>(From a Correspondent) Glasgow Herald 23 April 1883 page 8
>(From a Correspondent) Glasgow Herald 23 April 1883 page 8
“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:
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:
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,
‘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.
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