that there would be a risk attached to doing so.
Besides the occupants of land, there are on the property about 250 families of cottars, who hold no land from the proprietor. This is the portion of the population that I consider worst off. Many of them are persons who formerly occupied crofts, and who, from being unable to pay their rents, were obliged to relinquish their lands.
Actually, trumped-up charges of the non-payment of rent was a tactic that the Farmers & Factors used to justify many a Clearance despite, in many cases a total lack of evidence in support. Many cottars were providing essential goods & services, perhaps as Tailors or Boatmen for example, without which the local economy would grind to a semi-naked halt.
Some of these go to the Caithness fishing; but neither they nor any other class of the inhabitants of Harris leave the country to seek for any other employment. A few, however, have gone as far as Stornoway to get work.
This is the purest manifestation of what later led to the Land Riots – a total ignorance of what the people wanted & why. As late as the time of Lord Leverhulme, islanders made it clear that they did not embrace becoming ‘wage-slaves’ but merely wanted to be left in peace to live their lives as their forebears had – in self-sufficient, close-knit island communities where the sea was the highway, the land wasn’t any-ones to ‘own’, and where a rich a vibrant Gaelic culture prevailed.
Those from the mainland, such as the man who signed this document, had other ideas…
(Signed) J. R. MACDONALD.
Sir John, having apparently learned all that he needed to know from two days in Harris, was the very next day at Lochmaddy in North Uist, collecting more information from ‘the great and the good’, whether they be Proprietors, Factors, Parish Ministers or the Parochial Boards and, apparently, not troubling himself to speak to a single representative of ‘the Poor’ who were the very reason for his Report…
It would be more than thirty years before another group, the Napier Commission, got to the bottom the nature of the islanders grievances  but by that time many had been forced to ‘leave the country to seek for any other employment’ as many still have to do today…
Oh, and I have a list of the residents of Rodel House where this evidence was given and you will see that in 1851 my cousin Angus Kerr was a Farm Servant there. He remained in Rodel for the remainder of his life, becoming the Farm Grieve (or Manager) of the ‘Home Farm’ at Rodel and then Coachman to, I presume, the 7th Earl of Dunmore. Whether he was there in 1850 on the night of the famous elopement or not I cannot say, but he married a daughter of the Schoolmaster at Kyles Scalpay (she being the Housemaid Lexy Morrison who we see on the above list in 1861) so, although I am appalled at the injustices that were perpetrated upon the people, I have a sneaking suspicion that at least some of my relatives were amongst the more fortunate few…
Ref: Report to the Board of Supervision by Sir John M’Neill, GCB, on the Western Highlands & Islands, 1851, P109/110

>Some notes on a selection from the Report to the Board of Supervision…


…by Sir John M’Neill GCB, on the Western Highlands and Islands 1851
I have made reference to this report in previous pieces and will include links to those within these notes.
p xxi-xx2.
The parish of Harris comprises, besides Harris proper, several adjacent islands, which are inhabited. The whole belongs to one proprietor.
The proprietor being 10 year-old Charles Adolphus Murray, the 7th Earl of Dunmore whose mother, Catherine, Countess of Dunmore, was running the estate on his behalf.

The population in 1841 was returned at 4429, but St Kilda, with a population of about 110, appears to have been omitted from the census of that year. The number, therefore, was truly 4539.
By the census of this year, including St Kilda, with a population of 110, the number returned is 4250, showing a decrease of 289.
I have included these population figures for reasons that will become clear later.

The annual value returned to Parliament in 1843 is £4015, 8s. 9d.
The aggregate stipulated rental in 1850 was £4289, 2s. 0d.
As a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), these amounts are equivalent to about £10 Million pounds today which gives us some semblance of the economic power wielded by the landlord.

The crofters holding land at rents not exceeding £10 are 348 families, or about 1812 individuals.
The aggregate rent payable by these crofters is £1456, 7s. 9d., and the average for each, £4, 2s. 5d.
The average rent equates to about £3000 today using average earnings in comparison.

The produce of a croft at that rent in Harris, including produce of stock, does not afford food for an average family for more than six months, reserving seed for the next year; but not providing for rent or anything for which money must be paid.
So a crofter additionally needs to find the means to feed his family for the remaining half of the year plus enough to pay his annual rent.

