‘…a most eventful voyage…’

This, originally from the Pall Mall Gazette of 1889, is truly tragi-comic:
The Welsh schooner Pursuit, Captain Williams, has had a most eventful voyage of nearly six months’ time from Weston Point, near Liverpool, to Carloway. The vessel left the Mersey laden with salt in the end of September, 1888, and put into Stornoway on the 23rd October. There she remained for some time wind-bound, and made two ineffectual attempts to make her destination, which is only about 50 miles distant. Ultimately she sailed from Stornoway on Sunday, 23rd December last, under charge of a pilot, but when near Carloway that evening she was caught in a heavy westerly gale, which drove her towards the Orkneys, and the master succeeded, after losing most of his sails, in getting her into Thurso. Unfortunately the mate, who had been most reluctant to leave in the vessel, dropped down dead in the height of the gale. After getting a new supply of sails from Wales the vessel left Thurso, and advices have been received at Stornoway that she has now arrived at her destination. It may be stated that the exact distance between the place of loading and discharging is only about 410 miles. (Pall Mall Gazette)
Source: Boston Evening Transcript – Apr 3, 1889

My Grandfather

Although he was the reason for all this, and was my closest island ancestor, I’ve not yet told the whole tale of my Grandfather, John Kerr.
John was born at 11 Bayhead Street, Stornoway on the 5th of March 1875. His mother was Annie Kerr, a Dressmaker, and his father, who was identified on the 13th of July by the Sheriff’s Court as a result of Annie taking legal action against him, was a Tailor, Norman Montgomery, whose family originated from Leurbost in Lochs.
In 1881 the 6 year-old Scholar is living in Stornoway with his grandfather, 58 year-old Malcolm Kerr, Seaman, his grandmother, 58 year-old Mary (Macdonald) ,who was one of those who had been driven out of Orinsay in Lochs some 38 years earlier, his mother, Annie Kerr, who by now was a General Servant, and his two uncles, the 24 year-old Seaman, Alexander John Kerr and the 22 year-old Cooper, Malcolm Kerr. Lodging with the family was a 24 year-old Baker from Lochs called William Maciver.
By 1891, his education over, the 16 year-old is a Clerk living at 37 Bayhead Street with his grandparents whilst Annie has married the Baker, Williiam Maciver, and started a new family. They, too, are listed at No 37 as are her brother Malcolm and his wife. his other uncle, Alexander John, is with his young family in Keith Street and I often wonder whether the young John ever had the chance to accompany him on his sea voyages around the Western coast?
That is the last we see of John on the isles for come 1901 he has moved to the mainland and is now a 26 year-old Manager (Herring Fishing) boarding at 12 Millburn Street, Aberdeen. Three years later, on the 19th of October 1904 the 29 year-old Fish Salesman marries 24 year-old Telegraphist Alexandria Milne, the daughter of a Hatter, William Milne, at 56 St Swithin Street, Aberdeen.
On the 14th of August the following year the first of three children arrived with the birth at 3:45 pm of Elizabeth Isobel Kerr. Aunty Lizzie was born at her grandparents home in St Swithin Street whilst her father remained at his house at 14 Albury Place. Next came my father who was born at 46 Devonshire Road, Aberdeen at half-past three in the afternoon on the 5th of December 1906. This time John appears to have been in the family home at the time. Finally, shortly after midday on the 10th of July1908, Alexandra Jean Robson Kerr was born at 84 Ashley Road, Aberdeen. Aunty Jean’s birth was registered by my grandmother for John was away performing his role as a Superintendent of Fisheries for the Congested Districts Board in Ireland. These were a controversial attempt at combating poverty in areas such as Ireland and, in Scotland, several places including the Isle of Lewis. Superintendents were required to be skilled Coopers but I do not know at what stage in his life the 33 year-old from Stornoway acquired those skills.
What happened next is unclear but by 1922 John was living in Glasgow having left his family in Aberdeen and in that year a Divorce was granted. Six years later on the 7th of July 1928 the 53 year-old Cooper married a Newsagent, Jessie Cowie Perry who was ten years younger than him. This civil Marriage took place at 70 Hutcheson Street, Glasgow which, as far as I can tell, was and remains a public house. John’s address was 59 Edmund Street and Jessie’s 11 Ladywell Street which has now been redeveloped but back then was a small group of houses and shops.
John and Jessie had no children and in the morning of the 29th of December 1936 this 61 year-old journeyman Cooper from 15 Ladywell Street died at 122 Balornock Road, his heart having failed due to Myocarditis. The cause of death, an infection, and the place, on the road to Stobhill hospital, suggest that his illness had been diagnosed prior to John’s death.
My grandmother, who was to live for another 27 years after the death of he ex-husband, lived to see all her grandchildren born and did a through job in erasing all memories of my grandfather, whether written, photographic or oral, from the records. All I knew was that, according to my father, his name was John, he was born in Stornoway, became a Cooper and that his father was a Registrar! Clearly this last fact was either a coded, polite way of informing me that John was illegitimate or, equally likely, it was an invention of my grandmother’s making. Either way, it was his being born ‘out of wedlock’,  together with his mother’s apparent insistence that he kept her family name, that actually made my task in discovering John so much easier for Kerr was a very rare name indeed on Lewis, virtually all who were found there from 1851-1901 being members of my family and originating from my grandfather’s grandfather who was born in Direcleit and who thereby gave your author his blogging name!
One final thought. On the 3rd of October 1930 at 7:40 in the morning, John’s mother, Annie Maciver, died at 3 Westview Terrace, Stornoway. She was 76 years old and had been severely ill for the past ten days. I do hope that John had been able to visit his mother during her final days and, from what I have been told by my island cousins, he certainly did keep in contact with his family back in Lewis. This gives me some comfort for, although I never knew him or his immediate island family, from all that I have learned he and they were typical of much that is good about the people of the Western Isles…
John Kerr 1875-1936 RIP

