Admiral Henry Charles Otter, RN

One of the joys of conducting genealogical research is the way the wind and currents transport one into waters new.

Henry Charles Otter was born in 1808 (+/- 1 year) in Bolsover, Derbyshire which is roughly midway between Liverpool and Skegness and therefore a good distance from the sea.

He appears, or at least I have been able to discover him, three times in the census data and a few other times elsewhere:

In 1845, having been engaged to undertake a survey of the waters of, and off, Western Scotland, Henry Otter buys the Manor House in Oban*.

1851 finds Henry C Otter, Commander RN, and his wife on Portsea Island, Hampshire, visiting John Birch, a General in the Royal Engineers. As it was this branch of the Army that provided services to the Ordnance Survey, it is extremely likely that the General and the Commander were discussing matters relating to surveying, whether on land or at sea.

The 1857 Chart of the Sound of Harris

In 1858 the first Transatlantic Telegraphy cable was laid and Captain Otter pilots the final stages of the journey into Trinity Bay, Newfoundland** from HMS Porcupine, a paddle-steamer that he is also using in his survey of the waters of the Western Isles. He notes the peculiarities of the tides in the Sound of Harris at this time***, too, and no doubt his survey played a pivotal role in the later cabling of the isles****

In 1861 this 54 year-old Captain in the Royal Navy is at his brother’s in Dagenham, Essex together with his 46 year-old wife Mary Jemma who hales from Gravesend in Kent. Charles Otter in as Examiner in the Court of Chancery, a powerful if ponderous body that it is outside the scope of this present discourse to examine. The significant point is that the Otter’s were clearly a family of some substance.

By 1871 Henry is an Admiral (Retired List) still living with his brother in Hanwell, Middlesex but, despite his status being ‘Married’, Mary Jemma is not present.

I believe he died in June 1876 in Hampshire at the age of 68.

Update: I have discovered that the marriage of Henry Charles Otter and Mary Jemima Birch took place in June 1850 in Brighton, Sussex. It  would seem likely that the John T Birch with whom they were found in the 1851 Census was in fact Mary’s father. Mary Jemima Otter of 36 Buckingham Terrace, Edinburgh died on the 15th of November 1904. Colonel George Francis Birch took care of her affairs. Oh, and in 1871 Mary was with her husband at his brother’s in Hanwell, they were merely separated by an intervening sister of the Otter brothers in an oddly-arranged census return! Following Henry Charles Otters death, we find her in 1881 living with her sister Jane Birch in Edinburgh. As far as I can ascertain, Henry and Mary had no children.


*Manor House Oban

**Atlantic Cable


**** , ,

On the Tides in the Sound of Harris.

By Henry C. Otter, Esq., R.N., Captain of H.M.S. Porcupine.
The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal Volume 7 1858 p272-276

My interest in the Sound of Harris is evidenced elsewhere in my writings so it will come as no surprise to learn that I was delighted to discover this piece on the peculiarity of one particular aspect of that stretch of water.

The basic principles governing the tides were well-known in the mid-nineteenth century but the details regarding their variation were far from a complete understanding. Indeed, I read an extract from a paper of 1996 that indicates that, in several regards, our comprehension is fuller but remains far from being total.

Tides.—The law of the tidal stream in the Sound of Harris is very remarkable…

It may be generally stated, that in summer, in neap tides, the stream comes from the Atlantic during the whole of the day, and from the Minch during the whole of the night.

In winter, the reverse takes place, the Minch stream flows during the day, the Atlantic during the night.

‘Neap’ refers to tides where the tidal range between high-water and low-water is small. They occur in the week leading to a Full Moon and the week leading to a New Moon.

In spring tides, both in summer and winter, the stream comes in from the Atlantic during the greater part of the time the water is rising, but never exceeds 5¼ hours, and flows back into the Atlantic during the greater part of the fall of the tide.

‘Spring’ refers to tides where the tidal range between high-water and low-water is large. They occur in the week following a Full moon and the week following a New Moon.

The stream from the Atlantic is therefore denominated the flood stream, that from the Minch the ebb stream.

Captain Otter then proceeds to give full details of the variations in the tidal flows according to the season, the particular part of the Sound and the strength and direction of the wind. It is not the details themselves that need concern us, we merely note that they were observed in all their complexity.