The cottars are estimated at 250 families, or about 1300 individuals. There are thus in the parish above three thousand persons dependent for their subsistence, during the whole or the greater part of the year, on other employment than the cultivation of land occupied by themselves.
A cottar did NOT possess the land needed to feed his family (beyond perhaps a small patch of vegetables) and hence was reliant upon employment to do so. A cottar was often a tied-tenant, their home being tied to the service they provided the employer, and they would only be able to seek work outside that done for the employer for perhaps one or two days each week.
A simple sum informs us that a figure of 5.2 people per household was used in calculating the number of people reliant upon employment to survive. If we use this average on the figure of 4250 that we are given for the total population, we see that there were perhaps nearly 820 households on Harris. This accords reasonably well with the figure of 783 households that I have for 1851 and which produces a slightly higher average figure of 5.4 people per hearth (to use my preferred term!)

The ordinary local demand for labour is small, being such only as a country chiefly pastoral affords; and the inhabitants have not been in the practice of leaving home to seek it, except at the Caithness and east-coast herring fishings, to which about two hundred men go yearly.
This reluctance to travel in order to seek work (which has resonances today in certain political circles!) is something that the Report focussed upon, rather neglecting the reason WHY there were large numbers of people by 1851 without a livelihood to support them and their families, We only need turn to a single word (& a four-letter one at that) to find an explanation – Kelp! The islands had become overpopulated purely to satisfy the greed of those for whom the Kelp industry had furnished a very substantial income over many years. In fact, such was the demand for workers that emigration, which was to become the watchword for the perceived solution to the ‘problem’ had itself been banned in earlier years. The landlords had sown the seeds of unemployment and now the people were reaping the results of what their masters had sown. All the people wanted was land to live upon but the fertile arable areas were being profitably pounded by sheep – profitable, that is, if, for example, one happened to be Donald Stewart of Luskentire or Alexander McRa of Kyles Lodge…

About 350 men in 70 boats are engaged, more or less regularly, in the cod and ling fishing on their own coast, and a few have lately gone as far as the town of Stornoway, in the same island, to look for other work.
The figures for Fishers are interesting, not least because they greatly exceed that which I had gleaned from the census data. There, some 230 occurrences of ‘fisher’ were found and, after removing the wives & children, this left some 174 men who gave fishing as their occupation. I do not doubt the figure in the Report and remark on the discrepancy merely as a reminder that my research methodology will not always deliver results that are 100% accurate!
The Report was the result of Sir John McNeill’s visit to the islands in the Spring of 1851 and on the 30th of March the Census records him staying at Lews Castle .
From pages 106/7 of the Report we know that on the 3rd of April the Parochial Board of Harris wrote their response to his request for information where we learn that:
There has been, during the winter, with the exception of about six weeks of bad weather, employment in road-making for about a hundred men.
For the last month, there has also been employed at road-making in the south end of the island, and covering land-drift, about thirty-six able-bodied persons.
The hundred men engaged at the road first mentioned are earning at the rate of from 1s. to 1s. 4d. per day.
The thirty-six persons engaged in the southern part of the island may earn from l0d. to 1s. a-day, when they take advantage of the work there offered.
The work on the sand-banks will soon be finished, and the road at the south end is carried on only for the purpose of affording employment to the able-bodied persons who are most destitute
Of these 136 men, only 42 were recorded as involved in roadworking in the 1851 census but it is that last sentence that is the most damning – the work (like that of some of the dyke-building that was also occurring) was simply an invention to occupy the men. Yet, some 80 years later, the people of south Harris were still having to plead to Parliament for a decent road along the Sound of Harris.
The letter was followed on the 4th of April by Sir John and his entourage visiting John Robertson Macdonald, the Factor of Harris, at ‘Rodil’ where they heard his evidence.
And that was it as far as Harris was concerned for by the 5th of April 7th the party had moved on to North Uist were Charles Shaw provided his evidence,some of which is pertinent to this piece.

I shall perhaps return to the Report later, when the manner in which it was related by ‘The Quarterly Review’ will be investigated to see the Tory (in the 19thC meaning of the word) reaction to it.

