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.


  1. Excellent piece on Charles Shaw, and I'm pleased to have brought this to your attention, Peter. One thing jumps out at me: he was, like Donald Munro at Stornoway in the middle of the 19th C, a man wearing too many hats at the same time, as you point out. The appendices to the Outer Hebrides evidence to the Napier Commission contain some good examples of that self-serving correspondence from 'grateful' emigrants.

  2. Thanks, and the situation either side of the Sound of Harris does indeed resemble Donald Munro's 'Scottish Legal Mafia' (as the late James Shaw Grant phrased it) in Lewis.

    More details on the connections in North Uist & Harris to follow!