Following the article itself there are appended the following Notes to Captain Otter’s Paper on the Tides in the Sound of Harris. By James Stark, M.D. F.R.S.E.

An interesting subject of inquiry is the probable cause of the flow of the current through the Sound of Harris.

To James Stark, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a description in itself is insufficient for, as a man of Science, he seeks causes.

As the tidal wave in its progress from the south flows up both sides of the Western Isles, as far as the Sound of Harris, at the same time, so that at both the eastern and western extremity of the Sound the time of high-water is attained at the same hour, it is evident that the peculiar flow of the current through the Sound cannot be due to the tidal wave…

He then proposes a hypothetical cause for the effects that Captain Otter observed:

If we suppose that the sun exerts a strong attractive power over a large body of water like the Atlantic, which is undeniable, then we should expect that attraction to be greatest, and its effect in raising the level of the water most marked, when the sun was more immediately over that body of water.

This explains the variation between Summer and Winter for:

‘…the great mass of the Northern Atlantic in the same parallel of latitude as Harris, would have a higher level during the day in the summer months than it would have during the night when the sun’s attractive power was removed. As the Minch is, to a certain extent, a confined sea, the current from the Atlantic would, therefore, flow into it all day ; but when the level of the North Atlantic fell during the night, in consequence of the sun’s attractive power being removed, the current would flow from the Minch into the Atlantic. During winter, again, the sun’s rays being most powerful over the Southern Atlantic, as it is now to the south of the equator, the waters of the North Atlantic would be attracted southwards during the day, so that its level would be lower than that of the confined waters of the Minch. Consequently, during the winter months, we should expect that the stream would flow through the Sound of Harris from the Minch into the Atlantic all the day. When the sun’s attractive power, however, over the Southern Atlantic was removed during the night, the waters would fall to their level and allow the North Atlantic to regain its level; so that during the night the current during the winter season would flow through the Sound of Harris from the Atlantic.’

James Stark then extrapolates from these observations in the Sound of Harris and:

On the supposition that this explanation is the true one, it appears to me that it throws light on a phenomenon which has been long remarked, but never satisfactorily accounted for,—• viz., that during one period of the year the highest tides occur when the moon is above the horizon, but during the other half of the year when the moon is below the horizon. Now, if the moon be above the horizon during the summer when the level of the Atlantic is higher than usual from the greater attractive power of the sun, the day tide will be higher than the corresponding night tide. But if the moon be above the horizon during the day, when the Atlantic level is below its mean, as during winter, then the day tide will be lower than the corresponding night tide.

Which, if you think about it, is a pretty remarkable discovery stemming from observations in a humble little Sound in the furthest flung reaches of the British Isles!

He ends on an optimistic note hoping for further scientific evidence in support of his theory:

It would be interesting to ascertain, by actual measurements, whether there is any difference in the level of the waters in the Atlantic and Minch, and to what extent that difference exists during day and night, and during summer and winter; and I expect that this will be ascertained during the present year through the zeal of Captain Otter and Lieutenant Thomas, who are both engaged in the survey of the western coast.

One final observation of my own: Is this ‘Lieutenant Thomas…engaged in the survey of the western coast’ none other than the husband of the ‘Mrs Thomas’ who references claim to have been instrumental in the development of Harris Tweed, for she was the wife of a Captain Surveyor in the Navy and 1858 most certainly within the right time-frame?

Oh, and Captain Henry C Otter was one of 9 recipients of an Atlantic Cable Medal, First Class, which were presented on the completion of that first Transatlantic Telegraphy cable in 1858:
and lived in the Manor House, Oban, from 1845, long before he became an Admiral:

Update: I came across this interesting note in a modern account:

Navigational Point of Interest
The chart is interesting (Sound of Harris 2642) in that the lat and long lines are not drawn parallel to the edges of the chart but at about 45° – I can’t recall having used any other Admiralty charts with such an arrangement – but here it does get the various passages through the Sound on one chart. Another peculiarity concerns the tides. At springs the streams tend to run SE for the most part during the rising tide and SE during the falling tide, however, during the summer neaps there is a SE stream throughout the day and NW throughout the night whilst during winter neaps the opposite applies (NW during the day and SE during the night). As the streams may run up to 5 knots it’s worthwhile having a passage plan ready before you make for the channel.

