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

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Charles Shaw (1812-1885) & the Napier Commission in Inverness in 1883

My friend and fellow researcher  whose prolific output I listed a while ago has brought to my attention a statement given by 72 year-old  Charles Shaw, W.S., late Sheriff-Substitute of Inverness-shire, at Lochmaddy to the Napier Commission in Inverness.

The testimony (‘a simple narrative’) exceeds 10,500 words so I have chosen to divide it into several entries. In each of  these I shall scrutinise some selected extracts (in italics) following each extract with my observations regarding the content of Charles Shaw’s carefully constructed piece. (Phrases of particular significance have been emboldened)

A full analysis of Shaw’s essay (it is worthy of the name!) could easily form the basis of a thesis!

 It has...occurred to me that a simple narrative of a few facts within my knowledge may be useful to the Commissioners, and without any desire to challenge the veracity of any man, and in bringing to light the actual facts as they presented themselves at the time to one who was equally interested in all.

Whether he manages to avoid making any such challenges we shall soon see!

I began business in 1835, by receiving from Lord Macdonald a joint commission with my father as factor of North Uist. I also to some extent assisted him in the management of Lord Dunmore's estate of Harris, and of Clanranald's estate of South Uist.

This linkage of the traditionally MacDonald land of North Uist with that of the  traditionally MacLeod land of Harris is significant and, I contend, one that was maintained for half-a-century.

I was also factor during part of 1836 and 1837 for the trustee on the sequestrated estate of General MacNeill of Barra.

For two years then father & son were exerting their power & influence over all of the Western Isles with the exception of Lewis. I suggest this included a degree of power and influence over the absentee landlords at this time, a time that saw the first failure of the potato crop in the isles.

At Whitsunday 1838 I was appointed factor on Lord Macdonald's estate in Skye, which then included the large property now possessed by Major Fraser of Kilmuir.

For the next here years, the pair held sway in Skye, Harris, North & South Uist.

 I held this last office till I was appointed Sheriff-Substitute of the Long Island in November 1841, and I remained there till 1881, when I left the Long Island.

He was the Sheriff-Substitute for the Inverness-shire islands from Harris in the north to Barra in the south with only the Ross-shire Isle of Lewis outside his jurisdiction and he held office for 40 years.

My earliest recollection goes back to 1817, and the great famine of that year. This famine was not owing to a failure of the potato crop in particular, but to a generally very bad and late harvest in 1816 over all Scotland. The spring of 1817 was also bad and backward, and of both these the Highlands had more than their proportion.

He was 5 years-old and, whilst it is entirely plausible that he was aware that his neighbours were suffering from that famine, his subsequent analysis is obviously the result of research rather than recollection. It’s a rhetorical trick, and one that I think we must applaud the retired lawyer for employing!

The proprietors of the Long Island imported meal largely for the crofters, and Government supplied a considerable quantity of oat seed, which gave the year the name of the " the year of the big seed," and it is, I have no doubt, still known by that name to a few old people. The seed was of no use in the outer islands for the purpose for which it was sent, being unsuitable for the soil. The people got it ground into meal, and in this way it was of service. The crofters were due to the proprietors a considerable portion of the price of that seed, when I ceased to have anything to do with Long Island estates in 1838.

Apart from being in charge of the law for 40 of the next 43 years...

When in Edinburgh learning my profession in 1828-35, I made the acquaintance of Mr Robert Brown, at that time factor for the Duke of Hamilton at Hamilton. Mr Brown had gone to Uist as Sheriff-Substitute of the Long Island District, and factor for Clanranald, I think in 1796, and remained there till he went to Hamilton in 1811. My father succeeded him at Nunton in Benbecula in both offices.

Not only is it extremely questionable that one single person should hold these two particular offices simultaneously, but this is the first time that I have seen it revealed that Charles Shaw’s father, Duncan Shaw, was also a legal practitioner. This invites further investigation.

