>The Board of Supervision and the Destitution in the Highlands

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

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

>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

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…

The Parochial Board of Harris in 1851

The members of this board, who signed a document relating to the situation in the island on the 3rd of April 1851 in Tarbert, Harris, are listed here with some (tentative!) notes in parenthesis:
RODERICK MACDONALD Minister (possibly the minister of South Uist?)
J. R. MACDONALD Factor (Born Snizort, Inverness-shire)
DONALD McRAE Tacksman (Factor’s Nephew, Farmer of 200 acres Employing 8 men & Justice of the Peace?)
JOHN MACDONALD Tacksman (possibly the Farmer of 150 acres on the Island of Taransay?)
ALEX. McRAE Tacksman (presumably the Farmer of Nisishee Employing 21 men?)
ROBERT CLARK Surgeon (From Argyll)
NORMAN M’LEOD Merchant (possibly the ‘Farmer & Ship-person’ of Tarbert?)
JOHN M’LEOD Ground-Officer (From Harris and living at Port Esgein)
JOHN KERR Joiner and Tenant (see below)
R. H. WATSON Fish-curer (English-born living at Rodel)
JOHN TROTTER Superintendent of Croft Culture (Drat, I can’t find him!)
ALEX. CAMPBELL Lighthouse-Keeper (Born Harris, Assistant Light Keeper at Rhinns Lighthouse, Island of Oversay, Argyll)
Several of these twelve men are familiar to me and make appearances in earlier entries so I feel a little bit mean in not having diligently made a list of links for you, but if any of them are of particular interest then a simple search should lead you to those entries.
However, I am going to look at John Kerr the ‘Joiner and Tenant’ who is NOT someone in my own immediate family tree but who does feature in that of a well-known island ‘character’.
John Kerr (1811-1879) was the older of the two sons of a Farmer, John Kerr, and his wife, the Weaveress Marion Macleod of Scarista and Borve. Both brothers became Joiners/Carpenters and the younger one, Roderick, was the father of John Kerr, the Minister of Harris who appears in Finlay J Macdonald’s ‘Crowdie & Cream’ as ‘Ayatollah Kerr’.
John the Joiner makes three appearances in the Scottish censuses, as a Carpenter in Scarista in 1841, as a Joiner in Luskintyre with his Perthshire-born wife Janet in 1851, and as a ‘Journeyman’ in the company of two younger Joiners in ‘East Tarbert Shed’ in 1861. I should explain that in that year his wife, Jessie, was living in Obe with their five children and described herself as a ‘House Carpenter’s Wife’.
What happens next is not one, but two migrations for the next child is born in Wales in 1863 and the one after that in Birkenhead in England in 1866, and it was there that the ‘Ayatollah’s uncle died in 1879.
Looking at the Parochial Board list it is clear that several came from outside of Harris and that at least half had an interest in seeing the expansion of sheep-farms at the expense of the native population. There are also several family ties that I have yet to fully explore & make explicit but the lack of any representation of the majority of the populace on this particular Parochial Board is obvious.
Finally, as I do suspect that this John Kerr is related to me and am sure that he (like all the other Harris Kerrs whose family trees I have fully constructed) was descended from ‘incomers’, probably arriving at the time of Captain Alexander Macleod, I think that his inclusion is indicative that in many cases they were allied to the ‘improvers’.
This is not the first time that I have made this observation, and situations are always far more complex than one can hope to fully and accurately reconstruct after such a long passage of time, but John the Joiner, Member of the Parochial Board of Harris, uncle of John the (future) Minister of the Established Church at Scarista, who finally ends his days in England, must be trying to tell me something!

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If you use http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk to view original records then don’t neglect the little blue box towards the top-right of the image screen. After you have clicked on it, you will find subsequent pages accessible from buttons towards the top-left of the image screen.
As an example, the following is to be found from my own family’s record from the 1851 Census for Direcleit:

This District lies along the sea coast on the East of Harris. It is 10 miles long and 1 broad. It lies low and consists of deep soft moss bounded by the sea in an irregular circuitous line.
This district is bounded on the East by the Minch. On the North by the line drawn from the West Quay at Tarbert coinciding with the Luskintyre to Donald Rag’s House and joining the sea at East Tarbert. The West Boundary is the Main Road from Donald Rag’s House to the March between Scadabay and Drinishader which March forms the Southern Boundary of this District.

There is no soil but moss, potatoes and fish used to be the staple commodity but the people now are but poorly off – the major source is the fishing but oft that department of industry does not succeed in success- it is a difficult problem to solve – how to provide for the people.
Minister of Harris April 1851

Note: A few of the words are somewhat indistinct so I make no claim as to the complete accuracy of this transcription but the overall flavour is, I hope, still there.


