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

Sunday, 11 July 2021

The Highland Clachan Fair – Quaint and Attractive Exhibition

 Mrs Stewart Mackenzie is working almost on the same lines as my late mother, whose name will remembered and memory revered in Harris for all time. (Applause.) She began her work in Harris between 60 and 70 years ago, and when I was sorting some old papers connected with our estate in Harris I came across a number of cuttings from old newspapers dated 1832 to 1839. It appears it was at this latter date that my mother laid the foundation-stone of the homespun industry in the Long Island. In those days the webs were taken by the women to the houses of Rodel or Amnsuidh, where they were duly inspected, measured, and valued according to quality. As soon the price per yard was agreed upon, my mother paid cash down for the web. These webs were then stored in Harris, and, at the end of the season, were forwarded to Dunmore House in Stirlingshire, from which depot the cloth eventually found its way to the various clothiers in London and the large provincial towns. My mother’s system was one of pure philanthropy, because whatever profit she was able to make on a resale of the web was credited the weaver in Harris, whereas, if there was any loss on resale, it was sustained by mother herself. That was the system my late mother inaugurated between 60 and 70 years ago, and continued to work upon for 50 year, and until her death. (Applause.) During that period of half-century she conducted the homespun industry single-handed, and without any extraneous assistance from irresponsible philanthropists. I purposely make point of mentioning this, because I have noticed that some contributors to the public press have lately written a lot of nonsense about this Harris tweed industry. They talked about it if it was mushroom creation of the last few years, and the direct outcome of some new and carefully-considered system of philanthropy, whereas, as a matter fact, it was in active operation before those who are now interesting themselves in the work were born. (Laughter and applause.)

Source: Inverness Courier – Friday 28 September 1906.


The above is an extract from the address given by the 7th Earl of Dunmore during the lengthy opening ceremony of an exhibition, which the reporter suggests ‘should be seen by everybody with an interest in Highland scenery’ (italics added), held in the Market Hall (presumably in Inverness?) for just three days.

There is much to dissect in this part of the Earl’s speech. He refers to newspapers from 1832, which was two years before his grandfather purchased the estate on 5 March 1834, and 1839. He suggests this very early date, five years earlier than the popular story of the industry’s birth in 1844 as described by Mrs S Macdonald (Sarah Grant) in a publication for The Scottish Home Industries Association in 1895, and states that ‘Amnsuidh’ was the destination for some of the webs of cloth. If so, they would have lain on the moss and grass for over a quarter of a century to be collected for it was he who had the ‘proposed lodge’ (to quote from the notated 1804 Plan of Harris), that became Amhainnsuidhe Castle, built in 1867.

It is interesting to note that during those same twenty eight years Big Borve, Middle Borve and Little Borve (all 1839) were cleared, as was Raa on Taransay (1840s), and crofts at Direcleit and Ceann Dibig were bisected to provide homes for people cleared from Borve on Berneray (1851). Borve in Harris had been resettled but was cleared again (1853) and finally Direcleit and Ceann Dibig were cleared (1860s). The potato famines also took place (1841-1856) and perhaps mention should be given to the clearance of Seilibost (1838).

Amidst all this turmoil it is certainly true that the Embroidery School was established in An t-Ob by the Earl’s mother (1849) but was she really conducting the ‘homespun industry single-handed’?

This is where we reach the irritation that is clear in this speech, the fact that ‘some contributors to the public press have lately written a lot of nonsense about this Harris tweed industry. They talked about it if it was mushroom creation of the last few years, and the direct outcome of some new and carefully-considered system of philanthropy, whereas, as a matter fact, it was in active operation before those who are now interesting themselves in the work were born. 

Almost a quarter-of-a-century earlier the Napier Commission had revealed the work of ‘Mrs Captain Thomas’; the wife of navy hydrographer, pioneer photographer and archaeologist, Frederick William Leopold Thomas the naval hydrographer, in supporting the nascent Harris Tweed industry and it would appear that her story had been recently reinvigorated in the press. I have yet to discover these articles but this speech by the Earl suggests that over a hundred years before I began researching the true origins of the industry the popular narrative was already being questioned.

