>About the Hebrides No VIII

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‘Tarbert in Harris, to which the Clansman conveyed us from Loch Maddy in North Uist, was described to us by a residenter of the place, though not a native, as consisting of 26 dwelling-houses and 13 shops – he begged pardon, business premises of “merchants”. This is possibly a rather rough-and-ready summing-up, but it is correct enough in so far as indicating that the number of the latter is distinctly out of proportion to the number and requirements of the former.

The village stands at the head of East Loch Tarbert, that indentation of the sea that cuts into the land from the Minch to about a quarter of a mile from the head of West Loch Tarbert, similarly indenting it from the Atlantic, the so close approach of the two all but constituting the southern portion of Harris an island. As it is, the march between the two districts is here, the proprietor of North Harris being Sir Edward H Scott, Bart., and of South Harris the Earl of Dunmore.

The houses are all on the north or right hand side as you enter by the steamer, ust where the loch or bay becomes a creek of 300 or 400 yards in length, and narrowing to less than 50 yards at the top. The first structure to catch the eye is the Free Church, a plain enough building, erected on the summit of an eminence jutting into the sea immediately eastward of the pier. Close at hand, but standing a little lower, is the manse, a comfortable-looking, white-washed house, with a neatly-kept kitchen garden in front and sheltered so far from the wind and spray by some trees – the latter not of any dimensions, truly, but still forming a show of “wood” surpassing what we had seen as yet in working up the Long Island. Then comes the wooden pier, up from which, by a path that winds round to westward, you pass the schoolhouse (the of teacher which is also the registrar for the district, &c.), and get onto the main road or street, on the right of which stand the houses and stores of which, as above mentioned, the village consists. To right and left respectively of the pierhead is a row of eight or ten of these, some slated and others roofed with zinc, and all of one storey only.

Beyond these, going on to the head of the loch, there is a hiatus, to which succeeds a row of about a dozen newer-looking houses, two or or three of which are of two storeys and “semi-detached” from their neighbours. At the very head of the bay is the old Tarbert Inn , now disused as such; and across the road from this, almost down on the shore, the modern post and telegraph office. Following the road westwards two minutes’ walk brings you to the new Tarbert Hotel, in the very centre of the isthmus, and 30 or 40 yards further on is the house of the medical man of the district, Dr Stewart, which commands the view away down West Loch Tarbert.’
This is a gem of a description of Tarbert from 130 years ago and I only wish that I could name the author! However, we can identify ‘…Dr Stewart…’ as James Stewart for this young ‘Physician and Surgeon’ from Perthshire is found living in Kintulavig in 1881 and at 15 West Tarbert a decade later
Similary, we can be sure that the teacher who was ‘…also the registrar for the district, &c.’ was the Glaswegian Donald Bethune, he being the Schoolteacher in Tarbert in 1881 & 1891 , and that the Minister in the Manse was Roderick Mackenzie from Assynt in Sutherland who a few months after the publication of this article was giving his evidence to the Napier Commission where he makes particular reference to the work of Fanny Thomas .
We are especially fortunate in having the 1882 6-inch Ordnance Survey map (surveyed in 1878) on which to follow in the footsteps of our unknown author and then we should perhaps refresh ourselves at the ‘…new Tarbert Hotel …’ before returning later to examine the remainder of his piece…
Source: Glasgow Herald 16th September 1882 p3

>General John Francis Birch, Royal Engineers

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In this brief biographical piece on Admiral Henry Charles Otter (who was a hero of the first successful laying of a Transatlantic Cable and also the Hydrographic Surveyor in charge of charting the West Coast of Scotland) we met the General at his home in Portsea, Hampshire in 1851. He was laid to rest in Crondall, Hampshire in 1856 and, although he was a Royal Engineer, I was unable to link him to the Ordnance Survey.
However, there are five references from 1834 of the work of Colonel John Francis Birch in The National Archives in Kew. One of the five relates to a ‘Copy of a Plan of part of the Ordnance land at Berry Head purchased in 1794′. Scale: 3.7 inches to 10 chains. Compass indicator. Signed by John Francis Birch, Colonel, Commanding Royal Engineers’ which led me to an article on ‘The History of the Berry Head Fortifications’ by D Evans . Birch appears to have been involved with matters surrounding the site for several years in the early 1830. The article provides evidence of his role within the Board of Ordnance but suggests that he was probably not involved with the specific branch of the Board, formed in 1791 , that is the Ordnance Survey. More ‘concrete’ confirmation comes in the form of an ‘Oblong section block of Devonian limestone with rounded top, built up against stone rubble wall. Incised with letters BO and figure 3. Arrow at the top ‘ erected at Berry Head in 1830 by Colonel Birch. 
The main reason for this little excursion into the work of General John Francis Birch was because he was Admiral Henry Charles Otter’s father-in-law but clearly they were two men who shared a passion for, and were each exemplary exponents of, 19th Century cartography.

