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, 14 June 2010

Sounds of Harris - 6th Movement

1891
In Strond, Effy Kerr is now a Crofter with her widowed sister Christy for company. Christy's daughter Marion and Shepherding son Angus are with them. Their brother, Roderick the Post Runner had died on the 3rd of January at the age of 56.

Effy's namesake at 10 Direcleit is now a Wool spinner as is her niece Peggy, daughter of the deceased Angus the Fisherman. His widow, Mary, is at neighbouring number 10 with her daughters Ann and Marion. These three women, too, are all Wool Spinners whilst her other daughter, Catherine, is a Wool Weaveress. Son John has followed his father and become a Fisher. A grand-daughter, Mary Ann, is also with them. Her mother is Ann. Effy's brothers, Malcolm and Donald, are in Stornoway and Glasgow where Donald is an Auctioneer's Labourer which is the last fact that I have about him. Ann married the following year, her husband being a Mason's Labourer called Murdo Macdonald who was born in the Falkland Islands.

Malcolm's son Roderick, who moved to An-t-Ob is working as an Agricultural Labourer and his step-son is now known as John Kerr. His second wife, Peggy, has presented him with two children of their own. Up the road, the Macdonald family are still at what is now called Farm House but was originally known as Kyles Lodge.

The Shepherd Malcolm has retired and is with his wife Isabella whilst at Rodel his brother Angus describes himself as a Retired Groom. At some point he must have swapped managing the farm for taking charge of horses and, as a decade later he calls himself a Retired Coachman the implication is that he provided transport for those residing at Rodel House. A coachman was also provided at Tarbert Hotel and at an unspecified location elsewhere in the North. As well as his wife and daughter, he has his niece Flora Morrison and her 10 year-old daughter Christy Gillies. The father, a Tailor called John Gillies, certainly married Flora, but on the 14th April 1891, some nine days after the census! I have no idea why they waited a decade to marry, unless he was already married and hence they had to wait? I cannot find him in the crucial year of 1881 which might have provided me with a clue.

The SS Dunara Castle made her second appearance in the censuses, this time under her Master Charles Mackinnon. There were 17 seamen and 4 men to attend to the passengers. Of her 8 passengers, two are of particular interest. Sir John Carstairs McNeil was a holder of the Victoria Cross and Malcolm McNeil played a pivotal role in the treatment of poverty in the Highlands and Islands including writing this paper on St Kilda: 'Alleged destitution in the island of St. Kilda in October 1885. Report of Malcolm McNeill, Inspecting Officer of the Board of Supervision. He also inspected conditions on Lewis as a result of the Park Deer Raid of 1887, the full story of which event can be found in the Angus Macleod Archive. His presence on the SS Dunara Castle (the very vessel that would evacuate the last inhabitants of St Kilda nearly 40 years later) at the time of the 1891 census is another of those serendipitous events that makes perusing the past so pleasant.

There were an increasing number of Gamekeepers employed, by both Estates, and including one at Little Borve who presumable was associated with Borve Lodge. Keeping an eye on the souls were the same Ministers at Manish Free Church and at the Established Church in Scarista. Ewen Morrison, the son of the Catechist, 'Gobha na Hearadh' had retired from Blacksmithing but the craft was still dominated by his namesakes.

Just along the road from the pier at the Tarbert Hotel were Daniel McKellar, the Hotel Keeper, and his four children. There were 3 staff and the single guest was Alexander Macgregor, a Commercial Traveller. There was competition in the form of Donald Campbell who was the Temperance Hotel Keeper but his establishment doesn't appear to have been particularly popular.

The sole Telegraph Clerk was in Tarbert but presumably he was able to communicate all the way down to Barra as well as to the mainland. His location, however, is significant in signalling the increasing trend towards Tarbert as the centre of all things Harris, a trend that I suspect was not unconnected to the Scott family's development of their North Harris Estate. I cannot find their Factor but the South Harris Estate had Thomas Brydon who was living at the Farmhouse in Luskentyre. He had two Farm Grieve's who were living at the 'Grieve's House ' but again the precise location is unclear.

