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

Friday, 11 June 2010

Sounds of Harris - 1st Movement

A new decade saw new developments in the written records. In 1841 the Reverend John MacIver's entry for the for New Statistical Account of Scotland (NSAS) was published in which he gives the population as 'upwards of 4000'. The same year saw the fifth census taken in Scotland and the first for which the records of indivduals and their households exist.
It is from these census records that I have been able to reconstruct many significant elements from the past.
The census tells us that in 1841 their were 84 people living at Direcleit. Ceann Debig does not appear as a separate entity so it is reasonable to assume that this figure includes both settlements. Of these 84, John, Margaret and their 'eight of a family' were clearly a significant component.

At the same time in the Sound, Obb was home to 148, Strond had 332 folk and Rodel 81. Ten of the 148 at Obb were Angus, Marion and their family but I should also mention that there was also another Kerr family of five so these two families were some 10% of Obb's population. The heads of these two families are each described as Tenants so clearly they were both cultivating the land for a living, unlike John the Tailor in Direcleit.

Thus it was that one in every eight of the people of Harris were living in this small strip of land in the south-eastern corner of the island. They were probably distributed amongst a hundred or so houses but it must be said that households would range in size from one or two, usually elderly, people to perhaps a dozen or more members of one or more families massed under the one roof.

Twenty-three years have passed since the clearance of Rodel and the 81 people living there were employed on the 'home' farm. The Estate Officer , who was probably residing at Rodel House, was John Lindsay and one of his retinue was twenty year-old Marion Kerr, daughter of a Shoemaker of Strond called Angus Kerr. This is a different Angus, but probably related to the two brothers. Assisting John Lindsay was the Ground Officer, John Lindsay, in Ardhasaigh. His role was to see that the tenants, and others, were obeying the Estate's rules regarding the land they occupied

Several hundred miles (and several dozen life-styles) away, and close enough to Berkley square to hear the Nightingale sing, is 1 Grafton Street in London's Mayfair. There were the the 6th Earl of Dunmore, the Countess and their three young children. There were another seventeen people, presumably servants, living in that very desirable part of the Capital which gives us an indication of the circumstances that this particular Murray family faced in 1841.

Taking care of their affairs on Harris was the Factor, Duncan Shaw, and the 60 year-old was living on North Uist at the time. His predecessor, Donald Stewart, 65, was still the Farmer of Luskentyre whilst the man who would succeed Shaw, 30 year-old John Robson Macdonald, was farming Rodel.

Down the road from Rodel at An-t-Ob there lived the local Blacksmith, John Morrison, who's activities were described by the visiting Baptists fourteen years earlier. There were four other smiths on the island, spread around mainly to meet the needs of the farms but also to supply the people with items of ironmongery. Morrison, who's family name predominates amongst the Harris Blacksmiths, would soon be wielding a far mightier weapon than any that he might have previously fashioned from mere metal.

Should he, or any of the other inhabitants of the island, find themselves in need of medical attention then they had a Doctor Clark was available. The 50 year-old lived at Scarista on the West coast with his wife and seven children. He appears to have been on Harris for at least eleven years.

A couple of years after the census the whole of Scotland was rocked by a schism of such significance that it came to be known as the Disruption. In 1843 parishioners, encouraged by many Ministers, rebelled against the Established Church of Scotland for imposing its chosen men of the cloth upon them, regardless of the people of the parish's wishes.

The result was the formation of a new church, called the Free Church for obvious reasons, and the people of Harris joined it almost unanimously. I say 'almost' because the Church of Scotland maintained a presence, both physically and spiritually, and my researches certainly show many a marriage taking place 'according to the Forms of the Established Church of Scotland'. I think those who claim that Harris, to a man and woman, joined the Free Church are oversimplifying the situation.

At the time of the formation of the Free Church the Established Church of Scotland had thirty-seven year-old John Maciver as its Minister in Scarista.

In Direcleit and coinciding with the birth of the new church, John and Margaret's fourth son Donald increased them to 'nine of a family'.

It is time to turn to the industry for which Harris is World-famous. Weaving takes many forms and one of those gave those who practised it the three-letter acronym 'HLW'. These were the Hand Loom Weavers and, perhaps strangely, 1841 is the only year that sees the occupation 'H L W' appearing in the census returns of the Parish of Harris.