>Bald’s 1805 Map of Harris – A Summary

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I think it sometimes helps readers if I provide a page of links to pieces on a particular theme and in this instance have decided to collate my research regarding this wonderful map, the image of which can be explored on the National Library of Scotland site: http://maps.nls.uk/counties/detail.cfm?id=660
I have put the links into six separate groups but all the pieces are interrelated so, depending upon where you choose to start and which aspects you find interesting , you will find yourself following your own meandering path through them.
Asbestos & William MacGillivray
The Revd. Bethune & other people
Annotations including, perhaps, some by the 7th Earl of Dunmore?
Bald’s Map & FWL Thomas’s Chart
Togail Tir
Placenames
Note:
The only previous research into this map of which the NLS & I are aware was that performed by James B Caird, published in 1988 in ‘Togail Tir’. If any reader happens to be researching the map, and especially if they have knowledge of this copy’s whereabouts between its creation sometime in the 19thC and its surfacing in 1988, then please do get in touch.

>’The Living Voice’

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This is the title of Michael Robson’s brilliant essay in ‘Togail Tir ‘, the 1989 book that is a treasure for those of us with an interest in the mapping of the isles and matters arising from such mapping.
On page 102 of the book and with regard to the recording of placenames by the Ordnance Survey, he writes, ‘The islanders who helped were recorded by name, and it would be an interesting and worthwhile task to identify them all.’ which is precisely what I intend to do for one such individual.
Robson records ‘Angus Shaw, at Strond’ as the man who helped so what can we learn of Angus?
There are a few possible candidates for this man but the one who appears to be the best fit appears in the censuses as shown below (People in bold are those who appear more than once over time)
1841 – Strond
Angus Shaw, 25
Mary Shaw, 25
Christian Shaw, 1
1851 – Geocrab
Angus Shaw, 42, Gamekeeper
Una Shaw, 36
Christy Shaw, 10
Duncan Shaw, 8
Alexander W Shaw, 6
Donald Shaw, 4
John Shaw, 1
1857 – Charts of the Sound of HarrisSound of Harris (Otter) & East Loch Tarbert (Thomas)
1861 – Ardslave
Angus Shaw, 50, Gamekeeper
Winford Shaw, 40
Christina Shaw, 20
Duncan Shaw, 17
Donald Shaw, 13
John Shaw, 11
Anne Shaw, 7
1871 – Strond
Angus Shaw, 64, Gamekeeper
Una Shaw, 58
Duncan Shaw, 25
Alex Shaw, 25
Donald Shaw, 21
John Shaw, 19
Anne Shaw, 17
1875-77 Ordnance Survey surveying Harris
1881 – Strond
Angus Shaw, 70, Crofter
Ann Shaw, 60
Alexander Shaw, 34
Anna Shaw, 24
Donald Shaw, 32
Rachel Shaw, 12, Granddaughter
Angus Mackay, 10, Grandson
John McDermid, 80, Brother-in-law
1891 – Strond
Una Shaw, 79, Crofter
Alexr Shaw, 40
Anne Shaw, 32
Rachel Shaw, 22
1901 – Strond
Alexander Shaw, 45, Crofter
Anne Shaw, 36, Sister
Rachel Morrison, 30
Angus Mackay, 25, Nephew
Peggy Mcsween, 12, Granddaughter
I am sure that this is the same family, followed from 1841 onwards, and am reasonably sure that this is indeed the Angus Shaw who assisted the Ordnance Survey.
Whether his wife, ‘Mary’, died and he remarried Una/Winford(?)/Ann could be discerned from an examination of their Death Certificates, plus those of the daughter Christian and one of the later children, should one wish to do so.
However, I am happy to present Angus Shaw, born circa 1810, a Gamekeeper in South Harris and father of six, as my first contribution to this ‘…interesting and worthwhile task…’ !
Notes: Robson also discusses the roles of Alexander Carmichael and FWL Thomas and I remind readers of the gem that is Bald’s 1804/5 Map of Harris & of my less-shiny attempt at a prose-poem on landscape.