In the next few passages Shaw describes Robert Brown’s view that Clanranald treated his tenants well, that ‘My connection with North Uist began in 1829, when my father got the management of it from Lord Macdonald in succession to Mr Cameron.’ and that rents were reduced slightly after a valuation in 1830 and were held stable for the next 50 years. This last point being made to rebut the allegation that throughout the Hebrides rents were raised to more than double on account of the peoples increased income from kelp. It is impossible to know for sure what period is being compared here but it is quite possible for both descriptions to be true IF there had been an increase in the number of households paying rent due to the demand for kelp workers. The rental of the estate could thus have increased whilst the rent from each householder was frozen. I shall have to see if further corroboration for either side of the argument can be found.

When in 1842 it became evident that the kelp manufacture must be abandoned, and that the potatoes were beginning to fail, Godfrey Lord Macdonald brought to North Uist from Perthshire a man to superintend the making of drains on the crofts.

It is good to have a definitive date for the decision to cease kelp making in North Uist but equally, unless his memory was playing tricks, the suggestion that the potato crop was already suffering in 1842 is in itself interesting. Was there a weakening of the plants already taking place that may have allowed the blight an easy place to gain a hold in 1846, perhaps?

During the famine of 1836, George Earl of Dunmore sent about 700 bolls of meal to the crofters in Harris, and in 1837, his son Alexander Edward Earl of Dunmore sent 1000 bolls all at prime cost and on credit, and larger quantities in subsequent years, as to which I am not able to speak, having ceased to have official connection with Harris

The traditional responsibility for the territorial chief to provide for his people was still being undertaken by the landlords who usurped them and this, even before it became enshrined in law, clearly caused concern amongst the landowners and their factors. It must, however, be remembered that such emergency relief was provided on the understanding that, eventually, its recipients would pay it back thus adding to the woes to many already impoverished and hungry people.

There was a medical man on the estate, paid much in the same way as in North Uist, and there were three or four schools besides the parish school, all contributed to by Lord Dunmore, and a sewing school kept up by the Countess.

Harris had some medical provision, then, but the thought of just one ‘medical man’ having responsibility for the several thousand scattered souls of Harris and the accompanying isles can have been of little comfort. I have discussed education in Harris elsewhere but would remind readers that the ‘sewing school’ referred to was the embroidery school at An-t-Ob established by the Dowager Countess and Fanny Thomas in 1857. Some say it was essentially a sweat-shop.

During the minority of the present Earl, the Countess, who was his guardian, was unremitting in her attention to the wants of the crofters, and in the trying times that began with the famine of 1846, expended large sums out of her own private means in improving their condition. At an early stage of her connection with the estate, she expended large sums in the purchase of wool and in the employment of the females on the estate in various kinds of manufactures, and exerted herself to an extraordinary extent in the sale of these manufactures.

The implication being that these activities ceased once the 7th Earl took control on his 21st birthday.
Charles Shaw, as I think we can easily see, chose each of his thousands of words most carefully and thus his phrases ‘During the minority’ and ‘At an early stage’ surely point at these having been relatively short-lived rather than ongoing endeavours? My research generally supports this view.

I regret that, owing to the distance of my residence at Lochmaddy and the indifferent communication then between these parts of my jurisdiction, I am unable to give such full particulars as I should wish of a work so deserving of being better known.

Clearly wanting to distance himself from Harris, he rather overstates the situation for Lochmaddy and Rodel are less than 15 maritime miles apart, and each of them had regular postal services, the Harris mail boat itself being sited in Strond in 1851  . Certainly Mrs Charles Shaw can be expected to have been in contact with her uncle in Rodel, John Robertson MacDonald the Factor of Harris...

We next get a lengthy description of the circumstances leading to the evictions at Sollas, North Uist, the subsequent sailing of the ‘Hercules’ for Australia and an amazingly self-serving account of correspondence received from grateful emigrants in later years, but these are too large subjects in themselves for inclusion in this piece.

