>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

>About the Hebrides No VII

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‘At the inn here we met again with one of the commercial gentlemen whom we had encountered at the different markets coming north. He was a travelling agent of the Singer’s Sewing Machine Company; and in proof of how general is becoming the adoption of these useful instruments everywhere, he told me that since leaving Barra he had sold ten machines in the Long Island; and, after paying all his own travelling expenses, had remitted over £70 to headquarters, in payment or part payment of machines sold by him on his last journey in these parts. He added that now-a-days it is quite common, in what we should call little Highland tailors’ shops, to find two machines going in full swing. We had had no idea previous to this time of the amount of business generally done by southern firms with the people of the Outer Hebrides, and therefore might well be surprised by one fact, among others, told us by this same gentleman – namely, that a well-known tea merchant hailing from Edinburgh, who regularly makes exhaustive journeys through the Long Island on his own account, will take home with him as the “collection” of one such visit about £1000. True, he has the great advantage of being thoroughly au-fait in the language of the natives, and he supplies numerous private customers as well as the merchants; but still – the statement surprised us.’
Before examining this account, I should like to look a little at the inn’s location which was in ‘…Tigharry, a township not far from Griminish Point…’ on North Uist where the ‘…somewhat humble but snug hostelry…’ was kept by ‘Mr Roderick Macaulay and his most capable and willing help-meet…’.
In 1841, the innkeeper at Tigh a’ Gerraidh (Tigharry) was 40 year-old Donald Macaulay who remained there in 1851 & 1861 but with the inclusion of ‘Farmer of 16 acres’ & then ‘Farmer of 14 acres’ as additional occupations.
In fact some 33 households are shown with the address of ‘Tigheary Inn’ in 1861, the Enumerator presumably considering this it to be the appropriate means of identifying the settlement as a whole?
Unfortunately the censuses of 1871 & 1881 return no clear indication of those (if there were indeed any?) living at, or keeping, the inn but the location can easily be seen on the 1881 OS 6-inch map.
In 1891 a Roderick Macaulay aged 54 was a Farmer in the township but, once again, the inn is not mentioned so whether he is the same person who nine years earlier had been the inn-keeper I cannot say.
Returning to the article itself, it is the information to be gleaned from the agent of the Singer Sewing Machine Company that demands our attention.
Firstly, a sum of £70 in 1882 equates to at least £5200 today (and quite possibly a lot more), the figure representing a combination of full and part payments for machines and after all the agent’s own expenses had been deducted from the sales. Small wonder that he had returned for another tour! I cannot find a price for a Singer sewing machine in 1882 but a close rival was on the market for about £4, equating to around £300 today.
Secondly, the image of a couple of Singer sewing machines ‘going in full swing‘ in many ‘little Highland tailor’s shops‘ is, at one and the same time, both reassuringly ‘cosy’ and also a pleasing antidote to the more-usual portrayal of island folk as automatically rejecting all such innovations.
Finally, the “collection” of £1000 by the Edinburgh tea merchant perhaps comes as no particular surprise until you update it to about £75,000 in today’s money. That’s a lot of tea (although precisely how much I cannot say) and the wily mainland merchant maximised his return by selling directly to his thirsty ‘Long Island’ customers as well as to the local merchants.
There we shall have to leave these travellers for now, enjoying their refreshments in Roderick Macaulay’s inn, but perhaps we’ll meet them again soon for they have many more interesting insights to provide us with into late 19thC life on the Long Island…
Source: Glasgow Herald September 1882

>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!

