The Tarasaigh (Dis)Connection

Taransay, lying just a mile off the West coast of Harris, must have been a beautiful place to live for the 140 people who called it home in the late 18thC. It had acres of fertile land, beautiful Atlantic beaches and safe anchorage for boats. The three townships of Uidh, Paibeil and Raah must have been some of the happiest in Harris.

Raah, which had been Crofted in 1826, was Cleared in 1840 for the Tacksman, John Macdonald.
The 1841 census shows the 60 year-old Farmer living on ‘Tarrinsay’ with his wife, six children, a Tutor and several servants. In all there were 72 people recorded there including an 80 year-old Hand Loom Weaver, Chirsty Kerr.

In ‘Rha’ there remained just sixteen people, including the family of 41 year-old Roderick Kerr who is classed as ‘Independent. His wife, Margaret, was 30 and their daughters Ann and Mary were 12 and 3 respectively. Chirsty, the weaver, might well have been his mother.

The other three households in Raah were those of Kenneth Campbell, a 60 year-old Farmer with his wife and five children; Mary Macleod, a 41 year-old Hand-Loom-Weaver with three children, and sixty-one year old Marion Morrison who was a fellow weaver. They had been allowed to stay after their neighbours were forced from their homes, presumably because they were still of utility to the tacksman.

A decade later, the population of Taransay was reduced from these 88 people to a mere 55, a decrease of nearly 40%. Over on Harris itself, Borve (which overlooks Taransay) had been Cleared in 1839 and was subject to an experiment in re-settlement in 1847. At least one on the families from Taransay moved there.

So it was that the 1851 census for Borve records Roderick Kerr, 48, Labourer, Margaret, 47, Mary, 16, Flora 14, Donald, 9, Cathi, 4 and Janet, 1. Despite the apparent discrepancies in ages and names, my researches indicate that this is the family from Raah.

Back on Taransay, ‘John Macdonald, 70, Farmer of 150 acres employing 7 labourers’ is one of the 55 people in 11 different households that remain.

In 1852 the Highlands & Islands Emigration Society was formed and 742 people left Harris for Australia. The next year saw the plug-pulled on the experiment in Borve and it was Cleared for a second time.

Significantly, there is no further record of Roderick, Margaret and their family and it is to be assumed that they emigrated, but may not have survived the journey…

(Note: It is possible that one, or both, of the elder daughters married, but if so it was before 1855 for there is no record of such a marriage.)

Tarasaigh (Taransay)

The population of Taransay is given here for each census from 1841-1901:

1841 88   33m 39f   + Rha 16 6m 10f (Raa was Cleared in 1840 for John Macdonald, Tacksman)
1851 55   25m 30f
1861 55   25m 30f
1871 68   36m 32f
1881 31   16m 15f
1891 0
1901 0

The 40% decline between 1841 and 1851 was followed by a period of stability but, interestingly, some 16 of the 68 people living on the island in 1871 were born elsewhere in Harris, Lewis and Ross-shire. Nine came from the the Bays, four from the West and one each from Bernera, Scarp and Ensay. Lochs, Lewis and Gairloch supplied the remaining two.

A decade later the population was down to 31 living in half-a-dozen households and a couple of years later the cottars were barred from raising livestock and growing oats or barley. Unsurprisingly, such conditions made life untenable and we can see the results in the final two censuses.

An excellent online source on Taransay is:

Ceard, Ceardannan & Carrach – Possible Origins of the Cearr/Kerr families of Harris

The ‘Kerr’s of Harris’, as I call my island ancestors, are totally separate from the Lowland Clan of the same name.

Bill Lawson, in ‘Harris Families and How to Trace Them’ writes:

There were several families of Kerrs on the machair and around Strond, though these have now virtually disappeared. It is hard to say what their name was originally. It could have been from the nick-name Carrach (left-handed) or even from Ceard, now translated as tinker, but originally meaning any type of metal worker. There is a “ni’n na Ceard” (Ceard’s daughter) in a rental of Scarista in 1724, who might have been an early member of this family.

Elsewhere in the book Lawson concludes that, as the name is common in Harris (a slight contradiction!) and elsewhere in the North-West but separate from the Ayrshire clan, that being descended from some famous left-hander is the most likely derivation.

(I will resist the temptation to get diverted into the ‘cack-handed’ & ‘corrie-fisted’, the genetic studies into the left-handed mainland Kerrs and the possible connection with alleged spiral staircases at Ferniehurst Castle being wound the ‘wrong-way’ to favour their defenders.)

