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:

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.


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:

The Poverty Party – Stornoway Distillery & Lews Castle in 1851

Sir James Matheson had bought Lewis in 1844 and three years later began the construction of Lewis Castle which was completed in 1854 at a cost of £60,000 – a staggering £40Million today!

Slap bang in the middle of this drug-financed construction project (Matheson was knighted for his role in the ‘Opium Wars’ in China) was the 1851 census and it is the evidence of that record that is presented here.

Sir James, a confirmed teetotaller, chose as the site for Lews Castle the only distillery in Stornoway and this explains why the ‘Town’ part of these addresses are ‘Stornoway Distillery’.

Address: Lewis Castle, Stornoway Distillery
John MacNeil, 55,Chairman of the Board of Supervison for the Relief of the Poor in Scotland, Visitor
William A Peterkin, 27, Secretary Clerk Board of Supervision, Visitor
John Fraser, 28, Servant of John MacNeil
Elizabeth Watson, 42, Housekeeper Lewis Castle
Betsy Watson, 11
Ann Macdonald, 25, House Servant
Ann Grant, 27, House Servant
Jane Maclennan, 30, House Servant
Agnes Nelson, 23, House Servant

The Poor Law(Scotland) Act 1845 saw the appointment of a surgeon and diplomat, John MacNeil, to oversea its implementation and he remained Chairman of the Board until 1878.

Colonsay born MacNeil visited no less than 27 of the worst afflicted Parishes during the years of the Potato Famine which explains his presence in Stornoway at this time.

It does not explain the serendipity that finds him residing at the partly constructed castle on the particular night of the 1851 census along with his Secretary, William Arthur Peterkin.

I believe this may be the first time that this particular fact has been noted.

The irony of this poverty party being housed in the owner of the isle’s palatial palace; whilst all over Lewis and Harris displaced and destitute families were scavenging the shores for limpets to cling onto their bare existence, is also noteworthy.

Address: Gardener’s Lodge, Stornoway Distillery
Alexander Macrae, 55, Gardener Lewis Castle
Mary, 46, Wife
James, 14
Alexander, 12
Catherine Ann, 9
John, 7
Catherine Lewis, 5

Address: Distillery, Stornoway Distillery
Alexander Bowie, 36, Farm Overseer (Lewis Castle)
Isabella, 36, Wife
Jessie, 13 ,Scholar
Eliza, 9, Scholar
Ann, 6
Alexander, 2
William Macleod Bowie, 2 months
Peggy Macleod, 23, House Servant
Christina Macleod, 19, Small Tenants Daughter, Visitor
John Macleod, 22, Ag Lab
Roderick Macleod, 20, Ag Lab
Angus Mackenzie, 20, Ag Lab
John Macleod, 20, Ag Lab
Malcolm Maclean, 16, Cow Herd
Marion Maclean, 23, House Servant

William Mackay, 29, Coachman Lewis Castle
Alexanderina, 28, Wife
Malcolm Macdonald, 16, Stable Servant
Mary Macelod, 27, Seamstress, Visitor
Mary Bowie, 4, Scholar, Visitor

George Munro, 27, Joiner Journeyman
Marion Macdonald, 22, House Servant

Peter Stoddart, 26, Gardener Lewis Castle
Ann Stoddart, 16, House Servant, Sister


John MacNeil

William Arthur Peterkin

Lewis Combination Poor House

On the night of the 1901 census, the Lewis Combination Poor House returned 24 residents.

There were the 48 year-old Governor and his wife, who was employed as Matron.

A 23 year-old General Servant and a visiting 34 year-old ex schoolmistress (the need for whose presence will become clearer) completed the household.

The remaining 20 people, an equal number of males and females, were present because the Poor Law Act (Scotland) 1845, followed by the introduction of fully-elected Parish Councils in 1894, led to the rise of ‘Poor Law Unions’ or ‘Combinations’.

The Lewis Combination, whose history I have yet to explore, established a Poor House and thus 20 people found themselves incarcerated within its walls, forced to follow the harsh regime demanded in such institutions.

Six of those souls were children aged 12 or under.

30% of the inmates

No doubt some of whom were orphans

Seven of them were over 60 years-old.

35% – and four of these seven were over 70.

Nearly two-thirds, therefore, were from the most vulnerable extremes, those of childhood and old age.

The law that dictated this inhuman, humiliating treatment was only repealed in 1948 with the introduction of the modern system of Social Security.


(Select Scottish Poorhouses, then Ross and Cromarty and click on ‘Lews’)