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, 10 May 2009

Obituary of Alexander John Kerr


The Late Mr Alexander J Kerr

On Tuesday of last week there passed away a
respected and familiar local figure in the
person of Mr Alexander J Kerr, Shipmaster,
Keith Street. Although he had been in failing
health for several weeks, he was out a few
days before his death, and the end came with
unexpected suddenness.
Sixty Seven years of age, he was one of the
few remaining links connecting us with the
time when in his youth the town of Stornoway
was of considerable importance as a shipping
port, and when a fine fleet of sailing ships
registered here, and belonging to enterprising
local owners, carried on an extensive trader with
Archangel and the Baltic ports; ln those ships
Mr Kerr had his first seagoing experience
having, at the age of 14, joined the "Alliance"
on a voyage to Archangel under Captain
Macpherson. He continued in the same service
under Captain John Smith, in the "Africa", and
in the brig "Supply", with Captain Murdo
Morrison - names of ships and men well known
to all old Stornowegians.
After several years' sailing in foreign parts on
the "Gleniffer" of Glasgow he joined his
father, the late Mr Malcolm Kerr, in the
coasting trade off the West Coast of Scotland
which he continued to work on this own
account after his father's death. There was no
one better known than Mr Kerr in the
different places of call between the Mersey
and Cape Wrath, and no craft more readily
recognised than the "Jessie," the "Crest", and
the "Lady Louisa Kerr"; which he owned and
sailed in succession. But as with the larger
windjammers that had to yield the ocean trade
to the modern steamer, so also with the small
coasting vessels. The competition of steam
has rendered them unprofitable, and the
picturesque sailing coaster has been almost
completely squeezed out of existence.
For some years Mr Kerr had worked on shore
in the employ of Mr Murdo Maclean, shipping
agent, where he was available as pilot for
steamers proceeding south to Clyde, Mersey
and Irish ports. His unique knowledge of the
West Coast peculiarly fitted him for this
service, and among mariners he had the
reputation of being one of the most skillful
and careful of pilots.
Of a very quiet disposition, he was a respected
citizen of his native town, and the esteem in
which he was held was marked by the very
large number who turned. out in wet and
disagreeable weather to his funeral on
Thursday when he was interred in Sandwick

Stornoway Gazette, October 1922

Where's Malcolm?

At times, it appears that one's ancestors have done their hardest to elude the family historian's grasp; birth year's apparently increasing as the years unfold, spellings as arbitrary as those found in a school exam, the list ins infinite.

Sometimes, however, in the very last act they perform on this Earth, an ancestor can unwittingly unlock a whole new landscape that unfolds before us as beautifully as any hand-crafted chart...

I was searching for my Isle of Harris (Scotland) ancestor Malcolm Kerr (born c1823) using the powerful, albeit pricey, www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk with mixed success: no record of his birth in the Old Parish Registers which wasn't a total surprise given that the records from the Gaelic-speaking islands are few and far between, rather more success with his second Marriage and with his childrens' subsequent records, but no sign of him in the 1851 & 1871 censuses and as for his Death?

Well, this was where Malcolm did me a huge favour (almost as big a favour as the one he done in siring my great Grandmother!) for he died in the middle of December 1898, at the age of 76, not peacefully in his home in Stornoway but at sea, as befits an elderly sea-dog in his dotage, perhaps?

The singular significance of this circumstance was not the location, in the sound of Kerrera, near Oban, nor the cause, Heart Disease, but the existence on the record of of a five-letter name and a five-digit number: CREST 44427.

The Crest, as I later discovered in the Maritime Museum in Greenwich where I was vainly searching for Malcolm's Masters Certificate (Ships Captain who were wholly engaged in Coastal Trade were exempt from certification) was a 47 Net Tonnage Ketch. In translation, she was a small two-masted ship probably about 25 metres from stem to stern (80 feet in 'old money'!) built in Ramsay on the Isle of Man in 1863????

Although this was a major breakthrough in that it told me something of Malcolm's seafaring days, it begged even more questions: Who owned the Crest?, who was her Master? (Malcolm was listed as a 'Hand' on the Death Certificate), what trade was she plying? And, most of all, what the heck was a 76 year-old man doing off the West Coast of Scotland in the middle of Winter!

