Fàilte! (Welcome!)

Fàilte! (Welcome!)
This blog is the result of my ongoing research into the people, places and events that have shaped the Western Isles of Scotland and, in particular, the 'Siamese-twins' of Harris and Lewis.
My interest stems from the fact that my Grandfather was a Stornowegian and, until about four years ago, that was the sum total of my knowledge, both of him and of the land of his birth.
I cannot guarantee the accuracy of everything that I have written (not least because parts are, perhaps, pioneering) but I have done my best to check for any errors.
My family mainly lived along the shore of the Sound of Harris, from An-t-Ob and Srannda to Roghadal, but one family 'moved' to Direcleit in the Baighs...

©Copyright 2011 Peter Kerr All rights reserved

Monday, 15 June 2015

North Uist Weavers & Weaveresses

I thought I would take a wee look at the census records for those engaged in weaving in North Uist:

1841 Male - 2 Female - 21 Total - 23

1851 Male – 6 Female – 103 Total - 109

1861 Male – 2 Female - 63 Total - 65

1871 Male - 2 Female - 89 Total - 91

1881 Male - 3 Female – 102 Total - 105

1891 Male - 1 Female - 132 Total - 133

1901 Male - 0 Female - 76 Total – 76

What strikes me is that the pattern in North Uist is remarkably similar to that in Harris where weaving throughout the nineteenth century was primarily a female occupation. My analysis for Harris can be read here.

Incidentally, about a quarter (26 of 103) of the women weaving in 1851 describe themselves to be a 'Hand Loom Weaver' this number falling to 2 in 1871 and rising to only 6 in 1881 before disappearing from the censuses altogether.

I discussed the recording of these 'HLW's in this earlier piece.

Incidentally, it is also only in the 1891 census that we see the word 'tweed' appended to the weaving role and, indeed, there are only 5 weavers in that year (and only 1 a decade later) who refer to their produce as 'tweed'.I think this further emphasises that the marketing of woollen produce as 'tweed' only starts to occur in the islands as we approach the end of the century.

I discussed this more fully in this piece regarding aspects of the development of the Harris Tweed industry in Harris.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Which Roderick?

Which Roderick?

At 11pm on the 10 August 1867 John McKinnon took his fist breaths, his cries carried on the clear, cold air over Direcleit, Harris. John was the first-born of Anne Kerr and her husband Alex McKinnon, who came from Scalpay which was where the couple had lived since their wedding on 18 December 1866. The birth was registered by a cousin, Roderick Kerr of Strond, Harris who signed the register with 'his mark', an upright cross.

Now, there are two possible candidates for the informant for at that time there was Roderick Kerr, the Post Runner in Strond and also Roderick Kerr the Fisherman in An t-Ob, which today is called Leverburgh.

I am a little confused because a couple of years later Roderick the postie witnessed the marriage of Roderick the fisher, but seemingly with a signature rather than a simple cross. However, Roderick the fisher, who certainly never learnt to write and would have had to sign the register with a cross, wasn't a resident of Strond at the time of John McKinnon's birth.

Which Roderick was it? Well, the post runner was Anne's cousin and the fisherman was her nephew, and therefore John McKinnon's cousin so, although it surprises me slightly that there's a hint here that Strond's postman couldn't write, it looks as if it could have been either of them who registered the birth of their first Scalpaich relation!

More on the two Roderick's here:

Plus a wee snippet giving something of a flavour of the time:

Note on spellings: I have shown those used on the birth certificate in case others wish to look that document up online.

Friday, 27 March 2015

More on Pennylands...

In an earlier piece, I referred to a note from April 14th 1884 in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland called 'What is a Pennyland? Or Ancient Valuation of Land in the Scottish Isles'.

Its author was Captain FWL Thomas and a recent exchange regarding the redoubtable Fred's work in Harris led me to revisit his works in the online catalogue of the National Library of Scotland.

In 18862 volume 20 of the Proceedings appeared including a continuation piece that was published posthumously, Fred Thomas having died at the age of 69 on 25 October 1885 at his home, Rose Park, in Trinity, Leith.

On page 211 of the volume he states, giving his source as the Old Statistical Account:

In Harris, 1792, the ancient and still common computation of land was a penny, halfpenny, farthing, half-farthing, clitag, &c.

A tacksman might hold 20d.—that is, an ounceland; while a small tenant or crofter usually held a farthing land.

The stock or souming for a farthing land was four milk cows, three or four horses, and as many sheep on the common as the tenant had the luck to rear.

The crop might be computed, in general at four or five bolls, and the rent was 30 or 40
shillings, besides personal service, rated at one day's work per week.”

In the 1895 Crofters Commission Report the souming of each croft in Strond was 1 horse, 4 cows and 20 sheep which I calculated* to be 68 'sheep grazing units', or sgu.

At the same time the crofters in Direcleit were allowed just 4 cows and 20 sheep, or 52sgu.

A little over a century earlier a small tenant was allowed 4 horses, 4 cows and as many sheep as he could rear which means well over 96sgu were deemed acceptable.

This is one of the clearest illustrations of how the imposition of crofts held direct from the landlord contrasted with the lot of the small tenant renting from a tacksman.