He then turns his attention to communication within the islands and contrasts the relatively infrequent services of past years with the current provision which is described here:

When I left Lochmaddy, a little more than two years ago, there were three steamers in the week trading along the whole of my old jurisdiction, and doing a fair amount of business. The advantages which the visits of these steamers have conferred on these far-away islands it is not easy to overrate. They have given an easy and rapid means of sending all their produce, cattle, sheep, eggs, lobsters, whelks, &c, to all the markets in the kingdom. The men can now get with ease, and at little expense, to the east coast fishing, where they seldom went before, and also to the training ships.  Men and women can, and do continually, go to the south for service, on the other hand, meal and flour, which they now stand so much in need of, they can get rapidly imported, and in fact a new world has been created in these distant islands.

This image of hustle & bustle is not lost on the Commissioners but he has also fed the myth of the supposed remoteness of ‘these far-way islands’, ignoring the fact that a flotilla of sailing vessels plied the coastal waters of Scotland’s West coast throughout the period making for much more effective communications than Shaw would have us believe.

Another source for making money which, within recent years, young men from these islands have largely availed themselves of, is the militia service. There are rather more than 1000 men in the militia regiment, embodied from the counties of Banff, Elgin, Nairn, and Inverness. Of that number sometimes as many as 700 are said to be natives of the three parishes of North and South Uist and Harris, and the number from these islands is, I am told, seldom less than 600.

About two-thirds of the manpower recruited from four Counties came from just three Parishes within Inverness-shire. This is a far from unfamiliar kind of statistic regarding the huge contribution made by islanders to the fighting-forces but Shaw paints it merely as being ‘Another source of making money’ rather than as a reminder of a long and honourable tradition.

Another long passage argues against some of the evidence that the Commission had heard in both North and South Uist, even pointing out that one man was born four years after the evictions and suggesting that his testimony was mere ‘hearsay’ which neatly ignores the fact that those appearing at the Commission were selected by local people and given time to prepare their evidence. It is therefore entirely plausible that someone would be chosen for their confidence in reading and speaking English rather than because they were able to give an eyewitness account. The term 'hearsay' is revealingly patronising to a preominantly oral culture.

Of another witness Shaw says:

Then the delegate mentions that Mr Cooper states in a pamphlet that Mr Macdonald telegraphed to Earl Grey for a regiment of soldiers. What Mr Cooper says in his pamphlet I really do not know, but what the delegate says is not correct Sir George Grey and not Earl Grey was Home Secretary. Mr Macdonald neither telegraphed nor did anything else about soldiers or evictions. There was no telegraph in North Uist for more than twenty years after these evictions. There was no emigrant ship brought to Lochmaddy to take families to Australia.

The first two points, namely the confusion between the two Greys and the anachronism regarding the alleged use of a telegraph two decades before the undersea cable link had been established, are, perhaps, mildly amusing in themselves but hardly strong evidence for doubting the general circumstances that the witness had described.

The final point is interesting in confirming that those emigrating to Australia, at least prior to 1883, would have had to have met their ocean-going vessel elsewhere (most likely in Glasgow or Liverpool).

We are someway past the halfway mark of Charles Shaw’s statement and I think a pause is required before looking at what he has to say about the kelp industry and also of the land issue in the islands.

These links to previous entries that are about, or mention, the roles of Charles Shaw and his father may be of interest. The timeline is useful for observing the sequence of events in Harris during the period.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Schooling in Lochs 1797-1881

As a result of a recent enquiry I thought I’d have a look at educational provision in the Parish of Lochs, Lewis. The first reference is to be found in The Statistical Account of Scotland where we learn from the Rev Mr Alexander  Simson that a Parochial Schoolhouse had been built during the previous year and a ‘Society’ (presumably SSPCK) schoolhouse constructed some two years prior to that. Two spinning schools (the majority of spinning in the islands at the time was performed using the distaff and spindle rather than with a spinning wheel) were operating, paid for jointly by the wife of the proprietor, Colonel Francis Humberston Mackenzie of Seaforth,  and the SSPCK. This, in sum, was the situation of schooling in Lochs in 1797.