Eventually, after having visited every website in the Country that might possibly give me a clue: was he engaged in Herring fishing, was he involved in Trade, was he smuggling...or, perhaps, a combination of all these!, I stumbled upon the Maritime History Archive in...Newfoundland.

Now, much as I had by now become obsessed in my quest to discover all that I could about Malcolm, a trip to Newfoundland was definitely out of the question. It came as a great relief, therefore, to learn that the Archive is searchable online SO LONG AS YOU KNOW THE OFFICIAL NUMBER – but for Malcolm's untimely death, this vital detail could never have been know to me.

I vividly recall typing 'CREST' followed by '44427', checking each for errors, and then gingerly lightly tapping the return key...

...Oh my God, not only did the Archive possess documents, they had some covering the all-important period between 1898/99 that was crucial to my research.

Next, I decided to cover all my bases, and placed a request, via email, for scans covering the years 1896-1899. I don't know why I added the previous couple of years, but was very glad that I did...

With amazing haste, a reply was received and, a couple of weeks later (and about £70 lighter) my PC shook as the weight of the papers hit the email 'hallway'...

The emotional impact was even greater when the details revealed that the owner of the 'Crest', and her Master, were non-other than Alexander John Kerr, Malcolm's son and my great, Great Uncle! This remarkable man, the ancestor whom I had grown to respect and love in equal measure, had died as Bosun assisting his own son in his profession.

It was only later, after I had located my cousin who is Alexander John's granddaughter, that I was able to read his own obituary from the Stornoway Gazette and learn that the Crest was but one of several vessels that Alexander John had owned and sailed until he retired from that and became a Pilot, assisting others in the treacherous seas along Scotland's Western shores.

It was also my cousin who, when I made my first visit to the isles, showed me this photograph of Malcolm Kerr, born 1823, Direcleit, Isle of Harris, Scotland, died 15th December 1898, Sound of Kerrera, Near Oban, Scotland, but where is he buried???

To be continued...

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

In homage to J G Ballard...

The Bonds That Tie Us...

Even if it had been realised what was happening and why, there was absolutely nothing that could have been done to prevent it...

The Sun glistened on the ripple-topped Solent, refracting rays into a myriad sparkling diamonds of pure light. Across the Globe, billions watched as the gun fired and the first yachts rounded the start-buoy signalling the opening of the Olympic sailing. To the participants, the spectators perched along every speck of coast both on the mainland and the Isle of Wight and those staring at many millions of television screens and computer monitors, everything seemed perfect.

Dr MacLeod pressed the mute button on the remote, turned to the semi-comatose form of Iain still slumbering beside her, and slipped out from under the duvet, turning only to gently replace it around the man's warm and welcoming form, and stepped into the bathroom.

Performing her ablutions to the accompaniment of an assortment of aquatic orchestrations, she emerged several minutes later refreshed, revitalised, and with perhaps just a tad too much expensive eau de parfum anointing her. She dressed quickly, quietly but with great care for today she was to deliver her paper on 'Quantum Effects and Evolution' at the 10th Anniversary Celebrations of the Society of Humanist Independent Philosophers. The SHIP had been formed when, under increasing attack from the religionists, the multi-nationals and the Establishment in general, it had been realised by a few courageous and outspoken thinkers that they needed to create a rallying point for themselves and the shrinking number of the World's population who's crap-detection facilities remained following the onslaught of Global Independent Television and it's allies. GIT, whose founder, the late Sir Mark Muddleson, had inserted his tentacles into the educational enclaves of every Country was known, not entirely jokingly, as 'Big Brother'. By a process of celebritisation and de-criticalisation, he had rendered electronic entertainment into a non-stop diet of trashy, instant-gratificational mush. At first this had seemed innocuous enough in the developing market of globalisation but when it was understood how GITs mantra of 'No Play Lasts Longer Than Foreplay' as a defining maxim for the time between adverts had been shown to have permanent degenerative effects upon the cerebral cortex the few realised that if they didn't act now, there might well not be anyone left to act later.