We may note, for comparison, across the Sound of Harris that:

In North Uist, 1794, the small tenants usually held a ½d. land, on which they kept 6 cows, 6 horses, and raised enough grain to keep them all the year round.”

6 horses and 6 cows gives us 144sgu from a half-pennyland, demonstrating once again that the lot of the small tenant was vastly superior to that of the crofter a century later, and reinforcing the difference whereby a crofter HAD to supplement his income in order to survive.

*”The grazing of stock shall be calculated on the footing of one cow being equivalent to eight sheep, and one horse to two cows or sixteen sheep. Source: Crofters Commission Report 1896.


  • THOMAS, F.W.L. 1886, "Ancient Valuation of Land in the West of Scotland: Continuation of "What is a Pennyland?"", Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Proceedings, vol. 20, pp. 200.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Quantities and Value of Commodities Exported from St Kilda, 1875

In the winter of 1876 a journalist, John Sands, was stranded on the island of St Kilda.
He had also visited the archipelago in the previous year and wrote an account of his experiences, Out of this World; or Life in St Kilda, which was published by MacLachlan & Stewart in 1888.
On page 59 of this book Sands provides figures for various items produced by the St Kildans in 1875 and I have used these to calculate the values that follow:

Cloth: 227 yards (Of 47 inches and thumb) at 2s 3d = £ 25 10s 9d
Blankets: 403 at 1s 10d = £ 36 18s 10d
Fulmar oil: 906 pints (each pint equal to 5 pints Imperial) at 1s = 906s = £ 45 6s 0d
Tallow: 17stones 6 pounds (each stone containing 24 lbs.) at 6s 6d = £ 5 12s 1½d
Black feathers: 87 stones 15 pounds (24lb to the stone) at 6s = £ 26 5s 9d
Grey feathers: 69 stones 19 pounds (24 lb to the stone) at 5s = £ 17 8s 11½d
Cheese: 38 stones 6 pounds (24 lb to the stone) at 6s = £ 11 9s 6d
Fish: 1080 “marketable” at 7d each = 7560d = 630s = £ 31 10s 0d

Total £200 1s 11d

These goods were produced by the seventy-five souls living in St Kilda in 1875, giving a per capita income of £2 13s 6d. which we may equate to about £1,650 today.

There were 18 households recorded in the 1871 census, suggesting an average household income of £11 2s 2d, or about £6,870 in today's money.

Whilst not a vast sum of money, it is nevertheless indicative of the degree to which the people of St Kilda were participating in the wider economy at this time, and also of the prodigious quantities of birds that they were processing. The fact that they sold over 1000 fish in a singly year is, however, perhaps the biggest surprise?

An extract from Sands account account of being stranded may be read online: http://www.widegrin.com/vicmisc/st_kilda.htm

Sunday, 6 April 2014

A Population Comparison

I have taken figures from the 2011 Census to show the four towns in England whose populations lie closest above (and the four closest below) that of the Western Isles:

Farnworth (Greater Manchester) 26,939
Haverhill (Suffolk) 27,041
Melton Mowbray (Leicestershire) 27,158
Northfleet (Kent) 27,628
Western Isles 27,668
Ashington (Northumberland) 27,670
Cramlington (Northumberland) 27,682
Stratford-Upon-Avon (Warwickshire) 27,830
Peterlee (Durham) 27,871

The two Scottish urban areas with populations that are the closest above and below are:

Bathgate 25,701
Kirkintilloch 28,837

Incidentally, the capacity of Cardiff FC's stadium is 27,815, and of Lord's Cricket Ground in London, 28,000.

The population of Uist, Berneray to Eriskay, (4,900) is close to that of Bridge of Allan.

I hope this helps envisage one aspect of the 130-mile long archipelago of Eilean Siar.

Sources: CnES Population Factfile, CityPopulation.de

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Listening For The Past

Shima, The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures, Volume 5 Number 1 2011 contains an essay by Cathy Lane with links to the audio pieces she composed as a result of the research she undertook:

Essay: http://www.shimajournal.org/issues/v5n1/h.%20Lane%20Shima%20v5n1%20114-127.pdf

Audio: http://www.gruenrekorder.de/?page_id=2325

I like to think of what I am trying to do as 'docu-music'...(which) can be defined as works using sound materials which have recognisable real world associations and roots...

The intention of docu-music is to build up a sense of meaning, history and place through sonic association in order to relate to the world outside the composition.”

Cathy's essay and accompanying compositions, 'Tweed' and 'On the Machair', provide an interesting read about (and artistic interpretation of) island culture.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

HMS Shackleton/HMS Sharpshooter (1936-1965)

This was the survey vessel which, in 1958 (and 1960), came to the Sound of Harris to update the chart that had been made 100 years earlier.

The 1959 chart was published as a Revised edition of its 1859 predecessor, which surely is testament to the extraordinary skills of Captain H. C. Otter .
and the crews of 19thC survey vessels, including Captain FWL (Fred) Thomas.

HMS Shackleton was originally commissioned as HMS Sharpshooter but was renamed in 1953 in line with her new duties engaged in hydrographic surveying. She marked five datum points in Leverburgh, Harris and Bays Loch, Berneray using three cuts, a rivet (in Leverburgh) and a bolt (in Berneray).

A very full account of her history can be read here: HMS Shackleton.