>’A Fashionable Kettledrum’ – the Gentlewoman’s Self-Help Institute

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It is an evening in May1870 and we are in the company of one ‘Azamut-Batuk‘ who is gathering material for his publication, ‘A little book about Great Britain’, that will appear later in the same year.
In fact we are with Nicolas Leon Thieblin who wrote for the Pall Mall Gazette under the pseudonym of the ‘Turk’ and his article was first published in that newspaper on Friday the 13th of May under the title ‘A Meeting at Stafford House‘.
Stafford House was home to the Duke & Duchess of Sutherland and was the most valuable private house in London. We know it today as Lancaster House, home to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and the change of name occurred when it was bought in 1912 by a son of the county of Lancashire who had made himself a rather large fortune out of soap. His name, by the way, was William Hesketh Lever.
But I digress and we must return to the event that brought our ‘Turk’ to the ‘palace’ (as Queen Victoria is alleged to have described it when making a comparison with her own meagre residence in London) which was a meeting of the ‘Gentlewoman’s Self-Help Institute’ attended, as noted by Thieblin, by such men as the Earl of Shaftesbury and Mr Gladstone, the Prime Minister.
The Institute (to which I can find no further reference) had eight Patrons but it is the two who head the list that interest me the most; the Duchess of Sutherland and the Dowager Countess of Dunmore who had been a widow for almost a quater-of-a-century. . At this point I should make it clear that this Duchess of Sutherland was Anne Hay-Mackenzie and wife of the 3rd Duke of Sutherland. It was his Grandfather, the 1st Duke, who, with the encouragement of his wife (Elizabeth, Duchess of Sutherland, who inherited her title at the age of one) had been responsible for the appalling Clearances of Sutherland. The Duchess of Sutherland who wrote on The Revival Of Home Industries for The Land Magazine in 1899 was Millicent, the 3rd Duke and Anne’s daughter-in-law, whose husband the 4th Duke had inherited the title in 1892.
The aim of the Institute was to ‘seek to place within the reach of educated ladies, widows, and daughters of clergymen, barristers, military and naval officers, and professional men, who may have been reduced from easy circumstances to narrow means, an opportunity of turning their natural or acquired abilities to account. To this end it had acquired premises at Bessborough Gardens in Pimlico ‘…for the reception and sale of articles produced by ladies in reduced circumstances. These rooms are now crowded with a great variety of articles of every description — oil paintings, drawings, modelled waxwork, guipure and other lace, wool-work, embroidery, baby-clothes, and plain work of all sorts.’ It was an upper-class craft sale!
I say ‘upper-class’ because Any lady wishing to become a working member has to furnish two references as to respectability, certifying to her being a gentlewoman by birth and education, which will be laid before the ladies’ committee by the lady superintendent, Mrs. Howard, and, if approved, the lady so applying will be required to procure a nomination from a subscriber to the Institute, when she will become eligible to partake of the benefits of the institution in any way most advantageous to herself.’ A ‘subscriber’ paid a guinea a year (or donated ten guineas for life membership) to secure the right to nominate one of these ladies. They could pay multiples of these amounts and nominate more ladies accordingly.
I mentioned that this was the sole reference to the Institute that I could find however in ‘Webster’s Royal Red Book, or Court & Fashionable Register, 1897′ is listed the ‘Gentlewoman’s Self-Help Society’ at 20-22 Maddox Street, London. Whether or not this was related to the Institute of 1870 I cannot say but it is interesting to note the existence of, and therefore a perceived need for, this similar-sounding organisation some 27 years after that May meeting in palatial Stafford House.

>Robert Somers – ‘Letters from the Highlands; or, the Famine of 1847’

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Robert Somers (1822-1891) had only recently joined the ‘North British Daily Mail’ in Glasgow when he went to the Highlands to investigate the Potato Famines and the results were published in a book the following year. I have only just begun reading the tome but thought that these extracts from ‘Letter XXI‘ on the ‘Want of Plantations in Skye – Profits of the Kelp Manufacture – Extravagance of the Highland Chiefs – Its Results’ were especially interesting:
‘When Dr. Johnson visited the Hebrides, the lairds were only beginning to draw money-rents from their estates. A proprietor of one of the islands declared to him that “he should be very rich if he could set his land at 2½d. an acre.” Every one knows how very different it is now.
Since then rents have undergone a fourfold, a six-fold, and even a ten-fold increase, and the Highland proprietors have reaped the benefit of the kelp manufacture, the profits of which far exceeded, in many cases, the rental of the land itself. We have heard of Highland proprietors receiving £10,000, and some £12,000 and £14,000 a-year from kelp alone.’
‘There is no more interesting passage in Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” than that in which he describes how commerce and manufactures gradually broke down the power of the feudal barons, and promoted the improvement and cultivation of the country. In rude times a landed proprietor could find no way of consuming his revenue but by sharing it with a multitude of retainers, who were necessarily always at his command, whether in peace or war. But when commerce and manufactures arose, they spread before his eyes numerous articles of curious workmanship and dazzling material, the enjoyment of which could be lavished entirely upon himself. His vanity was tickled; and for a diamond buckle, or a gilded coach, he bartered the produce which would have maintained 1,000 men for a year.’
Towards the close of last century, the rise of rents and the profits of kelp brought the Highland chiefs within the reach of the same temptations to which the English and Lowland barons had yielded a century earlier. They introduced them into the splendid warehouses and saloons of London, filled with the richest handiwork and the rarest and costliest luxuries which the ingenuity of man could devise, or the unwearied energies of commerce could collect.
There, too, were the English aristocracy, with their princely equipages and their glittering wealth, to excite emulation and to ruffle pride. The effect was the same as when a hawker of the backwoods spreads out his toys, and trinkets, and fire-waters, before a tribe of Indians. The vanity of the Highland chiefs was intoxicated, and the solid advantages which the new tide in their affairs had opened up to them were bartered for the merest baubles. There is a staircase-window in Lord Macdonald’s mansion in Skye which is said to have cost £500. In residences, dress, furniture, equipages, pleasures, and style of living, the Highland chiefs copied the English model; and while they necessarily lost their power by this new way of life, the only resources by which their rugged country and its untutored inhabitants could have been brought into a cultivated and civilised condition, were wasted in the vain attempt to rival the magnificence of an aristocracy who possessed much richer domains and larger revenues.
The decay of the kelp manufacture completed the ruin which personal extravagance had begun; and the men who had long reaped the profits of this lucrative trade passed from the scene, leaving their estates as unimproved as they had found them, a numerous population starving, and rentals reduced far below their nominal amount by the annual charges of their mortgages.
The heirs of this poor inheritance occupy a difficult and painful position. They are entitled to sympathy and indulgence. There is only one way by which they can hope to gain their lost ground, to improve their estates, or even to transmit them, in a state worth possessing, to their children. They must forsake the world, forswear pomp and fashion, retire to their country seats, live penuriously, and spend in the improvement of their properties the last farthing of their rentals which they can spare from the consumption of their families.
The ‘Letters’ must have pleased his employers for, the following year, Somers became the paper’s Editor (a position he held until 1859) and we may glimpse the 29 year-old in the census of 1851 living at 16 Pollok Street, Govan, Renfrewshire with his wife, Janet, and their three children.
I had some difficulty in discovering further information regarding this address but, as can be seen from the link that follows, that is hardly surprising! – The Hidden Glasgow .
(It was also an anomaly of the period that the part of the Parish of Govan that the Somers’ lived in was considered to be in Renfrewshire, unlike the majority of Govan which lies in Lanarkshire.)