The number of Fishers had dropped from 566 to 486 (it would only fall by another 2 in the next decade) but whether this was due to diminished demand or the effects of recrofting I cannot say. Fish Curing remained in the South solely in the hands of Roderick Campbell of Strond and his son John whilst on Scalpay their namesake Kenneth Campbell was Fish-Curing as well as being a General Merchant and Crofter.

There were 18 Schoolteachers, scattered around Harris, and nearly 1200 Scholars for them to teach. The children must have been exceptionally well-behaved 130 years ago! A similar number of Scholars appear a decade later but the number of Teachers had increased by over 50% by then.

Assuming that 'Tailoress' refers to someone who makes men's clothing, as compared to a Dressmaker doing the same for ladies, then there appears to have been a brief dalliance with this in 1891 for there were 7 such women recorded. By way of contrast, in Scotland as a whole there were 4,200 Tailoresses in 1891 and over 5000 by 1901 (although checking those returns I came across a 4 month-old described as a 'Tailoress' so those figures might be somewhat exaggerated! – but these were the days of Victorian Child Labour and I suspect that at least some of those under10s were indeed working). Back in the fresh-air of the islands, where children were less-likely to be exposed to the inhumanity of being treated as a 'human resource', tailoring remained largely a 'personal' service with individual tailors visiting their clients as is evidenced elsewhere in these ramblings of mine. In such circumstances, the four young ladies of 'Obbe' are a particular surprise and I do wonder what story lies behind the presence of these half-dozen women in the South of Harris?
We can see from the Tailors of Harris, who were 18 in number in 1891 and 15 by 1901, that the demise of this brief dalliance was not accompanied by an increase in the demand for male tailors. This tempts me to conjecture of an early attempt at 'adding value' by creating garments on the island for export rather than complete webs of tweed but, if so, it apparently failed. One person who took part in this experiment was Isabella Kerr, wife of the Retired Shepherd Malcolm in Strond. My relatives appear not to have been shy in coming-forward to try new things!

The more conventional female occupation of Sewing Mistress continued to grow although whether they were teaching in schools or privately is unclear. The Embroidery School had closed, one reason that is claimed being the death of the Countess who drafted the designs but, if it had been an economic success, then I am sure that particular obstacle would have been overcome. The teaching of sewing, at least as a separate specialism, appears to all-but disappeared during the next decade.

Men, meanwhile, continued with their craft of Boat-Building in the Bays and at Strond.

Policing continued to employ merely two Constables, one in Tarbert and his colleague at An-t-Ob. This situation remained the same through up to at least the start of the 20thC.

In 1894 the Picture Postcard was introduced and the census had recorded a Post Master at Tarbert, a Sub-Post-Master on Scalpay and Mary Galbraith , Post Mistress at An-t-Ob. Her replacement runner for the deceased Roderick was 26 year-old John Macdonald.

The next year Mrs S Macdonald, wife of Roderick the Farmer just outside An-t-Ob, wrote an account of the Countess of Dunmore for the Scottish home Industries Association. In the same year, by the way, the Crofter's Commission Report allowed 1 horse, 4 cows and 20 sheep per croft in Strond. Mrs Macdonald's account is syrupy and obsequious in the extreme. Unfortunately many take it as first-hand evidence, despite the fact that Mrs Macdonald was describing events almost, but not quite, before she was born. She was also writing from the perspective of a Farmer's wife whose husband's farm was on the South Harris Estate owned by the son of the late Countess. She was unlikely to write anything that might upset the 7th Earl. It also served to maintain the smokescreen that had been erected between the Clearances and the Dunmore's involvement in them. Or, perhaps, more a Clo Mor of invisibility, rather than a smokescreen? Four years later, in 1899, the Duchess of Sutherland wrote an article for The Land Magazine that provides a more sober and realistic account both of the situation then current and the history of the industry.

As far as I can tell, there has been some confusion and conflation of these two separate accounts and, as the latter is the lesser-known, he are some extracts:

The Revival of Home Industries By the DUCHESS OF SUTHERLAND The Land Magazine January 1899

To take the case of Scotland in particular, leaving sea-fishing out of account, the crofters and cottars of the Western Islands have no alternative employment.
In Harris and Lewis there is no land for them to cultivate.
Their crofts, hardly worthy of the name, scattered about the rocks and stones of the wildest hills, afford them but the most meagre sustenance.
The people are simple and uncomplaining; the women, who work day after day at the tweed, are most industrious.
They are, of course, ignorant of economic conditions, and they can hardly understand the dread power of machinery competition in the South. "If the sale of the tweed fails," they say, "we shall starve", and they speak the truth.


The Scottish Home Industries Association is not ignorant of economic conditions ; it knows full well the mastery of them, and it occupies the paradoxical position of discouraging an industry even while supporting it.
Its advice to the girls and boys of the younger generation is, Do not think that if you spin and weave you can always earn your daily bread. Go South and learn trades, neglect no chance of education that will bring you new hope, and more money to your native island.
We will do all we can to save your old industry for this generation, perhaps for the next, but the days of its prosperity have gone by, and this is no time for sentiment.
You cannot rely on this occupation as a means of livelihood, even from year to year.


It may seem strange that I should start on so pessimistic a note.
I do so because there has been confusion or ignorance in the minds of some on the subject of Highland industries. Few have realised what the sale or non-sale of tweed means to the workers; some have even thought that the whole thing was confined to the aesthetic fancies of a few philanthropic ladies.
I would, indeed, it were! How easy our task, if it were merely an interesting addition to more remunerative employment, if the industry could be directed and guided solely in the leisure hours of My Lady Bountiful!


But what in reality is this industry ? It is an industry seeking a fair place in the commercial world. It is an industry on which thousands of lives are dependent.
With the warning whirr of the factory sounding in our ears, we give good advice for the future; but for our own time, we protect the industry with all the force that in us lies, and we arm ourselves, for the sake of the people for whom we fight, with the methods of trade - that is, we know we must establish our reputation by our commercial soundness.


The Association is not ashamed of being a trading concern. It works for a poverty-stricken people, and is forced to accept the conditions of the trading world, or submit to failure. It has been said for instance, " Why do you not encourage " your old spinners to spin blankets?" but there is no market for homespun-blankets. Give the old woman, if you will, other employment for the day-time, to earn her food, and she will spin blankets in the evening for sentiment.
Others again have remarked on the barbarity of using chemical dyes to supersede the vegetable concoctions gathered on the hillside. This is indeed rarely done, but when an order comes from a lady of fashion for a roll of bright blue or scarlet tweed (she will have none of the dingy brown), surely we take the order,, for it brings the spinner bread to eat, and we risk the condemnation of all the romanticists.
And yet I too can be romantic! Who is not, who lives long enough among the lights and shadows of our Highland hills ? 
There must be many Highland hearts that beat faster it they remember the peaty atmosphere of the old " black house"' where the cailleach sits spinning and crooning, her Gaelic legends from the hills of dream.


In 1858 the late Lady Dunmore was a mother to her people in Harris. The tweed was then a novelty in the South, and she would sell a good deal for them, getting four shillings and even four shillings and sixpence per yard wholesale.
It has been brought against our Association in blame that we no longer pay the people these prices. Unfortunately the output of tweed is so enormously increased and machinery competition is so formidable that the market does not permit us to pay philanthropic prices.
The Association has to pay market prices or it would soon be bankrupt.
The interesting part in the matter is to note that the people do not suffer loss as much as would be believed. There has been a great fall in prices all round, and though the people get less for their production they benefit from the fact that the commodities which they purchase are so infinitely cheaper in 1898 than they were in 1858.


On the other hand complaints have been made at the depots that the prices charged for the tweed are too high. It need scarcely be said there is no overcharge of any kind. 
The gist of the matter is this - that we run a commercial undertaking on a benevolent basis.
We do not say that the success of the Highland Tweed Industry means the solving of all the vexed questions in connection with the welfare of a deserving and grateful people.
Our Association can only do its share of the work of progress.


The lately appointed Congested Districts Board may do something - the new education will do more -the common sense of the Highlanders themselves will do most of all.


All change is of necessity slow, but I believe the coming decade will show as remarkable an improvement in the condition of the country as the last few years have shown an advance on all the preceding decades of the 19th century.

Reading her words some 111 years after the Duchess originally penned them there is more than a sense of 'plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose'. However, what strikes me the most is the unusual combination of humanity with 'hard-headed' business sense. She was ahead of her time and, in some regards, we still have yet to catch up with her.

The 1891 census shows more than three times as many people involved in weaving compared to the previous decade. If there were as many engaged in producing Harris Tweed in 1881 as there had been in 1851 then it tips the balance in favour of the mid 1840s being the birth of the industry. 1891 is the first time that we see people referring to themselves as 'Tweed-Weavers', suggesting that the term was perhaps only adopted in recent years, maybe even within the last two?

It also suggests that neither the Countess with her contacts, nor Mrs Captain Thomas who originally hailed from London, nor the growth of the Mercantile class on Harris had chosen, or perhaps been able, to provide the means by which an expansion could occur. By 1867 the 7th Earl had spent his money on building property in North Harris whilst the last specific contribution by the Countess was her diversifying into Stocking Knitting a decade earlier. It is Mrs Thomas who the Minister at Tarbert describes as having a personal presence amongst the people in the 1880s.

So where does all this lead us? It is my belief that the answer to the origin and early development of Harris Tweed lies in the relationship between the Countess and The Captain's Wife. The former, recently widowed just at the time that the latter's husband is embarking on his surveying of the seas around Harris. It is entirely conceivable that Mrs Thomas was conveyed to the island on HMS Porcupine and, as the wife of an Officer in the Royal Navy who was engaged in work of vital value to the Dunmore Estate, she would have been welcomed at Rodel House. This Wool-Merchant's daughter would have been interested in the local textiles and had the right contacts to aid in their development. The 'Paisley Sisters' in 1851 were a short walk, horse or boat-ride around the corner from Rodel so it is possible that Mrs Thomas made that journey to see their skills for herself. The two ladies are known to have collaborated in establishing the Stocking Knitting in 1857 so it is entirely feasible for them to have been liaising on the selling of cloth prior to this date.

It is also possible that Mrs Thomas may have visited Harris before the Countess ever set foot there, but the inverse is equally probable. Whatever the order of precedence, I am convinced that the Countess and The Captain's Wife had a closer, longer-lived and more productive relationship than the partisan accounts of later years might suggest. Once the 7th Earl had taken control of the island, via his Factor, the Countess appears to have been side-lined somewhat but Mrs Thomas certainly remained actively involved with the islanders.

The Countess of Dunmore's family 'invented' Harris Tweed but I think it was the fortuitous presence of her new friend Mrs Captain Thomas that helped ensure its survival. Remove either lady (and the particular circumstances of each as Widowed Countess and Captain's Wife, respectively) and the story of Harris Tweed would have been very different, if indeed it existed to be told at all...

In 1896, Marion Kerr, daughter of the Groom at Rodel, married John Campbell, the Fish Curer's son and he took up Farming. Farming, not Crofting. I think this significant for I cannot escape the fact that, with his close contact with the Factors at Rodel, Angus Kerr must have been one of those favoured by John Robson Macdonald, a man whose wrath was feared throughout the island. I do not want to treat my relative unjustly, I just hope that he didn't treat his fellow's in that way, either.

The following year the Golden Road linking Tarbert and Rodel through the Bays was completed. It allegedly got its name due to the astronomical cost of construction for it winds its way through blasted rock and across innumerable rivers to link together settlements the majority of whose residents would have preferred to have been allowed to return to their ancestral lands in the West. It probably would have been cheaper.

On the 15th December 1898 aboard the 'Crest' in the Sound of Kerrera, my grandfather's grandfather Malcolm Kerr died of Heart Failure. He was 76 years old and the Master and owner of the vessel was his his son, Alexander John Kerr. Their story belongs to Stornoway and the sea but, as Malcolm was born at Direcleit to John the Tailor and his wife Margaret, its ending also belongs here.

At the dawn of the new Century in 1900 Sir Samuel Scott built a Carding Mill at Lon na Feille, the old Market Stance in Direcleit, the significance of which lies in the story of Harris Tweed as told in detail in Janet Hunter's 'The Islanders and the Orb'. It is undoubtedly 'the' reference work on the subject but in my own accounts I have attempted to delve a little deeper into some aspects (especially those regarding the individual participants,) of the early development of the industry.

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