The Bee, or Literary Weekly Intelligencer,

Original Pieces and Selections from Performances of Merit, Foreign and Domestic
A Work Calculated to Disseminate Useful Knowledge among
All Ranks of People at a Small Expence
By James Anderson

I am reading Volume 8 of ‘The Bee’ which was published in 1792. However, the article that interests me is an ‘Account of a visit to the Hebrides, by a Committee of the British Fisheries Society, in the year 1787. In his letter offering the article for submission, the author signs himself ‘Piscator’, presumably, but mysteriously, so as to protect his true identity?

The account is split into sections amongst the contents of ‘The Bee’ and it is that beginning on page 281 that especially interest me:

July 19. Wind fair. After a passage of six hours reached Rowdil, in the isle of Herries, by 12 o’clock.
Visited captain Macleod of Herries’s operations at Portmore.

Captain Alexander Macleod of Berneray had bought Harris some eight years earlier, in 1779, and our ‘Piscator’ is providing us with evidence of what had been undertaken by those ‘operations at Portmore’. Before progressing, I should say that this is the first, and only, time that I have encountered the name ‘Portmore’ in connection with Harris. If, as appears the case, it was Captain Macleod’s name for his ‘operations’ then the lesson of history regarding the renaming of parts of Harris was lost to the later Lord Leverhulme and his replication a couple of miles along the Sound at An-t-Ob.

He has built a pier of 300 feet long, and 22 wide. He is building a second, to inclose the harbour.

Those piers remain to this day as testament to the vision of the Captain and, whilst fishing wouldn’t have saved Harris from all its problems in the 19thC, I am firmly of the opinion that had the ‘operations’ been continued with fervour by Alexander’s son and grandson then some of the suffering could, and would, have been ameliorated.

He has built a large storehouse, and over it a good inn, his present dwelling…made a good road from the harbour to a little town he is forming on the height…and a manufacturing house for teaching children the art of spinning…

The RCAHMS record for Rodel House describes it as ‘unusually tall’ so I think that when we are told of a ‘large storehouse, and over it a good inn’, we are indeed learning of the use to which each of the three storeys were being put. That ‘little town on the height’ ,which was connected to the harbour by a proper road, became the ‘Rodel Farm’ of half a century’s time rather than the ‘manufacturing’ centre that the Captain clearly had in mind. Maybe it was no bad thing that the children of Harris were spared the horrors of the factory system that might have been introduced had that particular aspect seen fruition.

…one of the upper rooms full of boys and girls, whom a schoolmaster was instructing in the arts of reading and writing.

I don’t know if any mainland mills were offering an education at this time but, if so, I have yet to hear of it.
The account continues for several pages, each containing little gems of detail, and to which I hope to return but, for now, we leave these scholars of whom, ‘an Englishman gentleman of the party said , few children at the schools in England, read with more correctness or less accent.’

Note: ‘The Bee’ was published in Edinburgh from 1790-1794 by James Anderson who was born at Hermiston near Edinburgh in 1739. When only 15, his parents died and he ran the family farm. He attended lectures on Chemistry to improve his agricultural knowledge, introduced the Scotch Plough, wrote several essays on agriculture and in 1788 received the degree of LLD from Aberdeen University. He died on 15 October 1808.

‘…almost bewildered in the view…’

A Description of the Sound of Harris from 1794

I think that this is a wonderful description and will let it speak for itself:

From an eminence near the Sound may be had a very curious view of the odd intermixture of land, rock, and water, which fills the space betwixt the mainland of Uist and the mainland of Harris.

Standing on this eminence, at lowest ebb in spring tides, and in calm weather, one contemplates with amazement the vast variety of islands, rocks, banks, shoals, and straights, before him, compares them to the stars in the galaxy, and is almost bewildered in the view.

‘ Credas innare revulsai Cycladas’

Here the tide rises to a great height; the current runs with, amazing rapidity ; the surge, when the wind blows against the tide, swells prodigiously ; and the roar of the breakers, foaming over the banks and shoals to an immense distance, seems to threaten the islanders with a general deluge.

In winter storms, the view is tremendous and grand beyond the power of description. One would hardly expect to find a safe course of navigation through such a Sound; yet the writer hereof recollects to have counted in one day upwards of sixty sail of herring busses, which found their way through it without an accident, bound northward to the Loch-Rogue fishing.