Less than a year after he spoke these words Charles Adolphus Murray died on 27 August 1907at the age of 66.

Friday, 25 June 2021

'Map of Harris - The Property of the Right Honourable The Earl of Dunmore - 1871'

This map is fascinating and what follows is merely an initial scratching of the surface to see what may be learnt from it regarding the situation in Harris at this time.

 The first point is a general one for, although the map is dated 1871, the division of Harris into North and South occurred in 1867 and so the 7th Earl's property by the time of publication had been reduced to the area south of the border in Tarbert. Hence the two residencies that the Earl had built, labelled 'Ardvourlie Castle' and 'FINCASTLE' on the map, were no longer his.

In Tarbert itself, it is interesting to see what appear to be two roofed buildings at Am Faoilinn, the area on the shore of West Loch Tarbert in the fork between the road to Stornoway and Old Pier Road. I understand that one of these at this time was home to Malcolm Kerr (my 1st cousin 4x removed) who was one of five children born there between 1811 and 1831 to Alexander Kerr (1796-c1845) and his wife Ann MacLeod (1791-1863).

Further south, we see 'Luskintyre House' and a 'Scarrista House' which is near the shore abutting the Glebe of the Parish Church and Manse, each of which are on the other side of the track that leads to the substantial settlement of 'Nishishee'. The two settlements of 'North Town' and 'South Town' are shown, these two being mentioned by William MacGillivray in his book 'A Hebridean Naturalist's Journal - 1817-1818'. 

Continuing past the 'Parish School', 'Embroidery School', and the 'School House' in Obbe (or 'OBEE', as it appears here!) we reach Rodel where Malcolm Kerr's cousin Angus Kerr - son of Angus Kerr (1792-1867) and Marion MacSween (1793-1874) is the Farm Grieve, or manager. Rodel House, built by Captain Alexander MacLeod, is conspicuous for being un-noted, perhaps reflecting its significance in the the eyes of the Earl, whilst we see the old church promoted to being 'St Clement Cathedral'.

Traversing the Bays of Harris we see several 'Oyster Beds' marked by shading before reaching Malcolm and Angus Kerr's late uncle John Kerr's (1789-1867) home in ' Dieraclate' where his widow Margaret lives with two of Malcolm and Angus's many cousins, her children Effie and Donald.

I have completed this swift circumnavigation of South Harris, pointing out a few things that drew my attention and including elements from the stories of the three sons of Strond, Alexander, Angus, and John Kerr at the time of the map.

The whole of Sir Edward Scott's North Harris awaits our attention but meanwhile I recommend a close perusal of this particular piece of cartography for what it may reveal regarding the history of Harris.

NB - The image is copyright National Records of Scotland and has been used in accordance with their terms and conditions as per https://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/content/copyright

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

HARRIS NEWS NOTES - Highland News - Saturday 07 August 1897


(Highland News - Saturday 07 August 1897 -Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

This edition of the Highland News included a section with several snippets of news from Harris (transcribed below in italics) to which I have appended some observations together with links to further reading:


WEATHER AND CROPS.—The weather this summer has been very favourable, only that it was a little too dry and warm; yet this has been compensated by recent showers. Crops of all kinds look well, and a fair yield is anticipated.

Ah, “a little too dry and warm”, but then a century-and-a-quarter ago the whole island would have been swaying with oats and barley, glad to slake their thirst on those 'recent showers'.

POLITICAL DISSATISFACTION.—Great dissatisfaction is felt with Mr Baillie's inactivity in matters pertaining to the Hebridean portion of his constituency, and the fact that he voted against a proposal to make the acquisition of land compulsory has caused deep regret.

James Evan Bruce Baillie (1859 – 6 May 1931) was the Unionist MP for Inverness-shire from June 13, 1895 - October 1, 1900. He is recorded in Hansard a mere 7 times during his time in Parliament.