The Rev Robert Finlayson composed his entry for Lochs in The New Statistical Account of Scotland in 1833 and the book itself was published in 1845, As an aside we may note that, according to Finlayson, no Parish Register had been kept for Lochs before his arrival in 1831 and in this regard his parish was suffering from a similar lack of records as the neighbouring Parish of Harris. There were four schools provided by the Gaelic School Society but no parish school as there was no accommodation until the recent erection of a schoolhouse. I wonder what had become of the Parochial Schoolhouse that Simson had mentioned?

By the time of the eventual publication in 1845 many changes had occurred since Finlayson penned his account but we can get a snapshot of educational provision from the census taken in 1841.

The 1841 Census records five Schoolmasters in Lochs:
Peter MacEwen, 35, Lemreway
Donald MacFarlane, 40, Laxay
Malcolm MacCritchie, 35, North Shawbost
Allan Ross, 35, Keose
John Shaw, 50, Borroston(?)

The sole Gaelic Teacher was:
John MacLean,  25, Keose, b. Ross & Cromarty

An eventful decade later, one in which the Clearances, the Disruption and the ongoing Famines were perhaps the most significant of several factors, sees a different set of six Schoolmasters:

William Denon, 50, Keose, b. Cromarty
William MacKay, 28, Balallan, b. Durness, Sutherland

We may also note the presence of an unemployed schoolmaster;
Donald MacKey, 28, Loval, b. Durness, Sutherland

Donald was one of seven members of the MacKay household at Loval Cottage, headed by his widowed 64 year-old mother, and he was quite possibly the (twin?) brother of William MacKay in Balallan.

The  Gaelic (School) Teachers were:
 John MacLean, 43, Laxay, b. Ross & Cormarty
Norman MacLennan, 51, Leurbost, b. Uig, Ross-shire
Murdo MacDonald, 48, North Shawbost, b. Uig, Ross-shire
Malcolm Morrison, 36, Calbost, b. Uig, Ross-shire

The presence of four teachers in different locations certainly appears to match with the provision of education by the Gaelic School society mentioned 18 years earlier but the presence of North Shawbost in the census for Lochs is confusing me as I thought it lay in the Parish of Barvas?

There is no sign of much changing by 1861 when the only two schoolmasters are Angus Murray, 60, Schoolhouse, b. Dornoch, Sutherlandshire and locally-born John Smith, 28 and three teachers are to be seen:
Kenneth MacKenzie, 40, Gaelic Teacher, Day School, b. Lochbroom
Malcolm Morrison, 48, Gaelic Teacher, Day School, b. Uig, Ross-shire
Angus Morrison, 18, Teacher, Day School, b. Uig, Ross-shire (Son of Malcolm)

Similarly, in  1871:
Alexander Crawford, 33, Keose, b. Stralachlan, Argyllshire
Donald MacIver, 19, Laxay, b. Lochs
Alexander MacIver (no further details)
John MacLeod, 50, Marvig, b. Harris
Malcolm Morrison, 56, Laxay, b. Uig, Ross-shire
Alexander Morrison, 22, Laxay, b. Uig, Ross-shire (Son of Malcolm, above)
Donald Smith, 18, Lemreway, b. Lochs

There is also Roderick MacLeod, 28, Cromore, b. Lochs who may have been the Gaelic School’s teacher at this time whilst two families of fishermen were apparently the sole occupants of a pair of school houses.

The 1872 Education (Scotland)Act  introduced compulsory English education, outlawing Gaelic from the school grounds with a rigour that surpassed the vigour of previous centuries with which the banning of the wearing of Highland dress and the carrying of arms had been accomplished.
Thus by 1881 schooling in Lochs had expanded but only one Gaelic School appears to have survived:

J C Clarke, Leurbost, b. Kilmuir
Alexander Crawford, 43, b. Stralachlan, Argyllshire
John Cumming, 36, Ranish, b. Knockando, Elgin
Roderick MacKenzie, Marvig, b. Lochs
Murdo MacLeod, 37, Kershader, b. Lochs
Alexander Morison, 28, Cromore, b. Lochs

