>I have been looking into the Stewart brothers of Pairc & Luskentire and was about to begin composing a piece when, as a result of a peek at some MacRae folk, I took a slight diversion…
In 1851 (sorry, it’s not my fault that year keeps supplying the goods!) the Factor of Harris, John Robson Macdonald was visited at Rodel by his sister Isabella MacRae and (what I presumed to be her son) a young farmer called Donald MacRae. Isabella was the wife of a Minister so I took a little look at men of the cloth and decided that a likely candidate was one Finlay MacRae of North Uist. A search on Google soon led me to this page on Family Search which confirmed everything. As you can see from that page, Isabella Maria Macdonald and Finlay had seven children with the eldest being Donald who held the tack of Luskintyre. Finlay died on the 15th of May 1858, shortly before the couple’s 34th Anniversary and, if you click on Isabella, you will see that her father was Colonel Alexander Macdonald of Lynedale. This was in fact Lyndale on Skye and this extract from ‘The Clarion of Skye’ (on the Am Baile site) describes the raising of ‘The Skye Volunteers’ who, two years before Trafalgar, were formed should Napoleon threaten an invasion.
To return to Harris, we know now that John Robson Macdonald was the son of Colonel Alexander Macdonald of Lyndale which is a step forward even if it wasn’t along the path of my original route!
A final observation may be made regarding the fourth of Isabella’s offspring who followed his father into a career in the church and this Rev. John Alexander MacRae was also the Minister of North Uist where he gets mentioned in this piece from the Carmichael Watson Project.
There we learn that the object of a love poem from the Minister was one Jane Macdonald, a daughter of James Thomas Macdonald and a first cousin of the man who was wooing her. Which is how it was that her sister, Jessie, caused all the commotion in Rodel when she was snatched by her lover from under her Uncle John Robson Macdonald’s nose, occasioning him to punish those on Harris who had aided the lovestruck couple in a tale that is well known. What is perhaps less well-know is the connection between Isabella Macdonald and the MacRae Ministers of North Uist which is why I thought it worth relating.
>I am happy to admit to having something of a fixation with the Census of 1851as regards what we can learn from it about the history of Harris. In part, this is because it is the first detailed record of the population (its predecessor of 1841 being comparatively ill-designed & poorly executed) but also because of the circumstances pertaining on the isle at the time.
By way of illustration we may consider what the Minister of Harris said in his comments regarding Rodel & Enumeration District 5. . Roderick Macdonald had been appointed to this role in 1847 by the ‘Tutor to the Earl of Dunmore’ aka Catherine, Countess of Dunmore.
“…There is a small thriving plantation in this District and a few patches of land improved by great labour by a former Proprietor – but the rest of the land is un(?) – rocky and very ill adapted to agricultural purposes (Vid: Sir W. Scotts visit to Harris (indecipherable) ) so that the increase of population that is (indecipherable) to be expected can be but ill provided for here, unless the fishing can be prosecuted with better success(?) than here to fore.”
This is fairly typical of his comments on each of the Enumeration Districts and I cannot but compare his attitude with that displayed by the Ministers of the Free Church when giving their evidence to the Napier Commission a little over three decades later. Macdonald is clearly toeing his Master’s (or, rather, his Mistress’s!) line in emphasising the ‘problem’ of the population rather than the manner by which the population had been ripped from its fertile lands and forced into overcrowded and un-tillable townships that were still suffering from several years of famine due to the disease of the potato crop, a crop that they were forced to rely upon due directly to the agricultural consequences of the Clearances. (Oddly he states that District 4, which includes Strond, has the best soil on Harris but others say that the red soil of Rodel is the best?)
What is not typical is the reference to a visit made, by accident, some 37 years earlier by Sir Walter Scott and which can be read about in Scotland Magazine,Issue 29. Why did the Minister choose to cite this celebrity source as one that gave weight to his argument? Who did he perceive his audience to be that would appreciate this bizarre decision? I can only think that it was be the Countess herself and that this was Macdonald attempting some kind of ‘intellectual’ flattery in pursuit of justifying her intention to solve the ‘problem’ by emigration, a wish that was fulfilled in part the following year when 742 departed Harris for Australia but exacerbated in 1853 when Borve was cleared for yet another time and many of its people sent to already overcrowded areas in the Bays.
Whatever the reason, Roderick Macdonald only served the parish for a further three years and on the 28th of December 1854 he became the Minister of South Uist. By then, many of his flock had already sought ‘sanctuary’ in the teachings of the newly constructed (after a protracted battle with the Countess) Free Church at Manish…
—I should think it would give land to the present population, if the land were distributed among the people. I think it is quite capable of bearing all the people in comfort.
This, from a man who had lived, worked and raised a family amongst the people of South Harris for at least the past twenty-eight years (including officiating at the wedding of one of my female cousins in Strond in 1867) stands in stark contrast with the prevailing view of the Proprietor, the past Factors and the present Farmers of the day for whom Emigration was the only ‘answer’ to the ‘problem’.
I was inspired to take a closer look at Alexander Davidson having been contacted by one of his descendants, as can be seen at the end of this piece on Harris Free Churchmen .
The church is described in these pages from Canmore and British Listed Buildings and this is its location as seen on the OS 1:25000 Map .