SPECIAL BENEVOLENCE.—Mrs Beckett (late Mrs Thomas), Edinburgh, who by her personal influence has often acted as a benefactress and philanthropist to Harris, has this year decided to appoint a qualified nurse in the district of Manish, South Harris. A suitable house to accommodate such nurse is in course of erection.

I first wrote about this development over a decade ago and that piece, including an invaluable clarification regarding the use of the building, may be read here.

CATTLE MARKET.—The annual cattle market recently held in Harris caused great disappointment to farmers and crofters. Somehow or other the buyers were not so numerous or conspicuous as on former occasions. Consequently most of the people brought home their cattle, so that at present a large number of purchasable stock is on hand.

A hundred years prior to this, Harris cattle ,of which more may be read here , were being taken by drovers on the long journey south.

FISHERIES.—The Harris fisheries. once so famous, especially for quality, are practically dead since the great fishing in Loch Seaforth in the winter of 1890. In Harris at present there is not one fishing boat of the first, or even the second class; but the fishermen are fairly supplied with small boats, which diligently ply along the neighbouring coasts, and visit such fishing centres as Stornoway, Portree, and Loch Hourn when herrings are near hand.

A reminder that Tarbert was never to be developed along the lines envisaged by John Knox in the 18thC, and that Captain MacLeod’s plans for Rodel were cut short. 

I believe Knox also penned this interesting account of the interior of a house in Tarbert.

TOURIST SEASON.—The number of tourists calling here this summer has been fair considering the recent Jubilee attractions in the South. Some come by the daily mail boat; while others come on a "weekly tour to the Hebrides" by the "Dunara," which visits Tarbert every Saturday, staying till Monday morning, and making an occasional call at St Kilda. Many yachts of various descriptions also call and stay for a day or two.

Interesting that tourism was already noteworthy at this time, and it may well have been some of the yachtsmen recorded here who were crewing some of the visiting vessels.

Records of such visits by the “Dunara”, serendipitously caught during the censuses of 1881-1901, are described in each of these pieces:




THUNDERSTORM.—On Sunday evening, between seven and eight o'clock, a terrible thunderstorm, accompanied with lightning and occasional showers of rain, burst over Harris, and continued till after two o'clock on Monday morning. The thunder pealed incessantly, and the lightning flashed uninterruptedly, zigzag rents of deep red being often visible in the clouds. Persons of intelligence and experience, who sometimes witnessed a similar scene in America, declare that they only very seldom saw anything to equal it in point of display, but never in duration. But, happily, no accident or disaster occurred.

I like the comparison with meteorological events ‘in America’ as a means of emphasising the scale, and scarcity, of such a storm.

GOVERNMENT GRANT Of £3500 LOST.—It will be remembered that some time ago the County Council sanctioned the construction of two piers in Harris—one at Scalpay and another at West Tarbert. The estimated cost was £2500 for the one at West Tarbert, and £1500 for the one at Scalpay; but we are informed that Sir Samuel Scott agreed to pay £500 of said expense, thus making the Government grant amount to £3500. Proceedings went so far that tenders were asked by public advertisement., and an offer accepted, but before a start could be made the Tory Government withdrew the money. Surely there is need in Harris for the Congested Districts Bill. Piers, roads, footpaths, and other public works demand special attention, as well as the fact that there is not one first or second-class fishing boat in Harris.

The story of these two piers, which did eventually get constructed, is for another time but what we can glean from this is not only the huge disappointment at the Government withdrawing the grant but also yet another example of how well the North Harris Estate was treated by its Scott landlords. The contrast between the situation in the two Harris estates following Sir Edward Scott's purchase of North Harris when the original estate of Harris was divided in 1867 cannot be overstated.