Chersty Kerr, 80
William Macleod, 35
Effy Maclennan, 19
Marion Morrison, 61, Rha
Mary Macleod, 41, Rha

Catherine Morrison, 50
Mary Campbell, 30

Mary Macaskill, 50, Rushgarry
Ann Macintyre, 45, Rushgarry
Effy Mackinnon, 35, Rushgarry

At this point it might appear that the term 'HLW' was used uniquely by the people on these three islands off the West and South of Harris or ,perhaps, by the aquatic Enumerator dispatched to collect their data.

Let us look a little further afield in the Parish of Harris. In this same year, there were thirty-one HLWs on South Uist, one on North Uist, but none onHarris. Again in 1841, there were twenty-three Weavers on North Uist and only one on South Uist. There were only five weavers recorded on Harris:

Marion Kerr, 55, Scarista
Norman Macleod, 50, Scarista
Malcolm Macleod, 40, Kentulavig
Donald Maclennan, 70, Strond
Donald Macleod, 45, Strond

It appears that North Uist and Harris were the islands of Weavers whilst South Uist, Berneray, Pabbay and Taransay were those of the Hand Loom Weavers. In Ross and Cromarty, the Isle of Lewis in 1841 had eighty-one HLWs but only five Weavers, all the later in Uig, which Parish contributed four of the eighty-one HLWs. I tend towards the differentiation between these two groups as being no more than an artefact of the way this census was compiled, not least because I appear to have had a relative in each of the two camps!

Tradition tells us that, in 1844, Catherine Murray, Countess of Dunmore, started the Harris Tweed industry. History tells us that in 1845 Alexander, 6th Earl of Dunmore, died and his 4 year-old son, Alexander Murray, the 7th Earl of Dunmore, inherited the island. What this meant in practical terms was that it was the child's mother, the newly-widowed Catherine Murray, Countess of Dunmore who took the legal role of 'Tutor' and administered his estates on his behalf.

All the papers that would enable us to establish the truth of the tradition were lost when the Dunmore family's solicitors officers were destroyed in WWII but my instinct is that, whilst the family may well have purchased cloth for their friends and a few others, there is nothing to indicate an industry having been established for several more years.

An event that certainly did take place at the time was the marriage of Malcolm Kerr from Direcleit to Bess Macdonald of the same place. In 1845, Bess gave birth to a little boy called Roderick but she died either in the process or shortly after. The widower, who was a Sailor, would soon leave Harris and start a new life in Stornoway, leaving Roderick to be raised by the infant's grandparents. A terribly sad tale but, if it had not happened and Malcolm not remarried, then the author of these words would never have existed!

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. 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. This Royal Navy Officer, who rose to become Admiral Henry Charles Otter, RN, was a remarkale man. He pioneered aspects of modern Oceanography, played a pivotal role in the laying of the first successful Transatlantic Telegraph Cable and, as we shall see, brought a fellow-officer and his wife to the Western Isles without whom the history of Harris might have been altogether different.

Catastrophe for the islanders followed fast on the heel of the Countess's personal tragedy, for 1846 saw the first of the string of Potato Famines begin. It was into this bleak time that John and Margaret completed their family with the birth of Neil, their fifth son and tenth child.
Adding insult to injury (although whether the failed harvest came before or after is uncertain), in 1846 most of the crofts at Direcleit and Ceann Dibig were bisected to accommodate people cleared from Borve in Berneray. Thus twice as many families were expected to be supported by the same area of land just at the time that the land itself appeared to be rejecting the people's attempts to wrest a living from it.

In such circumstances, when some of their fellow-men and all of nature appeared to be hell-bent on their destruction, it is easy to understand why the people embraced the more lurid and apocalyptic tales of the old Testament in an attempt to understand their predicament.