>Wintering in the South…

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‘Island of Barra. – A much valued correspondent in Stornoway writes us:-
The House of Barra, on the island of the same name, in the West Highlands, the late residence of the Macneils, and the property of Colonel Gordon of Cluny, was lately totally destroyed by fire.
He also narrates the following curious circumstance:-
Two years ago a few deer were brought from Athol to Tarbat, on the island of Harris, by the late Earl of Dunmore, and there turned at large.
In the month of November last, one of these, a fine stag, swam across the Sound of Harris, a distance of about five miles, went through North and South Uist, swam across from South Uist to Barra, a distance of eight miles, remained there a month where it daily fed on the turnip field at the house of Oligary, and then returned to South Uist where it was lately seen.
This,” says our friend, “is worth while putting in the paper.”
It really is.’
Greenock Advertiser, quoted in the Glasgow Herald of 26th January 1846
Today, of course, his journey would require him to undertake a little less swimming! – http://www.cne-siar.gov.uk/techservices/bridgescausewaysferries/index.asp

>A Balanced View of the Balance of Nature?

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On the 18th of March 1842, the Inverness Journal announced that:
The Earl of Dunmore has ordered a supply of hares and rabbits to be let loose over the island of Harris.
The island does not contain much arable land, and the farmer will be remunerated as a sportsman for any loss he may otherwise sustain.
Eight days later on the 26th of March another paper, the Manchester Times & Gazette, quoted an article in the Inverness Courier:
‘The Earl of Dunmore has ordered a supply of hares and rabbits to be let loose over the island of Harris.
This must be intended as a boon for the sportsman; it will scarcely prove one to the farmer; but the island does not contain much arable land.’
I think it is clear that either a ‘press release’ had been the original source of these articles (with the Journal printing it verbatim and the Courier slightly altering the emphasis of the second sentence) or that the Courier had perhaps used the Journal’s article as the basis for it’s piece?
Whatever the case, a couple of year’s later on the 20th of April 1844 an article in the ‘Scotsman’ was quoted by ‘The Freeman’s journal & Daily Commercial Advertiser’:
RATS IN THE HEBRIDES
‘Generations have passed away without seeing a rat on the small island of Tarinsay, on the west coast of Harris. An innumerable swarm of these annoying and destructive vermin have of late spread over the island, notwithstanding the efforts of Mr Macdonald, the taskmaster, to extirpate them. They appear to be increasing so fast that they threaten to over-run the whole island, and keep violent possession of it.
They are supposed to have come from the island of Soay, which lies at the distance of about three miles from Tarinsay, and into which the Earl of Dunmore, some years ago, ordered rabbits to be sent. Soon after this, the rats, which were formerly very numerous on the island of Soay, completely disappeared, having removed in a body to the neighbouring island, from which they are not inclined to take their departure in a hurry.’
Note: ‘Tarinsay’ for Taransay is forgiveable whilst substituting ‘taskmaster’ for ‘tacksman’ was, perhaps, a Freudian slip as the island had recently been Cleared for this same John Macdonald?
Island which spent £600,000 getting rid of rats over-run by rabbits, trumpeted the Telegraph of 27th of April 2010, referring to the island of Canna, with the same story also being covered by the Guardian, which didn’t mention the cost of the operation, and by the Times, whose tabloidesque headline apparently suggests that the rabbits had consumed the island itself!
Nature & newspapers sometimes seem to share similar difficulties in maintaining balance…