The accompanying Manse, which was the Davidson family’s home for many years, is similarly described on these pages from Canmore and British Listed Buildings and its precise location can be seen here .
In previous pieces I mentioned that Captain FWL Thomas and his wife, Mrs ‘Captain Thomas’, had at times taken-in the children of islanders including one of Alexander Davidson’s daughters and also of the widowed Fanny Thomas’s later endowment of the Manish Victoria Cottage Hospital .
I would like to end with a longer extract from the Reverend’s evidence to the Napier Commission, to which I have added notes & observation within the text:
13081. Do many of the young women go south?
The context here is that of the ‘Herring Girls’ of the islands who followed the fishing fleet in their progress around the coast of Scotland and England during the season.
13082. Have they never been in the habit of going much from Harris?
—No, they never went.
This is telling us that as far as Davidson was aware, the women of Harris did not participate in this work.
13083. A good many of the women in this island get employment in knitting and in spinning cloth ?
—Yes, kilt making. That is their principal employment, and of late years it has been very useful to them.
Knitting, Spinning and Weaving were clearly well-established by 1883 but whether ‘kilt making’ referred to an actual Tailoring activity or was Davidson’s shorthand for weaving a web of cloth is not clear. As far as I know, such tailoring was not performed in creating a product for export and my researches into tailoring certainly don’t indicate that it was ever a large-scale female activity on Harris.
13084. Who set that agoing?
—Well, the Countess of Dunmore takes some interest in it, as well as other parties. I see they get very much into the way of dealing with the local merchants in order to get meal.
The internal arrangements pertaining at the time between the producers and the local merchants are beyond the scope of this piece, but I am interested in Davidson’s phrase ‘takes some interest in it’ for that is hardly a ringing endorsement for the Countess’s commitment to the cause. It is just a pity that none of the ‘other parties’ were named!
13085. Are most of the women in the parish employed in that way?
A reminder that, unlike on neighbouring Lewis, Weaving on Harris was traditionally dominated by the women.
13086. I mean every family?
—Perhaps not every family, but very generally they are.
The extent to which these textile industries pervaded the population and were pivotal to their survival is clear.
13087. They knit a great many stockings and hose?
The size and importance of the knitting industry must have been very significant at this time so quite why it slipped into relative obscurity, especially in comparison with the international fame of Harris Tweed, is an interesting question that I have discussed in previous pieces.
13088. What price do they get for socks?
—Not very much—perhaps about 1s., but I can hardly say whether that is the fixed price.
That is only £2-£3 in today’s money
13089. And they manufacture a peculiarly coloured native cloth?
—Almost every kind of cloth.
13090. Native dyes?
—Yes, they use native dyes.
Ignoring the slightly pejorative-sounding ‘peculiarly coloured’, we learn that the women were producing a variety of different cloths using ‘native dyes’. It is worth noting, however, that the word ‘Tweed’, let-alone the two words, ‘Harris Tweed’, are conspicuous by their absence. It wasn’t until the later marketing of the brand that they assumed common usage.
Ref: The full transcript of this evidence may be read here .
Anyone wishing to learn more about the Free Church Ministers at this time should consult the Annals of the Free Church of Scotland 1843-1900 (which may be available as in inter-library loan).
These four sons of Harris who appear in the censuses are listed according to the time that they were studying:
Kenneth Kerr, 29, Student of Divinity, Visitor, Daill House, Craignish, Argyll, b. Harris
Kenneth’s father, Peter Kerr, was a Dry Mason from Harris who took his family to Argyll sometime between 1851 and 1861. He was visiting his sister, Mary who was a Nurse at Daill House, the home of the MacDougall of Lunga family. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craignish
A E Murray McConnochie, 23, Student of Divinity, Visitor, 25 Forth St, Edinburgh, b. Harris
Alexander’s father, Donald, was a Minister who I think was living in Knockandoo in 1841 but presumably had been living in Harris in the mid-1830s.
John Kerr, 32, Student in Theology, Boarder, 479 St Vincent St, Glasgow, b. Harris
John’s father, Roderick, was a Carpenter and I have already written extensively about them:
Adele and the ‘Ayatollah’ & Borve & A 1923 Wedding on Harris
John Macaskill, 32, Student of Divinity U F Church, Visitor, Manse, North Uist, b. Harris
John’s father, Roderick, was a Fisherman (IF John is the 1891 Teacher of that name) and, if so, John may well have been born on Taransay.
Obviously these are just those students whose period of study happened to coincide with the census snapshots and the Harris-born Ministers that I have found in the censuses comprise:
John Bethune b. 1793
Duncan Clarke b. 1833 – son of Robert Clark, Doctor, living in Scarista in 1841
A E Murray McConnochie b. 1839 – possibly son of Robert, a Farmer in Banff by 1841
Ewan Mcleod b. 1848 – Son of a Farmer of Manish, poss Angus McLeod
Patrick William Mackenzie b. 1842 on St Kilda – Son of Neil Mackenzie, Minister
John Macleod b. 1848
Archibald Macdonald b. 1854/8
Don J M Jones b. 1869
John Kerr b. 1865 – Son of Roderick, a Carpenter, please see above.
None of these nine men were Ministers in Harris during the period 1841-1901 and the only one who I know to have returned to work on the island was John Kerr.