>Some Account of the People of St. Kilda and of the Birds of the Outer Hebrides


By W. M. E. Milner, Esq. in ‘The Zoologist’, 1848 p2054-57
Note: I have selected those parts that are of most relevance to my interests, but those with an interest in ornithology might enjoy the full text although it is full of accounts of birds being shot and eggs collected to satisfy the hunger for knowledge – rather than the hunger felt by famine. There is also a large section devoted to St Kilda that I shall leave for others with expertise in that isle to explore.
Thus this piece is neither about St Kilda nor Birds, despite its title!
…I brought our account of the birds of Ross-shire as far as the coast of Skye, from which island we took our departure, in Mr. Matheson’s steamer, for Stornaway ; and after a delightful passage of seven hours and a half, cast anchor in the capital of the outer Hebrides, on a charming summer’s morning, the 29th of May. The whole population seemed busily engaged in the herring fishery, and we remained only long enough to be most hospitably received by Mr. Scobie,. Mr. Mattheson’s factor, who facilitated in every possible way our journey to the Harris…

…On the island of Scalpa, at the entrance of Loch Tarbert, we saw a purple sandpiper, on the 31st of May, in full summer plumage. In this locality the oyster-catcher was very abundant, and we met with several pairs of the black guillemot…

…In our sail from Loch Tarbert to Rowdil, on June 1st, we saw several pairs of the bean goose, and procured specimens of the turnstone in full summer plumage, but I do not think they had begun to lay, for they were in flocks of four and five; and near Rowdil, the southern extremity of Harris, we were gratified by finding an eyrie of the peregrine falcon, containing four young birds. The old ones were too cautious to come within reach of the gun, and we left them their progeny in peace…

…The people here seem very contented, though badly off; and I was sorry to hear subsequently that the potatoes, which looked very healthy in June, have turned out very ill.
Lady Dunmore, represented by her excellent factor Captain Macdonald, has been most active in administering to the wants of the people; and by the constant supply of meal brought by the Government steamers to the various depots, not a man in the outer Hebrides has perished from want…

…Finding that little was to be done in ornithology in Harris, we crossed over to North Uist, twelve miles over the Sound of Harris from Rowdil, belonging to Lord Macdonald, a flat island, containing 5000 inhabitants, completely dotted over with small lakes, and the retreat of innumerable water-fowl chiefly in winter.
We are indebted to the Rev. Mr. Mc Rae and Mr. Macdonald of Balronald, by whom we were most hospitably and kindly entertained, for all the success we met with in this island, which of all the outer Hebrides is best worth visiting…

…I cannot close my account of North Uist without expressing my admiration at the exertions of Lord Macdonald, so fully carried out for the benefit of the people by Mr. Macdonald and the Rev. Mr. Mc Rae. I should be sorry to make any comparison with the sister kingdom, but the state of North Uist affords a bright example of how much good may be done, even with small means, by a landlord anxious for the good of his tenantry, when aided by a zealous factor, and an active, kind-hearted clergyman…

…After being most hospitably entertained in North Uist, we returned back to our kind friends at Rowdil, and made preparations for our voyage to St. Kilda, for which we hired a very comfortable little cutter of forty tons, formerly engaged as the mailpacket between Skye and Harris, well manned by an able crew of five men, which in most seasons of the year is necessary, for the navigation is dangerous, from the currents and storms rising up very suddenly.

We were to be taken to St. Kilda, back to Rowdil, thence to Stornaway, and to be landed at Loch Inver, in Sulherlandshire, for £ 17.
Our starting-place was Ob, the south-west point of Harris, where we were detained three days by contrary winds. Our companions were, the Rev. Neil Mackenzie, the former clergyman of St. Kilda, to whose kindness and zeal we were mainly indebted for the great success we met with, and who was anxious for a passage to visit his old flock,—and the Rev. Mr. Macdonald, the clergyman of Harris, in which parish St. Kilda is situated, and whose services as an interpreter we found very useful in an island where not a word but Gaelic is understood…

…The distance from Ob is is about sixty miles, but from Cape Groemenish, on the west coast of North Uist, it is but forty-two; perhaps the most treacherous passage ever made in those seas…