Although these eight wee 'News Notes' are, in themselves, just that, when placed within the wider context of island history they each add yet another new and welcome element to our understanding.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Contempt, Sympathy and Romance - Krisztina Fenyo

I have been intending to write about Krisztina Fenyo’s book, Contempt, Sympathy and Romance, for several years and, in particular, to focus upon one particular nugget that it contains.

The book, subtitled Lowland Perceptions of the Highlands and the Clearances During the Famine Years, 1845-1855, is a scholarly (the book is essentially her PhD thesis of 1996) but extremely readable account of contemporary Scottish newspapers’ attitudes to Highlanders and Islanders during these turbulent and troubled years, attitudes which she categorises into the trio that gives her book its title.

However, it is a letter* written by Sir Charles Trevelyan in 1852 upon which I intend to focus, a letter in which he:

contemplated with satisfaction...the prospects of flights of Germans settling here in increasing number – an orderly, moral, industrious and frugal people, less foreign to us than the Irish or Scottish Celt, a congenial element which will readily assimilate with our body politic.” (Italics as in the quote in the book).

At this time Trevelyan was Chairman of the London Committee of the Highland and Island Emigration Society (HIES) which he co-founded with Sir John McNeill (** for links to previous pieces), publicly voicing the view that emigration benefited the emigrants themselves and was an economic necessity, but this quote clearly shows the racism underlying the removal of Gaels from Scotland. The Gaels weren’t being removed because of overpopulation but because they were deemed to be the wrong people to inhabit the Highlands and Islands!

Sir Charles Trevelyan’s ‘day job’ was Assistant Secretary to the Treasury and, in the climate of hostility to the Gael that Fenyo describes so brilliantly in her book, it is inconceivable that the attitude he so boldly elucidated in private wasn’t a core belief underlying his chairing of the HIES.

To have such a clear statement of an aim of ethnic-cleansing from such a senior civil servant in the mid-nineteenth Century is extraordinary but even today, as attempts are made to right the wrongs of the Clearances and repair the damage done, particularly in terms of Highlands and Islands depopulation, Gaelic language and culture remain under attack. 

I highly recommend reading Contempt, Sympathy and Romance and will end with these closing words from the book:

“In the mid-nineteenth Century, the Highland Gaels were viewed in many ways – from inferior race to picturesque and poetic heroes - but, with few exceptions, they were never seen as equal, fellow human beings.”

*Source: National Records of Scotland: HD4/2 Letterbook of HIES (2)
Trevelyan to Commissary-General Miller, 30 June 1852

**Sir John McNeill:

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Olaf the Black and North Uist

Óláfr Guðrøðarson, perhaps better-known as Olaf the Black, was a 13th century sea-king
who ruled the Isle of Man and, at least, parts of the Hebrides. He was a younger son of Guðrøðr Óláfsson, King of the Isles, King of Dublin, and his wife Finnguala, a grandaughter of Muirchertach Mac Lochlainn, High King of Ireland, King of Cenél nEógain.

Uist in the Sagas

Godred, a son of Olaf the Red, left three sons, Reginald, Olaf , and Ivar, of who, shortly before his death, he recognised Olaf (born in 1173, and afterwards known as Olaf the Black) as his lawful heir.”

“In 1202 King Olaf was residing at ‘Sandey’, in the Sudreys which Captain Thomas identifies as being the district and former parish of Sand, in North Uist, which...both from its central position and comparative fertility, would appear in every way the more likely residence to be chosen by a ruler of the Long Island.”

(Source: North Uist, Erskine Beveridge, 1911, p20-21)

According to the saga of the celebrated chief and physician, Hrafn Sveinbiarnson c1166-1213 (as cited in A.W. Moore’s 1900 publication A History of the Isle of Man), Hrafn “and the bishop-elect, Gudmund, sailed from Iceland towards Norway in the year 1202, but were driven by storms to Sandey, one of the Sudreys, where they happened to find Olaf and the bishop, and were compelled by the former to pay a tax, that Reginald had assigned the Hebrides to Olaf.” This saga was presumably the source that Captain Thomas and Professor Munch had used in their earlier respective researches into the matter and it was the Captain’s interpretation regarding the location of Sandey that Beveridge referred to in his book.