An Economical History of the Hebrides and Highlands of Scotland,
John Walker
‘Potatoes are now become the poor man’s boll, as pease* used formerly to be called; and their cultivation on that account, as well as others, deserves the greatest care.
This valuable crop has of late years been infected with a disease which threatens to increase, and is now but too well known by the name of the curl.’

Whilst this viral disease was not the fungus called Potato blight that caused the 1846-1857 Famines in Scotland, John Walker’s warning is chillingly prescient of what was to happen less than 40 years later.

Potato Curl had led to several years of poor harvests prior to 1808 but the underlying cause of why this one crop had ‘become the poor man’s boll’ is significantly lacking from the essay. The Clearances, which continued throughout the Century, pushed people away from fertile land and onto rocky coasts where what little space could be brought into cultivation was more productive for potatoes than any other crop. The people did not become ‘Potato Eaters’, so hauntingly illuminated in Van Gogh’s painting of that name, by choice but by necessity.

If the years of Potato Curl’s ravages were bad, those of the Potato Blight were several magnitudes worse, a fact exacerbated by the reliance upon this single source of sustenance of an ever-increasing population crowded into the finite spaces between the rocks and the sea.

In the decade from 1847 no less than 16,000 Highlanders emigrated, and there was a scheme to import meal to stave-off starvation for those who remained, but none of us today can truly appreciate the horror as year after year this cruel fungus rotted not just the potatoes as they lay in the ground, but also those apparently-healthy and hope-imbued specimens that had already been harvested…

Pease, as in ‘Pease Pudding’ Pease Pottage’ or ‘Pease Porridge’ was the term for an oat-based soup-stew that had been the staple food for most people since Medieval times. The term ‘boll’ eludes me, but it was, perhaps coincidentally, an old unit of measure in Scotland.

Chelsea Pensioners on Harris

I have restricted this list to records that confirm that, at the time, each person was an out-pensioner of the Chelsea Hospital. This partially explains why, with one exception, the census of 1851 is the only one represented:

John Macdonald, 51, Pensioner Chelsea Hospital, Kentulavick, b. Harris
(Wife, 28, and three children aged 6, 4 and 2)

Angud MacCuish, 50, Pensioner Chelsea Hospital, Borve, b. Harris

Neil Maclennan, 48, Chelsea Pensioner, Flodabay, b. Harris
(Wife, 40, and 5 children aged 8 years to 5 months)

Donald Macaskill, 60, Pensioner (Chelsea), Island of Bernera, b. Harris
(Wife, 40 and two children aged 9 and 7)

Donald Macleod, 47, Pensioner (Chelsea), Island of Bernera, b. Harris
(Wife, 44, and 4 children aged 14 to 5)

Christopher Macrae, 67, Pensioner Chelsea Hospital, Nishiskee, b. Kintail, Ross
(Wife, 42, and 7 children aged 19 years to 5 months)

Marion Macrae, 58, Chelsea Pensioner’s Widow, South Harris, b. Stornoway
(I believe this to be Christopher Macrae’s Wife. I found this family, uniquely, in 1841 where her age is recorded as 28 compared to his 55 years. I suspect she is nearer to 70 than 60, though!)

Norman Macleod, the only Chelsea Pensioner from Harris that I found in the National Archives: Archives


The Royal Hospital Chelsea – http://www.chelsea-pensioners.co.uk/

Chelsea Pensioner – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chelsea_pensioner

From Paupers to Very Poor…

Paupers recorded on censuses taken in Harris

Year       Male       Female       Total

1851       21            52              73

1861       18           49               67

1871        07          21               28

1881       09           20               29

1891       00           03               03

1901       03           11                14

I was about to begin pontificating upon these figures when I came upon a record from 1851:

Kenneth Morrison, 80, a Hearach was living in Widows Row, Stornoway with his wife, Catherine.

Occupation – Very Poor…

Very Poor – What levels of despair and destitution do those two small words define?

There are seven Paupers recorded in Stornoway in 1851 but only Kenneth has his occupation described as ‘Very Poor’.

Perhaps not poor enough to qualify for State Aid and hence become a Pauper (or too proud to do so, or in some other manner denied access?) but sufficiently so for the Enumerator to use the word ‘Very’ to describe his and Mrs Morrison’s plight.

On this very night, elsewhere in Stornoway, John McNeil, Chairman of the Board of Supervison for the Relief of the Poor in Scotland, was in the newly-built Lews Castle on one of his many information-gathering exercises.