>Taking Hydrographic Surveyors Names In Vain

>I was alerted to an article in The Guardian about the controversy regarding a new Loch Lomond Chart  via a comment made on this piece from the Across the Minch blog.
The media coverage; such as this from the BBC, this from STV, this from the Stirling Observer and this from the Scotsman; focus mainly upon the inappropriateness of the names that have been used.

What none of them addresses, however, is the fact that the Hydrographic Surveyors of 150 years ago took great pride in ensuring the accuracy of their charts and especially with regard to using the correct names of the features that they recorded.

Admiral Otter (as he became) would be horrified to learn of such a neocolonial attitude to cartography taking his name in vain in this way and, as the man who ensured the safe arrival of the first successful transatlantic cable in Newfoundland, I suspect that he would also object to being portrayed as in any way unsophisticated merely because the plumb-line was the main tool at his disposal.

Note: Previous pieces regarding the work of ‘Captain Otter’, ‘Captain FWL Thomas’ and ‘Mapping’ may easily be accessed via the Labels at the left of this page.

>Borghasdal & Srannda Revisited

>I was going to put this as an update to the previous piece on these two townships but on reflection have decided to compose a new entry.

There are still gaps in my information such as I have not read the Ordnance Survey Name Book to discover why Port Eisgein & Port Ungasto were given these names. What I can say is that, unless Captain Otter made an uncharacteristic oversight in 1857, it was not until the OS surveyed Harris that either of these two ‘Ports’ were identified as ports. What I cannot be sure from using the maps alone, is precisely when each was named, for, although these names appear on the NLS maps, this is not conclusive evidence that the names were given to them when the maps were originally surveyed. They could be the result of subsequent revisions.

However, the earliest survey appears to have been that of 1878 for the 6-inch series of OS maps of Scotland and hence that is the earliest ‘known’ occurrence of the names. My caution is partly due to the fact that the map that was produced from this survey, and the 1-inch map of 1885, mark and label the ‘ Junction of Land & Submarine Telegraphs’ but as far as I can ascertain that telegraph cable wasn’t laid until 1886.

Does any of this matter? The answer is ‘Yes’ and the reason why it matters goes beyond the politics of placenames. If the use of the term ‘Port’ signifies that these places were used as small local ports then some significant advances can be made:

The presence of the Master of the Harris Mail Boat at Port Esgein in 1851 makes even more sense and the fact that a Letter Carrier, John Macleod, lived in Srannda rather than An-t-Ob might be explained by the location of the Strond Post Office opposite Port Ungasto. If ‘Eisgein’ does relate to an Ash tree, then it is possible that a specimen of that species conveniently and helpfully guided sailors to take safe passage to the shore there.

The Farm of Strond was part of the Tack of Strond & Killegray and this latter island lies less than three miles away across a relatively clear stretch of the Sound of Harris from the two ports. It is easy to imagine boats travelling to and fro between  the islands and, although the beach on Killegray is closer to An-t-Ob, the sea between them is liiterally littered with islets and submarine hazards. Carminish Bay is also blessed in being across the less troubled waters but it is at the end of Srannda furthest from what I believe (and Bald’s maps clearly indicates!) was the original nucleus of Srannda around what is now Borghasdal.

A couple more matters arise:
Why did they opt for ‘Port Ungasto’, above/in which is the site of Dun Boraigeo and which the nearest root that I can find in Gaelic is ‘Unga’ which comes from the Norse for ‘Ounce-land’?
Was it the breaking into Crofts of the Farm of Strond, which took place in the 1830s, that resulted in the settlement pattern for Srannda that we see from the 1857 chart onwards and, prior to that, had the people of that farm primarily lived within the confines of the ruins that we see today in Borghasdal?
I know what my thoughts are regarding the second question, but as to the first one, I remain all at sea…

Placenames Revisited

I have often made reference to the complex issue of placenames in the isles and thought it time to collect a few of my pieces that illustrate some of the attendant difficulties together in one place:

Places & Names
Borghasdal & Srannda
Direcleit
Liceasto
Na Hearadh

Entries on References:
Iain mac an Tailleir’s Gaelic Placenames
Captain FWL Thomas on Norse Names
Togail tir – Marking time

However (in my usual somewhat muddled way!) here is a link to the excellent introduction from the National Library of Scotland to Gaelic Placenames as they appear on Ordnance Survey Maps and the importance of the Object Name Books that are held on microfilm at the National Archives of Scotland (RH4/23/107 & 107 being those for Harris).