Thus, thanks to the scholarship of Captain FWL Thomas, we have evidence suggesting that Olaf the Black lived in North Uist in the area of Cill Chaluim Cille (Kilcolmkill) in the vicinity of the burial ground at Clachan Sands and near to Tobar Chaluim Cille , the well of St Columba’s Chapel.

In the Sleat History or History of the MacDonalds it is recorded that Olaf the Red, Olaf the Black’s grandfather, killed a MacNicoll in North Uist, although it has also been suggested that it may have been the grandson Olaf the Black who was responsible. Either way, we have two clues pointing to the presence of one or both of the Olaf’s in the island during the 12th and 13th centuries.

Erskine Beveridge also notes that nearby Loch Amhlasariagh derives its name from this period:

Loch Aulisary; Norse, from Olafs-erg or Olaf’s shileling” (Source: p105, as previously)

It would therefore appear possible, perhaps even likely, that it was Olaf the Black who had his summer residence somewhere on the shore of this tidal lagoon which is located within the old farm of Newton and Cheesebay, now known as the Newton Estate, and who gave his name to the loch.

Beveridge remarks that:

On the north side of Portain, near Loch Aulasary, occurs a group of three place-names, Cnoc Mòr an t-Sagairt, Cnoc Beag an t-Sagairt, and Loch an t-Sagairt – all obviously referring to a priest, and at least suggestive that a chapel formerly stood in that vicinity. (Source: Beveridge, p278)

Is this, perhaps, a further link to Olaf and the bishop (possibly Michael) cited in the saga?

We shall never know for sure but it is tantalising to think that more than 800 years ago this ‘remote’ corner of Uist was in fact sufficiently well-connected to attract a Norse ruler and his ecclesiastical ally to make their respective marks by leaving clues within the naming of the landscape.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Eureka - 59781

What began with the discovery of two seafaring brothers who died on consecutive days in September 1872 has developed into the story of the vessel that they were serving on at the time of their deaths.

The Eureka arrived at King William’s Dock, Dundee from St Petersburgh on 27 August 1872 with 494 bales and 1431 bobbins of flax weighing more than 170 tons.* She was owned and sailed ‘In the General Coasting Trade’ by Ewen Campbell of Scadabay, Harris but all 240 tons of this brigantine had been built in 1870 across the Atlantic in Prince Edward Island for John F Robertson.

Malcolm and Ewen Campbell appear to have been joint owners of the Eureka from the outset, Lloyd’s Register 1871 showing the owners as M & E Campbell. There were many fine sailing ships built at that time in Prince Edward Island for Scottish shipowners.

A week before her arrival in Dundee, on 20th August 1872, the Eureka had collided near Elsinore with another vessel, the Mercurius of Harlingen, and the latter ship appears to have suffered some little damage in consequence.* This was not the last incident to befall the vessel in the autumn of 1872 for on 27th September the Eureka was being towed into Yarmouth having lost her boat and sails when she struck the bar and began taking on water.*

Sandwiched in between these unfortunate accidents were the tragic deaths from smallpox of the brothers Angus and Neil Kerr on the 11th and 12th of September.

Malcolm Campbell also died a few months later on 26th December 1872 at Scadabay and at some point Ewen sold the ship and she was eventually lost in Archangel when she grounded during a heavy snow storm.

It would be a quarter of a century before another link was forged between the Campbell’s of Scadabay and the Kerr’s of South Harris, this time in the form of the marriage in 1896 of my cousin Marion Kerr from Rodel to Ewen and Malcolm’s nephew, John Campbell, eldest son of Roderick Campbell of Rodel who also held the tack of Borve, Berneray before it was rightly recrofted in 190.

Note: I would like to thank Seumas MacKinnon of Scadabay for alerting me to the fact that the vessel my relatives were sailing in was not the one owned by James Deas of St Andrew’s, and for supplying information used in compiling this entry.