We must also note the presence of two Sewing Mistresses:
Anne MacLeod, 46, Kershader, b. Lochs (Sister of Murdo, above)
Chirsty  Morison, 19, Cromore, b. Lochs (Sister of Alexander Morison, above)

In addition we have another ten Teachers, Assistant Teachers & Pupil Teachers recorded:
Duncan Fraser, 21, Crossbost, b. Daviot, Inverness-shire
Donald MacLeod, 16, Laxay, b. Lochs
Murdo Martin, 19, Arivruaich, b. Uig, Ross-shire
Kenneth MacKenzie, 26, Gravir, b. Gravir
Donald MacKenzie, 19, Grimshader, b. Lochs
Donald MacKinnon, 25, Balallan, b. Lochs
John MacLeod, 60, Cromore, b. Harris (Gaelic  School)
Murdo MacLeod, 37, Kershader, b. Lochs
Alexander Morrison, 28, Cromore, b. Lochs
Alex Ross, 54, Balallan, b. Perth, Blair

In summary, from the scant evidence that such records as these provide, it appears that the people of Lochs managed against all adversity to maintain Gaelic education for their children right up until the implementation of the 1872 Act. This is testament to the thirst for knowledge and respect for education that both of the Ministers who wrote for the Statistical Accounts had taken the time to remark upon in their respective reports and yet another rebuttal of the prevailing establishment view of the Gael...

I shall return to look at provision post the 1883 Napier Report in a later piece, but meanwhile an excellent article on the history of education in Lewis, and specifically in the neighbouring Parish of Uig, may be found here: http://www.ceuig.com/history/church-and-school/early-schools

Statistical Account Pages -

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Highland Folk Ways

I mentioned in this earlier piece about Isabel Frances Grant that I wished to share my thoughts on her book ‘Highland Folk Ways’ and that time has finally arrived.

I like everything about this almost encyclopaedic volume that covers virtually all aspects of Gaelic culture and places them within a broadly sweeping background description of the history of the Highlands & Islands.

I happen to prefer books that are written with a passion for their subject but combined with a scholarly approach and deep knowledge of the material that is being covered. ‘Highland Folk Ways’  is all these things and in fact the only downside is the appearance of the word ‘folk’ in its title for that word is somewhat demeaning in the all-encompassing world of Gaelic culture. It is a failing that Isabel Grant herself was well aware of but perhaps there is no better small, single word with which to convey the content of her work?

The book constantly reminds us that the people more than compensated for their lack of material resources by an immense resourcefulness that continues to this day despite the descent into the ‘disposable culture’ of more modern times.  It also demonstrates the appropriateness of the tools used, for example, in cultivating the land and the damage wrought by so-called ‘improvement’, both to the people and the land, is hinted-at too.

I do not mean to imply that there was some ‘Golden Age’ when the Highlands & Islands flowed with milk & honey and we must always remember that such supposedly  ‘traditional’ aspects of life as tea, tobacco and the potato were each relatively recent imports to the culture!

Thus the book presents a dynamic picture rather than a static one and helps fill the gap between a sloppy ‘guide-book’ style of history (with its ‘traditional crofting’ type of approach*) and that of the academic thesis which, for all its scholarship, lie unloved in a library awaiting awakening.

Isabel Grant wrote her ‘popular’, accessible and thought-provoking history just over 50 years ago, and it has been followed by several equally excellent books by more recent authors that convey complex issues in an equally engaging and well-written manner, but if one is looking for a single-volume introduction to the history of Gaelic culture than hers has yet to be beaten.

*Crofting is a little over 200 years old which, in the context of the millennia of occupation of the Highlands & Islands, is but a fleeting moment ago...

Where to buy the book:
In addition to online retailers (including those dealing in secondhand books which are especially attractive if you prefer your books to be affordable hardbacks!) it can be obtained direct from the Highland Folk Museum’s shop - http://www.highlandfolk.com/shop.php