Now, my earliest traceable ancestors on Harris are Malcolm Kerr (Calum Cearr) and his wife Effie Shaw who had at least two sons, Angus (4) & John (9). (The numbers refer to the households listed below). Harris-born Peter (10) is the only other male of this generation who’s parents I have discovered. They were Donald Kerr, a farmer, and his wife, Sarah Ferguson.

Rather more is known about the origins of the Shaw families and in particular of Donald mac Iomhair (son of Ivander) who came to Strond (via Berneray) from Skye and whose family settled in Strond, Geocrab and Leaclee. It is likely that Effie Shaw was descended from this Donald.

The earliest publicly available written record is that of the 1841 Census and that for Harris records the following families & individuals (with 1851 annotations for continuity, other notes for illumination):

1841 – Kerr Head of Household & Occupations ( transcript spellings!)

1) Angus, Strond, Shoemaker 1791

Marion (1851, Farm of Strond, Port Esgien, formerly Shoemaker’s Wife)
Donald, Strond, Shoemaker (Angus’ Son) (1851 Farm of Strond, Shoemaker)
John (1851, Farm of Strond, Port Esgein, Shoemaker)

2) Rock, Strond, Tenant 1800

3) John, Obb, Tenant 1796 (1851, Obb, Farmer)
Malcolm, Obb, Ag Lab 1821

4) Angus, Obb, Tenant 1801 (1851 Farm of Strond, Port Esgein, Ag Lab)

5) Marrion, Scarrista, Weaveress 1786
John, Scarista, Carpenter (1851 Laskintyre, Joiner)
Rodk, Scarrista, Carpenter (1851, Bowes, Farm Labourer & Joiner) ‘Ayatollah’s’ Father!)

6) Chersty, Tarrinsay, Hand Loom Weaver 1761

7) Rodrick, Rha, Ind 1800 (Raa was one of Taransay’s 3 settlements)
The 4 Kerrs were 25% 0f Rha’s residents in 1841

8) Alexr, Tarbert, Fisher 1796
Malcolm, Tarbert, Fisher (Alexr’s Son)

9) John, Dirachte, Tenant 1801 (1851, Direcleit, Tailor)
Malcolm, Dirachte, Ag Lab 1821 (Moved to Stornoway to pursue his seafaring career)

10) Peter, Glendsiluvaig, Tenant 1796 (1851 – Kentulavick, Dry Mason)

What strikes me in this very small population is the preponderance of people whose occupations (in 1841 and 1851) are those of skilled craftsman or woman. All that is needed to house, feed and clothe us are, somewhat surprisingly, present!

Incidentally, the nearest Boat Builders that I have found in 1841 are on South Uist so I wonder whether the Carpenters and Joiners were involved in that essential trade too?

By way of contrast, the 12 Shaw families headed by a male of that name show 9 working the land, 2 Tailors and a Dyker. They are also, as Lawson states, slightly more scattered within South Harris.

All of the 12 Ferguson families on Harris, headed by a male of that name, worked the land.

Intrigued, I expanded my search further afield:

In 1841, the census shows 93 Kerr’s in Inverness-shire with the mainland/Skye ones listing these occupations:

Ag Lab,
Blacksmith (2),
Carpenter (2),
Shoemaker (2),

Whilst the 27 in on the Ross-shire mainland gives us:


It seems too much of a coincidence that many of the Mainland/Skye Inverness-shire Kerrs and those of Ross-shire reflect the island bias towards Smiths/Tailors/Joiners & Carpenters – an interesting set of occupations for a ‘cack-handed’ clan to pursue!

By contrast, a quick perusal of the Sutherland Kerrs reveals a predominance of Agricultural Labourers and Tenants.

It is my conjecture that these Kerrs of Harris are either:

a) island representatives of a North-Western group of settled travellers whose name indeed relates to their handiness rather than their handedness, and I write these words as a proud left-hander myself!

b) descended from a distant ‘famous’ left-hander, whether of Harris, Skye or elsewhere in Gaeldom, as Lawson suggests.

c) descendants of an indigenous metal-working family who ‘lost’ their original clan affiliation (perhaps for good reason in the bloody feuds of the past?) and adopted their occupational skills as their ‘tag’ instead.

Whatever the truth of their origin, the male line on Harris certainly faded fast through a mixture of famine, ‘Clearance’, and emigration, to Lewis as well as further abroad.

The last male to bear the name was born in South Harris in 1961.
He was the first Kerr of either sex born on the island since the 1930s.
I believe he died, unmarried, in Fort William in 1991.
RIP, Ian Roderick Kerr…