Chirsty double-checked that she had put all that she needed into her Harris Tweed shoulder bag, picked up her keys, looked one last time at the now-snoring bloke in her bed, and slipped out into the corridor of her apartment, gently closing the door with a slight 'click' behind her...

On board 'Sea Serpent III', skipper Steve was beaming as his boat's bowsprit broke the laser beamed finish line first. To win an Olympic Gold, particularly in the waters upon which his mother had given birth to him 24 years ago, was the highlight of his life so far. He had been a natural sailor, winning every class with apparent ease as he eased his way up to this, the highest class of sailing recognised by the Olympic Committee. However, behind that smile, he was worried. The race itself had been easy, almost too easy, but the SS III hadn't handled as he'd expected. She seemed almost to sit too low in the water until she was planing, skimming the surface as if on a cushion of air, and that wasn't how she'd been when he first took her helm several months ago.

The GIT camera crew approached him as he stepped ashore and bombarded with questions, most of which seemed to focus upon his sponsors and how their products had single-handedly handed him the victory, Steve smiled that famous winning 'ToofProof' smile, pushed back his golden 'Fame & Glory, shampoo that tells a story' locks and said, “Something's wrong.”...

In Control Room 4, the producer hit the 'Emergency Interlude Key', shouted, “Eik” and sacked the interviewer and camerawoman on the spot. In a billion homes and workplaces, the dying syllable of Steve's devastating dual-worded statement was drowned under a tide of mega-paced music and images of beautiful young things entwined in ecstasy. This advertisement for over-processed, pre-packaged, microwavable dog food had won awards and the accompanying law suits from people who's dogs had mauled them were mysteriously absent from all GITs news output...

Back on Portland Bill, Steve and the other competitors were exchanging experiences in the camaraderie that defines ocean racers who will happily scupper their own chance of success in order to rescue a stricken rival. None of the assembled mariners could precisely define the problem but all of them agreed that today their vessels had behaved differently. Clearly something had changed. They consulted the meteorologists, the ferry companies and even the Royal Navy but there was no explanation of this freak phenomenon except that, unbeknown to them, it was anything but a freak.

Chirsty's speech, eschewing all the paraphernalia of a modern 'presentation' was an object-lesson in oration. Her audience was held spellbound as she wove the magic of her words around her as skilfully as an actor on the World's stage. The august assembly of, arguably, the finest 200 minds left thinking in the World, gave her a long, rapturous ovation.

In the lounge after this formal start to the celebrations, various pockets of 'brains' sat in small groups, discoursing, discussing, cussing and laughing, it was almost a reminder of how academia used to be. The giant plasma-screen above the bar was silent but a ribbon of text juddered along the bottom of the screen and it was almost impossible not to give it a glance from time-to-time, despite the GIT logo glaring down like a disapproving monster. “Sailor Steve's Gold 'n' Glow'...sticky water...planing like a hovercraft...Solent, silent...”

When Chirsty returned home, Iain was gone. This was no great surprise but the huge bouquet of flowers and the one-word message, “Sorry”, was. She hadn't thought of Iain as anything but fulfilling a physical need and they had both agreed that that need had run its course, hence her shock at the note. He had nothing to be sorry about. Strange, she would never understand this Romantic streak that seemed to run through some men as if they were a piece of sweet, seaside rock.

As she prepared for bed, reflecting that it was just as well that she didn't have to go through any motions after all the emotions of the day, she flicked the screen on. An advertisement, she had no idea what it was for because it was the usual mix of music and sex that all adverts comprised, ended and was replaced by the Sun descending over a mirror-calm sea. There was some chromatic aberration in the picture, unusual but then technology hadn't quite mastered every aspect of capturing nature in its pixellated virtuality...

As she watched, and listened to the laughably-dismissed talk of 'sticky seas', Chirsty's demeanour darkened. She focussed intently upon the angle between the Sun and the surface of the sea, she stared carefully at the aberrations on the surface of her screen, and she wept...

Her tears, running down her cheeks, illuminated by the glow of the screen, were affirming her fears, as the hydrogen bonds holding the aquatic world together weakened, dissolved and disintegrated allowing the oceans to evaporate, human bodies to cease functioning, and even the rays of the plasma screen fell foul of the quantum event that signalled the end of water-based ,organic lifeforms in the Universe...