One piece of evidence of the circumstances was presented by the Free Church to The House of Lords in the form of a letter written by a John Macrae and dated 23 February 1847. I think it reveals much of the climate pertaining on Harris at the time:

...The whole population of Harris is upwards of 4,000, including the island of Bernera, under one factor, who is acting for Lady Dunmore.
...Iwould say that 4,000 of the people are conscientiously attached to the Free Church, having left the Establishment at the disruption, and are formed into three district congregations, holding their meetings at Tarbert, Obe, and Bernera.
...They have also a catechist, who leads their devotional exercises at their sabbath and weekday meetings.
...I have visited Harris personally, and addressed large congregations at Tarbert, and Obe. I have no doubt that in these two places, under a Free Church minister, the congregation would average from 800 to 1,000 hearers. I have seen them triple that number.
...There is no church in any of those places. Repeated applications were made to Lord Dunmore for sites for churches, and I cannot say that any definite reason was given for refusing these applications; but it was inferred from several expressions used by the factor, and others in the factor's confidence, that the hope of inducing the people to return to the Establishment was the main influence that ruled his Lordship's mind when he refused to grant the sites.
I am not aware that any application was made for a manse site in Harris, nor even for a school site; I mean a permanent school. The people were discouraged from doing so by the refusal of the church site.
There is no stated Free Church minister in Harris. The poor people could scarcely have the courage to call a minister without a church, or any place of any description to shelter them from the inclemency of the weather.
...The whole estate of Harris has passed into the hands of Lord Dunmore's widow. I hear her Ladyship has offered a site in what is called the Bay of Harris, but I trust it will not be accepted there. The two most populous districts in Harris, the one to the east, the other to the west of the bays, could not avail themselves of it, however anxious to do so.
...Many attempts have been made indirectly to shake the people in their attachment to the Free Church. When I was in Harris in the spring of 1845,threat upon threat was circulated among the people, that any person actively engaged in the cause of the Free Church was certain of losing his croft, and otherwise incurring the displeasure of Lord Dunmore.
I am not aware, however, that in any instance but one the threat was actually executed. The instance is in the person of John Morrison, a blacksmith, who was at the following term turned out of his house, smithy, and land. He took the lead in Free Church matters, and had great influence over the people. He is now the catechist already referred to. It is universally understood thatno minister of the Establishment came forward publicly to claim the rights of toleration to the Free Church, and it is well known that some of them, the minister at Harris among others, employed all their influence the other way. And it would be strange indeed if such conduct would fail to alienate the minds of the people from the Establishment. And every time they assemble in the open air, every shower of rain, every blast of wind, every flake of snow, on these occasions, not to speak of the injury done to health, reminds these poor people of the injustice they suffer for conscience sake. In fact, nothing could more effectually alienate them from the Establishment than the refusal of sites.

This letter speaks volumes. It tells us of how those with power and influence (what we might term the 'Establishment') sided with the Established Church (which MacRae terms 'the Establishment') and how those clinging-on for their very existence on Harris reached out to the Free Church, and it to them.

That much, perhaps, is unsurprising but the letter does nothing to diminish my strengthening belief that the Dunmore dynasty played a far more pro-active role in the Clearances (and other associated bullying activities) than history has been content to ascribe to them.

Later in 1847 a new Factor (I presume John Robson Macdonald) is appointed and, in what appears to have been an experiment, he had Borve on Harris resettled. We shall learn more of his experiment later.

Harris (and Lewis) are well-known for their Sabbath observance so it may come as something of a surprise that up until 1848 there had been Sunday Postal Deliveries on the island! It had taken the Free Church five years and two famines to give the population the appetite for this particular ban. The postal service was provided by sea and on foot. In 1841(a year after the introduction of the 'Penny Post' in Britain) there had been a Postmaster, Kenneth Morrison, in Tarbert and with him a 'Post' (presumably for 'Postman) called Norman Morrison. In the South, at Obb, was a second 'Post' called Roderick Morrison.

The first piece of real evidence of the Countess of Dunmore's involvement with industries on Harris came in 1849 when she established the Embroidery School at An-t-Ob. The following year she had a house built at An-t-Ob built for the Gardener and his wife, the Embroidery Teacher. In that same year Tarbert got its first church.

As the first half of the 19thC drew to a close, the population of Harris remained numerically bloated by the greed of the Kelp-years, years that had seen much money earned on the island only to leave it to swell the coffers of the high-living lairds. Those left behind, whose toil in the fug and smug of manufacturing had supported those unsustainable lifestyles, had been treated abysmally by first Donald Stewart and then Duncan Shaw. Was John Robson Macdonald to prove a more benevolent Factor, as the Borve Experiment might suggest? Were the Countess and the 7th Earl to provide the hope that had died some sixty years earlier with the death of Captain Alexander Macleod? What paths would be followed by the two brothers and their families in An-t-Ob and Direcleit? We shall soon see.

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