Hebridean Light Railway Company

A piece on a proposal in 1898 to construct two railway lines on Lewis can be found here.
There are no ‘rail’-associated returns from the 1901 census for Stornoway so, even if the scheme was still ‘alive’ then, I can add no more information.

An industrial line was that associated with the earlier Peat Oil project of Sir James Matheson can be read here  In the 1871 Census, there was a 30 year-old Perthshire man, David Macgill, who was a ‘Railway Agent’ living at 3 Beach St, Stornoway. His two children, ages 1yr & 5months respectively, were both born in Moray so the family must have moved to Lewis sometime after November 1870. Whether his presence was in connection with the Lewis Chemical Works railway or, perhaps, a line that may have been proposed for the Brickworks is unknown but appears likely.

From the Falkland Islands to the Isle of Harris

I am looking at the Passenger List for the ACONCAGUA, Official Number 65969, for a voyage from Valparaiso in Chile to Liverpool in England. She was owned by the Pacific Steam Navigation Company Limited from 1872-1895 and is described thus:
‘Built by John Elder & Co., Glasgow, Scotland. Tonnage: 4,106. Dimensions: 404′ x 41’. Single-screw, 14 knots. Compound inverted D.A. engines. Three masts and one funnel. Iron hull. Clipper bow. ‘
She called at Punto Arenas where one of those boarding was M Mcdonald, a ‘Scotch’ (sorry, I didn’t construct the form!) single, male Labourer. The voyage included stops at Montevideo, Rio Janeiro, Pernambruto, Lisbon, Plymouth before reaching Liverpool on the 10th of April 1892.
My interest in this information lies in the fact that Murdo Macdonald, who was born in the Falkland Islands in about 1871, married Ann Kerr (daughter of Angus the fisherman)  in Tarbert, Harris on the 1st of November 1892 and we find the couple and four of their five children in North Harris in 1901 where Murdo’s occupation is given as Labourer (Mason).
Although I cannot be certain that the Aconcagua’s passenger was indeed Murdo it certainly could have been the man who was a grandfather of several of my cousins in Harris and Lewis.

Update: Murdo’s parents were, according to his Marriage Certificate,  Angus Mcdonald & Christy Morrison. The 1901 census shows the following:

Christina Mcdonald, 59, Woolspinner, No 46 North Harris*, b. Harris
Marion Mcdonald, 21, Daughter, b. Falkland Islands
(*North Harris with a No. is probably 46 Tarbert, the 1901 Census not specifying Tarbert addresses)

There is no record of either of them in the 1891 census.

Although I have been unable to discover their voyage from the Falkland Islands to the Isle of Harris, I find it tantalisingly plausible that this mother and daughter are Murdo’s mother and sister. If so, then his mother was born in Harris and it is interesting that there is one marriage recorded between an Angus Macdonald and a Christina Morrison on the island. It took place in 1871 and so we can imagine the couple marrying prior to their departure for a new life many thousands of miles away, at least two children resulting from their union and then these two and their mother returning to the isle of their parents birth.