His circumstances were certainly not ‘Very Poor’…

Note: I have so far been unable to locate ‘Widows Row’ in Stornoway but in 1901 it appears as ‘Newvalley widows Row’. Since first composing this piece, I have discovered the location of this 1851 Widow’s Row in this very interesting letter: http://www.stornowaygazette.co.uk/letters-to-the-editor/Information-on-Widows39-Row.1177076.jp

Condition of the cottar population in Lewis 1881

Condition of the cottar population in Lewis.
Report to Her Majesty’s Secretary for Scotland.
Accounts and Papers, 1888.
Vol. LXXX, 43p., maps. [C. 5265]

Meetings of parochial boards were held in Lewis and it was discovered that some destitution did exist.

A previous inquiry into destitution on the island had been held in 1851, following the collapse of the kelp industry between 1844 and 1849 and the failure of the potato crop in 1846.

The expansion of the herring industry had soon relieved the situation.

By 1888, however, over-production and foreign competition had affected the herring fishery and it became increasingly difficult for the cottars of Lewis to obtain credit from local merchants between the fishing seasons.

In addition, an epidemic of measles had afflicted most of the population.

Mr. Fraser and Mr. McNeill visited 108 houses in the parishes of Lochs and Stornoway. Tabulated results of their inquiries are included in the appendix.

They found that the soil was of poor quality, there was a shortage of food and “a listless apathy is everywhere apparent.”

They predicted starvation on the island and recommended that some of the surplus population should be removed.

Source: http://gdl.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/haynin/haynin1403.htm#p290

SS Dunara Casle – 1891

I mentioned earlier that this vessel appeared thrice in the censuses and have pleasure in presenting the second tidbit for your delectation:

Charles Mckinnon, 45, Master, b. Coll, Argyll
Donald Maclean, 36, Mate, b. Iona, Argyll
Peter Mcgilip, 48, Boatswain, b. Crinan, Argyll

Alex Campbell, 37, Able Seaman, b. Mull, Argyll
Neil Mcinnis, 43, Able Seaman, b. Skye
John Mcdougall, 24, Able Seaman, b. Mull, Argyll
George Macdonald, 25, Able Seaman, b. Coll, Argyll
Archibald Macdonald, 48, Able Seaman, b. Islay, Argyll

Murdo Mcneill, 50, Donkey Engine Driver, b. Barra
John Maclean, 21, Ordinary Seaman, b. Skye
William Donald, 48, Shipping Clerk, b. Dalrymple, Ayr

John Marshall, 33, Chief Engineer, b. Glasgow
Donald Cameron, 34, 2nd Engineer, b. Glasgow
Charles Hume, 30, Fireman, b. Glasgow
Alex Mcalman, 35, Fireman, b. Mull, Argyll
Bernard Mcnamee, 36, Fireman, b. Tyrone, Ireland
John McConnel, 17, Trimmer, b. Glasgow

Alex Kay, 52, Chief Steward, b. Paisley
Charles Macintosh, 29, Steward’s Assistant, b. Portree, Skye
William Allan, 21, Steward’s Assistant, b. Glasgow
John Macintyre, 31, Cook, b. Oban

An McPhie, 26, Domestic Servant, Passenger
John Maclean, 15,
Sir John Carstairs McNeil, 60, Major-General, Equerry to the Queen, Passenger, b. Colonsay
Malcolm McNeil, 51, Visiting Officer Board of Supervision, Passenger
Neil Archibald McNeil, 13, Scholar, Passenger
Susan Carruthers McNeil, 45, Passenger
Ena Erskine McNeil, 16, Scholar, Passenger
Amy Sophia Chancellor, 14, Scholar, Passenger

The avid reader of this blog (should one exist!) will recognise several of the crewmen from 1881.

Although the address is only given as ‘North Harris’ the 1891 Enumerator was rather lacking in precision and we can be sure that the vessel was docked at Tarbert on Sunday 5th April 1891.

Two of the passengers are of particular interest:

Sir John Carstairs McNeil was a holder of the Victoria Cross and his story can be read here:


Malcolm McNeil played a pivotal role in the treatment of poverty in the Highlands and Islands including writing this paper on St Kilda:

‘Alleged destitution in the island of St. Kilda in October 1885. Report of Malcolm McNeill, Inspecting Officer of the Board of Supervision.

He also inspected conditions on Lewis as a result of the Park Deer Raid of 1887, the full story of which event can be found in the Angus Macleod Archive.

His presence on the SS Dunara Castle (the very vessel that would evacuate the last inhabitants of St Kilda nearly 40 years later) at the time of the 1891 census is another of those serendipitous events that makes perusing the past so pleasant.

Some other references to Malcolm McNeil that may be of interest: