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

Tuesday, 28 September 2010


The Star (Saint Peter Port, England),
Saturday, October 11, 1879; Issue 53
19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II

In connection with the wreck of the yacht Astarte, and the gallant rescue of her crew, there are some interesting facts that have not been made public. The Astarte, belonging to Mr R. A. Napier, of Glasgow, was caught in the storm of the 21st ult. in the Minch, while running from Tarbert, Harris, to Barra, in the outer Hebrides. On Monday afternoon she ran for shelter to an island at the entrance to the Sound of Harris, called Greanern, about four miles from Lochmaddy, and close to the Uist coast. The gale increased to a hurricane during the night, and the sea ran fearfully high. The yacht dragged her anchors, and was eventually dashed onto the rocks near a small island about eleven miles from the west coast of Harris, where she soon broke up and sank. The passengers and crew, amongst whom were three ladies and two children, were with much difficulty got ashore with life-lines. They were dragged through the raging surf, one lady being nearly drowned. They took what shelter they could amongst the heather which grew on the top of this small rocky island. The privations they suffered were intense, and the force of the gale was such that they with difficulty prevented themselves from being blown off the rock into the sea. Thus they remained wet and starved, being utterly without food all that day and night, until early the next morning, when relief came to them from the most unexpected quarter. It appears that some men on the Uist coast saw the wreck of the yacht, but owing to the faerful sea running, no boat would venture out. Three men proceeded over the hills to Lochmaddy, and gave instruction to the Procurator Fiscal, who instantly telegraphed the news to Lord Dunmore, in Harris. The telegram was received in the middle of the night, but in less than two hours his lordship got a crew of three men together, who proceeded under his command to make ready for sea the only available boat at the moment, which was an un-decked but strongly built cutter-rigged fishing-boat of about six tons. In this small open boat, armed with baskets of provisions they started in the dark, under a close-reefed mainsail, to beat against a S.W. Gale for 11 miles through a very heavy sea of the open Atlantic. After beating for five hours they reached the island, and found the women and children in an exhausted state. After adminstering spirits and food to them they were put on board the gallant little boat, and were taken back to Rodel, in Harris, in safety, where they were treated with the greatest care by the shooting tenants. The little boat then put to sea again for the second time and rescued the remainder, whom she brought back to Harris in the afternoon. Lord Dunmore's fishing-boat is called the Dauntless, and well she has now earned her name, as no other boat on the coast would venture out that day, and a few more hours of exposure on that storm-beaten rock must have been attended with serious results for the women and children. The names of the rescuing crew are Lord Dunmore, John McRae, McLeod, and Norman Macdonald.
- Daily Telegraph

(M'Leod was Ewen McLeod and all three men were apparently fishermen)

The National Lifeboat Institution (precursor of the RNLI) awarded Lord Dunmore its Silver Medal and each of the three Harrismen received £5, which was a considerable sum in 1879.

I am confused by the reference to the part played by the telegraph, for the message appears to have arrived some seven years before the subsea cable along which it was sent? http://direcleit.blogspot.com/2010/03/telegraphy-on-harris.html

Looking for Fishermen who fit from South Harris in the censuses:

John McRae, b. 1846, Obbe, (married to an Effy Kerr, but not a known relative!)
Ewen McLeod, b. 1842, Smithy (presumably Obbe)
Norman Macdonald, b.1839

I cannot be certain, but these are good candidates and the 7th Earl of Dunmore was born in 1841 so these men were of his generation – young enough to brave the elements, old enough to have the wisdom to survive the experience!

I believe that I have found 'Greanern' for the island of Greineam lies about 4 miles from Lochmaddy off the North East coast of North Uist, but the reference to the 'open Atlantic' and 'the west coast of Harris' might appear to conflict with this? As Greineam is the only island at the this distance from Lochmaddy, at the entrance to the Sound of Harris, and about eleven miles from An-t-Ob and enroute for a voyage from Tarbert to Barra via the Minch (rather than the Atlantic), I am reasonably sure of this.

The record at Canmore gives us this additional information regarding the wreck, https://canmore.org.uk/site/295308/astarte-sound-of-harris , but doesn't identify the island of 'Greanern' which is, of course, why I wanted to do so!
(There is a larger island called Greineam near Berneray, but that is too far from Lochmaddy and too near to Harris to fit the facts)

I hadn't heard of this particular episode until I came upon the newspaper cutting, and hence thought it worth sharing with you!

Friday, 24 September 2010

Pause & Reflect

Having (once again) found myself about to start a piece repeating one that I had already composed (with over 450 entries relating to the Western Isles this is perhaps not too alarming!) I think it is time for me to take a break.

Readers appear to be looking at 5 or 6 dozen pages each day, which is probably quite modest in blogworld terms but pleases me greatly in this particular backwater of the blogosphere.

I have had feedback from professional academics and fellow amateur researchers, from 'passers-by' and friends & family, and must thank each and every one of them for their very kind words and encouragement.

However, I feel that now is probably a good time for me to allow this blog to settle (the last time I did so it resulted in the 'Sounds of Harris' pieces which began with the far loftier ambition of writing a book integrating my ancestors lives into the wider story of the island on a grand scale, but in the end I realised that was way beyond my modest capabilities).

Any further developments will only become practicable when I can physically access certain sources, and/or when the 1911 Census records for Scotland are released in the Spring of 2011.

Meanwhile, I would still very much like to hear from readers, preferably via email, whether it be to make a specific point or a general comment, to add information or correct an error, to request a topic for future inclusion or just to say 'Hello'!

Finally, thank you for being one of my readers and for sharing my interest in a small island chain, off the coast of a slightly larger set of islands, whose inhabitants & descendants continue to make impacts across the Globe far in excess of both their number and the acreage that spawned them...

A pair of Updates relating to Bald's Map of Harris

I have added a little information to http://direcleit.blogspot.com/2010/05/obe-harris-thursday-may-311883.html and http://direcleit.blogspot.com/2010/06/sold-to-stewart.html that relate to ownership of Harris and the copy of Bald's map, another entry regarding which is here: http://direcleit.blogspot.com/2010/06/names-from-balds-1804-map-of-harris.html .

I draw attention to these updates merely because I believe there to be sufficient evidence for me to now say with a reasonably high degree of confidence that this annotated version of the map, which James B Caird informs us in Togail tir only came to light in 1988, was indeed in active use by the Estate during Charles Adolphus Murray, 7th Earl of Dunmore's ownership of the isle.
Where it resided and who wrote upon it are two questions that I would dearly love to be able to answer!

Note: Link to the map - http://www.nls.uk/maps/counties/view/?id=660

Letter from John Robson Macdonald, Factor of Harris, to the Countess of Dunmore

This letter continues the correspondence that I alluded to in an earlier piece about Captain Sitwell .

Rodel August 21 1846
The Countess of Dunmore


Ere this can reach your Ladyship, my letter of the 14th will have informed you of the total failure of the potato crop ; and my letter to Captain Sitwell will have given your Ladyship a pretty correct idea of the quantity of meal required for the population of Harris, until September 1847 : at the present price of meal the whole will cost upwards of £5,000. This is a large sum for such a purpose, but large as it is, I fear that I am rather under the mark than above it, for ever since I made the estimate, several who then expected to save as many of their potatoes as would serve them during the autumn, came to me yesterday, and informed me that now they could not be eaten. In order to lessen the expense as much as possible, a proportion of the pease meal and barley meal should be sent along with the oatmeal. I tried them with some Indian corn, but they did not like it.

There are about 369 tenants, and about 220 cottars, with their families, requiring relief, exclusive of the paupers, who are under the charge of the parochial board. I think about 200 of the tenants can ultimately pay in cash for any relief they receive, and the remainder of them and the cottars can pay by work.

I am, &c.
(Signed) J. R. Macdonald.

In his earlier letter to Captain Sitwell, Macdonald mentioned that 'the population return for Harris is 4,429' and this, together with the fact that the number of people needing assistance has now increased, shows that his original estimate of £5000 for oatmeal was well in excess of £1 per person. He suggests this cost can be reduced by pease meal and barley meal being sent too, presumably these being less-expensive substitutes?
His comment that he '...tried them with some Indian corn, but they did not like it.' is pretty patronising and something one might say of a child or, indeed, a pet; but on the other hand it does display a side of his character that wasn't entirely oblivious to the fact that the people had tastes and preferences of their own, too.

However, the most revealing thing in the letter is the final sentence where we are informed that the people 'can ultimately pay...for any relief they receive...' whether it be in cash or kind.
Some accounts of landowners providing relief during the famines fail to mention this important detail, instead leaving one with the impression that relief came solely from the largesse of the landowner, a gross distortion of the truth as revealed here by J R Macdonald...

Ref: 'Correspondence From July, 1846 to February, 1847, Relating to the Measures Adopted for the Relief of the Distress in Scotland' 1847, W Clowes & Son, London for Her Majesty's Stationery Office.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

From the Falkland Islands to the Isle of Harris

I am looking at the Passenger List for the ACONCAGUA, Official Number 65969, for a voyage from Valparaiso in Chile to Liverpool in England. She was owned by the Pacific Steam Navigation Company Limited from 1872-1895 and is described thus:

'Built by John Elder & Co., Glasgow, Scotland. Tonnage: 4,106. Dimensions: 404' x 41'. Single-screw, 14 knots. Compound inverted D.A. engines. Three masts and one funnel. Iron hull. Clipper bow. '

She called at Punto Arenas where one of those boarding was M Mcdonald, a 'Scotch' (sorry, I didn't construct the form!) single, male Labourer. The voyage included stops at Montevideo, Rio Janeiro, Pernambruto, Lisbon, Plymouth before reaching Liverpool on the 10th of April 1892.

My interest in this information lies in the fact that Murdo Macdonald, who was born in the Falkland Islands in about 1871, married Ann Kerr (daughter of Angus the fisherman)  in Tarbert, Harris on the 1st of November 1892 and we find the couple and four of their five children in North Harris in 1901 where Murdo's occupation is given as Labourer (Mason).

Although I cannot be certain that the Aconcagua's passenger was indeed Murdo it certainly could have been the man who was a grandfather of several of my cousins in Harris and Lewis.

Update: Murdo's parents were, according to his Marriage Certificate,  Angus Mcdonald & Christy Morrison. The 1901 census shows the following:

Christina Mcdonald, 59, Woolspinner, No 46 North Harris*, b. Harris
Marion Mcdonald, 21, Daughter, b. Falkland Islands
(*North Harris with a No. is probably 46 Tarbert, the 1901 Census not specifying Tarbert addresses)

There is no record of either of them in the 1891 census.

Although I have been unable to discover their voyage from the Falkland Islands to the Isle of Harris, I find it tantalisingly plausible that this mother and daughter are Murdo's mother and sister. If so, then his mother was born in Harris and it is interesting that there is one marriage recorded between an Angus Macdonald and a Christina Morrison on the island. It took place in 1871 and so we can imagine the couple marrying prior to their departure for a new life many thousands of miles away, at least two children resulting from their union and then these two and their mother returning to the isle of their parents birth.

I will, in due course, examine the Marriage Certificate which, together with a search for and examination of the Death Certificates of these three, should settle the matter.

Update: I was interested in learning about population figures for the Falkland Islands and eventually found these tables showing 811 people in 1871, 1510 in 1881, 1789 in 1891 & 2043 by 1901. There is an informative timeline and much other useful information to be seen on the site.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Of Baile & Clachan - including the example of Bragar in Lewis

This PDF document is a paper from the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland published in 1993 that contains plenty of food for thought on the organisation of island settlement that led to the development of crofting townships:
West Highland and Hebridean settlement prior to crofting and the Clearances

It is a scholarly, but very readable, account and the Abstract, Introduction and closing Overview give a clear synopsis of the competing claims together with the conclusions reached by the author, Robert Dodghson. I would, however, recommend reading the complete text for it is packed with detailed, illuminating information.

Addressing History Project

This project http://addressinghistory.blogs.edina.ac.uk/ looks extremely interesting and, although I haven't properly explored the project yet, thought I would give it a mention.

I have no doubt that it will prove very useful in following islanders who moved to the mainland as well as in researching those from the mainland who played a part in the history of the isles - I would love to be able to identify whereabouts in Edinburgh Mrs Frances Thomas had her Harris Tweed depot, for example!

Finlay J Macdonald Ancestral Chart Update

I have added several people to this chart and, in order to render it at a reasonable scale, have stopped at his great grandparents generation. As far as I can tell, and this is a cross-reference between the Croft History of Direcleit & Ceann Debig with the Censuses and information from Mackay genealogy , these are the correct families but I have not ventured further along the various branches. I should point-out that the John Mackay born in 1826 was the Church Beadle at Scarista. More on Finlay J Macdonald can be found in these entries.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Finlay J Macdonald's Ancestral Chart

Here is a chart showing what I believe to be the ancestry of Finlay J Macdonald.
Pieces relating to him can be seen here: http://direcleit.blogspot.com/search/label/Finlay%20J%20Macdonald
I cannot be absolutely certain regarding this chart but it represents the 'best-fit' from what little biographical information has been previously published regarding this particular son of Harris.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Gaelic Mapping

If you scroll down this link to 'Gaelic Mapping' you will find a wee tale about a place in Lewis:
Happily, Iain mac an Tailleir appears to provide the true explanation!

Winter Harris

I just happened upon the site http://www.winterharris.com/default.asp and thought it might be of interest.

Borghasdal & Srannda

Continuing with placenames in the South-Eastern corner of Harris, Iain mac an Tailleir gives us:

Borrisdale (Harris), Borghasdal. "Fort valley", from Norse.

This place nestles between Port Eisgein in the Sound to its West and, over the hill, Borrisdale Bay which features the remains of the fort of Dun Stuaidh on the promontory headland that separates this bay from the neighbouring 'parent' inlet of Loch Roghadail.

A little to the north of Port Eisgein is Port Ungasto which has the remains of another fort, Dun Boraigeo, on its northern side. Another fort, Dun Innisgall is found further along the Sound in the Cairiminis complex of headlands and islands and, although I cannot claim to understand the interrelations between these sites, a pattern emerges of coastal fortifications protecting settlements from incursion via the sea. Srannda (Strond) sits along this coastal strip of fertile soil and is amply defended by the neighbouring forts and its name, according to our same source, is derived thus: Strond (Harris), Srannda. "Beach", from Norse.

Boraigeo is not itemised by Iain mac an Tailleir, but he does give us this place in Skye:
Boreraig (Skye), Boraraig."Fort bay", from Norse.
If these are the same name, then Dun Boraigeo becomes 'Fort Fort Bay' so it seems possible?
Innis Gall, meaning Islands of the Foreigner, was the name used for these islands for many years so how it came to be applied to the fort at Cairiminis is unclear, as is the derivation of Cairiminis itself!
Ungasto remaina a mystery, too, but Stuadh is Gaelic for 'Wave' which seems entirely appropriate if you look at the site on a map...

Note: The links give access to site records for the two dun, another is to be found at Rodel .

Port Eisgein

This small inlet in the Sound of Harris resembles the head of a pterodactyl swooping towards Borghasdal (Borrisdale). The name presumably has the same origin as the one that  Iain mac an Tailleir supplies for the place in Lochs, Lewis:

Eishken (Lewis), Éisgean. This Norse name may contain "ash tree".

In the censuses it tends to be written 'Esgein' but, as can be seen from this entry for the Lewis location the preferred spelling is Eisgein whilst the RCAHMS entry provides 'Isginn' as the preferred alternative.

The 'five roofed and thirteen unroofed buildings' that were surveyed in 1878, and which appear to me to correlate with the households of the 1851 Census for 'Port Esgein, Farm of Strond' can be seen in this image from the NLS.

View Larger Map

It would be lovely to know what use has been made over the centuries of this most South-Easterly haven in the Sound but looking at the old maps the settlement of Srannda (Strond) appears centralised upon the port suggesting that it may have had an importance that its small size might easily lead one to overlook today.

View Larger Map

West Coast Missionaries in Harris

There were about half-a-dozen missionaries on Harris at the time of each of the 1881-1901 censuses but I have extracted these four because each specified that he was a  'West Coast Missionary'.
I have yet to learn anything about the West Coast Mission (other than that there are very few other members to be found elsewhere in the census records).

Donald Campbell, 40, Strond, b. Islay

Malcolm McLeod, 37, 5 Marig, b. Lewis
Donald Matheson, 48, Strond, b. Skye

Edward Mackay, 39, No 32 Scarp, b. Easedale, Argyleshire

It appears that the West Coast Mission came under the auspices of the Glasgow Reformatory Institution (at least, they published reports from it), a reference to which appears here: http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/161952/details/glasgow+211+duke+street+house+of+refuge+boys/ and which someone attempted to burn down in 1861 according to the National Archives of Scotland.


I have just discovered that if I click on a Label and save the URL, like this,
then I can use it to point folk at batches of relevant pieces.

Unfortunately, the Search function does not create a URL for each set of results so I cannot perform this same service with searches (which would have been extremely useful!), sorry...

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Uncle Angus Martin

According to the Croft History, another distant uncle, Angus Martin (1810-1896) married Rachel Macaulay from Tolmachan and the couple lived in Tarbert. But we can do better than that!:

In 1841, Angus and his younger brother John (who has proved difficult to find in later records) were living with their parents, Neil Martin and Ann Macdonald at No 6 Direcleit. A decade later finds the 42 year-old Road Labourer lodging at the home of Rachel Campbell and her four children aged from 5 to 12. Rachel is described as being a Pauper, her Fisherman husband Alex Campbell presumably having perished.

However, when we next see them, in 1861, not only have Angus and Rachel married, producing two more offspring aged 10 (!) and 5, but Angus has put-away his road-making equipment and replaced it with the tools of tailoring. It seems entirely reasonable to believe that his brother-in-law, John the Tailor would have played a role in this conversion.

Intriguingly, a decade later the couple are living at the Tarbert Hotel and Rachel is described as a midwife, which role she continues to perform in 1881 when they were at West Tarbert 46, in 1891 from No. 9 West Tarbert and in 1901 when the widow is living at 'No. 20'.

I think there is something quite heartening in this little tale of a man (presumably lodging with a widow whilst engaged upon the road-making that took place as a means of alleviating unemployment at the time) who then takes-up a new skill and gives hope not only to himself but also to a poor widow and her family, she then giving many years of service to the community as a midwife.

Ellan Anaby

In the Croft History of Deiraclete & Kendebig, it states that the eldest child of Neil Martin & Ann Macdonald of No 6 Direcleit was John Martin (1801-1881) who married Catherine Macaulay from 1 Ardhasaig before the couple settled in Eileananabuich. I thought I'd have a look at this very distant uncle of mine and soon found myself surrounded by a flurry of dates and locations that have taken a little unravelling.

The nearest I could find to the location was in the 1861 census where a John and Catherine are shown living in the Ellan Anaby of this piece's title. A little manipulation led to me locating Eilean Anabuich, the Unripe Island, which, as Bill Lawson puts it, '...kept confusing the old census takers...' for, despite the name,  it is a village on mainland Harris on the shore of Loch Maraig looking towards Loch Seaforth. We are deep in the Forest of Harris where it is easy for one to lose sight of the wood for the trees, despite there not being any!

In 1861 John the Fisherman, Catherine and two of their four children had 55 neighbours in the other 10 households of Eilean Anbuich.  In 1841 there had been 57 people living in 'Miavag' and in 1851 some 81 folk were found in 'Meavag', these earlier references appearing to be to the nearby settlement of Maraig without apparently separately identifying its small unripe neighbour?

The final glimpse of John and Catherine, in 1871, fails to identify the specific location within Enumeration District 20 but it does include two grandchildren, probably the daughters of their son John and his wife Ann although the census neglects to include that detail too.

I don't know where 'my' Martins originated from but Uig in Lewis, Boreray off North Uist and Skye via Borve, Harris are apparently the three most likely candidates?

Update 30/04/15:
I have done a little more research and the widower John Martin died of old age on 15 November 1881 in Eileananbuich, Harris. His son, John, registered the death with 'his mark', an 'X'.

In the census of that year we see 84 year-old Retired Fisherman John Martin of 8 Isleanaby together with his 40 year-old son John, a fisherman, his daughter-in-law Marion and three grandchildren, Mary, Catherine and Donald.

Relatives of the 'Ayatollah'

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I am a fan of Finlay J Macdonald's trilogy 'Crowdie & Cream'. One of the pivotal, although already deseased, characters is that of the Minister, 'Ayatollah' Kerr.
I have already described John Kerr's family but here present a chart showing him and his relatives all descended from the two sons of his grandparents, John Kerr and Marion Macleod.
It is worth noting that by the time the 'Ayatollah' and his 'French' wife arrived back on his birth-isle, his uncle's family had established themselves in England and one doesn't get any impression from the books that the widowed Adele was aware of any descendants of her sisters-in-law who were living around her and who, in every likelihood, she was teaching in the school at Scarista alongside the schoolboy Finlay...
Note: Other references to Finlay J Macdonald can easily be found from the tags to the right, and the search feature should enable you to discover background pieces on Borve and the two brothers, should you so wish.
I should also point out that, although I cannot prove it, my firm belief is that all the Kerr folk of Harris were related, possibly descended from a few 'incomers' imported at the time of Captain Macleod's 'improvements', perhaps the last time that such 'improvements' were being undertaken with an understanding of, and in co-operation with, the indigenous inhabitants for another two centuries...

Descendants of Malcolm Kerr of Strond, Harris

Here are the known descendants down to my grandfather's generation.
If Malcolm & Effie had any other children, especially daughters, then unfortunately they have slipped my grasp!

Descendants of Duncan Macdonald 1750-1830

Duncan Macdonald was a Kelp Maker in Orinsay.
His son Alexander's family were Cleared from there in 1843 and settled in Steinish.
Here I show the families of their children down to my grandfather's generation.
It is worth noting that, had the Clearance not occured, then none of the people in the final two columns would have been born! The shading of Annie Kerr and William Maciver indicates that they were cousins.

Ancestors of John Kerr 1875-1936

Here is a second example of a PDF chart generated by PCAF and converted into a JPEG.
This one is a fan chart of my grandfather's ancestors back to his great, great grandparents.
Although this is as far back as I am ever likely to be able to discover, I am pretty chuffed to have found the complete set of 16 people and the 12 different family names that are represented:
Alphabetical List of Family Names:

Note: The free converter, 'office Convert Pdf to Jpg' was downloaded from CNET which is my first port of call for such downloads. There is an upgrade with more 'bells & whistles' available but if nothing else this free version allows me to demonstrate the charting capabilities of the Personal Ancestral File Companion software.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Descendants of Angus Kerr

This is an experiment in taking a PDF document generated by PAFC (Personal Ancestral File Companion) and converting it into JPEG format for import into a blog.
This one shows the descendants of my '3rd great granduncle' who lived along the Sound of Harris from An-t-Ob to Strond & Rodel.
If anyone reading this happens to be related to anyone shown here, please let me know!

Fred, Peter & Edvard

I was doing a little more background research into Fred (FWL) Thomas and came upon this entry in the online Shetlopedia from where I followed the link to Peter Andreas Munch . In wanting to learn more about PA Munch and discover what I can about the relationship between the two men with their shared interest in placename origins, I took a look at this page and what immediately took my eye was the fact that this Munch was an uncle of the Expressionist pioneer Edvard Munch .

To find this link between a marine surveyor who I have recently come to admire and an artist who I have long found fascinating is a pleasant and most unexpected surprise!
Sadly, however, Peter Andreas Munch died on the 25th May 1863 and his nephew wasn't born until the 12th December of the same year.
His uncle should have been celebrating his own 53rd birthday just three days later...

Friday, 17 September 2010

'Free Church open of Black Pt. clears the Oban Rocks'

An odd title for a piece about a nautical chart, perhaps, but to me it has a certain poetry redolent of several facets of the Western Isles. The chart is that of East Loch Tarbert East Loch Tarbert , surveyed by Lieut. FWL Thomas, assisted by WT Clifton, 2nd Master, in 1857.

The title is a phrase found giving a sighting for safe passage into Tarbert avoiding the Oban Rocks and using the sight of the Free Church tower in Tarbert, once it appears from behind 'Rudha Dubh', as a sign that the way is free from obstruction. The church and Manse that appear on the chart, published in 1863, appear to have only been built the previous year but how significant it is that the erection of Tarbert's Free Church should be used to help enable mariners to steer a safe passage into the harbour! We should also note that, although the sailing direction uses the English 'Black Pt.' in its instruction, the chart itself adds the Gaelic name in parenthesis.

Whilst we are in the vicinity of Tarbert, with its School and Inn marked alongside the ecclesiastical structures already mentioned, it is interesting to see how the chart 'bleeds' over its rectangular boarder to lead us to the shore of West Loch Tarbert just a few hundred yards away. If only that connection had once been made available to vessels who knows what riches might have been gained for the people of Harris!

Moving South from Tarbert, we follow the coast via Craobhag and Yellow Rock (Sgeir Bhuidhe), past Mhurchaidh Rock to Coal Island (E. a. Ghuail). Stop at this island and look left towards the nearby Trig point (a small triangle with a dot inside it) on the mainland. As your gaze passes from sea to land you notice a small shaded rectangle just a few feet from the shore and not many more above the surface of the waves. A house, roofed, occupied. It is the home of John the Tailor and where his son Malcolm, my great, great grandfather was born.

The house of this landless Cottar lies close to the man-made southern boundary of Croft 5, Direcleit, and that arrow-true pointer takes us to Loch Direcleit and, just beyond, Baile Dhiracleit or the Township (Carmichael prefers 'Townland') of Direcleit. Here are the cluster of six or seven houses that sit at the head of head of the bay but there are at least nine others shown scattered around the somewhat obese headland that ends at Dhiracleit Point.

This survey, made a century-and-a-half in the past, gives us the first accurate plan of the land since Bald's map that dates back yet another half-century. It is, as I trust you will allow me, of particular significance to me for obvious reasons but it is also worth exploring as a thing of beauty in itself. One example, tucked at the bottom left-hand corner, will serve as an example. Here, in a position where it doesn't intrude upon the main chart, is a drawing of the land as seen from a point at sea. It includes two references to peaks on the land and uses a wonderfully gentle and easily overlooked means of identifying those landmarks for above the summit of each are drawn some birds. The group of three above Roneval are not merely there for decoration but also in order for the summit to be identified in the writing below. It is a lovely touch, adding to our understanding of the scene without detracting from the artistry of the image it adorns. Magical!

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Alexander Carmichael in Uist

Alexander Carmichael (1932-1912) spent two periods of his life living in the Western Isles and, as luck would have it, we catch sight of him there during the night of two consecutive censuses:

1871 The Manse of Trumisgarry, North Uist

Alexander A Carmichael, 38, Officer of Inland Revenue (Excise Branch), b. Lismore, Argyle
Mary F U M Carmichael, 29, Wife, b. Par. of Tongue, Sutherlandshire
Elizabeth C Carmichael, 7 months, b. Par. Of Lismore, Argyle
Catherine Carmichael, 17, Niece, Visitor, b. Par. Lismore, Argyle

Catherine Macaulay, 22, General domestic Servant, b. North Uist
Margaret Macinnes, 18, Nurse, b. North Uist

(Alexander Carmichael, 3, Visitor, Newton Farm House, North Uist, b. Lismore, Argyle)

1881 Scolpaig Farm House, North Uist

Alexander Carmichael, 49, Officer Inland Revenue, b. Lismore, Argyleshire
Mary F Carmichael, 39, Wife, b. Logie, Inverness-shire
Alexander M Carmichael, 12, Son, b. Lismore, Argyleshire
Elizabeth C Carmichael, 10, Daughter, b. Lismore, Argyleshire
Eon K Carmichael, 9, Son, b. South Uist
John M Carmichael, 6, Son, b. South Uist

John Macdonald, 26, Farm Grieve, b. North Uist
Alexander McQuinn, 20, Ploughman, b. North Uist
Alexander MacDonald, 25, Shepherd, b. North Uist
Roderick Macrury, 16, Cattle Herd, b. North Uist
Mary Maclean, 36, Domestic Servant, b. North Uist
Janet Macdougall, 27, Dairymaid, b. North Uist

It is known that the Carmichael's lived at Creagorry on South Uist and I presume that the two youngest boys were both born there. It is also known that they spent their second stay in Uist, beginning in 1880, in Scolpaig but I think that the record of them living in the The Manse at Trumisgarry in 1871 (and us seeing the eldest son Alexander staying 3 miles away at Newton perhaps as a treat, perhaps due to the recent arrival of his baby sister?) is 'new' information.

Whatever the circumstances, I thought I'd add this little piece on a man who did magnificent work in recording Gaelic culture and whose path crossed, productively, those of Captain FWL Thomas and Admiral Otter. Oh, and let us not forget their wives for, to differing degrees and in various ways, these three ladies also appear to have played significant roles in this work in their own right.


Letters from Alexander Carmichael to Captain F.W.L. Thomas

There is a treasure-trove of correspondence between these two men to be read here:

It is significant that reference is made to three wives (obviously those of Carmichael and Thomas, plus Mrs Otter whose husband Admiral Otter was Fred Thomas's superior), ably amplifying the impression I have of these men immersing themselves in the islands in ways way beyond those called-for merely by their duties.
I'd venture to say that we have seldom (if ever) attained such a degree of involvement in investigations in the succeeding 150 years!

One of my favourite passages is this from Carmichael:

I believe the ministry in Skye have been torturing the place-names there, which are three fourths if not seven eights Norse into all sorts of forced Gaelic names. Could the Government not be got to employ a competent Gaelic scholar to go carefully over the land and writing down each name as it is spoken on the spot? I would have no forcing either for Gaelic or Norse meaning best – just the sound given to the name [by] the people in the place. This would be I think a great gain. At present you have no guarantee that the name on the Ordnance map is the name used by the people of the place. Take my own native island of Lismore for example, for whose map I am just indebted to the kindness of Capt. MacPherson. Every name in the Island is quite familiar to me and on the map I can hardly recognise one of them – I can only wonder indeed how they managed to distort them out of their form. Very few names are given however – not more than ten per Cent I should think.

It could be slipped, seamlessly, between the leaves of the excellent Togail Tir...

Note: A biography of Alexander Carmichael can be read here: http://www.carmichaelwatson.lib.ed.ac.uk/biographies.php?lang=eng

Thursday, 9 September 2010


Just a brief musing on whether the technique of dendrochronology ('tree-ring dating') could be applied to learn about the origin of timbers found in various structures on the Western Isles?

I have seen references to Viking 'flat-packs' of roof timers and boats being exported (a precursor, perhaps, of IKEA!) , Baltic timber found in Stirling Castle, etc but am not aware of any studies relating specifically to the isles.

If anyone has any information on any work that has been done then I would love to learn of it!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010


I am thinking about what a great film could be made taking the maritime charting of the Western Isles in the middle of the 19thC as the core around which it would be based. As well as the potential for recreating life aboard survey vessels of that time in spectacular scenery, it would also bring us ashore (they surveyed for up to 3 miles inland!) where we would witness the changes taking place, particularly those on Harris under the 6th Earl's ownership, and Captain Thomas's work on the archaeology etc of Lewis.

He was a pioneer of photography, was accompanied by his wife on the surveys and she played an important (vital, perhaps?) role in the development of textile industries on Harris. They even had a wooden house erected on Harris such was the depth of their commitment to their roles. We also have the interesting, at times tragic, story of their private lives (not least Frances's second Baptism and subsequent marriage to her step-brother Fred) ending with the widowed Frances marrying the son of a veteran from the Battle of Trafalgar whose ship's ensign is the only remaining one from that event.

Captain Otter's part in the laying of the first Transatlantic Telegraph Cable, Fred's father's pioneering work in the Shetlands and Orkneys (apparently including the 10 year-old Fred!) could be woven into a piece centred on, say, the period from 1857-1867 and ending with the sale of the North Harris Estate to the Scott family.

Oh well, one can but dream...

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Personal Ancestral File (PAF)

I've been using this robust and FREE program for several years and rather than repeating what's so good about it (and outlining its limitations) I recommend reading this: http://www.gensoftreviews.com/?p=126

It, and the companion program that allows you to produce a huge variety of charts and reports, can be downloaded from : http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Home/Welcome/welcome.asp .

The add-on can be upgraded (when I got mine it simply meant sending a £5 cheque to Birmingham, England and then swiftly receiving two CDs in the post) and is certainly worth every penny.

There are several other programs on the market (no, I haven't tried them!) but PAF is definitely worth downloading.

Friday, 3 September 2010


I recall the first time I saw familiar territory on a 1:50 000 OS map; land that I thought I knew well in its 1:63, 600 guise seemed stretched, less concentrated in its complexity, barren, almost. This artefact of enlargement, caused because the move to metric hadn't been accompanied by much revision of the data, took a while to overcome. Metrication made sense mathematically but to someone who's map-reading had been honed (OK, subjected to slight improvement!) over several spotty-faced years poring over the familiar density of the old 'one-inch' maps the newcomers were an unwelcome intrusion.

Sometime later I saw my first 1:25 000 map whilst walking in one on Britain's National Parks and I couldn't read it. It was as incomprehensible to me as a text written in a non-Latin alphabet. I can only suppose that my previous internalisation of the 'one-inch' format, which had been to such an extent that I could take-in a scene and imagine the ground lying before me, was sufficiently complete to be completely confused by the unfamiliar details, and space, on the super-scale impostor.

The relevance of all this? Well, all maps are approximations, compromises between the real World in all its dimensions and the paper plane created by cartography. All I had done was to embrace one such approximation and map it onto my mind, forsaking all others. It was a skill, but not one that was as easy to transfer as might be expected. Whilst the 1:25 000 map is a wonder of cartography (although desperately in need of revision), giving the walker hitherto unexpected detail of his surroundings anywhere in the whole of Britain, I still find the 1:50 000 easier to empathise with (my middle-age eyesight certainly no-longer finds the move from 1:63 600 such a pain) and I think the reason for that is context.

I was investigating fancy GPS gear with downloadable maps and realised that one would still need a paper map (and a compass, of course!) in order to make sense of the few square inches of illuminated LEDs. The 'bigger picture' that shows the lie of the land, that puts our place in a wider expanse, that reminds us that it is an appreciation of the whole that truly makes sense of the particular spot in which we are located, is what makes the 1:50 000 map such a treasure.

Oh, and if the option existed, I would still prefer a 'one-inch' map, with contours in feet and, preferably, at the same price as they were 40 years ago!

A fascinating site on the development of OS maps - http://www.fieldenmaps.info/info/
An excellent source of downloadable (£) OS mapping - http://www.mapyx.com/

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Dr Donald Munro Morrison d.1889

In his 'Carmina Gadelica', Alexander Carmichael writes regarding the origin of three particular poems:

Dr Morrison heard them from an old man known as 'Coinneach Saor' - Kenneth the Carpenter - and his wife, at Obbe, Harris.
These aged people were habitually practising quaint religious ceremonies and singing curious religious poems to peculiar music, evidently ancient.
In childhood Dr Morrison lived much with this couple, and in manhood recorded much of their old lore and music.
These however he noted in characters and notations of his own invention which he did not live to render intelligible to others. This is extremely regrettable, as Dr Morrison's wonderfully wide, accurate, and scientific attainments, deep knowledge of Gaelic, of music, and of acoustics, were only surpassed by his native modesty of mind and tender benevolence of heart. He was a distinguished medallist in several subjects at the University of Edinburgh...  Dr Morrison was descended from the famous hereditary brehons of the Isles.

I am hoping to learn more about Dr Morrison and of the couple who he spent time with on Harris but, alas, have not been able to identify any of them in the censuses or elsewhere.
If anyone has any information regarding the Dr, or his hosts, please do contact me - the phrase 'and in manhood recorded much of their lore and music' suggests a rich seam worthy of exploration!

Update: "Dr. Donald Munro Morrison, Son of Iain Gobha, Harris died in No 22 Ward R. Infirmary Edinburgh on Monday the 2d Dec 1889"