He has even seen some ships of burden, which were driven in by stormy weather from the Western Ocean, piloted in safety, by the people of the islands, through this seemingly impervious course.


The Latin quote is from Virgil’s Aeneid and refers to a fleet of ships appearing like an armada of islands, the Cyclades, torn from their anchors.

Loch Rogue is Loch Roag on West coast of Lewis in Uig.

Ref: The Statistical Account of Scotland, Volume 10, p345-6

Stocking Knitters of Harris

I have been intending looking at this occupation but was given additional impetus to do so by some very kind words from a modern-day exponent of the craft:

Christian Campbell, 60, Spinner and Knitter, Scarista, b. Harris

Flora Shaw, 73, Stocking Knitter, East Tarbert, b. Lewis

Marion Kerr, 65, Stocking Knitter, Strond, b. Harris
Effy Kerr, 35 Stocking Knitter, Strond, b. Harris
Christy Kerr, 32, Stocking Knitter, Strond, b. Harris
Flora Morrison, 14, Stocking Knitter, Strond, b Harris
(This family group are relatives of mine)

Ann McDermid, 60, Stocking Knitter, Strond, b. Harris

Margaret Macdonald, 50, Stocking Knitter, Strond, b. Harris

Ann Macleod, 40, Stocking Knitter, Strond, b. Harris
Christy Macleod, 19, Stocking Knitter, Strond, b.Harris

Mary Maclean, 60, Stocking Knitter, Borisdale, b. Harris
Ann Maclean, 26, Stocking Knitter, Borisdale, b. Harris

Mary Macdonald, 40, Stocking Knitter, Rodel, b.

Christina MacKillop, 49, Knitter, House at Direcleit, b. Harris
Marion MacKillop, 17, Knitter, House at Direcleit, Visitor, b. Harris

Catherine Macleod, 22, Knitter, House at Direcleit, b. Harris

Effy Kerr, 29, Knitter, House at Direcleit, b. Harris (Another relative)

Ann Macdonald, 37, Knitter, West Tarbert, b. Harris

Christy MacCuspick, 32, Knitter, House at Little Urgha, b. Harris

Catherine Morrison, 65, Spinner and Knitter, Isle of Scalpay, b. Harris

Catherine Mackinnon, 14, Stocking Knitter, Wool Spinner’s House, North Harris, b. Harris

1891 Non Listed
1901 Non Listed

These results demonstrate the strength of the 1871 Census in recording the Occupations of all those present as a key item.

Unless this happened to have coincided with some (so far unknown) reason for a one-off explosion in the knitting activities of the ladies of Harris, I think it is safe to say that all the other censuses simply missed recording the majority of the knitters.

Nevertheless, we have here a good picture of the situation in 1871, a time when there were 11 Stocking Knitters between Strond and Rodel, 4 Knitters at Direcleit and only 2 in North Harris.

It is almost a surprise that ‘Strond Socks’ never got the marketing treatment that gave us Harris Tweed!

Or was that indeed what had been attempted in 1871?…

Master of the Harris Mail Boat

Occasionally you stumble across an unexpected delight.

I was looking through some records associated with boats and suddenly discovered that in 1851 (nearly 160 years ago) there was a Master of the Harris Mail Boat.

Hearach John Morrison, 38, together with his wife and seven children were residing at Port Esgein, a tiny inlet in the Sound of Harris and home to the Farm of Strond.

Port Esgein is significant as it is just a short walk from Loch Rodil and thence to Rodel Harbour

John would have kept the Mail Boat in one of these three locations, reminding us that it would be another 60 years before the ‘Soap Man’ decreed that Obbe was the perfect spot for a Great Harbour, despite local knowledge warning him otherwise.

What kind of vessel was Morrison the Master of?
Which ports did it serve, on the mainland and elsewhere on the islands?
How frequent a service (weather allowing) did it provide?
When did it start, and cease?

The only answer I currently have is, ‘I don’t know’, but it is certainly another piece of evidence that this now-tranquil South-Eastern end of Borrisdale, encompassing Port Esgein, the Farm of Strond and adjacent to Rodel, was once very much at the heart of Harris.