Eureka registration Prince Edward Island: http://www.islandregister.com/1870newvessels.html
Eureka Lloyd’s Shipping Register 1871-72 p197: http://www.archive.org/stream/lloydsregisters32unkngoog#page/n4/mode/2up
Ewen Campbell on Lloyd’s Captains List p19: http://www.history.ac.uk/gh/capsC.pdf
Euphemia, Eureka and Anna Dhubh: http://www.isleofharris.com/stories/euphemia-eureka-anna-dubh/

With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk) the British Library Board

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Story of Three Harris Seamen

On the shore of Ob Liceasto in East Loch Tarbert stand the tobhta, or ruined walls, of a house that was built two hundred tears ago. It was home to a tailor John Kerr from Strond and his wife Margaret Martin. They had five sons and five daughters and at least three of the brothers became sailors in the Merchant Service.

The first-born, Malcolm, was born around 1822, the sixth child, Angus, around 1838 and the youngest, Neil, in 1848. Their birth years vary in the few written records that remain (primarily censuses as Statutory Registration in Scotland did not start until 1855) so I have used the ages from their death certificates.

Malcolm, my great, great grandfather, moved to Stornoway following the death of his first wife (who had given him a son) and he married again in 1848. His second wife, Mary MacDonald, was one of the 143 people cleared from Orinsay, Pairc in 1843 and they had three daughters and two sons, the oldest of whom, Alexander John Kerr , followed his father’s calling to the sea.

Malcolm worked in the coastal trade, sailing small vessels of 30 to 60 tons throughout the waters off the West Coast of Scotland including frequent voyages to Belfast and Larne. He was active in this trade for fifty years and died of a heart attack on board Alexander John’s ship the Crest in the Horseshoe Sound, Kerrera on the 15th of December 1898 at the age of 76. His Nationality was recorded as ‘Harris’!

Angus Kerr spent several years as a fisherman according to te censuses but on the 11th of September 1872 the 34 year-old father of five died in the Royal Infirmary, Dundee. His occupation was shown as Seaman M.S. and the cause of death was Variola, or smallpox.

Neil Kerr is recorded in the 1871 census as an Able Seaman aboard the Euphemia Campbell in Moray but just seventeen months later, on the 12th of September 1872, he too died from smallpox in the Royal Infirmary Dundee. He was 24 and single.

Their widowed mother, who was in her late-sixties or early seventies, had lost two sons in two days due to this terrible pandemic that reached its peak of 71 deaths per 100,000 people in Scotland in the year that Angus and Neil died. Her husband John had died only five years earlier and together they had borne the pain of the loss of their 18 year-old daughter Catherine a dozen years before that.

The entry before Neil’s in the register is that of 22 year-old Duncan MacLeod whose address, like Neil’s, was recorded as West Tarbert, Harris. At least three men from one small part of Harris were lost that week. The population of Harris in 1871 was 4,411.

I believe Angus and Neil’s deaths were mentioned in the Dundee Courier of Friday 13th September 1872 (where Neil was incorrectly named as Robert) and, if so, then they were shipmates aboard the Dundee-registered 69 ton vessel Eureka owned by James Deas of Market Street, St Andrews. I have checked the register and am sure that the article does refer to Angus and Neil:

Source: the Dundee Courier & Argus, Friday 13th September 1872.
Newspaper Image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk).

I have only just discovered Neil’s death, and only recently learned about Angus’s thanks to the wife of a cousin, so I have not had time to reflect upon the effect that this twin tragedy may have had on the family. I wonder how many people Harris lost to smallpox at this terrible time?

I am proud of my maritime ancestry in Harris, which has tripled in just a few weeks, and I wonder how different things might have been had all three brothers been spared, as Malcolm was, to spend half-a-century sailing these waters through middle and into old-age, encouraging the next generation to take to the sea.

Update: The vessel Eureka was in fact not the 69 ton ship of that name owned by James Deas - more details will follow in the next entry!