…We weighed anchor on the 12th of June, at six in the morning, with a favourable wind, passed Pabbay, North Uist, and the rocks of Hasker, and till within fifteen miles of St. Kilda seemed likely to make an excellent passage. Borrera, an island five miles north of St. Kilda, rose majestically 1400 feet out of the sea, but a haze prevented our seeing its kindred rock. Shortly after catching sight of Borrera a sudden storm overtook us, and for four hours we were beaten about most helplessly.
Our pilot was out of his reckoning, and when everything was prepared to stand out to sea for the night we unexpectedly swung into the bay of St. Kilda, just visible through the fog, and cast anchor within 200 yards of its rocky iron-bound shore at four in the afternoon…
This account from 1848, in the midst of the potato famines and at a time of revolutions in Europe & beyond, provides a glimpse into the world of the islands but not of the ‘ordinary’ islanders.
We learn that Mr Matheson’s steamer from Skye took seven-and-a-half hours to reach Stornoway where the herring fishing was in full flood. In referring to Lady Dunmore and her ‘excellent factor’ Captain Macdonald we obtain confirmation that John Robertson Macdonald had indeed succeeded to this role and, tantalisingly, this is not the only time that he is referred to as ‘Captain’ but I’ve still not been able to ascertain any aspect of his military past.
Over on North Uist, we meet the ‘Rev Mr Mc Rae’ who was Finlay MacRae whose wife Isabella Mary Macdonald was the ‘excellent factor’ of Harris’s sister.
It is clear that the author was much taken by North Uist (and your present one finds it to be to his liking, too!) but it is a shame that he didn’t explain what the ‘exertions of Lord Macdonald’ were that had rendered the island to appear to be in such a good state?
My favourite section is that were we read of the 40 ton cutter that had been the mailpacket between Harris & Skye and its crew of 5 men necessitated by the nature of the seas in the Sound. Was this boat replaced by a steamer or did the Master of the Harris Mail Boat in 1851 sail just such a vessel too?
Whatever the case, the story of the voyage to St Kilda, complete with a disorientating storm and aboard a ship of a similar size to those my own people sailed in those same seas, seemed like a good place to end…

>A Detour

>I have been looking into the Stewart brothers of Pairc & Luskentire and was about to begin composing a piece when, as a result of a peek at some MacRae folk, I took a slight diversion…

In 1851 (sorry, it’s not my fault that year keeps supplying the goods!) the Factor of Harris, John Robson Macdonald was visited at Rodel by his sister Isabella MacRae and (what I presumed to be her son) a young farmer called Donald MacRae. Isabella was the wife of a Minister so I took a little look at men of the cloth and decided that a likely candidate was one Finlay MacRae of North Uist. A search on Google soon led me to this page on Family Search which confirmed everything. As you can see from that page, Isabella Maria Macdonald and Finlay had seven children with the eldest being Donald who held the tack of Luskintyre. Finlay died on the 15th of May 1858, shortly before the couple’s 34th Anniversary and, if you click on Isabella, you will see that her father was Colonel Alexander Macdonald of Lynedale. This was in fact Lyndale on Skye and this extract from ‘The Clarion of Skye’ (on the Am Baile site) describes the raising of ‘The Skye Volunteers’ who, two years before Trafalgar, were formed should Napoleon threaten an invasion.

To return to Harris, we know now that John Robson Macdonald was the son of Colonel Alexander Macdonald of Lyndale which is a step forward even if it wasn’t along the path of my original route!

A final observation may be made regarding the fourth of Isabella’s offspring who followed his father into a career in the church and this Rev. John Alexander MacRae was also the Minister of North Uist where he gets mentioned in this piece from the Carmichael Watson Project.

There we learn that the object of a love poem from the Minister was one Jane Macdonald, a daughter of James Thomas Macdonald and a first cousin of the man who was wooing her. Which is how it was that her sister, Jessie, caused all the commotion in Rodel when she was snatched by her lover from under her Uncle John Robson Macdonald’s nose, occasioning him to punish those on Harris who had aided the lovestruck couple in a tale that is well known. What is perhaps less well-know is the connection between Isabella Macdonald and the MacRae Ministers of North Uist which is why I thought it worth relating.

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…