I will, in due course, examine the Marriage Certificate which, together with a search for and examination of the Death Certificates of these three, should settle the matter.

Update: I was interested in learning about population figures for the Falkland Islands and eventually found these tables showing 811 people in 1871, 1510 in 1881, 1789 in 1891 & 2043 by 1901. There is an informative timeline and much other useful information to be seen on the site.

Of Baile & Clachan – including the example of Bragar in Lewis

This PDF document is a paper from the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland published in 1993 that contains plenty of food for thought on the organisation of island settlement that led to the development of crofting townships:
West Highland and Hebridean settlement prior to crofting and the Clearances

It is a scholarly, but very readable, account and the Abstract, Introduction and closing Overview give a clear synopsis of the competing claims together with the conclusions reached by the author, Robert Dodghson. I would, however, recommend reading the complete text for it is packed with detailed, illuminating information.

Port Eisgein

This small inlet in the Sound of Harris resembles the head of a pterodactyl swooping towards Borghasdal (Borrisdale). The name presumably has the same origin as the one that  Iain mac an Tailleir supplies for the place in Lochs, Lewis:

Eishken (Lewis), Éisgean. This Norse name may contain “ash tree”.

In the censuses it tends to be written ‘Esgein’ but, as can be seen from this entry for the Lewis location the preferred spelling is Eisgein whilst the RCAHMS entry provides ‘Isginn’ as the preferred alternative.

It would be lovely to know what use has been made over the centuries of this most South-Easterly haven in the Sound but looking at the old maps the settlement of Srannda (Strond) appears centralised upon the port suggesting that it may have had an importance that its small size might easily lead one to overlook today.

Letters from Alexander Carmichael to Captain F.W.L. Thomas

There is a treasure-trove of correspondence between these two men to be read here:

It is significant that reference is made to three wives (obviously those of Carmichael and Thomas, plus Mrs Otter whose husband Admiral Otter was Fred Thomas’s superior), ably amplifying the impression I have of these men immersing themselves in the islands in ways way beyond those called-for merely by their duties.
I’d venture to say that we have seldom (if ever) attained such a degree of involvement in investigations in the succeeding 150 years!

One of my favourite passages is this from Carmichael:

I believe the ministry in Skye have been torturing the place-names there, which are three fourths if not seven eights Norse into all sorts of forced Gaelic names. Could the Government not be got to employ a competent Gaelic scholar to go carefully over the land and writing down each name as it is spoken on the spot? I would have no forcing either for Gaelic or Norse meaning best – just the sound given to the name [by] the people in the place. This would be I think a great gain. At present you have no guarantee that the name on the Ordnance map is the name used by the people of the place. Take my own native island of Lismore for example, for whose map I am just indebted to the kindness of Capt. MacPherson. Every name in the Island is quite familiar to me and on the map I can hardly recognise one of them – I can only wonder indeed how they managed to distort them out of their form. Very few names are given however – not more than ten per Cent I should think.

It could be slipped, seamlessly, between the leaves of the excellent Togail Tir

Note: A biography of Alexander Carmichael can be read here: http://www.carmichaelwatson.lib.ed.ac.uk/biographies.php?lang=eng


I am thinking about what a great film could be made taking the maritime charting of the Western Isles in the middle of the 19thC as the core around which it would be based. As well as the potential for recreating life aboard survey vessels of that time in spectacular scenery, it would also bring us ashore (they surveyed for up to 3 miles inland!) where we would witness the changes taking place, particularly those on Harris under the 6th Earl’s ownership, and Captain Thomas’s work on the archaeology etc of Lewis.

He was a pioneer of photography, was accompanied by his wife on the surveys and she played an important (vital, perhaps?) role in the development of textile industries on Harris. They even had a wooden house erected on Harris such was the depth of their commitment to their roles. We also have the interesting, at times tragic, story of their private lives (not least Frances’s second Baptism and subsequent marriage to her step-brother Fred) ending with the widowed Frances marrying the son of a veteran from the Battle of Trafalgar whose ship’s ensign is the only remaining one from that event.

Captain Otter’s part in the laying of the first Transatlantic Telegraph Cable, Fred’s father’s pioneering work in the Shetlands and Orkneys (apparently including the 10 year-old Fred!) could be woven into a piece centred on, say, the period from 1857-1867 and ending with the sale of the North Harris Estate to the Scott family.

Oh well, one can but dream…